Meridian Reads: Bhutan, Gulf tensions and Big Ben

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Happy Sunday, Meridian Readers. Didn’t keep up with all the international news this week? We get it, life is busy. Let’s catch up now.

Himalayan Kingdom gradually raises its U.S. profile, even without an embassy in D.C.

Publication: The Washington Diplomat | By Larry Luxner a4.cover.bhutan.wangchuk.story

  • Familiar with Bhutan?
    • We won’t be shocked if you’re not. In 1980, it had just 1,200 phone lines in service. Television came to this isolated Shangri-La only in 1999, and even today, fewer than 300,000 tourists visit Bhutan annually.
  • Bhutan is also one of only a handful of countries without an embassy in Washington.
    • The kingdom doesn’t maintain diplomatic ties with the United States, which puts the Maryland-size Buddhist nation in the company of Iran, Syria and North Korea.
  • Curious as to why you’re hearing about this country now?
    • It’s all thanks to the Bhutan Foundation, located on the 7th floor of an office building in Dupont Circle.
  • The Bhutan Foundation is a nonprofit organization that seeks to strengthen bilateral cultural, economic and educational links in the absence of formal relations. We’re here for that.
    • “This foundation started in 1986, and it’s the result of a friendship among three women who went to school in London in the 1940s. One of them, Kesang Choden Wangchuk, went back and married the king of Bhutan, becoming the third queen. Another friend married John Goelet, and both of them wanted to stay engaged with Bhutan and support a few projects, starting with agriculture,” said Tshewang Wangchuk, the org’s executive director.
    • “We approach all of this with mindfulness,” Tshewang Wangchuk added. “We are a small country, having just barely graduated from low-income to middle-income status, so any embassy or mission abroad comes at a huge economic burden to the country. Our policy has always been to have relations that are meaningful, but without economic implications.”
  • If you look up the country on the web, you’ll see luscious green hills and stunning buildings. And it’s not a tourist destination because…?
    • Infrastructure. Also the price.
      • There are a few hotels that charge about $2k a night. Not ideal for the average traveler.
    • The Bhutanese hope to avoid the fate of Nepal — whose 30 million people struggle with natural disasters, corruption and civil unrest — and which is the perfect example of a country ruined by mass tourism. Air pollution in Kathmandu has reached toxic levels, the capital city’s Bagmati River has become an open sewer and the ever-increasing number of mountaineers attempting to scale Nepal’s Mount Everest is gradually turning the world’s highest mountain into a garbage dump.
  • So, what’s next for Bhutan?
    • The World Bank notes that poverty in Bhutan has been cut by two-thirds over the last decade and the country has experienced annual GDP growth of 7.5% since the early 1980s, making it one of the fastest growing economies in the world. If the kingdom works to become less dependent on India, we could see a huge jump in annual GDP… and maybe even a U.S. embassy.

Japan pursues regional diplomacy to defuse Gulf tensions

Publication: Reuters | By Dahlia Nehme

  • Japan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE should work together to de-escalate the tense situation in the Gulf, a Japanese foreign ministry official said on Monday, relaying comments by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
  • The official said Japan’s strong relationship with both the U.S. and Iran enabled it to play a diplomatic role in defusing heightened regional tensions following the U.S. killing of Iranian military commander General Qassem Soleimani and a retaliatory missile attack by Iran on U.S. forces in Iraq.
  • As part of a Middle Eastern tour, Abe met UAE leaders in Abu Dhabi on Monday after having been to Saudi Arabia on Sunday. He will head to Oman on Tuesday, whose ruler, Sultan Qaboos, died on Friday.
  • Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan thanked Abe for Japan’s “balanced policy” towards the Middle East, in a statement on UAE state media after their meeting.
  • What does this mean for the region?
    • All good things. Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan thanked Abe for Japan’s “balanced policy” towards the Middle East, in a statement on UAE state media after their meeting.
    • In turn, Abe said he appreciated the “discrete position” the UAE has been demonstrating in the current situation.

Boris Johnson wants Britons to pay $650k for Big Ben to bong for Brexit

Publication: The Washington Post | By Rick Noack

  • There’s a lot of alliterations in that headline. Let’s break it down.
  • When construction began to erect scaffolding around the Palace of Westminster in 2017, it appeared to be a perfect metaphor for Britain’s polarizing Brexit debate, which had plunged the country’s politics into a state of disrepair and took center stage inside that building.
    • Neither the debate nor the construction are over yet. But Britain is set to leave the European Union at the end of the month, and staunch pro-Brexit members of Parliament are in the mood to celebrate. They have requested that Big Ben — the iconic chiming clock housed in Westminster’s Elizabeth Tower — chime at the exact moment that Britain officially exits the E.U. on Jan. 31.
  • Sounds easy, right? Not so fast.
    • “Because, as everybody knows, Big Ben is being refurbished. They seem to have taken the clapper away, so we need to restore the clapper in order to bong Big Ben on Brexit night. That is expensive,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the BBC on Tuesday.
    • “We’re looking at whether the public can fund it,” Johnson said in relation to the nearly $700,000 it would take to restore the clock tower.
  • Whats’ the public got to say about their potential investment?
    • Critics seem to be upset, mostly due to the fact that many worry Brexit will make Britain poorer, and asking for a little over half a million from the public doesn’t ease concerns.
    • Other people don’t really care.
      • David Lammy, a member of Parliament from the opposition Labour Party, tweeted that he was “not fussed about whether Big Ben bongs on Brexit day.”
  • So, will Big Ben bong at the end of the month? Looks like we’ll have to wait and see.