Microsoft, Google, and Amazon Welcomed Icelandic Delegation

microsoft icelandic

A delegation of Icelanders, including President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and Minister of Culture and Trade Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, met with representatives of tech giants Microsoft, Google, and Amazon in the US last week to discuss the incorporation of the Icelandic language into new technologies. In a television interview, Guðni stated that the meetings went well, with the corporations willing to increase collaboration with Icelandic language technology developers to ensure Icelandic could be used widely in the digital world.

Microsoft VP reads Icelandic noir novels

The Icelandic delegation met with Scott Guthrie, Executive Vice President of the Cloud and AI group in Microsoft. They expressed their thanks for Microsoft’s inclusion of the Icelandic language in their software, including Word, which is available in Icelandic. Guthrie revealed to the delegation that he is a big fan of Icelandic Nordic noir author Arnaldur Indriðason and has read most of his books.

Speaking to devices is the future

President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson stated that in the future, speaking to devices will be our main way of interacting with them: “and not just to ask our phone what time it is or what the capital of Costa Rica is, or something along those lines, rather this technology will be used in the healthcare sector, education, and so much more.”

Read More: Improving the Icelandic Language on Devices

The aim of the trip was to ensure that the technological developments that take place take the Icelandic language into account. The delegation was not on its knees, begging for that to happen, Guðni says, rather showed up armed with arguments and data about the importance of linguistic inclusion in the tech world. “We went to these technology giants with that in our suitcase and said: we’re going to work together,” Guðni stated. “We are going to invite you to cooperate and luckily we were well received everywhere.”

Read more about the newest developments in Icelandic language technology.

Report: Former US Ambassador to Iceland Threatened Staff

Staff of the US embassy in Reykjavík are still recovering from the “threatening and intimidating environment” created by former ambassador Jeffrey Ross Gunter, a US government report reveals. Gunter held the position from July 2019 until January 2021, when he announced his departure. The newly-released report stated that the embassy’s new Chargé d’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission are working to rebuild diplomatic relations with the government of Iceland, which deteriorated under Gunter’s leadership. Mbl.is reported first.

The report comes from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the US Department of State. It describes a difficult working environment during Gunter’s stay. Several months after his departure, “embassy staff were still recovering from what they described as a threatening and intimidating environment created by the former Ambassador. For example, staff reported to OIG multiple instances in which the former Ambassador had threatened to sue Department officials and embassy staff who expressed disagreement with him, questioned his wishes, or were perceived to be ‘disloyal’ to him. In addition, many employees reported to OIG that the former Ambassador threatened reprisal against employees who communicated with Department officials in Washington while conducting their official duties.”

Relationship with Icelandic government deteriorated

Gunter’s relationship with the government of Iceland deteriorated to the point that the Department of State decided to bypass him in communications with Icelandic officials. “The then-Undersecretary for Political Affairs instructed the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs (EUR) to work directly with the Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ensure proper management of the bilateral relationship. This action attempted to mitigate the negative impact of the former Ambassador’s frequent failure to respect diplomatic protocol or to coordinate with the Icelandic Government on policy initiatives and press statements touching on sensitive defense-related subjects,” the report states.

As mentioned in the document, Gunter’s social media posts generated controversy in Iceland throughout his tenure. The report also states that certain important procedures were neglected under Gunter’s leadership, including seismic safety assessments for 11 out of 15 of its leased residential units.

Lamb Has Become Highest-Grossing Icelandic Film in US

lamb dýrið noomi rapace 2

Icelandic film Lamb (Dýrið) earned over $1 million [€ 864,000; ISK 130 million] in ticket sales in the United States last weekend, according to Box Office Mojo and has grossed $1.13 million worldwide. It was the seventh most popular film in US theatres last weekend. These figures make the film the highest-grossing of any Icelandic film screened in the US.

Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson, Lamb is a supernatural drama that follows a childless couple, María and Ingvar, as they “discover a mysterious newborn on their farm in Iceland. The unexpected prospect of family life brings them much joy, before ultimately destroying them,” a plot summary of the film explains. Valdimar wrote the script alongside Icelandic author Sjón.

The film stars Hilmir Snær Guðnason alongside Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, who learned to deliver a lamb for the role. Lamb had its world premiere at the Cannes film festival earlier this year, where it won the Un Certain Regard prize, granted for originality. It is currently showing in Icelandic theatres.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOQ8QWk1icc&ab_channel=MovieTrailersSource

Blinken Grilled on Gaza and Russia at Reykjavík Press Conference

Antony Blinken US Secretary of State and Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson this morning in Reykjavík’s Harpa Conference Centre. The two held a press conference after the meeting, where reporters questioned Blinken on the ongoing violence in Gaza, US military presence in Iceland, and Russian activity in the Arctic. Secretary Blinken is in Iceland to attend the ministerial meeting of the Artic Council, which takes place tomorrow and Thursday.

Blinken arrived at Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre in downtown Reykjavík shortly after 10.00am this morning, where a group of protesters had gathered outside the building. Individuals held signs with slogans including “USA, stop arming apartheid!” and “Free Palestine” at the protest, which was organised by the Association Iceland-Palestine.

Félagið Ísland-Palestína.

Gratitude for Icelandic Defence Efforts

At the press conference following the meeting, both Guðlaugur Þór and Blinken underlined the longstanding friendship between Iceland and the United States. In Blinken’s words: “Iceland and the United States are allies and trusted partners. We have a friendship that stretches back to 1944, when we were proud to be the first country to recognize Iceland’s independence.” The Secretary commended Iceland on its leadership in gender equality and praised it as an “example to the world of what is possible in renewable energy.” He added that the United States were “grateful” for Iceland’s co-operation in defence issues, pointing out that the US-Iceland bilateral defence agreement marked its 70th anniversary earlier this month.

Grilled on Israel and Palestine

Reporters pressed Blinken on the ongoing violence in Palestine and Israel, which the two officials stated they had discussed during their meeting. Blinken referenced US President Joe Biden’s statement that “Israel, like every country, has the right to defend itself against attacks.” He added, however, that the US’ goal is “to bring the current cycle of violence to an end as quickly as possible.” Both Guðlaugur and Blinken articulated their nations’ support for a two-state solution in the region.

When asked how the US justified blocking a proposed UN statement that would condemn the violence in Gaza and call for a cease-fire, Blinked answered: “First, I think it’s important to note that we are engaged in quiet but very intense diplomacy in an effort to de-escalate and end the violence and then hopefully move on to build something more positive in its wake. That’s involved and continues to involve dozens of phone calls and engagements with Israelis and Palestinians [and other parties].” He insisted that by blocking the resolution the US was “not standing in the way of diplomacy” and questioned whether the statement would “actually advance the goal of ending the violence or moving to a better place.”

“Rotational” Military Presence in Iceland

An Icelandic reporter at the press conference inquired whether the US was considering establishing a more permanent military presence in Iceland and Greenland. Blinken stated the country planned “to continue to maintain the US presence on a persistent rotational basis,” adding that any changes to current operations “are closely co-ordinated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and all NATO allies.” He added that the upcoming NATO summit in June would be an opportunity “to think about and work on NATO’s future.” Both Blinken and Guðlaugur Þór emphasised that the purpose of the Iceland-US alliance was defensive.

Goal of Peaceful Co-operation in Arctic

Throughout the press conference, Blinken underlined the importance of maintaining peace in the Arctic as it becomes an increasingly “strategic” area. According to Blinken, the Arctic “must remain an area of peaceful co-operation.” Blinken stated that he was looking forward to meeting Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later in the week and discussing the Arctic, among other issues. He expressed concern at “increased military activities” in the region on the part of Russia, saying they undermined the goal of peaceful co-operation. “I think what we need to avoid is a militarisation of the region,” Blinken stated. Guðlaugur added that the Arctic “should be a low-tension area like it has been.”

Read More: Iceland and the Arctic

Blinken’s agenda for the rest of the day includes meetings with Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson. He will also visit Hellisheiði geothermal power station, where he will learn about the CarbFix carbon fixation project.

 

US Secretary of State Blinken Arrives in Iceland Tonight

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Antony Blinken, the United States Secretary of State, is scheduled to arrive in Iceland shortly after 7.00pm tonight, RÚV reports. Though Blinken will be meeting with Icelandic officials during his stay, he will also meet with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who arrives in the country on Wednesday. It is the first meeting of senior Russian and US officials since Joe Biden took office as the 46th President of the United States in January.

Blinken described the purpose of his current trip as “strengthening NATO partnering in the Arctic, confronting the climate crisis, and addressing other global challenges we face.” He is arriving to Iceland from Denmark, where he met with Danish officials as well as Faroese and Greenlandic ministers.

Arctic Council Meets in Harpa

Blinken and Lavrov will both attend the Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council later this week, which will take place in Reykjavík on Wednesday and Thursday at Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre. The meeting marks the end of Iceland’s two-year chairmanship of the council. Over a hundred staff members of the National Police Commissioner’s Office and police departments in Southwest Iceland will be on duty from the time Blinken lands until the meeting ends on Thursday evening. Blinken and Lavrov will both be accompanied by large escorts including armed security guards.

Read More: Iceland and the Arctic

Foreign Minister With Strong European Ties

Blinken has held senior positions in foreign policy in two administrations. He served as Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy National Security Advisor under Barack Obama between 2013-2017. He has personal ties to Europe: Blinken lived in Paris for many years and speaks fluent French. He has described Europe as a key diplomatic partner of the US. Global media will undoubtedly be following the meeting between Blinken and Lavrov closely as relations between Russia and the United States have been tense.

The two Foreign Ministers will meet individually with Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir this week. During question period in the Icelandic parliament today, Katrín stated she would discuss the ongoing conflict in Gaza with both Blinken and Lavrov and encourage both states to work internationally to achieve a peaceful solution.

US Tourists Return to “Safe” and Spacious Iceland

Reynisfjara - Vík - suðurland

There were few empty seats on Delta Airlines’ first scheduled flight to Iceland this year, which brought 130 – mostly vaccinated – passengers from New York to Keflavík yesterday morning. Iceland’s tourism leaders say the industry’s wheels are finally turning again. Travellers from the United States have been banned entry to Iceland throughout most of the pandemic, but as of April 6, those who are vaccinated or have COVID-19 antibodies have been permitted entry and do not have to quarantine upon arrival.

The Delta Airlines flight was the first scheduled flight from the United States in over a year, with the exception of Icelandair’s state-subsidized flights to Boston, RÚV reports. Delta is now operating daily flights between New York and Keflavík, and will begin flying from Boston and Minneapolis later this month. United Airlines will begin flying from New York in June and Chicago in July, while Air Canada plans to resume flights from Toronto in July. Icelandair currently has 11 US destinations on its roster for the coming months.

“Tourist Summer is Beginning”

“The wheels are somewhat starting to turn again,” stated Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, CEO of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association. “Now we see the impact of better and faster vaccination both here and in the countries around. And the interest from for example US travellers who have been vaccinated or have already had COVID-19 is significant. So I hope that now these are sort of the signs that the tourist summer is beginning.”

Jóhannes believes travellers from the US and UK will be the first to arrive, while those from mainland Europe, where vaccination has been proceeding slower, will come to Iceland later. Icelandair CEO Bogi Nils Bogason also stated the airline had seen an uptick in bookings from the US, with Europe and Canada lagging behind. “This is still a very challenging environment for airlines around the world and tourism companies, but very positive that things are somewhat starting up again,” Bogi stated.

Iceland a Safe Destination, Say Tourists

Strati Hvartos, a photographer from Los Angeles, was one of the passengers of Delta’s flight from New York yesterday. He arrived with his girlfriend Caroline Fiorito, and they plan to spend two weeks in Iceland. “I think we chose Iceland cause it seemed like the best place to go right now, after COVID,” Strati told Vísir reporters. “It seemed like one of the safer places to go, and also one of the least amount of tourists right now.”

Icelandic Company Tracks Pfizer Vaccine’s Global Distribution

The global distribution of Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine will be monitored and tracked by Icelandic company Controlant, the company announced in a press release yesterday. Controlant’s technology will track vaccine shipments in real time, while capturing environmental information such as temperature, allowing stakeholders to monitor and manage shipments more closely and reducing product loss, tampering or spoilage. The Icelandic company is also working directly with the US Government on their vaccination initiative Operation Warp Speed.

“Controlant IoT devices, packed with the vaccines, capture environmental information, including time, temperature, and light events, and send the information, in real-time, to Controlant’s proprietary cloud-enabled software and analytics platform, where designated stakeholders can view and receive alerts and react to live temperature and location data on demand,” the press release from the company reads. Controlant currently monitors shipments of pharmaceuticals & life sciences and food & beverage products to over 115 countries worldwide.

Working Directly With US Government

In addition to the visibility and monitoring solutions that Controlant is providing to Pfizer for mRNA-based Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine distribution supply chain, the company is also working directly with the U.S. Government and health officials, such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and stakeholders in Operation Warp Speed, to provide on-site monitoring at U.S. Government-preferred designated vaccination locations to help seamlessly ensure continuity during hand-off, actionable communication, and visibility, throughout the entirety of the U.S. supply chain journey of the vaccines.

“Controlant has amassed a depth of expertise in vaccine supply chain operations and we are happy to have the opportunity to apply our solutions to the entirety of the mRNA-based Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine supply chain, through our direct work with Pfizer and government stakeholders,” said Gísli Herjólfsson, Co-founder and CEO of Controlant. “We have built and continue to build products and services to prepare for and meet the changing demands of the pharmaceutical and life sciences industries, including real-time and automated solutions, while helping brands, manufacturers, and logistics providers in these market segments ensure and maintain regulatory compliance and product integrity.”

Controlant received the Icelandic Government’s Innovation Award earlier this year.

US Fund Invests ISK 5.6 Billion in Icelandair

Icelandair plane Keflavík

American hedge fund PAR Capital Management has bought an 11% stake in Icelandair Group, reports GlobeNewswire. The stake corresponds to an investment of ISK 5.6 billion ($47m/€42m). Icelandair has operated at a significant loss in recent quarters, but the recent bankruptcy of WOW air could present an opportunity for the airline to improve its financial situation.

The additional capital is expected to solidify Icelandair’s financial situation and better prepare it for growth in the near future. “PAR Capital Management is a great addition to our strong group of shareholders,” stated Bogi Nils Bogason, President and CEO of Icelandair Group. “We believe that a partnership with PAR Capital Management will bring substantial value to Icelandair Group. It is moreover pleasant to have this seasoned international investor share our belief in the prospects of the Company.”

Based in Boston, Massachusetts, PAR manages a US$4 billion (ISK 478 billion) private investment partnership. The firm has invested primarily in the digital media and travel industries since its founding in 1990.

Tourists Decreased by 6.9% in February

Keflavík Airport

Departures of foreign tourists from Keflavík Airport decreased by some 11,000 individuals, or 6.9% in February 2019 compared to the same month last year. The data comes from a joint press release from the Icelandic Tourist Board and Isavia.

UK and US citizens were the most numerous groupsof foreign visitors last month, representing 45.3% of all departures. Travellers of both nationalities have decreased, however. Some 9% fewer UK citizens and 19% fewer US citizens visited Iceland in February 2019 than February 2018.

Some 288,000 foreign travellers have departed from Keflavík Airport since January 1 of this year, a decrease of 6.4% compared to the same period last year.

Trump Appoints US Ambassador to Iceland

United States President Donald Trump has appointed Jeffrey Ross Gunter as ambassador to Iceland, RÚV reports. The post has been unoccupied for one and a half years since the departure of Robert Barber.

Gunter is a doctor and speaks Spanish, French, and Dutch in addition to English. He has been a strong supporter of Donald Trump, contributing financial donations to his election campaign. Gunter is also on the Board of Directors of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

The United States Senate has yet to approve the appointment. A new home for the embassy is currently under construction in Reykjavík, complete with bullet-proof glass and thick security walls around the property. The building is projected to cost ISK 6.7 billion ($62m/€55m).