BBC 2024-02-19 22:31:34

Navalny’s grieving widow vows to continue his work

Alexei Navalny’s widow Yulia has vowed to continue his work to fight for a “free Russia” in a video posted on Monday.

Her voice sometimes shaking with grief and anger, Ms Navalnaya asked viewers to stand alongside her and “share the fury and hate for those who dared to kill our future”.

She also accused the authorities of hiding her husband’s body.

Navalny’s death in prison was announced on 16 February.

The prison authorities at the Siberian penal colony he was being held in said he collapsed following a walk and never regained consciousness.

Navalny’s body has not yet been released to his family, despite his mother and lawyer travelling to the remote penal colony where he was being held as soon as news of his death broke.

Attempts to locate the body have repeatedly been shut down by the prison mortuary and local authorities.

On Monday, the Kremlin said an investigation into Navalny’s death was ongoing and that there were “no results” as of yet.

Later, Navalny’s spokewoman Kira Yarmysh said that investigators told Navalny’s mother they would not hand over the body for two weeks while they conduct a “chemical analysis”.

In her video message, Ms Navalnaya said she believed the authorities were waiting for traces of the deadly nerve agent Novichok to disappear from Navalny’s body.

Navalny, who was the Russian opposition’s most significant leader for the last decade, had been serving a 19-year sentence on charges many viewed as politically motivated.

Now, Ms Navalnaya – who previously mostly shied away from the spotlight – indicated she might be ready to continue her husband’s political fight for change in Russia.

“Three days ago, Vladimir Putin killed my husband Alexei Navalny. Putin killed the father of my children. Putin took away the most important thing I had. The person who was closest to me and whom I loved most,” she said in her video message.

She promised to “continue to fight for our country” and added: “We need to use every opportunity – to fight against the war, against corruption, against injustice. To fight for fair elections and freedom of speech. To fight to take our country back. Russia – free, peaceful, happy – the beautiful Russia of the future, of which my husband dreamed so much.”

In the video, Ms Navalnaya also said she knew “exactly why Putin killed Alexei three days ago” and promised to release the information “soon”.

Western leaders have put the blame for Navalny’s death squarely on President Putin.

Responding to questions from reporters on Monday, President Joe Biden said: “The fact of the matter is: Putin is responsible, whether he ordered it or he is responsible for the circumstances he put that man in. And… it’s a reflection of who he is. And it just cannot be tolerated.”

During a press conference on Monday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he believed her husband “was slowly murdered in a Russian jail by Putin’s regime”.

Both the EU and the US have said they are considering new sanctions on Russia following Navalny’s death.

Germany, Sweden, Finland, Norway and France said they were summoning the Russian ambassadors in their capitals.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said comments by Western politicians in regards to Navalny’s death were “arrogant” and “unacceptable”.

Russian prison authorities said at the weekend that Navalny had suffered “sudden death syndrome”.

Hundreds of people in more than 30 cities across Russia were detained at the weekend for attending makeshift memorials to Navalny.

In Moscow, 20 people were sentenced to various amounts of prison time – ranging from one day to nine days – and two people were fined 10,000 rubles (£85). n.

Israeli PM ‘missed chance’ to cut off Hamas cash

Israel’s prime minister missed the chance to starve Hamas of cash, years before its murderous attack last October, according to a former senior Israeli intelligence officer.

Udi Levy has told BBC Panorama he advised Benjamin Netanyahu to target Hamas’s finances.

He believes this would have hampered the group’s military build-up, but says the intelligence was not acted upon.

The Israeli prime minister’s office has not responded to the allegations.

Hamas gunmen killed about 1,200 people and took more than 250 hostages on 7 October last year, when they crossed into southern Israel. One hundred and thirty hostages remain unaccounted for.

Israel’s military response has killed 29,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry.

Mr Levy – who was head of economic warfare in the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, until 2016 – says he told Mr Netanyahu many times that Israel had the means to crush Hamas, which controls Gaza, “by using only financial tools”.

Mr Levy says he never got a response to his proposal from Mr Netanyahu.

When asked if he considered there was a connection between Mr Netanyahu’s alleged reluctance to deal with Hamas’s finances and the 7 October attack, Mr Levy is unequivocal.

“Yes, of course,” he says. “There is a very good chance that… we would [have] prevent[ed] a lot of the money” that had gone into Gaza, and that “the monster that Hamas built probably [wouldn’t be] like the same monster that we faced on October 7th.”

Hamas would have needed “billions, not millions” of dollars, says the former spy chief, to build hundreds of kilometres of tunnels underneath Gaza and pay for an estimated 30,000-strong military force.

One specific funding stream, which Mr Levy says he raised with Mr Netanyahu in 2014, was an alleged multi-million-dollar investment portfolio which Israeli intelligence said was controlled by Hamas and managed out of Turkey.

Mr Levy says that Mr Netanyahu chose not to act on the information.

Hamas’s secret financial empire

Following the attacks of 7 October, Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas. But can it? With access to some of Hamas’s most closely guarded secrets, John Ware investigates its network outside Gaza.

Watch on BBC One at 20:00 on Monday 19 February (20:30 in Northern Ireland and 22:40 in Wales) or on BBC iPlayer

Hamas, which rejects Israel’s right to exist and is committed to its destruction, is much more than just a military force. It’s a political movement with financial support extending well beyond Gaza.

“We spoke about Qatar and Iran as the main sponsors,” says Mr Levy of his conversations with Mr Netanyahu. “Turkey is even, in some aspect, more important because it is a critical focal point for Hamas to manage [its] financial infrastructure.”

Panorama has been investigating documents, which had been acquired in 2020, said to reveal the extent of Hamas’s investment portfolio. They are a snapshot of an eight-month period that ends in early 2018. Israeli intelligence says they show how Hamas makes some of its money.

Some 40 companies across the Middle East and north Africa are believed to be in the portfolio, including Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, the Gulf and also Turkey.

The alleged investments include everything from road construction, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment to tourism, mining, gold prospecting and luxury real estate projects.

Since 2022, six of the companies listed in the documents have been designated by the US Treasury as being directly or indirectly owned or controlled by Hamas. The US has restricted their ability to trade by sanctioning them.

Next to each company listed in the portfolio ledger is what is said to be the value of each Hamas-controlled holding, running into the millions of dollars for some of the companies – and adding up to a total value of $422,573,890 (£335m).

Much of that value is said to be tied up in real estate.

Property investments, which hold their value and have the potential for rental income, are a “perfect way” for an organisation such as Hamas to manage its finances, says Tom Keatinge, founding director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies (CFCS) at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi).

One of the companies sanctioned by the US is Trend GYO – a Turkish real estate firm. In the 2018 document, it is referenced several times as Anda Turk – which documents show was an old trading name, before it was renamed Trend and floated on the Istanbul stock exchange.

The 7 October attacks or, as Hamas calls them, “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood”, were recently praised by Trend’s former chairman, Hamid Abdullah al-Ahmar – who stood down in 2022 but remains as the head of Trend’s parent company.

Speaking at a conference in Istanbul in January 2024, he was filmed saying: “We meet… while the Aqsa Flood is at its peak, a sweeping and roaring flood that will never stop before the occupation of beloved Palestine is defeated.”

He went on to call on the conference to “work to criminalise Zionism as a racist and terrorist movement”.

Panorama wrote to Mr al-Ahmar but received no reply.

Trend told us that the US Treasury’s allegations of links between the company and Hamas were “unfair and unfounded”.

The Turkish authorities have said they have investigated Trend and found “no abuse of our nation’s financial system” and that Turkey abides by international financial rules.

Hamas, however, has also had a variety of other long-term financial sources.

One of its most important early fundraisers was Yahya Sinwar, now the head of Hamas’s political wing in Gaza. According to Israel, he began raising funds for Hamas while he was in an Israeli prison cell. In 1988, Sinwar had been jailed for murdering Palestinians he suspected were spying for Israel.

Micha Koubi, a former Israel security agency officer says he interrogated Sinwar for more than 150 hours. He said Sinwar managed to forge links with Iran by sending covert messages from prison.

In 2007, a year after Hamas was voted into power, Israel and its neighbour Egypt tightened the blockade on Gaza, both saying they were concerned about their security. Mr Koubi said that Sinwar’s Iranian connections helped him to beat the blockade.

“He sent messengers to Iran, to start the contact. He asked them to send… weapons and arms. And they agreed to help [Hamas] with everything that they need.

“That was the very beginning.”

Cash for Hamas also arrived from the Gulf state of Qatar, both overtly and covertly, according to former Mossad officer, Udi Levy.

Israel has acknowledged that some of that money was delivered in cash with its blessing. It was allocated to pay the salaries of officials in the Hamas government and provide humanitarian support for the people of Gaza.

“The Qataris [had] a special envoy that came every month, with a private jet to Rafah with a suitcase, enter to Gaza, gave it to Hamas, say hello and go back, that’s it,” says Mr Levy.

He has told Panorama he believes “a significant sum of this money” went to “support Hamas’s military arm”.

Billions more had been provided by UN agencies, the EU, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and numerous charities. All intended for humanitarian purposes.

Rusi’s Tom Keatinge calls it a “fair assessment” that this money may have been subsidising Hamas’s military wing. “It is money [Hamas] can use on other issues, like building tunnels, like arming its military,” he says.

It is impossible to know how much donor cash – if any – Hamas may have appropriated for military purposes.

The group denies diverting any aid money. It told Panorama its military wing had its own sources of income.

Israel’s Prime Minister has been clear about his opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state, and how that strategic aim was linked to his position on Hamas funding.

In 2019, Mr Netanyahu told colleagues in his ruling Likud party: “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas… This is part of our strategy – to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.”

Keeping Hamas strong enough to be an effective rival to Fatah – its West Bank rival – would prevent the possibility of a “unified Palestinian leadership with whom you would have to negotiate some kind of final settlement”, says Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington DC.

More recently, Mr Netanyahu has denied he wanted to build up Hamas and said he had only allowed Qatari money into Gaza to prevent a humanitarian crisis.

Mr Netanyahu has now vowed to destroy Hamas. There will be “no element” in Gaza that finances terrorism, he says.

But, by destroying so much of Gaza and killing so many Palestinian, Israel may achieve the opposite effect.

“Iran will probably continue to arm and financially support Hamas,” says Mr Elgindy. “But more than that, as long as there is a reason for a group like Hamas to try to acquire those weapons, and those resources, and those capabilities, they will do that.

“Because the justification for it, the reasons for it, are still in place.”

Crew abandon cargo ship after attack off Yemen

The crew of a Belize-flagged, British-registered cargo vessel have abandoned ship off Yemen after it was hit by missiles fired by the Houthi movement.

The Rubymar was in the Gulf of Aden and nearing the Bab al-Mandab Strait when it was struck, security firms said.

The vessel, which is carrying “very dangerous” fertiliser, has been taking on water.

Condemning the “reckless attack” on the ship, the UK said that allied naval vessels were “already on the scene”.

It is one of the most damaging attacks yet carried out by the Iran-backed Houthis, and is the latest evidence that Western efforts to deter them are yet to succeed.

The Houthis have launched dozens of missiles and drones at merchant vessels and Western warships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden since mid-November, in what they say is a show of support for the Palestinians in the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The attacks have prompted many shipping companies to stop using the critical waterway, which accounts for about 12% of global seaborne trade.

US and British forces began carrying out air strikes on military targets across Houthi-controlled western Yemen in response last month.

  • Who are the Houthis attacking Red Sea ships?
  • US and UK strikes fail to slow Houthi attacks

On Sunday night, the UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) agency said it had received a report of an incident from an unnamed ship about 35 nautical miles (65km) south of the Yemeni Red Sea port of Mocha.

The master had reported “an explosion in close proximity to the vessel resulting in damage” at about 23:00 local time (20:00 GMT), it added.

Early on Monday, the agency cited military authorities as reporting that the crew abandoned the vessel following an attack.

“Vessel at anchor and all crew are safe,” it said. “Military authorities remain on scene to provide assistance.”

British maritime security firm Ambrey separately reported that a Belize-flagged cargo ship had come under attack in the Bab al-Mandab Strait on Sunday as it sailed northwards.

Troubled Waters: War in the Red Sea?

Frank Gardner and expert guests look at the crisis in the Red Sea after attacks on ships by the Yemeni Houthi group.

Available now on BBC iPlayer

Rubymar’s security firm, LSS Sapu, and data provider Lloyd’s List Intelligence later confirmed that it had sustained damage after being hit by two missiles.

“We know she was taking in water,” a spokesperson for LSS-Sapu told Reuters news agency.

“There is nobody on board now,” it added. “The owners and managers are considering options for towage.”

The UK government confirmed the Rubymar was taking on water and had been abandoned, with its crew taken to safety.

According to data from MarineTraffic, which last received a tracking signal on Sunday, the Rubymar had been travelling from Saudi Arabia to Bulgaria.

Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea announced in a statement on Monday morning that its naval forces had fired a number of missiles at “a British ship” in the Gulf of Aden, which he identified as the Rubymar.

“The ship suffered catastrophic damage and came to a complete halt,” he said, without providing any evidence.

“As a result of the extensive damage the ship suffered, it is now at risk of potential sinking in the Gulf of Aden. During the operation, we made sure that the ship’s crew exited safely.”

The Djibouti Port Authority said it had co-ordinated the safe repatriation of the Rubymar’s 24 crew members – 11 Syrians, six Egyptians, four Filipinos and three Indians – after they were initially assisted by a passing vessel.

It also warned that the Rubymar had on board almost 22 tonnes of fertiliser – classified as a “very dangerous” material because it is highly explosive – and was now at an unknown location in the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which is only 32km wide.

The 172m-long Rubymar is flagged in Belize, its operators are from Lebanon and its registered owner is Golden Adventure Shipping, with an address in the British port of Southampton.

The UK government said current reports suggested there were no casualties resulting from the attack.

“Nearby coalition vessels are already on the scene and HMS Richmond continues to patrol in the Red Sea to help protect commercial shipping,” a spokesperson added.

“We have been clear that any attacks on commercial shipping are completely unacceptable and that the UK and our allies reserve the right to respond appropriately.”

Ambrey also said it was aware that two projectiles had exploded close to a Greece-flagged, US-owned cargo ship about 100 nautical miles east of the southern Yemeni port of Aden on Monday.

The UKMTO said a ship’s master had reported two explosions, and that there was “evidence of shrapnel and damage to paintwork”.

“The vessel and crew are reported to be safe and proceeding to the next port of call,” it added.

Greek shipping ministry sources told Reuters that the vessel was the Sea Champion, whose owner is New York-based MKM Chartering, and that it had been transporting grain from Argentina to Aden when it was attacked.

Later on Monday Mr Sarea claimed the Houthis had targeted two American ships in the Gulf of Aden – the Sea Champion and the Navis Fortuna.

Mr Sarea also said Houthi air defences in the Red Sea province of Hudaydah had shot down a US MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) “while it was carrying out hostile missions against our country on behalf of [Israel]”.

There was no immediate comment from the US military.

US Central Command said its forces had carried out five strikes against three mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, one unmanned underwater vessel (UUV) and one unmanned surface vessel (USV) in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen on Saturday after determining that they presented an imminent threat to US Navy ships and merchant vessels in the region.

It was the first time that US forces had identified a UUV, or submarine drone, being employed by the Houthis since the attacks began.

BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner says the discovery that the Houthis are deploying both USVs and UUVs is a worrying development. The concept of a “swarm attack” – launching a number of relatively cheap missiles and drones simultaneously at an enemy in the hopes of confusing and overwhelming their defences – is straight out of the playbook of the navy of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

As Houthi attacks on shipping in the lower Red Sea and adjacent Gulf of Aden show no sign of stopping, the prospect of such an attack being directed at a US or British warship is an ever-present threat for those crews now serving there, our correspondent adds.

In another development, EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels approved a mission to help protect international shipping in the Red Sea. It aims to have the operation which will involve four ships from France, Germany, Italy and Belgium up and running in a few weeks.

The Silk Road city most tourists miss

Once an important oasis welcomed by weary travellers – and equally feared for its reputation for ruthless slave trading – Khiva is undeservedly overshadowed by Bukhara and Samarkand.

In the small town of Khiva in Uzbekistan, bounded by the Karakum and Kyzylkum deserts, all roads lead to a walled fortress known as Itchan Kala. That’s because everything that’s worth seeing and experiencing in Khiva is contained within the walls of this citadel. It’s home to more than 60 cultural sites, medieval mosques and opulent palaces, as well as numerous museums, souvenir shops and craft studios.

The Itchan Kala is where I was headed bright and early one autumn morning. Entering from the Ota Darwza, or the West Gate, located close to the ticket counter, I could see the street shops slowly coming to life: the chugirma vendor was fluffing up his collection of sheepskin fur hats used by locals to keep their heads warm in the bitter winters; the woman selling traditional ikat-print chapans (long coats) lured me with a striking black-and-white jacket; the master woodcarver was sitting on his chair, head bent over what looked like an intricately chiselled cheeseboard; the carpet weaver briefly looked up from the loom to smile at me before bending her head back to study the pattern.

But the roads were strangely empty. Where were all the tourists?

Along with Bukhara and Samarkand, Khiva – locally pronounced “Heevah” – forms Uzbekistan’s troika of Silk Road cities. But only the two former have become popular among tourists, due to their proximity to the capital city of Tashkent. Just a mention of those names is enough to evoke images of a time when these cities were at the heart of the influential network of trading routes stretching from China all the way to Rome and Venice. For much of those 1,500 years, roughly from 130 BCE until 1453 CE, this central Asian region saw the exchange of not just silks and spices, but all kinds of ideas and philosophies.

Khiva was once an important stop for merchants and traders on the Silk Road (Credit: Tuul & Bruno Morandi/Getty Images)

There is archaeological evidence to show that Khiva has existed since the 6th Century CE. It became a significant trading post on the Silk Road and rose to even more prominence within the region in the 1600s when it became the capital of the Khanate (kingdom of the Khan rulers).

At its peak, Khiva was a welcoming oasis for weary travellers, who were undeterred by Khiva’s fearsome reputation for slave trading. Having already crossed the Kyzulkum desert on their way from Bukhara, these merchants and traders halted in Khiva for rest and refreshment and to load up their caravans with essential supplies before heading off into the vast stretch of unforgiving desert towards Persia. In its Silk Road Programme, Unesco describes Khiva as a “centre of education, science and culture, and served as a cradle of civilisations spanning millennia”.

Click play to learn about the prehistoric origins of the Silk Road

Given this history, I was surprised by how modern-day Khiva seems to get only a fraction of the tourists who throng Samarkand and Bukhara. But I wasn’t complaining, happy to have these magnificent sites mostly to myself.

Before the Itchan Kala became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1990, the government relocated residents outside the fortress walls in order to preserve and restore the monuments that had fallen in disrepair. Today, the Itchan Kala is an enchanting city inside a city and a living museum that has been extensively restored as an open-air showcase of regional history.

Behzad Larry, CEO of Voygr Expeditions, a company specialising in responsible travel to central Asia, describes Khiva as a “living relic amidst the desert expanse” and “[an] ancient city that beckons travellers to step back in time”. He explained that the self-contained design of Itchan Kala offers visitors a chance for a more intimate exploration of its landmarks as well as meaningful interactions with the local community.

In the Itchan Kala is a life-size street statue of two men chatting with a samovar bubbling away at their feet (Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

“Khiva exudes an unmistakable aura of antiquity that sets it apart from its more renowned Silk Road counterparts like Bukhara and Samarkand, where the old harmoniously coexists with the new,” he added. Having visited both Bukhara and Samarkand, where the monuments are scattered around what are now modern cities bustling with traffic, I could see what he meant.

Although locals don’t live within the fortress, they come here every day to their studios, shops, restaurants and teahouses to work. As I walked through Khiva’s narrow lanes, I discovered an embarrassment of riches: a teal-tiled palace here, a multi-pillared mosque there; a life-size street statue of two men chatting merrily with the samovar bubbling away at their feet; a carpet-weaving workshop next to a ceramic studio. In a museum inside the Kunya-Ark citadel, exhibits explained how concepts like algebra and algorithm have roots in this part of the world, and particularly in the work of Khiva-born mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi.

I feel like Alice in Wonderland, wandering through the labyrinth of tiny lanes that suddenly open into wide squares, and coming across craftsmen and traders selling their wares

Anita Sethi Ramakrishna, an Indian who has been living in Tashkent for the past few years and has travelled extensively through Uzbekistan, told me that exploring Khiva makes her feel like a small child. “I feel like Alice in Wonderland, wandering through the labyrinth of tiny lanes that suddenly open into wide squares, and coming across craftsmen and traders selling their wares.”

Although locals don’t live within the fortress, they come here every day to work (Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

I got it. Despite the city’s sprawl of 26 hectares, the touristic heart of Itchan Kala was compact and easily navigable on foot. And each time I thought I had been on the same road before, I found myself turning a different corner and coming across a new monument or mausoleum. Or an unfinished minaret like the squat Kalta Minor, bedecked with glazed majolica tiles in stunning shades of teal and turquoise.

My absolute favourite was the Tosh Hauli, or stone palace, built by Allakuli Khan in the mid-1830s and tucked away in a corner towards the northern gate. The tiles in the rooms and courtyards of the harem area where the Khan lived with his four wives and 40 concubines, had some of the most exquisite colours and patterns found anywhere in the Itchan Kala, drawing me back again and again for closer inspection.

The Kunya-Ark citadel, which is other major palace complex here, dates to the 12th Century and contains a throne room, a mint, stables and a beautiful summer mosque with blue wall tiles and a brown, orange and gold ceiling. I visited the Ark late in the evening and climbed up the steep and narrow steps of the watchtower in search of Khiva’s famed desert sunset.

“Dusk is my favourite time in Khiva,” Larry had told me, “because as the sun sets gradually, the city walls unveil a final gift: a panoramic view of the ancient skyline, bathed in a golden hue.” Having huffed and puffed my way to the top, I was treated to a 360-degree view of not just the monuments within the Itchan Kala, but also the town that lay beyond its walls. The desert sunset was indeed spectacular, a bold palette of pinks and oranges tinged with gold.

Khiva’s madrasahs have been repurposed into craft workshops and souvenir markets (Credit: Charukesi Ramadurai)

While most of the old monuments inside the Itchan Kala have been restored to their former glory, the former madrasahs (Islamic schools) have been repurposed into craft workshops or souvenir markets. Whenever I stopped to look, admire or just take photos, I noticed no irritation among the vendors; there was no hard-sell, no aggression. Everything somehow seemed slower here, everyone calmer. I found myself mentally discarding the must-see list I had made earlier, and I surrendered myself to serendipity.

As Sethi Ramakrishna said, “There is no pressure here like in the larger towns – you can take your time and sit down to sip an Uzbek lemon tea, and see the vendors making their sales and young couples having a photoshoot. And wonder how the caravans of yore found their way to this beautiful place on the Silk route.”

I followed her lead and settled down for some people-watching at an al fresco choyxona (teahouse) just opposite Kalta Minor. The Silk Road itself may be a thing of the past, its relevance wiped away by the advent of more convenient sea routes. But sitting here in a corner of Khiva, I knew for sure that its legacy lives on.


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The ‘Sun King CEOs’ requiring five days in office

Some high-profile CEOs are demanding full returns with a “command-and-control” mindset.

In January, United Parcel Service CEO Carol Tomé announced the international logistics company was cutting 12,000 of its 85,000 management jobs. Workers who weren’t axed would be expected in the office five days a week starting March. For the corporate staffers who can perform some or all their duties from home, the mandate came as an ice-water bath.

For employees like these who spend most of their days in front of a computer, workplace experts insist remote and hybrid work cannot easily be stuffed back into the bottle. “It’s become so much of a mainstay now,” says Colleen Flaherty Manchester, professor in the work and organizations department at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, US. We can’t go backwards, she says.

Years of post-pandemic data has shown remote and hybrid work works. Researchers have found employees retain productivity and can help companies drive profits. There are also the intangible factors that breed employee loyalty, such as better work-life balance. Throughout the past several years, many CEOs courting the idea of full office returns have pulled back due to this data and the strong pushback of their workers. 

Yet these factors haven’t stopped a handful of companies, including some very high-profile employers, from issuing mandates – or at least heavy-handed, public suggestions – that corporate workers should be back at their desks five days a week.

In finance especially, major institutions – including JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup – have instituted five-day-attendance policies for many of its staff. Boeing, too, has taken the decision to require much of its corporate workforce back at their desks. Some data shows even more top brass are considering it, especially among large organisations.

Some leaders are just used to a certain command-and-control mode – Stephen Meier

Some experts, including Stephen Meier, chair of the management division at Columbia Business School in New York, remain genuinely baffled why companies like UPS are putting up a fight over return-to-office. But he believes there’s a common thread among many of these firms: hard-line management tactics.

“You can’t continue that leadership style that you had before [the pandemic],” he says. “You need to actually empower [employees] … And, I think, some leaders are just used to a certain command-and-control model.”

This is true of many outspoken critics of remote work, such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who was one of the first to issue a “show-up-or-quit” ultimatum back in 2022. In a May 2023 interview with CNBC, Musk launched an expletive-laden attack on workers who wanted flexible set-ups, saying the “laptop class” was “living in la-la land”. 

Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University, says Musk’s attitude towards remote work goes beyond the company’s needs. “His life is his company,” he says. “If you’re Elon Musk, you basically want to spend every minute awake and work. It’s the place your mind focuses on. You love it. It’s your career. It’s your aspiration where all your money is invested.” Some CEOs with this mentality expect the same of their workers: if I am back, you will be, too.

JPMorgan Chase is among the finance companies whose CEOs aren’t budging on office mandates (Credit: Getty Images)

This blunt-force, power-driven approach also showed up with JPMorgan Chase’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, when he doubled-down on in-person work in July 2023. If employees wanted the prestigious organisation on their CVs, Dimon made clear they were to follow his mandate. “I completely understand why someone doesn’t want to commute an hour and a half every day. Totally get it… Doesn’t mean they have to have a job here, either,” he said.

Beyond the cult of personality, some of these strong-armed mandates may be driven by a different type of desire for control – especially in the current uncertain economy, when corporate performance and earnings are shaky.

Bloom points to a 2023 paper by two University of Pittsburgh Katz Graduate School of Business professors who examined 137 different return-to-office announcements over the past year. The research found managers use return-to-office mandates “to reassert control over employees and blame employees as a scapegoat for bad firm performance”. Bloom says many CEOs who are leading companies in financial tumult feel pressure to make broad, sweeping – even “desperate” – changes to prove to shareholders they’re shoring up the bottom line.

He points to UPS’s Tomé, whose company reported a steeper-than-expected revenue drop in their Q4 2023 earnings. “The CEO has to stand up and say something, and has to take radical action,” says Bloom, “otherwise she’s out of a job. This is what’s going on.”

This kind of executive peacocking may convince some shareholders getting workers back in office will be a panacea – but experts say recalling employees could come back to haunt leaders.

The CEO has to stand up and say something, and has to take radical action, otherwise she’s out of a job – Nicholas Bloom

“I think a couple of these Sun King CEOs like Elon Musk have this problem,” says Bloom, a reference to French absolute monarch King Louis XIV. “They’re just out of touch with their employees, and they’re not used to hearing no… And they just rammed this thing through, which is a bad decision.”

He continues, “In the long run, performance is going to be improved by keeping employees happy, and reducing retention and recruitment costs. The research evidence shows quite clearly that for professionals and managers, hybrid is profitable for companies.”

Most companies will realise this, says Prithwiraj Choudhury, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. He sees firms that have taken a hard-line on return-to-office as the exception. He believes many companies opposed to remote work will soon change their tunes.

“I think no company in today’s world can enforce a policy that is anti-talent,” says Choudhury. “It’s just not going to work. You’re going to feel the pain. You’re going to see some of your best people leave. And then there will be a course correction.” Even prestigious firms, like JPMorgan Chase, may ultimately not be able to leverage their clout to snag and keep talented staff.

Still, it doesn’t mean every organisation will budge, especially as workers have lost some of their power in a tightening job market. Hubris is powerful – and in some cases, it may prevail, even at the expense of employee desire and data-driven logic.