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.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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28: The UK and the EU have again failed to agree on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. In a 28-page document, the British government had suggested further changes to trade rules that were already negotiated as part of the Brexit settlement, but Brussels was not having any of it.

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