What We're Watching: Qatar-Saudi embrace, Jack Ma's whereabouts, Egyptian incompetence

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani during the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) 41st Summit in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia January 5, 2021.

Qatar blockade lifted: A bitter dispute between Gulf rivals Saudi Arabia and Qatar has begun to ease after Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani flew to Saudi Arabia for the Gulf Cooperation Council summit and was warmly embraced by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. The immediate cause of the détente was Riyadh's decision to lift a years-long land and air blockade that significantly disrupted Qatar's economic activity and led to a bitter standoff in the Gulf. (The Saudis, along with Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE launched a joint blockade against Qatar in 2017, citing its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and regional foes Iran and Turkey.) It's unclear what concessions Qatar made in exchange for beginning the normalization process, though President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, a close friend of MBS, has been lobbying for the move for some time. Qatar has long denied claims that it supports Islamic extremist groups and rebuffed demands like terminating Turkey's military presence within its borders. As for the timing for the rapprochement, it could reflect a feeling that increased GCC cooperation is needed as the incoming Biden administration in the US is expected to promptly re-engage in talks with Iran.


Where is Jack Ma? After two months where he seemed to have disappeared altogether, Chinese billionaire and Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma is now "laying low," according to media reports, after a fallout with the Chinese government. Ma has not been seen in public nor heard of since late October, when he openly criticized China's banks and financial regulators. Just days later, Beijing blocked Ma from listing his fintech company Ant on the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock exchanges, in a deal that would have made Ant the world's largest initial public offering. When Ma tried to save the IPO by offering the government a stake in Ant, Beijing doubled down by opening an antitrust probe into Alibaba, the world's top e-commerce firm. Indeed, Ma's fall from grace has sent a strong message to other Chinese tycoons: don't question the regime's wisdom — or else. It also plays into wider public resentment about rising income inequality in China, which the ruling Communist Party is very worried about. Either way, we're watching to see if Ma will find a way to make amends with the government, or whether his low profile is a preamble for Beijing to take over Ant and other parts of the Alibaba empire.

Incompetence and horror in Egypt: Over the past several days, shocking video footage has made the rounds online of an oxygen leak that suddenly killed every patient in the intensive care unit of an Egyptian hospital. Egypt's government first denied the story, accused the Muslim Brotherhood of making it up, and pressured hospital employees to keep quiet. Public outrage is growing, however, and Egypt's health minister has now admitted that hospitals face oxygen shortages as a new wave of COVID takes hold across the country. This combination of horrific event, personal tragedy, state incompetence, and public fury recalls the massive warehouse explosion in Beirut that killed more than 200 people, left 300,000 homeless, and destabilized Lebanon's government in August 2020. Egypt is far more politically stable than Lebanon, but we can expect more of these kinds of stories from other cash-strapped, poorly governed countries in 2021, particularly because they will be the last to receive the vaccinations that allow human, economic, and political recovery to begin.

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Learn more about Zoe and her story.

Listen: Can Big Government still rein in Big Tech or has it already lost control? Never before have just a few companies exerted such an outsized influence on humanity. Today's digital space, where we live so much of our daily lives, has increasingly become an area that national governments are unable to control. It may be time to start thinking of these corporations as nation-states in their own rights. Ian Bremmer speaks with Nicholas Thompson, CEO of the Atlantic and former WIRED editor-in-chief, about how to police the digital world.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

In the lead-up to this year's COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, much of the attention has been focused on last summer's wildfires across the US and Europe, and more recently skyrocketing European energy prices. But what about Asia, the world's biggest and most populated region, which also has the highest share of global carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming? Asia has unique climate risks but also many opportunities for solutions, and whatever happens at COP26, Asian countries led by China and India are primed to lead the world in the struggle to make the planet greener before it's too late. In a live discussion moderated by Shari Friedman, Eurasia Group's Managing Director of Climate and Sustainability, global experts discussed these and other topics during the first of a two-part Sustainability Leaders Summit sponsored by Suntory.

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We're just days away from COP26, the landmark global climate conference that's been dubbed the last chance to get the climate crisis in check. In the lead-up to the event in Glasgow, dozens of countries have released new ambitions to reduce their future carbon footprints. For years, climate activists and experts have called on governments to introduce carbon pricing schemes – either through taxes or emissions-trading schemes. So who's heeded the warning? We take a look at the top ten carbon emitters' share of global emissions and details about their respective national carbon pricing schemes.

Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center, Eurasia Group senior advisor and former MEP, discusses trends in big tech, privacy protection and cyberspace:

Do cryptocurrencies make it harder to enforce foreign policy sanctions?

Well, that is exactly what the Biden administration worries about. As part of growing concerns of whether unregulated currencies undermine a whole host of policies, sanctions and foreign or trade policy should be a priority area. And just like others who wish to evade tracing of their wealth or transactions, the very states or their sanctioned entities should be assumed to resort to all options to evade restrictions while continuing to do business. So having cryptocurrencies undermining the ability to enforce strategic goals logically raises eyebrows in Washington.

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Back in August, when the Taliban took over, we asked whether anyone in the international community would recognize them. Now it looks like things are heading that way.

This week, the Kremlin hosted a summit with the Taliban that was attended by China, India and Pakistan, as well as all five Central Asian Republics.

The domestically-focused US, however, wasn't there. The US continues to maintain that the Taliban can't be trusted. But does it matter? In 2021 does a Taliban-led government even need American recognition to function and thrive?

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For Kevin Rudd, former Australian PM and now CEO of the Asia Society, the science on climate change is pretty much done, so the only unresolved issues are tech and — more importantly — lack of political leadership. He can't think of a single national political leader who can fill the role, and says the only way to get political action on climate is to mobilize public opinion.

Rudd joined for the first of a two-part Sustainability Leaders Summit livestream conversation sponsored by Suntory. Watch here and register here to watch part two Friday 10/22 at 8 am ET.

Taking place on October 21 and 22, the Sustainability Leaders Summit will go beyond preexisting narratives and debate priorities for governments and industries ahead of COP26. Placing the spotlight on Asia's role in the global sustainability agenda, the event will address whether Asian countries and companies can achieve shared sustainability goals, and what is needed to help get them there. The summit will be co-hosted by Tak Niinami, CEO of Suntory Holdings, and Ian Bremmer, founder and president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. We will address three key questions: How can Asian countries, with the help of the private sector, achieve shared Sustainability Goals? Why does this matter? And what are the policy changes needed to bring it about?

Attendance is free and open to the public. Register to attend.

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