Thinking Aloud: 2014 Global Terrorism Index

Nov. 21, 2014 by Darius 

This week, the Institute for Economics and Peace released its 2014 Global Terrorism Index.  Here are a few of the report’s main findings:

  • Nearly 18,000 people were killed by terrorist attacks worldwide last year, an increase of more than 60% from the previous year.
  • Iraq was the country most impacted by terrorism last year, suffering nearly 2,500 attacks, which caused more than 6,300 deaths. (Keep in mind: these numbers are for 2013 and highlight the persistent sectarian violence that preceded ISIS’s return to Iraq in the middle of 2014.)  Afghanistan and Pakistan were numbers two and three, respectively, while Nigeria and Syria rounded out the top five countries most impacted by terrorism.  More than 80% of global terrorism-related fatalities came in those five countries.  Perhaps surprisingly, India ranked as the sixth most-affected country.
  • Four terrorist groups (the Taliban, ISIS, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram) together caused 66% of terrorism-related fatalities last year.
  • Suicide attacks, despite their headline-grabbing nature, have accounted for only 5% of terrorist attacks since 2000.
  • There were 24 countries that experienced a terrorist attack that killed more than 50 people last year. On a more positive note, 75 countries did not experience a terrorist attack at all.
  • Terrorism does not occur in a vacuum, and it doesn’t come from nowhere: 90% of terrorist fatalities occurred in a country with gross human rights violations.

Finally, the report made the point that while terrorism is a major threat, it is not the primary danger to people around the world.  Regular homicides killed 40 times as many people as terrorist attacks around the world last year.

You can read the full report at

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News You Really Need To See: “France Tempers Iran Nuclear Stance in Nod to Wider Diplomatic Needs”

“France Tempers Iran Nuclear Stance in Nod to Wider Diplomatic Needs”

Reuters, November 21, 2014

“A year after France scuppered a deal on Iran’s nuclear program it is taking a softer stance in current talks, encouraged by a more inclusive U.S. approach and the knowledge that failure this year could have grim repercussions across the broader region. … The discovery last year that the U.S. was holding secret talks with the Iranians was an opportunity for France, by saying ‘no’ to a deal, to assert itself internationally and rebuke Washington for backing down on bombing Syria as punishment for using chemical arms.  It also helped Paris to cement new commercial ties with Gulf Arab states.  This time round however a failed agreement would have potentially dire consequences given Iran’s important role among international powers trying to push Islamic State out of Iraq and Syria and stabilize other parts of the Middle East.  That’s something France’s diplomats do not want to take responsibility for. … The Americans have also learned from last year: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has gone to great lengths to ensure that Paris is kept abreast of U.S.-Iran talks.”

Quickie Analysis:  Point made, economic benefits cashed in, France can now stop being a roadblock.  Now it’s someone else’s turn to do that.

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Thinking Aloud: “Reimagining Saudi Petro-Modernity”

Nov. 20, 2014 by Darius 

Earlier this week, I saw Yale history professor Rosie Bsheer talk about “Reimagining Saudi Petro-Modernity: History and Space in a Post-Rentier State.”  Behind the rather dense and scholarly title, Bsheer’s talk had a number of interesting observations about Saudi Arabia.

The modern Saudi state was founded in 1932 when the al-Saud family, which hailed from the interior of the country around Riyadh, defeated rivals to unify two geographically large kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula.  The founding father of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz al-Saud (also known as Ibn Saud), had been fighting first the Ottomans and later other Arab families, occasionally with the assistance of the British, for nearly 30 years before his creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  He ruled the kingdom for 21 years, until his death in 1953.  During his reign, oil was discovered in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, and the al-Saud family’s alliance with the US and with the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) was firmly cemented.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Saudi state was confronted with a number of social movements promoting various “isms,” chief among them Communism and Nasserism.  With the help of ARAMCO, which Prof. Bsheer described as the State Department and CIA’s arm in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi royal family was able to counter these movements.

It was at this point that one of Ibn Saud’s successors, King Faisal, strengthened official Saudi ideology’s ties to Wahhabism—the fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam that the al-Saud family had been associated with since the 18th century—and especially Wahhabism’s tenet that obedience to the Saudi royal family was obedience to God.  The Saud family had used Wahhabism previously as a rallying cry to fight the more religiously liberal Ottomans and were using it now to fight secular nationalism.

It was also at that point that Faisal and his successors began in earnest to craft an official Saudi narrative concerning the formation of the Saudi state.  This narrative claims that there was a continuous Saudi state, ruled of course by the al-Saud family, stretching from the 18th century to the present.  This continuity is the basis for modern Saudi identity.

According to Bsheer, the Saudi state faced its greatest internal challenge in the aftermath of the 1990-91 Gulf War.  For the first time, the royal family’s political opponents used its own Wahhabist ideology against it.  The opposition, largely made up of clerics, alleged that the Saud family was (a) not truly Muslim, since it allowed US troops to be based on Saudi soil, (b) promoted great social inequality, and (c) was completely dependent on foreign powers.  In response, the Saudi royal family embarked on a plan to maintain their legitimacy by harnessing the power of history and diversifying the economy.

Bsheer explained these divergent goals through the strikingly different treatment of the history of Mecca, the location of Islam’s holiest shrine, and Riyadh, the traditional power base of the Sauds.  Historic Mecca has been largely demolished and redeveloped.  This development has accomplished three things important for the Saudi regime.  First, it has kept the clerics happy, since their Wahhabist version of Islam prohibits anything that looks remotely like idol worship, including veneration of tombs and other historic sites.  Second, it removes from sight “alternate” versions of history, since Mecca and its surroundings were not actually under Saud family control for most of history.  Finally, the redevelopment of Mecca helps bring in tourism revenues and economic diversification.  For example, a major hotel complex directly adjacent to the Grand Mosque has been declared to be theologically equivalent to being in the Grand Mosque itself.  For $3,000 per night, wealthy visitors can do much of their pilgrimage duties without encountering the crowds outside the hotel.  As a result of Mecca’s development, real estate in the heart of Mecca sells for $9,000 per square foot—compared with $2,000 per square foot in New York City.

In Riyadh, the royal family has taken a sharply different approach.  There, historical buildings, forts, and other places have been memorialized, restored, and publicized.  Historic Riyadh is seen as “proof” of the al-Saud family’s right to rule.

Bsheer also devoted considerable time to detailing the Saudi state’s relationship with archives.  In Saudi Arabia today, several factions of the royal family all maintain separate archives, and many private families, including powerful families that challenged Saudi rule, have private archives as well.  In the last few years, there has been a push from a high-ranking prince to centralize the archives into one collection—ostensibly to preserve them but in Bsheer’s view to make inaccessible any documents that demonstrate a history of Arabian pluralism contrary to what the regime seeks to promote.  The royal family is taking such great pains to ensure that they maintain a lid on history that, according to Bsheer, the first thing the Saudi government did after the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt was to dispatch a “cultural mission” to ensure that Egyptian archives detailing Egypt’s “Cold War” with Saudi Arabia in the 1950s-1970s remained sealed.  Other sensitive stories in modern Saudi history that the royal family wants to control or suppress include the regime’s treatment of the social movements of the 1950s and ‘60s and the controversial 11-year reign and eventual internal family overthrow of Ibn Saud’s first successor, King Saud.  Interestingly, Bsheer noted that many U.S. documents dealing with Saudi Arabia from this period are also still classified.

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News You Really Need To See: “A Battle for Britain’s Political Mainstream”

“A Battle for Britain’s Political Mainstream”

The Washington Post, November 20, 2014, p.A9

“It would be hard to find a place more quintessentially British than Rochester, a handsome river town framed by a spectacularly ancient castle and cathedral. … Economically, demographically and politically, Rochester closely mirrors the rest of Britain.  And yet, on Thursday, voters here are poised to do something that would have seemed radical just months ago: elect a member of the U.K. Independence Party to represent them in Parliament. … The expected win would be the second for the anti-Europe, anti-immigration party in two months.  But unlike the first victory, in the economically depressed seaside town of Clacton, a triumph in Rochester will probably be seen here as proof that UKIP can win middle Britain. … Less than six months before the next general election, both major parties are struggling to set the terms of debate. UKIP is filling the void with its promises to ditch the European Union and vastly reduce a flow of immigrants that in recent years has brought millions of new residents to Britain. … Labor, too, has something to fear from UKIP.  Many of Labor’s traditional working-class voters are lining up behind UKIP’s message at a time of stagnant wages and diminished opportunities for those without university degrees. … Prior to the campaign, UKIP had rated Rochester its 271st-most-winnable seat out of 650 in the House of Commons.  Unlike other areas where UKIP thrives, the population of Rochester is reasonably well educated and has not suffered unusually high unemployment. … Nor does Rochester have a particularly large number of immigrants.  But that doesn’t stop people here from fearing the wave of foreigners that is a mainstay of the tabloid news media’s reporting.”

Quickie Analysis:  Vladimir Putin must be very pleased.

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Thinking Aloud: Friedman on Arab Spring

Nov. 19, 2014 by Darius 

Thomas Friedman’s column in today’s New York Times contained so many interesting and important points that I thought it worth reproducing a discussing some of them here.

“Ever since the Arab awakening in late 2010, America has lurched from one policy response to another. We tried decapitation without invasion in Libya; it failed. We tried abdication in Syria; it failed. We tried democratization in Egypt, endorsing the election of the Muslim Brotherhood; it failed. We tried invasion, occupation, abdication and now re-intervention in Iraq and, although the jury is still out, only a fool would be optimistic.”

This is a clever and succinct description of recent trial-and-error approach to US policy in the Middle East.  At least we’ve tried something different than simply supporting the strongmen who agree to our leadership, which summarizes most of America’s post-WWII approach to the Middle East.  Friedman’s description also shows the Obama administration’s willingness to try to learn from mistakes real-time.  That’s easier said than done, though, in a region in which every country has geographies and subgroups with their own unique backstories and grievances, many of which we didn’t bother learning in advance.  It also shows that the US seems to be caught in a damned-if-we-do-damned-if-we-don’t paradox, with the people of the Middle East resenting us no matter what approach we try.  Of course, it also makes for a parlor game in which everyone, from politicians to pundits to guys in the barber shop, have opinions about what the Obama administration *should* have done instead.

Instead of indulging in the parlor game, Friedman continues with something constructive and sensible:

“So if the Middle East is a region we can neither fix nor ignore, what’s left? I’m for ‘containment’ and ‘amplification.’  How so? Where there is disorder — Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya — collaborate with regional forces to contain it, which is basically what we’re doing today. …Where there is imposed order — Egypt, Algeria — work quietly with the government to try to make that order more decent, just, inclusive and legitimate. Where there is already order and decency — Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Kurdistan and the United Arab Emirates — do everything to amplify it, so it becomes more consensual and sustainable. And where there is order, decency and democracy — Tunisia — give it as much money as they ask for, (which we haven’t done).”

Friedman does an excellent job of pairing the spectrum of US goals, ranging from basic security and stability to freedom and pluralism, with the various situations on the ground.   He also provides a decent roadmap for how US objectives can and should change over time as the situation in country changes.

Finally, Friedman talks about Dubai as the unlikely crucible of the Arab Spring:

“Did Dubai cause the Arab awakening? Wait. How could it have? The U.A.E. and Dubai are absolute monarchies that tolerate no opposition or real freedom of the press. It’s because Dubai, beyond the glitz, glass and real estate booms and busts, has become the Manhattan of the Arab world — a place where young Arabs from across the region can come to realize their full potential in arts, business, media, education and technology start-ups — with world-class companies — and in their own culture, their own language, their own religious milieu, their own food preferences, music and clothing.  As more young Arabs came to Dubai, or viewed it on TV from afar, more and more asked: ‘Why don’t we have that in my Arab country?’ …  It was one thing for young Egyptians to observe the success of Singapore or Brazil and compare it with their own flagging country, but when Dubai showed that Arabs could build a Singapore, where young Arabs could realize their potential, Dubai became politically subversive. Across the region, you heard the question: ‘Even if we can’t have democracy, why can’t we at least have Dubai?’ … When you see someone just like you succeeding next door while your society is not, it becomes political.”

Friedman makes two important points, one explicit and one implicit.  The explicit point is that the success of Dubai served as a role model and a rallying cry for young Arabs in a way that the US, Germany, India, even Turkey, could not because it is Arab, it has been built and sustained by people like them.  The implicit point, though, is that perhaps at a fundamental level we continue to misunderstand the aspirations of the Arab world, including young Arabs.  If Dubai is what they want, their aspirations for freedom do not necessarily include democracy and presidents and congresses.  Greater civil liberties, yes.  Greater social and economic freedom, absolutely.  An elected legislature?  Maybe not so much.

You can read Friedman’s entire piece at

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News You Really Need To See: “Think the Air Pollution Is Bad? China Faces a Water Contamination Crisis”

“Think the Air Pollution Is Bad? China Faces a Water Contamination Crisis”

Bloomberg Businessweek, November 19, 2014

“China’s hazardous smog is an in-your-face and choke-your-lungs kind of problem—hard to miss, particularly when air quality soars to severely polluted levels, as it did in Beijing today (Nov.19).  But an equally dire environmental threat is the alarmingly low quality of China’s water resources.  That was highlighted in an investigative report on China’s water crisis in the official Xinhua News Agency yesterday.  Sixty percent of China’s groundwater, monitored at 4,778 sites across the country, is either ‘bad’ or ‘very bad,’ according to a survey by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Xinhua reported.  Meanwhile, more than half, or 17 of China’s 31 major freshwater lakes, are polluted, at least slightly or moderately.  The report said that 300 of China’s 657 major cities also face water shortages, according to the standard set by the United Nations.  A particularly severe problem is the dearth of water in the North China region, including the cities of Beijing and Tianjin and the surrounding province of Hebei.  Water per capita in that area amounts to only 286 cubic meters annually, much less than the 500 cubic meter minimum.”

Quickie Analysis: How long can 7% annual GDP growth be sustained without water?

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Thinking Aloud: “America’s Youngest Outcasts”

Nov. 18, 2014 by Darius 

America’s economy is slowly improving.  For some people.  There’s one important group that continues to become worse off, though: children.  According to a report released this week by the National Center on Family Homelessness, child homelessness in the US is at an all-time high.

The study was conducted using US Department of Education data tracking the number of homeless children attending public schools and then using other current research (e.g., studies showing 51% of all homeless children are under age 6) to arrive at an overall estimate of the population of homeless children.  According to the study, a total of 2.5 million American children experienced homelessness at some point in 2013 (the last year for which the data are available).  That amounts to one in every 30 children in the US.  It also represents an 8% increase (using the same methodology) from the previous year.

Most homeless children are raised by a single parent, usually their mother.  The report blamed a number of factors for the increase in child homelessness, but most of them are obvious: poverty, a lack of affordable housing, and lingering effects of the 2008-2009 recession.  The trend isn’t promising.  In fact, there has been a huge spike—an increase of more than 50%—in child homelessness since just 2010.

The worst five states for homelessness—based on number of homeless (adjusted for population), well-being of homeless children, risk for child homelessness, and state efforts to combat homelessness—are Alabama, Mississippi, California, Arkansas, and New Mexico.

The fact that child homelessness is now at an all-time high is another indication that this economic recovery is not a recovery for all.  Instead, inequality is continuing to shoot up, and far too many Americans are seeing little to no benefit of economic growth that, for them, is a mirage.

You can read the full report on childhood homelessness at

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