The World Today for February 21, 2022

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NEED TO KNOW

It’s Good to Be King

JORDAN

Jordan is technically a constitutional monarchy. However, King Abdullah II of Jordan wields the ultimate power in the strategically located Middle Eastern kingdom bordering Iraq, Israel, the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

It’s good to be king. Abdullah recently celebrated his 60th birthday. Photographs of his lovely family in the Daily Mail suggest that they can at least project happiness and confidence convincingly. Other top royals, in contrast, have stumbled recently in maintaining positive optics.

Abdullah owns a $100 million property empire around the world in addition to his holdings within his realm, including a seaside house in Malibu, condominiums in Washington, DC and numerous homes in Britain, including three in Belgravia, a tony section of London. Until last year’s release of the Pandora Papers, a batch of documents outlining how the global elite have hidden their wealth from public scrutiny and tax authorities, few folks knew about those properties, the Guardian noted.

But the king wants more.

Abdullah has proposed constitutional amendments that would allow him to appoint top officials in the security forces, judiciary and Islamic religious clerisy. Under the new rules, which Abdullah has described as “modernization” measures rather than reforms – a word that Arab Spring activists used in 2011 when they called for the downfall of their region’s corrupt leaders – the king would also tighten his grip on defense policy under a new national security council.

The king’s prime minister, Bisher al-Khasawneh, said the national security council would serve as a “safety valve” to ensure that “no partisan considerations affect…national issues,” reported Al Jazeera.

But critics say the moves are not about modernization. Instead, they argue, they are about consolidating power. Some lawmakers agreed, precipitating a fistfight in Jordan’s parliament during a recent discussion of the constitutional amendments.

Perhaps Abdullah is not acting out of strength but fears his potential weakness, however.

As London-based Arab journalist Mohammad Ayesh explained in a Middle East Eye op-ed, the new rules were designed to cement Abdullah’s power after his authorities arrested his half-brother, Prince Hamzah, last year. The palace never said why Hamzah was jailed but speculation held that he was plotting to overthrow Abdullah.

“Prince Hamzah’s moves…clearly ignited a wave of anxiety within the royal palace, prompting the king to seek to cement his control over Jordan’s key institutions,” wrote Ayesh. “(Abdullah) wants to secure the kingdom’s leadership and weaken any possible future rebellion.”

That’s the thing about ultimate power. It’s never enough.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Until Next Time

CANADA

Ottawa police began dispersing protesters in the Canadian capital over the weekend to end the weeks-long “Freedom Convoy” protests after the movement was declared illegal under an unprecedented emergency order, the Washington Post reported.

Authorities escalated operations Saturday after demonstrators had disrupted movement in the capital for more than three weeks. At least 170 people have been arrested, including three key protest organizers.

Despite some making a last stand, many protesters acknowledged that the movement was coming to an end. Still, some said they planned to regroup and join other anti-government protests in the future.

The demonstrations initially began over vaccine mandates imposed on truck drivers but soon evolved into a widespread movement against all pandemic-related regulations. Some even called for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to resign or be tried in court.

The “Freedom Convoy” also affected border crossings between Canada and the United States and inspired similar movements in Europe and elsewhere.

The police action followed Trudeau’s invoking of the 1988 Emergencies Act for the first time in the country’s history.

The order provides the government with broad powers for up to 30 days, including steep fines on protesters, the freezing of their assets and the suspension of insurance and business accounts related to the vehicles taking part in the demonstrations.

Many demonstrators face thousands of dollars in fines but they said they will appeal to the courts.

Parliament is now debating whether to approve or reject the use of the emergency act. While it’s expected to be approved, it has also drawn intense criticism from both the political left and the right.

Follow the Money

CHINA

A subsidiary of the World Bank has been financing four Chinese companies that appear to have employed forced laborers from China’s Xinjiang province, according to a recent report that accused the institution of “funding a campaign of repression” of Uyghurs, the South China Morning Post reported.

The report released by the US-based Atlantic Council said that a number of clients of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) were “active participants” in a campaign by China that has led to human rights abuses in the northwestern region.

The report alleges that the companies in question “recruited workers through overtly racist/discriminatory hiring practices,” subjected minorities to Communist Party indoctrination and “contributed to the destruction of cultural heritage,” according to Bloomberg.

It added that the IFC did not abide by its own Performance Standards and urged the institution to divest from corporate investments in the region.

The report’s findings prompted condemnations from a number of Western lawmakers, who have told the World Bank it “must have no part in the financing of these abuses.”

The IFC said it takes these allegations seriously and will investigate them.

However, one of the Chinese firms, Jointown Pharmaceutical, said the allegations were groundless. Chinese officials echoed the criticism, saying the report was “completely unfounded and maliciously fabricated.”

The United States and other Western countries have accused Beijing of “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, and other human rights abuses.”

China has vehemently denied the allegations.

Small Steps

KUWAIT

Kuwait’s Constitutional Court overturned a controversial law that criminalizes “imitation of the opposite sex,” which many human rights and LGTBQ+ activists have criticized as infringing on the rights of transgender people in the country, the Middle East Eye reported.

The court ruled this week that Article 198 of the penal code violated Kuwait’s constitution, a move that Amnesty International called “a major breakthrough for transgender rights in the region.”

Kuwaiti lawmakers had amended the article in 2007, which made the offense punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine. Many human rights advocates had warned that the legal provision was discriminatory and used to target transgender people in the country, according to the BBC.

Following the verdict, Amnesty International representatives called for the release of transgender individuals who were “unjustly imprisoned” under the law, including Maha al-Mutairi, who was sentenced last year to two years in prison for being transgender, among other charges.

Al-Mutairi’s lawyer said that she was convicted after she posted videos on social media wearing make-up, speaking about her transgender identity and criticizing the government. In 2020, she released a video alleging that police officers had raped and beaten her during seven months of detention in a men’s prison in 2019.

Her case sparked an international outcry and calls to repeal Article 198.

Even so, Kuwait’s penal code continues to criminalize sexual relations outside marriage, and punishes consensual same-sex relations between men with up to seven years in prison.

Elsewhere in the region, Oman prohibits the expression of transgender identities. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has no law regarding gender identity but uses principles of Islamic law to harass transgender people, according to the Human Dignity Trust, a British-based rights group.

DISCOVERIES

The Plague of Plagues

The Bubonic Plague, better known as the Black Death, is remembered as one of the worst pandemics in the history of humanity and is believed to have killed about half of Europe’s population in the mid-14th century.

But a new study on ancient pollen deposits suggested that the numbers might be overblown, the New York Times reported.

Study author Adam Izdebski said that most Europeans worked on farms during the plague period – between 1347 and 1352. If the continent lost 50 percent – or more – of its population, agricultural activity would have nosedived, he posited.

His team analyzed pollen deposits that survived from the Middle Ages to determine how bad the Black Death was in Europe. Their research focused on 261 sites across the continent that held grains preserved between 1250 to 1450.

Their findings showed that the bubonic plague caused patchwork destruction: Some regions suffered a large death toll but others remained stable, and some even boomed.

The team also discovered that only seven out of 21 studied regions experienced destruction, with crop pollen levels dwindling and being replaced by various types of plants and trees.

Izdebski’s team didn’t determine how many people actually died but their results have split scholars.

Some historians said the findings agreed with previous studies focusing on the plague but others questioned whether a region’s shift to crop pollen necessarily meant that the population there was thriving.

Izdebski maintained that there is “no simple explanation” behind the death toll but added that there were lessons to draw from the Black Death in the age of the coronavirus.

“What we show is that there are a number of factors, and it’s not easy to predict from the beginning which factors will matter,” he said. “You cannot assume one mechanism to work everywhere the same way.”

COVID-19 Global Update

Total Cases Worldwide: 424,496,141

Total Deaths Worldwide: 5,888,183

Total Vaccinations Worldwide: 10,352,560,888

Countries with the highest number of confirmed cases worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*

  1. US: 78,479,408 (+0.02%)
  2. India: 42,838,524 (+0.04%)
  3. Brazil: 28,218,180 (+0.14%)
  4. France: 22,447,021 (+0.27%)
  5. UK: 18,735,911 (+0.14%)
  6. Russia: 15,297,628 (+0.99%)
  7. Germany: 13,667,353 (+0.46%)
  8. Turkey: 13,504,485 (+0.52%)
  9. Italy: 12,469,975 (+0.34%)
  10. Spain: 10,809,222 (+0.00%)**

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country

Clarification: Correction: In Friday’s NEED TO KNOW section, a quote attributed to reporting by the Associated Press became garbled. It should read: “This phrase often used by Zemmour is ‘the false claim that the native populations of France and other Western countries are being overrun by non-White immigrants — notably Muslims — who are allegedly supplanting, and will one day erase, Christian civilization and its values, the Associated Press wrote.” We apologize for the error. 

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