Remembering the last Mughal emperor

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Picture Courtesy – The British Library.

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One of the only known photographs of Bahadur Shah Zafar II, taken after his trial in 1858

For more than a century the last Mughal emperor was almost forgotten – but a chance finding of his grave helped resurrect the legacy of a man revered as a Sufi saint and one of the finest poets in the Urdu language.

Only a handful of relatives were present when Bahadur Shah Zafar II breathed his last in a shabby wooden house in Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1862.

That very day, his British captors buried him in an unmarked grave in a compound near the famous Shwedagon Pagoda.

Defeated, demoralised and humiliated, it was an inglorious end for a man whose Mughal ancestors had for 300 years ruled a vast territory including modern-day India, Pakistan, large parts of Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Though his rule could not compare with that of illustrious ancestors like Akbar or Aurangzeb, he became the rallying point for the failed “Indian uprising” of 1857, when soldiers from undivided India rose against the British East India Company.

  • BBC History: British India and the ‘Great Rebellion’

After they lost, the emperor was tried for treason, imprisoned and exiled to other territory under British control, in what is now Myanmar (Burma).

He died in custody on 7 November aged 87 – but his poetry lived on. The pen name he used, Zafar, means victory.

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An illustration depicting the arrest of Bahadur Shah Zafar

The great Mughal empire had lost much of its influence and territory by the end of the 1700s. When Zafar came to the throne in 1837, his rule extended only to Delhi and its surroundings. But for his subjects, he always remained Badshah – the King.

Like other Mughal emperors he’s said to be a direct descendent of Mongol rulers such as Genghis Khan and Timur. With his death, one of the world’s greatest dynasties came to an end.

The British buried him in an unmarked grave to keep his followers away. News of his death took a fortnight to reach India and almost went unnoticed.

Then, for more than 100 years, Zafar faded from memory.

But in recent decades interest in his legacy has been revived.

A 1980s Indian TV serial rekindled memories, and roads bear his name in Delhi and Karachi. Dhaka renamed a park after him.

“Zafar was a remarkable man,” historian William Dalrymple, author of The Last Mughal, told the BBC.

“A calligrapher, notable poet, Sufi pir [spiritual guide], and a man who valued the importance of Hindu-Muslim unity.”

“While Zafar was never cut out to be a heroic or revolutionary leader, he remains, like his ancestor the Emperor Akbar, an attractive symbol of Islamic civilisation at its most tolerant and pluralistic,” writes Mr Dalrymple in his book.

Zafar’s religious tolerance, some suggest, also reflects his mixed parentage. His father, Akbar Shah II, was Muslim while his mother, Lal Bhai, was a Hindu Rajput princess.

The 1857 ‘Mutiny’

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A scene from the batteries on the Delhi Ridge, during the Indian mutiny of 1857

  • Indian soldiers rose up against their British officers in the northern city of Meerut on 10 May. The rebellion spread to Delhi, Agra, Lucknow and Kanpur.
  • Resentment had grown over attempts to impose new reforms, laws, Western values and Christianity.
  • The revolt united thousands of Hindu and Muslim troops who chose then-Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, as their nominal head.
  • British generals deployed Sikh soldiers from Punjab and Pathans from the North-West Frontier Province – Delhi was recaptured by September.
  • Both sides were accused of indiscriminate killings. The rebels killed British women and children. The British were blamed for mass executions of thousands of mutineers and their supporters.
  • The rebellion officially ended by July 1858. In the same year, the East India Company was abolished in favour of direct rule of India by the British government.

Source: Britannica, BBC History

Zafar’s unassuming tomb in a quiet avenue in Yangon is a poignant and silent reminder of one of the most tumultuous periods of Indian history.

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The gates of the mausoleum bear the last emperor’s name

Though local people knew Zafar was buried somewhere inside the compound of the local cantonment – where he and his family members were confined – they didn’t find it until 1991.

Workers digging for a drain came across a brick structure which turned out to be the former king’s grave. It was later renovated with the help of public donations.

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Picture courtesy – The British Library

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The mausoleum also houses the grave of one of his wives, Zinat Mahal

Compared with his ancestors’ grand mausoleums in India, Zafar’s tomb is modest. An arched iron-grill bears his name and title. The ground floor houses the graves of one of his wives, Zinat Mahal, and his grand-daughter, Raunaq Zamani.

In a crypt beneath, Zafar’s grave is strewn with rose petals and other flowers.

A long chandelier hangs above, while paintings of him hang on the walls. There is a mosque next door.

The dargah or shrine has become a pilgrimage site for Yangon’s Muslim population.

“People from all walks of life come to the dargah because he’s considered a Sufi saint,” says Al-Haj U Aye Lwin, treasurer of the management board of the Bahadur Shah Zafar Mausoleum.

“They come to meditate and pray near his grave. When people’s wishes are fulfilled they donate money and other things.”

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Zafar’s tomb is strewn with rose petals from worshippers

Zafar is particularly remembered for his mystical work in Urdu. His ghazals about life and love are famous and often sung or read out in Yangon’s mushairas, gatherings at which Urdu poetry is recited.

Banned from using pen or paper, he is said to have written in charcoal on the walls that confined him. A few of the poems attributed to him have been reproduced in the mausoleum.

As an emperor, Zafar did not command an army but he became the symbolic head of a revolt which united both Muslims and Hindus. Historians point out that thousands of soldiers from both religions came together to rebel against their British officers in support of restoring Mughal rule.

This year – 2017 – is the 160th anniversary of the uprising but it is barely being marked, whether in India or elsewhere.

At a time when nationalism and fundamentalism are on the rise, historians say Zafar’s religious tolerance remains relevant to this day.

He may have lost his title and dynasty. But he succeeded in conquering hearts and lives on as a Sufi saint and mystical poet.

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Picture Courtesy – The British Library

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The earlier glory of Mughal rule is captured in this portrait of Zafar

eBay removes ‘Hawaiian sand’ listings

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EBay has removed items listed for sale on its website that claimed to contain small amounts of Hawaiian sand.

The sand, from various parts of Hawaii, ranged in price from $3.50 (£2.60) to $35, the Hawaii-Tribune Herald said.

It is illegal to remove sand, coral, rocks or soil from the shoreline, although sand taken “inadvertently” on clothing or toys is exempt.

Before a revision of the US law in 2013, one gallon of sand per day was allowed to be taken.

“While we haven’t been directly contacted by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, we are certainly willing to work with them on the best way to address this issue in the future,” Ryan Moore, eBay director of global corporate affairs and communication, told the Tribune.

“We’ve removed the active listings on the marketplace and have educated the sellers that listing these products [is] against eBay policy.”

In August 2017, the Mediterranean island of Sardinia also introduced a law banning the removal of sand.

“Taking away a little bottle may not seem a big deal. But if all the millions of tourists did it, tonnes and tonnes would disappear every year,” said the island’s State Forestry Corp.

Chinese woman has Civil War-era shrapnel removed from leg

Chinese woman has Civil War-era shrapnel removed from leg

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Mrs Hu had had a bullet lodged in her left leg for 72 years

A 90-year-old Chinese woman has had shrapnel removed from her leg, which had been lodged there since 1945, reports say.

According to the national Guangming Daily newspaper, Hu Jinhua and her husband were fleeing their home in eastern China to escape the Sino-Japanese War and the second stage of the Chinese Civil War, when she was hit in an attack by a Japanese aircraft in southern Guangxi.

Mrs Hu was four months pregnant at the time, and she and her husband would not have been able to afford the medical fees, the report said. Instead, “she had dragged her bleeding thigh and moved on”, intending to reach the southwest city of Kunming, where they had relatives.

The next day, she was picked up by guerrilla fighters, who were unable to remove the shrapnel, but bandaged up her leg as a temporary measure.

Mrs Hu has only recently had the 1cm-long piece of metal removed at a hospital in southern Hunan province, as a result of acute pain she began experiencing in October, brought on by her legs becoming swollen in old age.

The shrapnel had caused her swollen left leg to become deformed, and had left her bedridden. Doctors had considered amputation, but feared she might not survive.

They eventually opted to carry out surgery to remove the shrapnel and used a plastic mould as a synthetic bone substitute to repair the remaining damage.

Mrs Hu is now recovering from her operation, Chinese media say.

Reporting by Kerry Allen

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The hospital helping heal the Middle East

The wounds of the patients on the wards of a special Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) hospital in Jordan reflect the brutal conflicts in the Middle East over the past few years.

It treats injured Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis, and provides physiotherapy and mental health services as well as advanced surgery.

Over the past 10 years, surgeons there have performed more than 11,000 operations on 4,500 patients of all ages. Here are the stories of 10 of them.


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Alessio Mamo/ MSF

Shamsa was having dinner in Aleppo, Syria, with her family when a bomb hit her home.

“In our family we love the moments of the meals, when we all eat together. We are five sisters and two brothers, so that moment is never silent,” she says.

The explosion, which tore apart the family gathering, burned her face.

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Alessio Mamo/ MSF

Surgeons have now fitted a tissue expander to her neck to grow extra skin to help repair the scarring.


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Alessio Mamo/ MSF

Aisha, nicknamed Ayyoush, is from Yemen. She loves dancing as well as collecting balloons and roses during trips out of the hospital.

She was six months old when a candle set fire to her face and left arm.

She had four operations in Yemen before being referred to the MSF hospital, where they’re aiming to reduce her scarring and prepare her for a prosthetic arm.

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Alessio Mamo/ MSF

Her father says, “Ayyoush continuously improves. Slowly. But she’s doing better.”


YousefImage copyright
Alessio Mamo/ MSF

Yousef from Baghdad loves motorbikes. One day, at sunset, a group of masked men stole his bike and set him on fire.

He was so badly burned that his chin was welded to his neck. Now, after multiple operations, the 17-year-old can drink, eat, and dress himself again.

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Alessio Mamo/ MSF

He has recently got back on a motorbike, for the first time since the attack.


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Alessio Mamo/ MSF

Qatada drove over a mine in Aden, Yemen in 2015. He was blown out of the seat of his car.

One of his legs was lost and the other was amputated at a hospital in Yemen.

His arms were both injured.

QatadaImage copyright
Alessio Mamo/ MSF

After multiple operations, including a nerve transplant, he can now dress himself.

Since his injury, he and his wife have had a third son and hope, one day, to move to the West.


ManalImage copyright
Alessio Mamo/ MSF

Manal from Iraq was injured in a missile explosion in the northern city of Kirkuk in 2015.

Her mother and two brothers had moved there for safety after the so-called Islamic State took over the town of Hawija.

ManalImage copyright
Alessio Mamo/ MSF

The 11-year-old loves drawing, reciting stories and playing the guitar.

She has made lots of friends at the MSF hospital.


MohammadImage copyright
Alessio Mamo/ MSF

Mohammad, a 23-year-old shepherd from Syria says, “Bombs don’t look anyone in the face, they kill all: humans and animals. They just fall and kill. ”

In November 2016, he was grazing his sheep outside Homs when a grenade tore apart his chin and teeth.

He was unable to speak and eating was excruciatingly painful.

MohammadImage copyright
Alessio Mamo/ MSF

After 35 operations, he says, “I can speak and eat now. And I have learned that dreams can be realised.”

He has learned to read and write in the MSF hospital and is “90% better.” He now longs to return to family and friends in Syria – and to his sheep.


IbrahimImage copyright
Alessio Mamo/ MSF

Ibrahim from Yemen escaped his home in Sanaa in 2015 after a bombing.

His injury was caused by drinking from a bottle of drain opener at his grandmother’s house.

The acid burned his mouth and fused his lips together, leaving him unable to speak or eat solid food.

IbrahimImage copyright
Alessio Mamo/ MSF

After multiple operations, the four-year-old can now open his mouth for the first time in more than two years.

His father is teaching him to speak again.


Wa’elImage copyright
Alessio Mamo/ MSF

Wa’el, a keen footballer also from Yemen, has had 28 operations. That is one for every year of his life.

He was injured during the 2011 uprising against the former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Police responded to protests with force and Wael suffered third-degree burns to his face, back, arms and legs.

Wa’elImage copyright
Alessio Mamo/ MSF

“After the attack, I used to stay in my room without leaving because of what I looked like. But thanks to the many surgeries, and the people here, I became more comfortable in my skin, and I made a lot of friends.”

He can now move his face and hands again, and play football.


AmalImage copyright
Alessio Mamo/ MSF

Amal, a tailor from Iraq, was injured in Kirkuk when a car bomb went off as she was shopping with her grandmother.

She says, “I was burning, and I tried to put the fire out on my chest, so I burned my hands terribly. When I arrived at the MSF hospital my neck was attached to my chest.”

The 23-year-old says her own son could not recognise her. After multiple operations, she can now knit again and is sewing a dress for a cousin back in Iraq.

AmalImage copyright
Alessio Mamo/ MSF

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Texas shooting: The small town where everyone knows a victim

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Media caption‘Our kids play together,’ says a resident whose neighbours are feared dead

When a mass shooting happens in a small town like Sutherland Springs, Texas, everyone knows a victim.

Pauline Garza was lazy on Sunday morning, and it might have saved her life.

She and her 11-year-old daughter were thinking about going to church. She isn’t a regular, but her daughter was baptised there.

This time, they decided not to. “Feeling lazy,” she says, standing on her porch 24 hours later.

Soon afterwards, they heard the gunfire.

Pauline’s neighbours, the Holcombes, were also churchgoers.

Pauline thinks they were in church on Sunday morning. She hasn’t seen them return.

The Holcombes’ two dogs lie on the drive, waiting. The gate is still locked; the porch light is still on.

The families are close. Pauline’s daughter stays over at the Holcombes’ place.

“Very nice family,” says Pauline, 47. “They’re always out in the yard.

“The kids will play with my daughter all the time. Very nice.”

When Pauline heard the shots, she thought it was a neighbour working on his house.

“I asked my daughter – ‘What was that noise?’ She said ‘I don’t know’.

“We came to the door. I saw my (other) neighbour standing there. You could still hear the shots being fired.

“I never thought it was gunshots. I never did.”

And when she found it was gunfire?

“I thought ‘How can that happen here?’ It’s unreal.”

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The town will recover, says Julius

Around 400 people live in Sutherland Springs, a small town in Texas, 30 miles (48km) east of San Antonio.

It isn’t a wealthy place. There are neat, well-built houses, but there is decay, too.

Rusty, abandoned cars inhabit front gardens. Some houses disappear under weeds.

The All Coin Laundry, long forgotten, hasn’t washed a shirt in 10 years, at least. People work in “nursing homes, hospitals, the convenience store,” says Pauline.

But – while it isn’t wealthy – it is friendly. Neighbours know each other. People say hello. The school bus driver waves at passers-by.

In one garden, a sign says: “Cowboys make good points with spurs and barbed wire.”

The next sign says: “Welcome to Texas.”

“I love it here,” says Pauline. “You don’t have all that loud stuff like the big cities.”

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The Holcombe family home

Julius Kepper, 53, has lived in Sutherland Springs for seven years. At first, he thought Sunday’s gunfire was building work.

When he realised it wasn’t, he grabbed his gun and ran out of the house.

He wasn’t the only one. His neighbour, Stephen, had already shot the attacker and given chase.

Julius didn’t go to church, but he knew “a bunch of people” who did.

“Some of the young guys who went would cut my yard,” he says.

“It’s a small community. You can’t help but know people.”

Julius is drinking a large Coke in the petrol station on the edge of town. Another customer sits at a table, drinking coffee.

Behind the counter are rows of Texas caps. The San Antonio Express-News sits on the counter.

“Time for worship turns to horror,” says the headline.

Julius thinks the town will heal, but it will take time.

“For this to happen in a little country town with 300 people, it’s inconceivable,” he says.

“You kind of expect it in big cities. Not here.”

Back on her porch, Pauline Garza thinks the shooting means more people will carry guns.

“Even to church,” she says. “We would never think out here in the country you would need a gun to protect yourself. Now you’re going to have to.

“Now you got crazy people walking around everywhere.”

Pauline didn’t sleep on Sunday night. The what-ifs were playing through her mind.

And, though she and her daughter are safe, their suffering isn’t over.

“How do I talk to my daughter about this?” she asks. “How can I do that?”

Photos by Paul Blake

Woman fired for showing Trump motorcade the middle finger

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Despite losing her job, the 50-year-old says she does not regret “flipping off” the motorcade

A woman pictured raising her middle finger toward US President Donald Trump’s motorcade has reportedly been fired from her job over the photograph.

The image went viral after it was taken on 28 October in Virginia, close to a Trump golf resort.

Juli Briskman, who was identified as the cyclist in the image, alleges she was fired by employers Akima LLC after she posted it to her online profiles.

The company did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment.

Ms Briskman told US media the firm had called her into a meeting a day after she informed their HR department she was the subject of the widely circulated image.

She told the Huffington Post news website that executives had told her they classified the image as “lewd” or “obscene”, and therefore deemed that it violated their social media policies after she had posted it to her Twitter and Facebook accounts.

However Ms Briskman said she had emphasised to management that she had not been in working hours when the photograph was taken and had not mentioned her employers on the social media pages.

  • A year later: Liberals still haunted by Trump win
  • Twitter employee ‘deactivated’ Trump account on last day

Ms Briskman also alleges that a male colleague was allowed to keep his job after deleting a post deemed as offensive in a separate incident.

She therefore questions why she was immediately dismissed from her role.

The 50-year-old mother-of-two had reportedly been at the government contractor firm for six months working in communications.

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Motorcade protests are not uncommon: this was taken by press photographer Brendan Smialowski on the same day

Despite losing her job, Ms Briskman said she did not regret making the gesture.

  • ‘I lost my job over a Facebook post’

“In some ways, I’m doing better than ever,” she told The Huffington Post

“I’m angry about where our country is right now. I am appalled. This was an opportunity for me to say something.”

The press photographer, Brendan Smialowski, told the AFP website that it was common to see people protesting or making obscene gestures at presidents as they drove by.

He said that he had been struck by the “tenacity” of Ms Briskman after she made the gesture several times and made attempts to catch up with the motorcade.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, power behind the throne

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Mohammed bin Salman already wielded huge power before he was named crown prince

Few people outside Saudi Arabia had heard of Prince Mohammed bin Salman before his father became king in 2015. But since then, the 32-year-old has become the most influential figure in the world’s leading oil exporter.

In June 2017 he was elevated to the position of crown prince, replacing his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef – a move that had been widely expected and could shape the direction of the country for decades.

Mohammed bin Salman was born on 31 August 1985, the eldest son of then-Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud’s third wife, Fahdah bint Falah bin Sultan.

After gaining a bachelor’s degree in law at King Saud University in the capital Riyadh, he worked for several state bodies. In 2009, he was appointed special adviser to his father, who was serving as governor of Riyadh at the time.

Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power began in 2013, when he was named head of the Crown Prince’s Court, with the rank of minister. The previous year, Salman had been appointed crown prince after the death of Nayef bin Abdul Aziz – the father of Mohammed bin Nayef.

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King Salman made startling changes to the line of succession in 2015

In January 2015, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz died and Salman acceded to the throne at the age of 79.

He immediately made two decisions that surprised observers, naming his son minister of defence and Mohammed bin Nayef deputy crown prince. The latter became the first of the grandsons of Ibn Saud, the founder of the kingdom, to move on to the line of succession.

One of Mohammed bin Salman’s first acts as defence minister was to launch a military campaign in Yemen in March 2015 along with other Arab states after President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was forced into exile by the Houthi rebel movement.

The campaign has made limited progress over the past two-and-a-half years, seen Saudi Arabia and its allies being accused of human rights violations, and triggered a humanitarian crisis in the Arab world’s poorest country.

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Prince Mohammed unveiled Vision 2030, a wide-ranging plan for economic change, last year

In April 2015, King Salman made more startling changes to the line of succession, appointing Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince and his son deputy crown prince, second deputy prime minister and president of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs.

A year later, Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled an ambitious and wide-ranging plan to bring economic and social change to the kingdom and end its “addiction” to oil.

The plan, called Vision 2030, envisages increasing non-oil revenue to 600bn riyals ($160bn, £120bn) by 2020 and 1tn riyals by 2030, up from 163.5bn riyals in 2015.

The prince said he wanted to create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, worth up to $3tn, with money generated by partially privatising the state oil company, Saudi Aramco.

The plan also envisaged changing the education curriculum, increasing women’s participation in the workforce, and investing in the entertainment sector to help create jobs for young people.

The prince was also seen as having spearheaded a boycott of Qatar, which Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt began in early June 2017 over its alleged support terrorism and meddling in its neighbours affairs.

Qatar denied the allegations and refused to comply with a list of demands to restore diplomatic and trade links, leading to a stand-off that has yet to be resolved.

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Media captionMohammed bin Nayef (R) pledged allegiance to Mohammed bin Salman (L), who knelt and kissed his older cousin’s hand

In late June, King Salman ended months of speculation by replacing Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince in favour of his son.

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was also removed as head of the interior ministry, bringing its security forces under the control of the royal court and his cousin, and reportedly placed under house arrest.

Since then, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sought to consolidate his power and pressed ahead with his plans for economic and social liberalisation.

An initial step was the reversal of some of the cuts to allowances, bonuses and financial benefits for civil servants and military personnel that were announced in 2016 as declining oil prices and revenues undermined the economy.

In September, a crackdown was launched against perceived opponents of the crown prince’s policies. More than 20 influential clerics and intellectuals were detained as the authorities targeted a group allegedly acting behalf of “foreign parties against the security of the kingdom” – believed to be a reference to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.

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Media captionSaudi women’s driving activist Manal al-Sharif ‘cried# when ban’s end was announced

Later that month, Prince Mohammed was given much of the credit for King Salman’s announcement that a ban on women drivers would end in June 2018, despite opposition from conservatives.

And in October, the prince said the return of “moderate Islam” was key to his plans to modernise the kingdom as he announced the investment of $500bn in a new city and business zone, dubbed Neom.

The next month, Prince Mohammed launched an anti-corruption drive that many analysts said removed the final obstacles to his gaining total control of the kingdom. Eleven princes, four ministers and several influential businessmen were among dozens of people detained.

They reportedly included the billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who was also removed from his post as chief of the National Guard – the only security service that was not under Prince Mohammed’s control.

Could giving property rights to the world’s poor unlock trillions?

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What effect do property rights have on the economy?

Some of the most important parts of our modern economy can’t be seen – but they can be heard.

That’s what one Peruvian economist concluded while walking through the idyllic rice fields of Bali, Indonesia, in the 1990s.

As he passed one farm, a dog would bark at his approach. Then, quite suddenly, the first animal would stop and a new guardian would begin to yap away. The boundary between farms was invisible to him – but the dogs knew exactly where it was.

The economist, Hernando de Soto, returned to Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, and met cabinet ministers to discuss setting up a formal register of property rights.

They already knew everything they needed to know, he said, cheekily. They merely needed to ask the dogs of Bali who owned what.

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy highlights the inventions, ideas and innovations that helped create the economic world.

It is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information about the programme’s sources and listen online or subscribe to the programme podcast.

Hernando de Soto is a big name in development economics.

His energetic opposition to Peru’s Maoist guerrilla group, the Shining Path, led to three assassination attempts.

His big idea is to make sure that the legal system can see as much as the dogs of Bali.

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Hernando de Soto argues better property rights could make a big difference to the world’s poor

While the Indonesian government was trying to formalise property rights, others have tried to abolish them altogether.

Daring plan

In 1970s China, for example, where the Maoists weren’t the rebels but the government, the very idea that anyone could own anything was seditious, bourgeois thinking.

Farmers on collective farms were told by Communist Party officials that they didn’t own a thing. Everything belonged to the collective.

What about the teeth in my head, asked one farmer? As noted by NPR’s Planet Money podcast, he was told that even his teeth were owned by the collective.

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The land, its produce – and even the workers’ teeth – belonged to the collective in 1970s China

This approach worked terribly: if you don’t own anything, why bother to look after it?

Avoiding toothache is an incentive to brush your teeth. But collective ownership of land left farmers in desperate, gnawing poverty.

So, in Xiaogang in 1978, a group of farmers secretly met and agreed a daring plan.

Conspicuous success

Instead of farming as a collective, they would informally divide up the land, and each keep whatever surplus they produced after meeting collective quotas. It was a treasonous agreement in Communist eyes: discovery risked execution.

In fact, they were found out thanks to their conspicuous success: their farms produced more in one year than in the previous five years combined.

But luck was on their side.

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Deng Xiaoping, who became leader in 1978, laid the foundations for China’s modern economy.

China now had a new leader: Deng Xiaoping.

And Deng let it be known that this was the sort of experiment that had his blessing. And 1978 was the beginning of China’s breakneck transformation from utter poverty to the largest economy on the planet.

Invisible web

The experience in China shows that even informal property rights can be incredibly powerful.

If you know your neighbours respect your boundaries, you can feel confident investing time in weeding your vegetable plot, or building a house.

But in one critical way, it doesn’t help me that my neighbours agree that I own my house.

If I want a loan – to improve my house, or build a business – lenders need collateral. And land or buildings make particularly good collateral because they tend to increase in value, and it’s hard to hide them from creditors.

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Banks will lend against property only if its ownership can be proven in law

But the lender needs to be confident it could take the house away from me if I don’t repay the loan. So, I need to prove that the house really is mine. That requires an invisible web of information that the legal system and the banking system can use.

For Hernando de Soto, this invisible web is the difference between my house being an asset – something useful that I own – and being capital – an asset recognised by the financial system.

‘Dead capital’

In poor countries, a lot of assets are informally held. Hernando de Soto calls them “dead capital”, useless for securing a loan. His estimate was that at the start of the 21st Century there was almost $10tn (£7.5tn) worth of dead capital across the developing world – more than $4,000 (£3,200) for every person.

Other researchers think that’s an overestimate and the true figure is probably $3tn (£2.2tn) or $4tn (£2tn), but either way, it’s a huge amount.

More from Tim Harford:

‘The devil’s rope’: How barbed wire changed America

How a creative legal leap helped create vast wealth

Do passports restrict economic growth?

The great intellectual property trade-off

But how do assets become capital? How does the invisible web get woven? It needs a government.

Enforcing property rights is one of the few things pretty much everyone on the political spectrum agrees a government should do, except perhaps the Maoists.

It’s not just an altruistic measure to make it easier to get a mortgage. When government knows who owns land, it can tax it.

Napoleonic ‘cadastres’

Perhaps the first recognisably modern property registry was in Napoleonic France.

Needing to fund his incessant wars, Napoleon decreed that all French properties would be carefully mapped, and their ownership registered.

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Napoleon decreed that all properties in the territories he controlled would be mapped and registered

Such a property map is called a “cadastre”, and Napoleon proudly proclaimed that “a good cadastre of the parcels will be the complement of my civil code”.

After conquering Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium, Napoleon introduced cadastral maps there, as well.

Bold pioneers

In the mid-1800s, the idea of the land registry spread quickly through the British Empire, too. The government drew up maps and allocated title deeds. Of course at that time, nobody with any power had much interest in the fact that indigenous people had their own claims on the land.

The process doesn’t have to be top-down. In the United States, there was a bottom-up approach. After decades of treating squatters as criminals, the state began to think of them as bold pioneers.

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Chris Dorney / Alamy Stock Photo

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The 1862 Homestead Act set out the rules on who could own land in the US’s western territories

The US government tried to formalise informal property claims, using the Preemption Act of 1841 and the Homestead Act of 1862. Again, the rights of the native people who had been living there for thousands of years were not regarded as of much significance.

It was hardly justice. But it was profitable. By turning a land-grab into a legally recognised property right, these land registries unlocked decades of investment and improvement.

And some economists – most prominently Hernando de Soto himself – argue that a good way to create property registers for developing countries today is to use the same bottom-up process of recognising informal squatters’ rights, coupled with modern databases.

Do improved property registers really unlock what Hernando de Soto calls “dead capital”?

Evidently, they can. In Ghana, for example, farmers with clearer property rights invested more in their land.

Essential infrastructure

But the answer, of course, is “it depends”. It depends on whether there’s a banking system capable of lending, and an economy worth borrowing money to invest in.

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Getty Images

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The Philippines’ labyrinthine property registration system involves 168 steps

And it depends on how smoothly the property register works. Hernando de Soto found that in the Philippines, legally registering property took 168 procedures, 53 agencies and a waiting list of 13 to 25 years.

Faced with such obstacles, even formally registered properties are likely to become informal again – the next time the property is traded, both the buyer and the seller may decide that formalising the deal is just too time consuming.

But get it right, and the results can be impressive.

The World Bank has found that after controlling for income and economic growth, the countries with simpler, quicker property registries also had less corruption, less grey-market activity, more credit and more private investment.

Meanwhile, the property registry doesn’t get much love: it’s not a high-speed rail line or a gleaming new airport. It’s an unfashionable, invisible piece of infrastructure. But without it, developed economies would go to the dogs.

Tim Harford writes the Financial Times’s Undercover Economist column. 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information about the programme’s sources and listen online or subscribe to the programme podcast.

Paradise Papers: Are we taming offshore finance?

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Like the Cheshire Cat, it’s hard to tame something that keeps disappearing and reappearing

The offshore finance industry puts trillions of dollars worldwide beyond the taxman’s reach. Bringing it to heel is like taming a cat; not just a normal moggy – a thankless task in itself – but a Cheshire Cat: nebulous, hard to pin down, disappearing and reappearing when it likes.

No-one can actually agree on what a tax haven is. Or even on the name: one person’s tax haven is another’s “offshore financial centre”. No-one can agree on how many there are. Nor on exactly how much money is stashed offshore. No statistics are fully reliable.

And this suits those who operate in offshore finance, from the owner of the wealth to the lawyer or accountant middlemen who manage the funds, to the often sun-kissed beaches of the jurisdictions where they are secluded or pass through. The industry’s key word is privacy. Or secrecy – a word it doesn’t like so much.

One adage cited by the taxation author and expert Nicholas Shaxson sums it up: “Those who know don’t talk. And those who talk don’t know.”

But do we really not know how much is stashed offshore?

A report this September, co-authored by the economist Gabriel Zucman, estimates about 10% of global GDP – the way we measure the size of the world’s economy – is held offshore, about $7.8tn (£6tn). The Boston Consulting Group reported it last year at about $10tn.

If you are thinking, wow, that’s bigger than Japan’s economy, you’d be right. But if you want a real wow, try $36tn – the estimate offered by James Henry, author of the book Blood Bankers. That’s twice as big as the US economy.

But no-one really knows.

And here’s another wow. Remember the slogan “we are the 99%” coined by the Occupy movement to lambast the top 1% of the population for their disproportionate share of wealth? Well, the Zucman report says 80% of all offshore cash is owned by 0.1% of the richest households, with 50% held by the top 0.01%.

So if you read this and are thinking, if you can’t beat them… quite frankly, it’s unlikely you will ever join them. The management fees for the ordinary person will probably far outstrip the gains.

As Nicholas Shaxson told BBC Panorama: “At the very lowest end you’ll have the middle classes doing little bits and pieces. But the large majority of what’s going on, this is a game for rich people.”

Legal, but ethical?

Surely we know some of how this works? The systems have a ring of familiarity – double taxation; tax inversion; trusts; shell companies etc. It’s just we don’t usually know who’s in the schemes and what they are getting out of them.

The basic essence is rerouting money in one location where you don’t like the taxation rules to another location – one that is stable and reliable – where there aren’t as many, or any.

For example, if you want to protect your assets to stave off creditors, stick them in an offshore shell company. Hey presto, much harder to get at. Want to hide ownership of a property? Put it in a trust.

This is not illegal. There are many other schemes, legal, illegal and sometimes ethically debatable. But even within these categories there are many variables on what actually constitutes The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. After all, in the film with that name the ugly arguably wasn’t as bad as the bad, and the good was hardly perfect.

True to their Cheshire Cat-like origins, offshore financial centres (OFCs) do not always appear where one might expect them.

That’s because offshore, sorry to confuse you, is also onshore. This makes it impossible to pin down the global number of OFCs. It could be 50, 70 or more and new ones come and go.

The US and UK are arguably two of the biggest OFCs.

For example, setting up shell firms is easy in some US states, like Delaware.

And it’s widely known that the City of London acts as the facilitating hub for Crown dependencies and overseas territories that channel trillions of offshore dollars.

The smaller, often island, nations are what Nicholas Shaxson calls “captured states”.

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Media captionInvestigative journalist Nicholas Shaxson on why tax havens are ‘like captured states’

He told Panorama: “These places don’t have a very deep pool of experienced people. They’re just people who say, well we trust the accountants, we trust the lawyers to tell us what’s best for our island and we’ll do it.”

So how does offshore defend itself?

Well, the jurisdictions say it’s wrong to think there are banks in OFCs sitting on pots of gold – the money is simply being reinvested by companies – and that if there were no OFCs there would be no constraint on the tax rates governments might levy.

OFCs, they say, simply pump cash around the globe and the new transparency rules put in place over the past decade have severely limited tax evasion.

It’s certainly wrong to lump all the OFCs together. Some are better regulated than others. Down at the murkier end, dealings in Panama were exposed by leaks last year.

But Bermuda’s Bob Richards offered a stout defence of its financial services in an interview with Panorama carried out while he was still finance minister, citing a taxation system that had been in place for more than 100 years and adding that if other nations were losing out on tax they should sort their own systems out.

Bermuda, he says, has fully signed up to an international agreement that allows for the automatic transfer of tax information within governments and such a jurisdiction “cannot be a tax haven”.

And Appleby, the financial services firm involved in these latest leaks, made the case for OFCs back in 2009, in the wake of the global crash.

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Media captionEx-Bermuda Finance Minister defends tax practices

It said there was “no evidence OFCs played any role in the economic crisis”, OFCs were “neither the source of – nor the destination for – criminal proceeds” and that OFCs “protect people victimised by crime, corruption, or persecution by shielding them from venal governments”.

Of the latest leaks, the company said: “Many of the questions raise matters where – on any view – there is plainly no conceivable wrongdoing on the part of Appleby whatsoever.”

OFCs say there are no secrets, just privacy. But Gerard Ryle, of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which oversaw this huge leak of financial documents, known as the Paradise Papers, dismisses this.

“The only product that the offshore world sells is secrecy and when you take away secrecy they don’t have a product anymore,” he told the BBC.

“Where you have secrecy, you have the potential for wrongdoing.”

Whatever term you prefer, the elusive nature of offshore makes it hard to root out wrongdoing.

You could start an investigation into one firm or individual and be shuttled around from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, company to company, turning up a whole tranche of names on documents that are linked to no real owner, sometimes no real person, and lead absolutely nowhere.

A vicious circle

You’re probably also thinking, we’ve now had an awful lot of these financial leaks, haven’t they changed anything?

Spin backwards to April 2016. The Panama Papers have just come out. Iceland’s PM Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson has resigned after the leaks showed he owned an offshore company with his wife.

Thousands are demonstrating in Reykjavik to vent anger at their politicians.

Some estimates put the protest numbers at 6% of the whole Icelandic population. That’s like if 19 million people turned up to a protest in the US today.

But then travel over to Elektrostal, two hours east of Moscow. Resident Nadezhda is haranguing BBC reporter Steve Rosenberg. “All these ‘investigations’ are a waste of time and money. We know what you’re up to. They’re trying to rub Putin’s face in the dirt,” she says.

It kind of depends on where you are.

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Ragnar Hansson

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Ragnar Hansson at the Iceland protest

In the West, at least, people are questioning what high-net-worth individuals and multinationals can get away with.

Is it right that they can use loopholes to keep more of their cash? Or should it go to governments to spend on their people?

To be fair, governments have been tracking stashed cash since the 2008 global meltdown, independent of any financial leaks, although their talk has usually been tougher than their action.

Secrecy is now harder to achieve, transparency is greater. So-called country-by-country reporting, requiring multinationals to break down how they operate in different nations, has widened and public registries of companies have increased.

Even Russia brought in a law requiring the disclosure of offshore assets. The result? Since the law came in three years ago, dozens of the super-rich have given up Russian residency to avoid it.

There are also OFC blacklists mooted but, as Nicholas Shaxson says, the big players will make sure their operations are not on it and it will weed out only the minnows.

The offshore firms will “recalibrate”, he says. “When legislation changes, you will have this ecosystem kind of readjusting and the money will shift to other places.”

And wealth holders will readjust too. Pump cash into diamonds and artworks maybe? Or just go and actually live somewhere that charges low tax.

What makes this a vicious circle is that many governments are fully prepared to sanction offshore finance. Indeed, many people in government use it, as these leaks show.

And there is one thing we do know. If the super wealthy don’t pay the taxes, the money has to come from everyone else.

Which to many may sound a bit mad, but as the Cheshire Cat says: “We’re all mad here”.

The papers are a huge batch of leaked documents mostly from offshore law firm Appleby, along with corporate registries in 19 tax jurisdictions, which reveal the financial dealings of politicians, celebrities, corporate giants and business leaders.

The 13.4 million records were passed to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and then shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Panorama has led research for the BBC as part of a global investigation involving nearly 100 other media organisations, including the Guardian, in 67 countries. The BBC does not know the identity of the source.

Paradise Papers: Full coverage; follow reaction on Twitter using #ParadisePapers; in the BBC News app, follow the tag “Paradise Papers”

Watch Panorama on the BBC iPlayer (UK viewers only)

Russian Revolution: Ten propaganda posters from 1917

The Russian Revolution was a time of great upheaval but also great creativity.

As events take place to mark the 100th anniversary of the uprising, here are 10 classic images that rallied the masses in 1917.

‘Loan of Freedom’

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The cost and effort of fighting in World War One took a huge toll on Russia and fuelled the rebellion against the tsar in early 1917.

Boris Kustodiev’s famous painting of a soldier with a rifle urged Russians to give money to the war effort. The poster was produced in February 1917 to advertise the “Freedom Loan” and the soldier went on to appear in many other posters until the second Russian rebellion in October.

Revolutionary days

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In March 1917, Moscow’s Voskresenskaya Square and the city’s parliament building became a focal point for revolutionary rallies. This poster depicts the enthusiasm and anticipation people felt for the revolution, which they saw as the beginning of a new era. All this took place against the backdrop of war.

Leading men

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This is not really a poster. It is an illustrated leaflet that shows power in Russia was personified. These men are the leading political figures of the day – members of the Provisional Government. Mikhail Rodzianko, Chair of the State Duma (parliament), takes centre stage. The government’s first socialist and future head, Alexander Kerensky, sits in the bottom left corner. At the top, armed men hold slogans reading: “Land and Freedom!” and “Only in battle will you obtain your rights!” For the moment, there are no Bolsheviks.

The changing wind

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This comes from the leftist publishing house Parus, founded before the revolution by writer Maxim Gorky. Their posters were often created by famous poets and artists such as Vladimir Mayakovsky and Alexei Radakov. The top image shows a soldier defending the bourgeoisie with the caption “This is who the soldier used to defend”. The second, post-revolutionary, image features banners bearing the slogans, “Land and freedom!”, “Democracy and the Republic!” and “Liberty!” The caption reads: “That’s who he defends today”.

Rising sun

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In March 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and State Duma deputies formed the Provisional Government. This poster is entitled “Memo of the people’s victory”. It shows a humbled tsar handing over power to revolutionary forces, symbolised by a soldier and a worker. In the background, you can see the Tauride Palace, where the State Duma met. Above it, a rising sun, symbolising freedom. It was a favourite symbol in posters of this period.

Social pyramid

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This is another Mayakovsky-Radakov collaboration for Parus. Clearly a caricature, the poster shows the tsar at the top with his ermine robe flowing down on either side to cloak the people. From top to bottom: “We reign. We pray for you. We judge you. We protect you. We feed you. And you work.” The most popular satirical stories until the summer of 1917 were anti-clerical and anti-monarchical, aimed specifically at Tsar Nicholas II and his wife.

On the campaign trail

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In the autumn of 1917, Russia began its first ever general election campaign. It was both fierce and uncompromising. Dozens of organisations took part, but the largest was the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The words on this poster read: “Comrade citizens! Prepare for demonstrations on the day of the opening of the constituent assembly!”

‘Anarchy will be defeated by democracy!’

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This is a poster from the liberal Cadet Party, which uses a combination of animalistic and mythological images: the giant lizard represents anarchy and the knight on a white horse is democracy.

Breaking the chains

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The Socialist Revolutionary Party’s election poster was simple, aimed at workers and peasants. “The Socialist Revolutionary Party – Only in battle will you obtain your rights!” They conducted a very competent campaign. Their victory was achieved with the slogans “Land and freedom!” and “Tear off the chains and the entire world will be free”.

Late to the party

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The Bolshevik Party (the RSDLP) was slow to the poster game. This 1917 election campaign poster simply says: “Vote for the RSDLP list”.

RSDLP stood for Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. In Russian the letters were RSDRP.

When the civil war broke out in November 1917, the Bolsheviks quickly caught up and this style of poster influenced Soviet propaganda. A group of Soviet artists including Mayakovsky and Radakov created the famous Okna ROSTA (ROSTA Windows) brand. The posters were simple and the messages were short, sharp and clear. The brand became the Soviet hallmark and eventually, a global design classic.

Vera Panfilova, director of Fine Art at the State Central Museum of Russian Contemporary History, was speaking to BBC Russian’s Alexandra Semyonova.