Pop great Amr Diab’s value for Egypt’s soft power and the benefits of boring politicians.
Dashing 60-year-old Egyptian superstar Amr Diab is one of the Middle East’s best-selling singers, shifting more than 50 million albums over a career that began with the 1983 album Ya Tareeq. Many in the region will know the words to at least one of his songs, from 1996 hit “Nour El Ain”, which charted in countries from Brazil to France, to his 2020 release “Ya Ana Ya La”.
Diab also dabbles in film and is involved in several charities in Egypt. More recently he has launched a clothing line called 34, named after the birth year of his parents. Accompanying it is a scent, Eau de Parfum 34, which has touches of mandarin and patchouli. From earworm tunes to fashion, it seems that Diab can do no wrong. Yet the role of Middle Eastern megastars encompasses something more significant: they provide a joyous, unifying soundtrack in a complicated region. And in Diab, Egypt also has a cultural emissary who serves as a reminder of the country’s traditional role as the creator of the kind of music that resonates in Tunis, Dubai and Damascus. He helps to keep Cairo’s reputation as a creative cradle alive, even if Diab is said to spend much of his time in the UAE.
We take a closer look at a case of diplomacy gone wrong.
Who vs who: China vs Lithuania.
What it’s about: Taiwan, as it often is when steam erupts from China’s ears. Taiwan plans to open a representative office in Lithuania and the Baltic nation has signalled that it will allow this to be called the Taiwanese Representative Office, rather than one of the euphemisms – Chinese Taipei Office, and so on – often deployed elsewhere. China has recalled its ambassador from Vilnius; Lithuania has done the same with its ambassador in Beijing and suspended rail freight and much trade. Chinese state media has called Lithuania a “buffoon”.
What it’s really about: Though the Chinese Communist Party has never governed Taiwan, China regards it as a temporarily rogue province and maintains a policy of furious hypersensitivity to the vaguest suggestion of Taiwanese sovereignty.
Likely resolution: There probably isn’t one. But the ruckus has been a boon for some. Lithuania has become one of the 10 most popular countries among Taiwanese online shoppers, who are reportedly especially keen on Lithuanian beer, biscuits and chocolate.
Germany’s Social Democrats won top spot in September’s elections and claimed victory in Berlin, which has surging rents and house prices. A referendum demanded expropriating property from major real estate firms to convert into social housing. Incumbent mayor Franziska Giffey, formerly of Merkel’s government, opposed this but has promised to bridge the divide.
Keeping it in the family
“Family week” will allow Swedish parents up to six days of paid leave at 80 per cent salary to spend time with their children. The benefit, expected to come into force in April, was one of the main promises by the now governing Social Democrats ahead of the 2018 election. The move has been criticised by businesses, who argue it’s expensive, unnecessary and exacerbates a lack of staff. But the government insists that the policy is a question of fairness and equality, noting that many parents faced additional challenges and couldn’t enjoy the perks of working from home. Parties of the left looking to lure voters, will be watching Sweden’s experiment carefully.
The Foreign Desk will level with you: on the night of Germany’s federal election, it did not lay in snacks, drinks and equally agog friends to watch the results come in. In fairness, neither did anybody outside Germany. But at the time on election night when most other countries would barely have started counting, Germany’s party leaders were already discussing the exit poll results in the televised Elefantenrunde (Elephants’ round table).
Though we may not know who will be the next chancellor, or what form the coalition they will head will take, for some time, we can assume that the successor to Angela Merkel, Gerhard Schröder, Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt will be stolid and earnest and that we will scarcely feel obliged to entertain another thought about them.
There are few surer indications of a person’s frivolousness than a complaint that their country’s politics, or politicians, are boring. The Foreign Desk, on Saturdays at noon on Monocle 24, or wherever you download your podcasts, more often covers countries where politics are fascinating and politicians compelling. I have reported from dozens of such places myself. Few are serene, secure or prosperous. There is an arguable case, indeed, that dreariness of government is a useful metric of national stability: call it The Foreign Desk Index.
A great many of the self-inflicted problems that have beset the democratic world in recent years have been caused by the bizarre determination that politics and politicians should be entertaining. The US and the UK both chose leaders with CVs of professional buffoonery (the US might have thought better of it now but by an alarmingly narrow margin). Millions of Italians have voted for a movement founded by a comedian and Ukraine has elected one president. In none of these instances have the consequences turned out to be a laughing matter.
I’m aware, of course, that the media is part of the problem, attracted as it is to novelty, eccentricity and dazzle. I have interviewed some terrifically dull politicians in my time but I won’t name them here for fear of discouraging them. Because on every such occasion, while I’ve inwardly fretted about the article I’m writing or the programme I’m making, I’ve felt very glad for their country.
Andrew Mueller hosts ‘The Foreign Desk’ on Monocle 24