fb image 3262 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

Israel apparently strikes an Iranian nuclear facility—again

fb image 3262 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

ON APRIL 10TH Iran had two occasions for cheer. One was the resumption of talks, earlier in the week, in Vienna to revive the multinational nuclear deal that Donald Trump, then America’s president, abandoned in 2018. The other was the celebration of National Nuclear Technology Day, which featured performers dressed as nuclear scientists, huddled around centrifuges at Natanz, a facility in Isfahan province, singing paeans to Iran’s scientific prowess. Iranian officials announced they had finally rebuilt part of the facility struck by a mysterious explosion last year.

Then a day later, Natanz went boom again.

A “terrorist act” caused a power failure at the site on April 11th, according to Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s atomic-energy commission (pictured, right, with President Hassan Rouhani). There was a “small explosion”, said the commission’s spokesman. Other reports suggest that the explosion was actually rather large, destroying the power source for the centrifuges, machines which spin uranium to extract fissile isotopes suitable for use in reactors or, if concentrated enough, in bombs. Iranian officials blamed Israel. In contrast with previous incidents, Israeli intelligence officials quickly acknowledged to reporters that Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, was indeed involved.

It is not yet clear whether the incident was a cyber-attack, like the American-Israeli Stuxnet worm which ravaged the same centrifuges a decade ago, or a physical act of sabotage involving explosives placed by operatives on the ground. Because Iranian facilities are thought to be “air-gapped”, or disconnected from the wider internet, even a cyber-attack would probably have required agents to gain access to the site. Iran’s intelligence ministry claims to have identified, but not yet arrested, an individual involved, according to Abas Aslani, an Iranian journalist and analyst.

What is clear is that Mossad has shown astonishing freedom of manoeuvre on Iranian soil. In 2018 it pulled off an audacious heist from a warehouse in Tehran of thousands of documents (half a ton of material) related to Iran’s nuclear programme. Last year it was blamed for a series of attacks and explosions on missile and nuclear sites, including Natanz, and two high-profile assassinations in or around Tehran: that of Abu Muhammad al-Masri, an Al-Qaeda operative, in August; and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s most senior nuclear scientist, in November.

Beyond Iran, Israel has intensified air strikes against Iranian and Iran-backed forces in Syria and, more recently, Iraq. Israeli forces have also attacked Iranian ships to disrupt Iranian oil exports and arms shipments. Israel is increasingly open about what it calls this “campaign between the wars”: after an attack on an Iranian vessel stationed in the Red Sea on April 6th reporters were invited to film training at the base of the Israeli naval commando unit thought to be behind the operation.

Israel would have ample motivation for striking Natanz again. On April 10th Iran had begun testing IR-9 centrifuges, 50 times faster than the ageing IR-1s that make up most of the capacity at Natanz. Since January, Iran has also acquired 55kg of uranium enriched to 20% purity, nine-tenths of the way to weapons-grade. The combination of more centrifuges, faster ones and a larger stockpile of uranium, some of it enriched to 20%, is gradually shrinking the time that it would take Iran to produce a bomb’s worth of highly-enriched uranium, were it to seek to do so. The Iranian regime hopes to use these advances as leverage to force America to re-enter the nuclear deal and lift sanctions, which have contributed to soaring inflation in Iran.

President Joe Biden has said that he wants to do so, but in recent months America and Iran have each demanded that the other take the first step. The talks in Vienna suggested that this impasse was being broken. What is not clear is whether Israel’s aim is to goad Iran into more nuclear activity in order to provoke Mr Biden to walk away, or the opposite: to slow down Iranian enrichment, thus easing pressure on Mr Biden to re-enter the deal. Notably, the attack on Natanz occurred as Lloyd Austin, America’s secretary of defence, was paying the first visit to Israel by a senior Biden administration official. Neither he nor any other American official publicly acknowledged or condemned the attack. A State Department spokesman declined to comment when asked about it.

The more cynical view is that Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, may have been guided more by political convenience than strategic necessity. Three weeks after Israel’s fourth parliamentary election in two years, Mr Netanyahu, who is on trial for bribery and fraud, still lacks a majority to form a new government. With coalition-building talks bogged down and the opposition anxious to unseat him, he is appealing to potential allies.

Amiram Levin, a former deputy chief of Mossad and, 53 years ago, Mr Netanyahu’s senior officer in the armed forces, says the prime minister, “under pressure”, was dragging Israel into “excessive activity against Iran”. Yossi Cohen, the chief of Mossad, is seen as loyal to Mr Netanyahu for now, but also has political ambitions of his own and, unlike his predecessors, is not above briefing journalists on his organisation’s operations.

For over a year Mr Cohen and Mossad have been working on the assumption that Iran’s leaders are eager for relief from American sanctions and will therefore avoid any major escalation. Iran itself has threatened “revenge in appropriate time”, but that vague formulation has in the past often provided cover for relatively muted responses.

For now Iranian officials have sought to brush off the attack. Mr Salehi of the atomic-energy commission said that Natanz’s back-up power system had been activated on April 12th and that enrichment “is moving forward vigorously”. Yet Muhammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, seemed to acknowledge that the facility had indeed been damaged. He vowed that “Natanz will be made stronger than before with the use of more advanced machines” to “strengthen our position in the negotiations”.

At the same time, Iran’s establishment is mired in infighting. On March 21st state television began airing the second season of “Gando”, a spy thriller believed to have been produced with the help of the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). In the show imaginary diplomats who bear a strong resemblance to Mr Zarif and his team are accused of espionage. “Many Iranians are probably wondering what the country’s security services are up to,” says Mohammad Ali Shabani, an expert on Iran and editor of Amwaj.media, a website that monitors the Middle East. “While Israel blows things up, the IRGC is commissioning fictitious spy thrillers targeting Iran’s own government amid sanctions and a deadly pandemic.”

fb image 2445 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

Getting into Iraq may soon be much easier

fb image 2445 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

GETTING INTO Iraq has never been easy. Saddam Hussein was loth to grant visas to curious Westerners, lest they see evidence of his regime’s brutality. After his overthrow in 2003, the borders opened up, but war kept civilians away. Then Iraq’s new rulers lowered a paper portcullis, demanding fees and the completion of myriad forms. Local middlemen offered to help—for a price, of course. Oil firms coughed up thousands of dollars to get their workers in.

That is all changing. Last month Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the prime minister, scrapped visa requirements for visitors from 36 countries, including America, China and those in the EU. They will be granted a two-month entry permit on arrival. Officials say the move will cut red tape, encourage investment and kick-start reconstruction. “It’s the single most effective decision to open Iraq to the world,” says a frequent German visitor.

The move is an effort to reposition Iraq as “an area of co-operation, not confrontation”, says one of Mr Kadhimi’s men. The prime minister hopes it will also let Iraq depend less on Iran. His advisers dream of attracting expats and even tourists. Iraq is certainly safer than it used to be. A visit by Pope Francis last month went off without a hitch.

Not everyone is happy, though. Some officials prefer Iranian to Western influence; others fear losing out on bribes. And xenophobia is still a problem. Clerics accuse the government of giving Westerners priority over pilgrims from Muslim countries that are not included in the plan. “It’s discrimination and won’t bring back tourism,” says a cleric in the holy city of Najaf.

The doors are not fully open yet. Iraqi consular staff say they have not been officially notified of the changes and that foreigners should still apply for visas. Mr Kadhimi’s underlings don’t always enforce his decrees. Spring break in Baghdad may have to wait until next year.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “The doors are opening”

fb image 2443 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

How Egyptian entertainment has changed under military rule

fb image 2443 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

HESHAM ASHMAWY was executed twice. Egypt’s most wanted man, an army-officer-turned-jihadist, was hanged in March 2020, out of public view. Two months later, millions of Egyptians watched the “execution” of an actor playing him on “The Choice”, a television show about terrorism, produced by state intelligence. To promote the episode, the spy agency leaked videos of Mr Ashmawy’s real execution. “The Choice” (pictured) was among the most-watched programmes last year during Ramadan, high season for Egyptian TV.

Egypt’s TV and film industry was long the envy of the Arab world. During the 20th century, movies were among the country’s biggest exports. From Rabat to Baghdad, Arabs learned to mimic Egypt’s distinctive dialect by way of its wildly popular musicals and comedies. The trade gave Egypt cultural influence—and its rulers a propaganda tool. When cinemas took off in the 1930s, King Fuad played newsreels promoting himself before features. President Gamal Abdel Nasser, in turn, made sure films portrayed the monarchy, which he overthrew, as corrupt and wicked.

But Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s obsession with controlling entertainment is extreme even by Egyptian standards. Two years after he and other military officers toppled the country’s first democratically elected president in 2013, Mr Sisi warned TV stars that they would be “held accountable” if their work did not reflect the state’s positive outlook. Mr Sisi, now president, nationalised the media in all but name and let his men control which shows are aired. In 2016 a company owned by state intelligence began buying Egypt’s biggest private TV channels. Since 2018 one of its subsidiaries, Synergy (maker of “The Choice”), has produced most of the big shows broadcast during Ramadan. “It’s a monopoly,” says one filmmaker.

Egypt has always had censors. Still, under Hosni Mubarak, the president from 1981 to 2011, they allowed films to depict police brutality, corruption and even homosexuality. Cherished movies from that era would be blocked today, say producers. Sexual innuendo that was once common is banned. Extreme poverty may not be shown, lest anyone think Egypt is struggling. And the security services must be portrayed as good guys. The regime thinks that old films showing dirty cops fed protests against the police during the Arab spring of 2011. That the protests might have been inspired by real-life dirty cops appears not to have occurred to Mr Sisi’s henchmen. “The regime sees what happened ten years ago as a cultural failure,” says Ezzedine Fishere, a former diplomat under Mubarak.

State-backed war flicks and heroic police dramas are popular enough, but Egyptian TV is a lot less interesting than it was before the coup. And it faces growing competition. For years Syrian and Turkish dramas, beamed over satellite, vied with local soaps for Egyptian eyeballs. Now there are new centres of production in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Streaming platforms such as Netflix and Shahid (owned by Saudi Arabia’s MBC Group) give viewers even more choice. One sign that Egypt’s soft power has declined is that Arab millennials are typically worse at understanding the Egyptian dialect than their parents.

Mr Sisi’s regime is focused on influencing Egyptians, though. “The Choice” pushes dubious claims about the Muslim Brotherhood, which held power before Mr Sisi. “The Swarm”, also by Synergy, glorifies an Egyptian air strike that killed 40 jihadists—and seven civilians (that part isn’t mentioned). “They’re using better talents, bigger budgets and bigger stars,” says a Cairo-based director. “So even if it’s propaganda, the quality is clearly getting better.”

Season two of “The Choice”, airing this month, will cover the Rabaa massacre, when hundreds of protesters from the Brotherhood were slaughtered by security forces (under the command of Mr Sisi) in 2013. Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, described the event as “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history”. The show, naturally, was shot from the perspective of the heroic police.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Only good cops, please”

fb image 2441 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

Benin’s democratic beacon dims

fb image 2441 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

“WE ARE NOT in a democratic country any more,” says Rogatien Biaou, a former minister turned opposition figure in Benin, which will hold presidential elections on April 11th. This is not hyperbole. Almost all opposition leaders have been blocked from standing. Others are in exile. Reckya Madougou, a high-profile would-be candidate, is behind bars. As President Patrice Talon slashes political freedom, anger is rising. On April 6th protesters took to the streets, chanting “Talon must go.”

Benin, a country of 12m people, had been a democratic beacon in west Africa. In 1991 the Beninois voted out Mathieu Kérékou, the long-time president who had taken power in a coup. It was the first time an incumbent president was peacefully voted out in mainland sub-Saharan Africa. Many hoped Benin’s vigorous democracy could inspire greater freedom in the region’s authoritarian regimes, such as Chad, which is also holding elections on April 11th. Instead it is Benin that is becoming more like Chad.

Mr Talon, a cotton magnate, came to power promising to consolidate Benin’s raucous and sometimes splintered democracy. Instead he has weakened it. In 2018 the government pushed through cumbersome new rules for fielding candidates and raised the cost of registering. The electoral commission, which was packed with Mr Talon’s allies, then barred all opposition parties from the parliamentary election in 2019 for failing to follow the new rules closely enough. The result was an abysmal turnout, a parliament made up entirely of supporters of Mr Talon, and protests to which security forces responded with live ammunition. Four people were killed and many more injured. The Constitutional Court, headed by Mr Talon’s former personal lawyer, waved the results through.

The submissive new parliament has since changed the electoral law to require all presidential candidates to have the backing of at least 10% of the country’s MPs and mayors. With a lock on parliament and all but a handful of mayors’ offices, Mr Talon and his allies could, in effect, choose who would run for president. Just two of the 19 challengers were permitted. Both are accused by the opposition of being allies of the president.

Mr Talon is changing not just the rules but also the referee. In 2018 he created a new court, known as CRIET, which is nominally for economic crimes and terrorism but has a habit of targeting Mr Talon’s rivals. The latest was Ms Madougou, who, despite already being barred from standing for president, was arrested on March 3rd and later charged with financing terrorism and plotting to kill two political figures.

A CRIET judge who recently fled Benin said to RFI, a French state broadcaster, that the court is not independent. In Ms Madougou’s case and many others, judges received “instructions” from political bigwigs, he says. The government denies this. Ms Madougou remains behind bars in conditions that are “scandalous”, says her lawyer, Mario Stasi: “I fear for her health.” Other opposition figures seem in danger, too. Ganiou Soglo, another would-be presidential candidate, survived after being shot by unidentified men on February 5th.

Since Mr Talon came to power, Benin has fallen from 78th to 113th in a ranking of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, a watchdog based in Paris. Opposition-linked television and radio stations have been shut down and in just two years at least 17 journalists and bloggers have been prosecuted under a new digital law.

Mr Talon admits that Benin has given up some democratic achievements, but says this was to allow for development. He points to roads built on his watch and to rapid economic growth, at least before covid-19. But “democracy and development are not contradictory,” says David Zounmenou, a researcher in Benin for the Institute for Security Studies, a think-tank.

Chad has neither. It has been run by President Idriss Déby since he took power in a rebellion in 1990. Despite pumping plenty of oil, it remains desperately poor. A fifth of Chadian children die before the age of five. The wealthy Mr Talon is unlikely to compare himself to a former rebel, yet there are parallels. Mr Déby has also fiddled the electoral rules to block a would-be challenger. An attempt to arrest another candidate, Yaya Dillo, resulted in a shoot-out that he says killed his mother and son. The main opposition candidate, Saleh Kebzabo, subsequently withdrew, saying he refused to “provide cover for a large-scale masquerade”. France remains a staunch ally of Mr Déby.

Benin is not in quite as much of a mess as Chad is. Mr Talon’s attacks on democracy often have a legal veneer, whereas Mr Déby’s frequently do not. Mr Talon is standing for his second term; Mr Déby for his sixth. And in Benin some opposition figures, such as Mr Biaou, still hope to get democracy back on track.

Other observers are more worried. Mr Talon originally pledged to rule for just one term (the constitution allows two), but soon broke his promise. A pliant parliament and docile Constitutional Court mean there are few impediments in his way. Should he wish to change the constitution to run for a third term, frets Mathias Hounkpe of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, an NGO, “I’m not sure many people can stop him.”

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Getting too much alike, alas”

fb image 465 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

Covid-19 creates a window for school reform in Africa

EVEN BEFORE covid-19 forced its classrooms to close for three months last year, Mavis Maphoto’s school in Botswana had decided that its pupils needed to catch up. At the start of 2020 it began setting aside an hour each day in which to shuffle some of its children out of their usual classes and into groups decided by how well they could do maths. For 60 minutes chairs and tables are swept aside; pupils play learning games on the floor. Ms Maphoto, a teacher, says her school has expanded its catch-up programme since its doors reopened in July—though she fears the classes are not quite as fun, now that the children must keep one metre apart.

Pupils in many poor countries have long been learning shockingly little. In Botswana only about half of ten-year olds can read and understand a simple story—in America the rate is 92%. In most sub-Saharan countries the figures are much worse (see chart). The reasons for this could cover a blackboard. But one is that many school systems cling to over-stuffed curriculums. Teachers lack the training or permission to veer from the course set by textbooks. Pupils who fail to grasp basic literacy and numeracy when they are tiny cannot make sense of anything that comes next.

These long-standing problems now risk compounding the harm that covid-induced school closures have caused. (According to UNESCO, schools in sub-Saharan Africa shut for an average of 23 weeks.) A recent study of children affected by an earthquake in Pakistan in 2005 found that they ended up falling behind by one and a half years, even though their classrooms shut for only three months. The authors think this is because, when schools reopened, teachers pressed on with the usual lessons as if nothing had been missed.

fb image 465 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

Catch-up classes of the sort running in Botswana offer an alternative approach. They borrow from a technique pioneered over two decades by Pratham, a big Indian NGO that has helped left-behind learners in South Asia. Its model, known as Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), uses speedy oral tests to sort children in their last years of primary school into groups that match their learning levels, rather than their age. These groups commonly gather for one hour of each school day to practise either maths or reading. Alternatively children may attend intensive catch-up “camps”, which are repeated throughout the school year. One such programme implemented a few years ago in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, saw the share of children who could read a paragraph increase from 15% to 48% after 50 days of catch-up classes. That was twice as many readers as in a control group, who plodded on with their usual lessons.

For years Pratham’s programmes have been studied by economists from the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2019 the two outfits set up a new organisation, called TaRL Africa, which aims to spread its model of remedial teaching across the continent. It is working with governments and advising local NGOs.

Ten African countries are running experiments: these include the Ivory Coast and Kenya, in addition to Botswana. Zambia is keenest. When the pandemic struck, it was running daily catch-up classes in one-fifth of its primary schools, benefiting a quarter of a million children in grades three to five. In 2019 the share of pupils who could read a simple story in one province increased from 22% to 41%. The government has grown even more enthusiastic since it allowed schools to reopen in October, says Nico Vromant of VVOB, a Belgian NGO that is helping. This year it is almost doubling the number of schools that operate a catch-up programme.

Making the model work in Africa is trickier than in India. Classes tend to be much larger. Bigger distances between schools make it more costly to ensure that all of them get frequent visits from mentors, who are needed to keep the programme on track. Noam Angrist, an American who co-founded Young 1ove, an NGO involved with the catch-up programme in Botswana, says that to get the programme to work in some schools it had to discourage corporal punishment. Pupils who are hit are afraid of making mistakes.

The pandemic could create new obstacles. In places that require strict social distancing, officials have had to cut the hours pupils spend in schools in order to allow them to attend in shifts. That only intensifies battles over how classroom time should be best used. But catch-up classes are cheaper and more effective than many other things officials like to spend money on, such as textbooks that only the cleverest pupils can read. Austerity may inspire more of them.

Governments have been loth to take stuff out of school curriculums, for fear of being accused of dumbing down. They have also fretted lest large-scale catch-up programmes be seen as an admission of failure. Yet the disruptions caused by the pandemic have created an opportunity, says Rukmini Banerji, one of Pratham’s bosses. “Now they can blame covid.”

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Covid-19 spurs catch-up classes”

fb image 468 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

Kenyans are starting to drink their own coffee

IN A SINGLE room tucked away behind a petrol pump in central Nairobi, men toil over a whirling drum, a shiny metal rack and heaps of sacks marked “Produce of Kenya”. The coffee they roast sells for as much as $11 per 250 grams online. Out front at Spring Valley Coffee, the well-heeled brave the noise and fumes to sip flat whites topped with rippling hearts by a trendy young barista.

Some of the world’s best arabica beans are grown on the fertile land around Mount Kenya. But like the citizens of many former British colonies, Kenyans are partial to tea. Now an expanding middle class is getting a taste for coffee. Domestic consumption is expected to reach 3,600 tonnes this year, almost a tenth of total production. The pandemic has shown just how important a local market can be, as logjams at ports and a sharp drop in global demand crush exports. “Covid has been an eye-opener,” says Gloria Gummerus, who runs the Sakami estate in western Kenya.

It is a similar story for other coffee-producing countries. Apart from Brazil and Ethiopia (which has an elaborate coffee ritual), many are just beginning to consume their own beans. Over 30% of the world’s coffee is now drunk in producing countries, according to José Sette of the International Coffee Organisation, up from 22% 30 years ago.

fb image 468 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

Many Kenyans first get a taste for coffee via instant sachets made from cheap robusta beans. City folk then graduate to coffee shops, which serve better-quality arabica coffee in trendy surroundings. Java House, which opened its first shop in 1999, was among the earliest to offer a Starbucks-style experience. It has expanded to some 70 shops and others, like Spring Valley, have followed. Leaving aside a blip during recent lockdowns, sales are expected to climb. Coffee is an “aspirational” drink, says Rozy Rana at Dormans Coffee, a local roaster. “It’s the trendiness, the Western feel,” says Ms Rana.

To some, talk of Kenyan coffee conjures images of “Out of Africa” and its vast colonial-era estates. In reality, most of the country’s harvest comes from 600,000 smallholders. The film is more accurate about just how difficult it is to make money in coffee. A byzantine system of co-operatives, millers and marketing agents skims off profits. Farmers get about 6% of the retail price, reckons El Mamoun Amrouk at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

As a result, production is dwindling. Only 120,000 hectares are devoted to coffee today, by FAO estimates, down from almost 180,000 hectares in the late 1990s. Farmers are switching to more lucrative crops, such as avocados or macadamia nuts. Developers pay good money for land near Nairobi, too. “When I visit coffee farms around Kenya all I see is old faces,” says Matthew Harrison of Trabocca, an importer.

Domestic demand could help. Roasting coffee and brewing cappuccinos creates more jobs than exporting beans does. Selling locally could also be more profitable for Kenya’s farmers, who complain that they are powerless price-takers in a vast global market. “When you have a domestic market you have more control,” claims Daniel Mbithi, the head of the Nairobi Coffee Exchange, which runs weekly auctions where much of the crop is sold.

There are plenty of ways to stoke local demand. The Fairtrade Foundation has tried paying young people to stand around cafés evangelising about Kenyan coffee. Dormans sponsors an annual barista competition. Meanwhile, buyers like Ritesh Doshi, who runs Spring Valley, take cafetières out to the farmlands. Getting growers to taste the hot stuff might be the best way to prove it is worth planting.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “They’ve woken up and smelt it”

fb image 440 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

A feud in Jordan’s royal family

EVERY ROYAL family is unhappy in its own way. Jordan’s is no exception. There were sharp disagreements between King Hussein and Crown Prince Hassan, the brotherly duo who ruled the desert kingdom for decades. Weeks before his death in 1999, the ailing king flew back from an American hospital to remove his brother from the line of succession and make his son, Abdullah, heir apparent. But the Hashemites usually show a united front: Prince Hassan accepted his defenestration in silence.

Thus it has been extraordinary to watch the overt feud between King Abdullah and his half-brother, Prince Hamzah (pictured). It began on April 3rd, when the authorities detained perhaps 20 people on vague charges of plotting against the crown. The prince was confined to a palace outside Amman, the capital. He confirmed his detention in a late-night video message that assailed the government for alleged corruption, nepotism and authoritarianism. “It has reached the point where no one is able to speak or express an opinion on anything without being bullied, arrested, harassed and threatened,” he said.

No evidence has emerged to support the official claim of a foreign-backed conspiracy. No arrests within the army or security services have been reported, which seems telling: it is hard to organise a coup without guns. Jordan’s secret police are famed for their reach and ruthlessness. A sophisticated plot would be hard to hatch under their omnipresent gaze.

Instead the government has sought to calm the furore—perhaps a tacit admission that it erred with such a heavy-handed response. The king asked Prince Hassan, his uncle and the family’s elder statesman, to play the role of mediator. A judge then placed a gag order on the case. In a written statement on April 7th the king said the “sedition” had been dealt with.

But Prince Hamzah has toggled between being conciliatory and confrontational. After meeting with Prince Hassan he signed a deferential statement pledging loyalty to the king. Then his camp leaked a remarkable audio recording, said to be of a meeting between the prince and Yousef al-Huneiti, the army chief. (The tape cannot be authenticated, though both voices are recognisable.) General Huneiti’s tone was respectful, but he had come to deliver an unmistakable warning. The prince, he said, had crossed a line by attending meetings at which there was criticism of the government and crown prince. He asked Prince Hamzah not to tweet, or to meet anyone outside the royal family.

That the prince is disenchanted with Jordan’s leaders is hardly a revelation. In 2018 he rebuked the government for mismanaging the public sector and failing to fight corruption. He often meets tribal leaders, the so-called East Bank Jordanians who are both the monarchy’s historic power base and an impoverished, frustrated constituency. Admirers say the prince has a common touch lacking in the king, who grew up speaking English and can seem more comfortable in a British army club than in a scruffy Jordanian village.

The prince used those rhetorical skills in his chat with General Huneiti, parts of which sounded oratorical, meant for public consumption. He repeated his criticism of the government: “Is the mismanagement of the state my fault? Is the failure that’s happening my fault?” Voice rising, he told aides to bring the general’s car around and invoked the name of his late father, still a beloved figure in the kingdom. “Next time, don’t come to threaten me in my house, the house of Hussein,” he said.

Jordan is often described as an oasis of stability, but under the surface a deep discontent simmers. The economy was stagnant even before the covid-19 pandemic. Last year it contracted by 5%, while unemployment hit 25%, and 48% for Jordanians aged 20-24. At least one Jordanian in six lives on less than $3.15 a day. Exporters have been hit hard by decades of war in neighbouring Syria and Iraq. Successive waves of Iraqi and Syrian refugees have strained services and pushed up rents.

A survey in 2018 showed a sharp increase in the number of Jordanians who have thought about emigrating (see chart). But opportunities have dwindled: wealthy Gulf states, home to more than 500,000 Jordanian expats, are struggling with low oil prices and sluggish economies. Remittances to Jordan fell from $6.4bn in 2014 (17% of GDP) to an estimated $3.9bn last year (9% of GDP). Small and resource-poor, Jordan uses its strategic location and compliant foreign policy to extract aid from allies. That is drying up, too. In 2011, after protests inspired by the Arab spring, Gulf states gave Jordan $5bn in aid. After more demonstrations in 2018 they offered just $2.5bn, mostly as loan guarantees and central-bank deposits.

fb image 440 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

The kingdom has lost billions to tax evasion, corrupt customs officials and other kinds of graft. Well-connected crooks are rarely punished. In March seven people died in Salt, a poor town west of the capital, after an oxygen failure at a government hospital treating covid-19 patients. Many saw the deaths as emblematic of widespread official incompetence.

King Abdullah played his cards as usual. He sacked the health minister. In an angry speech, he asked “how long we can bear neglect and corruption” by excusing it as a part of Jordanian culture? At times he sounds more like the head of a good-governance group than a monarch. He poses as being above the fray; when things go wrong it is the fault of cabinet members or the prime minister, a job held by 13 men since he ascended the throne in 1999.

Yet few others are permitted to ask tough questions about governance. Parliament serves more as a vehicle for patronage than a check on the executive. Turnout for last year’s election was just 29%, partly because of covid-19, but also because of a complex electoral law that favours wealthy candidates (some openly paid for votes). Activists and journalists are often harassed. Police have used the pandemic as an excuse to ban demonstrations. Last year hundreds of teachers were jailed for protesting against a crackdown on their union.

Politicians are rarely pure of motive. Prince Hamzah is only 41 and was unceremoniously removed from the line of succession in 2004. His criticisms resonate with many Jordanians, and the effort to silence him seems to have backfired, only raising his profile. It is understandable why the king’s inner circle may find all this unnerving. The monarchy, as an institution, remains popular, but public spats within the royal family undermine it. So does dressing down the head of the army, a deeply loyal force. That the prince was playing politics, though, does not render his gripes invalid. The greatest threat to Jordan’s stability comes from within: if the king wants to silence his critics, he will need to respond to their criticisms.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Family feud”

fb image 1653 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

A feud in Jordan’s royal family

EVERY ROYAL family is unhappy in its own way. Jordan’s is no exception. There were sharp disagreements between King Hussein and Crown Prince Hassan, the brotherly duo who ruled the desert kingdom for decades. Weeks before his death in 1999, the ailing king abruptly flew back from an American hospital to remove his brother from the line of succession and make his son, Abdullah, the heir apparent. But the Hashemites are usually disciplined about showing a united front in public: Prince Hassan accepted his defenestration in silence.

Thus it was extraordinary on April 3rd when authorities accused Prince Hamzah—a half-brother of King Abdullah, and once his designated successor—of plotting against the crown. Up to 20 people were arrested, among them a former finance minister and royal-court adviser. Officials claimed the scheme was backed by an unnamed foreign country. There were even rumours that Prince Hamzah had been placed under house arrest, though the government denied that it had taken such strong action against a royal.

fb image 1653 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

Then Prince Hamzah spoke. In a video message (see picture) the prince claimed that he and his family were confined to a palace outside Amman, their internet and phone lines cut. He attacked the government for leaving the country “stymied in corruption, in nepotism and in misrule”, and for its authoritarian tendencies. “It has reached the point where no one is able to speak or express an opinion on anything without being bullied, arrested, harassed and threatened,” the prince said.

The government has presented no evidence of a serious plot. It promised to do so, but in a televised press conference the foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, offered little of substance. That no arrests have been reported within the army or security services seems telling: it is hard to organise a coup without guns. Jordan’s secret police are legendary for their reach and ruthlessness, and a sophisticated plot would have been difficult to hatch under their omnipresent gaze. Far from a coup attempt, this looks more like a dramatic family feud, one that underscores the public’s growing frustration and the government’s growing intolerance of it.

King Abdullah’s relatives have grown more vocal in their criticism of the longest-serving Arab ruler. In 2018, for example, Prince Hamzah rebuked the government for mismanaging the public sector and failing to fight corruption. He meets often with tribal leaders, the so-called East Bank Jordanians who are both the monarchy’s main power base and an impoverished, frustrated constituency. Admirers say the prince has a common touch lacking in the king, who grew up speaking English and can seem more comfortable in a Georgetown salon than a Jordanian village.

His popularity has unnerved King Abdullah’s inner circle—particularly when his criticisms are widely shared. Jordan has lost billions to tax evasion, corrupt customs officials and other kinds of graft. The economy was stagnant even before the pandemic. Last year it contracted by 5%, while unemployment hit 25%. In March seven people died in Salt, a poor town west of the capital, after an oxygen failure at a government hospital treating covid-19 patients. Many saw the deaths as emblematic of widespread official incompetence.

King Abdullah went to his usual playbook. He sacked the health minister. In an angry speech, he asked “how long we can bear neglect and corruption” and excuse it as a part of Jordanian culture. At times the king sounds more like the head of a good-governance group than a powerful monarch. He acts above the fray; when things go wrong it is the fault of cabinet members or the prime minister, a job held by 13 different men since he ascended the throne in 1999.

Jordanians are tiring of this routine. To judge by the chatter on social media, some appreciate that Prince Hamzah gave voice to their frustrations. Others thought his criticism was out of line. But all agree the arrests have sent a chilling message: if a prominent royal can be detained for raising his voice, ordinary citizens have no room for dissent. Police were already using the pandemic as an excuse to ban demonstrations. Last year hundreds of teachers were jailed for protesting a crackdown on their union.

If confining the prince was meant to silence him, though, it has so far had the opposite effect. In another brief recording he said the army chief warned him not to communicate with the outside world. “Of course I won’t abide when they say you can’t go out, can’t tweet, can’t communicate with people, you’re only allowed to see your family,” said Prince Hamzah. His mother, Queen Noor, called the allegations against him a “wicked slander”. None of this seems a real threat to the king. But if he wants to silence his critics, the best way is to respond to their criticisms.

fb image 36 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

The complicated dance to unseat Binyamin Netanyahu

THE BLUE and white balloons that had been prepared for Likud’s victory celebrations remained in the netting on the ceiling. Israel’s ruling party had emerged from the parliamentary election on March 23rd still the largest party in the 120-member Knesset (Israel’s parliament), but its leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, has only a slim chance of controlling a majority within it. Israel’s longest-serving prime minister promised to try to form “a strong and stable coalition”, but his voice lacked its usual confident tone.

No fewer than 13 parties won seats in the new Knesset, up from eight in an election just a year ago. There are at least as many permutations for concocting a new government. Under a system of proportional representation that sets a threshold of 3.25% of the total vote for inclusion in the Knesset, no party has ever won an absolute majority. So governments are always formed by several. This was the fourth stalemated election in two years.

Building a coalition has been getting trickier. The main reason is the prime minister himself. He is facing criminal charges of bribery and fraud. Still, he is backed by three religious and far-right parties, as well as Likud, giving him a total of 52 seats (see chart). Seven parties, with 57 seats, have promised their voters they would not serve under Mr Netanyahu. Two, with 11 seats between them, are not committed to any candidate and have not ruled out joining a Netanyahu government. The obvious solution is for one or other group to win over the holdouts. But both of the coalitions that might then emerge would be fraught with contradictions.

fb image 36 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

One of the non-committed parties is the Ra’am party, which is conservative and Islamist. An Arab-Israeli party has never been a member of a ruling coalition, and for many Israelis the idea remains taboo. Mr Netanyahu ruled out relying on Ra’am just before the election because “they are an anti-Zionist party.” But Ra’am’s leader, Mansour Abbas, has played down his party’s Palestinian nationalism and wants to bring solid benefits to his voters.

Since the result became clear, the prime minister’s media mouthpieces have been busy explaining why including an Arab party in a Likud-led government would be a proud achievement for the Jewish state. Mr Netanyahu may feel he can break his promise, but his potential partners at the right end of the political spectrum would be much less amenable. Religious Zionism, a party that includes Jewish supremacists and is an integral part of a Netanyahu coalition, has refused to join a government backed by Ra’am, which in turn refuses to join a coalition with Religious Zionism. Mr Netanyahu’s long-standing critics are relishing the irony of a politician who has previously used anti-Arab dog whistles to rally his base potentially relying on Arab voters for his survival.

But the opposition’s predicament is just as bad, even though for the third election in a row it won more seats in the Knesset than the Netanyahu bloc did. It too includes right-wing parties that have so far refused to rely on the votes of Arab parties. To get a majority it needs at least eight parties, including at least one Arab party. To make matters worse, there is no agreement on who the prime minister would be.

The obvious choice is Yair Lapid, a television anchor turned politician who leads the centrist Yesh Atid party, the second-largest in the Knesset. But two right-wing parties, one in the anti-Netanyahu bloc and one on the fence, vowed not to serve under the “leftist” Mr Lapid. So they too would have to break promises to their voters. To confuse matters more, two other party leaders want to be prime minister.

The defence minister, Benny Gantz, another centrist and a former commander of the armed forces, was Mr Netanyahu’s main rival a year ago, but his Blue and White party this time came only fourth. He lost much of his credibility by joining the previous short-lived Netanyahu government, which collapsed after just seven months, leading to the most recent election. Under a law it passed, Mr Gantz is still scheduled to become prime minister in November, if no other government is formed by then. Forming a government can take many months. Mr Gantz may yet try to foil other rivals to win the post.

The third candidate to replace Mr Netanyahu is Naftali Bennett (pictured). The former high-tech entrepreneur’s first job in politics was as Mr Netanyahu’s chief of staff. His party, Yamina, won just seven seats. It would be the most right-wing bit of a coalition that would have to include left-wing and Arab parties. He says his price for joining such a coalition would be to lead it.

Whatever ruling coalition is formed will involve breaking election promises—and will be unwieldy and therefore fragile. One opposition ploy might be to set short-term objectives. For instance, it could take control of parliamentary business when the new Knesset is inaugurated on April 6th by appointing a new speaker. It might then be able to pass legislation preventing any politician facing criminal charges (ie, Mr Netanyahu) from becoming prime minister. Next, it could form a short-term government with limited aims, chief among them to pass a budget: the most recent was passed three years ago.

The prime minister is not giving up, of course. With his trial set to resume on April 5th, he still aims to gain a majority which he hopes will pass a law granting him immunity from prosecution. He is urging Mr Bennett to join, offering to merge his party and Likud, with the prospect of one day leading it. Mr Netanyahu is seeking defectors from other parties, too. But his chances of success are fading. Last time round he persuaded Mr Gantz to break his promise not to join a government led by Mr Netanyahu by appealing to his sense of national duty when the pandemic was threatening to engulf the world. But that emergency is over and if Mr Netanyahu were to promise once again to cede power down the line, few would trust him to keep his word.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Too many kingmakers”

fb image 3358 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

Clubhouse gives Arabs a space to speak freely

fb image 3358 captis executive search management consulting leadership board services

THE CONVERSATIONS can feel almost rebellious. Drift through the rooms and you hear heated talk of politics, business and religion. There is a frisson of flirtation too, with discussions about sex veiled in thin metaphors. And every so often someone stops to wonder when the police will crash through the door.

Clubhouse, a buzzy social-media app launched last year, was perfectly timed for the pandemic era. It is an audio-only service where users drop in and out of “rooms” for voice chats. Think of an endless smorgasbord of Zoom calls, but with faceless strangers instead of pixelated colleagues. Nothing goes viral because the chats are ephemeral: users cannot record or replay them.

Over the past two months Clubhouse has become a hit in the Middle East, a region already hooked on social media. A survey last year found that 46% of internet users in Arab countries spend at least five hours a day on social-media apps. They can’t all use Clubhouse. Sign-ups are by invitation only and so far it works only on iPhones, which many Arabs cannot afford. But those who can get into Clubhouse are having a blast.

The accents alone are a tour of the region’s linguistic breadth: the French-influenced patois of the Maghreb, the poetic flair of the Gulf. Some of the talk is quotidian, a sort of socially distanced sobhiyya (a morning chat over coffee). But in a region full of regimes hostile to free speech, it seems a safe space for heady conversations as well. In Lebanon there are rooms about how to limit the role of religion in politics. Women in Kuwait discuss sexual harassment. Citizens in other Gulf states take up taboo topics such as transgender rights.

These would be fraught conversations even on other social-media platforms. In Egypt, for example, police stop people on the street to inspect their Facebook feeds for subversive posts. A court jailed two young women last year for “debauchery” because they danced in a TikTok video (the sentences were later overturned). With a small user base and no permanent records, Clubhouse feels safer.

It is also more civil, at least for now. Saudis are enthusiastic tweeters. But to tweet about serious matters invites abuse from legions of trolls, some directed by a confidant of the Saudi crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. Clubhouse’s spoken-word format makes it harder for governments to weaponise.

They will probably try—or just ban it outright. Last month Oman became the first Arab state to do so, saying it lacked a licence. Users in the United Arab Emirates have had unexplained problems gaining access to it (officially it is not blocked). Regime mouthpieces have started a campaign against it. Ahmed Moussa, a talk-show host in Egypt, said he uncovered a terrorist group on the app. Fahad al-Otaibi, a Saudi commentator, called it a “danger to state security”. Leaving a room not long ago, one Egyptian user offered a darkly funny goodbye: perhaps, he joked, “we can continue the conversation in prison.”

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Boarding up the clubhouse”