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To give architecture political clout we must engage with ordinary people

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The Architects Journal with Leanne Tritton, author, elaborated this article on how to give architecture political clout, we must engage with ordinary people.

To give architecture political clout we must engage with ordinary people

The architecture and built environment sector has a poor track record in communicating with the general public, something those in power are all too aware of, writes new chair of The London Society Leanne Tritton

My business is communication. I love working alongside built environment professionals, and in my day job I am fortunate to see at first hand how architects and developers are working hard to positively design and build better places.

But, sadly, few members of the general public see our sector in the same light. It is not surprising, given that the media generally focuses on the negative and the sensational. That’s just a fact of life. But we haven’t gone out of our way to help ourselves and present the other side of the story or co-ordinate campaigns that inform opinion.

For obvious reasons, central and local government is preoccupied by the feelings of the nation. It seems the built environment’s only meaningful connection with the population of this country is via a series of consultations that accompany proposed development. As these make their way through the planning process, such efforts often descend into almost hand-to-hand combat.

Put simply, we’ve not had strong enough links with either the general public or government to promote effectively what we do.

It also does our industry no credit that we have such a poor track record when it comes to engaging with the country’s political leadership and working to influence policies that will not only benefit our sector, but the greater good.

Politicians know that we have limited ‘clout’ and so have been able to dictate the pace and degree of change that takes place, and do so on their terms.

This needs to be put right, although it’s not to say there aren’t those who seek to engage with ordinary people about the buildings all around them. I have long admired the work undertaken by Open City, which, as well as running a series of events highlighting the architectural wonders of the capital, also organises the annual Open House festival. This event, which lasts for just a few days every year, gives people unparalleled access to some of London’s finest buildings.

It is also hugely encouraging to see Simon Allford, co-founding partner of AHMM, elected as president of the RIBA. Allford will not only be able to offer the institute effective leadership, he is the type of person who can walk into a room full of government ministers and have an immediate and positive impact.

Then there is The London Society (TLS). Established in 1912 by a group of Londoners concerned about the lack of planning in the capital, its theme 110 years on will focus on the connections among communities and those organisations that sit beyond those of built environment professionals and which have the potential to make the city stronger.

Having recently joined TLS as chair, I believe the organisation has a unique opportunity to present the built environment’s case outside the industry bubble.

Members of TLS come from all walks of life, not just the professions. All share a passion for the city and want to engage with the debates about its future, while also recognising – and indeed cherishing – its past. It is an organisation for all those who love London, forging links with underrepresented communities across the capital and, usefully, having the ear of MPs, sponsoring as it does the All-Party Parliamentary Group on London Planning and Built Environment.

The time for engagement is upon us and we need to fund those organisations that give us critical mass and help the public understand that we are on their side.

Leanne Tritton is managing director of ING Media and chair of The London Society. As part of the AJ100 Festival, she will be speaking at the panel debate COP26 – How can we get better at influencing government? at 9.35am on Monday 20 September.

Calls on World Citizens to Help Shape a Prosperous Post-Covid Era

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‘Let’s Lessen The Gap’ Calls On World Citizens To Help Shape A Prosperous Post-Covid Era For Vulnerable Communities

The Big Heart Foundation (TBHF), a UAE-based global humanitarian charity dedicated to helping refugees and people in need worldwide, has made an impassioned call to citizens around the world to generously support its 2021 Zakat and general donations drive during Ramadan.

These fundraising activities under the“Let’s Lessen the Gap” campaign are part of a comprehensive long-term programme that TBHF has launched. In partnership with four leading UN agencies, namely, UNHCR, UNDP, WHO and UNICEF, the foundation is addressing humanitarian development challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic amongst vulnerable populations in the MENA region.  

Furthering TBHF’s ongoing response efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 worldwide, the programme will set the blueprint for TBHF’s COVID-response strategies in the long term. Evidence and research-based findings from the programme will enable TBHF and partnering UN agencies to identify the most pressing needs of the region, and subsequently aid the designing of sustainable and long-term interventions. The programme will also encompass advocacy campaigns aimed at bridging the gaps in vital sectors of Protection, Livelihoods, Healthcare and Education, which have been heavily impacted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Announcing the launch of “Let’s Lessen the Gap”, TBHF revealed the programme would address both the critical health and non-healthcare needs of marginalized populations to allow for a return to normalcy in the MENA region. As COVID-19 continues to shape the lives of individuals and societies around the world, TBHF is appealing to people worldwide to act on their humanitarian instincts and support in lessening, and eventually closing the gap between vulnerable communities and their access to the tools and resources they need to become enablers for building a prosperous MENA region of tomorrow.

To know more about how you can get involved and make your contribution, visit www.lessenthegap.org. Contributions can also be made via SMS by sending the word ‘sadaqa’ to the Etisalat numbers: 7857 to donate AED 10; 7859 to donate AED 50, 7788 to donate AED 100, or 7708 to donate AED 500. For Du: 9965 to donate AED 10; 9967 to donate AED 50, 9968 to donate AED 100.

Zakat contributions can also be deposited directly into Zakat Fund account no: 0011-430430-020 at the Sharjah Islamic Bank (International Bank Account Number ‘IBAN’: AE040410000011430430020).

COVID-19 hastens diverse humanitarian challenges in MENA

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified many decades-long developments and humanitarian challenges in the MENA region such as high youth unemployment, inequitable development pathways, resource scarcity, gender discrimination, restricted access to services, and the devastating effects of ongoing conflict in some countries.

According to reports by UNESCWA, unemployment surged in the region with rates reaching up to 26.6% for youth compared to 13.6% globally. An estimated 25 million Arab youth are not in formal education, employment or training.

Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the learning crisis, disrupting education at an unparalleled rate across the region. A 2020 UNICEF report states that approximately 40% of students, accounting for 37 million children and young people across the region, were not reached by digital and broadcast remote learning.

The pandemic has also posed severe challenges in fragile and conflict-affected nations in MENA, overwhelming weak and overcrowded existing healthcare systems. A UNICEF study titled ‘The Potential Impact of Health Care Disruption on Child Mortality in MENA Due to COVID-19’ draws up a scenario highlighting a particularly bleak reality for children aged 0 – 5. It predicts that a protracted reduction in the supply and demand of primary health care services for children could potentially increase their mortality by nearly 40 percent, compared with a baseline scenario without the COVID-19 virus.

Additionally, refugees and displaced populations in the MENA region and across the world have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Exclusion, discrimination, and inadequate access to health services have heightened protection risks and tested international standards of refugee protection.

UN partners in four sector-specific areas

The “Let’s Lessen the Gap” campaign and post-COVID programme will see TBHF collaborating with multiple UN agencies working on the ground in MENA to implement long-term strategies and initiatives in the fields of Protection, Livelihoods, Healthcare, and Education to assist those who are least likely to have access to these essential services.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people. UNHCR will partner with TBHF to empower, protect, and improve the lives of refugees and internally displaced people affected by COVID-19 in the MENA region.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which works in 170 countries and territories to bridge gaps in inequalities and exclusion, will join hands with TBHF to support youth livelihoods, develop capacity and skills, and accelerate structural transformations to advance the sustainable development agenda in the targeted nations. 

To build a better, healthier future in a post-COVID world, TBHF will partner with the World Health Organization (WHO) along with other global organizations coordinating vaccine efforts to roll out vaccination programmes that give highest priority to vulnerable populations.

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), which works in some of the world’s toughest places to build a better world for the most disadvantaged children, is TBHF’s partner in improving access to learning and education opportunities for children of marginalized communities across the region.

Fundraising for “Let’s Lessen the Gap” commences in April 2021

Appealing to the public, high net worth donors, and the private sector to honour the spirit of giving embodied in the obligation of Zakat, Mariam Al Hammadi, Director of The Big Heart Foundation, said: “At TBHF, we believe in our collective ability to support the most vulnerable communities in the region through these difficult times and beyond by steering efforts towards inclusive programmes that address the economic and social consequences of the crisis.”

Al Hammadi added that although 2020 was an extremely challenging year, it also demonstrated collective resilience as schools, offices, and essential services continued to operate without fail. “Unfortunately, this only represents the reality of the world some of us live in. In many communities and countries that The Big Heart Foundation supports, solutions are still being sought to aid the response and recovery process. It is this gap that we aim to address and bridge through your support this Ramadan, and in the coming months.”

Fundraising activities of the programme have commenced with TBHF’s Zakat 2021 campaign. To know more and make your contributions, visit lessenthegap.org.    

E-governance for sustainable development in MENA countries

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The Forum ERF elaborated on how E-governance for sustainable development in MENA countries by  Iyad Dhaoui are typically perceived as technical support activities and not as a core strategic component of public sector activities.

March 23, 2021

Efforts to create digital government in the Middle East and North Africa are typically perceived as technical support activities and not as a core strategic component of public sector activities. As this column explains, the alternative would be that e-governance is value-driven instead of technology-driven: it should become an enabler of sustainable development.

In a nutshell

While digital technologies have spread rapidly in MENA countries, the broader development benefits from using them – the ‘digital dividends’ – have lagged behind: the opportunities offered by e-government are much wider than current usage.

Digital technologies are no shortcut to sustainable development: the digital economy also requires strong analogue components consisting of regulations, skills and institutions. Not undertaking necessary reforms in terms of digital complements will raise the opportunity cost.

The full benefits of the digital revolution will not be realised unless MENA countries continue to improve their business climate, invest in education and health, and promote good governance through strong institutions.

Both electronic governance (e-gov) and good governance have been widely discussed in the national and international arena. Digital technologies are some of the most transformational factors of our time, including their impact on effective governance and the process of sustainable development.

Public digital transformation has considerable potential for modernising public administration, improving public service delivery and promoting good governance. It may contribute to achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations. In that regard, e-government initiatives remain an important driving force for realising this transition (EGOV4SD). It is becoming a viable alternative to the traditional bureaucratic means of public service delivery as it promotes open governance.

Digitalisation underpins every aspect of our daily life. Digital technologies – the internet, mobile phones and all the other tools to collect, store, analyse and share information digitally – have spread quickly and we find ourselves in the middle of the greatest information and communications revolution in human history (WDR, 2016).

The Covid-19 pandemic, which requires social distancing and quarantine measures such as lockdowns, has accelerated the role of digital government both in conventional delivery of digital services as well as new innovative efforts in managing the crisis. Digital solutions have become vital to address isolation and keep people informed and engaged (UN, 2020). E-governance ensures the delivery of services remotely, thereby reducing the economic, social and environmental costs associated with service delivery to the public.

Developing countries, including in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), have made efforts to leverage information and communications technologies (ICTs) over the past decade. Concerted efforts have been made to digitalise (fully or potentially) government services to the public.

But digital government efforts in the MENA region are still perceived as technical support activities and not as a core strategic component of public sector activities (OECD, 2017). The alternative would be that e-governance is value-driven instead of technology-driven.

Some stylised facts

In the MENA region, the level of achievement of SDGs, governance system performance and investment in advanced technologies are different from one country to another, including sometimes within the same state.

In terms of achievement of the SDGS, the region is facing many challenges in creating decent jobs, building constructive social dialogue and improving social justice. The uprisings in half a dozen countries in the region brought to light key challenges that had existed for some time such as low job creation, pervasive corruption and lack of accountability and transparency. The uprisings and their truncated aftermath raise many important questions about political reforms, especially in terms of institutional structures. Individuals are seeking to become active citizens.

Recently, the pandemic has exposed serious vulnerabilities in MENA societies, institutions and economies. The consequences of the pandemic are likely to be deep and long lasting and the region’s economy is expected to contract by 5.7% (UN, 2020).

In terms, of governance system performance, adequate governance for innovation, and specifically ICTs, is severely lacking in most MENA countries (Göll and Zwiers (2018). There is a substantial cross-country variance in the related indicators, as well as variance in the responses to each of the indicators for individual countries.

Figure 1: Worldwide Governance Indicators (percentile rank*)

*Percentile rank (0-100) indicates rank of country among all countries in the world. 0 corresponds to lowest rank and 100 corresponds to highest rank.

Source: Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI).

Corruption remains a central challenge despite the work of many governments across the region to focus their national priorities on fighting corruption and increasing transparency. The corruption perceptions index, which ranks countries by their perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and business people, uses a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean. With an average score of 39, the MENA region falls behind both the Americas and Asia Pacific regions (score: 44) and does only slightly better than Eastern Europe and Central Asia (score: 35) and sub-Saharan Africa (score: 32).

In terms of e-governance, the MENA countries are characterised by large public sectors and complex regulatory structures. The implementation of ICTs to modernise public institutions has emerged and is growing. But dividends seem to be limited. Digital and data skills are also still scarce and unevenly disrupted across territories. The budgetary constraint is another challenge for the implementation of digital government strategies (OECD, 2017).

The difference in levels of digital development in the MENA region is significant (Thunert 2009, UNDP 2012, ESCWA 2015, Chambers 2015). Indeed, the region encompasses a wide variety of trajectories within the economy (general preconditions, differences between oil-exporting countries and oil-importing countries, outsourcing, start-up cultures, etc.). Factors such as the distribution of basic infrastructure, enabling business culture, and supportive economic and education policies are very different between as well as within most countries (Göll and Zwiers, 2018).

According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), internet use ranges from 30% to 80% across the region, and there is a gender gap in favour of men in many countries. The gap is also between rural and urban areas in almost all countries of the region.

High-speed internet penetration is low compared with emerging regions in Europe and Asia. With the exception of Gulf countries, where internet access is available to broad segments of the population, in many countries of the Arab world fewer than a quarter of households have access to this essential tool. Millions of people cannot afford internet services and are therefore excluded from the ICT revolution that is shaping the modern world (Gelvanovska et al, 2014). Table 1 highlights the state of e-governance development by geographical region.

Table 1: Breakdown of EDGI* per geographical region (2020)

Europe continues to lead e-governance development as indicated by the highest EGDI (0.817) it enjoys, followed by the Americas (0.634), MENA countries (0.616), Oceania (0.511) and sub-Saharan African countries (0.376) respectively.

The Human Capital Index (HCI) is the highest contributing sub-index in MENA countries while the Telecommunication Infrastructure Index (TII) and online service (OSI) are the lowest. This suggests that the main hindrances to the further growth of e-government in the region are still the lack of infrastructure and the digital divide.

The question now is which of the three sub-indices the rise in EDGI in MENA countries comes from?

Figure 2: Contributors to the EDGI improvements

Source: Compiled by author.

Figure 2 indicates that the largest component of the rise in EDGI in the region comes from the improvement in TII. This implies that investment in telecommunication infrastructure is the fastest means of improving a country’s EGDI rankings. It is worth noticing also the importance of online services and human capital in the long run. Indeed, although improvements in both infrastructure and human capital have been slower, they are equally important for a healthy and functioning e-government system.

E-governance as an enabler of sustainable development

The issue now is how e-government initiatives can help MENA countries to achieve better results in their governance and therefore their development policy goals (EGOV4SD)?

EGOV4SD has been defined as the ‘use of ICT to support public services, public administration, and the interaction between government and the public, while making possible public participation in government decision-making, promoting social equity and socio-economic development, and protecting natural resources for future generations’ (Estevez and Janowski, 2013).

Policy-makers have two options: apply this strategy with or without implementation of good governance.

Figure 3: E-government, good governance and sustainable development nexus

Source: developed by the researcher.

The huge public investment in ICTs, in the absence of a good governance framework that embodies accountable institutions, enlarges the voice of the elite, which in turn can result in policy capture and greater state control. This situation can hinder the business climate by raising natural monopolies and therefore creating more concentrated markets.

In the absence of institutional reform, technology will fail to deliver the expected benefits in the region. E-government reforms face the risk of failure to be adequately embedded in public sector reform. As a result, progress on tacking social and environmental divides may be limited. E-government will exert an adverse effect on various aspects of sustainable development instead of being a catalyst for progress.

The digital governance framework in MENA countries still faces institutional difficulties despite the great achievements accomplished to date. Digital transformation also faces complex challenges from economic issues, social and political matters, to technology innovation and its diffusion patterns. These challenges remain heavily dependent on the development stage of each organisation and each country.

A conclusion that may emerge here is the inadequate impact of e-government on sustainable development in MENA countries (Dhaoui, 2020). Digital government efforts in the MENA countries are still perceived as technical support activities and not as a core strategic component for development corpus. As result, the impact of e-government initiatives on sustainable development will be limited in the region.

According to many studies and reports, and although ICTs have spread rapidly in much of MENA countries, digital dividends – that is, the broader development benefits from using digital technologies – have lagged behind. In many countries, the full potential of digital technologies is not being used. In many cases, e-government projects have enlarged opportunities and get better service delivery. But their aggregate impact has fallen short and is unevenly distributed. This proves the deficits in the adoption of new technologies in the MENA region vis-à-vis the major factors for success (Göll and Zwiers, 2018).

Adequate governance for e-government projects is severely lacking in most of the MENA countries. The region IS still unable to complement technology investments with appropriate economic reforms that reap digital dividends in the form of faster growth, better public services and adequate environmental management. These challenges are preventing the digital revolution from fulfilling its transformative potential in the region.

Access to ICTs and greater digital adoption is critical, but not sufficient. Thus, digital technologies are no shortcut to sustainable development; they can be an enabler by raising the necessary reforms. The digital economy also requires what the WDR (2016) calls ‘strong analog components’ which consisting of regulations that create vibrant businesses and let firms leverage digital technologies to compete and innovate, skills that allow workers to adapt to the demands of the new economy, and institutions that are accountable and that uses the internet to empower citizens.

Overcoming these challenges will require special awareness, commitment and a particular focus on ambitious and action-oriented strategies that contribute to bypassing e-government constraints and enhancing good governance, which in turn improves sustainable development and more inclusive societies.

Figure 4: Digital governance components

Source: developed by the researcher.

The role of governments is not only to act as facilitators and leaders; but also as enablers and regulators. Given the limited resources of governments, the involvement of stakeholders through transparent cooperation is crucial. Governments are consistently interacting with diverse interest groups across society such as citizens (G2C), employees (G2E), businesses (G2B) and various state agencies (G2G), cohesively.

Figure 5: The various interactions in E-government

Source: Alhassan, 2020. E-governance for sustainable development in Ghana: Issues and prospects.

Roadmap for successful e-government initiatives

In order to achieve economic, social and environmental sustainability for MENA countries, it is crucial to establish good governance by forming an institutional environment capable to enabling the government with more effective and efficient tools for more successful development plans. But the region suffers from a lack of adequate training and knowledge about the technology, access to it, and knowledge of how to best apply it.

Policies on the use of digital technologies need to be adequately embedded in public sector reform. MENA countries should promote competitive business environments, enhance accountability, and upgrade education and skills development systems to prepare people for the jobs of the future. The race is between skills and technology, while the outcome will settle on whether the dividends from ICTs are realised and the benefits widely shared.

Bringing digital technology and governance practices together at the forefront of sustainable development strategies and providing new and innovative technological options leading to improve governance strategies may contribute to achieving sustainable development in all dimensions.

A particular emphasis on building a digitally inclusive society is needed. The increase in access to digital technologies should bring more choice and greater convenience in the region. This can be done through inclusion, efficiency and innovation that are capable to provide opportunities that were previously out of reach to the poor and disadvantaged.

The full benefits of the ICT revolution will not be realised unless MENA countries continue to improve their business climate, invest in education and health, and promote good governance through strong institutions.

Figure 6: Pre-requisites for maximising digital dividends

Source: developed by the researcher.

The challenge is to start adequate reforms to maximise digital dividends and to prepare for any disruptions. The digital economy is changing rapidly. Not undertaking the necessary reforms in terms of digital complements such as regulation, skills and institutions will raise the opportunity cost. Any failure to reform will lead to a situation of falling farther behind those who do reform. Strengthening the interaction between technology and its complements is more urgent than ever before.

Upsizing could become key travel trend

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With the advent of the pandemic and its ensuing lockdown, life changed for the many peoples of the UAE. But of all aspects of life, travelling is to do with remote working and all its direct consequences reviewed here. So despite the Grim short-term Forecast for the Coronavirus-era Economy why upsizing could become a significant travel trend?

Upsizing could become key travel trend, says study

DUBAI, Financial situations worsening for consumers has been widely discussed amid the Covid-19 pandemic. However, many consumers managed to bypass this financial squeeze and have incidentally become efficient savers. 

This trend should not be overlooked by tourism companies which need to realise that not all travelers will be wanting a budget-friendly option for their next holiday, says GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company.

With saved cash that has accumulated during the pandemic, many travellers may be planning to spend more than usual on their next trip. 

According to GlobalData’s survey, when global respondents were asked if they were concerned about their personal financial situation, 13% stated that they were ‘not concerned’. Although this is still significantly less than the 34% that stated they are ‘extremely concerned’, it means that over one in ten of the global travel market could be financially unaffected by the pandemic and have even saved a considerable amount.

Ralph Hollister, Travel and Tourism Analyst at GlobalData, comments: “Many of the travellers that make up this 13% are likely to be white-collar workers that can work effectively at home. Due to spending the vast majority of their time being confined to their homes in the past year, the urge to travel would have built up. This urge, combined with a significant increase in savings, could mean that many of these travellers will have developed a ‘treat yourself’ mentality, to combat the impact of the pandemic which has increased boredom and frustration for many. This mentality could be present as these consumers start planning their next holiday, which could result in them spending more on room upgrades, business class flights and higher quality rental vehicles.

“As well as saving money on commuting, eating out and on other recreational activities, many of these consumers who have been unaffected by the pandemic have also saved by not booking a holiday last year, or by having their cancelled trip refunded. This could mean that for their next trip, they will go bigger and better on more luxurious travel services and products. This trend could also be driven by a ‘now or never’ mentality, as when travellers have the opportunity to go on holiday, they will spend significantly more and stay for longer in case another situation like the Covid-19 pandemic reoccurs,” Hollister said.  –TradeArabia News Service

Qatar hugs and makes up with its warring neighbours

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Gulf blockade: Qatar hugs and makes up with its warring neighbours – but will it last? wonders Mustafa Menshawy, Lancaster University, elaborating on a situation at one end of the MENA that lasted hardly more than three years, whereas the similar one at the other end of the region continues unabated for the last forty years. It is that of the ongoing North African situation, but that is another story. In the meantime, let us read Mustafa’s.


Shortly after four Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – imposed an embargo on Qatar in 2017, I flew into the country’s capital Doha. Hamad airport – usually buzzing with visitors from the Gulf countries (one of every four visitors to Qatar in 2015 came from Saudi Arabia) – was eerily quiet.

The four countries severed ties with Qatar in June 2017 after they accused Doha of supporting terrorism. They demanded the shutdown of Qatari news network Al Jazeera as well as calling on the country to downgrade its relations with Iran. Doha defiantly rejected the accusations and agreed to mediation from Kuwait and the US to end the standoff.

Qatar has estimated its losses from the blockade in the billions of dollars – citing factors such as “industrial-scale theft of content from its sports broadcaster BeIN by rival Saudi network BeoutQ and the manipulation of its currency by the four countries. So, when they agreed on January 5 to lift the embargo and restore diplomatic relations with Qatar, all sides were keenly anticipating any economic benefits the restored detente might bring.

Qatar may be the smallest of the Gulf states – but it’s the richest. So when, hours after the agreement, foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani talked about the possibility of the country’s sovereign wealth fund investing in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, his hint would have been well received in Riyadh.

Dangling the carrot of investment is a good way of appeasing Saudi Arabia, which is keen to attract foreign investment to back Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s grandiose modernisation projects as well as respond to the country’s long-term need to secure new export markets and diversify its oil-dependent economy.

Fraternal relations

But the biggest sign of the new detente has so far been in the tone of Qatar’s news media. Top of the list of the 13 demands placed on Qatar by the four countries was shutting down Al Jazeera.

Qatar didn’t shut the network down – but watching the network in the days after the blockade ended, one could feel the difference. Bulletins no longer include regular news on “violations” by the Saudi regime. The channel even rebranded the Saudi Crown Prince, who it had vociferously attacked just a few weeks ago for “tarnishing the image of the Saudi state”. Now Bin Salman is represented as a rising peacemaker engaged in relations of “fraternity”. This was symbolically reflected in the way he hugged Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani when the Qatari emir arrived in Riyadh for their meeting on the sidelines of the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Saudi Arabia on January 5.

Coverage of Qatar by Saudi network Al Arabiya has also softened considerably, something picked up on by the BBC, which even hosted analysts to comment of the repeatedly screened scene of the hugging between the two leaders. “It was a hot hugging”, commented one analyst, of the enthusiastic way the two leaders embraced when meeting at the airport in Riyadh.

The reconciliation has brought a sense of relief in all four countries. Ordinary people paid a deep humanitarian price – many are linked by close tribal ties and there are thousands of cases of cross-border intermarriage (to give you an idea of how close the Saudi Arabia and Qatar are, consider that it takes just an hour to drive from Doha to Saudi territory).

In Qatar, I heard many stories of families split apart when Qatari nationals were ordered to leave their three Gulf neighbours within 14 days. More than 12,000 residents in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE were also ordered to leave Qatar. Social media is now full of videos of families jubilantly crossing “Abu Samra”, the land border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar within hours of the agreement.

Happy talk

This may all sound like a return to normality, but sceptics pointed to the fact that, while the two feuding leaders talked of “brotherly unity” and desires for “Gulf unity”, neither mentioned an agreement on any of the issues that caused the crisis. On the one hand, everyone’s a winner – but, on the other, we don’t know how or why. The situation has been described as a “detente borne more of exhaustion than compromise”.

The 13 demands made by the other Gulf states of Qatar remain unmet. For example, the Qatari foreign minister has already scotched a demand for Qatar to reduce its ties with Iran by shutting down diplomatic posts in Iran or expelling members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, saying a couple of days after the agreement that his country would not alter relations with Tehran.

So this dispute is far from ended and there is a lot of tension brewing under the surface. Saudi Arabia, for its part, sees Iran as an “existential threat” and is unlikely to take no change as a negative answer.

Others believe that for Bin Salman, temporarily easing the tension with Qatar is “low-hanging fruit” – something achieved with relative ease ahead of the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th US president. Biden is known for his critical attitude towards Riyadh’s approach to human rights.

There is no sign that Qatar is also heeding the other demands, including closing Turkey’s military base outside Doha. Turkey is popular among Qataris. You’ll see cars with number plate stickers featuring the Turkish flag – or even with the image of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

With so few issues apparently actually resolved, it’s little wonder that it took just days for new signs of tension to reappear after the agreement. The UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said following the GCC summit that Doha still has questions to answer, including: “How is Qatar going to deal vis-à-vis interfering in our affairs through support of political Islam? Is Turkey’s presence in the Gulf going to be permanent?”

These are the same questions asked of Qatar long before the four countries issued their ultimatum in 2017. It’s tension that is likely to outlive the warmth engendered by those televised hugs.

Mustafa Menshawy, Postdoctoral Researcher in Middle East Politics, Lancaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.