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Mecca's plan to steal Time

Forget the clash of civilizations -- the next grand battle between East and West will be over Time itself. The world's largest clock is currently under construction in the Islamic holy city of Mecca, with the goal of moving Greenwich Mean Time to the Saudi Arabian city. The clock will tick off its first seconds tomorrow, one day after the beginning of Ramadan.

The clock itself bears a resemblance to Big Ben -- if Ben was on steroids. Its four faces, each 151 feet in diameter, will be lit with two million LED lights. It will sit on top of a tower that stretches 1,983 feet in the air. By comparison, Big Ben's faces are merely 23 feet in diameter, and its tower is only 316 feet tall. The tower also has some Islamic touches that are all its own: Arabic script reading "In the Name of Allah" runs below the clock faces, and white and green lights will flash during at the top of the clock will flash to signal the five daily times for prayer in Islam.

Greenwich has performed its job as international timekeeper admirably since 1884, so many people are going to be hard-pressed to think of a reason to change the Prime Meridian now. But at least one nation is starting to think that it's time for a change.

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America's South Sudan conundrum

It could be an essay assignment for introduction to diplomacy: What do you do if you are the U.S. government and you know that South Sudan is going to secede from Sudan proper in a January 2011 referendum? Much harder than it initially sounds -- because here's the catch: Even though you know what the result of the referendum vote will be, you can't do anything that would seem to be biasing the outcome.

Except this is no poli-sci class. This is actually what's happening. South Sudan is utterly unprepared for independence. It government lacks institutions; its civil servants lack training; and its policing capabilities are essentially just those left over from the region's decades long war against the North. In other words, it relies on soldiers of various levels of training. It has no public service structure, and the region is plagued by internal disputes between various ethnicities and economic interests. Many Sudan watchers are already labeling it a "pre-failed state." 

What's the contingency plan? The United States has its hands pretty much tied. To boost South Sudan's governing ability would be tantamount to proclaiming their independence vote in the upcoming referendum. Big no no in diplo-speak. Doing nothing nearly insures that the new entity will be unprepared for its new statehood.

If I were sitting in Foggy Bottom right now, I'd want to start thinking about how to put the pieces back together after everything breaks.

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