Europe's Singapore? Looking To Norway For Inspiration

Oslo's opera house
Oslo's opera house
Dominique Moïsi


OSLO — In Oslo, where snow falls abundantly, visibility is virtually nil. But what this white desert suggests is not melancholy à la Ibsen or a metaphysical Munch Scream. On the contrary, deep satisfaction and hope dominate here.

In other words, unlike the French, Norwegians are happy people. They claim to feel no remorse, have no complexes. In fact, whether young or old, Norwegians project an optimism that seems almost more Asian than Western. They don’t feel that yesterday was better than today, or that tomorrow will turn out to be more difficult. They still remember, in their genetic code, the extreme poverty that used to be theirs.

Of course it’s a particularly good moment for the Norwegians. The Olympic Games in Sochi brought the northern skiing nation a stash of medals.

Should Norway be considered to Europe what Singapore is to Asia, a model and source of inspiration? Certainly, there are considerable differences between a Norway rich in billions thanks to its energy resources and a city-state like Singapore that owes its wealth to hard work and inventiveness. But each country is, in its way, carrier of a message that extends beyond them.

Norway is proof positive that energy riches, transparency, modesty and honesty can coexist. Having an abundance of petrol and gas is not necessarily a curse. And Singapore can also answer to the Norwegian message, as it is a place where Asian culture and the rule of law both have their place. In Oslo, as in Singapore, there exists a kind of “proselytism.” Why wouldn’t you do what we do? Things could only go better for you if you did.

The Troll A oil rig off the coast of Norway (swinsto101)

To explain their optimism and happiness — over and above their economic and financial security — Norwegians often point to their educational system. “The young have to start as early as possible to be happy,” insists my Norwegian interlocutor, a former foreign affairs minister who is very familiar with the French system. It is true that in this area the contrast with France couldn’t be greater.

“French unhappiness” starts in school, where the goal is not to open spirits but to eliminate — if not to destroy — the greatest number of students in the pursuit of identifying the best and brightest. It’s a system that reinforces — indeed appears to justify — inequality.

Of course, the Norwegian state can’t prevent the rise of populism or explosions of murderous madness. It is no longer necessary to belong to the EU — Switzerland has just provided the sad proof of that — for protectionist instincts to translate into identity issues. But, comforted in its decision to stay out of the EU by the “chaotic” evolution of the European project, Norway intends to find meaning well beyond itself.

The EU needs Norway

What can its global role be? Where can it be most useful? Should it focus on the African continent and its rise in power, the Middle East and its desperate quest for peace and stability, or look closer to home to a Europe that seems to be crumbling? Norway is worried about the continued decline of European status and voice in the world. Oslo seems to be saying to EU members: “You can do without us, you don’t need Norway in the EU. But can you do without the Norwegian model?”

In Norway, there is no doubt about the legitimacy of the government and those who preside over the country’s destiny. The State is modest and honest. The discrepancy between those with the most wealth and those with less is socially and ethically acceptable. Women really are the equals of men: There are as many women as men on the boards of large Norwegian companies. Finally, the treatment of immigrants — within limits, as one shouldn’t idealize the situation — is among the most humane in Europe.

The question of confidence in government is preoccupying EU countries, particularly in France, to the point of constituting a danger to democracy.

To think through their system, the French need not look to Montesquieu’s Persian Letters or even the more recent Benin Letters — but to Norway. With all due respect to critics of Scandinavia, happiness does exist in Europe. I encountered it, a little over two hours of flying time from Paris.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!