I sometimes feel like a really, sad person. I wake up every day wondering what’s new with tech, FinTech, the world. I go to conferences and, instead of delivering my keynote speech and disappearing, normally hang around to hear the other presentations, as I might learn something. Equally, I sometimes get invited to speak at a conference in a lesser known country, and I’ll often go because I want to see the country, meet the people and see what the situation on the ground is like.
I just did that this week in Sudan. I must admit, I know nothing about Sudan, except that it split into two earlier this decade to leave the warring South to sort itself out, whilst the sanction-suffering North tried to find a way back into world trade. It finally achieved this status in October when, after months of negotiations, the US government formally revoked a number of economically focused sanctions, whilst keeping Sudan on a list of state sponsors of terrorism alongside Iran and Syria.
My contact in Sudan had told me this would happen back in April and asked me if I’d chair the first ever FinTech conference in Khartoum, and I happily said yes. You may think I’m nuts, but I blogged about this recently and will always visit countries that seem safe if I’m invited by someone I know personally or who comes highly recommended. This year I visited Lebanon and Pakistan, both nations that are on Western media alerts, and found both to be fantastic. In fact, as I went to Khartoum, I had myself booked to visit Cairo and the Pyramids on the way. The day before I was due to go the IS bomb and gun battle took place in Sinai, killing many, and grabbing Egypt more negative headlines. Is that a reason to cancel my trip?
Well, if I was an American maybe; if I’m a European, possibly; but dammit, I am British, and I’ll go anywhere that we used to own to sort out the problems. So yes, I went and, as per usual, Sinai is miles from Cairo, where everything was bright and business-as-usual, and it was well worth it as you can see in this photo of me and my friend, Charlie Brown.
From Cairo, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour flight to Khartoum, and it was not what I expected. It is a vibrant city, with modern infrastructure in the area I stayed in. Great hotel, vibrant people, roads where the traffic actually moves (even at rush hour), an assurance that I could walk anywhere and be safe, and a lot of financial and technology people who were keen to know what I had to say.
I asked my host how come the city is doing so well, when it has suffered sanctions for twenty years – they were introduced by Bill Clinton when Sudan sheltered Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists – and he said the Chinese and allies, by which he means Iranians and Saudi Arabians even though the two never mix. Interesting.
I must admit, as with most nations in Africa, the Chinese investments have been pivotal and is a key part of their Belt-and-Road strategy but then, as I have said before, the American dream has been replaced by the Chinese awakening so there’s no surprise there. What was more surprising is that I have been to many other countries where sanctions have had real effects with spiralling inflation, basic infrastructure failing and building and constructions works halted, so it was refreshing to find a country that had managed to avoid all of those challenges.
It was then that you realise how complex global diplomatic affairs are, and I am not a politician or a statesman, but the great American superpower that can slap and punch anyone in the face is no longer able to do that. We can see this with Russia and North Korea, and it really does demonstrate the shifting sands in the balance of power.
I am not writing this to nay-say America. No way. God bless you and God bless America, and all that schmaltz from House of Cards (don’t go there Chris, or you’ll get Spacey) and Designated Survivor, but I am writing it as reality.
The days of Donald Trump being able to throw his glove down and challenge a nation are gone, as Donald needs a few more gloves in the ring before he can throw a punch. Thank goodness. Having said that, after the Weapons of Mass Destruction lie, even if he does want a few more gloves, the intelligence services will have to do a far more convincing job to get any Prime Minister or President to get on board.
So maybe we won’t get into a World War III quite as quickly as we all thought.
I’ll tell you more about the conference in the next couple of blogs and can only say that, like Iran as it approached the easing of sanctions, the first thing these countries do is turn to innovation and finance as way to restart their mojo. By way of example, as I checked out of the hotel, I saw this sign.
I had been warned about this but, due to international sanctions, all Western credit cards and payments are off the network. That not only means you cannot checkout with a card but, fi you didn’t bring cash (USD$ ideally) with you, then you’re stuck. Luckily, I always keep some USD$ on me just in case, as I’ve encountered this issue before, which makes it amusing that on the one hand, the USA’s sanctions are less effective these days whilst, on the other, their currency is still the preferred currency of the world … today (checkout bitcoin’s price for tomorrow).
Meanwhile, here’s a new one for ya. Did you hear that the start of World War III will be in Ethiopia?