Wednesday. 6/1/2021

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / Nic Monisse

Centres of power

Every four or eight years, when the US presidency changes hands, the United States Conference of Mayors, a bipartisan organisation that lobbies on behalf of US cities with populations of more than 30,000, meets the president-elect. Normally, discussions revolve around plans for how the federal government can support urban infrastructure and green agendas. But late last year, after four years of a president at odds with cities, the tone of the powwow was different. Tom Cochran, the organisation’s CEO, told me that the first words out of his mouth when he met Joe Biden were, “How can we, with the 1,400 US mayors in our organisation, help you?”

The focus this week is on Georgia’s senatorial election and the makeup of Congress in Washington. But the reality is that cities are uniquely positioned to help tackle, in Cochran’s words, the “three black swans” facing the US president (and other world leaders) right now: a struggling economy, civil unrest and a society reeling from the pandemic. For proof of how this can be done, look to city hall in San Diego (population 1.4 million), where zero-interest microloans were immediately offered to businesses affected by lockdowns, or Minneapolis (population 425,000), which has already taken the tentative first steps required to reform its police force.

The suggestion that mayors can do more for the president – in this instance – than the president can do for them, shows city halls’ capacity to have an immediate and meaningful effect on residents’ lives. This year, mayors around the globe should take a leaf out of Cochran’s book. To paraphrase that most famous of inauguration speeches, ask not what your country can do for your city, but what your city can do for your country.

Diplomacy / Qatar

Moment of truce

Qatar once led a delicate dance of maintaining diplomatic ties with the Middle East’s two biggest regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran. But that came to a crashing halt more than three years ago when the former led a regional effort to enforce an economic and travel embargo on Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorist groups – which Qatar denies. This week those differences were put aside at a summit attended by the leaders of both Gulf nations; Saudi Arabia’s air embargo has been lifted. Jocelyn Sage Mitchell, assistant professor in residence at Northwestern University in Qatar, says that the truce was partly motivated by the looming end to Saudi Arabia’s “special relationship” with the US under the Trump administration, as well as a broader lack of international support. Will it hold? “The economic relationship might recover, along with some security support,” says Mitchell. “But the social bonds and trust will take a long time to repair.”

Listen to a full analysis from Jocelyn Sage Mitchell on today’s edition of (‘The Globalist’)[https://monocle.com/radio/shows/the-globalist/2401/] on Monocle 24.

Transport / Singapore & Malaysia

Wrong side of the tracks

A hotly anticipated high-speed rail link between Kuala Lumpur and neighbouring Singapore has hit the buffers. The bilateral agreement to build the 350km transport connection lapsed at the end of 2020 and the Malaysian government must now compensate Singapore for many of the costs already incurred. The flagship cross-border railway had promised to reduce a four-hour drive to a 90-minute train journey but was derailed by Malaysia’s revolving political leadership. Former prime minister Najib Razak launched the ambitious infrastructure project with his Singaporean counterpart in 2016 before being ousted by voters in 2018; he was later found guilty of embezzlement. His successor, Mahathir Mohamad, suspended the deal and it was finally terminated last month under current prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin. It’s a shame: Razak was accused of wasting plenty of taxpayers’ money but this particular project could have delivered genuine economic and environmental benefits to the southeast Asian country – and its cross-border business travellers.

Trade / UK

Rules of engagement

A post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU secured tariff- and quota-free trade in goods for the UK proper, but the same does not apply to its overseas territories. Here’s a look at what the deal means for four of them:

Tristan da Cunha: Tariffs can be imposed by the EU on goods from all UK overseas territories – except one. Tristan da Cunha’s population of just 250 earn money from exporting Tristan lobster, which is granted special status and can be sold to the EU tariff-free.

British Virgin Islands: Tariffs on goods exports apply but the deal says nothing of trade in services. That could be good news for the Virgin Islands’ outsized banking sector: financial services there will remain free of close EU supervision.

Gibraltar: Set on a peninsula jutting out from Spain, Gibraltar’s only neighbour is also a major economic partner. The Brexit deal agreed to soften the border by allowing the territory to join Europe’s Schengen zone but the terms are being rapidly negotiated.

The Falkland Islands: The Falklands went unmentioned in the deal. Economically, the new tariffs could impact lucrative squid exports and perhaps even bolster Argentina’s old claims to sovereignty over the disputed territory by reducing EU trade. Argentina’s foreign minister Felipe Solá welcomed the new arrangement, tweeting, “Finally.”

Culture / Australia

Art boom

Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is betting on growth even in challenging times. It’s currently hosting a triennial showcasing works by more than 100 figures in contemporary art, design and architecture from more than 30 countries, including some in-person events. The institution has also revealed plans for the 30,000 sq m NGV Contemporary (pictured), which is set to become the largest contemporary art and design gallery in Australia. Tony Ellwood, director of the NGV, told The Art Newspaper this week that a design competition will be launched shortly – but that it will be open only to Australian architecture firms. The €880m project, alongside a public garden and buildings shared with Arts Centre Melbourne, will be partly financed by the Victorian state government but the gallery is also undertaking the country’s largest-ever philanthropic campaign for a capital works project. In spite of the economic climate, Ellwood says that NGV is hopeful of success. “We’re quietly confident that the [downsizing] trend could be reversed here,” he says.

M24 / Monocle on Culture

Looking ahead to 2021

We look to the year ahead in film, books and art with our critics Anna Smith, John Mitchinson and Francesca Gavin.

Monocle Films / Finland

The home of the Finnish art scene

We tour the breathtaking studios of artists’ residence Lallukka in Helsinki, which hasn’t changed its purpose since it was completed in 1933. The landmark functionalist building offers spaces at low rents so that its tenants can focus on one thing: making art.

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