Chinese Hands in the African Crude Oil Cookie Jar

Flying from Los Angeles to Toronto to Paris to Cairo takes a long long time and includes plenty of sitting, waiting, reading, eating and sleeping in airport terminals. Sometimes, when I have so much time to pass, I like to fantasize about going to other locations I see on the departure boards, such as Cape Town or Rio de Janeiro or Agra or Bucharest.... However, it is also during these long intervals that I like to people watch. I like to see who is going where.

For example on October 23, 2008, I had six hours to wander up and down the aisles at Terminal F at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris before my connecting flight would start boarding. On my way to the croissant and coffee cart, I saw it at Gate 47 throngs and throngs of Chinese people dressed in rather simple attire sharing their packed lunches. That in itself was perhaps not as curious as where they were going - Malabo. Malabo? Where is Malabo? Should I know about Malabo? From the airline representatives at the counter I found out that it was in Africa. It was not until I returned home and looked up Malabo did I find out that it is the capital and largest city of Equatorial Guinea and it is located on Bioko Island at the rim of a sunken volcano.

Map of Equatorial Guinea and its capital Malabo

Hmm. I did not even know that there was country called Equatorial Guinea in Africa and I pride myself in being geographically knowledgeable. That's embarrassing. But why are groups of rural Chinese heading to this terribly under-developed and impoverished country which is ruled by an incredibly vicious, self-serving dictator?

I assumed it had to do with China's growing need for oil - as the second largest consumer of oil in the world. (I knew that Chinese thirst for oil from another African country - Sudan had been inflaming the genocide in Darfur. Unfortunately, the race for natural resources trumps a social conscience in many a country). At the time I was very intrigued with my random discovery. I felt like I had uncovered some huge national Chinese secret. The Chinese entrepreneurial spirit and diaspora always fascinated me - I have found mini Chinatowns and Chinese run restaurants in the most obscure locations - but even this location at seemed extreme to me. Then I read that starting June 2009, Americans will be able to fly Delta Airlines direct from Atlanta to Malabo. I guess there must be quite a generous supply of crude oil reserves in Equatorial Guinea.
Malabo Waterfront (taken from Wikipedia)

Then quite accidentally the other day, I was sorting through some old, still unread magazines on my bedside and came across the March/April 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs and on its cover was the title to an article by Harry Broadman, economic advisor at the World Bank - "China and India Go to Africa." If I had done my reading before my trip in October I would have known that Africa's exports to China increased at a whopping annual rate of 48% between 2000 and 2005. Most of this activity had to do with oil and mining as I had suspected. What I did not know was that 85% of the continent's exports to China came from 5 countries - the oil exporting nations of Angola, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, Sudan and Equatorial Guinea. And so it seems that the Chinese are presently investing heavily in building roads and in oil production in Equatorial Guinea. According to Dawn (Pakistan's leading newspaper), the leadership of this tiny country view China as their principal development partner. Evidence of this Chinese presence is clearly visible throughout Malabo.

In doing some final bits of research to complete this post, I came across two additional facts about Equatorial Guinea that blew me away. According to the CIA World Factbook over the past decade, Equatorial Guinea have become the 3rd largest exporter of oil in Sub-Saharan Africa. And while this country ranks near the bottom of the UN development index, in 2004, according to the BBC, it had the world's fastest growing economy!

I always knew that traveling was a tremendous learning and growth opportunity. I just never anticipated increasing my IQ while jetlagged in transit.


Ahhhh...Now I Can Finally Breathe....

A mosaic of Barack Obama made up of newspapers covering his big election win

Two months of travel have left me rather incommunicado and while not much in my daily life has changed, so much has changed at the same time. The world, at least in my perception and for many around me seems different...better...and despite the severe economic downturn, a little more hopeful. A month has now passed since Senator Barack Obama became President-Elect Barack Obama and aaaaaahhh, it still feels damn good. 46 more days until inauguration day! And while I know, most of the hoopla surrounding his election is winding down and all the momentum is building up for the inauguration, I could not let this moment pass without adding my two cents, especially since I have been such an avid supporter.

I was in Cairo, Egypt on election night. With the significant time difference, I lay in bed at the Nile Hilton, eyes glued to the small television screen in the wee hours of the morning of November 5th, waiting for the state by state returns. When Ohio was called for Obama, as the sun was about to rise over Egypt, I turned off the television to get some sleep, now certain of an Obama victory. I missed all the dancing in the streets back home in the U.S., but I did walk around that day with an extra bounce in my step despite my sleep deprivation.

The following morning, the main paper in Egypt, Al-Ahram had this headline regarding the American election, "A Dream Come True." Now Egypt is geographically far and removed from the United States and the majority of Egyptians struggle daily to barely sustain their families; but despite the difficulties of everyday life, the Egyptians are a very generous and animated people, full of good humor and chatter; and many Egyptians while disillusioned with their own country, all wanted to talk to me about Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. Prior to the election, the young Egyptian kids at the souq or marketplace in Aswan all cheered when I responded that I was supporter of Barack Obama.

On my way back home, stopping over in France, I noticed that the excitement was even more heightened. Every French magazine, every newspaper had Obama on their front covers for months prior to the election. It almost seemed that Obama was running for president of France. And then after Obama's win on November 5th, my sister and her friends in England, some American, some not, all celebrated together.

The New York Times yesterday broke the story that Obama is considering delivering a policy speech the first 100 days of his presidency in an Islamic capital. Cairo presently, seems to be a likely option. I think this is an intriguing idea and if organized in a thoughtful manner could have far-reaching implications. The strategy of speaking directly to the people on the streets instead of through the filters of propped up corrupt dictators is a powerful one. Barack Obama has captured the world's imagination and if he continues to tread carefully and purposefully, he can continue to heal divides and shift narrow perceptions. His life experiences has made him more aware of his role and responsibility as a global citizen. Yet it cannot be overlooked that he must sustain a delicate balancing act internationally when he, as president has to maneuver between his roles and responsibilities as as a fellow citizen of the world and as the enforcer of American interests globally. But of all the American presidents who had to walk that fine line, I would definitely prefer one who is mixed-race, and who had Kenyan father, an internationally-minded mother from Kansas, an Indonesian step-father; and who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii and was raised by his white grandparents and has a sister who is half Indonesian, half white American and a brother-in-law who is Chinese Canadian.

It is an extraordinary feeling to be united globally in the hope and desire for a better tomorrow. When I finally returned to the U.S. after my travels, I could not deny the exhilaration I felt exiting the airport in Los Angeles. This was not the same place I had left. I returned to find a different, transcendental, more hopeful America. For the first time in eight years, it felt good to be home.

The following are interesting links and articles that I have read on Barack Obama's victory that I thought might be of interest. I have abbreviated an article written that I enjoyed reading by Pico Iyer on a chance encounter he had with Barack Obama. I have also included a link to Tyler Brule's Fast Lane column in the November 22nd weekend issue of the Financial Times. While I can't say he usually writes much of substance in this column, I still continue to read it every week. Perhaps I subconsciously enjoy the fluff, or perhaps his column is akin to a train wreck for me - not good to see, but I can't help but stare. And yet surprisingly, his piece titled "America Inc needs to get smart," his to do list for the Obama's administration is rather smart and witty.

American Newspapers - Headlines of Obama's Won
International Newspapers on Obama's win

America Inc Needs to Get Smart
Financial Times - November 22, 2008
By Tyler Brule

My Chance Encounter with Obama in Hawaii

Time Magazine - November 5, 2008
By Pico Iyer

(For the full article, click on the title above. The abbreviated article is below).

...Everywhere I've been this year — from Jerusalem to Japan to Colombia to Italy and back again — I've heard people essentially say that America is an overweight, white plutocrat who is not only out of touch with the world but also shows no signs of wanting to grow closer to it. This is as unfair as any image — contradicted at every moment by the kindness and curiosity of many Americans — but it remains a potent one in a world where people communicate more with images than ideas and assumptions travel faster than truths. The best way to begin to correct it is to show the world a leader who can't really say how much he's African or Asian or American or just a product of their mixing in Hawaii. The point is not just that Obama will bring globalism to America; in his name, his face and his issues, he'll bring America back to the globe.

You could, in fact, say it is the questions that he draws from his experience that are as important as any answers he may come up with. How to make a peace between the black and the white inside him (or inside our cities and our country)? How to do right by our relatives in Africa without dishonoring the grandparents from Kansas who raised us? How to bring the modest Muslim school in Java together with Harvard Law School? The questions Obama has been thinking about all his life are the very ones that dominate the world today. And the mounting economic crisis only makes the construction of a wider identity — and conversing across the waters — more urgent, not less so.

Barack Obama the man is sure to disappoint some of the expectations his fans have; any man would, especially in the age of the 24/7 news cycle. But the past and the future that he speaks for are precisely the ones that belong so uniquely to the new century....