World fertility rates remain highest in Africa. In 12 African countries, women give birth to an average of more than six children. In Niger and Guinea-Bissau, the average is above seven.
A recurring motif of 2011 has been the reluctance of Middle Eastern rulers to step quietly aside. They have much to lose. In the Gulf states, oil money combined with lack of accountability has allowed heads of state to enjoy lives in which money is a seemingly infinite resource.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, 70, seized Oman’s throne from his father in a bloodless coup d’etat 41 years ago. Though he resides in at least half a dozen palaces, it would be unfair to accuse him of never spreading his wealth. A 2010 UN Development Programme report ranked Oman first out of 135 countries in improvement over 40 years. Despite recent friction, he looks more secure than most despots. One measure of his transport arrangements is what he has given away. A yacht, the 103m Loaloat Al Behar, was donated to Oman’s Ministry of Tourism when the Sultan bought a replacement, and one superseded aircraft, a Vickers VC-10, has since 1987 been displayed at Brooklands Museum in Surrey, England.
By most estimates, the Sultan’s seaborne transport, the sand-coloured 155m German-built Al-Said, is one of the three or four largest private yachts afloat. It is known to feature a helipad and a swimming pool, and one splendid rumour suggests a concert hall capable of accommodating a 50-piece orchestra.
The Sultan has been spotted emerging from two 747s. One, a 747SP, is distinguished by a bulbous addendum behind its upper cabin – probably containing communications equipment – and what appear to be anti-missile devices tucked into its engine housings. The other, a 747-430, is a more recent addition.
A slightly blinged-up version of the Maybach 62, the Maybach Landaulet features a fully retractable rear roof. Even the basic model bears a seven-figure price tag, and Sultan Qaboos’ vehicle is unlikely to be the basic model.
When Africa’s leaders meet for their biannual summit in July, the continent’s most famous face will almost certainly be missing. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s likely non-appearance may please some of the continent’s more democratic leaders, who have long been tiring of the Libyan leader’s bizarre grandstanding, but it also threatens the African Union’s survival.
For years, Gaddafi has happily bankrolled the AU, providing at least 15 per cent of its funding. In return, the AU has indulged him with long discussions about his grandiose plans for a United States of Africa and turned a blind eye to his eccentricities. The organisation stayed quiet even as its paymaster mowed down his own civilians. Then, finally, they proposed talks and asked their “brother” for a ceasefire – the rebels initially told them where to go. Perhaps Gaddafi’s conspicuous absence, and the first appearance of Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara – who has finally become that country’s president after a protracted conflict which the AU did little to halt – will provoke a thorough examination of what the Union could do better. It’s unlikely, however. Instead, they will allow the continent’s festering conflicts to dominate a more worthy theme (usually something like maternal health) and, before retiring to their five-star hotels, they will all say they are “deeply concerned”.
The recent turmoil in many Arab capitals is being felt on the trading floor. From Casablanca to Doha, stock exchanges have plummeted in the first quarter of 2011. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia experienced the smallest drops, while Egypt and Syria suffered the most. Ironically, the only two places to have escaped the free- fall are Iraq and Palestine.
The North African uprisings might be emulated south of the Sahara. Three autocrats are getting wary:Ali Ben Bongo, Gabon: took over in 2008 from his father. Large oil wealth but little development. Ismail Omar Guelleh, Djibouti: broke his promise to stand down this year.
José Eduardo dos Santos, Angola: ruler of the oil-rich nation for 31 years; poverty rife.