On 18 May, Finland and Sweden applied to join Nato. There are very few countries in the world that can plausibly claim to have tried to conduct a principled form of foreign policy. Two of them are now seeking to join a military alliance composed of states with long histories of aggression and war crimes. If completed, the Nordic expansion of Nato would leave only three states of any size – Ireland, Austria and Switzerland – to keep up the tradition of European neutrality.
Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi was the fourth leader of the Islamic State organisation, and the fourth to be killed in a US raid or airstrike. In 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was tracked and assassinated with F-16s. In 2010, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was killed in a special forces raid in Tikrit. The first caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in a special forces operation in 2019. US intelligence found al-Qurashi by tracking a courier working for ISIS in Syria’s Idlib province. On the night of 2 February, special forces flew in from Iraq in helicopters, surrounded the house that al-Qurashi had rented (apparently posing as a taxi driver), and ordered the residents out with loudspeakers. Al-Qurashi and twelve others, mostly women and children, were killed. The US claims that al-Qurashi, like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, detonated the bomb that did the damage. The only people left alive who know exactly what happened are the special forces operatives involved, and they are unlikely to tell.
A straight line can be drawn between celebrations of ‘precision’ air weaponry and airstrikes in civilian areas. The inability of US drone operators and targeters to find and identify individuals accurately has led to a strategy based on volume. Drop a lot of bombs, accept that many civilians will die, and occasionally you will kill someone you meant to.
There used to be a joke in Cairo that Egyptian presidents had two stock responses to an emergency: close the central Sadat metro station and arrest Alaa Abd El-Fattah. An activist in the Tahrir Square movement in 2011 (as well as the son of an important communist dissident), Alaa first experienced Egypt’s prison system in 2006 as a result of his street activism. After the 2011 uprising he was arrested again. Since the military coup in 2013 he has spent most of his time behind bars. He was today sentenced to a further five years for ‘spreading false news’.
Questions that ought to be asked of British foreign policy go unarticulated. Why did the ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ (to use the Cabinet Office’s preferred term) become a British priority? Why is the Royal Navy sailing ships through the Taiwan Strait? Why is Britain conducting military training programmes in the Persian Gulf and ten countries from Gambia to Somalia? Why did the UK become so heavily involved in the atrocities committed in Yemen?
On 16 September the World Bank discontinued its annual Doing Business report. It had been one of the Bank’s flagship publications: a detailed index of the conditions for businesses in different countries around the world, along with an eye-catching league table. Countries could improve their ranking by cutting red tape, strengthening investor rights or making labour more ‘flexible’ – the standard neoliberal reforms. Following the prescription rarely made places richer or more developed, but that didn’t seem to affect the report’s influence.
The first thing you notice is the smell. After a controlled fire – hearth, camp, pyre – the air smells dry, because firewood is dry. But wildfires burn living flora. Walking over land razed by wildfires you breathe resinous air, the fumes of combusted sap. During this summer’s record-breaking heatwave around the Mediterranean, wildfires broke out in Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Kabylia, Provence, Turkey, Sicily and across southern Italy. In August I went to Sardinia, where the fires had burned thousands of hectares of land and displaced hundreds of people. According to Sardinian apiculturists, millions of bees were killed.
The decision to expand the UK’s nuclear weapons stockpile by 40 per cent was slipped onto page 76 of the government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy in March. The only reason to announce a major strategic decision in such a quiet way is to avoid attention, which is exactly what happened. The UK is now committed to maintaining a larger stock of nuclear warheads than China (according to US estimates) and there has been too little scrutiny of the policy.
Over the past week there have been daily demonstrations in towns and cities across Oman. Public protests are rare in the Persian Gulf monarchies. They last happened in Oman in 2019, when protesters demanded that the sultanate address rising unemployment. This was also a central concern of Omani protesters during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. The main demonstrations this time have been in the two main port cities, Salalah and Sohar, where unemployment has historically been highest. Activists have shared photographs of British-made tear-gas canisters used against them, similar to those used by police in Hong Kong.
Unlike the US, the British government is continuing its military support for the war in Yemen. The latest government figures show that the UK approved $1.4 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia between July and September 2020. (There had been a year’s suspension of arms exports since June 2019, after the Campaign Against the Arms Trade took the government to court.) The UK has also cut its provision of humanitarian aid to Yemen by more than half, despite UN warnings that the country is facing ‘the worst famine in decades’.