Tag Archives: Amnesty International

Every Face You Make: World’s Most Populous Nation ‘Creates Ultimate Police State’!

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Let Them Eat Pita: Qatar World Cup Construction Boom ‘Underpinned By Slavery’!

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The Index Civilisation: Why Governments Must Exceed Expectations

In recent years, some of the more astute commentators – the redoubtable Gillian Tett of London’s Financial Times springs to mind – have pointed to the importance of ‘big data’, the vast amounts of data that are collected by ever more powerful computers about the citizenries of mainly (though not exclusively) developed countries. This quantitatively massive data has the potential to change forever the relationship between the government and the governed, though we do not yet know precisely how; indeed, even conceptualising the scale of these humongous data sets and deciding how to analyse them is a major, largely unanswered question.

However, it is this same leap in computing power (and access higher storage capacities and access speeds via geometrically-multiplying computer networks) which is also making possible the spread of international comparative information between citizens, NGOs and governments, and which – in ways which may sometimes appear mundane – could end up holding large entities, in particular governments, to account in a far more exacting way then they have been used to.

Specifically, there is now an index to measure a huge number of factors which have a great impact on the contentedness of people around the world. Want to know how your government performs according to international norms of human rights? Amnesty International has an index for you. Do you think your government could do a lot make your country’s cities more pleasant? Then the Economist’s Liveability Ranking will go a long way towards telling you if you are correct. Indexes telling us everything from how much money your government is spending on (largely) pointless armaments to the general level of happiness in your country is now available at the touch of a button.

In many if not most polities this fact has yet to truly register, but once it does and reference to these indices and international comparisons become more commonplace, it is quite possible that governments will be under considerable pressure to increase their performance levels and climb up the indices which their electorates value most.

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The Paradox of Indispensability: Saudi Arabia Lectures Syria

The Arab Spring has brought the watching global public some surreal moments, from the dictator-in-denial speeches of the former President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak to the remarkable improvised theatre of the increasingly isolated Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. But arguably even these events were cast into a pale shadow by the written statement promulgated on 8th August 2011 by King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud.

In the statement, the current King of Saudi Arabia made his displeasure concerning the current crackdown on the uprising in Syria known: ‘What is happening in Syria is not acceptable for Saudi Arabia…Syria should think wisely before it’s too late and enact reforms that are not merely promises but actual reforms…Either it chooses wisdom on its own or it will be pulled down into the depths of turmoil and loss.’

There is a clear paradox evident here: the titular head of a country which is recognised worldwide as a highly repressive state is communicating a dire warning to the president of another highly repressive state to implement swift and concrete political reforms. But why would a leader of Saudi Arabia – a country whose response to the Arab Spring cannot even be described as lukewarm, and which craves a continuation of the status quo like few other polities on earth – issue such a statement, one that has the potential to awkwardly rebound?

After some contemplation, it seems cogent to posit that Saudi Arabia is experiencing what we at Mediolana term ‘the paradox of indispensability’, which goes at least some way towards explaining King Abdullah’s enigmatic words; these might in fact be seen as foreshadowing events in his own domain. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia has possibly never been more indispensable to the global economy, particularly its American component: it is increasingly apparent that we live in an era of fonduenomics, where economies are dipping in and out of recession with increasing frequency, an occurrence that is largely contingent on the price of oil; consequently, petroleum-rich entities such as Saudi Arabia are theoretically in a position of great political and economy strength.

On the other hand, the Saudi Arabian model – a curious mixture of Wahhabism, authoritarian rule and a domestic economy massively subsidised by energy revenues – seems to be under significant stress, which is evident in a number of ways:

1. A world of increasingly borderless information has helped engender a disconnect between the average Saudi subject and the official state ideology: the Arab Attitudes Towards Iran, 2011 report published by the Arab American Institute Foundation reveals that a stunning 98% of Saudis have a ‘favourable’ opinion of Turkey – an officially secular country synonymous with social liberalism in the Arab world – compared with only 26% and 6% possessing favourable views of China and Iran respectively.

2. In an era increasingly shaped by Peak Oil, Saudi Arabia is likely to find itself weakly placed once demand and/or supply for its lifeblood export declines precipitously. It is therefore trying to diversify its economic base both through megaprojects such as the construction of King Abdullah Economic City – a brand new metropolis with a projected population of nearly four million people – and gargantuan real estate ventures along Dubai lines; ultimately, these are expressions of underlying fragility.

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Sting: An Englishman In Tashkent – But Not Astana

Sting – that musician of legendary mononymity – has recently come back into public focus for his activities in Central Asia. In February 2010, Sting admitted that he had played an Uzbekistan gig the previous October at the behest of Gulnara Karimova, presently the Uzbek ambassador to Madrid and the eldest daughter of Islam Karimov; the latter is one of the world’s most intriguing leaders, having been in charge of Uzbekistan since 23rd June 1989, well before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The former Police frontman was reported to have been compensated to the tune of between US$1m and US $2m for his Tashkent detour, and attracted much criticism for appearing to at least indirectly endorse a regime which possesses one of the region’s less salutary human rights records. In response, Sting averred his belief in the futility of cultural boycotts: ‘…they are counter-productive, where proscribed states are further robbed of the open commerce of ideas and art and as a result become even more closed, paranoid and insular.’

However, on 5th July 2011, Sting cancelled a concert – part of his increasingly surreal Symphonicities tour – that was to have been held in Astana, the spanking-new capital of Kazakhstan designed by the late Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa. The reason? A refusal to cross a ‘virtual picket line’ in solidarity with thousands of striking Kazakh oil and gas workers.

Prima Facie, it would be easy to dismiss this seemingly obvious inconsistency as the work of just another morally confused rock star. Yet Sting’s distinguished record of promoting noble and often contemporaneously obscure or unfashionable causes, such as the Chilean ‘disappeared’ and rainforest preservation, precludes this. Instead, his actions raise uncomfortable questions about the motivations of individuals, and how people justify the choices they make; a person may be outraged when confronted with one set of circumstances, yet inert when faced with another that appears little different from the first. Whether in the individual, or in the company – as Jesper Kunde and B.J. Cunningham posited so persuasively in Corporate Religion (2000) – the attainment of consistency is something to strive for.

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