• Russian expansion in the Middle East is a ‘clear reality on the ground,’ WEF president says

    World Economic Forum (WEF) President Borge Brende spoke to CNBC on Sunday, discussing his take on the evolving geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.

    It’s no news that Russian presence in the region has grown. American withdrawal and disengagement from several of the region’s hotspots has coincided with an apparent shift eastward, Brende said, inviting Moscow to exert its influence over that of the U.S.

    “I think there is a clear reality on the ground that we see more of a Russian footprint in this region,” Brende told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble during the WEF on the Middle East and Africa in Amman, Jordan.

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  • Egyptian actors who criticized Sissi in Washington are kicked out of union

    On Monday, actors Amr Waked and Khaled Abol Naga spoke out against Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi at a Capitol Hill event in Washington intended to draw attention to proposed changes to the Egyptian constitution that could let Sissi serve until 2034.

    On Tuesday, they found out that they were expelled from the Egyptian actors’ union, which accused them of treason.

    “I found out last night. A friend of mine sent me a scanned copy of the decision. I wasn’t really surprised, to be honest,” Waked, perhaps best known stateside for his roles in 2005′s “Syriana” and 2014′s “Lucy,” told The Washington Post.

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  • ‘For Sama’ Syrian war documentary offers haunting look at motherhood in Aleppo

     Laying on her bed in Aleppo, Waad al-Kateab greeted Sama, her giggly newborn daughter, like she did most mornings, fearful of arrests, bombings and death. The Syrian mother wondered how she could bring Sama into a world filled with terror and war.

    “Good morning, sweetheart,” the filmmaker said to her daughter in the documentary “For Sama.” “There are a lot of airstrikes today, right?”

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  • Another Battle of Algiers

    Protests have stopped President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from seeking another term, but it won’t change the military’s domination of the political system.

    Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the president of Algeria, on Monday announced in a letter that he would not seek a fifth term as president and called off the presidential elections scheduled on April 18. He explained that a national conference on political and constitutional reform would be held and a new Constitution written and approved by referendum.

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  • What’s gone wrong with democracy

    The protesters who have overturned the politics of Ukraine have many aspirations for their country. Their placards called for closer relations with the European Union (EU), an end to Russian intervention in Ukraine’s politics and the establishment of a clean government to replace the kleptocracy of President Viktor Yanukovych. But their fundamental demand is one that has motivated people over many decades to take a stand against corrupt, abusive and autocratic governments. They want a rules-based democracy.

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  • Iraq’s Post-ISIS Campaign of Revenge

    A September morning in Baghdad. Traffic halted at checkpoints and roadblocks as bureaucrats filed behind blast walls and the temperature climbed to a hundred and fifteen degrees. At the Central Criminal Court, a guard ran his baton along the bars of a small cell holding dozens of terrorism suspects awaiting trial. They were crammed on a wooden bench and on the floor, a sweaty tangle of limbs and dejected expressions. Many were sick or injured—covered in scabies, their joints twisted and their bones cracked. Iraqi prisons have a uniform code—different colors for pretrial suspects, convicts, and those on death row—but several who had not yet seen a judge or a lawyer were already dressed as if they had been sentenced to death.

    Down the hall, the aroma of Nescafé and cigarettes filled a windowless room, where defense lawyers sat on couches, balancing stacks of paper on their laps. Most were staring at their phones; others sat in silence, arms crossed, eyes closed. In terrorism cases, lawyers are usually denied access to their clients until the hearing begins.

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  • Is Revolutionary Fervor Afire—Again—in Tunisia?

    On Christmas Eve, Abderrazak Zorgui, a thirty-two-year-old television reporter, posted a chilling cell-phone video shot in Kasserine, a city in western Tunisia that dates back to ancient Roman times. “I have decided today to put a revolution in motion,” he said, looking intently into the camera. “In Kasserine, there are people dying of hunger. Why? Are we not humans? We’re people just like you. The unemployed people of Kasserine, the jobless, the ones who have no means of subsistence, the ones who have nothing to eat.” Zorgui, who had short brown hair and wispy hair on his chin, then held up a clear bottle of gasoline. “Here’s the petrol,” he said. “I’m going to set myself on fire in twenty minutes.” His video was live-streamed onto YouTube. In his poignant farewell, Zorgui added, “Whoever wishes to support me will be welcom­e. I am going to protest alone. I am going to set myself on fire, and, if at least one person gets a job thanks to me, I will be satisfied.”

    The flames Zorgui lit quickly consumed his body. He died just days away from the eighth anniversary of the Arab Spring, which was started when another young Tunisian set himself on fire, on December 17, 2010, to protest injustice, corruption, and desperate living conditions.

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  • On Beirut, the Unsung Capital of Arabic Modernism

    Arabic Modernism was a literary movement of exiles and émigrés who planted their flag in West Beirut during the mid-’50s, when the Lebanese capital became a meeting ground for intellectuals from across the region. West Beirut, a neighborhood known as Hamra, was “the closest the Arab world could ever get to having its own Greenwich Village.” For a brief twenty-year period, until the outbreak of civil war in 1975, Hamra was a contact zone for artists and militants from the far Left to the far Right, nationalists and internationalists, experimentalists and traditionalists. In this highly politicized bohème, journals of ideas flourished, and each coterie had its own café. Local banks were flush with deposits from the newly oil-rich states of the Gulf, helping to finance a construction boom that quadrupled the built area of the city in the decade following World War II. This intellectual and economic ferment turned Beirut into a magnet for disaffected thinkers from within Lebanon as well as from neighboring countries. It was a place with all the characteristics of what Roger Shattuck, in his study of the early Parisian avant-garde, has called “cosmopolitan provincialism”: an eclectic community of outsiders living on the margins and snitching tips on taste, style, and ideas from elsewhere.

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  • How far can the U.S. really retreat from the Middle East?

    The near-universal scorn heaped on President Trump for his hasty and reckless decision to yank U.S. forces out of Syria, and the enduring confusion since then over the administration’s actual plans, have obscured a larger and more significant development: the strengthening of a bipartisan movement in Washington seeking a broad retreat from the Middle East.

    No one, up to and including Trump’s top aides, thinks he was right to suddenly announce a 30-day withdrawal timetable for the 2,000 American troops in eastern Syria after a phone call with the president of Turkey. But since that bombshell dropped last month, the idea of a Syria pullout, and a retrenchment in the region more generally, has attracted quite a bit of support, including from some surprising quarters.

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  • Mossad-Run Fake Diving Resort in Sudan

    It was one of the Mossad’s most daring, complex and longest-running operations. But only now, 37 years on, is the story of a Red Sea diving resort run by the agency getting its moment in the sun.

    “Operation Brothers,” which ran for over three years in the early 1980s, was a breathtaking mission. At its heart was the Arous Holiday Village, a small beach resort billed as the “diving and desert recreation center of Sudan.”

    According to a brochure distributed to European travel agencies, Arous offered a combination of desert vistas, sandy beaches and coral reefs, including real shipwrecks off the East African coast for diving enthusiasts to explore.

    But here’s what the brochure didn’t say: It was all a front – devised and maintained by the Israeli intelligence agency, whose operatives would visit Sudanese refugee camps with trucks, load them up with Ethiopian Jews (also known as Beta Israel), embark on treacherous journeys across Sudan back to the resort, from where the Ethiopian Jews would be shipped or flown to Israel.

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  • Why do some Mukalla residents miss Al Qaeda?

    Fuel truck driver Ali Astal wouldn’t dare cross this country brimming with guns and militias without a Kalashnikov or two stashed under the dashboard.

    But when he reaches the Mukalla city limits, he gamely surrenders his weapons at a checkpoint.

    “This is for the city’s security,” he said as a soldier wrote out a receipt so he might collect the guns on his way out. Mukalla, former Al Qaeda bastion of about 500,000 people, is one of the safest cities in a nation torn apart by a brutal civil war that has claimed at least 10,000 lives, displaced 2 million and forced the internationally recognized government into exile. It may be the only place in Yemen that doesn’t allow civilians to carry firearms in public, a common sight elsewhere.

    But two years after troops from the United Arab Emirates and their local allies reclaimed the city, a port on the Arabian Sea, residents are growing restless. Though the relative security is a welcome relief from bombings and shootings that were once commonplace, lasting stability will depend on reconstruction and economic development, and there has been little progress on those fronts.

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  • Why Saudi Crown Prince Wanted Khashoggi

    The mind plays strange tricks sometimes, especially after a tragedy. When I sat down to write this story about the Saudi regime’s homicidal obsession with the Muslim Brotherhood, the first person I thought I’d call was Jamal Khashoggi. For more than 20 years I phoned him or met with him, even smoked the occasional water pipe with him, as I looked for a better understanding of his country, its people, its leaders, and the Middle East. We often disagreed, but he almost always gave me fresh insights into the major figures of the region, starting with Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, and the political trends, especially the explosion of hope that was called the Arab Spring in 2011. He would be just the man to talk to about the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood, because he knew both sides of that bitter relationship so well.

    And then, of course, I realized that Jamal is dead, murdered precisely because he knew too much.

    Although the stories keep changing, there is now no doubt that 33-year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the power in front of his decrepit father’s throne, had put out word to his minions that he wanted Khashoggi silenced, and the hit-team allegedly understood that as “wanted dead or alive.” But the [petro]buck stops with MBS, as bin Salman’s called. He’s responsible for a gruesome murder just as Henry II was responsible for the murder of Thomas Becket when he said, “Who will rid me of that meddlesome priest?” In this case, a meddlesome journalist.

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  • The Backlash of One Journalist’s Death

    If you had to pick a year in the past decade when the contradictions of the American-Saudi relationship seemed likeliest to explode into crisis, 2018 would not be the obvious choice.

    You might pick 2011, when Arab Spring protests compelled the United States to support Middle Eastern democracy movements that the Saudi government saw as mortal threats, or 2013, when Saudi Arabia supported an Egyptian military coup that the United States had tried to prevent and that signaled the end of the region’s democratic moment.

    Or perhaps even 2016, by which point the Saudi-led war in Yemen had become one of the worst humanitarian disasters in years, and one in which the United States had gotten itself entangled.

    But you would be wrong. Instead, the informal alliance has reached its greatest point of crisis this year, when circumstances would seem to point toward its strengthening. The two countries are aligned on every major policy issue, particularly Iran. Their leaders are closer than at any point in a decade.

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  • Khashoggi chose to tell the truth

    George Orwell titled a regular column he wrote for a British newspaper in the mid-1940s “As I Please.” Meaning that he would write exactly what he believed. My Saudi colleague Jamal Khashoggi has always had that same insistent passion for telling the truth about his country, no matter what.

    Khashoggi’s fate is unknown as I write, but his colleagues at The Post and friends around the world fear that he was murdered after he visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last Tuesday.

    I have known Khashoggi for about 15 years and want to share here some of the reasons he is beloved in our profession and the news of his disappearance has been such a shock.

    Journalists can sometimes seem dry and remote, living in the flat two dimensions of a newspaper page. Khashoggi was a tall, reserved man, austere in the long, white thobe he wore until he went into exile in the United States last year. But in his work, he has always been full of life and daring; he embodied the restless curiosity and refusal to compromise on principle that are the saving graces of our business.

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  • “He Actually Believes He Is Khalid”

    My name is Khalid,” he tells me, and I want to believe him. After all, he has traveled the world as royalty—the son of the king of Saudi Arabia, no less. Leading international investors know him as His Royal Highness Khalid bin al-Saud. He moved in an entourage of Rolls-Royces and Ferraris, his every whim tended to by uniformed housekeepers and armed bodyguards. A suave British-born C.E.O. handled his business affairs, and a well-connected international banker marketed his investment deals to a select few, leaving him to live a life of astonishing excess.

    Ever since he was a boy, he had been pitted against his royal brothers in an expensive game—to see who could “outdo the other one” in spending, he liked to say. Khalid was surely winning. He was in negotiations to purchase 30 percent of the famed Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach for $440 million, and he was selling early access to what promised to be the biggest I.P.O. in history: the initial public offering of Aramco, the Saudi oil giant. Until last June, when the Saudi government shelved the plan, the I.P.O. was expected to be worth more than $2 trillion.

    Khalid could regularly be overheard talking on his phone with the likes of Bill Gates and Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. “I’m sick and tired of Trump calling me and inviting me to the White House!” he often complained. He kept in touch with his father, the Saudi king, on FaceTime, and, if you were lucky, he would let you listen in. But the prince’s favorite companion was Foxy, his beloved Chihuahua, whom he draped in diamonds and designer dog clothes and toted around in a $2,690 Louis Vuitton dog carrier. He stuffed other Louis Vuitton bags with stacks of $100 bills, tossing the money from his jewel-encrusted fingers, one sporting a nine-carat diamond, to those who tended to his needs—flashes of benevolence from an academic genius whose LinkedIn page lists his law studies at Harvard, his master’s in business administration from the University of Southern California, and his top marks at Institut Le Rosey, the elite Swiss boarding school attended by Rockefellers and Rothschilds.

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  • US Quietly Expanding Its War in Tunisia

    Last month, a U.S. Africa Command spokesperson confirmed in a Task & Purpose report that Marine Corps Raiders were involved in a fierce battle in 2017 in an unnamed North African country, where they fought beside partner forces against militants of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AFRICOM acknowledged that two Marines received citations for valor but withheld certain details, such as the location—undisclosed due to “classification considerations, force protection, and diplomatic sensitivities.” The command also said the Marine Special Operations unit was engaged while on a three-day train, advise and assist operation. However, subsequent research and analysis strongly suggest U.S. involvement runs much deeper. In fact, the dramatic events described in the award citations obtained by Task & Purpose align with those that took place in Tunisia, which has been combatting a low-level insurgency in its western borderlands for the past seven years. Evidence indicates the battle occurred at Mount Semmama, a mountain range in the Kasserine governorate, near the Algerian border. There, the United States sustained its first casualty in action in Tunisia since World War II.

    While not of the same magnitude, the events that AFRICOM confirmed took place on Feb. 28, 2017, echo a disastrous ambush less than seven months later in the village of  Tongo Tongo , Niger. In that battle, members of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara killed four Army Special Forces soldiers and four Nigerien partners. U.S. partner forces engaged militants of AQIM’s Tunisian branch, the Uqba ibn Nafaa Battalion (KUBN) in a firefight, which resulted in the killing of one militant. The engagement also necessitated a request for air support to rout the militants. The jihadis then attempted to flank the joint U.S.-Tunisian force from the rear, forcing the Marines to return fire. While engaged on the ground, U.S. forces were also part of the air-support component. When a Tunisian soldier manning an M60 machine gun aboard a helicopter sustained wounds after being shot twice by militants returning accurate fire, a U.S. Marine Raider took control of the machine gun to maintain suppressive fire against the militants and simultaneously treated the wounded Tunisian soldier. The Marine Raider unit and their Tunisian partner force each sustained one casualty in the battle, both of whom recovered from their wounds. At the time,  local  media  reported the incident without alluding to any U.S. participation.

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  • Coddling Arab strongmen to keep out refugees

    Much of Syria lies in ruins, but Bashar al-Assad’s bureaucracy of repression hums along. Earlier this year a pro-opposition website published a list of Syrians wanted by the regime. The database is both staggering in scope-1.5m people, or 7% of the pre-war population-and incomplete. Jamil Hassan, the head of the air-force intelligence service, is said to have told senior officers in July that he wants to arrest twice that number. On August 9th another regime official announced that 100,000 Syrians have died of “unknown causes” since 2017. Yet European politicians are debating whether to send refugees back to this bloody oubliette.

    Seven years ago, when Arabs revolted against their autocratic rulers, European leaders engaged in a collective mea culpa. Decades of working with dictators had not created a stable, prosperous Arab world. From now on, democracy and human rights would be the cornerstones of the European Union’s Middle East policy, they vowed. But the high-mindedness was short-lived. Driven by a fear of migrants, European governments have once again embraced strongmen.

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  • Clues in one of Syria war’s biggest mysteries

    Razan Zaitouneh earned enemies on all sides of her homeland’s civil war. One of Syria’s most well-known rights activists, she was bold, outspoken and defiantly secular. Perhaps most dangerously, she was impartial. She chanted in protests against President Bashar Assad, but was also unflinching in documenting abuses by rebels fighting to oust him.

    Then she vanished.

    Her fate has been one of the longest-running mysteries of Syria’s long conflict. There has been no sign of life, no proof of death since a cold December evening in 2013 when Zaitouneh, her husband and two colleagues were abducted by gunmen from her office in Douma, a rebel-held town on the outskirts of Damascus. Five years later, bits of clues are emerging: a handwritten threat vowing “I will kill you;” a log-on from her computer after the kidnappers stole it from her office; possible sightings by witnesses and reports of graffiti on a prison cell wall reading, “I miss my mother — Razan Zaitouneh, 2016.”

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  • Is Intentional Starvation the Future of War?

    The malnutrition ward of the Al-Sabaeen hospital, in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, is a quiet place even when it is busy. Parents speak in murmurs and children are too weak to cry. In a room off a pink-painted hallway, a mother named Salami Ahmed sat cross-legged on a bed, resting her ten-month-old daughter Mateea on her knee. Each of the baby girl’s ribs pushed out from underneath a fine layer of skin. The child’s eyes stared wide from her gaunt face. Ahmed told me that her husband was a cobbler, and business was bad. “Some days he comes home with four hundred rials, another day five hundred or a thousand rials,” she said, amounts of local currency worth one and a half to four dollars. “Some days nothing if he has no work. We only buy sugar and tea. Before the war, we could buy other things but now no more. We were already poor and when the war broke out we became even poorer.

    In the room down the hallway, Mohammed Hatem stood over his baby, Shahab Adil, who is also ten months old. Shahab also suffered from malnutrition. Her body appeared much too small for her age. “It’s happening everywhere in Yemen,” Hatem told me. “Food prices were already high before the war, and since it started they went sky high.” Back in his village, several hours’ drive away, there were many more cases of malnutrition, he said. Few villagers can afford to take a taxi to the capital for treatment. For many, the cost of fuel puts even short bus rides beyond reach.

    The U.S.- and Saudi-backed war here has increased the price of food, cooking gas, and other fuel, but it is the disappearance of millions of jobs that has brought more than eight million people to the brink of starvation and turned Yemen into the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. There is sufficient food arriving in ports here, but endemic unemployment means that almost two-thirds of the population struggle to buy the food their families need. In this way, hunger here is entirely man-made: no drought or blight has caused it.

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  • Where steam locomotives are still king

    Located on the side of a dusty road, Amman’s Hejaz Railway station is easy to miss. To get there, you must leave the labyrinthine streets that spiral through the city’s historical centre, swirling up hills and eddying around better-known sites like the ancient citadel or Roman theatre. The drive out to the station is about 5km; when there is traffic, as there often is in Jordan’s capital, it can feel longer. Step through the stone gate, though, and it feels like you’ve entered a different era. Here, steam locomotives are still king. The Ottoman sultan controls a swath of land from modern-day Bosnia-Herzegovina to the Black Sea and Basra to Beirut. And hopes are high that a railway can unite the Muslim world.

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  • How nations come together

    Why do some countries fall apart, often along their ethnic fault lines, while others have held together over decades and centuries, despite governing a diverse population as well? Why is it, in other words, that nation-building succeeded in some places while it failed in others? The current tragedy in Syria illustrates the possibly murderous consequences of failed nation-building. Outside of the media spotlight, South Sudan and the Central African Republic went through similar experiences in recent years. In some rich and democratic countries in western Europe, such as Spain, Belgium and the United Kingdom, longstanding secessionist movements have regained momentum. Within our lifetimes, they might well succeed in breaking apart these states. On the other hand, there is no secessionist movement among the Cantonese speakers of southern China or among the Tamils of India. And why has no serious politician ever questioned national unity in such diverse countries as Switzerland or Burkina Faso?

    Before answering these questions, it is necessary to define nation-building more precisely. It goes beyond the mere existence of an independent country with a flag, an anthem and an army. Some old countries (such as Belgium) haven’t come together as a nation, while other more recently founded states (such as India) have done so. There are two sides to the nation-building coin: the extension of political alliances across the terrain of a country, and the identification with and loyalty to the institutions of the state, independent of who currently governs. The former is the political-integration aspect, the latter the political-identity aspect of nation-building. To foster both, political ties between citizens and the state should reach across ethnic divides.

    Such ties of alliance connect national governments with individual citizens, sometimes through intermediary political organisations such as voluntary associations, parties, professional groups, etc. Ideally, these ties link all citizens into networks of alliances centred on the state. In such countries, all citizens see themselves represented at the centre of power, even if their preferred party or political patron is not currently occupying one of the seats of government. Intellectuals, political elites, as well as the average individual will eventually see all citizens, irrespective of their racial or ethnic background, as equal members of the national community.

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  • Nazi war criminal reportedly died in Syrian dungeon

    A Nazi war criminal, believed responsible for the deaths of 130,000 European Jews during the second World War, died in a dungeon cell near the presidential palace in Damascus in late 2001 at the age of 89, the French quarterly review XXI revealed in its winter issue this week.

    Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the “Final Solution,” wrote in his memoirs that Alois Brunner “was my best man”. Brunner organised the deportation of 56,000 Jews from Vienna, 43,000 from Salonica, 14,000 from Slovakia and 23,500 from France to Auschwitz.

    Brunner, who was originally from Austria, was twice convicted of war crimes in absentia in Paris, in 1954 and in March 2001. As XXI’s investigation makes clear, he was still alive when his second trial took place. His fate had remained a mystery.

    Though Brunner’s presence in Damascus was for decades an open secret, he was protected and then imprisoned, by the late dictator Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bashar al-Assad. The Nazi hunters Simon Wiesenthal, who died in 2005, and Serge Klarsfeld, now 81, led futile searches for him.

    Klarsfeld was a boy when Brunner came to his family’s apartment in Nice in September 1943. While he, his mother and sister hid, they heard Brunner arrest their father and husband, who died at Auschwitz.

    When a journalist from XXI told Klarsfeld of its investigation, the first question he asked was whether Brunner had suffered.

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  • The Two Futures of the Arab World

    The Arab world is undergoing its most transformative change for a century. There are factors in this transformation that could plunge the Arab world into more disintegration, violence and chaos than what we have been seeing in the last five years. Yet, also within this transformation, there are changes that could salvage the Arab world, and usher it on a new trajectory of regeneration.

    Aside from the uprisings, regime-change, and civil wars, the key development that the Arab world has witnessed in the last few years has been the fall of the Arab state system of the past seven decades. The nation states in the Eastern Mediterranean that Britain and France created after the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire have been unravelling. In Iraq and Syria central state authority has collapsed. Lebanon’s various political factions have for over a year and half now been unable to agree on a president, leaving the country effectively a shell-state where the government undertakes administration and coordination, while its different religious and feudal communities retain their own political structures and foreign alliances. Eight years after the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas took control of Gaza and broke off relations with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, a cohesive Palestinian political entity remains elusive.

    For over two decades, Somalia, which commands a strategic location at the strait linking the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean, has been ruled by a coterie of war lords. The chaos there has given rise to multiple threats afflicting East Africa—violent Islamism, pirating, human trafficking. On the other side of the Arab periphery, close to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the Sahara separating North and West Africa has effectively fallen under the control of violent Islamists, of which Boko Haram is the most famous. The region’s main economic activities now are trading in arms, drugs and humans.

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  • The Medicis in the desert

    When Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, visited New York earlier this year, the face of Ahmed Mater, the kingdom’s most celebrated artist, was beamed onto an enormous billboard in Times Square. In recent years, he has been feted at exhibitions in London, New York and Venice. He dominates the Saudi art scene so thoroughly that his peers struggle for attention. “He’s the only artist anyone writes about,” says one Saudi curator. In 2017 Mater was appointed as artistic director of the Prince’s cultural and educational foundation, entrusted to promote art across the kingdom and liberalise the school system. He plays a crucial role in the enormously ambitious plan for economic and social transformation, which aims to wean the country off reliance on oil revenues, strip down the power of clerics and dispel a reputation for medieval obscurantism and misogyny.

    Prince Muhammad has travelled the world to convince business leaders, tech titans and entertainment impresarios that Saudi Arabia is a place where both popular and high culture can flourish. For the first time in over 30 years, cinemas show films. For the first time ever, pop stars perform in concert halls. Mater has accompanied the prince on his pilgrimage as the epitome of the country’s artistic reawakening. When the Saudi Crown Prince met Xi Jinping, he brought Mater along and gave the Chinese president one of his paintings as a gift.

    The story behind Mater’s rise is more complex and ambiguous than his current pre-eminence suggests. It illuminates the unprecedented liberalisation that many of the country’s cultural elite are experiencing at the moment, as well as the compromises with power that they must still make. Mater did not reach the pinnacle without help. But some of his companions have fallen by the wayside. “Of course”, one Saudi artist tells me, “it wouldn’t have happened without Ashraf.”

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  • Cairo: A Type of Love Story

    Natasha was the first of our daughters to get bitten by a rodent. It probably happened while she was sleeping, but she was too small to communicate anything. As with Ariel, her identical-twin sister, Natasha’s early vocabulary was mostly English, but the girls used Egyptian Arabic for certain things—colors, animals, basic sustenance. Aish for bread, maya for water. If I twirled one of them around, she would laugh and shriek, “Tani!”: “Again!” And then her sister would pick up the refrain, because anything that was done to one twin had to be repeated with the other. Tani, tani, tani. They weren’t yet two years old.

    I noticed the mark while changing Natasha. To the right of her navel, there were two pairs of ugly red puncture holes: incisors. Perhaps the animal had been nosing around the top of her diaper. If Natasha had cried out, neither I nor my wife, Leslie, heard.

    We had moved to Cairo in October, 2011, during the first year of the Arab Spring. We lived in Zamalek, a neighborhood on a long, thin island in the Nile River. Zamalek has traditionally been home to middle- and upper-class Cairenes, and we rented an apartment on the ground floor of an old building that, like many structures on our street, was beautiful but fading. Out in front of the Art Deco façade, the bars of a wrought-iron fence were shaped like spiderwebs.

    The spiderweb motif was repeated throughout the building. Little black webs decorated our front door, and the balconies and porches had webbed railings. The elevator was accessed through iron spiderweb gates. Behind the gates, rising and falling in the darkness of an open shaft, was the old-fashioned elevator box, made of heavy carved wood, like some Byzantine sarcophagus. The gaps in the webbed gates were as large as a person’s head, and it was possible to reach through and touch the elevator as it drifted past. Not long after we moved in, a child on an upper floor got his leg caught in the elevator, and the limb was broken so badly that he was evacuated to Europe for treatment.

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