On Call International’s Monthly Risk Spotlight highlights events of heightened importance in assessing risk to travel and operations abroad.
Indonesia Grapples With the Economic and Health-related Fall-outs of Massive Forest Fires
Toxic smog resulting from forest fires on a greater than usual scale engulfed the Southeast Asian countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore during the month of September. Forest fires are an annual occurrence in Indonesia between mid-August to September, caused partly by the dry weather, but mostly due to the illegal slash and burn methods used to clear farmlands. This year, a longer than usual dry season and prolonged drought have worsened forest fires such that authorities declared an emergency across six Indonesian provinces. Air quality has been classified as unhealthy and travel disruptions have ensued. Government has sought to tackle the menace by deploying more firefighters, enacting punishments for farmers using illegal methods to clear farmlands. However, with the dry season expected to last until at least the end of October, this has raised the prospect of a prolonged haze season.
Many fires that are currently plaguing the Indonesian forests are deliberately lit as a cheap way to clear land for agriculture. Since the 1980s, planters on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra have used a cheaper slash and burn technique to clear land for palm oil, pulpwood, and rubber trees. Though fires can start anytime, August-September is the worst time since it is the height of the dry season. These areas are remote, and it has been difficult to enforce laws. This year, a weak El-Nino weather pattern in the Pacific has meant a long dry season – dried out leaves and undergrowth that has enabled fire to range out of control. In 2019, around 3,000 hotspots have been estimated mainly in Sumatra and Kalimantan with 30,000 hectares burnt in the first eight months.
The Indonesian government has adopted a mix of emergency response methods, punishments, and has also used technology to address the menace. Authorities have deployed around 15,000 troops and firefighters to crisis areas. They have arrested over 200 people (plantation companies and individual farmers) for illegal burning of land with potentially long jail terms. The Disaster Management Agency has attempted to use cloud-seeding technology to create artificial rain to reduce spot fires. Since 2015, President Joko Widodo has imposed a moratorium on new permits for clearing forests and peatland.
The economic impact of forest fires has been substantial. A World Bank Report puts the loss at 221 trillion rupiah ($16 billion), including the effect on agriculture, forestry, trade, tourism, school closures, emergency response and health and environmental costs. There has been an increase in reported incidents of respiratory diseases and complaints that people do not have masks to wear. There have been several fire alerts this year, leading to flight delays and cancellations across Southeast Asia. Singapore’s environmental agency issued its first unhealthy air quality advisory this year, putting a shadow on the Grand Prix that was held with an extensive contingency plan. The forest fires have also caused a tiff among the neighbors with Malaysia criticizing Indonesia for not doing enough. Indonesian President Widodo has responded by saying that many fires started on the land owned by Malaysian and Singaporean firms.
Middle East and North Africa
Alleged Iranian Attacks on Saudi Oil Facilities Increase Tensions in the Middle East
On September 14, ten unmanned vehicles struck the world’s biggest crude processing facility in Abqaiq in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the KSA’s second-biggest oilfield Khurais. The KSA supplies 10% of the world’s crude oil and this attack raised concerns about the vulnerability of the Saudi oil industry and its impact on global energy prices. Although the Iran-allied Houthi Rebels in Yemen claimed the attack, the scale, coordination, and sophistication have led U.S. intelligence sources to conclude that the attacks were launched from Iran. With the European nations agreeing with this assessment, there is an international consensus that Iranian adventurism in the Middle East has to be curtailed. While a military response seems unlikely, increasing tensions have raised the risk of sporadic events escalating hostilities in the region.
After these attacks, the logical radar pointed to the Houthis. The Houthis have previously been responsible for drone strikes over the Abha Airport in the southern KSA, the East-West oil pipeline near Riyadh, and have been accused of targeting two Saudi oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah. In January 2019, a Houthi drone was reported to have killed five Yemeni soldiers and wounded senior officers at the Al-Anad Airbase. The increasing sophistication of Houthi drone strikes has raised concerns of new ability by Houthis to go beyond Yemen’s borders to target the vital shipping lanes in the Red Sea.
However, according to the U.S. intelligence assessment, the sophistication of the latest attack (range, scale, and complexity) far exceeded the demonstrated capability of the Houthis, and points to direct Iranian involvement. On September 18, the KSA displayed wreckage of what it claimed to be Iranian cruise missiles and drones. The Saudi officials also stated that the circuit boards could be re-engineered to determine the exact route of the weapons launch. The U.S. has further said they have satellite photos showing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard preparing for the attack at the Ahvaz Air Base in Southwestern Iran.
Iran does not really have deniability in this scenario. According to experts, this is a continuation of Iran’s strategy to conduct audacious attacks to force the U.S. to soften the crippling sanctions on the country to prevent instability in the Middle East. The U.S. had reinforced sanctions post the unilateral withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal in May 2018. After this occurred, the Trump Administration has applied a maximum pressure strategy by pushing all nations to stop buying oil from Iran. However, in this case, the Iranian strategy appears to have backfired with the European backers of the nuclear deal siding with the U.S.’ assessment. KSA said that military response remains an option; however, no side can afford a war at this juncture. KSA, already embroiled in the Yemen War, is unlikely to take on Iran with its superior unconventional warfare capabilities and a vast network of proxies. For its part, Iran, with its deteriorating economy, inflation, and unemployment rate cannot afford an all-out war. The U.S. has no desire to become more entangled in the region’s conflicts and is likely to restrict itself to greater sanction pressure on Iran and bolstering KSA’s defenses.
The September 14 incident was the worst attack since Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles on Saudi oil facilities during the first Gulf war. The attack drove the world oil prices up by 10%, the fastest rise in more than a decade, and halved the Kingdom’s output which is 5% of the global oil supply. Coming on the back of attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, the attack has created uncertainty about the safety of KSA oil being transported on shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz and the Red Sea. The situation was aptly summed up by Iranian President Rouhani when he said, “the Gulf region is on the edge of collapse as a single blunder can fuel a big fire.”
Europe and the Central Independent States
Sweden: Will an Increase in Violent Crime Strengthen Right-wing Politics in Sweden?
The brutal shooting and murder of an 18-year old woman in Stockholm in late August has created an emergency situation in Sweden. This incident comes in the wake of a long spate of shootings and bombings by criminal gangs in some cities of Sweden. It has led to a public outcry that is highlighting fault lines within the Swedish society on law and order methods, immigration, the narcotics trade, and poor urban planning. The Social Democrat minority government has increasingly found itself backed in a corner with many political parties joining the right-wing Sweden Democrats in calling for less immigration and harsher punishments.
Gang-related violence has increased and become more sophisticated in Sweden since 2015. According to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, the number of cases of deadly violence arose to an annual average of 110 in 2015-2018, up from the average of 81 in the previous four-year period. These numbers have primarily been driven by an increase in fatal shootings, with more than 300 shootings killing 45 people and injuring more than 130. However, it looks like 2019 will be another record year – according to Sveriges Television, between January and August 2019, over 185 shootings occurred in Sweden and the number of bombings rose 45% in the first seven months to 120.
According to Lindgren, head of Foundation for Safer Sweden, the rise in violence can be attributed to some inter-related factors – poor urban planning decisions, inadequate resources to police reforms, and rise in criminal gang activity. But Lindgren also acknowledges that the arrival of over 150,000 asylum seekers in 2015 has complicated the issue. According to a police report, most recent shootings, especially in Malmo, appeared to be connected to battles over narcotics trade, a significant factor in funding the gang activity. In the beginning, both the shooters and the victims were unemployed young men with immigrant backgrounds, under 30 years of age, living in disadvantaged neighborhoods, often without high school diplomas. However, of late, shootings have targeted young women, a lawyer in an affluent area, and residential building complexes. Three cities – Stockholm, Malmo, and Gothenburg have been most affected, though now the violence is also spreading to medium-sized cities, including Landsrkone and Linkoping.
For the minority Social Democrat Government, the balancing of the allocation of resources for better policing is becoming difficult. The government has pledged to increase the number of police officers by 10,000 by 2024 at the cost of $830 million and deploy more technology. However, this must be balanced with funding for local authorities grappling with increased migration and expanding the welfare state to fund a growing and aging population. The government’s perceived ineffectiveness has strengthened the political space for the right-wing ideology of the Sweden Democrats as several political parties have supported their demands of increasing police powers and containing immigration. Long kept on the periphery of Swedish politics, Sweden Democrats increased their vote share to 17.5% in the September 2018 elections. Though there are no clear trends, many people are building a perception that rising crime is concentrated in ethnic enclaves where recent immigrants have settled.
Hurricane Dorian Inflicts Large Scale Damage in the Bahamas
The September 2019 Category 5 Hurricane Dorian is the strongest Hurricane on record that has ever impacted the Bahamas, causing severe damage, extensive flooding, and human losses. Notably, the Bahamas is comprised of 700 islands and the archipelago is home to more than 400,000 people. Although the Hurricane originated in the Atlantic Ocean in late August, it made landfall at Elbow Cay, Abaco Islands on September 1. More than 1,300 people are missing, the main airport terminal in Grand Bahamas has been damaged and there is a pervasive presence of debris and uprooted trees on the roads. The Hurricane has devasted the two locations where it made landfall – Abaco and Grand Bahama Islands. The primary challenges for the rescue workers have been the lack of access to the affected areas that caused a problem in assessing the true extent of the damage caused.
After almost three weeks of Hurricane Dorian pummeling the Bahamas, life is slowly normalizing in the affected places. In the middle of a slow revival after thousands were left unsheltered and in need of food and water, another tropical storm, Humberto, hit the Bahamas on September 14. The storm moved away after heavy rains in the areas that were already devastated by Hurricane Dorian two weeks back. Additionally, weather forecasters warned that another tropical storm Karen was expected to perform a loop-de-loop and swing toward Bahamas and Florida sometime after September 26. Some weather forecasting models suggested that the storm might become stronger and develop into a hurricane by the end of September or early October. However, the storm was not as strong as expected, bringing only minor impacts and dissipating by September 27.
Currently, the Bahamian tourism officials have gone on the record to state that the Hurricane has not damaged many of the country’s tourist hubs including Nassau (the capital) and Paradise Island. Welcoming tourists into the country, the government officials stated that the private islands of the cruise lines that take tourists to the Bahamas were all safe from the Hurricane. In light of dwindling cruise line bookings (the main driver of tourism), the Tourism Ministry published a map stating that 14 of the 16 tourism centric islands are still open for tourism and are entirely safe. In the coming weeks, several Grand Bahamas resorts are planning to reopen, and officials are convincing tourists that only the northern part of the country faced the devastation.
Worsening Situation in Zimbabwe Has Created Crisis of Confidence in the New Government
Zimbabwe is facing one of the worse crises in its history – creating a perception among people that the living and operating conditions in the country were much better during the erstwhile regime of Robert Mugabe. Skyrocketing inflation of over 500%, power outages of at least 18 hours a day, loss of investor sentiment, economic downturn, currency crisis, and falling social indices, have all led to a loss of confidence in the new government headed by President Emmerson Mnangagwa. The President’s efforts to attract foreign investors into Zimbabwe have also failed, thus quelling any hopes for change that his election had fostered. Experts term this as the worst socio-political-economic crisis that the country has seen in the last two decades.
With the opposition party (MDC-A) blaming President Mnangagwa of Zanu-PF of rigging the 2018 elections, there is an increasing demand for instilling a national transitional authority in place who would run the country for at least two years or until the next general elections happen in 2023. The opposition believes that such an authority would help the country revisit its relations with the West – something which is vital to revive the economy by putting an end to an investment drought. Notably, the Western powers had imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe about a decade back in relation to the human rights violations perpetrated by the ruling Zanu-PF party. However, currently, the government has refused the proposal and termed the transnational authority as unconstitutional. Efforts of MDC-A to launch public protests against the current government led to violent police thrashing in August, forcing the party to suspend the demonstrations.
The way forward for Zimbabwe is slightly complicated at this juncture – it is evident that the hopes of a new President putting the country on a path of growth has been largely dismissed. With the deepening political crisis and instability, it is a huge challenge to address the grave socio-economic issues that Zimbabwe is currently facing. The ideal solution would be that both the leaders – Mnangagwa and Chamisa (leader of the opposition) – should engage in dialogue and soften their stances in the view of a larger good. A similar process had taken place (albeit with different leaders) ten years back that led to the formation of the government of national unity running the country from 2009-2013. According to experts, the solution to the current crisis could be such a national unity government; however, there is a larger need for the neighboring countries, especially South Africa, to intervene and restart the process. Currently, this is lacking and the coming months would prove to be crucial to see how the country is going to deal with the looming crisis at hand.