September 19, 2019

Arab Futures 2.0: the road to 2030 

At first glance, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region appears particularly unsuited to conducting foresight exercises due to its many disruptive and surprising developments. But beyond their actual predictability, it is precisely because the region features so many sudden events that foresight here is crucial.


This Chaillot Paper opens with three scenarios which lay out the regional state of affairs in 2030. These scenarios are built on the catalysts or agents of change that were identified after a careful analysis of the mega-trends that are elaborated thereafter.

September 17, 2019

China’s Silent Land Reform: 1958-1962

China’s Silent Land Reform: 1958-1962

Speaker: Wuna Reilly
Venue: Seminar Room A, China in the World Building (188), Fellows Lane, ANU
Date: Thursday, 19 September - 16:00 to 17:30

In this seminar I examine the heated debates within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership between 1958 and 1962 over the issue of collective land. In their efforts to establish and sustain a planned economy across rural China, CCP leaders struggled to decide who should be allocated what land, and how much agricultural output they should be expected to provide to the state—their production quota. Drawing upon diverse primary sources, including CCP leaders’ reports and letters, policy documents, production team accounting data, and farmers’ diaries, I first describe the policies and processes that shaped the implementation of a planned economy across rural China in the 1950s, highlighting the difficulties facing any effort to implement a planned economy regarding land allocation. I then focus on the debates among CCP leaders from 1958 to 1962 over land allocation, management authority, and production quotas. The final part identifies how the resolution of this debate in 1962 helped sustain the planned economy structure across rural China while laying the foundation for China’s present-day collective owned land regime (COLR). I argue that while China’s divergence from the Soviet-style rural economy is often associated with the reforms of the late 1970s, my research instead highlights the significance of the 1962 reforms for China’s current system.

About the speaker
Originally from China, Wuna Reilly studied and worked in the United States for several years before returning to China to re-establish the China office of the American Friends Service Committee. She worked for AFSC, based in Dalian, from 2001 until 2010, where she was responsible for a wide range of development and international exchange programs, primarily engaging with North Korea. She then completed a MSc in Social Policy and Development at the London School of Economics (LSE) before starting her doctoral studies at the University of Sydney. Having received her doctoral degree in December 2018, she has been invited to serve as a Visiting Scholar at Peking University. Her primary research explores the origins, operations, and implications of China’s collective owned land regime (COLR).

Before the seminar
All attendees are invited to join us in the CIW Tea House from 3.30pm for an informal discussion with the guest speaker before the seminar.
The ANU China Seminar Series is supported by the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University’s College of Asia & the Pacific.

September 16, 2019

Beating the odds: A Pakistani scientist's journey from Buleda to Cambridge

Beating the odds: A Pakistani scientist's journey from Buleda to Cambridge

Dr Yarjan Abdul Samad is pushing the boundaries of space science and wishes to see Pakistan's own mission launched.

Saadeqa KhanUpdated about 6 hours ago

It has been a few days since the news about India's spacecraft losing contact with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) began doing the rounds. While Isro has managed to locate the spacecraft, it hasn't been able to establish contact again. Will India accomplish this mission? It might. But what is the status of our own forays into this area and can Pakistan make its first manned space mission a reality?

Dr Yarjan Abdul Samad thinks so.

Following a series of talks he held in Quetta recently, I had the chance to interact with Dr Samad, who holds the distinction of being the first Pakistani space scientist to be working at the University of Cambridge.

Dr Samad hails from Buleda, a small town in Balochistan's Kech region, but was able to rise above all difficulties, forging for himself an offbeat career as a satellite and space scientist at Cambridge.

Dr Samad received his early education at an Urdu medium school in Karachi's Lyari area. Despite his humble beginnings, he went on to graduate from Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute (GIKI) — arguably one of the best engineering institutes in the country — with two gold medals under his belt. The university nominated him in 2009 for the Pakistan Engineering Council Best Graduate Engineer of the Year award.

After pursuing a PhD programme, Dr Samad started working at Cambridge as a postdoctoral research associate. Later on, he was hired by the university as a senior research scientist and teaching fellow.

In 2016, he joined the Cambridge Graphene Centre as a research associate and since then his work has been focused on space-based technologies.

His career came into spotlight when the European Space Agency (ESA) hired him to work on a solution for a problem they were having with their spacecrafts. His team was the first to perform an experiment with graphene (a form of carbon) under zero gravity conditions.

Here, I provide some excerpts from my conversations with Dr Samad.

Hailing from a small village in Balochistan, you made your way out to one of the best universities of the world, the University of Cambridge. What can you tell us about your struggles in getting there?

I spent my childhood in Buleda, a town near Turbat. The only school we had access to was a public school, which in those days — the late 80s and early 90s — was a taat school (small makeshift school in which students used to sit on gunny bags called taat). We used to write on a loh (wooden board) with a homemade qalam (bamboo pen). All our studies were in Urdu but, ironically, we weren’t able to speak the language.

Dr Samad with colleagues at the European Space Agency (ESA). — Photo courtesy: ESA

My father used to work on his agricultural lands. He started doing some agricultural work at Hub in Balochistan, on the outskirts of Karachi. As a result, we moved to Karachi's Lyari neighbourhood and I started going to a small Urdu medium school there, named Al-Karim.

I was in the 6th grade when I started thinking that learning English was inevitable if one had to progress. Consequently, I, along with my father, visited a reputed school in Clifton, Karachi, for admission. Due to my disadvantaged educational background and inability to speak in English, the principal told me, “These studies aren’t for you. You’ve got to work in the fields.”

We made several failed attempts to secure admission in so-called esteemed schools. Eventually, I got admission at the newly built White Rose Grammar School in Lyari and was in their first batch of students. This school was also as small as Al-Karim but the medium of instruction was English.

When I reached 9th grade, I found out that every student in Lyari was making use of the widely available 'help' in board examinations as a way to clear the exams. I shared the scenario with my father and his words stayed with me forever: “You cannot copy someone else’s dreams."

Seeing everyone using the 'help', it was a tough decision for me at the time but I made a rule for myself: Jo karna hai khud karna hai (Whatever I will do, I will do on my own).

I scored fairly well and secured admission at Karachi's DJ Science College, one of the best public colleges in Karachi, where some of my teachers, especially Shehzad Muslim Khan and Kamil Sher, inspired me to pursue engineering.

I graduated in 2009 from Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute (GIKI), arguably one of Pakistan's leading engineering institutes, with two gold medals. The university also nominated me for the Pakistan Engineering Council Best Graduate Engineer of the Year 2009 award.

My teacher, mentor, and coach at GIKI, Prof Fazal A. Khalid, was an eminent name in nanotechnology research. He helped and mentored me for a career in research. After graduation, I worked at Engro for about a year while preparing for the next step in my academic journey.

Later on, I pursued a PhD from Khalifa University, UAE, in collaboration with MIT and University of Tokyo which I completed in 2016. That same year I started working at the University of Cambridge as a Postdoctoral Research Associate and was later hired as a Senior Research Scientist and Teaching Fellow.

How did you start thinking of this unconventional career in satellites and space devices?

It was never planned. I got a degree in Metallurgy and Materials Engineering from GIKI and went on to pursue a Masters and a PhD on developing materials and devices for energy and environmental applications. It wasn’t until 2016 when I joined the Cambridge Graphene Centre as a research associate after my PhD that I started working on space-based technologies.

Dr Samad experimenting under zero gravity conditions. — Photo courtesy: ESA

The University of Cambridge collaborates with several agencies and companies for research work. The ESA and some other space organisations and research centres approached Cambridge Graphene Centre to provide a solution to a problem they were having with their spacecrafts. I proposed a solution and was, therefore, roped in for the project.

I have since been working on such projects with many partners across Europe. Our team was the first to test a material called graphene in zero gravity. We have performed experiments in several zero gravity flights arranged for us by the ESA and have also launched a sounding rocket that went as far high as approximately 150,000km above the earth.

Some other spacecrafts such as Space RIDER (Space Reusable Integrated Demonstrator for Europe Return) will also be used in the future and we plan on taking some of our experiments to the International Space Station (ISS).

I was recently promoted to a senior scientist position by the university to work on these projects.

You have the privilege to work at the Cambridge Graphene Centre which runs in collaboration with the ESA and other research institutions. What is it like to work there?

The University of Cambridge carries a legacy of excellence in research and so does the Cambridge Graphene Centre for the kind of work I am doing. The environment, with all sorts of research facilities as well as great colleagues and seasoned scientists, is favourable for high-quality research.

One is challenged daily to think out of the box and develop interdisciplinary skills to tackle today’s scientific challenges. Partnerships with industry, government organisations and other academic institutions also enrich the experience and prepare researchers to solve real and interdisciplinary scientific problems.

What are some of the expectations from you coming in as the first Pakistani space scientist at Cambridge University? What do you think the next big thing should be for the Space and Upper and Upper Atmosphere Research Com­mission (Suparco) to promote space sciences in Pakistan?

There is a lot of things that I feel responsible for delivering on, and that's a driving force and a source of motivation. It reminds me that I need to work hard to better myself as a scientist who is able to face the fiercest of challenges.

In my opinion, the first thing that Suparco needs to do is engage with local institutions in research projects, which are of strategic importance to the country. There are a lot of beautiful minds out there in our academic institutions that need to be tapped into for important projects rather than engaging them in a useless race of writing low quality and impractical scientific papers.

I am in talks with a few organisations here to develop a micro satellite in partnership with an academic institution in Pakistan. This will be announced in due course. Projects like this need to be a routine and Suparco will have to take such initiatives.

Behind every space mission, there is a huge team of engineers, scientists, and researchers to make the discovery happen. Can we do it here in Pakistan with our fewer resources? Make our first manned space mission a reality?

There are challenges, of course, when it comes to resources as well as the right leadership. However, there is no doubt in my mind that a manned vehicle can be launched whenever Pakistan determines to do so.

Launching man into outer space is not a new thing. To make such missions fruitful, for the country and for our economy, we need to utilise them for research that has never been done elsewhere.

What do you think about the importance of STEM education for Pakistani youngsters?

During my visit to different universities, I was most impressed by the passion of students to learn and grow. Students from Balochistan, especially, demonstrate a great thirst for knowledge. This presents a great opportunity for the country to step up and further develop such talent for a better and brighter future. In this era of knowledge-based economies, the most precious resources are such intrigued and enthusiastic minds.

What led you to develop an interest in the field of space sciences?

Dr Samad with renowned ESA astronaut Jean-Fran├žois Clervoy. — Photo courtesy: ESA

Scientific problems that are interdisciplinary and are challenging for the scientific community around the globe intrigue me. As a researcher working on the development of materials and devices, I developed an interest to look into making materials and devices for space applications.

The project that we got at the University of Cambridge, in which ESA and many other EU organisations were involved, manifested itself to be the platform where I could put my knowledge and skills to use in the field of space technology. I then started working proactively on other such projects.

What challenges did you face in building devices specifically for use in space-bound satellites?

The space environment is still not fully understood. When it comes to making devices for space, one needs to have a comprehensive understanding of the space environment and its effects on spacecraft, on devices inside them, and on human life.

The biggest challenge for us is that we design materials and devices on Earth and then test them in zero gravity. Therefore, sometimes we meet surprises and challenges that we need to tackle there and then within a short period.

Tell us about the future of space devices that can run without consuming energy and electricity.

Although the space environment poses a plethora of challenges, there are several unending resources in space that can be harnessed to make things function out there. For example, the space environment is an infinite heat sink, which enables us to design devices that do not need any electricity to function.

In the future, we believe that we can develop devices that not only run without electricity but will also use the abundantly available radiation and the infinite heat sink to generate energy as well.

What space destinations are you still most excited about? What is the future of space travel with more sophisticated technologies like nanotechnology coming into the mainstream?

The destinations favoured by me are not devoted to space and space missions alone. In fact, I aspire to work with many persistent scientific challenges close to my areas of expertise and interests — space is but one of them.

Nano and quantum technologies augmented with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning are going to be indispensable parts of all future technologies including space-based technologies.

I foresee the launch of micro and nano robots performing several tasks, in outer space and on other planets, such as investigating the environment, exploiting resources there to produce water and oxygen, and growing plants. All of this is pertinent before human beings can consider habitation there.

What is next for you? Would you like to coordinate with Suparco?

I would love to coordinate and collaborate with Suparco and contribute to their efforts as much as I can. I have kept my connection with several academic institutions in Pakistan and have been quietly playing my part in constructive activities. I am also trying to get a micro satellite project completed by students in Pakistan, which we hope can be launched into space on their behalf.

Saadeqa Khan i

September 15, 2019

The Khazars: Judaism, Trade, and Strategic Vision on the Eurasian Steppes

By Emil AvdalianiSeptember 15, 2019

Khazar fortress at Sarkel (Belaya Vyezha, Russia). Aerial photo from excavations conducted by M. I. Artamanov in the 1930s. Public domain photo via Wikipedia

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,288, September 15, 2019

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Harnessing the Eurasian lands has always been difficult. The Khazars, an obscure people from the steppes that converted to Judaism many centuries ago, stand out as an exceptional example of how geography, economy, and religion can be used to advance geopolitical interests.

Halford Mackinder, father of geopolitics, who laid out the concept of a heartland encompassing central and northern Eurasia, maintained that Russia was the first power ever to manage to harness the power of geography and economy in northern Eurasia. The Khazars, an obscure people that existed well before the modern Russian state, might beg to differ.

The Khazars were neighbors to two world powers: Byzantium and the Islamic caliphate. At the time of the united and relatively strong Islamic empire (the seventh to the tenth centuries) that dominated the vast territory from Spain to Central Asia, the Khazars, a nomadic people from the Eurasian steppes in the North Caucasus and the territory north of the Caspian Sea, created a large, powerful state.

Reports from Islamic historians and geographers, as well as archaeological evidence, suggest that along with nomadism, agriculture was widespread among the Khazars and they were able to produce goods. These details suggest a rather inconspicuous people on a par with other nomadic peoples of the past.

However, a closer look at the Khazars (whose language and ethnic origin remain obscure) suggests that they were quite a bit more interesting as geopolitical actors. Their understanding of geographic space and their ability to harness the power of their lands allowed them to stay relevant for centuries. Furthermore, their religious policy – they chose Judaism as their state religion – was remarkable, as they lived in close vicinity to an Islamic world that was condescending toward other religions.

But let us start with their geographical knowledge and their drive to use geography for the advancement of state interests. The Khazars built their state at the crossroads of two strategically important trade routes. One ran from the Baltic Sea in northern Eurasia to the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, and the Near East. The other ran from Central Asia (Khwarazm) to modern-day Ukraine and the territories of western Russia.

The Khazars thus placed themselves at a major transit point. Traders, both Muslim and Jewish, from the Near East, Central Asia, and lands that are now Russia and Ukraine visited Khazaria and its capital, Itil, on the river Volga.

It is astounding how well the Khazars understood and used geography to attain their economic and political goals. They managed to control the major rivers of the region: the Volga, the Don, and various estuaries running toward them. They built fortresses and collected taxes at the rivers’ major entrances and exits.

Moreover, the Khazars were in contact with the Baltic Sea and even with eastern and western Europe. Ninth-century geographer Ibn-Khordadbeh recorded that Jewish traders from Andalusia (Spain) visited Khazar lands. Trade was so active that millions of coins have been found in lands north of the Black and Caspian Seas.

The Khazars’ geopolitical thinking was also visible in their desire to control strategic passes and cities such as, for example, Daruband, between the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea, at the point where the pass narrows to only three kilometers.

These strategic moves by the Khazars led them to clash with the Islamic empire, which also aspired to control key crossings, roads, and transcontinental trade routes.

In the west, around the Black Sea, the Khazars found themselves facing the Byzantines, who also aspired to control trade and strategic fortresses around that sea. However, because the Muslims had been largely victorious against the Byzantines, the latter decided to ally with the Khazars, using the logic that a Byzantine-Khazar alliance would be too much for the Muslims from a strategic point of view.

The Islamic empire likely concurred with this assessment, which probably explains why it established a sudden peace with the Khazars in 750, when the Abbasids came to power and moved the imperial capital from Damascus to Baghdad.

The Byzantines and the Muslims were thus locked in a battle for a strategic alliance with the Khazars. Both sides made economic and religious tools in their attempts to sway the Khazars.

Remarkably, the Khazars responded to the dual courtship of the Christian and Islamic empires by making the strategic decision to adopt neither of their religions but convert to Judaism instead. This decision suggests that the Khazars’ strategic thinking extended well beyond geography and trade.

Muslim travelers to Khazaria, as well as Muslim historians and geographers, made note of the cleverness of this choice of state religion. The Judaist state was very tolerant of foreigners as well as of local and world religions. The Khazars’ judicial system consisted of Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and pagan “judges” who tried cases concerning major disagreements.

The Khazars’ understanding of geopolitics was manifested in their drive to dominate river, military, and land trade corridors and correlate geography with the economy. They achieved significant geopolitical power by establishing wise strategic alliances to counter Byzantine and Islamic military, economic, and religious influences.

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Emil Avdaliani teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University. He has worked for various international consulting companies and currently publishes articles on military and political developments across the former Soviet space.