Following Russia’s intervention in Syria, will Saudi Arabia supply rebels with the kinds of weapons they’ve long been denied?

The Guardian reports: Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already embroiled in an expensive and bloody war in Yemen that may limit both their military and financial resources. They have also so far deferred to western bans on transferring hi-tech weapons – including missiles that could take down aircraft – over fears that they might change hands in the chaos of the war and be used against their makers.

“The uncertain question today is the degree of power combined with efficiency that regional powers will be willing to bring to the table,” said [Julien] Barnes-Dacey [senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations]. “Do the Saudis now try to take matters decisively into their hands, including by providing rebels with sophisticated weaponry long denied them?

“The new [Saudi] king [Salman] has shown a willingness to be much more assertive and take measures into the kingdom’s own hands. If the Saudis see the situation slipping out of their hands, and there is a real sense that the Iranians are consolidating their position in Syria, you could see much stronger response.”

That is unlikely to go as far as troops on the ground, however, and not only because so many assets are already tied up in Yemen.

“A Saudi military role would be too much of an escalation,” said analyst Hassan Hassan, author of Isis: Inside the Army of Terror. “It’s seen as far from Syria, not seen as a direct security threat. With Yemen, people have accepted [Saudi] hegemony for years, unlike Syria, where Iran is seen as dominant.

“The best way to respond to the Russian intervention is to engage the rebels more and step up support so they can face down the escalation and create a balance on the ground,” he said. “The Russians will [then] realise there are limits to what they can achieve in Syria, and modify their approach.” But the wider regional struggle for influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran makes it almost impossible for Riyadh to walk away, whatever the cost. [Continue reading…]


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…]


Saudi-led offensive in Yemen faces dangerous new phase

Iona Craig writes: When young garage mechanic Aidaroos Saleh heard the familiar ping of his smartphone, he could never have imagined the journey on which the incoming message would take him. In a matter of weeks, Saleh, 22, went from fixing cars in his adopted country of Saudi Arabia to the battle front of his southern Yemen homeland.

The message was an official communication, a call to arms for Yemenis in Saudi Arabia to join a fighting force that would “defend Aden” — the southern Yemeni city that descended into civil war in mid-March. Four months after he responded to the message in April, the young fighter sat cradling an AK-47 assault rifle between his knees in the scorching heat of Aden.

“They promised us salaries and medical care abroad if we got injured in Yemen,” he said, wearing glasses, sandals and a mawaz, which is like a sarong. He and his cohort received neither.

Those who joined up were sent to the Saudi border town of Sharurah — in the Empty Quarter, the world’s largest sand desert — where they should have received military training to prepare them for deployment in Aden.

This desert camp of some 6,000 Yemeni volunteers was the origin of the kingdom’s Operation Golden Arrow, a ground offensive launched in Yemen in July that now looks set to move in on the capital, Sanaa. This latest phase of operations in Yemen follows consecutive aerial campaigns carried out since March as part of the Saudi-led coalition of nations bid to restore Yemen’s President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi after he fled to Riyadh earlier this year.

But in order to bring Hadi back, the coalition has first set itself the task of removing the Houthis and military units loyal to his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who seized control of the capital almost a year ago. [Continue reading…]


Qatar deploys 1,000 ground troops to fight in Yemen

Al Jazeera reports: Around 1,000 soldiers from Qatar’s Armed Forces have been deployed to Yemen, as part of the Arab coalition’s fight against Houthi rebels, Al Jazeera has learned.

An Al Jazeera journalist, reporting from the Saudi-Yemen border, said the troops were backed by more than 200 armoured vehicles and 30 Apache combat helicopters.

The troops are now reportedly heading to Yemen’s Maareb province, to join the Saudi-led coalition already fighting in the area.

Al Jazeera has also learned that more Qatari forces are expected, with the aim of securing the Jawf governorate. [Continue reading…]


The Arab world’s wealthiest nations are doing next to nothing for Syria’s refugees

Ishaan Tharoor writes: To varying degrees, elements within Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the U.A.E. and Kuwait have invested in the Syrian conflict, playing a conspicuous role in funding and arming a constellation of rebel and Islamist factions fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

None of these countries are signatories of the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines what a refugee is and lays out their rights, as well as the obligations of states to safeguard them. For a Syrian to enter these countries, they would have to apply for a visa, which, in the current circumstances, is rarely granted. According to the BBC, the only Arab countries where a Syrian can travel without a visa are Algeria, Mauritania, Sudan and Yemen — hardly choice or practical destinations.

Like European countries, Saudi Arabia and its neighbors also have fears over new arrivals taking jobs from citizens, and may also invoke concerns about security and terrorism. But the current gulf aid outlay for Syrian refugees, which amounts to collective donations under $1 billion (the United States has given four times that sum), seems short — and is made all the more galling when you consider the vast sums Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. poured into this year’s war effort in Yemen, an intervention some consider a strategic blunder.

As Bobby Ghosh, managing editor of the news site Quartz, points out, the gulf states in theory have a far greater ability to deal with large numbers of arrivals than Syria’s more immediate and poorer neighbors, Lebanon and Jordan:

The region has the capacity to quickly build housing for the refugees. The giant construction companies that have built the gleaming towers of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh should be contracted to create shelters for the influx. Saudi Arabia has plenty of expertise at managing large numbers of arrivals: It receives an annual surge of millions of Hajj pilgrims to Mecca. There’s no reason all this knowhow can’t be put to humanitarian use.

No reason other than either indifference or a total lack of political will. [Continue reading…]


Hamas caught between Tehran and Riyadh

Ali Hashem writes: A senior Hamas official who spoke to Al-Monitor in Beirut on condition of anonymity said, “We’ve never taken sides, but we have our say on what’s happening. Iran is a friend. It was once a very close friend, and we don’t forget that. But today there are efforts to normalize ties once again. This is facing some hurdles from both sides.”

The official, who visits Iran often, told Al-Monitor, “There were plans for Khaled Meshaal to visit Tehran, [but] on several occasions the visits were canceled because of the uncertainty on our side that it would go as planned.”

Meshaal, head of Hamas’ political bureau, is concerned he won’t be allowed to meet the supreme leader of Iran, Al-Monitor learned, as a trip to Tehran would be useless without a meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. [Continue reading…]


To U.S. allies, Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria becomes the lesser evil

The Wall Street Journal reports: In the three-way war ravaging Syria, should the local al Qaeda branch be seen as the lesser evil to be wooed rather than bombed?

This is increasingly the view of some of America’s regional allies and even some Western officials. In a war now in its fifth year, in which 230,000 people have been killed and another 7.6 million uprooted, few good options remain for how to tackle the crisis.

The three main forces left on the ground today are the Assad regime, Islamic State and an Islamist rebel alliance in which the Nusra Front — an al Qaeda affiliate designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and the United Nations — plays a major role.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the more secular, Western-backed rebels have found themselves fighting shoulder to shoulder with Nusra in key battlefields. As the Assad regime wobbles and Islamic State, or ISIS, gains ground in both Syria and Iraq, reaching out to the more pragmatic Nusra is the only rational choice left for the international community, supporters of this approach argue. [Continue reading…]


The human toll of FIFA’s corruption

The Washington Post reports: In the end, it only took a $150 million scandal to make Americans care about soccer.

FIFA, the notoriously corrupt and yet seemingly invincible governing body of world soccer, has finally landed itself an indictment that some would say is worthy of its reputation. The charges against a handful of senior FIFA officials include money laundering, racketeering, bribery and fraud. In short, the federal lawsuit alleges what millions of soccer fans have suspected all along: that FIFA officials have been using the organization’s massive influence to line their pocketbooks.

On the surface, it’s just another white collar crime story: rich, powerful men making themselves richer and more powerful. But a closer look suggests that there is a lot of real-world suffering happening as a direct result of FIFA’s decisions. [Continue reading…]


Qatar refuses to let Nepalese workers return to attend funerals after quake

The Observer reports: Nepalese workers building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar have been denied leave to attend funerals or visit relatives following the earthquakes in the Himalayan country that have killed more than 8,000 people, its government has revealed.

The government in Kathmandu has also for the first time publicly criticised Fifa, world football’s governing body, and its commercial partners. It insists that they must put more pressure on Qatar to improve conditions for the 1.5 million migrants employed in the Gulf state as part of the World Cup construction boom.

About 400,000 of the workers on the project are from Nepal, with the rest mainly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Tek Bahadur Gurung, Nepal’s labour minister, said: “After the earthquake of 25 April, we requested all companies in Qatar to give their Nepalese workers special leave and pay for their air fare home. While workers in some sectors of the economy have been given this, those on World Cup construction sites are not being allowed to leave because of the pressure to complete projects on time. [Continue reading…]


Arrested for reporting on Qatar’s World Cup labourers

Mark Lobel reports for BBC News: We were invited to Qatar by the prime minister’s office to see new flagship accommodation for low-paid migrant workers in early May – but while gathering additional material for our report, we ended up being thrown into prison for doing our jobs.

Our arrest was dramatic.

We were on a quiet stretch of road in the capital, Doha, on our way to film a group of workers from Nepal.

The working and housing conditions of migrant workers constructing new buildings in Qatar ahead of the World Cup have been heavily criticised and we wanted to see them for ourselves.

Suddenly, eight white cars surrounded our vehicle and directed us on to a side road at speed. [Continue reading…]


Saudi Arabia, Turkey discussing unlikely alliance to oust Syria’s Assad

Huffington Post reports: Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two nations with a long history of rivalry, are in high-level talks with the goal of forming a military alliance to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

The talks are being brokered by Qatar. As the partnership is currently envisioned, Turkey would provide ground troops, supported by Saudi Arabian airstrikes, to assist moderate Syrian opposition fighters against Assad’s regime, according to one of the sources.

President Barack Obama was made aware of the talks in February by the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al Thani, during the emir’s visit to the White House, one source said. A White House spokesperson declined to comment.

The administration has generally encouraged Persian Gulf countries to step up and do more on their own to promote regional security, particularly in Syria, but such talk has largely remained just talk. It’s unclear whether this case will be different, but Saudi Arabia’s recent intervention in Yemen indicates the nation is becoming bolder with its own forces, rather than relying on proxies.

Following his meeting with the emir of Qatar, Obama said that the two leaders had “shared ideas” for how to remove Assad.

“We both are deeply concerned about the situation in Syria,” Obama said. “We’ll continue to support the moderate opposition there and continue to believe that it will not be possible to fully stabilize that country until Mr. Assad, who has lost legitimacy in the country, is transitioned out.”

“How we get there obviously is a source of extraordinary challenge, and we shared ideas in terms of how that can be accomplished,” he added.

Since those remarks, the United States has continued daily airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and modest training programs for vetted members of the Syrian opposition — but has not publicly offered any strategy for how to negotiate an end to Assad’s rule. [Continue reading…]


Syria’s Nusra Front may leave Qaeda to form new entity

Reuters reports: Leaders of Syria’s Nusra Front are considering cutting their links with al Qaeda to form a new entity backed by some Gulf states trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad, sources said.

Sources within and close to Nusra said that Qatar, which enjoys good relations with the group, is encouraging the group to go ahead with the move, which would give Nusra a boost in funding.

The exercise could transform Nusra from a weakened militia group into a force capable of taking on Islamic State at a time when it is under pressure from bombing raids and advances by Kurdish and Iraqi military forces.

It could also boost the influence of Qatar and its allies in the campaign to oust Assad, in line with the Gulf state’s growing diplomatic ambitions in the region. [Continue reading…]


Hamas said concerned by Egypt-Qatar thaw

The Times of Israel reports: Hamas fears its ties with Qatar will be hindered by the reported reconciliation efforts between Doha and Egypt, London-based Arab paper Rai al-Youm reported Saturday, according to Israel Radio.

According to the report, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who has been hosted by Qatar since leaving war-torn Syria in 2012, has reached out to Qatari leaders to receive clarifications on the matter, and has been assured that the amended ties with Cairo would not affect Doha’s relations with Hamas. [Continue reading…]


Palestinian Authority forces take control of Gaza crossings as donors pledge millions for reconstruction

Ma’an reports: The Palestinian Authority is set to assume responsibility for the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings in Gaza on Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister Muhammad Mustafa said.

Mustafa, who is also head of a reconstruction committee for Gaza, told Ma’an Friday that the PA will take charge of building materials entering Gaza and the movement of Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank.

Representatives in the health, agriculture, housing and civil affairs ministries will be in charge of monitoring materials for their respective sector.

The Associated Press reports: Qatar pledged $1 billion Sunday toward the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip after this year’s devastating Israel-Hamas war, once again using its vast wealth to reinforce its role as a regional player as Gulf Arab rival the United Arab Emirates promised $200 million.

The pledges followed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier announcing immediate American assistance of $212 million, though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said Gaza needs $4 billion to rebuild.

Human Rights Watch says: Donor countries at the October 12, 2014 conference on assistance to Palestine should press Israel to lift sweeping, unjustified restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip, Human Rights Watch said today. The United Nations Security Council should reinforce previous resolutions ignored by Israel calling for the removal of unjustified restrictions.

Blanket Israeli restrictions unconnected or disproportionate to security considerations unnecessarily harm people’s access to food, water, education, and other fundamental rights in Gaza. Israel’s unwillingness to lift such restrictions will seriously hinder a sustainable recovery after a seven-year blockade and the July-August fighting that damaged much of Gaza, Human Rights Watch said.


Obama’s ill-conceived coalition against ISIS

Musa al-Gharbi writes: The U.S. was the only non-Arab actor to participate in the Syria raids. Collaborating with the U.S. were five other Arab states: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, and Jordan.

While many pundits have and will continue to describe them as “moderate Arab allies” — what “moderate” usually means is something akin to “compliant with the U.S. agenda in the region.” What may be more significant to note about these powers is that they are all monarchies—in fact, the actors who took part in the strike are most of the region’s surviving dynasties (excluding only Oman, Kuwait, and Morocco).

The Gulf monarchs are far from beloved in Iraq, even among the Sunni population. Readers may remember that the “Sunni” Hussein regime wanted to go to war with the KSA, provoking the U.S.-led Operation Desert Shield. There is a long enmity between the peoples of Iraq and the Gulf monarchs — and an even deeper enmity between these powers and the Syrians. So the idea that the populations of IS-occupied Iraq and Syria will find these forces and their actions legitimate simply in virtue of the fact that they are “Sunni” is a gross oversimplification that reinforces problematic sectarian narratives even as it obscures important geopolitical truths. Among them:

If anything, the alliance that carried out the strike actually reinforces the narrative of the IS: it will be framed as the United States and its oppressive monarchic proxies collaborating to stifle the Arab Uprisings in order to preserve the doomed status quo.

In a similar manner, it is somewhat irrelevant that salafi and “moderate” Sunni Muslim religious authorities have condemned al-Baghdadi’s “caliphate” as invalid and ill-conceived — in part because it presupposes that most of the foreign fighters who are joining ISIS for ideological reasons are devout, well-informed about fiqh and closely following the rulings of jurists, etc. In fact, the opposite seems to be true, and many of those coming from abroad to join the IS are motivated primarily by factors other than religion. Even much of their indigenous support is from people who join for money, or else due to their grievances against the governments in Iraq and/or Syria — not because they buy into the vision of al-Baghdadi and his ilk. Accordingly, the value of “Sunni buy-in,” framed religiously, is probably both misstated and overstated.

And not only will the involvement of the Gulf kingdoms strikes be extremely controversial on the ground in Iraq and Syria, but also within the emirates who took part in these raids. Syria and the so-called “Islamic State” remain highly polarizing issues across the region — many will be apprehensive of their governments getting involved, others actually support the aspirations of these mujahedeen and view their own regimes as corrupt. [Continue reading…]


Map of U.S. airstrikes across Syria


U.S. and allies launch airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria

The New York Times reports: The United States and allies launched airstrikes against Sunni militants in Syria early Tuesday, unleashing a torrent of cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs from the air and sea on the militants’ de facto capital of Raqqa and along the porous Iraq border.

American fighter jets and armed Predator and Reaper drones, flying alongside warplanes from several Arab allies, struck a broad array of targets in territory controlled by the militants, known as the Islamic State. American defense officials said the targets included weapons supplies, depots, barracks and buildings the militants use for command and control. Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from United States Navy ships in the region.

“I can confirm that U.S. military and partner nation forces are undertaking military action against ISIL terrorists in Syria using a mix of fighter, bomber and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, using an alternate name for the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]


Qatar expels Egypt Muslim Brotherhood leaders

The Associated Press reports: Leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood group and allied clerics said on Saturday that they are departing Qatar, where they had sought refuge following the ouster of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and the crackdown on his supporters.

Their presence in Qatar had severely strained Doha’s relations with Egypt as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all of which view the more than 85-year-old Islamist movement as a threat. The expulsion threatens to further isolate the group, which rose to power in Egypt through a string of post-Arab Spring elections but suffered a dramatic fall from grace during Morsi’s divisive year in office.

Former minister Amr Darrag, who was also the top foreign affairs official in the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, and fiery cleric Wagdi Ghoneim said they are leaving Qatar following a request to do so by the Gulf monarchy. [Continue reading…]