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.

Over the next decade, Walmart's $350 billion investment in U.S. manufacturing has the potential to:

  • Support more than 750,000 new American jobs.
  • Avoid more than 100M metric tons of CO2 emissions by working with suppliers to shift to U.S. manufacturing.
  • Advance the growth of U.S.-based suppliers.
  • Provide opportunities for more than 9,000 entrepreneurs to become Walmart suppliers and sellers through Walmart's annual Open Call.

A year and a half after millions poured into the streets of Santiago to protest inequality and the vestiges of the Pinochet dictatorship, Chileans voted this weekend to elect the 155 people who will rewrite the country's constitution.

The question now is not whether the people want change — clearly they do — but rather how much change their representatives can agree on. Overall, the new text is widely expected to beef up the role of the state in a country where a strong private sector made Chile one of Latin America's wealthiest yet also most unequal nations.

Here are a few things to bear in mind as the constitutional rewrite process kicks off.

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In January 2020, Thailand became the first nation outside of China to record a case of COVID-19. But along with neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand managed to keep the coronavirus mostly at bay last year by swiftly enforcing lockdowns and other public health measures. However, having barely rolled out COVID vaccines, in 2021 many Southeast Asian nations are now grappling with massive new outbreaks of disease. Cambodia's caseload is surging, leading Prime Minister Hun Sen to say that his country was on "the brink of death." Meanwhile, Malaysian officials struggled to enforce domestic travel restrictions during Ramadan, causing cases to skyrocket in recent weeks. We take a look at COVID-19 caseloads in Southeast Asian countries with the highest daily caseloads this year.

Morocco punishes Spain with... migrants: Spain has sent in the army to help defend the border in Ceuta, a tiny Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast, after more than 8,000 migrants crossed over in just two days. Spanish border guards say that Morocco facilitated the migrants' departure, most of whom are Moroccan nationals, to punish Madrid for meddling in Morocco's internal affairs over Western Sahara. Last month, Madrid allowed the leader of the pro-independence Polisario Front to seek treatment for COVID in a Spanish hospital, infuriating Rabat, which claims the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara as part of its territory. The Moroccans, for their part, deny involvement in the mass exodus. However, that seems questionable given that Morocco has traditionally overreacted to any hint of Spanish support for Western Saharan independence. But Spain won't want to rock the boat too much because it needs Morocco's help to stop African migrants from flooding Ceuta and Melilla, the other Spanish enclave in Morocco. If the spat is not resolved soon, the European Union may have to step in to mediate because once the migrants are on EU soil, they are free to travel to other EU countries.

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20 million: The US will donate 20 million doses of federally authorized COVID vaccines to countries in need. This is the first time the Biden administration has agreed to send shots approved for use in America. Washington previously pledged to send by the end of June 60 million shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which the US has stockpiled but lacks FDA approval.

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Cyber is a tool, and sometimes a weapon. Whether espionage for commercial gain or indiscriminate attacks on critical infrastructure, actions taken in cyber space affect you directly, potentially upending even the most mundane realities of everyday life.

Watch GZERO Media and Microsoft's live conversation on cyber challenges facing governments, companies, and citizens in a Munich Security Conference "Road to Munich" event recorded today, May 18.

Event link: gzeromedia.com/globalstage

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A big reason the Chinese leader is pushing harder than ever to annex Taiwan is actually quite small. The self-governing island has an outsize manufacturing capacity for semiconductors – the little chips that bind the electrical circuits we use in our daily lives. Cell phones, laptops, modern cars, and even airplanes all rely on these tiny computer wafers. Taiwanese chip manufacturer TSMC alone makes more than half of the chips outsourced by all foreign companies, which means your iPhone likely runs on Taiwanese-made semiconductors. What would happen to the world's semiconductor chips if China were to take control of Taiwan?

Watch the episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer: What could spark a US-China war?

Will there be a ceasefire in Gaza? Fighting between the Israeli military and Hamas/Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants in the Gaza Strip has now entered its second week. Over the weekend, Israel intensified its bombing of the Gaza Strip, which included targeting a building that houses Al-Jazeera and AP, two foreign media outlets, causing their reporters to hastily flee the premises (Israel has so far not substantiated its claim that Hamas intelligence operatives were working in the building.) At least 42 Gazans were killed in a single Israeli strike Sunday, bringing the Palestinian death toll above 200. Meanwhile, Hamas continued to fire rockets at southern and central Israel, resulting in several casualties. On Monday, for the first time since the violent outbreak, US President Joe Biden voiced support for a ceasefire driven by the Egyptians and others. However, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, has said that the operation will "take time," and a truce is off the table until Hamas' military capabilities are significantly degraded. Civilians on both sides continue to suffer.

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Beyond SolarWinds: Securing Cyberspace. Watch on Tuesday, May 18, 2021 10am PT/ 1pm ET

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Beyond SolarWinds: Securing Cyberspace | Watch on Tuesday, May 18, 2021 10am PT / 1 pm PT

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