Shia village simmers amid Saudi crackdown

Financial Times reports: A month after Saudi Arabia executed firebrand Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, his home town of Awamiya remains strewn with black flags commemorating his death.

The authorities have dubbed the dilapidated village in the oil-rich eastern province the most dangerous place in the conservative Sunni kingdom, and it bears the scars of confronting the state. Shia slogans are ubiquitous and some buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes. Two armoured personnel carriers stand sentry outside the local security post but the jittery police rarely patrol the streets.

“The people and the government are both waiting, ready to pounce,” said Mohammed al-Nimr, Sheikh Nimr’s brother. “There is only pessimism here now.”

The execution of Sheikh Nimr caused an uproar in Shia Iran and has prompted concerns that unrest within Saudi Arabia’s minority Shia, which claim to be the victim of decades of discrimination by the ruling al-Saud family, could become another front in the worsening regional cold war between Riyadh and Tehran. [Continue reading…]

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How Saudi Arabia’s grip on oil prices could bring Russia to its knees

By James Henderson, University of Oxford

When Saudi Arabia led an OPEC decision to end a restraint put on oil production in November 2014, it marked the beginning of a new era in oil economics. It has given us a tumbling oil price, prompted huge losses and job cuts at oil firms like BP and might yet give us economic and political drama in the heart of Moscow. To understand why, it’s worth drilling down to the start of the whole process, and the costs of getting oil out of the ground in the first place.

Historically, the OPEC cartel of oil-producing nations has been able to manage oil prices because of the lack of flexibility in global supply. The whole business of setting up wells, operating pipelines and building rigs entails large and long-term investments which makes producers slow to respond to price movements. And a small cut in OPEC supply can have a significant impact on the global oil price.

The advent of the US shale oil boom changed this dynamic. The industry has lower fixed costs but higher variable costs and is more like an industrial process than a major one-off investment. That makes it more responsive to price movements and more flexible in adjusting short-term output.

Overall though, shale is a relatively high cost source of oil, especially compared to Middle East production. As a result, when US shale threatened OPEC’s market share, the cartel allowed a position of global oversupply to develop. It was a simple trick: make oil prices fall to make shale unprofitable.

[Read more…]

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Saudi Arabia: Palestinian poet sentenced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes for apostasy

The Guardian reports: A Saudi court has overturned the death sentence on a Palestinian poet accused of renouncing Islam, instead imposing an eight year prison term and 800 lashes.

The decision by a panel of judges came after Ashraf Fayadh’s lawyer argued that his conviction of apostasy was seriously flawed as he was denied a fair trial. In a briefing on the verdict, Fayadh’s lawyer said the new judgement revoked the death sentence but upheld that the poet was guilty of apostasy.

A memo written by the lawyer, posted by Abdulrahman al-Lahem on Twitter, describes the details of Fayadh’s new punishment. He is sentenced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes, with 50 lashes carried out on 16 occasions, and must also publicly renounce his poetry on Saudi state media.

Al-Lahem welcomed the overturning of the death sentence but reaffirmed Fayadh’s innocence and announced they would launch an appeal and ask for bail.

Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “Instead of beheading Ashraf Fayadh, a Saudi court has ordered a lengthy imprisonment and flogging. No one should face arrest for peacefully expressing opinions, much less corporal punishment and prison. Saudi justice officials must urgently intervene to vacate this unjust sentence.” [Continue reading…]

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‘I have never seen such destruction’ as in Yemen, says aid worker

PBS Newshour reports: Fighting in Yemen after rebels overthrew the government in early 2015 has created a dire humanitarian situation unparalleled even in places as battle-scarred as Syria, according to a Doctors Without Borders worker.

“I’ve worked in war zones for the past 11 to 12 years, in some of the worst conflicts like Syria, but I have never seen such destruction conducted in such a short period as in Yemen,” wrote Michael Seawright from Auckland, New Zealand.

Seawright served as project coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in the Middle Eastern region. “I was based in Saada, in the north, in a Houthi-controlled area that was experiencing almost daily attacks from coalition air forces. These airstrikes were often close to our facilities and we clearly felt their effects,” he wrote. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen conflict: Saudi-led coalition targeting civilians, UN says

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BBC News reports: The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen has targeted civilians with air strikes in a “widespread and systematic” manner, a leaked UN report says.

The UN panel of experts said civilians were also being deliberately starved as a war tactic over the past nine months.

The panel called for an inquiry into human rights abuses.

The coalition is attempting to oust the rebels from Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and restore the country’s government. [Continue reading…]

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King Salman’s first year in power in Saudi Arabia has been a dark year for human rights

Amnesty International: Despite limited improvements in the field of women’s rights, the Saudi Arabian authorities have pursued a persistent and ruthless crackdown on all forms of dissent by, among other measures, detaining critics after grossly unfair trials before the Specialized Criminal Court, often on spurious terrorism charges, increased their use of the death penalty and maintained practices that discriminate against the country’s Shi’a Muslim minority. The Kingdom’s military has also repeatedly violated the laws of war in its military campaign in Yemen.

Dozens of human rights defenders, peaceful activists and dissidents remained behind bars after being imprisoned in previous years. Among them were blogger Raif Badawi and his lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, the first human rights defender to be sentenced after an unfair trial under Saudi Arabia’s counter-terror law, in force since February 2014. Dozens more were jailed under the law in 2015, including human rights defenders Dr Abdulkareem al-Khoder and Dr Abdulrahman al-Hamid, both founding members of the now disbanded independent Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), also after unfair trials. Most of the organization’s other founding members remained in prison.

Prominent writer Dr Zuhair Kutbi was sentenced in December 2015 to four years in prison by the Specialized Criminal Court, followed by a five-year ban on overseas travel, a fine of 100,000 Saudi Arabian riyals (about US$26,600) and a 15-year ban on writing and giving interviews to the media. The court also ordered him to erase his social media accounts. It suspended two years of his four-year sentence because of his poor health, but indicated they would be re-imposed if he “offended” again. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi bombing campaign — supported by Britain — leaves Yemen’s healthcare system in tatters

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The Independent reports: When the men and women who worked at Shiara hospital heard the explosion, there was little surprise. Just half an hour’s drive from the border with Saudi Arabia, in Yemen’s mountainous northern region, they were used to the sound of shelling.

What they did not expect 10 months into the Saudi-led campaign of airstrikes was that it would be their own hospital that had been hit. The bombing on 10 January left six people dead, including three staff members. Many more were injured.

“The wounded were hit by shrapnel from the missile, and also by shards of metal from the fence [around the hospital]. The injuries were brutal,” said Teresa Sancristoval, the head of the emergency desk at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which operates in the hospital.

The attack was among 130 on health facilities hit in Yemen since the Saudi-led coalition began its bombing campaign in March last year. It was the fourth on a facility supported by MSF – which says it gives detailed co-ordinates for its hospitals to both sides of the conflict. [Continue reading…]

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How Saudi Arabia bankrolls the CIA

The New York Times reports: When President Obama secretly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to begin arming Syria’s embattled rebels in 2013, the spy agency knew it would have a willing partner to help pay for the covert operation. It was the same partner the C.I.A. has relied on for decades for money and discretion in far-off conflicts: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Since then, the C.I.A. and its Saudi counterpart have maintained an unusual arrangement for the rebel-training mission, which the Americans have code-named Timber Sycamore. Under the deal, current and former administration officials said, the Saudis contribute both weapons and large sums of money, and the C.I.A takes the lead in training the rebels on AK-47 assault rifles and tank-destroying missiles.

The support for the Syrian rebels is only the latest chapter in the decadeslong relationship between the spy services of Saudi Arabia and the United States, an alliance that has endured through the Iran-contra scandal, support for the mujahedeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan and proxy fights in Africa. Sometimes, as in Syria, the two countries have worked in concert. In others, Saudi Arabia has simply written checks underwriting American covert activities. [Continue reading…]

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British arms companies ramp up bomb sales to Saudi Arabia by 100 times despite air strikes on civilians

The Independent reports: British arms companies have cashed-in on Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen by ramping up arms sales to the country’s autocratic government by over a hundred times, new figures show.

Sales of British bombs and missiles to the Saudi Arabia surged to over £1bn just three months last year, according to an official record of arms export licences quietly released by the Government this week.

The sales, up from just £9m in the preceding three-month period, have occurred while the oil-rich autocracy conducts a military campaign in its neighbour’s territory, where the United Nations has said a “humanitarian catastrophe” is unfolding. [Continue reading…]

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Iran sanctions: Middle East stock crash wipes £27bn off markets as Tehran enters oil war

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The Telegraph reports: Stock markets across the Middle East saw more than £27bn wiped off their value as the lifting of economic sanctions against Iran threatened to unleash a fresh wave of oil onto global markets that are already drowning in excess supply.

All seven stock markets in the Gulf states tumbled as panic gripped traders. London shares are now braced for a second wave of crisis to hit when they open on Monday morning after contagion from China sent the FTSE 100 to its worst start in history last week.

Dubai’s DFM General Index closed down 4.65pc to 2,684.9, while Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul All Share Index, the largest Arab market, collapsed by 7pc intraday, before recovering to end down 5.44pc at 5,520.41, its lowest level in almost five years. [Continue reading…]

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Old myths perpetuate poor analysis of Saudi Arabia

Hassan Hassan writes: Economic sanctions on Iran have been lifted. The removal of sanctions, which will release billions of dollars worth of frozen assets and bring Iran in from the cold, comes exactly two weeks after a diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia brought the region to boiling point.

Both of these events could have profound international implications for Saudi Arabia. After the diplomatic row, the kingdom came under fierce media attack and was generally portrayed as an irresponsible regional player that deliberately provoked Iran by executing the Saudi religious cleric Nimr Al Nimr. Such depictions do not bode well for the kingdom as it prepares for the entry of a regional rival into the international arena.

Broadly speaking, much of the punditry about Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states at large tends to rely on old facts and myths – mostly dating back to the 1990s.

Perpetuating old stereotypes about Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy ignores the progress –and indeed the drastic changes – that have taken place over the past decade. More importantly, they also reduce Iran’s role in the neighbourhood to a geopolitical rivalry with its neighbours, rather than casting this role in its true light, as an aggressive sectarian agenda that claimed the lives of thousands of people and perpetuated conflict and civil strife.

To better understand Iran’s behaviour, consider the policies of the two countries since the eruption of the Arab uprisings five years ago. [Continue reading…]

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On the issue of executions, Iran has as much moral authority as the U.S. has on gun control

Sharif Nashashibi writes: There are several grounds on which to oppose the Saudi execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. One can do so due to a principled opposition to capital punishment in general. One can criticise the country’s judicial system – Human Rights Watch said this week that it “has documented longstanding due process violations in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system that make it difficult for a defendant to get a fair trial even in capital cases.”

One can criticise Nimr’s trial in particular, which Amnesty International called “grossly unfair”. One can argue that he should not have been arrested in the first place – HRW cited “vague charges that do not resemble recognisable crimes”.

One can oppose his execution because of the repercussions it will have regionally and beyond. One can even do so out of concern for Saudi Arabia itself, not just in terms of domestic unrest among its Shia population, but also its foreign interests.

However, in any situation, condemnation is meaningless when based on hypocrisy. As such, Iran – which has arguably been most vocal about Nimr’s execution – does not have a leg to stand on. “It is perhaps surprising that a regime which imprisons journalists, censors cartoonists and holds activists without charge for years on end should be in any position to moralise against another,” wrote Evan Bartlett, news editor at The Independent newspaper.

It is galling – almost comical – for the world’s second-biggest executioner after China to criticise the third-biggest on the subject of executions. It carries the same moral authority as the US lecturing others about gun control, or Japan discouraging other countries from whale-hunting. [Continue reading…]

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Ten ways on how not to think about the Iran/Saudi conflict

Omid Safi writes: In order to understand this conflict, do not start with Sunni/Shi‘a seventh century succession disputes to Prophet. This is a modern dispute, not one whose answers you are going to find in pre-modern books of religious history and theology. Think about how absurd it would be if we were discussing a political conflict between the U.S. and Russia, and instead of having political scientists we brought on people to talk about the historical genesis of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Probably the most succinct elaboration of this point came from Marc Lynch:

“The idea of an unending, primordial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites explains little about the ebbs and flows of regional politics. This is not a resurgence of a 1,400-year-old conflict.”

The attempt to explain the Iranian/Saudi conflict, or for that matter every Middle Eastern conflict, in purely religious terms is part of an ongoing Orientalist imagination that depicts these societies as ancient, unchanging, un-modern societies where religion is the sole determining factor (allegedly unlike an imagined “us,” who have managed to become modern and secular.) Watch this four-part series by the late, great Edward Said on how Orientalism operates (skip the introduction):

There is no disputing that religion is a factor in understanding the Middle East. In some conflicts, it might even be a primary factor. But it is never, ever the only factor. Most often it is the other factors (history, economics, ideology, demographics) that are much more important.

Religion, religious traditions, and human societies never stay static and unchanging. There is no such thing as an eternal, unchanging human tradition. [Continue reading…]

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The Saudi–Iran rift over Syria

Syria Deeply sought the opinion of several experts. Nader Hashemi said: In broad terms, the recent fallout only serves to entrench existing positions. These positions have long solidified over the course of the past five years. The recent deterioration of relations and antagonism between Saudi Arabia and Iran do not, in my reading, fundamentally change this dynamic.

The fallout at this stage does not completely undermine the Vienna Peace Process. Both Saudi and Iran, over a series of several meetings, basically agreed to a broad framework that was enshrined in a U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 on December 18. Now the ball is out of the court of the Iranians and Saudis and is in the court of the Syrian actors and Staffan de Mistura. That’s the next stage of the Vienna process – to try and bring Syrians from both the Assad regime and the opposition around the table. Thus, at this stage, Iran and Saudi Arabia really don’t have much to contribute. Perhaps, as a result of recent events, they might decide to take a more hardline stance when it comes to determining which Syrian rebel groups are terrorists and can have a seat at the table and which cannot.

I’m very skeptical about the Vienna Process. I think it was essentially dead on arrival because it assumes that after five years of a neo-genocidal war, and having already gone down this road before in Switzerland in January 2014 with Lakhdar Brahimi, that somehow something substantial has changed. Why should anyone assume that just because the regional and international powers have agreed to a broad framework, all of the Syrian participants in this conflict are going to meet in Geneva at the end of January, kiss and make up, and agree to some unity government and peace plan? There is little room for optimism on this point. [Continue reading…]

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Divisions in the Middle East are driven more by regional rivalries than religion

TSG IntelBrief: In a region beset with chronic and widespread problems, ranging from poor governance, war, violent extremism, and resource scarcity, one threat stands above the rest in terms of potential for destruction and cost in opportunity: the use of sectarianism as a geopolitical weapon. Sectarianism encourages extremist rhetoric and violence and serves to distract a populations from economic and social concerns by providing a convenient enemy on which to focus. While the Sunni-Shi’a divide is as old as Islam, current divisions are driven far more by regional rivalries and political gamesmanship than by religion, though the latter remains a primary factor.

While sectarianism as a geopolitical weapon is nothing new, its use is reaching new heights while its consequences find new lows. The current era of sectarianism stems, in part, from the 2003 Iraq War. The shift in Sunni-Shi’a power dynamics in Iraq triggered regional quakes that are still being felt today. It is difficult to overstate how Saudi Arabia’s fears of an ascendent Iran—now, with an Iraqi ally—have led to more than a decade of Saudi maneuvers driven by sectarian concerns. The sectarian war wanted so badly by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi—founder of the group that would become the so-called Islamic State—has metastasized far from Anbar and Baghdad, and morphed into both direct and proxy warfare. [Continue reading…]

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