The sinking Maldives and the Glasgow climate meet

The Glasgow climate summit, likely humanity’s last shot at averting the unthinkable, is nearly upon us with a tidal wave of harrowing data and a backwash of deluded denial. For a quick look at why the outlook is so troubling, take a paddle up Schitt’s Creek.

One exchange in that incisive Canadian TV series says it all. When her veterinarian flame tells Alexis Rose (the spoiled diva who turns cool) he has a research grant to the Galapagos, she asks: “Can’t we go someplace less spooky and scary, like the Maldives?” 

The Galapagos aren’t scary. Neither is Maldives if you pay resort costs — up to $30,000 a night. But the hyper-spooky string of Indian Ocean atolls exports more jihadists per capita than the Mideast or Afghanistan. And it is likely to be the first state lost under rising seas.

Ignorance is hardly bliss. Only informed public pressure can force governments to think beyond short-term political survival and take urgent joint action. Yet too many Alexis Roses tune out what they can’t wear, eat, bed or talk about with friends.

Maldives illustrates why so much has gone wrong since 2009 when President Mohamed Nasheed nearly united world leaders to avert climate collapse, confront Islamist extremism and nudge despots toward democracy. It is a long story; first some background.

COP-26 in Glasgow is the latest “conference of the parties” to a U.N. framework set up in the 1990s. I covered the last big one in Paris in 2015 and labeled it COPout-21. Most delegates’ pledges dissipated not long after the exhaust clouds from jets that flew them home.

Planned fossil fuel use through 2030, largely in China and India, is twice the level agreed in Paris to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Since then, heat is up by 1.1 degrees. At 2 degrees, scientists say, floods, fires and storms will overwhelm our ecosystem.

Climate is only part of it. Fresh US intelligence and defense estimates warn of massive migration, financial breakdown and armed conflicts over territory, food supply and water. Major powers already face showdowns over resources as ice melts in the Arctic and Antarctic.

All this was unimaginable when I visited Maldives in 1972. 

Nasheed was five when Queen Elizabeth’s yacht docked at the main wharf in water so clear you could see angelfish on the seafloor. Reporters flew to Gan, Britain’s base to the south, then in a small plane to Malé. The alternative was six weeks on a Sri Lankan freighter. 

The only hotel had no can opener. It was on Malé, as was the lone fire truck, useless to the airstrip on another island. Muezzins wailed from white-washed mosques on the 3.2-square mile islet, inches above the ocean. Veil-draped wives walked behind husbands. The lash punished minor crime. We roamed narrow streets with no hint of danger.

“Paradise” did not begin to describe 1,191 outer islands, jewels flung north to south for 540 miles. We barely needed snorkels, let alone scubas, to explore pristine reefs ablaze in color. Tourism portended fortunes, even if that meant bikinis, daiquiris and sex on the beach. 

In 1978, a corrupt tyrant began a 30-year reign. Developers dynamited coral to build lavish playgrounds. Nasheed, a young politician, spent six years in jail, 18 months in solitary. Torture wrecked his back. Amnesty International called him a prisoner of conscience. Then, in 2008, a civil uprising made him president.

To emphasize the threat of rising seas, he held an underwater cabinet meeting. A reporter asked what would happen if the Copenhagen summit could not agree on binding CO2 levels. “We’ll all die,” he replied. Everyone laughed.

But he was dead serious among 113 heads of government and 40,000 others in Denmark.

Speaking after Barack Obama, he declared: “I am not a scientist, but I know that one of the laws of physics is that you cannot negotiate…. You cannot cut a deal with Mother Nature. And we don’t intend to try.”

Bill McKibben, a New Yorker regular whose books and articles on climate span four decades, called Nasheed one of the only true world leaders in the fight to save the planet. Al Gore and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed. In the corridors, as summitry works, he enlisted allies and forged coalition working groups.

Nasheed went beyond climate. With diplomacy and targeted aid, he said, democratic leaders could curb authoritarian excesses. And if they addressed perceived injustices at the root of Islamist fundamentalism, they could sharply reduce terrorism. 

“The Island President,” a hit feature film after the conference, made him a momentary star. “You have to have a planet to have a democracy,” he told reporters. “And you have to have democracy to have a planet. It goes both ways.”

But the old guard deposed him in 2012. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison on bogus terrorism charges but instead went to London for spinal treatment. New leaders doubled down on paving paradise. Without his efforts to find common ground, rich and poor countries alike cranked up the heat like there was no tomorrow.

Today, Maldives is two-tiered: a miserable, teeming Malé and an infidel heaven beyond. Foreign workers, many undocumented South Asians, are a third of the population. They suffer wage theft, passport confiscation and long hours in unsafe conditions. Covid-19 left many jobless and stranded.

From the start of the boom, profits were banked abroad after a cut for local officials. Terrorist recruiters signed up disaffected young men, forbidden alcohol but zonked on cheaper heroin. A U.S. State Department study traces the past flow into Iraq and Syria, adding, “Some of these fighters are now returning to the islands, where there are few laws or structures to deal with the threat they may pose.” 

Italian correspondent Francesca Borri is among the few journalists to probe Malé’s seething slums. In 2017, she traveled the archipelago with the Maldivians who barely scrape by in a country where the tourist boom raised per capita annual income to $10,000.

One-time Amazon “reviewers” slammed her book, “Destination Paradise,” disputing her firsthand accounts of political killings, gruesome torture and muzzled journalists. Her fixer was murdered for helping her and an Al Jazeera crew.

“The Maldives is the most dangerous place I’ve ever covered,” she told me in a phone call. This is after living in Syria for much of the war and reporting on conflict for decades in such places as Iraq, Libya, Kosovo and Crimea.

Nasheed’s fortunes rose in 2019 in yet another power shift. He became speaker of the Majlis (parliament) under a new president. Then in May this year, a bomb left him critically injured, a déjà vu assassination attempt.

If this is fresh news, that’s no surprise. The New York Times dismissed it with a short article on page 11, written from a distance with no background about the Island President who tried who stop climate collapse.

“No group has claimed responsibility for the attack,” it said, “but officials, including Mr. Nasheed, have expressed concern about Islamic State recruitment in the Maldives, a small island nation and major tourist attraction south of India.”

But the Times‘s travel section carried a long puff piece and photo spread with this at the bottom: “Toward the end of our stay, a friend messaged me asking if the Maldives was ‘worth the million-hour flight even though it’s basically just a beach.’”

The writer agreed. Even with her complaint about a difficult walk to a seaplane, she loved the place, concluding: “In the air, once the clouds cleared, the islands below gleamed like geodes, a final dose of sensory overload.”

Another Times story late last year, brief from Washington, said the United States was opening an embassy in Maldives because of growing Chinese interest in the Indian Ocean crossroads. Climate is not Beijing’s immediate concern.

Glasgow is not promising. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has piled up damning evidence since 1990. This year’s book-length report has a whiff of inevitability. But Vladimir Putin, for one, is skipping the summit. Major polluters stall for time. Rich countries are loath to help poor ones, which argue they did not create the crisis although Third-World deforestation, mining and population growth have taken a heavy toll.

Blame and borders no longer matter. The United States was by far the worst in earlier years. Now China spews out twice as much CO2, and India is hot on its heels. Saudi Arabia’s carbon neutral target is 2060. If Earth’s ecosystem collapses, no one will escape.

Even a massive American “green new deal” would fall far short on its own, but it would set a standard. Donald Trump’s trashing of the Paris accords gave authoritarians an excuse to cheat and renege on promises. Polls show two-thirds of Americans want action on climate change, but Republicans prioritize short-term profit based on fossil fuels.

France 5, a popular TV network, just aired a documentary on how the United States was the early prime mover to thwart global warming and yet now is heavily influenced by voters who reject science, misled by corporate flimflam, political opportunists and evangelicals.

It noted the 2018 National Climate Assessment, a multibillion-dollar survey by US scientific and intelligence agencies, which detailed a looming nightmare of economic and human havoc far beyond the cost of urgent mitigation. Just the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season brought $250 billion in losses and 250 deaths, the report said, and “extreme events” are increasing fast.

A brief clip showed Trump blowing off reporters who asked about it. “I don’t believe it,” he said, walking away with a smirk. No surprise. The man attempted a coup d’etat and risked global war to retain power. Yet for so many Americans, climate is a vaguely understood side issue.

Billionaires squander fortunes on joyrides to inner space or grand schemes to colonize distant Mars. Innovators find ways to monitor front doors at home while tanning on a distant beach, as if security systems matter when desperate parents need to feed starving families.

In 2004, the Times of London revealed an MI5 maxim: “Society is ‘four meals away from anarchy.’ In other words, the security agency believes that Britain could be quickly reduced to large-scale disorder, including looting and rioting in the event of a catastrophe that stops the supply of food.” Americans have a lot more guns.

The terms, climate change and global warming, are now so familiar that many are numb to them, like people who take a low dose of antibiotics for too long while a virulent infection gets steadily worse. McKibben and others who keep at it mostly reach those already committed.

Deniers mock young Greta Thunberg, whose Asperger syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder often add a strident note to her urgent appeals. But she speaks for a generation that must live with the consequences, and she is square on the mark.

At COP-24 in Poland: “You say you love your children above all else and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes … What is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?”

At Davos in 2019: “Some people, some companies, some decision-makers in particular, have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money. And I think many of you here today belong to that group of people” 

And at COP-25 in Madrid: “There is hope – I’ve seen it – but it does not come from the governments or corporations, it comes from the people. The people who have been unaware are now starting to wake up, and once we become aware we change. We can change, and people are ready for change.” 

COP-26 in Glasgow was delayed a year because of a pandemic that could have been avoided had the world closed ranks against it. Runaway pathogens eventually recede. Climate collapse is forever.

Mort Rosenblum, former longtime Associated Press global correspondent and editor of Paris’s International Herald Tribune, currently blogs from Paris and round the world. This article was originally published by his Mort Report.

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Shijian-21: Satellite crusher or space debris cleaner?

Just months ago China conducted not one, but two hypersonic missiles tests, both of which circled the earth before hitting their targets.

The shock waves from these tests are still reverberating in the Pentagon and the White House, as fears of a new arms race looms.

US Senator Angus King described the new weapon as a “strategic game-changer with the dangerous potential to fundamentally undermine strategic stability as we know it.”

Chinese officials said it was “a peaceful space experiment.”

Adding fuel to that fire, China expanded that tech gap just a bit further this week as it launched a new satellite that analysts say can be used as a weapon capable of grabbing and crushing American satellites, The Washington Times reported.

The Shijian-21 satellite was sent aloft atop a rocket booster from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, ostensibly for cleaning “space debris,” according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., Beijing’s state-run space company.

The company stated that the satellite is “tasked with demonstrating technologies to alleviate and neutralize space debris.”

The launch occurred at 9:27 a.m. Beijing time Sunday, marking the 39th orbital launch attempt from China this year, tying an annual record in Chinese launch activity set in 2018 and 2020.

The Long March 3B rocket flew southwest from the Xichang launch base, dropping its four liquid-fueled boosters and first stage over Chinese territory about two-and-a-half minutes into the mission.

A second stage engine and a reignitable cryogenic third stage finished the rocket’s work before deploying the Shijian 21 satellite into orbit.

US military tracking data indicated the launcher placed the Shijian 21 spacecraft into an elliptical geostationary transfer orbit ranging as high as 22,253 miles (35,813 kilometers) above Earth, with an inclination of about 28.5 degrees to the equator.

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Indonesia mysteriously mum on China sea incursion

JAKARTA – When Britain’s Premier Oil entered into a joint venture last year with state-owned Russian oil giant Zarubezhneft to exploit the Tuna natural gas block in the North Natuna Sea, upstream regulator SSK Migas said the deal would strengthen Indonesia’s sovereignty in the area.

Fast forward a year and almost the opposite has happened with officials struggling to explain why a Chinese survey vessel was allowed to spend seven weeks conducting intensive seabed mapping inside Indonesia’s economic exclusion zone (EEZ) south of the Harbour Energy concession.

The 6,900-tonne Haiyang Dizhi 10 and its Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) escort pulled out of the area on October 22, four days before the start of the three-day virtual Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) summit.

It has done that before, sailing to the Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands for replenishment in late September before returning on October 4 to continue its unlawful research.

This time, ship-tracking data shows it heading back to its homeport of Guangzhou, but the Chinese Coast Guard cutter 6305 remains in the vicinity of the drilling rig where appraisal operations will continue for at least another month.

Analysts say the survey ship’s extended stay has served as a tacit recognition of China’s vaguely-defined nine-dash line of claimed historic sovereignty, which intrudes into Indonesia’s EEZ near its confluence with Vietnam’s maritime border.

The Indonesian government has yet to protest the incursion, even though the Chinese ships were being watched most of the time by up to nine Indonesian Navy and Maritime Security Agency (BAKIMLA) patrol craft with apparent orders not to intervene.

“I think Indonesia is hedging its bets and not doing anything that will lead to increased tensions,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst Malcolm Davis told Asia Times. “If the presumption is that China will be satisfied with that, then Indonesia is in for a big shock. Give the Chinese an inch and they will take a mile.”

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Phuket Sandbox shines the way for Thai tourism revival

PHUKET – The Phuket Sandbox – Thailand’s pilot run for reopening the country’s crucial tourism sector that accounted for about 20% of gross domestic product (GDP) before Covid-19 – has so far been disappointing in terms of numbers but is being hailed as a success in other respects.

The Phuket Sandbox – a pun on Fintech terminology for a safe haven for experimenting with new technologies – was launched on July 1 with a target of attracting at least 100,000 foreign tourists in its first three months.  

Actual arrivals were an underwhelming 42,000, generating about 3 billion baht (US$90.8 million) in tourist spending. That’s obviously a far cry from the 14.5 million foreign and domestic tourists who visited the island resort in all of 2019, generating 442 billion baht ($13.4 billion) in revenue. 

“We were welcoming about 20,000 tourists a day in 2019, but during the Sandbox we welcomed an average of 460 a day, so if you just look at the numbers it was not a success,” said Phuket deputy governor Piyapong Choowong in an interview with Asia Times.

“But the 3-4 months of the Sandbox gave us many things in terms of preparing the country for reopening on Nov 1,” Piyapong told Asia Times.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha recently announced that Bangkok and other leading tourist destinations such as Pattaya and Chiang Mai will reopen to fully vaccinated foreign tourists from 46 designated “low-risk” countries, lifting the kingdom’s previous onerous 7-14 day quarantine requirements.

Prayut originally vowed to reopen the country by mid-October but was forced to delay until November 1 in the face of still alarming new infection rates, which are still hovering around 10,000 per day in a country of 69 million, a tardy vaccination rollout and questions about the efficacy of some of the vaccines used, especially the China-made Sinovac.

Those issues will all persist after the reopening and could lead to fresh outbreaks and dire consequences for the government.

For Bangkok, Phuket has proven an important test run. Local Phuket government authorities have been meeting with the Bangkok-based National Security Council three times a week to hash out problems they have confronted in implementing the Sandbox and find solutions, said Piyapong.  

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South Korea charts a big spending Covid exit

SEOUL – “I hope the economy gets better, I hope that more people will be coming to my restaurant,” said Koh Huey-bong, who operates small Mexican eatery Dos Tacos in an alley in Jongno, downtown Seoul.

“Especially at night, I hope that a lot more businessmen will come back to this area.”

After almost two years of Covid-19, those are no longer vain hopes.

With South Korea having passed the 70% mark of the population vaccinated this week, Seoul is set, on November 1, to begin a seismic shift in national policy and national habits: from Covid containment to “Living with Covid.”

The planned process is both phased and prudent – and is one that the wider world may want to pay attention to, given prior policy successes here.

South Korea emerged as a global leader in pandemic management. Despite a behind-the-curve vaccination drive, this land of 51 million people mastered the crisis with only 2,757 deaths and without a single lockdown.

Still, things have not been easy for the service sector. “Rental fees have not gone down, so it has been very hard to exist,” Koh said.

Normalcy can’t come soon enough for the formerly upbeat 63-year-old who has plainly suffered. Over the last two years, his revenues plunged about 30%, he estimated. He survived thanks to the now-ubiquitous food delivery services.

Koh’s district was not devastated, but it certainly looks more downbeat than at any time in recent memory.

Jongno is a city-center entertainment zone comprising two blocks of buzzy, neon-lit restaurants, cafes and bars that borders the scenic Cheongyecheon Stream, a flagship urban-generation project that is a favored space for walkers, lovers and families.

Despite these man-made and natural attractions, imdae (“for rent”) signs are visible in vacant windows on every street and every alley.

While South Korea’s giant, family-run industrial conglomerates may be the global face of the economy, domestically it is owner-operated small services like Koh’s – shops, eateries, cafes, educational institutes, health and fitness facilities – that are its ground zero.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s ever-problematic household debt soared amid Covid’s loose-liquidity policies, spurring new tightening.

Elsewhere though, Seoul is wading in with big hands and full pockets. A record-high budget of 604.4 trillion won ($519 billion) has been put forth for 2022 – which perhaps not coincidentally will see a presidential election in March. The amount proposed marks an 8.3% rise, year-on-year.

And on Wednesday, the government announced the latest support package for the nation’s mom-and-pop ventures.

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Taliban government faces many challenges

Academic research posits that the old saying “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is true, but not as much as people often think. People’s behavior changes significantly when they rise to powerful positions. Violation of political and social ethics and acceptable manners becomes their routine.

After the fall of Kabul, the Taliban are in seemingly precarious circumstances. The absence of law and order, authoritative behavior and persecution of opponents have absolutely debauched the entire Taliban government. 

Rationally, the most baffling challenge being faced by the Taliban is their internal disputes and differences of opinions. Prominent Taliban leaders including Mullah Ghani Baradar, Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai and Mullah Abdul Salam Zaheef, who held peace talks with the US and its allies in Doha, Qatar, are among those caught up in such disputes.

The principal cause behind contentions among the Taliban leadership is the autocratic attitudes of the fighters of Haqqani Network.

Also read: China on verge of recognizing the Taliban

Last month, a dispute between Haqqani Network chief and Deputy Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Ghani Baradar at the Arg, the presidential palace in Kabul, was due to the Haqqani Network’s alleged abuse of power and oppressive attitude. The global sanctions on the Haqqani Network and specially designated terrorist Sirajuddin Haqqani are divisive factors among the Taliban leadership.

Moreover, the rampant and blatant re-emergence of Islamic State-Khorasan Province is one of the biggest challenges for the Taliban.

Before the US withdrawal, the Taliban had the advantage of being non-state actors, and functioned in an insurgent way to counter the US forces and the then Afghan government. Now, after the US withdrawal, the Taliban are channeling themselves as state actors and political entities to ensure their effectiveness to run state affairs and get global legitimacy.

ISIS-K has the advantage of being a non-state actor, and behaves in an offensive way. Since the fall of Kabul, ISIS-K has carried out attacks in major cities including Kabul, Jalalabad, Kanduz and Kandahar. Forestalling the threat of the ISIS-K is a matter of grave concern for the Taliban. 

Mass migration and the resulting brain drain are another key challenge to the Taliban regime. According to United Nations Commission on Refugees, more than 6 million Afghans have been displaced and driven from their homes and country because of insecurity, conflict and persecution. Half a million Afghans are expected to flee their homeland by the end of this year.

Consequently, the Taliban will face a grave administrative challenge to dealing with fundamental official and public affairs. 

Getting global legitimacy is the first and foremost challenge for the Taliban to meet. So far, no state has recognized the Taliban government. Getting regional and global legitimacy is the prerequisite for diplomacy, political engagements, trade and business, monetary and other state of affairs.

The Taliban have taken power by force, and always fought for power to run Afghanistan according to their strict and violent rules. Atrocities, targeted killings, public persecutions, suppression of minorities and women, and taking revenge on opponents are their core characteristics.

Recognizing the Taliban regime without prior consideration of its governance, their abusive behavior toward women and minorities, connection with militant groups and persecution of political opponents, would be a mistake for the global community. 

Besides these challenges, a ban on girls’ education and outdoor activities of women is another serious factor that will resonate on the Taliban’s regime. Along with insecurity, fear and unemployment, victimization of women is prevailing across Afghanistan.

In the past, the Taliban have burned and bombed dozens of girls’ schools to prevent them from getting education. A number of teachers affiliated with girls’ education have been killed in past years. Messages of intimation against girls’ schools and teachers involved in girls’ education are prevailing over the entire Afghan population.

Additionally, the Taliban are pursuing those who either worked with NATO forces or the previous Afghan government. The houses of anti-Taliban people are being searched actively. In this regard, many people have been arrested and persecuted.

Those who escaped the Taliban are trying to leave the country to find asylum in the US, Europe, Canada and Australia. If the repressive and violent attitude of the Taliban continues, Afghanistan will surely witness complete anarchy and state failure, which is a threat to regional security too.    

What is more, extreme political corruption, severe economic crisis, failure to provide public service and physical security, inability to ensure collective decision, rampant militancy, unavailability of basic health facilities, and lack of infrastructural development are other challenges being faced by the Taliban.

The Taliban government is facing the worst kind of challenges. For stability, integrity and effectiveness, the Taliban leadership must rethink their outdated policies which are completely incapable of running the affairs of state in 21st century.  

First and foremost, the Taliban need to call a Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) inviting all political figures, religious and academic scholars, tribal elders and other prominent people to discuss current challenges and define the future of Afghanistan. Without national reconciliation and integration, Afghanistan will be facing a chaotic situation and insecurity. A Loya Jirga would surely pave the way to general elections.

Second, the Taliban leadership must review their rigid and authoritarian attitude toward liberals, democrats, political opponents, and former officials of past Afghan governments. A policy of revenge will bring the Taliban to complete failure. 

Third, observance of democratic principles and practicing liberal values are equally important. For global legitimacy, the Taliban must adhere to democracy, create a significant space for political activities and elections if they want to ensure international recognition, meet challenges, hold power and run affairs of the state smoothly. 

Finally, females’ right to education and attending workplaces must be a fundamental rationale of the Taliban’s policy on education and development. In this regard, the international community must convey a clear message to the Taliban regime to restore girls’ educational institutions across Afghanistan.

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Should we worry about the new Covid variant?

No sooner than you thought all the talk of new Covid variants was over, there’s news of yet another one: AY.4.2. But what is it, where did it come from and should we be concerned?

AY.4.2 is what’s termed a “lineage.” These are labels given to branches of the Covid evolutionary tree to illustrate their relatedness. They are overseen by the diligent Pango network, a joint team of researchers from the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, who act as the custodians of lineages and handle the assignment of new ones.

If we go back to April this year, we can trace the origins of AY.4.2. Our team in Northumbria, working as part of Cog-UK – the British consortium that sequences the genomes of Covid samples to see how the virus is changing – had just sequenced two samples connected via travel history to India.

At the time we knew the lineage circulating in India was B.1.617, but the cases we had sampled didn’t match this. Variants are distinguished by the different mutations they have in their genetic material and, looking at the mutations in our samples, it appeared our cases were missing some of the commonly accepted mutations of B.1.617, but also had some additional ones.

What we were reporting to colleagues in Cog-UK was classified the following week as B.1.617.2, one of three main sub-lineages of B.1.617, and which was later named delta by the World Health Organization.

AY is a further evolutionary step forward from here. Once a lineage’s labelling gets five levels deep, a new letter combination is started to avoid the name getting too long. So the AY forms of the virus aren’t vastly different from what’s come before, even though their labelling is different. They are all sub-lineages of delta.

There are now 75 AY lineages identified, each with different additional defining mutations in their genome. One of these – AY.4 – has been steadily growing in proportion in the UK over the last few months, accounting for 63% of new UK cases in the last 28 days.

Does AY.4 have an advantage?

We’re still not sure if AY.4’s mutations confer a genuine advantage or if the increasing frequency of the lineage is simply down to what’s called a “founder effect.” This is when a subset of viruses get separated from the overall viral population, and then reproduce in isolation. In the area where the separated viruses are, all subsequent viruses will therefore be descendants of this subset.

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How cultural reinvention keeps great cities from fading

Culture is the heart of a city, and tells its story.

Such is the importance for modern cities to be seen as cultural hubs that vast sums are invested and innovative ideas implemented in the hope of being crowned the latest “capital of culture.”

For the former industrial powerhouse of Glasgow in Scotland, for example, being named the European City of Culture in 1990 helped lift the metropolis’ image from violent and poverty-stricken to a vibrant center for the arts. Other cities in Europe followed, using the “capital of culture” label to help turn around their post-industrial fortunes. 

None of this was lost on the leaders of modern Middle Eastern and Asian cities that realized drawing in visitors for an experience rather than just a holiday was key to their success. But unlike some cities in Europe, which have allowed the benefits from being in the global cultural spotlight to fade, they realized that to maintain momentum they would have to reinvent. 

Singapore and Hong Kong have both gone through cycles of cultural investment to remain relevant and attractive to visitors. Dubai’s hosting of Expo 2020 is perhaps the clearest example of a city that understands the need for reinvention. After the knocks of the global financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, the arrival of Expo to push the city into a new era could not have been better timed.

While they have their detractors, “cultural capital” initiatives help us discover cities we may know nothing about and therefore develop a new appreciation for their cultural heritage. 

The Arab Capital of Culture has been crowned annually since 1996, with Irbid in Jordan the chosen city for 2021, Kuwait City for 2022 and Tripoli in Lebanon for 2023. The initiative was set up by the Arab League under the UNESCO Cultural Capitals Program to promote and celebrate Arab culture, encourage cooperation and build understanding among cultures.

But what are the qualification criteria to become such a capital? And what is culture exactly? Is it rituals? Costumes? Arts and crafts? Is it defined by its people, history, buildings and architecture?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization defines culture as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group that encompasses, not only art and literature, but lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs. Perhaps we can add “timelessness” to this definition.

Cities may fall but their cultural contributions can outlive the people and the powers that built them. Babylon’s Hanging Gardens were one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world and while no visual evidence of them exists, the gardens’ cultural importance remains.

The ruins of Babylon itself – the ancient Mesopotamian city – now lie within the borders of Iraq and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Between 626 and 539 BC it was the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and represented the expression of the creativity of the empire at its height.

Fast-forward 2,600 years and the importance of investing in cultural initiatives that bring people together is on full display in Dubai.

For 170 years, World Expos have provided a platform to showcase the greatest innovations from across the globe.

In 1851, the first World Expo was held at The Crystal Palace, the centerpiece of London’s Great Exhibition, where it celebrated the industrial wonders of a rapidly changing world. Dubai Expo, the first to be held in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, recently held its grand opening ceremony beneath the world’s largest unsupported dome in Al Wasl Plaza.

The design was inspired by the shape of a 4,000-year-old gold ring discovered at the Iron Age Sarouq al-Hadeed archeological site in Dubai. The Dubai Expo theme and logo are great examples of reviving ancient cultural roots, creatively bringing back history for a present-day audience.

Places like Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong constantly revitalize their cultural identities in a bid to remain relevant in a fast-changing world that exists largely online and in which grand projects have increasingly limited shelf-lives.

But is it worth it? Is building – and sometimes rebuilding – culture into our urban environments important? According to recent studies, the answer is a resounding “yes,” and it is closely linked to prosperity.

A UNESCO study in 2016 found culture has the power to make cities richer, safer, and sustainable. “Culture lies at the heart of urban renewal and innovation,” Irina Bokova, the UNESCO director general at that time, wrote in the foreword of the global report “Culture: Urban Future.”

The report, she added, provided “concrete evidence showing the power of culture as a strategic asset for creating cities that are more inclusive, creative and sustainable.”

A series of three reports focused on culture is scheduled for release this month by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) in Saudi Arabia. The reports aim to promote a greater understanding of how the cultural and creative industry is evolving in Saudi Arabia and the region.

One of the highlights is that cultural participation is on the rise across the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, with growth prospects highest in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The report will show that Gulf states have adopted a top-down approach to cultural development. They are heavily investing public funds to establish institutions, frameworks, infrastructure, and spaces to enable the creative industry not only to exist, but to thrive. In contrast, the Levant and North African Arab countries have pursued a bottom-up approach, driven by private and grassroots initiatives and a vibrant cultural scene. 

Both approaches seem to be working.

This widening desire for people to be involved in cultural experiences validates the approach to give cultural booster shots to metropolitan areas or risk an overall demise.

Royal courts in the past would parade their opulence and cultural significance through their art pieces and prominent cultural figures of the time. However, today, the court of public opinion exists on a grander, global scale.

There is an intrinsic link between culture and economic prosperity, where there is a co-dependent requirement for extravagance, to keep a cultural city relevant and to hold the attention of the traveling masses.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

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Musk versus Bezos: real rivals or a fake feud?

Flick through a news feed on your phone and you are likely to scroll across an article discussing the heated rivalries of the new space race.

Forget the geopolitical struggles of a cold war. This time, it’s Tesla CEO Elon Musk versus Amazon founder Jeff Bezos: the two richest men in the world duking it out over whether SpaceX or Blue Origin, their respective companies, will be the dominant force in the new industry of private space flight.

Occasionally, Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic gets a mention too, but the Brit being a relative pauper, and his space plane lacking the phallic majesty of his fellow billionaires’ rockets, he has received diminishing attention in recent weeks.

The Musk v Bezos rivalry makes for good press and is stoked occasionally in tweets by both parties, but is it real? Probably not, according to our research, published in the book The New Patriarchs of Digital Patriarchy: Celebrity Tech Founders and Networks of Power, which analyses 95 popular books about the technology industry.

It is easy to see that, at a basic level, Musk’s and Bezos’s stated plans for space domination are complementary, rather than competitive. Bezos dismisses Musk’s plan to colonize Mars as unrealistic, while Musk thinks it will take too long to build the infrastructure for the giant orbiting space stations that Bezos proposes.

Read between the lines and you can see how they had been rhetorically dividing up the space industry into separate monopolies even before their rockets broke the “Karman line” – one definition of where outer space begins.

The reality is that, as with other technology billionaires, such as Alphabet’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or even Palantir’s Peter Thiel, their interests align more often than they diverge.

This new space race is partly a celebrity publicity stunt to generate clickbait headlines that build public awareness of, and popular support for, a new commercial frontier. If we focus on the rivalry and keep asking who’s winning, perhaps we won’t ask the big whys of commercial space colonization.

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China on verge of recognizing the Taliban

All indications are that the states neighboring Afghanistan are preparing to accord recognition to the Taliban government. The meeting of regional states and Taliban officials in the so-called Moscow Format on October 20 signaled that the Taliban government is a compelling reality and constructive engagement is needed. 

A week is a long time in politics. The foreign-minister-level conference in Tehran on Wednesday with the participation of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries is sure to deliberate on formal diplomatic ties with the Taliban government.

Unsurprisingly, the Taliban have not been invited to the event. 

All eyes will be on Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. He left Beijing on Monday and headed for Doha en route to Tehran. While in the Qatari capital he held talks with top Taliban government leaders, including Acting Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi. 

This is the highest-level political contact so far since the announcement of the Afghan interim government in early September. The symbolism is profound that Wang headed for the Tehran conference after consulting the Taliban leadership. 

Significantly, Chinese President Xi Jinping also had a call with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday. The Xinhua report underscored Xi’s call for building an even closer China-Pakistan community “with a shared future in the new era.” 

In a veiled reference to the United States’ strategic competition with Beijing, Xi referred to the “profound changes unseen in a century, with more sources of turbulence and risks around the world.” Xi exhorted that in such conditions, China and Pakistan should “stand together even more firmly and push forward the all-weather strategic cooperative partnership.” 

Xi touched on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the need to strengthen counterterrorism and security cooperation. The Pakistani readout disclosed that the two leaders also discussed the regional and international situation, including Afghanistan. 

It said the sides “called on the international community to provide immediate humanitarian and economic assistance to the Afghan people to alleviate their suffering, prevent instability and flight of people, as well as continued engagement for the rebuilding of the country.” 

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More relief for struggling Indian telecom firms

The Indian telecom department’s latest note on adjusted gross revenue computation is expected to provide relief to legacy telecom players like Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, who owe the government 260 billion rupees (US$3.4 billion) and 503 billion rupees respectively.

The department has removed several non-telecom income sources such as property rents, dividends and interest while considering adjusted gross revenue, the Economic Times reported.

The new norm will be applicable from October 1 and is expected to reduce the stress in the telecom sector as it will reduce telecom companies’ future payment obligations. Market analysts say that non-core revenue constitutes nearly 10% of the total revenue of telecom companies.

In the note, the department introduced the concept of applicable gross revenue, which will not include the non-telecom revenue earned by telecom companies. The exempt items also include gains from forex fluctuations, insurance claims, capital gains on account of sale of fixed assets and securities, bad debts recovered and revenue from operations other than telecom activities.

Since license fees and spectrum usage charges are paid on the basis of adjusted gross revenue, the telecom companies now need to pay a much lesser amount than before. This will help telecom companies improve their finances.

The new definition is part of the government’s relief package announced for the telecom sector, which is facing a heavy debt concern. Of the three private players – Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea – market analysts doubt the future of Vodafone Idea as a going concern.

The government and telecom companies have been locked in a long legal battle over adjusted gross revenue. The Supreme Court in 2019 ruled in favor of the telecom department, which had contended that revenue from all streams, including those from non-core items, should be considered.

The worst hit was Vodafone Idea, whose adjusted gross revenue dues stood at 582 billion rupees, followed by Bharti Airtel (440 billion rupees). As part of the government’s relief package, it announced a moratorium of four years for making payments toward revenue dues, and both Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel have availed it.

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