Why America and Saudi Arabia are still inseparable

IN SAUDI ARABIA, leaving one’s wife is a simple matter of repeating talaq (“divorce”) three times. Perhaps thankfully, breaking up is harder to do in diplomacy. Since October 5th, when the OPEC+ oil cartel decided to cut production by 2m barrels per day (bpd), relations between America and Saudi Arabia have plunged to their lowest point in decades. Democrats in Washington seem determined to abandon their partner of 77 years. Gulf states are enraged by what they see as America’s sneering, disrespectful tone.

As in any relationship, some of the angry talk is just that. If a total rupture is unlikely, however, so too is any hope of America and its Gulf partners agreeing to kiss and make up. The oil-for-security bargain that has underpinned their relationship for decades has frayed, but no one knows what will replace it. The unhappy marriage looks likely to last for years yet.

To hear it from Saudi Arabia, the OPEC+ cut was a technical decision. Oil markets are a mess. Prices have been on a rollercoaster. Many OPEC members were falling short of their assigned quotas. A looming rich-country recession could depress demand. The Saudis describe the cut as a pragmatic move to avoid a supply glut and keep some spare capacity in reserve.

To America, however, this was an unconscionable betrayal. Joe Biden, the president, had vowed to treat the kingdom as a “pariah” over its murder in 2018 of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist. He reversed himself this summer, with crude at $120 a barrel, and flew to meet Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler, in his homeland. Now, less than three months later, the Saudis have orchestrated a move that could mean costlier oil. Mr Biden accused the kingdom of siding with Russia, since higher prices will pad Vladimir Putin’s treasury. “There’s going to be some consequences,” he growled.

The claim aired by many fellow Democrats that the Saudis want to help Republicans in the coming midterms, since higher prices at the pump will hurt the administration, seems implausible in Gulf circles. Oil ministers do not make decisions about world energy markets to sway the outcome of a Senate race in Pennsylvania.

Fellow oil producers have closed ranks. Bahrain and Kuwait, both OPEC+ members and American partners, said they agreed with the production cut. Even the United Arab Emirates (UAE) made a public show of support. The UAE often disagrees with Saudi Arabia on oil policy: it wants to sell as much as it can, even on the cheap, lest its oil become a stranded asset. Yet it too insists OPEC+ made the right call.

On the sidelines of a conference in Abu Dhabi earlier this month, one Emirati energy executive was furious about America’s response. It smacked of colonial-era rhetoric, he said. “Who is he? Who is Joe Biden?” he grumbled. “These are our resources.” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist, thinks Democrats must “wake up” and accept that the Gulf is “ready to say no to America”. Ali Shihabi, a less abrasive commentator close to the Saudi royal court, wondered if the kingdom might quit OPEC and form a more elite cartel. “Saudi could easily operate without OPEC and co-ordinate production with the two or three key players privately,” he mused.

The UAE seemed to send yet another message on October 11th, when Muhammad bin Zayed, its president, flew to St Petersburg to meet Mr Putin. Emiratis say he was there to discuss a peace plan for Ukraine. Nothing solid emerged from the meeting, but that he went in person instead of making a call or sending his foreign minister was a stark reminder that the Arab world, unlike the West, refuses to take sides over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Since 1945, when Franklin Roosevelt met King Abdelaziz bin Saud aboard the USS Quincy, the Saudi-American relationship has been rooted in a simple bargain. The kingdom keeps the oil flowing; America keeps the kingdom safe. Both sides now accuse the other of reneging on the deal.

Yet this falling-out is rooted in mutual misunderstanding. Democrats no longer want only a reliable supply of oil; they also want it at a comfortably low price. The Gulf states, meanwhile, want a more active protector. The Carter Doctrine held that America must protect its energy interests in the Middle East. For today’s Gulf monarchs, that does not mean simply policing the Strait of Hormuz. It also means leaping into action when they are threatened by Iran or its proxies. America’s dismal failure in Iraq and Afghanistan has not inspired confidence, to put it mildly.

Neither side is willing to indulge the other. The Saudis and their neighbours have no wish to forgo billions in revenue to help Mr Biden’s party win a few extra votes. And most Americans, after two decades of disastrous wars in the region, would like to turn away from it. Some Gulf officials hope a second Donald Trump presidency in 2025 would tighten ties with America. Yet his wing of the Republican party is not keen to protect the Gulf petrostates.

Despite its frustrations with America, the Gulf has no good alternative. Russia cannot fill a role as protector and arms supplier. With his army bogged down in Ukraine, Mr Putin needs whatever weapons his sanctions-hobbled economy can produce for his own battles. And Russia offers few prospects for trade and investment. China is a more useful partner. It does not nag about human rights. It is a big source of investment. But it has no interest in guaranteeing the Gulf’s security. Like Russia, it maintains friendly ties with the Gulf’s arch-rival, Iran.

So America and the Gulf states are unhappily stuck with each other—for now. They may disagree sharply over oil prices, the war in Ukraine and many other issues. The oil-for-security bargain is no longer a solid foundation for their relationship. But no one in Washington or Riyadh seems keen to find something that is.

How organised crime is blighting South Africa’s economy

Last year Gold Fields announced it would start building a solar plant to help power South Deep, one of the largest gold mines in the world. Soon afterwards, the South African mining firm got messages from several self-styled “business forums”, a euphemism belying their real interest: extortion. The forums demanded a cut of the contract to construct the plant. They followed up with texts to employees and unauthorised visits to the mine, which lies just outside Johannesburg.

The consequences of non-compliance were not spelt out. But they could be assumed. Since 2015 forums have spread from the province of KwaZulu-Natal to the rest of the country, invading construction sites and demanding a share of any deal. In 2019 forums affected at least 183 projects, worth more than 63bn rand ($4bn). That year gun-toting forum members led to two firms pulling out of a project to build what would have been the highest bridge in Africa. After the incident the boss of the South African firm said of its German partner: “They have worked in 80 countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq, but have never experienced anything like this.”

From bad to worse

There is a lot of crime in South Africa. In the past few months alone there has been a spate of shootings in taverns, a mass rape in a mining town and multiple kidnappings. These are not random incidents, notes Mark Shaw, director of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC), a think-tank headquartered in Geneva. They are a result of flourishing organised crime that is “an existential threat to South Africa’s democratic institutions, economy and people”.

In a report last month GI-TOC described 15 illicit “markets”, ten of which it said are growing. (The other five are “stable”.) In an earlier paper it ranked South Africa 19th in the world for organised criminality, ahead of Libya and Russia. “Few [countries] host so many illicit markets across such a broad spectrum of criminal activity.”

South Africa is a transit point for heroin going from Afghanistan to Europe and cocaine leaving Latin America for Asia and Australasia. It is also a hive of wildlife crime: the familiar scourges of rhino and elephant poaching as well as the trafficking of rock lobster, abalone (marine snails) and succulent plants. Kidnapping cases rose from 6,000 in the year to March 2021 to more than 10,000 12 months later, in part because of the rise of syndicates who demand ransoms (see chart). The gun-runners who deal in the more than 2m unregistered firearms in the country make everything worse.

Yet many criminal enterprises target more prosaic parts of the economy. The sharp rise in the copper price in 2020 led to a surge in cable theft. South Africa’s telecommunications firms have formed a special unit partly to combat the crime. Eskom, the state power utility, says cable worth about 2bn rand is stolen every year. Transnet, the public freight-rail operator, said in October 2021 that more than 1,000km of cable had been stolen so far that year. During the pandemic criminals stripped PRASA, the state passenger-rail company. The network carries 4% of the passenger volume it did from 1999 to 2008.

One source of vandalism is the so-called “taxi industry”, which runs the minibuses used by two-thirds of commuters. Earlier this year a taxi firm’s employee was jailed for torching a PRASA train and station; the prosecutor noted that “only the taxi industry benefits when trains are put out of service.” GI-TOC says taxis are run by “mafia-like associations”. About half of South Africa’s assassinations are linked to the taxi business. Its cash-only model makes it a potential money-laundry.

South African mining is besieged by criminality. Tens of thousands of zama zamas, or illegal miners, work for criminal outfits. An industry body reckons they cost the sector 7bn rand a year. Illustrating the scale of illegal operations, in April the military and a private-security firm retook control of a chrome mine that had been extracting metal worth more than 1m rand a day. Around 10% of South Africa’s annual chrome production is exported illegally. A recent survey reckoned there were about 20 illegal chrome-processing plants.

Major figures in the South African underworld operate in myriad markets. Consider, for instance, Petros Sydney Mabuza, a kingpin assassinated last year. As well as running a rhino-poaching syndicate, he was reportedly involved in the taxi industry, extortion and robbery of vans carrying cash. At his funeral a helicopter brought his casket to the venue, with the box draped in leopard skin.

South Africa’s organised-crime boom has many causes. But the chief one is that the state has been enfeebled by a corrupt ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). The police, too, are regularly implicated. Officers have been convicted, among other offences, of drug-dealing, gun-running and aiding illegal mining. In North West province police are said to help deliver food and guns to zama zamas, and serve as hitmen for a mining kingpin.

The rot starts at the top

Though organised crime predated and outlasted Jacob Zuma, president from 2009 to 2018, it exploded under his reign. Law-enforcement agencies were hollowed out and stuffed with cronies. Crime data show the impact. In the first half of the 2010s there was a 60% drop in the number of arrests and an 83% fall in convictions. The murder rate fell by more than half from 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected, to 2011. Since then it has risen by 38%.

“State capture” under Mr Zuma has been well documented. But criminality runs deeper than government graft. Many business forums, for example, are said to have links to the ANC’s “radical economic transformation” faction, which is aligned to Mr Zuma. These groups say they are not gangsters but vehicles for black empowerment; when they invade sites they demand 30% of the construction contract’s value, citing a law that reserves that fraction for “local” firms in public procurement. One group was even called the Federation for Radical Economic Transformation.

Cyril Ramaphosa, Mr Zuma’s successor, promised to overhaul law enforcement. But as usual there is a chasm between his rhetoric and reality. Rather than rely on the state, those who can afford it opt for private security. In 1997 there was roughly one private security guard for every policeman. Today the ratio is almost four to one.

Gold Fields stood its ground—but only after it built fences at the site and procured private security for employees. Ultimately the extortionists went away. But they will be back somewhere else, soon enough.

Why teenage mothers in Zimbabwe struggle to get educated

Brilliant Ndlovu has never really known childhood. Since the age of seven she has headed her household in Tsholotsho, a town in rural western Zimbabwe, after her parents went to work abroad. The oldest of five, she scraped a living growing crops while trying to keep up with her schoolwork. But in 2020 the covid-19 pandemic struck, coming shortly after a devastating drought. Farmers could not afford to pay child labourers like Ms Ndlovu. “So I looked for a man to help support my family,” she recalls. She found one who demanded sex in exchange for money. Aged 17, she got pregnant.

Ms Ndlovu was one of 4,770 Zimbabwean girls to drop out of school in 2020 because of pregnancy, up from about 3,000 the year before, according to government statistics. The true number may be higher. Siqinisweyinkosi Mhlanga, who runs Orphan’s Friend, a community centre in Tsholotsho where Ms Ndlovu now spends her days, says that there may be ten times more school dropouts in her province than the official tally. In August 2020 Zimbabwe’s government amended the Education Act to prohibit schools from expelling pregnant girls, joining a growing club of African countries that are letting pregnant teenagers continue with their education. A third of Zimbabwean women marry before they are 18.

Previously Zimbabwe’s education minister had described student pregnancy as a “misdemeanour of a serious nature”, punishable by expulsion. But the amendment “didn’t make any difference”, says Ms Mhlanga. In 2021, after teenage pregnancies rose during the covid lockdown, the number of pregnancy-related dropouts rose to 5,985, according to official statistics.

Stigma and cost, rather than laws, push girls out of school. When they fall pregnant their families often “don’t accept that girls can excel”, says Samkeliso Tshuma, the founder of The Girls Table, an NGO in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, that promotes girls’ rights. Most girls drop out of school before teachers even know they are pregnant.

The minority who persevere soon run into other barriers. When a girl called Happiness became pregnant at 15, she told her parents: “I’m not stopping school.” They supported her until she failed her exams, a month after giving birth. They didn’t have enough money to pay for her to resit them, so she lost the chance to get the highest school-leaving certificate which would have qualified her for entry to a university.

The average rural household spends $3.23 a month on education. For Zimbabweans living below the poverty line (38% of them in 2019, up from 23% in 2011), that is quite a chunk of their income. In the first half of this year more than half of children were turned away from school because of non-payment of fees. Pregnant girls are often the first to lose out. And school can be a hostile place for them. Some complain that boys tease them, saying they smell of milk.

Iran’s protests spread, as a notorious prison burns

The terror was worst for those trapped in solitary cells the size of tables. The fire began in a basement sewing workshop and spread through Evin prison, which was crammed with protesters detained in the past month of unrest. Guards fired tear-gas and bullets into the smoke to force back those trying to escape. They shot at prisoners who had climbed onto the roof to breathe—and to chant against their jailers. Beyond Evin’s walls, Iranians in their thousands echoed their cries and honked their car horns.

No Iranian prison is as notorious as Evin. For 50 years it has been the holding pen, interrogation centre and gallows of the state’s political prisoners. It lies at the base of the Alborz mountains, casting a shadow over the capital below. The fire billowing inside it lit up the city and evoked the torching of the Rex Cinema, back in the summer of 1978, when the death of more than 470 people in the building as a result of an arson attack triggered the Islamic revolution that overthrew the shah.

Today’s authorities quenched the fire, quelled the protests and insisted that “the Bastille project had failed”, a reference to the storming of the Parisian prison at the start of the French revolution of 1789. Officially only eight died in Evin. Clerics and regime loyalists, who initially ignored the protests, now openly denounce them as a movement bent on sweeping them aside. The mayhem in their citadel left many wondering about the strength of their hold on power. The ayatollahs initially treated the protests with cold disdain. That has given way to fevered warnings of American and Israeli plots. And the protesters, as their confidence grows, are issuing communiqués demanding a transitional government to replace the theocracy.

Big events in the Middle East often have small beginnings. The first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, began after a road accident. The Arab spring erupted after a policeman confiscated a Tunisian peddler’s cart. Last month Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, died after police detained her for improperly wearing her hijab on a trip to Tehran, the capital. “No one thought there would be anything more than limited protests,” says Sadegh Zibakalam, a politics professor at Tehran university. “But the dissent hasn’t calmed down. It’s escalating like a volcano.”

The protest is led by a generation that many had assumed was too young to care, hooked on its screens and seemingly disconnected from society. Students had largely stayed out of previous bouts of unrest—for instance the disturbances in 2019 against price rises. But Ms Amini’s death roused a generation fuming at a fresh tightening of the dress code. This time the protesters are versed in the social norms of their peers worldwide; many are hungry for a night out clubbing (and not of the police-baton sort). Tired of the clerics’ insistence on gender segregation, women burnt their veils, publicly shaved their hair and lunched in men-only canteens on university campuses. They shouted “death to the dictator” during school-assembly renditions of loyalist hymns like “Hello, commander”. And in contrast to previous protests, which were followed by many activists fleeing abroad, they refused to stop in the face of water-cannon, gunfire and mass arrests. “No retreat from the government, so no retreat from the people,” says a female student at Tehran university.

Increasingly, traditionalists in chadors and full headscarves, who used to comprise the regime’s base, have joined the protests. Scenes of state violence against women have offended religious women steeped in Shia Islam’s narrative of martyrdom and holy struggle, says Shirin Saeidi, an author on Iranian gender politics. Protests have spread from cosmopolitan cities to provincial towns which the clerics considered their heartland. “We don’t want a regime that kills children,” cried protesters in Ardabil, a quiet city 580km north-west of Tehran, after a local 16-year-old girl was reportedly beaten to death for refusing to sing a pro-regime song in her classroom. All-female universities designed to recruit the next generation of ideologues have come out in protest, too. “Get lost!” shouted girls at al-Zahra, a women’s university favoured by the regime’s elite, when Iran’s hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, came to visit.

The regime seems divided over how to respond. “One school of thought says we should have dealt with the protests more ruthlessly from the beginning to prevent them gathering pace. The other says if we’d crushed them they would only have come back more severely three months later,” says Mr Zibakalam. “Neither side has the upper hand.” The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has appealed for greater solidarity between the people and the security forces.

But many regime insiders, including prominent businessmen and politicians, have kept a studied silence. Some, including Ali Larijani, an influential and long-standing former speaker of parliament, have openly called for the police and the security forces to stop enforcing the mandatory veil. “It should have a cultural solution,” he told the official newspaper, Ettellat. Some are even siding with the protesters. “They kicked my head and my face…They pushed me into a van…and punched me in the face,” Javad Mogoi, a hitherto loyalist documentary film-maker, wrote on his Instagram page, after he tried to stop the security forces beating a girl.

The regime is also divided over how to respond to growing international support, albeit rhetorical, for the protests. Some favour dangling the prospect of an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme in the hope of persuading Western governments to ease off. Others want to play up the supposed threat of foreign interference to unify the ranks at home. Mr Khamenei rails against foreign plots. His officials rattle sabres at Iran’s oil-rich neighbours, further unsettling global energy markets. In mid-October the regime’s praetorian guard, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, staged war games on the border with neighbouring Azerbaijan, threatened to fire more missiles into Iraqi Kurdistan and claimed to have struck the Omar oilfield, controlled by American forces in eastern Syria. “I warn the al-Saud regime to control their media or the smoke will get into your eyes,” said Hossein Salami, the Revolutionary Guards’ chief.

As the fog grows inside the regime, the curtain of fear that has shrouded opposition seems to be lifting. Normally reticent academics are voicing acerbic criticism. A female Iranian athlete has broken with state policy by competing internationally without a veil. And on October 14th a manifesto for a peaceful transition to a democratic, secular government went viral on social media. In the words of the Tehran university student, “This time it’s the government that seems so scared.”

Middle Eastern countries are sitting on an ocean of natural gas

It is rare for the Israeli government to agree with Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia militia and political party. But in effect it did on October 11th, after months of American-led talks. As The Economist was published, a deal with Lebanon was awaiting review in Israel’s parliament.

This is not peace in our time: although the deal demarcates Israel’s maritime border with Lebanon it will not end the long state of war between them. But it is striking, and timely for the West, because it may unlock new gas resources that Europe desperately needs to replace supplies from Russia that have been disrupted since its invasion of Ukraine.

Nine of the 20 countries with the largest proven gas reserves are in the wider region. Qatar, the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), plans to increase its production by 43% by 2026. Israel and Lebanon hope their maritime deal will mean new discoveries in the once-disputed waters. Hours after it was clinched, bigwigs from TotalEnergies, a French giant, met Lebanese officials. Earlier this month Energean, a British firm, started running tests at Israel’s Karish field near the border.

Yet a mix of geopolitics and poor governance makes it hard to exploit those resources. Simply getting the stuff to market can be tricky. There is little capacity to transport it from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe. A pipeline has been mooted for years. It could take a short route north to Turkey and link up with existing conduits to the European Union. But to do so it would have to cross Cypriot territory, which is politically fraught. Or it could stretch all the way to Greece, and perhaps onwards to Italy. But that would require the world’s longest undersea pipeline and take the better part of a decade to finish.

For now, that leaves liquefaction. Egypt has two LNG plants on its Mediterranean coast. Israel and Lebanon have none; Egypt has been importing gas from Israel in order to re-export it. Even running at full tilt its LNG plants can supply only 2% of Europe’s total demand (and 6% of what it used to import from Russia). Expanding capacity will take years.

Other countries are struggling to boost production. Algeria, Europe’s third-largest gas supplier, will enjoy record revenue this year. Sonatrach, the state-owned oil-and-gas giant, expects to earn $50bn from energy exports, up from $35bn last year. The windfall comes from higher prices, not higher production. Sonatrach has signed some big deals with Eni, an Italian oil major, to boost capacity. But many of its big projects will not come online before 2024.

Iraqi oil wells produce lots of natural gas but lack the infrastructure to process it. Around half is flared. In 2020 the country burned almost 18bn cubic metres of natural gas, equivalent to about 5% of Europe’s annual consumption. Researchers at Columbia University estimate that flared gas in north Africa alone could replace 15% of Europe’s imports from Russia—if it can be captured.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to exports, though, is soaring domestic demand for gas (see chart). In Egypt, for example, it has risen by 35% since 2015. A fast-growing population—which hit 104m in September and adds 1m people every seven months—needs ever more electricity from gas-fired plants. The government has also urged motorists to switch fuels: many of Cairo’s ubiquitous white taxis now run on compressed natural gas rather than petrol.

Here, too, governments are belatedly taking action. Algeria is installing new combined-cycle gas-power stations, which can produce about 50% more electricity from the same amount of fuel. The national regulator reckons they will account for 55% of installed capacity by 2028, up from 23% in 2018.

Egypt, meanwhile, is urging businesses to cut consumption to free up gas for export. Such measures have rankled some Egyptians, who grumble about being told to turn off their lights so that Europeans can turn up the heat.

Hamas ponders whether to cosy up to Syria’s brutal despot

As Syria’s bloodstained regime seeks to return to the Arab fold after a decade of civil war that isolated it from most of its counterparts in the region, Hamas, the Palestinians’ Islamist movement, is arguing bitterly with itself. One faction wants to re-engage with President Bashar al-Assad and re-establish Hamas’s former main external base in Damascus, Syria’s capital. The other faction, mindful of Mr Assad’s brutal suppression of Hamas’s local allies during the civil war, wants to keep on steering clear of his regime. This reflects Hamas’s perennial attitude towards Israel. Should it stick to its long-standing official aim of expunging the Jewish state from the region, or explore some form of coexistence, perhaps under a truce of negotiable length?

Hamas left Syria in 2012, closing its Damascus office in protest against Mr Assad’s massacres of its fellow Sunni Muslims, particularly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, with which Hamas is closely aligned. The idea of reopening Hamas’s office and re-establishing formal ties has caused uproar in the movement.

Two of its bosses, Yahya Sinwar, who was elected to lead the government of the Gaza Strip, and Ismail Haniyeh, who heads Hamas’s politburo, have backed the impending visit of a high-level Hamas delegation to Damascus. But its former political leader, Khaled Meshal, who is trying to rebuild ties with the main Sunni Arab countries, is against it.

Such discussions are usually conducted in secret but have burst into the open. On September 16th Nawaf Takruri, a member of Hamas’s founding generation, used social media to attack any move towards a regime that “continues to practise all forms of crime and murder against the Syrian and Palestinian peoples”.

Hamas’s position is shaky. Within the Palestinian territories it still vies for primacy with the secular Fatah movement, which runs the West Bank under Israel’s say-so from its administrative headquarters in Ramallah, close to Jerusalem. Since bloodily wresting control of Gaza from Fatah in 2007 after winning an election two years earlier, Hamas has been isolated within its fief under a blockade imposed by both Israel and Egypt. So it has been vital for Hamas to have a headquarters outside.

Few Arab countries are willing to host it. Hamas is banned in the West as a terrorist organisation. Its ideological roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, which helped inspire the revolutions that swept across the region over a decade ago, damn it in the eyes of most of the regimes of the Gulf and north Africa. To appease Egypt’s regime, Hamas agreed to renounce its allegiance to the Brotherhood, but it has struggled to regain support elsewhere in the Arab world.

Since leaving Damascus, the group’s leaders have drifted mainly between Turkey and Qatar. But Turkey is mending fences with Israel, Qatar with its anti-Islamist Gulf neighbours. So Damascus may be a safer haven again. Mr Sinwar stays mostly in Gaza, with occasional sorties to Cairo. Messrs Haniyeh and Meshal are often in Qatar, sometimes in Lebanon. Before the civil war Syria allowed a degree of freedom for proclaimed “resistance” groups like Hamas and provided a hub where both radical Sunni and Shia movements got military and financial aid, often from Iran.

Moving away from Syria meant that Hamas depended less on Iran, which remained Mr Assad’s chief backer until Russia came to his rescue in 2015. A senior Sunni cleric who died last month, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian Islamist based in Qatar, published a fatwa telling Sunni Muslims to fight a holy war against Mr Assad and his Iranian-backed fighters in Syria. But as Mr Assad emerged victorious from the war, some Hamas leaders have been seeking a rapprochement with him.

Although Hamas on paper still seeks to win back all of Israel by arms, its followers are wary of embarking on another intifada, or uprising. Some Hamas leaders have floated the possibility of a hudna, or long-term truce with Israel, in return for lifting the blockade of Gaza. This is at the heart of the tension within Hamas over its attitude to Syria and Iran. Can it operate effectively within a region that is increasingly coming to terms with Israel, while it sticks to its radical Islamist roots?

African governments hope digital taxes will fill a budget hole

The digital economy is bringing Africans together. The same cannot be said for attempts to tax it. Levies on mobile and internet services have sparked street protests in Uganda, cabinet squabbles in Nigeria and a parliamentary brawl in Ghana. In August Congolese officials even confiscated the passports of telecoms executives to try to make them cough up.

African governments are willing to take unpopular measures because they need to fill a hole in their coffers. In the worst months of the pandemic their tax take fell by an average of 15%, even as spending rose. They have long struggled to collect income taxes, relying instead on taxes on goods and services for about half of their revenues. Now they see untapped potential in new sectors which barely existed 20 years ago, including social media, e-commerce, mobile internet and mobile money.

One priority of governments everywhere is to ensure that non-resident businesses pay their share: if the likes of Netflix and Amazon have customers in Africa, they should be taxed there too. A global tax deal was agreed to by 130 countries last year with the aim of forcing multinational companies to pay more tax in the places where they make their sales, irrespective of where they register their assets.

But many African countries worry it is too complex and would be difficult to implement in countries with low administrative capacity, says Thulani Shongwe of the African Tax Administration Forum, a network of tax officials. The revenue gained may barely be worth the effort. The biggest sceptics are Kenya and Nigeria, which have imposed their own taxes on digital services—exactly the kind of unilateral measures that a global deal is designed to avoid. African countries have proposed that a tax convention be developed at the un, where they hope to have more of a say.

Another focus is how to tax telecoms firms, which are big players in often uncompetitive markets. “There is a high likelihood that sector is undertaxed, even if they say they’re not,” says Adrienne Lees of the International Centre for Tax and Development, a research institution based in Britain. Rather than go after corporate profits, which can be massaged by accountants, many governments have taken the simpler step of taxing individual transactions. Ghana’s e-levy, in force since May, imposes a 1.5% tax on most electronic money transfers, such as those that citizens zap through their phones. Cameroon brought in a similar charge in January. Nigeria is considering a 5% levy on calls, messages and mobile internet.

Even small taxes can lead to big changes in behaviour. In Uganda the total value of mobile-money transactions dropped by a quarter when the state imposed a 1% tax on them in 2018, taking 18 months to recover. One effect was that wealthier users switched to traditional banking services. Some poorer ones turned to cash. Opponents of new taxes argue that they drive activity back into the shadows. Juliet Anammah of Jumia, a pan-African e-commerce firm launched in Nigeria, points out that many governments are trying to encourage traceable transactions at the same time as they are trying to tax them.

These levies are new and very visible, and taxpayers are pushing back. Last month the Tanzanian government scrapped levies on some types of electronic transactions after a public outcry, including a legal challenge from activist lawyers. In Malawi the government gave up its plans for a mobile-money tax in 2019 after business and civil-society groups criticised the idea. This kind of messy bargaining could eventually strengthen the contract between citizens and states.

An obvious worry is that these processes could be short-circuited if autocratic governments use internet taxes to stifle dissent. In 2018 Uganda slapped a daily levy of 200 shillings ($0.05) on social-media use. The number of Twitter users dropped by 13% as a result, according to a study by Levi Boxell of Stanford University and Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld of University of California Los Angeles. But there was a twist: the number of tweets about protests and rallies increased. Like death, taxes are certain. Their effects are not.

The Arab world’s rulers have turned journalists into courtiers

All it took was a report comparing price rises in the United Arab Emirates (uae) with cheaper petrol available in neighbouring Oman. Almost immediately the article in Al Roeya was removed from the newspaper’s website. Its owner, a brother of the uae’s president, sacked the editor and dozens of journalists. Within weeks the newspaper was closed down. “If you are working in a government institution you have to toe the institution’s line,” explained a uae government flack. Across the Arab world it is increasingly true that the only permissible news is good news.

This was not always so. For decades regimes in Egypt, Jordan and some Gulf states tolerated the existence of an independent press, albeit a hobbled one. Some rulers reckoned it provided a safety-valve and helped gauge public opinion. “We wrote about corrupt arms deals, local support for jihadists and the suppression of women’s rights,” recalls a nostalgic Saudi journalist of the 1990s.

No longer. The despots who swept back the Arab spring of 2011 have cajoled and intimidated the last of the independent Arab press, reducing journalists to mere mouthpieces. The last checks on their unfettered power have been silenced. “The art of journalism is disappearing,” laments a seasoned Egyptian journalist. “An officer oversees your work, so you just have to adjust and write about the leader’s great projects—his bridges and roads.”

For sure, those Arab regimes of yore had censors and policemen to rattle the press and—if need be—to jam foreign broadcasts. But they did not dictate headlines, coverage and editorials as thoroughly as they do today. Regimes also buy up advertising agencies so that wayward newspapers can instantly be deprived of revenue. As funds have dried up, governments or their friends have snapped up independent outlets—or let them fold.

Some regimes have brought in laws banning news that is deemed to disturb social stability. Journalists are hounded with spyware such as Pegasus, an Israeli-made system that lets government agents hack into their communications. And more journalists, as a last resort, are simply being locked up. Egypt, for instance, is the world’s third-largest jailer of journalists. Independent-minded reporters in the Arab world sometimes fear for their lives. The killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist, scared many of his peers into silence, reckons the Committee to Protect Journalists, a watchdog.

Wealthy Arab regimes have long bankrolled media outlets in return for sycophantic coverage. They included Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Libya under Muammar Qaddafi. But the fall of such tyrants and the shakiness of others in the region has left three Gulf states—Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the uae—dominating the pan-Arab market. Lebanon, whose capital, Beirut, was once the media centre of the Arab world, is too broke to invest in big-time newspapers any more.

Meanwhile some influential foreign broadcasters are retreating. On September 30th the bbc said it was ending 82 years of transmission by its Arabic radio service, once regarded as the gold standard for objective journalism in the region. Other Western-owned outlets, such as Bloomberg, Sky News and the British-owned Independent newspaper, are arranging partnerships with Gulf regimes. The publisher of Al Roeya said the company would team up with cnn, an American TV giant.

For over a century émigré Arab journalists, if conditions were intolerable at home, found a haven in the West. After civil war in the 1970s engulfed Lebanon, London became the Arab world’s media capital. But Arab governments are now bringing the London-based media back home, the better to control them. In recent months Al Arab, a newspaper, and Al Ghad, a satellite TV channel, both Emirati-financed, have left London. And in August, the Qatari-owned satellite channel, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, with a staff of 350, shut its London headquarters to relocate in Doha, Qatar’s capital. Two years ago the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat, once regarded as a newspaper of record for the Arab diaspora, closed down.

“Hires in most of the Arab world would have to do what you tell them to,” says Abdulrahman ElShayyal, until recently Al-Araby Al-Jadeed’s boss. “Editors behave like government ministers.” Al Arabiya, one of the biggest TV channels in the region, is being hauled back by its mainly Saudi owner from the uae’s media centre in Dubai to Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

So standards slip. Demoralised editors copy-and-paste press releases as if they were news. Television presenters are palpably nervous about departing from the official text. Many journalists also succumb to the temptation of high salaries and awards. In past years 40% of the world’s journalists killed on the job have been in the Middle East, many of them local reporters. Recently they have tended to keep out of harm’s way while reporting. And though many free-minded journalists are behind bars, the number in the region has been declining as the muzzles tighten.

Circulation and audience figures tend to be treated as state secrets, so it is unclear whether ratings have slumped as programmes become more anodyne. But it is a fair bet that they have. Arab Barometer, a mainly American-funded pollster, reckons that Al Jazeera, once the market leader renowned for its fearlessness, is now the preferred news channel in only four out of 12 Arab countries. “Arabs are deserting the mainstream media,” says Abdel Bari Atwan, a veteran campaigning Palestinian journalist still living in London.

Sportswasherama

Governments are delighted to note that their citizens are far more attracted to programmes of entertainment and sport than current affairs. Coverage of Palestine, which once drew large audiences, has slipped down their bulletins. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which is hosting the football World Cup next month, have invested heavily in sports. The Saudi-owned mbc Group, the Arab world’s largest entertainment provider, is showing no fewer than 35 TV soap operas simultaneously.

Arabs still concerned with politics in their rocky region now look for news through unfiltered social media. Figures from YouTube show that Mr Atwan’s weekly one-man show attracts 600,000 viewers, far outstripping most of Al Jazeera’s broadcasts on the same platform. Rulers might yet regret silencing the fourth estate, predicts Abdelaziz AlKhamis, a Saudi journalist. “If you can’t alert leaders to the anger and problems in society, another Arab spring might surprise them again.”

Despite lethal repression, Iran’s protests continue

Every evening at 10pm Mahvash, a university student, opens the window of her fifth-floor flat and starts yelling. Neighbours take up her refrain of “Women, Life, Freedom!”. Soon her chants against Iran’s theocracy are echoing from block to block above the riot police below—and spreading across Tehran, the capital. Some wear masks to avoid identification. Many switch off the lights. Almost all the voices are women’s. “Blood that is spilled unfairly will boil until the end of time,” runs an old Persian saying, now back in fashion.

Almost a month after protests erupted at the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman detained by the morality police for showing too much hair, Iran’s ayatollahs are still struggling to keep order. Unrest has spread across the country, prompting strikes in some bazaars and oil installations. State news bulletins which ignored the protests now denounce them as foreign plots. And in an effort to regain full control the ayatollahs have reinforced the police with units of ideological paramilitaries known as the Basij. The loyalty of the army, which has stayed on the sidelines, has yet to be tested.

When the protests began on September 16th, the regime pulled back its morality squads and let the police take over. Some clubbed unveiled female heads. As more headscarves came off, they resorted first to tasers and then water cannon, tear gas and sometimes air rifles. But that only brought out men to defend the women. Some protesters dragged policemen from their ranks and kicked them. In several towns the police fled under a hail of stones.

With the interior ministry’s forces humiliated, the ayatollahs have increasingly turned to the Basij. Unlike the police, they answer to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the ayatollahs’ praetorian guard. Some are plain-clothed. Others wear black or battle dress and patrol on motorbikes. Many carry pistols and, increasingly often, machineguns. The IRGC is also using its intelligence agencies to raid homes of suspected activists, seize their phones and make arrests. It has circulated text messages urging informers to report dissident activity.

Fear has punctured the protesters’ initial euphoria. In the first days of protest, many security people wore masks to hide their identities. Now the protesters do. The Basijis have smashed and closed cafés where activists used to congregate. Revolutionary courts run by clerics pass summary sentences. Mohsen Amiryousefi, head of the cinema directors’ association, was jailed for two years after signing a petition that appealed for three members to be freed. So full are the prisons that warehouses have been requisitioned as detention centres. Passers-by report hearing screams from them. Many activists in Tehran admit to being paralysed by paranoia. Some have fled to the mountains.

But though large gatherings have subsided, protests continue. After weeks without leaders, groups with names like Youth of Tehran Neighbourhoods have emerged, announcing the timing of protests. Schools and college campuses remain hives of dissent. Students waving headscarves chanted against Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s ruthless president, when he visited Tehran’s al-Zahra university on October 8th. Schoolgirls in Tehran chased away visiting officials. Anti-regime graffiti scar the side streets. The average age of the protesters, according to an IRGC commander, is 15. A human-rights group in Norway reckons that 23 of the 200-plus protesters so far killed were children.

Provincial cities that were quiet in previous bouts of unrest have joined in. Witnesses have described battle scenes in areas where unrest has been most intense: in Ms Amini’s Kurdish homeland in the west and in Sistan and Baluchistan in the east. Videos taken in Sanandaj, a Kurdish town, showed gaping holes in houses that could have been made by machineguns.

But if this series of revolts is to grow into a full-scale revolution, new ingredients will have to be poured into the cauldron. Most businessmen remain cautious. “No one wants another Syria,” says one, referring to an uprising that became a civil war. Many employers say they face mounting pressure from their staff to tweet support for the protesters. Tehran’s two main bazaars, instrumental in the revolution that overthrew the shah in 1979, have both staged intermittent strikes in the past week. On October 10th oil workers demonstrated in Abadan and Asaluyeh, two southern towns that are crucial to Iran’s oil and gas production. Officials played it down as a dispute over pay, but the workers chanted “Death to the dictator”.

After weeks of studious silence, some senior clerics are breaking rank and urging their supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to heed the voice of the people. So far, the main institutions of the Islamic state, underpinned by the IRGC and the Basij, have stood firm. But if the students keep going, if businessmen start to wobble, and if cracks were to appear in the army, the revolt could enter a new phase.

Peter Obi, a man who carries his own suitcases, could be Nigeria’s next president

“This is a case of Goliath and David,” says Peter Obi, a long-shot candidate who has unexpectedly taken the lead in the race to become president of Africa’s most populous country and its biggest economy. “The big people are there, but allow this small person to do it. And I know I can do it.”

As public campaigning was about to begin in late September, Nigeria was rocked by the release of three polls showing Mr Obi well ahead of the two candidates representing the main parties that have mis-ruled Nigeria since the restoration of its democracy in 1999. In two of the polls Mr Obi has a lead of more than 15 percentage points over Bola Tinubu, of the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC), and Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the main opposition. What makes this even more extraordinary is that Mr Obi is standing for the Labour Party, whose candidate at the previous presidential election in 2019 won just 5,074 votes out of 28m cast.

Mr Obi’s sudden ascent represents a rare chance for Nigeria. The country ought to be rich: it has huge reserves of oil, gas and other minerals, plenty of fertile land and a young population of go-getters. Yet Nigerians are poorer today than they were ten years ago and 40% of them survive on less than $1.90 a day.

The reasons why Nigeria is poor are rotten politics, bad governance and corruption. Politicians in Nigeria have long stirred up ethnic and religious divisions by promising to direct state resources to members of their own group. Once in power they have pursued contorted economic policies such as a fixed exchange rate and massive fuel subsidies. Some policies seem to make sense only as a way of allowing cronies to siphon off cash.

Neither of the two main candidates contesting the presidential election scheduled for February offers much hope for change. Mr Abubakar, a former customs official turned tycoon, was accused alongside his wife in 2010 by a US Senate committee report of being linked to the transfer of $40m in “suspect funds” to America. (He denies wrongdoing). Mr Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos state, had his assets frozen in the 1990s by the American government, which alleged it had probable cause to believe the money was linked to drugs. Mr Tinubu, who has also denied wrongdoing, reached a settlement with the American government whereby he agreed to forfeit $460,000.

There are, of course, no guarantees that Mr Obi would break the kleptocracy that is throttling Nigeria: the country’s political system has a habit of corrupting even those who start out with the best of intentions. But if he were to sustain his lead until the election in February, he would be the first politician in decades to show that a new sort of politics is possible in Nigeria. If he is able to keep energising young, urban voters across the country’s main divides of religion, geography and ethnicity, he may well redraw Nigeria’s electoral map. And by making this election about competence, character and perhaps even ideas, Mr Obi promises to upend the old electoral calculus, which was based on horse-trading to form majorities between politicians who gathered votes mainly among their coreligionists or ethnic groups.

In many ways, Mr Obi seems an unlikely revolutionary. He is rich, like many of Nigeria’s political elite. (Unlike many other wealthy Nigerian politicians, Mr Obi seems to have made his money before taking office or working for the government.) He is also no political outsider, having served two terms as governor of Anambra state until 2014 and then standing as Mr Abubakar’s vice-presidential candidate in 2019.

Here the similarities end. As an energetic 61-year-old Mr Obi stands in sharp contrast to the 75-year-old Mr Abubakar and to Mr Tinubu, who though just a decade older was recently forced to respond to widespread rumours of ill health by posting a video of himself pedalling an exercise bicycle on Twitter, saying: “Many have said I have died; others claim I have withdrawn from the presidential campaign. Well… Nope.” Mr Obi, on the other hand, has a vigorous social-media operation with a vast, passionate following, and is strikingly open to interviews.

Mr Obi’s surging popularity is due, above all, to perceptions of his character. In a country cursed by politicians of extraordinary ego and entourage, his supporters marvel that as governor Mr Obi queued at airports holding his own luggage . He also slashed the size of his motorcade when he found that 13 of the cars were empty, he says. This not only plays well with young voters, but also annoys his rivals. Kashim Shettima, Mr Tinubu’s running-mate, grumbles that Mr Obi “tends to glamorise poverty” by claiming to own only one watch. (Mr Shettima, who likes smart watches, says he “has more than two or three”.)

Frugality is relative in Nigerian politics. The Economist interviewed Mr Obi in his suite in the most plush hotel in Abuja, the capital (it is also one of the most secure), though at least Mr Obi was free of the hordes of hangers-on who typically surround Nigerian bigwigs. His running-mate, Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed, is also far from poor.

When asked what distinguishes him most from the other two major candidates Mr Obi replies: “Who can people trust?” He promises to deliver and not to steal. Yet he too has faced some questions over his financial affairs. The Pandora Papers, a large set of leaks to the press of records from financial companies, revealed that Mr Obi owned an undeclared offshore company in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven. He also reportedly failed to declare all his assets or immediately relinquish control of all his companies, as required by the law, upon becoming governor. Mr Obi claimed at the time that he did not know he had to declare assets held jointly with his family and that he did relinquish control of the company in question, but that an error meant it was not enacted for 14 months.

To try to show that the money in those companies was earned before he entered politics, Mr Obi pulls out stacks of letters from his bank in London showing the scale of his lines of business credit in the 1990s. In any case, he argues, his rivals are very rich, too. “What is their source of wealth?” he asks. Context matters. “Relative to the field…he is a saint, more or less,” says Ebenezer Obadare of the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank New York. Though that does not necessarily make him “clean”, he adds.

Mr Obi also wants to run on competence. He emphasises that he left a fiscal surplus to his successor as governor⁠—a rarity. Anambra’s score on the Human Development Index, a measure of income, education and life expectancy, was falling when Mr Obi entered office in 2006. It bottomed out by 2008, with Anambra ranked 8th among Nigeria’s states. By the time he left office in 2014, Anambra had leapt to third place, trailing only the capital and Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. Between 2006 and 2012, Onitsha, the biggest city in the state, was in the top 50 of 750 cities worldwide for the rate of private-sector job growth, according to the World Bank.

Mr Obi is disappointingly less keen to emphasise his proposed policies as president. “We’re all going to come up with the same products but which of these brands will you trust?” he says. Still, improving security is his “number one priority”. It ought to be. Over the past eight years under President Muhammadu Buhari, jihadist terrorists have terrorised Nigeria’s north-east. Violence in the south-east, often attributed to Igbo separatists, has surged, as has crime. Gangs known locally as bandits killed 2,600 people last year.

To restore order Mr Obi promises to expand the security forces and equip them better. Structurally he proposes giving states and local governments the power to have their own police officers, rather than rely solely on federal forces. He is also willing to talk to armed groups that have political demands such as the Indigenous People of Biafra, a separatist group in his own south-eastern region.

When it comes to the economy, his instincts appear liberal. “There is a lot of government involved where the private sector should be,” he says. Nigeria’s petrol subsidies will eat up more than federal spending on health, education and welfare combined. Mr Obi promises to get rid of these handouts: “Fifty per cent of it is corruption, you deal with it immediately.” The rest could take three or six months, he says. Yet the Labour Party has close ties with unions, many of which have repeatedly opposed subsidy reform. “I’m not going to make promises I’m not going to fulfil,” he insists. When it comes to the currency Mr Obi’s liberalism wears thin. He is not in favour of letting the naira float freely, though he says he would allow the official rate to move closer to the black-market one.

Frugality also shapes his attitude to debt. “We want to borrow strictly for investment, if need be—if at all!” he says, criticising Nigeria’s rising debts to China. Yet thrift alone is unlikely to solve Nigeria’s problems. Federal government spending is just 6% of GDP. Even with more efficient spending, there will not be enough cash to tackle Nigeria’s enormous infrastructure needs. Increasing Nigeria’s paltry tax take is crucial, but goes largely unmentioned by Mr Obi.

Can Mr Obi pull it off? His supporters think so. “I am an Obi-dient man,” laughs Kingsley Onwe, a trader selling tomato paste at a street market outside Abuja. Mr Onwe is not advertising general deference to authority. “Obi-dients” is the nickname for Mr Obi’s supporters. His rivals are, however, dismissive. “We’re not bothered about him,” says Dino Melaye, Mr Abubakar’s campaign spokesman. The vituperative attack that the former senator launches suggests otherwise. In his telling, Mr Obi is a “deceptive character” who has a “plethora of allegations against him”. For good measure he adds that Mr Obi “knows himself that he cannot win it but he sees it as an avenue to make money.” Should your correspondent want to talk more about running for office to make money, Mr Melaye (who enjoys posing with his collection of Ferraris and Lamborghinis) leaves his business card: a metallic-gold one that looks like a credit card.

Even if the polls are accurate—the large share of undecided voters suggests the outcome is still in flux—Mr Obi will still have to clear several hurdles on the path to becoming president. The first relates to the rules. In order to avoid a run-off, the winning candidate must not only have the most votes. They must also get more than 25% in each of at least two-thirds of the country’s 36 states and capital territory. Doing so, admits Mr Baba-Ahmed, may be challenging, particularly in ten northern states that have tended to swing for northern and Muslim candidates whereas Mr Obi is a Christian from the south.

Mr Shettima, the ruling party’s vice-presidential candidate, is also dismissive of Mr Obi’s chances in the north. The former governor of the northern state of Borno, suggests asking northerners about Mr Obi, saying they will think “he is either a musician or a footballer”. From doing just that it is clear that Mr Shettima is exaggerating. On the streets of Kano, the biggest city in the north, enormous billboards of Mr Tinubu and Mr Abubakar loom large. Mr Obi’s image is all but absent and at his Kano headquarters a broken billboard was leaning against a fence. No one but a toothy guard was present. Despite this, some polls show him running second in the north.

Even so, Kano illustrates a second risk to Mr Obi’s campaign. The Labour Party he represents will not have candidates on dozens of ballots for seats in the Senate and 130 seats in the House of Representatives. This means it will have to convince voters to break with habit and cast their votes “skirt and blouse” (backing one party for president and another for the other races). Moreover, the party has few members, no state governors and just one senator. Usually governors and senators help funnel cash (both legitimately donated and less so) to campaigns and rustle up the tens of thousands of party lackeys who go out to persuade, bully or bribe people to vote for their parties candidate.

Mr Melaye of the PDP explains with disarming frankness why these structures matter. “In every catchment area you have people who are the owners of the voters,” he says, without blushing. Mr Baba-Ahmed gamely puts a brave face on the Labour Party’s weakness, saying that it will allow him and Mr Obi to govern cleanly because they will not be beholden to bigwigs. That may be so, but they have to win first.

In a bid to do so, Mr Obi is trying to tackle vote-buying head on. “I tell people every day, the money people are sharing is just stolen money, it is not their money,” he says, “That’s why people are dying in hospitals. That’s why there are no roads.” This election will be a test of whether the old way of doing politics has been superseded by one based on individual choice and direct appeals to the public.

The third risk to Mr Obi’s campaign is outright rigging. Mr Obi himself plays down such fears. Recent reforms to the vote-counting process should make ballot-stuffing harder this time. Yet Mr Baba-Ahmed is “not confident” the vote will be free and fair. Some activists share these concerns. Ayisha Osori of the Open Society Foundations, an advocacy and philanthropy group, thinks the ruling APC will try to depress turnout in areas where Mr Obi is strong. Doing so could spark conflict. “If they decide to humiliate [Obi] and have a blatantly rigged, violent election, I’m really worried about what people will do,” she says. Mr Obi himself brushes off the idea his supporters might react angrily to a defeat. He is simply focused on winning. “I’m saying I’m better, I’m saying I can do it better,” he insists. “Trust me.” Right now at least, many do.