What We're Watching: Saudi olive branch for Biden, US-China call, Ecuador's runoff in limbo

What We're Watching: Saudi olive branch for Biden, US-China call, Ecuador's runoff in limbo

Saudi women's rights advocate set free: After three years behind bars, Loujain al-Hathloul — locked up for lobbying for women's right to drive in Saudi Arabia — has been released from jail. The move is broadly seen as a low-stakes overture to President Biden by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who knows that the new US administration will not be as friendly as Trump's. Since coming into office, Biden has said the US will halt support for the Saudi military campaign in Yemen, and drop the Houthi militant group — Riyadh's rival in Yemen — from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism (a move that's caused a big stir in the foreign policy world). In contrast to Trump, who employed a maximum-pressure campaign on Iran much to the Saudis' delight, Biden says reengaging with Tehran (and rejoining the Iran nuclear deal) is a foreign policy priority. Indeed, the Saudis got comfortable with a US that sold it limitless weapons and ignored its human rights abuses — and prioritized relations with the kingdom to the extent that Trump made his first trip abroad to Riyadh (remember that weird orb moment). Biden has made clear that things will change under his watch, and the Saudis are slowly testing the waters.


Biden and Xi chew the fat: US President Biden held a two-hour phone call with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Wednesday, the first time the leaders spoke since Biden moved into the White House. Biden raised concerns over Chinese abuses in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Taiwan, prompting Xi to warn Washington not to get involved in its domestic affairs. But the discussion also struck a somewhat conciliatory tone, with both sides agreeing that it's important to cooperate on the global economic recovery and climate change. By the end of the Trump administration, which touted its tough on China bonafides, US-China relations were at their lowest point in decades. "I'm not going to do it the way Trump did," Biden recently said, but he still appears to be figuring out his administration's tact: a new Defense Department task force will soon review US-China policy, and Trump's tariffs on Chinese goods will stay in place for now. We are "being very careful in our initial interactions with China," a Biden representative told POLITICO. There is plenty for the two sides to navigate in the months and years ahead.

Who'll go to Ecuador's presidential runoff? The first round of Ecuador's presidential election remains undecided, with two candidates in a virtual tie to place second and advance to the April 11 runoff vote against Andrés Arauz, a left-wing economist and protege of Rafael Correa, the country's former socialist leader. Arauz won more than 32 percent of the vote last Sunday, but fell short of the threshold to win in the first round. It's not clear whom he'll face in round two: at the moment, conservative pro-business candidate Guillermo Lasso has pulled ahead by a razor thin margin over indigenous leader and environmental activist Yaku Pérez, but Pérez's supporters have already taken to the streets, crying fraud. A recount is possible, and we're watching to see whether the outcome leads to larger protests. Ecuador can ill-afford more political instability at a moment when the oil-dependent country is wracked by the pandemic, economic collapse, and low oil prices.

Iran was involved in two naval incidents in the Gulf of Oman in recent days. The US, UK, and Israel have blamed Iran for a drone attack that killed two European nationals. Iran has rejected the accusations. Iran is also suspected in the "potential hijack" of a tanker off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

These provocations are happening just as Iran inaugurates a new president, Ebrahim Raisi, and as talks continue over the possible US re-entry into the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. What's the connection between these events? We asked Henry Rome, Eurasia Group's deputy head of research and a director covering global macro politics and the Middle East.

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Jon Lieber, Managing Director of the United States for Eurasia Group, shares updates on recent COVID-19 policy developments:

The Biden administration extended an eviction moratorium even after the Supreme Court said they couldn't, what's next?

Well, the CDC imposed a nationwide eviction moratorium in light of increased risk from evicted people because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Supreme Court in June ruled that they (CDC) overextended their authority in doing so and mandated that the moratorium expire on schedule in July. A group of progressive activists weren't happy about this and raised a huge stink in Congress, but Congress recessed for their August vacation before they could solve the problem, putting big pressure on President Biden to extend the moratorium even though he said he didn't think that it would pass constitutional muster. The CDC did it anyway, extending the moratorium until October 3rd, which is a time that's short enough to probably avoid it being overturned by lawsuits, but long enough that Congress has time to figure out how to either extend it on a bipartisan basis or put more money into a rental assistance fund that few people have taken advantage of so far. This whole incident shows the power of progressive activists in the Biden administration who were able to elevate the profile of this issue and potentially prevent millions of people from losing their homes this summer.

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We expect the usual suspects — US, China, Russia — to dominate the Olympic medal tally. But how should the performances of large, well-resourced countries really be assessed? Drawing on a model first developed by a team of labor economists, the Financial Times looks at a range of factors — including past medal hauls, population size, and GDP per capita — to determine whether nations have surpassed or failed to meet expectations at the Tokyo Games. We take a look at the biggest under-performers and over-performers per the model, and whether people in these countries really care about the Olympics at all.

This week, the market value of Tencent, China's biggest video game company, nosedived after a state media outlet suggested that online gaming was as addictive and destructive as opium. Tencent immediately pledged to cap the number of hours people can play, and to keep minors off its platforms.

It's the latest example of a months-long crackdown on major Chinese technology firms that until recently were viewed as some of the world's most powerful and successful companies, as well as a source of national pride. Beijing's about-face on its own tech titans could have big implications for China, and beyond.

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Whenever Burkina Faso is in the news, it's often about how the crisis-ridden country has got caught up in the crosshairs of horrific jihadist violence plaguing the Sahel.

But this week, the nation of 20 million was celebrating because Hugues Fabrice Zango won its first-ever Olympic medal after finishing third in the men's triple jump in Tokyo.

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Should people get COVID vaccine booster shots? Not yet, says the World Health Organization, which is pushing for rich nations or those with access to jabs to hold off until at least the end of September so all countries get to fully vaccinate at least 10 percent of their populations before some jump ahead with boosters. But the WHO's call has fallen on deaf ears in nations like Israel, France, Germany and Russia, which are already planning to offer boosters, in part to better protect people against the more contagious delta variant. What's more, mRNA vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna are recommending supplemental doses for the same reason. The problem is that, beyond the obvious moral imperative for equal access to vaccines, if the rich continue hoarding jabs while vaccination rates stay low elsewhere, the virus will continue to thrive — and mutate into new, potentially even more infectious variants that sooner or later will reach every corner of the planet.

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80: If polar ice caps continue to melt at their current pace due to climate change, 80 percent of all emperor penguins will be wiped out by the end of the century because they need the ice for breeding and keeping their offspring safe. American authorities want to list emperor penguins, which only live in Antarctica, as an endangered species so that US fishing vessels will be required to protect them when operating in their habitat.

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