The World Today for March 08, 2021

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A Prince, a Reformer, a Murderer

A recent American intelligence report has thrust Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman back into the limelight. The de facto ruler of the Middle Eastern kingdom, MBS as he is known, directly approved of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, said US officials.

“Since 2017, the crown prince has had absolute control of the kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the crown prince’s authorization,” the report said, according to UPI.

But President Joseph Biden appears reluctant to punish MBS, drawing intense criticism.

As CBS News explained, Saudi Arabia is a key American ally in the Middle East. It opposes Iranian influence in the region. The ultraorthodox Islamic monarchy is also one of the largest customers of American weapons manufacturers. The Saudi role in the global oil trade can have big ramifications for the US economy, too.

The US now expects MBS to improve Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, Reuters reported. MBS has ordered the release of some activists and has promised reforms, Foreign Policy magazine noted. The US has also ended support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, added the BBC. Saudi forces are fighting rebels that enjoy Iranian backing.

These many threads are a reminder of how MBS’s influence and power have waxed in recent years even as his profile abroad has waned.

Ironically, France 24 wrote, MBS rose to power in 2015 promising cultural and economic reforms. He allowed women to drive and opened movie theaters, which had been forbidden. He sought to wean the kingdom off oil. But he has also consolidated power, cracked down on political dissent and pursued other confrontational foreign policies, including a brutal war in Yemen.

Those Yemeni fighters recently launched missiles at the Saudi capital of Riyadh, the Associated Press reported. The fighting in Yemen, meanwhile, has caused a massive famine that threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians. No one is sure how many have already died during the six-year-old war but estimates put the number at over 100,000.

Meanwhile, the Brookings Institution recently called for MBS to release former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who worked closely with the US in fighting terrorism.

In a series of stories on the crown prince, the Africa Report described how MBS has learned how to move swiftly, without consulting advisors, to shock members of the Saudi elite to secure his domestic and foreign goals. He is not totally a loner, however. He has pursued closer relations with Israel and other nations to build anti-Iranian coalitions in the region, the Jerusalem Post noted.

MBS will not be the first or last towering, horrible figure to go unpunished for his crimes but will be remembered for them in the history books.



Of Protesters and Plagues

Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez called for the resignation of all cabinet ministers Saturday following clashes between police and protesters over the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Al Jazeera reported.

Over the weekend, the Latin American country was gripped by mass protests amid growing outrage over the rising number of confirmed cases that have pushed Paraguay’s healthcare system to the brink.

Last week, Paraguay’s Senate passed a resolution calling for the resignation of Health Minister Julio Mazzoleni over the government’s handling of the pandemic. Mazzoleni resigned Friday amid criticism from lawmakers and health-worker unions.

Protesters, meanwhile, have called also for the resignation of the president.

The government said there is a shortage of drugs to treat Covid-19 patients and that nearly all intensive care unit beds are full.

Paraguay has reported nearly 167,000 confirmed cases and more than 3,200 as of Sunday.


A Pope and a Troubled Land

Pope Francis led prayers in Iraq’s battle-scarred city of Mosul on Sunday, part of a historic visit aimed at bringing hope to a Christian community that was nearly wiped out by Islamic State, the Washington Post reported.

The pontiff spent the third day of his visit in the country’s north – including the autonomous Kurdish region: Four years earlier, it was controlled by Islamic State which had targeted religious minorities and vowed to “conquer Rome,” a symbol of the Christian West.

Francis spoke about the forced displacement of Iraq’s Christian community during the Islamic State period, while emphasizing messages of “harmonious coexistence” between religious groups in the country, NPR reported.

During his visit, he also met with Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who rarely opens his door to global leaders, both political and religious.

Iraq’s Christian community has shrunk severely over the past three decades, with many fleeing religious persecution and seeking sanctuary abroad.

Since the group’s defeat, Christian minorities have refused to return to Christian areas despite rebuilding efforts and help from international aid and charities.

John Pontifex of the charity Aid to the Church in Need told NPR that the papal visit could strengthen people’s resolve to stay and also to return.


The Dictators’ Playbook

Violent protests continued across Senegal over the weekend following the arrest of the country’s leading opposition figure last week over rape allegations, the New York Times reported.

Protesters have clashed with police in the capital, Dakar, and other cities over various grievances, including unemployment and anger at President Macky Sall, whom they consider incompetent and dictatorial.

At least one demonstrator has died, according to Amnesty International, which condemned the arrest.

The demonstrations erupted when opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was arrested Wednesday over accusations of raping a young woman who worked in a massage parlor.

He denies the charges and his supporters consider the case an attempt by the government to eliminate political opponents ahead of presidential elections in 2024.

Many young demonstrators say Sonko’s detention is reminiscent of how other West African presidents are locking up their political opponents.

Sall, however, has denied any connection to Sonko’s detention.


Of Memes and Mice

A new study found that there’s not much difference between social media influencers and lab mice in terms of seeking affirmation and reward.

Scientists recently studied the posting behavior of about 4,000 users on major media platforms to better understand the addictive – and rewarding – nature of being online, United Press International reported.

A research team analyzed more than one million posts and found that users posted more when people would like their contributions. The opposite happened if the original posters didn’t receive a lot of engagement – in this case, affirmations – from other users.

The team then used computer models to compare this online behavior with that of animals seeking food for reward.

The results were strikingly similar: The models highlighted how the need for affirmation in the form of likes and followers was similar to “reward learning” in animals – a phenomenon used to describe animals pursuing food rewards.

“These results establish that social media engagement follows basic, cross-species principles of reward learning,” said co-author David Amodio.

There have been numerous studies and social experiments on the use of social media but what exactly causes addiction in some users remains unclear.

“These findings may help us understand why social media comes to dominate daily life for many people and provide clues, borrowed from research on reward learning and addiction, to how troubling online engagement may be addressed,” said Amodio.

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COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 28,999,266 (+0.16%)
  2. India: 11,229,398 (+0.17%)
  3. Brazil: 11,019,344 (+0.74%)
  4. Russia: 4,284,408 (+0.24%)
  5. UK: 4,231,166 (+0.12%)
  6. France: 3,964,078 (+0.55%)
  7. Spain: 3,149,012 (+0.00%)**
  8. Italy: 3,067,486 (+0.68%)
  9. Turkey: 2,780,417 (+0.40%)
  10. Germany: 2,508,655 (+0.10%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country

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