Country Facts #8: Qatar to South Korea

This week: fasting astronauts, executions, female politicians, pirates, chimpanzees, dodgy elections, football riots, caning, and car mounted flamethrowers.

Qatar – Oil and gas endowed Qatar is swimming in riches. Its per capita GDP is the world’s largest, at almost $100,000- and that doesn’t tell the whole story. Qatari born citizens, who make up just 15% of the population of 1.8 million, receive the lion’s share and are worth almost $700,000 each. To put that into perspective, the GDP per capita of the world’s poorest country, DR Congo, is a measly $350. READ MORE

Romania – The fall of communist governments en masse all across Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the late 1980s and early 90s was a remarkably amicable affair with little significant violence. Only in Romania, where the regime had been especially repressive, did fighting accompany the transition. In all, more than 3,000 died during the 1989 revolution, including the president and his wife, who were executed by firing squad after being convicted by a hastily assembled kangaroo court- on Christmas Day of all days! READ MORE

Russia – At its most easterly point on the Chukchi Peninsula in Russia, Asia is a mere 80km from the mainland of the US state of Alaska across the Bering Strait in North America- as Sarah Palin well knows. For more than a century engineers in both countries have proposed constructing a bridge or tunnel linking the two continents, and in the 1950s Russian scientists even proposed building the world’s longest dam. It was thought a dam could allow the Arctic Ocean to warm and sea ice to melt, thus heating up Russia’s freezing climate, but thankfully the plan never got off the ground. READ MORE

Rwanda – The stereotypical vision of Africa is of a conservative, male dominated continent, but the reality is often quite different. As of June 2016, 15 African countries had more than a third of seats in Parliament occupied by women. In Rwanda, 64% of the members of parliament are women, the highest percentage in the world, and one of just two female majority parliaments worldwide. The extent of female participation is directly related to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, which dramatically skewed the country’s gender ratio and required huge numbers of women to enter the workforce. (On the other hand, I was  once told by a man who had worked in Rwanda that many female politicians are effectively place holders for more powerful men behind the scenes, so perhaps the reality is rather more complex than the statistic suggests). READ MORE

Samoa – For obvious reasons, it’s very uncommon for countries to switch driving sides, but Samoa became the most recent to do so in 2009. At 6am on the day of the switch, sirens sounded across the country and drivers were asked to switch from right to left. Thankfully, despite fears of carnage the switch was made without any serious accidents. READ MORE

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines – A number of scenes from the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise were shot at Wallilabou Bay on the island of Saint Vincent. But, in a tragic irony, a German man was robbed and murdered aboard his yacht by pirates in 2016 in the bay. READ MORE

San Marino – They may be totally surrounded by one of the great footballing nations, four times World Cup winners Italy, but tiny San Marino is pretty damn useless at the beautiful game. As of December 2016, their record reads: 139 games played, one won, four drawn, and 134 lost; 22 goals scored, 603 conceded. Between a 1-0 slaying of the mighty Liechtenstein in 2004 and a heroic goalless draw at home to the soccer superpowers of Estonia a decade later, San Marino lost every single match they played. READ MORE

Sao Tome & Principe – The tiny island pair of Sao Tome and Principe, located around 250km off the coast of West Africa, was one of the most recently discovered and inhabited countries on the planet. Only in 1470 did the islands receive their first human visitors, in the shape of Portuguese explorers. READ MORE

Saudi Arabia – Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman became the first Muslim to travel to space when he travelled on a NASA space shuttle in 1985- but his religion posed many practical problems. Sultan consulted one of the country’s foremost Islamic cleric- a blind sheikh who refused to believe the world was round- for advice before departing. He was given special dispensation to pray without kneeling or facing Mecca, as is the norm for Muslims, because of the effects of zero gravity and the shuttle’s speed. The mission also took place during Ramadan, and Sultan vowed to fast for a month during daylight hours as per normal. But given that the shuttle would see the sun set sixteen times a day, he was told to stick to the local time of the launch base at Cape Canaveral instead! READ MORE

Senegal – In 2005 and 2006, a group of chimpanzees living in the Senegalese savannah was observed by scientists hunting for smaller primates using spears. The spears were fashioned from branches torn from trees, which the chimps would strip of their leaves and sharpen with their teeth, before using them to stab at bushbabies. Such sophisticated behaviour had seldom been observed in any animal before.  READ MORE

Serbia – Forget floodlight failures and waterlogged pitches, there’s a much more exciting way to bring a football match to an abrupt end. In October 2014, a Euro 2016 qualifying match between Serbia and their Balkan neighbours Albania was abandoned in the first half after a drone flew into the stadium carrying an Albanian nationalist banner- an especially provocative action due to the tense relationship between the two nations regarding their common neighbour, the ethnically Albanian but Serb claimed Kosovo. The notoriously feisty Belgrade crowd reacted in predictable fashion, invading the pitch, attempting to seize the flag and brawling with police- behaviour for which they were later deducted points. READ MORE

All hell breaks loose as an Albanian drone interrupts play in SerbiaPhoto by Nazionale Calcio / CC BY 2.0

Seychelles – In 1962, British man Brendon Grimshaw purchased the 22 acre Moyenne Island in the Seychelles, a tropical island chain in the Indian Ocean. Until his death in 2013, aged 87, he lived a solitary life on his own paradise island, spending his days looking after his wild birds and giant tortoises, tending to his land, and hunting for the ancient treasure rumoured to be buried nearby. The island is now part of a national park. READ MORE

Moyenne, the paradise island bought by a YorkshiremanIle Moyenne / User:Sherwood / CC BY-SA 2.0

Sierra Leone – A survey of 95 countries by corruption investigators Transparency International in 2013found that 85% of people in Sierra Leone had paid a bribe in the previous year, more than any other nation. Government officials attempted to fend off the accusations by suggesting that such payments were merely a cultural tradition of respect and appreciation… READ MORE

Singapore – Singapore is unique amongst developed nations in that it has retained the use of judicial corporal punishment. Caning, which Singapore inherited from its British colonial rulers, is still used regularly alongside regular prison sentences for a number of crimes, from dangerous driving to hostage taking. Perpetrators are rapped over the backside by a 1.2m long strip of wood up to 24 times, depending on the severity of their crime. READ MORE

Canes for sale in a Singaporean corner shop – Rattancane / User: Beaverine / Public Domain

Slovakia – Because of its long multi ethnic history and central European location, the capital of Slovakia has been known by a variety of different names across Europe. When Czechoslovakia emerged from the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1919 the city, formerly known as Pressburg on account of its largely German population, was renamed Bratislava. Depending on the country, it had also gone by many other titles (some of which are still used today), from Presburgo in Italian to Pozsony in Hungarian, Istropolis in Greek to Posonium in Latin. READ MORE

Whatever you wish to call it, the Slovak capital is a rather picturesque placeThe fish-eye view of Bratislava / Miroslav Petrasko / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Slovenia – Thanks to their similar names, national flags, size and location in Eastern Europe, Slovenia and Slovakia are often rather difficult to distinguish- Silvio Berlusconi and George Bush have both struggled to remember which is which in the past. This irked the Slovenes so much that in 2003 plans were launched to create a brand new national flag, though as yet it remains unchanged. READ MORE

Solomon Islands – The Solomon Islands, as you may already have presumed, were named after the Israeli King Solomon. But why is this Pacific island country named after a 3,000 year old leader from a place some 14,000km away? The answer lies in their “discovery” by the Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendaña in 1568. On arrival, the Spaniards found deposits of gold at the bottom of a local river, and named the islands after the opulent monarch on the hopeful presumption that the assumption that they were the source of his vast riches. READ MORE

Somalia – Somalia is considered the world’s archetypal failed state, and has been ravaged by warlords and terrorists for decades. For a few years up until 2012, the national government’s area of authority extended to no more than a few blocks of territory around the parliament in the capital Mogadishu, beyond which Islamists and other rebel groups were in control. READ MORE

South Africa – A South African inventor came up with a novel way of tackling the country’s car theft epidemic. In 1998, Charl Fourie patented the Blaster, a car mounted, pedal operated flamethrower designed to ward off- and potentially kill- would-be carjackers with a two metre jet of fire. Incredibly, while it was withdrawn from the market after three years, the device remains legal in South Africa. READ MORE

South Korea – In a world racked with the fear of overpopulation, South Korea has the opposite problem. The country’s once sky high birth rate has declined so much that, if current trends persist, the national population is set to fall to barely 20% of its current level in the next century, and by 2750 the entire population will have disappeared. Thankfully, the government has reallised that this could be a bit of a problem and has been ploughing $14bn a year into its efforts to raise the national fertility rate. After ten years, though, no improvements have yet been forthcoming.  READ MORE

If you have anything to add to any of these entries, you can offer a better one, or you just want someone to talk to, please leave a comment!

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