The $1bn hostage deal with Al Qaeda and Iran that enraged Qatar’s Gulf rivals

Financial Times reports: Qatar paid up to $1bn to release members of the Gulf state’s royal family who were kidnapped in Iraq while on a hunting trip, according to people involved in the hostage deal — one of the triggers behind Gulf states’ dramatic decision to cut ties with Doha.

Commanders of militant groups and government officials in the region told the Financial Times that Doha spent the money in a transaction that secured the release of 26 members of a Qatari falconry party in southern Iraq and about 50 militants captured by jihadis in Syria. By their telling, Qatar paid off two of the most frequently blacklisted forces of the Middle East in one fell swoop: an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria and Iranian security officials.

The deal, which was concluded in April, heightened concerns among Qatar’s neighbours about the small gas-rich state’s role in a region plagued by conflict and bitter rivalries. And on Monday, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain took the extraordinary step of cutting off diplomatic ties and transport links to Qatar, alleging the country fuels extremism and terrorism.

“The ransom payments are the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said one Gulf observer.

Doha denies it backs terrorist groups and dismissed the blockade by its neighbours as “founded on allegations that have no basis in fact”. It said it could not immediately respond to a request for comment on the hostage deal. But a person close to the Qatari government acknowledged that “payments” were made. The person was unaware of the amounts or where the money went. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi, Egypt lead Arab states cutting Qatar ties, Iran blames Trump

Reuters reports: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed their ties with Qatar on Monday, accusing it of supporting terrorism and opening up the worst rift in years among some of the most powerful states in the Arab world.

Iran — long at odds with Saudi Arabia and a behind-the-scenes target of the move — immediately blamed U.S. President Donald Trump for setting the stage during his recent trip to Riyadh.

Gulf Arab states and Egypt have already long resented Qatar’s support for Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood which they regard as a dangerous political enemy.

The coordinated move, with Yemen and Libya’s eastern-based government joining in later, created a dramatic rift among the Arab nations, many of which are in OPEC.

Announcing the closure of transport ties with Qatar, the three Gulf states gave Qatari visitors and residents two weeks to leave. Qatar was also expelled from the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen.

Oil giant Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of backing militant groups — some backed by regional arch-rival Iran — and broadcasting their ideology, an apparent reference to Qatar’s influential state-owned satellite channel al Jazeera.

“(Qatar) embraces multiple terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at disturbing stability in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS (Islamic State) and al-Qaeda, and promotes the message and schemes of these groups through their media constantly,” Saudi state news agency SPA said.

It accused Qatar of supporting what it described as Iranian-backed militants in its restive and largely Shi’ite Muslim-populated Eastern region of Qatif and in Bahrain.

Qatar said it was facing a campaign aimed at weakening it, denying it was interfering in the affairs of other countries.

“The campaign of incitement is based on lies that had reached the level of complete fabrications,” the Qatari foreign ministry said in a statement.

“What is happening is the preliminary result of the sword dance,” Hamid Aboutalebi, deputy chief of staff of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, tweeted in a reference to Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia. [Continue reading…]

On May 24, BBC News reported: Qatar has blamed hackers for a story on its state news agency website that quoted the emir as criticising US “hostility” towards Iran.

On Tuesday, the Qatar News Agency (QNA) quoted Sheikh Tamim Al Thani as telling a military ceremony that Iran was an “Islamic power that cannot be ignored”.

The government said the agency had been hacked by an “unknown entity” and that the story had “no basis whatsoever”.

However, the quotes were reported across the region and caused a stir.

Saudi Arabia’s Okaz newspaper accused Qatar of “breaking ranks” and choosing to “side with the enemies of the nation”, while the website of the Doha-based Al Jazeera network was blocked in the United Arab Emirates.

Ties between Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbours have been strained in recent years by the emirate’s support of Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and its funding of Al Jazeera, which they see as being overly critical.

The report on the QNA’s website said Sheikh Tamim had told the military ceremony that Qatar had “tensions” with the administration of US President Donald Trump, who on Sunday urged Arab and Muslim leaders to “work together to isolate Iran”.

The emir was quoted as saying that there was “no wisdom in harbouring hostility toward Iran” and that it was a “big power in the stabilisation of the region”.

Deleted tweets from the Qatar News Agency saying quoting Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani as saying a plot to
He was also reported to have described relations with Israel as “good” and called Hamas the “legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”.

State television’s nightly news bulletin showed pictures of the ceremony and included lines from the QNA report in the ticker at the bottom of the screen.

On Wednesday, Government Communications Office director said the QNA website “has been hacked by an unknown entity” and “a false statement attributed to His Highness the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has been published”. [Continue reading…]

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Trump is fomenting even more conflict in the Middle East

The Washington Post reports: In a speech intended to galvanize Arab and Muslim leaders against threats from extremists and Iran, President Trump demanded unity from his audience in Saudi Arabia, and focus.

“One goal transcends every other consideration,” he said to the assembled leaders in the Saudi capital, in an address that shifted between stark realism and startling optimism. “We pray this special gathering may someday be remembered as the beginning of peace in the Middle East,” he said.

But instead of peace, the Middle East was battered by a wave of conflict in the days that followed, awash with recriminations and repression that suggested that, far from uniting the region, Trump’s words had only aggravated its divides.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia launched a bizarre and unexpected war of words that highlighted their longtime competition for regional influence and their often sharply contrasting visions.

As that dispute raged last week, the leaders of Bahrain and Egypt embarked on unusually vicious crackdowns on political opponents at home, killing five people and arresting hundreds.

And leaders in Iran, Saudi Arabia’s principal rival, where voters earlier this month reelected a reformist president, went on the offensive, condemning Trump’s announcement of billions of dollars in weapons sales to the Saudis while revealing the existence of an underground ballistic missile facility.

Analysts said the tensions were almost surely a consequence of Trump’s visit to Riyadh: a forceful American endorsement of Saudi leadership in the Arab world, punctuated by the weapons sales, which had stirred panic and anxiety among the kingdom’s competitors and enemies while emboldening its loyal and authoritarian allies. [Continue reading…]

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After Trump gives green light, Bahrain launches deadly crackdown on political opponents

The Washington Post reports: A raid by forces in Bahrain against a pro-opposition stronghold has left at least five people dead and hundreds detained in one of the deadliest crackdowns since protests erupted in 2011 against the Persian Gulf nation’s Western-backed monarchy.

Bahrain’s Interior Ministry said it had carried out the raid on Tuesday in the village of Duraz and officers had come under attack, including from assailants wielding explosives, the state news agency said.

Opposition activists said that the police had targeted a peaceful sit-in outside the home of Bahrain’s leading Shiite cleric and that the dead included an environmental activist.

Protests and clashes have flared for years in the tiny but strategic island nation between the Sunni-led monarchy and Bahrain’s large Shiite population, which claims it suffers discrimination and other abuses. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

In addition to the death toll in Tuesday’s raid, the timing was striking, coming two days after President Trump publicly assured the king of Bahrain that their relationship would be free of the kind of “strain” that had occurred in the past — an apparent reference to periodic chiding of Bahrain by the Obama administration for human rights violations.

“Our countries have a wonderful relationship together, but there has been a little strain, but there won’t be strain with this administration,” Trump said during a photo session with the king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, at a conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, according to the Reuters news agency. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab Spring unleashed a wave of torture and abuse

 

Nader Hashemi writes: Assad’s chemical weapons attack and the subsequent U.S. missile strike on Syria jolted our world. Most of the commentary that ensued, however, was about the West.

What are the implications for U.S-Russian relations?

Is there a strategic vision behind Trump’s new Syria policy?

What can we learn about White House palace intrigue in terms of who has the president’s ear?

What was completely ignored was a connection between these attacks and the broader politics of the Middle East.

Assad’s sarin gas attack was not a sui generis event that took place in a vacuum. It is directly related to longstanding trends that help explain the region’s turmoil. Two themes stand out: 1) the extreme measures that authoritarian regimes will adopt to retain power, and 2) the severe human rights crisis facing the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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Trump chases arms sales – whatever the human cost

The Guardian reports: The Trump administration’s decision to press ahead with a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Bahrain will dismay Shia opposition groups and international human rights campaigners critical of the Sunni-led state’s authoritarian regime.

However, the sale of 19 advanced Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets fits an emerging pattern since Donald Trump took office in January, indicating a new US willingness to pump hi-tech weaponry into global trouble spots and fuel lucrative but destabilising regional arms races.

Barack Obama declined to approve the Bahrain deal last year amid concern over the latest crackdown on opposition leaders since the Shia uprising in 2011. Obama said Bahrain had failed to fulfil promises to improve its record, a verdict confirmed in Human Rights Watch’s latest report.

Trump’s decision reflects his priority of strengthening ties with the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf in the fight against Islamic State, and in their ongoing confrontation with Iran’s Shia theocracy.

Bahrain, which claims it faces Iranian-inspired subversion, is the home port of the US fifth fleet. Britain is building a naval base there, and has maintained arms export sales worth £45m since 2011.

In another move overriding human rights concerns, Trump is also expected to give the go-ahead soon for an expanded new arms package for Saudi Arabia. The sale, of $300m (£240m) of precision-guided munitions, was also blocked by Obama over fears the weapons would be used in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. [Continue reading…]

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Rex Tillerson to lift human rights conditions on arms sale to Bahrain

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has decided to lift all human rights conditions on a major sale of F-16 fighter jets and other arms to Bahrain in an effort to end a rift between the United States and a critical Middle East ally, according to administration and congressional officials involved in the debate.

Mr. Tillerson’s decision comes as the Trump administration looks to bolster Sunni Arab states in the Middle East and find new ways to confront Iran in the Persian Gulf. Bahrain is a key player in that effort, and home to the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols the strategic waterway.

But the decision to drop the human rights assurances as a condition of the sale is bound to be read by Saudi Arabia and other states in the region as a sign that the new administration plans to ease its demands to protect and respect political dissidents and protesters. The conditions on the sale of 19 new American fighter jets, worth $2.8 billion, had been imposed by the Obama administration amid continuing concerns about the tiny Sunni monarchy’s crackdown against majority Shiites. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab Spring is far from over

Koert Debeuf writes: What were once high hopes for a new, free and democratic Arab World have turned into civil wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. Instead of democracies, countries like Egypt, Bahrain and even Morocco have become even more repressive dictatorships.

In Egypt alone, no less than 40,000 people have been detained since President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in July 2013. All independent television stations have been closed and critical journalists arrested. Most NGOs have been shut down or can simply no longer function. And then there is the Islamic State, the most barbaric outcome of the chaos that followed the 2011 uprisings.

These may seem like more than enough reasons to call the Arab Spring an utter failure. But, in truth, it depends on how carefully you look at what is happening. On the surface, the political upheavals look like failed revolts against dictatorships. But dig a bit deeper into the societies of these Arab countries and there are reasons to believe what we see is not a simple revolt, but an epochal revolution.

If that is true, today’s depressing situation is not the end; it’s just one of the stages the region is going through on its way to a better future. That, at least, is one of the lessons we could learn from history.

Take the French Revolution. The storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, didn’t come out of nowhere. In the 18th century, the population of France had grown by 50 percent. The large young generation couldn’t find jobs because the economic system was stuck. The people were getting poorer, while the grandees who populated the court in Versailles were excessively rich. There was no freedom of religion, and the Church was amassing power and wealth. The French Revolution didn’t stop when Napoleon took power in 1799. It took 80 years and 12 constitutions before France became a stable democracy in 1870. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. decision to lift an arms embargo has empowered Bahrain to intensify its political repressions

Nabeel Rajab writes: I write this from a Bahraini jail cell where I have been detained, largely in isolation, since the beginning of summer. This is not new to me: I have been here before, from 2012 to 2014, in 2015, and now again, all because of my work as a human rights defender.

Nor am I alone: There are some 4,000 political prisoners in Bahrain, which has the highest prison population per capita in the Middle East. This is a country that has subjected its people to imprisonment, torture and even death for daring to desire democracy. My close colleague Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was tortured and sentenced to life in prison in 2011 for his human rights work.

No one has been properly held to account for systematic abuses that have affected thousands. In 2015, I was arrested on new charges of “insulting a statutory body” and “spreading rumors during a time of war” for posts on Twitter. The police held me from April to July last year. I was released only after the king of Bahrain issued a pardon in an earlier case, also related to views I had expressed.

Despite the pardon, the 2015 charges and a travel ban remained in place, and I was threatened with further action. The head of the cybercrimes unit at the Criminal Investigation Directorate in Bahrain summoned me and my family to a meeting, where — in front of my children — he warned me that if I didn’t stop my advocacy work, I would face up to 15 years in prison. [Continue reading…]

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How Arab authoritarian regimes learned to defeat popular protests

Marc Lynch writes: The Arab world never seemed more unified than during the incandescent days of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Tunisia’s revolution clearly and powerfully inspired Arabs everywhere to take to the streets. Egypt’s Jan. 25 uprising, which resulted in the removal of Hosni Mubarak, taught Arab citizens and leaders alike that victory by protesters could succeed.

The subsequent wave of protests involved remarkable synergies that could not plausibly be explained without reference to transnational diffusion. Bahrainis, Yemenis and Jordanians alike attempted to replicate the seizure and long-term encampments in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, and protesters across the Arab world chanted the same slogans and waved the same signs.

But what happened in the months and years after those heady days? Did similar processes of diffusion and cross-national learning shape the post-uprisings era? Did autocratic regimes learn from one another in the same way that protesters did? In June, more than a dozen scholars came together in Hamburg, Germany, for a workshop jointly organized by the Project on Middle East Political Science and the German Institute of Global and Area Studies. The workshop closely examined learning, diffusion and demonstration across autocratic regimes during the Arab counter-revolution. The papers for that workshop, available here as an open access PDF download, closely examine the ways in which Arab autocrats did — and did not — learn from one another. [Continue reading…]

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Cavorting with extremism: UK cracks down at home, befriends extremists abroad

By Brian Whitaker, May 18, 2016

Today Queen Elizabeth will deliver her annual speech to the British parliament setting out the government’s programme for the next 12 months. High on the list of proposals is a renewed effort to combat “extremism”, and one idea is to establish a register of “extremists” – similar to the register of sex offenders – intended “to stop radicals infiltrating schools, colleges, charities and care homes, where they could brainwash vulnerable young people or disabled adults into violence”.

The problem with this, as with the rest of the government’s “counter-extremism” policy, is how to define “extremism”. In a recent article for The Independent, Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael explained:

“The [government’s] current definition of extremism as ‘the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’ is drafted so widely that it will not only catch terrorist sympathisers but perhaps even those who oppose the government, believe the monarchy should be abolished or disagree with same-sex marriage.”

But the problem goes deeper than that. Last Sunday a spectacular event featuring TV celebrities and 900 horses was held at Windsor Castle to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday. The royal family were in attendance and, seated at the Queen’s right-hand side was a man who by any reasonable interpretation of the government’s definition would be considered an extremist: the king of Bahrain.

[Read more…]

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Britain lobbied UN to whitewash Bahrain police abuses

The Observer reports: neutering United Nations criticism of Bahrain for its human rights record, including the alleged use of torture by its security forces.

Documents shared with the Observer reveal that the UN’s criticism of the Gulf state was substantially watered down after lobbying by the UK and Saudi Arabia, a major purchaser of British-made weapons and military hardware.

The result was a victory for Bahrain and for Saudi Arabia, which sent its troops to quell dissent in the tiny kingdom during the Arab spring.

But the UK’s role has prompted concern among human rights groups. According to the international human rights organisation, Reprieve, two political prisoners in Bahrain are facing imminent execution and several more are on trial, largely due to confessions obtained through torture. [Continue reading…]

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Gulf states guarding their interests in Saudi-Iran rift

iran-saudi

The New York Times reports: For all the diplomatic dominoes that have fallen across the Middle East in recent days, with ambassadors from different countries flying home as a result of the explosive rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the map of allegiances has not significantly altered.

Certainly, several countries offered muscular shows of solidarity to Saudi Arabia after an Iranian mob attacked its embassy in Tehran over the weekend, prompting a crisis that has put the United States in a bind and has threatened to set back the prospects for a resolution to the conflict in Syria.

By Tuesday, Kuwait had recalled its ambassador to Iran, the United Arab Emirates had downgraded its diplomatic relationship, and Bahrain and Sudan had joined Saudi Arabia in severing its relationship with Tehran entirely.

Yet many other Sunni Muslim countries signaled that they intended to take a more measured approach to the argument — sympathizing with Saudi Arabia, a rich and powerful ally, but also determined to avoid getting sucked into a harmful conflict with Iran, a country governed by Shiite clerics, with potentially grave costs.

“The smaller Gulf states are worried they will get caught in the middle,” said Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “It worries them greatly that things could go badly.”

Some countries, like Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan, are already battling their own domestic insurgencies. Others are keen to guard their strategic interests or to keep the door open to trade with Iran while there is a prospect of American sanctions being lifted.

Qatar, which shares with Iran access to the world’s largest natural gas field in the Persian Gulf, has yet to declare its hand. Oman has also been quiet, sticking to its longstanding position of neutrality on Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In Turkey, where senior officials have warned about the impact of the crisis on a “powder keg” region, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu offered his country’s services to help resolve the conflict peacefully. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-led air war on ISIS in Syria has little allied support

The New York Times reports: As the United States prepares to intensify airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, the Arab allies who with great fanfare sent warplanes on the initial missions there a year ago have largely vanished from the campaign.

The Obama administration heralded the Arab air forces flying side by side with American fighter jets in the campaign’s early days as an important show of solidarity against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh. Top commanders like Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who oversees operations in Syria and Iraq, still laud the Arab countries’ contributions to the fight. But as the United States enters a critical phase of the war in Syria, ordering Special Operations troops to support rebel forces and sending two dozen attack planes to Turkey, the air campaign has evolved into a largely American effort.

Administration officials had sought to avoid the appearance of another American-dominated war, even as most leaders in the Persian Gulf seem more preoccupied with supporting rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Now, some of those officials note with resignation, the Arab partners have quietly left the United States to run the bulk of the air war in Syria — not the first time Washington has found allies wanting.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have shifted most of their aircraft to their fight against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Jordan, reacting to the grisly execution of one of its pilots by the Islamic State, and in a show of solidarity with the Saudis, has also diverted combat flights to Yemen. Jets from Bahrain last struck targets in Syria in February, coalition officials said. Qatar is flying patrols over Syria, but its role has been modest. [Continue reading…]

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Why are the Gulf states so reluctant to take in refugees?

By Rana Jawad, University of Bath

Europe’s reaction to the refugee crisis has hardly been a calm and considered one; with fences erected and border controls reinstated, the continent’s governments are struggling to agree on a response.

But at least Europe’s governments are acting. In the Middle East, things are rather different. In particular, the Arab Gulf States are catching serious flack for their response to the crisis – or rather, their failure to respond.

One big question is reverberating in the minds of the general public, expert observers and policy-makers; why have the Gulf states, who are among the richest countries in the world, not taken in any Syrian refugees? There’s no need to rewrite the commentary that’s already out there: many articles have provided useful statistics and background information on the international conventions and treaties the Persian Gulf countries are signed up to, and their failure to honour them.

What all this misses, though, is the general lack of social justice and a social welfare ethos in the Persian Gulf and Middle East in general. This is a complex story about the mindset of a region in disunity and disarray.

[Read more…]

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Coalition attacks Yemen capital after UAE, Saudi soldiers killed

Reuters reports: Warplanes from the United Arab Emirates struck Houthi targets across Yemen, state news agency WAM said on Saturday, a day after at least 60 soldiers from a Saudi-led coalition, mostly Emiratis, were killed in an attack in central Yemen.

Medical sources at hospitals in the capital Sanaa, which has been under effective control of the Iranian-allied Houthi militia for almost a year, said about 24 civilians were killed in the city as a result of the attacks.

WAM said the UAE air force struck a mine-making plant in the Houthi-dominated Saada province in northern Yemen, as well as military camps and weapon stores in the central Ibb province, causing “heavy damage”.

Apart from 45 Emiratis and five Bahrainis, Saudi state-run Al Ekhbariya TV reported on Saturday that 10 Saudi soldiers were also killed in the attack in Marib province on Friday, quoting Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Asiri, the coalition spokesman.

Asiri told Al Arabiya TV that four Yemeni soldiers were also killed in the attack on the coalition base in Marib.

Friday’s death toll was the highest for the coalition since it began its assault on the Houthis in March, and is one of the worst losses of life in the history of the UAE military. [Continue reading…]

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