A Not So Sweet Situation - Cocoa and Cote d'Ivoire

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -  This past month Americans celebrated a holiday, originally of pagan origin, but which has been adopted by popular culture as a day for people to celebrate their love for each other. It is also a day when emotions run high. Men feel compelled to demonstrate their affection by purchasing flowers, chocolate, or other gifts. Women on the other hand, have become expectant of these affirmations, and are often upset if their partners do not deliver one of these market driven tokens of love.

While to some people a Valentine's Day without chocolate would be seen as undesirable, some cocoa producers in the Ivory Coast experienced the exact opposite problem. After an unrealized premonition by cocoa exporters in the Ivory Coast that led to them defaulting on their export contracts, cocoa growers have been left without paychecks while tons of beans have been left to rot or sit at ports along the coast awaiting shipment. Unfortunately for many, the implications of this could have a long-term effect as many producers have been left indebted and unable to prepare their next round of crops.

Perhaps ironically, the Ivory Coast's market system was designed to rely on forward sales in which a minimum market price was set for farmers in hopes of encouraging them to reinvest in their plantations. According to interviews conducted by Reuters, many farmers have not purchased fertilizer or other material for next seasons crops because of the uncertain future and their current state of financial insecurity due to the default. Additionally, this issue has surpassed cocoa farmers and reached shops selling fertilizer and pesticides, many of which have closed as a result of the excruciatingly minimal demand for their products.

While businesses have shut down and many farmers have truncated their plantation cycles, some individuals have refused to be disheartened and have decided to sell their crops for less than the government dictated market price of 1,100 CFA francs ($1.79). Still yet, others have gotten a little more crafty. Although the default has proved harrowing for many, some people have outsmarted the system and began smuggling cocoa across the border to neighboring Ghana and Guinea where they can sell it to make a larger profit than in their homeland.

Even though this has provided temporary relief for some, there does not exist a long term solution. As a result, many have taken to the streets in a cry for help for government assistance during this time of need. Likely fueling the protests is the fact that the Ivory Coast has not used either its stabilization fund or the Reserve Fund to support cocoa sales or otherwise mollify the situation.

Although the future remains uncertain for the cocoa industry in the Ivory Coast, it is almost certain that there will be global ramifications as a result of this situation. The Ivory Coast is the worlds largest cocoa producer, producing an average of 1.65 million tons a year and providing cocoa to companies to companies such as Cadbury, Hershey's, and Nestle. With this in mind, it is perhaps in more peoples best interest than just the cocoa growers that a solution is discovered for this issue, and fast.

Women in Bahrain: Living and Working in this Part of the Middle East

BAHRAIN - It has always been believed that Bahrain is different from its other Gulf counterparts. It is true especially when it comes to women and their participation towards the economic growth of the country. According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, Bahrain is counted amongst the fastest growing economies of the Middle East. This is due to the country’s emphasis on offering more opportunities for education and providing more rights to women.

The best example to support this statement is the Bahrain Economic Development Board that was established in the year 2000. Since its inception, the board has made significant strides in building capabilities of women including Bahrain’s increased investment in education, skills as well as labor market development that was introduced with an aim to increase the participation of the readily available domestic labor. Thus, the contribution of women to Bahrain’s economy can best be explained by the fact that 15% of Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry membership is represented by business women. Moreover, out of total Bahrainis employed with various financial institutions, 37% are women.

Outline of the Bahraini Society

Bahrain takes pride in being a progressive and open society of refined people who give due importance to education and employment for playing a significant role in the personal development of its people. The island kingdom has been considered a leader in the entire Gulf region in the education sector for being the first to form a public education system in 1919. Education is mandatory for children between the age group of 6 to 14 years. To further promote education, the Ministry of Education encourages improvements in the education system from time to time and offers free textbooks to the Bahraini citizens in the public schools.

The island country of Bahrain can be best explained as a satisfactory blend of modern infrastructure and typical Gulf nation. Even though Islam is the widely followed religion in the country, people show respect towards different religions also. The country expects the women to wear traditional clothes such as ‘hijab’ but is still very liberal as compared to other Gulf nations.

The Role of Women in the Bahraini Economy

Here are some interesting facts concerning the role women play in the development of the country’s economy:

  • According to the Economic Development Board, the contribution of women in the Bahraini economy is expected to increase by 5% annually until 2020. This means that by 2020, the percentage of women’s contribution to Bahrain’s GDP will comprise almost 45.6%.
  • It was also observed that the number of Bahraini women employed in the private sector in the year 2010 had gone up to more than 25,000 women as compared to what it was in the year 2002. The percentage increase is 73.5% in this particular area.
  • The increase in the women’s contribution in the private sector was much higher than their contribution in the public sector which was 45% in the same year.

Things are looking good in terms of wages for Bahraini women. The average wages increased to BD 457 in 2011 from BD 317 in 2006. They still have a long way to go as the difference between the average wages of men and women in the private sector was 30%. The gap must have improved slightly in 2016.

By the contrary, women’s wages are 10% more than the wages given to men in the public sector. The figures also suggest a positive increase in the number of women going in for academic certification after high school which is 17.1%. The percentage of men going in for higher education was 14.4%.

Unemployment rates among women also dropped drastically from 12% in 2002 to 3% in 2012.  If we talk about the share of Bahraini women employed in the financial sector, the same increased to 38.2% in 2016 from 37.4% in 2015. The total Bahraini workforce employed in the financial sector constitutes 70%.

These figures suggest a rise in the employment opportunities in Bahrain for women and will continue to rise even beyond the country’s vision towards 2020. The strides that the country has been making in the employment sector are instilling a feeling of immense confidence among the people, especially women and they are all hopeful of a better future.

Globalization Express: Ethiopia's Chinese Railway

Light Railway System Built by the Chinese, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Photo by Etsutaro Tanaka

Light Railway System Built by the Chinese, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Photo by Etsutaro Tanaka

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - Traveling through Ethiopia's capital city one may notice bustling sidewalks filled with young professionals, construction sites looming with delicately built scaffolding, and street signs written in a language that is not Amharic as one might expect, but Mandarin Chinese.

While it is not unusual for African countries to have a heavy influence of non-native cultures and languages due to colonialism, China has never been one of these. When one thinks of Africa and the historic problems which currently beset it, many of these problems are inextricably connected to 19th century European colonialism during which Britain, France, Portugal, Germany, and Belgium to name a few, used military aggression to implement imperial agendas.

Most African nations and governments resisted colonization, but were crushed in the ensuing effort due to a lack of military prowess or weaponry. Other liberation efforts were undermined by leaders who colluded with the imperialists for their personal aggrandizement and that of their cohorts. They became willing participants and puppet governments facilitating the theft of natural resources such as gold, diamonds, timber, oil and gas, etc. African countries with the most abundant and coveted resources continue to struggle against foreign influences and manipulation which foment continuous instability devised to advance neocolonialists agendas.

This is one of the things which makes Ethiopia unique. Starting in the 1880s Italy tried to annex Ethiopia, which was then known as Abyssinia, but was repeatedly thwarted. Then, on 3 October 1935, the fascist leader Benito Mussolini ‘ordered a new invasion and on 9 May of the following year [Ethiopia] was annexed.” But, unlike other African nations, Ethiopians never accepted the yoke of tyranny and on 5 May 1941, Ethiopian regained its sovereignty under Emperor Haile Selassie.

During all of this, China had yet to expand its imperialistic aspirations beyond the Asia, however, in the latter part of the 20th century this changed when the government initiated a long-term strategy to increase its business and land holdings in Africa. China's influence in Ethiopia can be attributed in part to globalization, though it is also possible that this term is just a euphemistic cover for more nefarious motives. No matter the intention, China's influence in Ethiopia has led to several developments, most recently the construction of a 460-mile railway connecting Ethiopia to the Republic of Djibouti.

The train terminates in the capital, Djibouti City which is on the coast of the Gulf of Tadjoura, strategically located and which provides access to both the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. While the primary purpose of this railway is to decrease the amount of time required to transport products and people to and from this important port, when viewed within the larger context, it is yet another mechanism by in program by China and other nations to engage in 'land grabs.' Unlike the overt appropriation of land by European colonialists, China and other neocolonialists are subtler in their acquisition strategies by promising equitable compensation.

Instead of force, they bring gifts, or rather the promise of economic prosperity, which the government benefits from, but the local and indigenous people who are most affected are the least rewarded. China is Ethiopia's largest importer and the African continent's biggest trade partner. While this is great for China, as it has formed amicable relationships with many countries that have abundant natural resources, these benefits are not reciprocal. In Ethiopia, China benefits by being able to purchase large swaths of land, however, forcing the relocation of the Oromo and Amara among others.

Additionally, the displaced citizens are not trained for non-agrarian or non-rural job opportunities, leaving many of them to retreat to Addis Ababa where they live on the absolute fringes of society. Also, the Ethiopian government has failed to enforce any types of quotas on the Chinese which would cause them to hire local people. Thus, many jobs related to China’ expansion into the country are being worked by Chinese immigrants, which further exacerbates the issue of high-employment.

Furthermore, many of local goods such as clothing, housewares, shoes, etc. are now being imported from China at such an inexpensive cost that it has all but decimated the local economy. For example, if you go to an Ethiopian market and look at the tags on traditional Ethiopian dresses, many will read 'Made in China.' This is extraordinarily strange as the clothing is "traditional" to Ethiopia and thus one would assume would or could only be made locally, using age old techniques, and customary fabrics.

Thus, the railway to all outward appearances is a good thing, a progressive indicator which signals Ethiopia’s ascendancy in the global arena. And, were the Ethiopian government in complete control or even the majority shareholder in these economic endeavors, this could portend the possibility of remaining independent. But, this is not the case, and regarding the railway which is a vital tool in an economic arsenal, this is most evident by the fact only Chinese workers are employed to work back-end as technicians, and in forward facing positions such as conductors, with the vague promise that Ethiopians will be trained in the future to take over these roles.

Furthermore, the railway, which cost upwards of $475 million, was constructed and funded in full by China. Meng Fengchao, the board chairman of China Railway Construction Corp, the company that built the railway, stated that the train system is the first railway built outside of China, which was constructed in accordance with the strict rules, guidelines, and standards for railway construction in China. This successful completion and launch of this railway is a big deal for China especially because it accomplished this feat in Ethiopia, a country in the Horn of Africa which many in the West have only known historically as a place of famine and war.

China’s willingness to negotiate with governments which do not view Communism with the same abhorrence as Western nations, provides it with additional opportunities to expand its geopolitical footprint while simultaneously, but quietly annexing more land. Some speculate that China is becoming increasingly smitten with African countries because it plans to move large numbers of its citizenry to the Continent as part of a long-term effort to reduce its current overpopulation. However, empirically it could also be surmised by the number of Chinese workers who still live in Ethiopia post-construction, as well as the estimated 20,000 who live and work in other capital cities like Lusaka, Zambia, that the unchecked immigration of Chinese laborers is a calculated program in their neocolonialist push.

Speculation aside, China's influence in Ethiopia and its subsequent construction of the railway is monumental for Ethiopia. The country's nascent connection to the sea through this railway is a historic milestone as Ethiopia has been landlocked since Eritrea’s succession in 1991. As with all advances, there are winners and losers, and in the immediate, Ethiopia’s infrastructure is being improved, and in the long-term -- perhaps one day these railways may cut across the Continent transporting goods and services, reuniting people and cultures torn asunder by European colonialism, and connect African countries each to the other in a way that can prognosticate a fully realized African Union.

Until then, Ethiopians and immigrants are happy to be able to have access to a safe, modern, and well-constructed railway system which now expands their living space and horizons. Though train stops and other announcements are now spoken in English, Amharic, and Chinese, in its purity it is wondrous evidence that people from every nation are becoming less isolated and participating more fully as global citizens.

Will the ‘Enemy of my Enemy’ Strategy Foster Cooperation in the Middle East

Dome of the rock, jerusalem, israel

Dome of the rock, jerusalem, israel

ISRAEL, Jerusalem – Israel is a country which is well-recognized by both economists and global experts because of the extraordinary pace of the development in its technology, business, and tourism sectors. This economic growth has benefited Israelis as well as the growing number of immigrants who have become integrated into the Israeli society. This unprecedented growth illuminates a dynamic shift in the relationship which Israel maintains with its various allies.

Israel can be seen as dichotomous when viewed from the perspective that two of its most popular attractions; the famous Holy City of Jerusalem, with its religious significance to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, versus the more secular, rapidly moving and vibrant metropolis of Tel Aviv are attractive to tourists, both religious and secular, who annually vacation in the country.

But, this is only part of the story because most people who live outside of the region only associate Israel with terrorism, bombings, and its swift and violent responses to continuous threats from its Arab neighbors. In addition to this, the strong relationship which Israel maintains with America, one which has benefited the country in a number of ways, most notably in its access to advance weaponry which secures its position in the region as a formidable military force, is viewed by other Middle East nations with disdained because this support is viewed as providing the country with an unfair advantage.

It is this precarious balance between military might and advance technology that seems to thwart Israel’s continued efforts to reach a peaceful solution with its Arab neighboring nations. The lack of an accord in the Middle East is the result of recalcitrance on both sides of the proverbial negotiating table. But, in all of this people forget that Saudi Arabia also benefits mightily from its alliance with the United States. This relationship is complex, but provides the U.S. with a presence in a power Arab nation in the Middle East where continued relations and open dialogue with the ruling family provides entrée into and a voice in decision making affairs in the region from which the U.S. would otherwise be unaware.

Progress to Date

Despite numerous efforts toward securing peace in the Middle East, many of the negotiations brokered in large part by several U.S. Presidents and Secretaries of State, conflict persists as talks between Israel and its Middle East neighbors continually break-down due to the intractable positions which hardliners on both side are unwilling to relinquish. One such issue is the ownership and occupancy of the Dome of the Rock, considered one of the holiest and most revered piece of real-estate in the country and is considered the location of the Foundation Stone.

The Dome of the Rock is now owned by the Ministry of Awqaf Islamic Affairs and Holy Places. But, Israel also lays claim to the mountain because it is also considered the site of the Holy of Holies, which is the inner chamber of the sanctuary in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, separated by a veil from the outer chamber. It was reserved for the presence of God and could be entered only by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement.

Muslims by contrast revere this location as holy because “according to some Islamic scholars, the rock is the spot from which the Islamic prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven accompanied by the angel Gabriel. Further, Muhammad was taken here by Gabriel to pray with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.” (Source: Temple MountThus, for the religious right on both sides, this is the most contentious issue, but for the secularist the true divide is the lack of a two state solution. For example, people had great hopes in 1993 that such a solution would be achieved when former U.S. President Bill Clinton brokered the Oslo Peace Treaty which failed to coalesce according to each side because it was felt that their needs and promises asserted as necessary to achieve and maintain peace were insincere and therefore would be unsustainable.

However, in the intervening decades the isolationist policies of some nation states have begun to dissolve as many recognize the inevitability of globalization and the need for nations to form alliances in order to maximize the vast potential for economic advantages, especially for countries with emerging economies. Though the ruling governments of nations entering into diplomatic discussions may espouse vastly different political, military, or even religious objectives, the greater opportunities often take precedence of potential future conflicts even as these nations enter into discreet agreements to meet internal goals and implement long-term strategies.

It is for such reasons of necessity that the leadership of many moderate Arab nations and Israel have reopened diplomatic discussions in earnest. However, instead of these negotiations being initiated by outside parties, Israel and its Arab neighboring nations have come to the table to dialogue about and formulate strategies to address the common threat of Iran. It is as the old proverb, an alliance built out of necessity because “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

On 4 January 2016 an article appeared in the Voice of America online news site highlighting the violent relationship that exists between Saudi Arabia and Iran, one that poses a grave threat of destabilizing the region especially after the lifting of U.S. sanctions. According to the report, on “Saturday [2 January 2016] protesters in Tehran attacked the Saudi embassy, ransacking and burning it as Iran ignored or refused Saudi requests to protect the building. Saudi Arabia formally broke off diplomatic relations with Iran on Sunday, on Monday saying it would cut commercial ties and ban Saudi travel to Iran as well. Sudan and Bahrain, both Saudi allies, severed ties as well.” (Source: VOX)

Speculation on the Future

Iran’s nuclear program continues to be a source of anxiety for the Middle East, and especially for the six energy rich monarchies that comprise the six member countries of the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC). Ironically it is this uncertainty which has helped to strengthen these GCC nations’ bonds with Israel. Presently, the bond between the GCC and Israel are both economic as well as diplomatic. This desire to achieve this common objective has led to a number of Israeli corporations establishing corporate headquarters in economically vibrant destinations such as Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Doha.

These bold step will go a long way toward paving the way for future cohesiveness in the region. It is these commonalities which will encourage and foster growth opportunities in various economic sectors throughout the Middle East. Ultimately this will result in greater market demand for skilled and unskilled labor both foreign and domestic who will be able to take advantage of increased employment opportunities in the region.

All of these developments prognosticate a bright future and may be the economic impetus that unifies the region despite the ongoing challenges to a permanent peace solution. Perhaps the allure of increased economic prowess and greater influence in the geopolitical landscape is a commonality upon which many successful accords may be reached between all Middle East nations.

Middle East Correspondent: @AnshumanKukreti
LinkedIn: Anshuman Kukreti

The Complicated Dynamic of Arab’s Love-Hate Relationship with the Rest of the World

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry & Arab League Secretary-General Dr. Nabil Elaraby,, Photo by U.S. Department of State

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry & Arab League Secretary-General Dr. Nabil Elaraby,, Photo by U.S. Department of State

MIDDLE EAST - The relationship the Middle East maintains with other global nations is complicated. Whether political relations or social ties, trying to understand the depth of Arab’s love-hate relationship with other countries sometimes seems like an impenetrable task.

Without taking into consideration foreign nations, the countries that make up the Middle East are themselves strategically aligned despite differences in terms of social issues, beliefs, regulations, and political dominance. The conflicts and alliances within the boundaries of Arab nations impacts the global landscape in innumerable ways and has great significance.

The Middle East maintains a very definite and elaborate relationship with the rest of the world. Some of these relationships are cordial, others born of necessity and political expediency such as Gulf security, while others are mutually beneficial and actively nurtured. It is very interesting to study and understand the relationship between Arab nations and rest of the world.

Here is a snapshot of the relationships shared with different countries:

With The USA

This relationship depicts an underlying distrust of the fundamentalist values that govern most Arab nations, juxtaposed with an insatiable dependence upon Arab’s vast oil reserves. This high energy consumption is a primary reason that the United States walks a delicate balance in maintaining cordial relationships with Middle East countries despite periodic conflicting priorities. For instance, after 9/11 there were numerous allegations by the U.S. government that some of terrorists originated from Saudi Arabia. This caused a potential rift in relations, but unlike Iran, the dependence on the oil and Saudi Arabia as a formidable ally in the region, the U.S. negotiated terms under which it could continue to receive the much needed petroleum.

"The United States imported approximately 9 million barrels per day (MMbbl/d) of petroleum in 2014 from about 80 countries. Petroleum includes crude oil, natural gas plant liquids, liquefied refinery gases, refined petroleum products such as gasoline and diesel fuel, and biofuels, including ethanol and biodiesel. In 2014, about 80% of gross petroleum imports were crude oil, and about 44% of the crude oil that was processed in U.S. refineries was imported.

The top five source countries of U.S. petroleum imports in 2014 were Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Iraq.  The country rankings vary based on gross petroleum imports or net petroleum imports (gross imports minus exports)." (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

The intricate relationship between the U.S. and Saudia Arabia started with ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Ibn Saud’, the founding monarch of Saudi Arabia. The event was initiated by most respected American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt in the year 1951. The outcome of these negotiations forever connected Arab’s oil with American national security.

In the current climate in the Middle East as well as the continuing instability in the entire region, the increasingly interdependent relationship between the kingdom and the U.S. is largely driven by the supply of cheap oil in in exchange for American protection. The ‘hate’ factor cannot be denied as well; as xenophia against all Arabs is rampant in the U.S. in some instances with cause, but in many it is the result of a lack of education and exposure.

With China

The relationship between the Peoples' Republic of China and Saudi Arabia goes beyond the love for ‘oil’ or rather the greed for it. The mutually beneficial relationship is predicated by an exchange of goodsfor petrol. This success of this relationship can be seen in the ubiquity of Chinese goods being sold in throughout the Middle East. Like most countries that are voracious consumers of the low price goods manufactured in China, Saudi Arabia procures many of these items through bilateral agreements in which China gets oil in exchange. In addition, there are a number of infrastructure projects being undertaken by the two countries which include:

  • Saudi Arabia has become increasingly important as an investment location for the Chinese (with the Saudi reciprocating the interest by increasing their presence in China as part of King Abdullah’s “Look East” strategy).
  • Chinese firms have begun to invest in infrastructure and industry in Saudi Arabia, including in an aluminum smelter in the southern province of Jizan, at a cost of US$3 billion.
  • Direct flights from China
    • Beijing-Jeddah (4 flights weekly)
    • Guangzhou-Jeddah (1 flight weekly)
    • Guangzhou-Riyadh (3 flights weekly) (Source: China Briefing)

The Middle East clearly understands that China’s global rise is a force to be reckoned with and that a strong relationship between the two will be mutually beneficial. The price for this relationship is built upon economic and infrastructure interests versus the quid pro quo relationship that exists between the Saudi Arabia and the U.S. which trades oil in exchange for Gulf security.

With India & Other Asian Countries

India has become a major business partner with Saudia Arabia. Like other nations the relationship between the two countries is primarily a "buyer-seller" relationship with oil being the primary commodity. The recent visit of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to New Delhi boosted strategic ties and the two countries agreed to explore ways and means to transform their buyer-seller relationship. According to Saudi Arabia is India's fourth largest trading partner at $43.78 billion in fiscal 2012-13. In the April-November period of the current fiscal, the two-way trade was $32.7 billion. Imports of crude by India form a major part of this trade. Almost one-fifth of India's oil imports come from Saudi Arabia. (Source: Times of India)

Further, India provides companies stationed in Arab nations like the UAE and Qatar with an efficient and cost effective laborer force and the Gulf employment market has benefited immensely from this exchange.

In summary, each of these relationships was initially established on a foundation of oil trade, but have since diversified their partnerships to the mutual benefit of each nation. Call it the greed for oil or the Middle East’s initiative to achieve economic diversification, the ‘love-hate’ relationship that exists between it and other nations will continue to balance on a delicate fulcrum. These relationships, though fraught with dangers, will ultimately result in greater interdependence, increased stability in the region,  and the development of alternate sources of revenue.

Middle East Correspondent: @vinita1204

Russian Billionaire Funds Search For Alien Life

stephen hawking nasa 50th, Photo by Nasa HQ

stephen hawking nasa 50th, Photo by Nasa HQ

RUSSIA - Yesterday, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced that he will spend $100 million to further the search for life beyond Earth. His plan, called "Breakthrough Listen," uses radio telescopes and a handpicked team of scientists to conduct a ten-year search for radio signals that would be indicative of life. Milner's estimate is that during the span of the project, radio transmissions can be collected from the Milky Way as well as 100 other nearby galaxies. Scientists will then look for patterns in the data and figure out what radio signals came from natural causes and what, if any, came from intelligent life. (Source: Reuters)

The financial backing behind "Breakthrough Listen" is unprecedented. Typically, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) receives less than $2 million a year.

Most of the money will be spent in renting time to use radio telescopes, including those at Australia's Parkes Observatory in New South Wales and the Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia.  Astronomers must pay top dollar to use these telescopes and most can only afford to reserve a few days of sky-watching time. Milner plans to book the telescopes for two months every year -- admittedly an inconvenience for other scientists jockeying for time at the observatories.

Advising Milner and his team are Frank Drake, former partner of Carl Sagan and chairman of SETI, and physicist Stephen Hawking.

NASA has long known that there are "Goldilocks planets" -- Earthlike, potentially habitable planets. The term references the Goldilocks fairy-tale's quest for something "just right" -- for instance, an atmosphere that isn't too hot to cause all water to evaporate nor too cold for water to become inaccessibly frozen. Breakthrough Listen will find out if anything on these planets has something to say.

CONTRIBUTING JOURNALIST: @SJJakubowski
LINKEDIN: Sarah Jakubowski

Mohed Altrad, a Bedouin Who Flees the Desert, Becomes Billionaire, Wins Coveted 2015 EY Award

eiffel eyeful, photo by iwc photo

eiffel eyeful, photo by iwc photo

MARSEILLE, France - How many of us could walk through the desert to sit outside of school because we had such a thirst for knowledge? Would you be motivated enough to gaze through a hole in mud and tin roof schoolhouse and stare at a chalk board covered in symbols which meant nothing to you because you have never seen writing?

What if in addition to this, you knew that everyday after a several hour walk home that you would be beaten upon your arrival because your destiny was predetermined to be a sheepherder? Well not only did he learn to write, he excelled.

The man who did all of this and more is Mohed Altrad, a Syrian son of a Bedouin girl who was either 12 or 13-years-old when she was raped for the second time by his father who was the leader of their nomadic tribe. It was into these horrific circumstances that Altrad and his elder brother were born. In interviews, Altrad says that he doesn't remember his mother's name, but he does know that she died giving birth to him.

His elder brother was eventually murdered by his father, leaving Mohed to be raised by his maternal grandmother just outside Raqqa, which like many towns and cities in Syria, it is now controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS), but back then it was the place he called home.

Because his family were Bedouin tribesmen wandering the deserts of Syria, they kept no records of births or deaths so Altrad has no idea of his true age. According to interviews, he surmises that he is perhaps as old as 65, but this figure is not as important to him as all that he has achieved in remembrance of his mother. The pursuit of this promise to honor her has culminated in his becoming a billionaire, but the prize that has allowed him the visibility to publicly honor her was in being chosen as the 2014 French Entrepreneur of the Year.

As a result of the French Entrepreneur of the Year, he was nominated to represent France in the annual Ernst and Young World Entrepreneur of the Year competition. This year, 52 national award winners were nominated, but Altrad won the coveted 2015 award. Of course his ascent wasn't immediate, but his success was a consequence of his thirst for knowledge, his persistence, and triumph over the limitations set for him by his grandmother.

Once she died he was free to fully engage in the pursuit of his academic studies. He was just 17-years-old when he was awarded a scholarship by a Syrian foundation which granted him admission to the University of Kiev in Ukraine. He packed what little possessions he had and traveled to Europe where he knew no one and didn't speak the language. Upon his arrival he was told that the course was full, so he traveled to France. He recounted how he arrived during the coldest of winter days in France, unable to speak French, and with little means to support himself. He sometimes ate only one meal a day but this did not deter him. It seemed that the hardness of life in the Syrian desert prepared him to face any type of difficulty, and gave him the fortitude to withstand hardship and persevere.

In France he became fluent in French and matriculated into one of the oldest universities in Europe located in the city of Montpellier. There he pursued his undergraduate studies, eventually receiving his PhD in Computer Science. According to interviews, upon graduation he began to look for a business venture and as if destined, while sitting in a cafe he picked up a newspaper and noticed an advertisement from the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company which was seeking engineers to help design the infrastructure for their burgeoning oil and gas industry.

He made the decision to take the job because it would provide him with the opportunity to save money and perhaps to buy a business. Like other foreign nationals who even today work in the Middle East, they are paid astronomical salaries with nothing to spend the money on. Upon the completion of his contract, he returned to France in search of a business venture into which he could invest. He and his partner worked on and brought to market one of the first laptop computers.

These laptops were large and clunky, and according to interviews "were about the size of a suitcase." They were initially used as the precursor to the airport terminal computers that announce flight arrivals and departures. At that time he and his partner lacked the resources to scale and thus sold the company and continued to save money. Always in search of opportunities, he considered and discarded ventures into which he could invest. One day he was approached by a man who had been trying to sell his bankrupt scaffolding business, thus Altrad and his partner bought the faltering business in 1985.

Despite knowing nothing about scaffolding a decidedly non-tech business, he and his partner decided to assume the risk, plus the investment was relatively small. Altrad capitalized his investments by buying and selling not only scaffolding, but also everything that might be of benefit to builders. This included the expansion into the tool market, machinery, and cement etcetera. He also invested in the workforce by providing excellent employee benefits that made them happier and thus more productive. His company philosophy incentivize his employees to take ownership of their work product and feel like they were valuable to the company.

In the past 30 years under his management the Altrad Group has grown to 17,000 employees, with customers in 100 countries, and 170 subsidiary companies. According to their website the company "sells and hires out equipment for building and public works and for industry (mixers, scaffolding, tubular equipment)." An amazing feat for a non-technical company, especially one that was birthed from such meager beginnings but now has $2bn (£1.3bn) in turnover and $200m annual profit.

In a BBC interview Altrad said that he sleeps less than 4 hours a night. He doesn't know why; however from the outside looking in, it is because of this drive and creativity that he is a prolific businessman and a successful writer who has two books in publication. One which is autobiographical and the other which is read in schools across France. Between the two he has sold millions of copies.

In a time when xenophobia is at its height both in Europe where illegal African immigrants arrive daily, or in America where people like the Republican candidate Donald Trump espouse hatred and vitriol toward Mexican immigrants and garners a large following; Mr. Altrad is a shinning example of what it truly means to be an immigrant. A citizen who uses their culture and history to enrich the society into which they assimilate, and as a consequence makes the country stronger and better because of their tenacity, vision, and drive to succeed despite all odds.

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF: @ ayannanahmias
LINKEDIN: Ayanna Nahmias