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.
Colorful graphic with a woman wearing a red top in the foreground and blue background with two individuals looking on

As the private sector innovates aid and financing, seeking holistic solutions to neighborhood challenges is the cornerstone of the approach.

Businesses, which rely on healthy communities for their own prosperity, must play a big part in driving solutions.

See why.

Australian Open - First Round - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia - January 21, 2020 China's Peng Shuai in action during the match against Japan's Nao Hibino

The Women’s Tennis Association this week decided to suspend all tournaments in China, over doubts that the country’s star player Peng Shuai is safe and sound. Peng recently disappeared for three weeks after accusing a former Vice Premier of sexual assault. Although she has since resurfaced, telling the International Olympic Committee that she’s fine and just wants a little privacy, there are still concerns that Peng has been subjected to intimidation by the Chinese state.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective from Europe:

How is Europe dealing with new omicron version of the pandemic?

Well, I mean the big issue isn't really that one, the big issue if you see the havoc that is created in several European countries at the moment is the delta. The delta is making impressive strides, particularly in countries that have a slightly lower vaccination rates. So that's the number one fight at the moment. And then we must of course prepare for the omicron as well.

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Caravan of Taliban soldiers with guns held upright

Listen: With the US gone and the Taliban back in control, Afghanistan faces a long winter. Mounting food insecurity and a crumbling economy have left many Afghans feeling abandoned. The international community could help solve this humanitarian crisis, but can they trust the Taliban?

Ian Bremmer sat down with journalist and author Ahmed Rashid to learn more about the Taliban today. Few people know more about the Taliban than Rashid, who wrote the book on the group — literally. In the months after 9/11, his critically acclaimed 2000 study Taliban became a go-to reference as the US geared up to invade Afghanistan and knock the militant group from power. Twenty years later, how much has the group changed since the days of soccer-stadium executions, television bans, and blowing up world heritage sites?

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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:

What are the DSA and the DMA?

Well, the twin legislative initiatives of the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act are the European Union's answer to the challenges of content moderation online and that of the significant role of major market players, also known as gatekeepers in the digital markets. And the intention is to foster both more competition and responsible behavior by tech companies. So the new rules would apply broadly to search engines, social media platforms, but also retail platforms and app stores.

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Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, shares insights on US politics:

What is happening to Roe v. Wade?

Well, this week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case called Dobbs v. Jackson, which challenges a Mississippi law that would outlaw abortions after 15 weeks in the state. That law itself is a direct challenge to the legal precedent set by Roe v. Wade nearly 50 years ago, which is one of the most politically important Supreme Court decisions in American history. It has driven deep polarization between the right and the left in the US and become a critical litmus test. There are very few, if any, pro-life Democrats at the national level and virtually no pro-choice Republicans at any level of government. Overturning Roe has been an animating force on the political right in the US for a generation. And in turn, Democrats have responded by making protecting Roe one of their key political missions.

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What We're Watching: Angela Merkel's punk rock farewell, Iran nuclear talks resume

Angela Merkel's punk rock farewell. Although she doesn't officially step down as German Chancellor until next week, Angela Merkel's sendoff took place on Thursday night in Berlin, with the traditional Grosser Zapfenstreich — a musical aufweidersehen, replete with torches and a military band. By custom, the honoree gets to choose three songs for the band to play. Among Merkel's otherwise staid choices was a total curveball: You Forgot the Colour Film, a 1974 rock hit by fellow East German Nina Hagen, a renowned punk rocker. The song, a parody bit about a man who takes the singer on vacation but has only black-and-white film in his camera, was understood as a dig at the drabness of life in the East. We're listening to the tune, and... digging it, kind of — but we still prefer Merkel's own Kraftwerk-inspired farewell song from Puppet Regime. Eins, zwei, drei, it's time to say goodbye...

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World leaders at the G20 Summit in Rome, October 2021

This week, the World Health Organization’s governing body agreed to begin multinational negotiations on an agreement that would boost global preparedness to deal with future pandemics. The WHO hopes that its 194 member countries will sign a treaty that helps ensure that the global response to the next pandemic is better coordinated and fairer.

The specifics remain to be negotiated over the coming months – and maybe longer – but the stated goal of those who back this plan is a treaty that will commit member countries to share information, virus samples, and new technologies, and to ensure that poorer countries have much better access than they do now to vaccines and related technologies.

Crucially, backers of the treaty insist it must be “legally binding.”

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