Rethinking Belt-and-Road Debt

Transport trouble: Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad criticizes China’s “new colonialism” at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, and Chinese-built railway connects parts of Africa

More than 75 nations participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, launched in 2013 to develop trade and connect Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe with ports, roads and railways. But some countries worry about adding to already heavy debt burdens, and some projects have become an issue in local politics. Among the most vocal critics is Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who has warned about a “new colonialism,” explains veteran journalist Philip Bowring. Mahathir questions infrastructure costs and strategic purposes relating to contentious issues like control over the South China Sea. Many emerging economies can certainly benefit from the infrastructure investment, explains Bowring, but cautious leaders also recognize the value of assessing project purposes and priorities. China, wanting to avoid heavy losses or criticism at home about wasteful spending, has launched a publicity campaign to promote benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative. – YaleGlobal

Egypt Not Mediterranean Gas Boss, Yet

 Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, discusses energy cooperation with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi; Egyptian Petroleum Minister Tarek El Molla, right, at a joint news conference with Cyprus Energy Minister Yiorgos Lakkotrypis

Egypt aspires to be a regional energy market hub. Positioned on the Mediterranean Sea and between European markets and Middle East suppliers, Egypt has a developed energy infrastructure for refining, storage, and exporting oil and gas. “The country faces challenges, including maintaining equidistance from the region’s various tensions, reforming its legal framework for regional gas deals and effectively communicating its activities to the Egyptian population,” explains Mohamed El Dahshan, managing director of OXCON Frontier Markets and Fragile States Consulting. He adds this is “no easy matter given the complex history of regional gas cooperation, Egypt’s own regional energy relations, and its need to subdue public opinion with the necessities of regional cooperation around natural resources, which know no political frontiers.” The most recent Israeli-Egyptian gas cooperation agreement underscores the challenges. El Dahshan analyzes the history and urges improved policy development and communication with Egyptians. – YaleGlobal

Yale Assyriologist discovers evidence of lost city in Iraq

An ancient Sumerian tablet with cuneiform writing with local administrative text from the city of Irisagrig

When Eckart Frahm, professor of Assyriology at Yale, received a call from Homeland Security with a request to come to New York to assess cuneiform tablets, he was intrigued by the opportunity to provide an assessment of the content and origins of these ancient artifacts.

Frahm, who is one of only a few hundred people worldwide who can accurately read cuneiform texts, was taken to an undisclosed location in the city, where he had about two and half days to study these texts in a warehouse in which they were being temporarily stored. Each tablet was about the size of a cell phone, and many were in a poor condition, with salt incrustations covering large portions of their surfaces.

The UAE’s Unsustainable Nation Building

Slowdown? UAE economic growth dipped to 1.8 percent in 2016, and the government strives for less reliance on migrant labor and more startups like, a UAE-based financial comparison site founded by CEO Ambareen Musa

The United Arab Emirates ranks among the 10 wealthiest nations in the world, but the wealth is not spread equally among the population of 9 million, 90 percent of which are migrant workers. The country prospered by relying on low-paid migrant workers, many from South Asia who work on short-term contracts. Hefty recruitment and relocation costs, especially for the east skilled workers, put many migrants into debt. “Emirati citizenship is confined to those whose ancestors lived in its seven constituting Emirates before 1925,” explains Riaz Hassan, director of Institute of Muslim and Non-Muslim Understanding, University of South Australia and now a visiting research professor in Singapore. “The country has no system of naturalization or permanent residency.” The exclusionary system is unsustainable in an increasingly transnational world, and he encourages the UAE to transition from a labor-intensive to capital-intensive, high-tech economy requiring less manual labor and more skilled professionals. The UAE fears the loss of Arab culture, but that battle has already been lost. – YaleGlobal


Hegemonic Designs in the Middle East Clash

Kurdish people fight the Islamic State and expect independence; Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin have other plans

The United States has been reticent about over-involvement in Middle East conflicts in recent years, notwithstanding the April 14 airstrikes on Syria in response to a chemical attack. Russia filled the vacuum in Syria with support from Iran and Turkey, explains author and military strategist Ehsan Ahrari. He details the internal contradictions in the three allies’ goals and suggests the alliance could be short-lived. Russia takes advantage of the Turkish president’s fury over US support for Kurdish forces and refusal to deport a cleric accused of instigating a failed 2016 coup. Iran seeks a permanent foothold in Syria, with the Assad regime in place, and influence in Lebanon. Russia, looking for control, has less interest in a role for Assad whereas Turkey wants his ouster. “The most significant uniting force for Iran, Turkey, and Russia is their resolve to safeguard their respective regional strategic interests, and for Russia, an additional and overriding motivating factor is to be recognized once again as a superpower,” Ahrari writes. Foreign powers find the region hard to control, and he concludes, “Great power hegemonism in the Middle East may well become an artifact of a bygone era.” – YaleGlobal

Study measures impact of economic aid programs in Afghanistan war zone

An Afghan woman and a man with a rifle on his back with their arms around each other.

The United States has spent billions of dollars in Afghanistan on economic interventions, such as job-training programs and direct cash payments, to counter violent extremism, but a new study casts doubt on the ability of these initiatives to reduce support for the Taliban or improve people’s economic condition.

The study, led by Yale political scientist Jason Lyall, is the first to test the effectiveness of economic aid programs in an active war zone. The researchers partnered with Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian and development organization, to evaluate a program that provided vocational training and unconditional cash payments to young men and women in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city and the birthplace of the Taliban, where airstrikes, suicide bombings, and military operations occur regularly.

We didn’t find any evidence to support the belief that insurgent support is driven by unemployment and poor job prospects,” said Lyall, associate professor of political science and director of Yale’s Political Violence FieldLab.


Israel Tries to Expand Power in Africa

African diplomacy: Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, for the Economic Community of West African States summit, and Israeli solar panels are offered to Africans

Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been intent on nurturing diplomatic ties with sub-Saharan African nations. He was the first Israeli prime minister in three decades to travel to Africa and also attended the Kenyan president’s inauguration and a summit of West African states. About 30 percent of the world’s Muslims live in Africa, and about half the continent’s population is Muslim. Israel’s efforts are multi-pronged and targeted: The country provides security assistance to battle extremist groups like Boko Haram or al Shabaab; pursues trade with countries that are among the fastest growing in the world; and aims to reduce intense opposition to Israeli policies, especially related to Palestinian pursuit of self-determination, at international organizations like the United Nations. Still, Netanyahu quickly capitulated to political opposition in early April, suspending a deal to let African asylum seekers stay in the country. “Despite policy sophistication, Israel does not seem ready to quit the traditional carrot-and-stick approach,” journalist Raluca Besliu concludes. “It may find that long-term connections of mutual interest are more productive.” – YaleGlobal