Caledonia Dreaming

North West Scotland is as close to wilderness as it is possible to be in the UK. A land of mountains, water, forests and rough moorland with a fractured coastline of sea lochs and remote peninsulas protected from the full might of the north Atlantic by the double-layered island archipelago of the Hebrides.

A few days here and the normal assumptions about the ease of modern life start to shift. Nothing happens fast. Distances are stretched by the time it takes to navigate the few narrow twisting roads that snake through the area subservient to the topography of mountains and lochs. Here the landscape not the motorists’ convenience takes priority.

Connection with the outside world is momentarily possible as you climb a hill and fleetingly a few bars flicker into life on your phone only for the path to turn a corner or dip back down into the glen and the door on to the outside world is slammed shut. Stopping in one of the few pubs in the area with public Wi-Fi, refugees from the metropolis clamour not for a drink but for the access code, like junkies in jail queuing up for their daily dose of methadone. Once hooked up, they scuttle off into a corner greedily relishing the sudden glut of craved-for connectivity. But after a few days the urgent need to stay in touch with the ubiquity of instantaneous information starts to recede and this land with its different rhythms and altered priorities starts to take hold. [Read more...]

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The Hundred Years War

By Michael Moran, Managing Director, Global Risk Analysis, Control Risks

Here we are, the summer of 2014, and the remembrances have begun.  One hundred years ago this week, Austria declared war on Serbia, ending a month of inchoate diplomacy that followed the June 28 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, by a nationalist Serb. What began in a Balkan backwater cascaded, through a series of overlapping treaties, miscalculations, and misplaced loyalties, to sweep much of the world into war. Germany and its imperial allies were pitted against the British, French, and other empires – joined late in the game by the United States.

The idea that World War I can be viewed as something that happened between 1914-1918 is absurd: It is the war that has never ended. A few weeks ago in what used to be Mesopotamia, a group called ISIS cited the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement as a source of their many twisted grievances. A year earlier, Syria’s use of chemical weapons broke bans instituted after greater horrors during World War I.  The Israelis and Palestinians, trading rockets and missiles anew, trace much of their dispute to the war. [Read more...]

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By bus to Baghdad

International crises are like London buses, it seems. You wait ages for one and then a whole load arrives all at once.

The last few months have seen a dizzying succession of problems that have grabbed international attention. We have seen the proliferation of al-Qaida franchises in North and East Africa, the military take-over in Egypt, political chaos and violence in Libya, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the mass kidnapping of school girls in northern Nigeria, rising tensions between China and its neighbours in the South China Sea, the use of chemical weapons in Syria and now the rapid territorial expansion in Iraq by ISIS and the proclamation of a self-declared caliphate straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border. No wonder that a recent survey by Barclays Bank rated geo-politics as the number one concern for international investors. [Read more...]

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A tale of two nations

The past few weeks have pushed Nigeria’s capacity for stark juxtaposition to new heights. Just as its economy leapfrogged South Africa’s to become the largest in Africa and the World Economic Forum gathered in Abuja, more than 200 school girls are kidnapped by Boko Haram, whose leader then posted a distressing video laughing at their likely and grisly fate. [Read more...]

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Indonesia calls the shots

By Angela Mancini, Managing Director, Control Risks New York

I distinctly remember packing up my small apartment in Kemang, doing one final, weekend yoga retreat in the hills outside Jakarta and leaving Indonesia to move back to New York. Back then, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or “SBY” as he’s known, was a newly elected, popular reformist president leading a strong anti-corruption drive. His top economic and development priorities were improving infrastructure, tackling corruption and attracting Western FDI.

That was then. Now with a husband and toddler twins, and much less time for yoga, I am packing up an even smaller apartment in Manhattan and preparing to move back to Asia –  this time to Singapore – to lead Control Risks’ account management team in the Southeast Asia region. [Read more...]

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Would The Real Vladimir Putin Please Step Forward

It is reported that the young Vladimir Putin was described by his KGB trainers as having “a reduced sense of danger.” It is hard to know if this is a genuine verbatim quote from his mentors alarmed at the apparent reckless potential of the young Soviet spy or if it has been retro-fitted into his biography by modern-day Kremlin spin doctors to reinforce the image of President Putin as the hard man of international politics.

Either way, it—usefully for the Russian leadership—implies a character that is cut from a different cloth than his adversaries in the West and one not to be underestimated when it comes to the brutal business of bringing Ukraine back into the fold.

What is apparent from the drama over Ukraine is how little U.S. and European leaders seem to have a clear sense of President Putin. Is he a master tactician with a powerful determination to restore Russian power and pride or is he more a superb improviser with deft crisis management skills? He evidently enjoys and excels at this type of raw knuckle politics but beyond the nationalist rhetoric does he have a coherent plan to fulfil a restoration of Russia’s status? And how far will he go to in defending what he sees as the legitimate right of Russia to defend its interests? [Read more...]

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Letter from Baku: the City of Winds in the Land of Fire

By Tim Stanley, Market Director, Control Risks Russia

There’s something slightly unreal about arriving in Baku. The trip from the airport sets the scene. For starters, there’s the taxi fleet – London-style cabs painted regal purple, by decree of the First Lady. Faux medieval crenellations line the velvet-smooth airport highway; closer to town they yield to the fluid lines and gleaming white tiles of what looks like an Azerbaijani space centre but is, in fact, the Heydar Aliev Centre, a cultural complex designed by celebrity architect Zaha Hadid.

Surveying it all from posters and statues across the land is the silent-movie star visage of Aliev himself, the former President and founder of the modern state. This is Alice in Wonderland meets Ali Baba. [Read more...]

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Big Macs and Banh Mi

Dane Chamorro, Managing Director, South-east Asia, Control Risks

I walked past Paul, the French bakery, in Jakarta this past week and noted that at 5pm, it was packed to the gills with well-off Indonesians enjoying themselves. Granted, this was arguably Jakarta’s most upscale mall (a property owned by a notorious businessman), but it is emblematic of how Southeast Asia’s emerging economies are proving fertile ground for Western consumer brands.  [Read more...]

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BRICs, MINTs and the Winter Olympics

Charles Hecker, Global Research Director, Global Risk Analysis, Control Risks

Dissecting risk as a career brings with it certain professional pitfalls. One of them is to think that the world is constantly on the verge of calamitous change. This temptation must be held strongly in check. There are only so many times you can say the sky is falling. Most of the time, it’s not.  [Read more...]

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Super-hero politics – Britain’s search for a world role continues.

Earlier this week, I watched American television news break the story of the Iranian nuclear agreement. A few hours and a transatlantic flight later and I watched the same story reported in the British media. I had to stop and check that I was watching the same events. In the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry was alone in bestriding the globe bringing the possibility of peace in the Middle East a step nearer; only his lack of a mask and cape denying him full superhero status.  [Read more...]

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