Dubai…believing is seeing

‘Call it the power of inevitability’, scroll the white letters on a black background, as a woman wails in Islamic fervour. ‘You know you have to be here.’ Cut to a speedboat racing across the bay towards a mighty skyscraper. ‘Believing is seeing’, flash the white letters.  A sports car approaches the skyscraper, and a dapper figure climbs out. It’s…it’s Tyler Brûlé!

No, it’s the latest advert for the Trump Tower in Dubai, one of the many vanity real estate projects announced in the boom years, that have now hit the rocks. ‘The thrill that every whim will soon become a reality’, the advert coos. Well, maybe not that soon. Local developer Nakheel, owned by the Dubai emirate, is struggling to pay back its $10bn in debt, and may have to be bailed out by the UAE government. Its Palm Deira and Waterfront projects, once planned to be bigger than Hong Kong, have also been delayed.

So too has the Pad, a high-tech residential complex built by Omniyat, in which each apartment would be ‘intelligent’, which means, apparently, it would monitor residents’ body temperatures and their taste in entertainment, so your apartment would know when you bring back a girl, and would intelligently turn up the temperature, dim the lights, and play Barry Manilow. Alas, the developers proved slightly less intelligent than the apartments, and the project has been delayed.

So many new properties are coming onto the market in the next two years, that Nomura estimates 150,000 jobs would need to be created to fill all the new office space. Alas, the trend is going the other way – Jones Lang La Salle estimates the population of Dubai will fall 10% this year.

Still, analysts are optimistic that Dubai will remain the main financial and trading hub for the Middle East, despite the best efforts of Riyadh, Doha, Beirut and Manama to challenge it. There’s no booze in Riyadh, Doha is incredibly boring, Manama is even less financially transparent, and Beirut is constantly being dragged to war by Hesbollah.

So the Biblical prophecies of the collapse of Dubai are unlikely to come true in the near future, much to the disappointment of Simon Jenkins, who started foaming at the mouth at the prospect earlier this year:

This off-the-shelf city state has been built on laundering the profits of oil, drugs, arms and western aid, he raved [western aid? shurely not]..the towers of Dubai will become casualties not of human greed but of architectural folly. Their lifts and services, expensive to maintain, will collapse. Their colossal facades will shed glass. Sand will drift round their trunkless legs. Animals will inhabit their basements.

Thousands of residential properties, if occupied at all, will be squatted by a migratory poor, like the hotel towers of the Spanish littoral or Corbusier’s blockhouses of Chandigarh in India. Refugees will colonise the camps where Indian workers have lived as they built Dubai. Gangs will seize the gated estates and random anarchy will rule the soulless boulevards.

If it is lucky Dubai will at least be a refuge from the political cataclysms that could engulf countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. But mostly the dunes will reclaim the place. In centuries to come, tourists will share with Ozymandias the message: “Look on my works ye mighty and despair.’” With Shelley they will see how, “round the decay /Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare /The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Not a big traveller, are you Simon? 

On the web: grumbling about world politics, Europe, the US economy, and Palin’s speeches…

- The former British Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, explains why he’s not grumpy about the current state of international politics – perhaps an outside candidate for the role of EU Foreign Minister? Le Monde diplomatique, meanwhile, suggests that the path to Lisbon has emphasised the gap between European governments and their citizens.

– John Gapper takes a look at Warren Buffett’s $27 billion deal to buy the railroad company BNSF, and explores what the “Sage of Omaha’s” latest move says about the basis of US economic recovery. Harold James, meanwhile, assesses the current state of monetary policy following the financial crisis, suggesting that we may be heading towards “international monetary chaos”.

– Elsewhere, the Daily Beast reproduces the “lost” victory and concession speeches that Sarah Palin never gave on election night one year ago – making for interesting reading indeed.

– Finally, over at Oxfam, Duncan Green laments the familiar refrain of NGOs, international institutions and governments alike to the need for “political will” and “good governance” when trying to achieve reform. Greater investment in “political literacy” and deeper “power analysis” instead, he suggests, should underpin attempts to bring about such change.

All we are saying is… assist countries emerging from conflict to achieve sustainable peace in a coordinated manner!

A press release from the UN…

NEW YORK, Nov. 3 /PRNewswire/ — To celebrate the unifying spirit and 40th anniversary of the Plastic Ono Band’s universal anthem, “Give Peace a Chance,” Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon and Julian Lennon have partnered with EMI Music and Sony/ATV Music Publishing to donate net proceeds from the sale of a commemorative 40th Anniversary digital single to the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund (PBF). Beginning today, iTunes will exclusively offer the single’s special anniversary edition for download purchase, with net proceeds benefiting the PBF through December 31.

Says Yoko Ono, “I am thrilled that so many in the music business are readily supporting ‘Give Peace a Chance’ on its 40th anniversary. It is indeed a time when we are all getting more aware of the necessity of doing something to achieve world peace, no matter how small. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I feel deeply that we are all one, regardless of where we stand.”

“I am delighted to see that a song so closely identified with the pursuit of peace, will shine a light on the United Nations’ peacebuilding efforts and financially support PBF projects,” the Chairperson of the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), Ambassador Heraldo Munoz of Chile said.

Thank you, Yoko (thrice over). Just in case any pop pickers are not fully informed about the groovy activities of the PBC, the press release explains:

The PBC and the PBF were established after the 2005 World Summit to create mechanisms to assist national authorities in post-conflict countries build sustainable peace. The PBC is an intergovernmental body that brings together relevant actors, including donors, Member States, international financial institutions (such as the World Bank) and national governments. By creating this broad platform, the PBC plays a key role in ensuring that the international community can assist countries emerging from conflict to achieve sustainable peace in a coordinated manner.

So, not to be confused with the artiste’s Peace Tower, a beam of light that shines over Rekjavik every year to commemorate John Lennon’s death:

Imagine all the people, coordinating life in sustainable peace…

How a good outcome might yet be salvaged from the UK drugs row

The row in Britain over the sacking of Professor David Nutt, until last week the head of the head of the government’s Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) shows little sign of abating: two members of the Committee have quit in Nutt’s support, and there’s talk of a mass resignation when the Committee meets on Monday. The reason for all the hoo-hah: Nutt’s public argument in a lecture (and a subsequent article) that the government had overstated the dangers of cannabis (as well as other drugs, like LSD or ecstasy), and that an evidence-based approach that prioritised harm reduction would see tobacco and alcohol as higher priorities.  As he argued in his article,

I think we have to accept young people like to experiment, and what we should be doing is to protect them from harm at this stage of their lives. We therefore have to provide more accurate and credible information. We have to tell them the truth, so that they use us as their preferred source of information. If you think that scaring kids will stop them using, you’re probably wrong.

This was anathema as far as Alan Johnson was concerned, who promptly sacked Nutt on Friday last week, arguing that

Professor Nutt chose, without prior notification to my department, to initiate a debate on drugs policy in the national media … accusing my predecessor or distorting and devaluing scientific research. As a result, I have lost confidence in Professor Nutt’s ability to be my principal adviser on drugs.

More or less the entire UK scientific community is now up in arms about Nutt’s sacking: thus for example Lord Krebs, former head of the Food Standards Agency:

I thought it was an appalling decision and totally inappropriate … it will send shockwaves through the scientific community and make it more difficult for the government to recruit the best people to help with scientific advice to underpin public policy … not one person … has been other than horrified about it and feeling that this called into question the whole validity of the government’s approach to independent scientific advice.

While I don’t disagree with Krebs (and see also this interesting critique of government policy by a former Home Office civil servant), there is one dimension to all this that is inescapably political rather than scientific: the need to provide Alan Johnson with some kind of face-saving exit strategy that also safeguards the place of science in the policymaking process – and, ideally, nudges the UK towards an approach to drugs control that is at least slightly more sane.

Right now, after all, we have a situation in which the Serious Organised Crime Agency trumpets that its work has “sent cocaine prices soaring” – but the actual effect is that dealers’ profit margins are increasing, while the product they sell becomes less pure and more dangerous; in which Portugal’s strategy of decriminalising all drus has proved “a resounding success” according to a recent independent study – but other European governments don’t want to know; and above all, in which countries like Mexico, Guinea-Bissau and Afghanistan carry the can for OECD governments’ refusal to face facts, and slide ever closer to becoming hollowed-out or outright failed states. 

So how to start to reorient drugs policy – given that, as Alan Johnson has just demonstrated so clearly, politicians manifestly feel unwilling or unable to persuade the public of the need for a more rational and effective approach?

Continue reading

Miliband is bad enough for the FCO, let alone the EU

Russia BritainDavid Miliband is in Russia, the first visit there by a British foreign minister since 2004, though Lord Mandelson was there last year, and did relatively well at cleaning up the mess that the FCO had made of Anglo-Russian relations.

I wonder if this trip, rather than having anything to do with serving our national interest, is actually aimed at furthering Miliband’s ambitions to become the new EU foreign secretary (a New Labour minister using office to further their own private interests? Shurely not!)

One of the key – if not the key – jobs of the new EU foreign minister will be managing relations with Russia. This will be a very difficult role, with the EU’s need for Russian gas and a friendly relationship with its largest neighbour needing to be balanced against New Europe’s desire for a strong, assertive stance against Russian authoritarianism and in support of NATO eastward expansion.

So far, the British political elite, with the exception of Mandelson, has shown itself incapable of nuance in their approach to Russia. During the Russo-Georgian War, for example, Miliband penned an article for The Times which was incredibly one-sided, putting all the blame for the situation squarely on Russia’s shoulders, and casting Saakashvili’s Georgia as the poor democratic victim in the war.

It was a bizarrely undiplomatic letter from a foreign secretary, and very much suggested Miliband was, again, serving his own interests (this was during his failed leadership bid in the summer of 2008) rather than the interests of his country.

In the last few weeks, the EU has released its report into the war, deciding that, actually, Georgia started it, and that the war was as much about Georgian nationalist aggression against the Ossetians as it was about Russian meddling in Georgia. That’s not to say that the Russian government was in any way innocent – it is in many ways an odious regime – but it shows that Miliband’s article was the sort of one-sided naive polemic one would expect from, say, a New Statesman columnist rather than the serving foreign secretary.

A month later, Miliband again showed his diplomatic nous by getting Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov into such a rage that, during a phone conversation, Lavrov apparently descended into a ‘four letter tirade’ against our young secretary of state, saying ‘who the fuck are you to lecture me’, and questioning what exactly Miliband knew of Russian history. Bad enough – but then Miliband released the story of Lavrov’s tirade to the press!

It was like getting into a fight, and then running to mummy to say that so-and-so had called you names. Again, Miliband seemed to be trying to improve his own domestic image, as the incredibly courageous defender of human rights in distant lands, rather than genuinely serving his own country’s interests.

For Miliband, as with much of the British political elite, it is simply too easy and too tempting to score domestic political points by railing against Russian authoritarianism. It costs them nothing. It makes them feel brave. And it helps them forget how the British government approved the torture of British citizens.

And now, after all this grand-standing, all this name-calling, and after absolutely no change in Russian foreign policy, Miliband is off to Moscow, simpering all the way about ‘common ground’ and ‘the need for mutual respect’.

This, it seems to me, is an attempt by Miliband to show the Germans that he could be an effective EU negotiator with the Russians. But to me, it shows once again why he is simply unfit to manage anyone’s foreign relations, ours, theirs, anyone’s.

Telling India the hard facts on climate – a lone voice

On climate, campaigners are unbelievably craven when it comes to the big emerging economies. China, in particular, gets treated with kid gloves. Within NGO circles, it is now more or less obligatory to kowtow to Beijing’s domestic track record on clean energy. Which is all very well – but I see absolutely no signs of Chinese leadership internationally (although its track record in the G20 shows how quickly it can pull out its finger when hard economic issues are at stake).

Weakness on China is especially egregious now that the country is above average global per capita emissions. Campaigners should be demanding that China ties itself to a date when its emissions will peak and then to commits to deep cuts by mid-century. (Armed with such a commitment, of course, China itself could then begin to turn the heat up on America – rather than allowing the US congress to bleat about US competitiveness.)

A failure to ask hard questions of China is bad for lower income countries. Not only will they suffer worst as the climate changes, they are going to wake up in ten years’ time to find that most of the global carbon budget for 2 degrees has been spent. Their interests are being sacrificed on the altar of G77 solidarity, with the global NGO community helping sharpen the knife.

The problem is similar, if less extreme, for the world’s other rising powers. Their per capita emissions may be lower than China’s and NGOs less terrified of offending them. But still, a country like India has 17% of the world’s population – which gives it quite a stake in our collective future. It is also massively vulnerable to a changing climate (especially as a lack of water disrupts food production).

Malini Mehra

But yet India is notoriously rubbish at international climate talks. So all the more credit to Malini Mehra, from the Center for Social Markets, for her persistent (and unusual) attempts to shine a light on India’s failings.

“In recent months, India has sought to challenge its image overseas, and in growing quarters at home, as recalcitrant and obstructionist on climate change,” she writes in her latest critique.

“[But] in a showdown this week with the old guard, the reformist environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, had to tone down his climate advice to India’s Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. Political correctness won, but the loser was India’s climate security.”

Here’s the rest of her analysis: Continue reading

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