Precarious
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - October 18, 2018 - 12:00am

So far, world oil prices have held steady. That is good news. In our case, oil prices have been a major driver of inflation.

But there is a sense this is the calm before the storm. The troubles besetting Saudi Arabia after the horrible murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul could still come to a boil. In the worst-case scenario, sanctions imposed on Saudi Arabia could kick up oil prices and precipitate a global recession.

Things are extremely precarious at the regional and domestic levels. Complex political forces are at work. The divides are deep. There is much tinder to be ignited.

As the Saudis scramble for a suitable explanation to Khashoggi’s disappearance, it’s credibility and international support is badly hemorrhaging.

A high-profile business conference hosted by Saudi Arabia scheduled for next week will be an important barometer of international opinion. Dubbed “Davos in the Desert”, the conference could be deserted by those who matter. Business leaders and government ministers have been frantically cancelling their attendance.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran are rivals for regional influence in this volatile part of the world. Saudi Arabia’s present predicament could embolden the two other powers to further reduce Riyadh’s clout over regional affairs.

Serious famine threatens millions in Yemen as a direct consequence of Saudi Arabia’s heavy-handed military action. That could provide pretext for any form of intervention that disrupts the sensitive balance of power.

Tensions are high among the various branches of Saudi Arabia’s royal family. Recall that current Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) basically grabbed the position from his cousin, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

MBS, all of 33 years old, has proven to be brazen and reckless in using his power. He detained major business leaders and royal relatives in a luxury hotel, keeping them for months until they basically ransomed their freedom. He engineered the military venture in Yemen against Iranian-backed rebel forces. Even as he presents himself a modernizing reformist, we now realize he is a brutal tyrant.

The cabal of intelligence officers linked to the Khashoggi disappearance are linked to him. Important voices in the US Congress have openly called for the displacement of MBS. That will make future US-Saudi relations precarious as well.

The predicament Riyadh now finds itself in over the disappearance of Khashoggi appears to have touched off many explosive political questions, not the least being the shocking impunity with which MBS conducts his power play. It is impunity rooted in the almost unconditional backing Donald Trump has shown for the man he hopes will be an effective check on Iranian influence.

Our interest here, of course, is limited to the regional stability required to provide price stability for oil. But we cannot be entirely quiet on the moral issues.

Legacy

The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) did not have a very good start. The first secretary appointed to the agency quit after a few months on the job for reasons never fully made public.

Since then, Eliseo Rio, Jr. led the agency as Acting Secretary. The expectation is that he will merely be a transitory leader, keeping the seat warm for a successor with greater political gravitas.

The rumor is that Rio will be replaced midyear next year by retiring Senator Gringo Honasan. The business community is uncertain how this will affect the newly established agency. Honasan has rarely, if ever, spoken about his technology vision. 

Although he will only be a transitory head of the agency, industry players see Rio as as a fairly competent, fair and professional agency head. Although he never seemed to enjoy the full political backing he needed to nurse a new agency and institutionalize far-reaching telecommunications policy, he performed fairly well.

While he was clearly vulnerable to the games powerbrokers play, Rio withstood pressures and maintained a hard-nosed policy vision. Digital technologies are changing very rapidly and the country’s communications infrastructure can only be sustainable through adept policy-making.

If the designation of a third telco player happens according to schedule, this will be Rio’s solid legacy. That designation has been delayed by policy struggles within government and strong lobbying from the industry. The delay notwithstanding, Rio will have to be credited with charting a correct course for ensuring telecommunications will be a competitive as well as adaptive sector. The country’s progress relies on staying that course.

Whatever the merits of the claim that our telecoms sector is ruled by a “duopoly,” the designation of a third player is a political decision taken two years ago. It was the DICT that had to implement a clear political decision. This it had done.

In addition, the DICT laid the groundwork for a national broadband system for use by local governments and public schools initially. The DICT entered into an agreement with the National Grid Corporation (NGC) to use the fiber optic cables installed alongside the main power lines.  The NGC will allow government use of these lines for free.

For some reason, Presidential Adviser Ramon Jacinto came to the idea that the DICT was his turf. He has imposed himself on the agency’s policymaking process, insisting on such proposals as limiting the provision of 50,000 telecoms towers we need to only two corporate players. Nearly all the stakeholders in the telecoms sector objected to that idea.

The DICT firmly maintained its market-friendly policy disposition. People representing special interests have been kept at bay. We hope Gringo Honasan, if he indeed becomes the new DICT head, maintains the same policy independence.

DEPARTMENT OF INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGY INFLATION OIL PRICES
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