Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is not normally considered a trendsetter. But in an era of austerity when governments are under pressure to account for every penny, Netanyahu is setting new standards: he pays for his own car. The new Audi A8L that ferries the prime minister around costs him $1,800 (€1,300) a month, which is taken directly from his salary.
It didn’t always used to be like this in Israel. The prime minister once had his own dedicated plane, a Boeing 707, but a series of corruption allegations against senior government figures, including the former prime minister Ehud Olmert, has gripped the country, leading to an outcry over excessive government spending. Issues such as the size of the premier’s bed aboard his transatlantic flights are a constant source of headlines for Israel’s popular press.
Every time Netanyahu or President Shimon Peres travel abroad, there is a tendering process. A debate is taking place in Israel about whether this should be changed – some Israelis feel they should always fly with El Al for example. Since returning to office in 2009, Netanyahu has focused his attention on Israel’s transport problems, pushing for more investment in green cars and promoting railways as a means to connect Tel Aviv to the rest of the country.
Until a decade ago, Israeli prime ministers had their own Boeing 707, but it was too noisy and needed special permission to land in many airports. Now Netanyahu uses privately owned and commercial planes, mainly to close destinations such as Cairo and Amman. For longer flights he usually uses a Boeing 767-200 from national carrier El Al.
When flying to remote parts of Israel, Netanyahu uses a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk. The same military squadron is also responsible for flying around VIPs who visit Israel (including Pope Benedict XVI).
Each of the six new Audi cars is heavily armoured against machine-gun bullets, hand grenades and improvised explosive devices, and weighs almost three tonnes. It’s a symbolic revolution: while former prime ministers used American and Israeli-assembled cars, this is the first time a German model is being used for an Israeli head of government. Mini-fridge and wide-screen TV were reportedly removed, but heated seats, two phone lines (one of them secure) and personal storage compart- ments remain. While Netanyahu has to pay towards the cost of the Audis, the two Toyota Land Cruisers come free.
Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, is sprucing up. Under the patronage of Makkah province’s governor, Prince Khalid al Faisal, the birthplace of the prophet will witness a burst of new greenery and urban regeneration.
Some 37 gardens are being created in the hope that Mecca will be transformed into a “blooming garden”, in the words of the emir, who is also an amateur artist who takes a keen interest in aesthetics.
In addition, there are plans to build low-cost housing to provide relief for some of the city’s 2.7 million inhabitants who have been pushed out of the city centre by large-scale developments.
Six years ago, Somalia’s parliament was tasked with paving the way for a new constitution and government by 2011. Ambitious, perhaps. But Somalia’s MPs (right) didn’t try and fail; they never tried. In early February, they disregarded opposition from both Somalis and international donors and extended their term by three years.
“The international community criticises us for nothing,” says MP Mohammed Afarale. “We decide for the Somali people.” What he doesn’t mention is that the international community pays his salary. Many Somalis say parliament has made its country worse. It has three more years to keep doing so.
Following the revelation of an €83m budget deficit, Mauritania’s president Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdallahi decided to take a 25 per cent pay cut. One of the world’s poorest countries, Mauritania pins its hopes for future prosperity on offshore oil and gas reserves.
Three Netanyahu facts:
1. He has been an influential, and controversial, figure in Israeli politics for more than two decades.
2. He was the first Israeli prime minister to be born after the creation of the Jewish state, first taking up the post in 1996.
3. Like so many other Israeli prime ministers, Netanyahu spent several years in the army.