The opening ceremony of the Olympics, celebrating the world's 13th best country. Photo: Getty.
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Why international rankings of countries are completely pointless

The UK is ranked 13 out of 132 countries in the new Social Progress Index, thanks to its excellent universities but comparatively high rates of obesity. But when will we realise that these lists are really meaningless?

New Zealand has topped the latest list as the best place to live in the world, according to a ranking system developed economists at Harvard Business School called the Social Progress Index. That’s not due to the country’s unspoiled landscapes, pristine ski slopes, indigenous penguin population and high Lord of the Rings memorabilia to human ratio – the Social Progress Index takes into account a range of factors, including individual freedom, national health and education, and access to basic human needs like food and shelter. 

Below New Zealand, Switzerland, Iceland, the Netherlands and Norway make it to the top five, while the UK is the 13th best place to live, and the US comes in at 16. At the very  bottom of the list are Burundi, Central African Republic and Chad.

When you compare the UK with countries with a similar income level (like Belgium, Japan or France), we score relatively badly on a number of measures: our rates of maternal mortality and deaths from infectious diseases are comparatively high, we’re too fat, too many of us die of air pollution, and there’s too much crime, discrimination against minorities and religious intolerance. Suddenly our place at number 13 doesn’t seem so great – even if we have comparatively good universities, a lot of freedom of speech, low suicide rates and easy access to contraception.

The Social Progress Index is certainly comprehensive but as with any global index (although especially Monocle’s quality of life index) it ends up being more than a bit random. Iraq, for instance, comes in 118th out of 132 countries, because while it scores low for freedom and personal safety, it has comparatively good access to sanitation – but can you really weigh one variable up against each other so simply?

It’s not a simple trade-off: would you like swap improved NHS care for a higher chance of being a victim of violent crime? Or marginally better secondary education for higher levels of religious intolerance? How much faster and more effective would your broadband have to be to balance out the effect of a 0.5% increase in fatal road traffic accidents? The question, of course, is nonsensical.

The authors have done their best to pick out newsworthy trends – for instance, they suggest the “Arab Spring” countries of Algeria, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia all score extremely badly when it comes to “opportunity” – measured in terms of individual freedom, access to higher education and societal tolerance.  Which feels like quite an interesting pattern, except they’ve got their facts slightly wrong: neither Algeria nor Morocco is an Arab Spring country, they did not experience revolutions in 2011. Which all goes to show that while these broad-brush international comparisons feel like they ought to be illuminating, their findings are often far too general to be of real use.

New Zealand might top the list, but I wouldn’t recommend moving there on that basis alone. Nor is there is much the UK can do with the knowledge that it is the 13th best place in the world to be, according to a bunch of Harvard academics.

It might be helpful to be reminded that given how wealthy the UK is, we could do better at improving national health and becoming a fairer, more tolerant society, but we don’t need another global ranking for that. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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