The Netherlands is punching above its usual diplomatic weight in Mali, with two Dutchmen ranking among the most powerful men in the former French colony.
“It is a coincidence that I am Dutch: I just applied for this job through internal structures,” says Anton Op de Beke, head of the imf in capital Bamako. His position in aid-dependent Mali makes him almost as important as his countryman Bert Koenders, the Dutch politician who is the special representative of the UN secretary-general.
It’s not just in diplomacy that the Netherlands has an impact. The nation’s armed forces are also involved: there are some 460 Dutch troops in Mali, including 90 special forces, three Chinook and four Apache attack helicopters. The Dutch are the elite of 9,000-strong UN force Minusma and have established a new intelligence-gathering operation: the All Sources Information Fusion Unit (Asifu). On a visit to Mali last year, defence minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert bashfully declared, “We will be the eyes and ears of the UN.”
Naturally, the Dutch presence does not match that of France, which intervened in January 2013 by sending up to 4,500 troops to oust radical Islamist forces from the north of the country. France still has at least 1,500 soldiers in Mali and defence analysts quoted by French media estimate their country’s military presence could cost up to €1m a day. The total spent in 2014 by the Netherlands in Mali – on Minusma and aid – is a much more modest €200m, according to the Dutch foreign ministry.
But its diplomacy has the virtue, unlike France’s, of being unburdened by colonial baggage. Dutch ambassador Maarten Brouwer is a straight-talker, unafraid of demanding checks and balances of the Malian government. Op de Beke has an even more impressive record: in May, after he questioned the unexplained purchase of a new presidential jet and a loan guarantee of €158m offered by the government for defence procurement, the imf froze a €4.5m tranche of budgetary support. The World Bank and EU followed suit.
Cairo may be the heart of the Arab world but it is certainly not its culinary capital. Now politics is chipping away at Egyptians’ devotion to rib-sticking peasant-style food as refugees and migrants from Africa and Asia introduce unfamiliar tastes to the city’s streets. In the once-elegant, now-crumbling district of Abbasiyya, Uighur students of Al-Azhar College of Islamic Studies stretch noodle dough, preparing dumplings and soups for their pavement canteen, the Chinese Muslim.
Migrants from the Horn of Africa have brought Addis to the back streets of Mohandeseen, where one-room Samar el-Nil serves injera (flatbread), beef stew and Eritrean coffee to a tinny soundtrack of Ethiopian pop. While across town Syrians fleeing civil war cook up Levantine classics including the airy pastries of Afamia el-Sham in Maadi. All are sowing the seeds of a quiet gastronomic revolution.
Most diplomatic missions to Somalia are based in Nairobi due to the poor security situation in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. While the UK and Turkey recently opened embassies there, the US has no plans to.
On diplomatic visits, Tunisia’s interim prime minister Mehdi Jomaa (pictured) likes to refer to the country as a “start-up democracy”. Jomaa took over in January shortly after Tunisia adopted a new constitution – widely seen as a milestone in its move from dictatorship. But the pace of reform has come to a halt and the government is accused of not addressing structural economic issues. In 2014, foreign investment fell by 26 per cent and the Tunisian dinar has been losing value. Since the revolution, the World Bank and imf had been providing financial support but they may suspend the latest tranche worth €1.1bn unless serious reforms go ahead.