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…]


In Mecca I saw little of Islam’s compassion, but a lot of Saudi Arabia’s neglect

Sabreena Razaq Hussain writes: With 2 million people gathered in one small city for the hajj, some discomfort was to be expected. And putting up with it was, I initially thought, an opportunity to exercise the patience so very valued by our faith of Islam and in the holiest of cities. So we marched on hopefully.

But with the 40-plus degree heat of Mecca, the harsh policing, the aggressive crowds, the chaotic organisation, the pressure was relentless. As the days went on, I couldn’t have felt a starker contrast between the spiritual tranquillity and contentment experienced within the confines of the Grand Mosque and sites, and the anxiety and distress caused by those policing it. Prior to my arrival in Saudi Arabia, accompanying my parents on pilgrimage, my ignorance had led me to believe that one of the richest Muslim countries in the world would be well organised in facilitating the rites of hajj. Now, back in the UK, I am grateful to be alive and still horrified by what I witnessed. I fully understand why hundreds of people were crushed to death and I don’t believe that “God’s will” can be used an excuse. [Continue reading…]


As Saudis block a human rights inquiry in Yemen, America stays quiet

Vice News reports: A Dutch-led effort to create a human rights mission for Yemen was abandoned Wednesday amid intense Saudi opposition at the UN, but human rights experts are laying blame in part at the feet of the United States, which failed to vigorously back the Netherlands — and may have worked behind the scenes to head off the independent investigation.

A Saudi-led coalition has bombed Yemen since late March in an attempt to push back Houthi rebels and their allies and reinstate the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The US (and UK) offers logistical support for the coalition, in addition to selling billions of dollars in weapons to its members, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. US officials say American personnel are also involved in providing targeting assistance for airstrikes, which the UN says are responsible for the majority of the more than 2,300 civilian deaths in the conflict in the past six months.

In September, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called for an independent, international inquiry into crimes committed in Yemen in the preceding year. Shortly after, the Netherlands, supported by several European countries, presented a draft resolution to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). Among other elements, it called for a human rights mission, commissioned by Zeid, to be sent to Yemen, and for that team to be allowed access to all areas of the country.

Multiple sources familiar with negotiations in Geneva, where the HRC is located, said the Dutch initially encountered objections from the Yemeni government, as well as from the Saudis, Qataris, and Emiratis — all three of whom currently sit on the council.

The Saudis and other Arab members of the council then introduced an alternative text, which called for the UN to only assist an existing national inquiry in Yemen, established by the government in exile in Riyadh, which supports the Saudi-led intervention. Human rights and civil society groups considered it unacceptable, both due to its content and because it was introduced by a belligerent in Yemen’s war. They offered public support to the Dutch.

Largely quiet on the matter was the United States. After multiple requests for comment on whether the American government supported an international, independent human rights inquiry for Yemen, US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power released an ambiguously worded statement on September 24. [Continue reading…]


The West cannot escape the effects of Middle East turmoil

Nouriel Roubini writes: With the US on the way to achieving energy independence, there is a risk that America and its Western allies will consider the Middle East less strategically important. That belief is wishful thinking: a burning Middle East can destabilize the world in many ways.

First, some of these conflicts may yet lead to an actual supply disruption, as in 1973, 1979, and 1990. Second, civil wars that turn millions of people into refugees will destabilize Europe economically and socially, which is bound to hit the global economy hard. And the economies and societies of frontline states like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, already under severe stress from absorbing millions of such refugees, face even greater risks.

Third, prolonged misery and hopelessness for millions of Arab young people will create a new generation of desperate jihadists who blame the West for their despair. Some will undoubtedly find their way to Europe and the US and stage terrorist attacks.

So, if the West ignores the Middle East or addresses the region’s problems only through military means (the US has spent $2 trillion in its Afghan and Iraqi wars, only to create more instability), rather than relying on diplomacy and financial resources to support growth and job creation, the region’s instability will only worsen. Such a choice would haunt the US and Europe – and thus the global economy – for decades to come. [Continue reading…]


Saudi objections halt UN inquiry of Yemen war

The New York Times reports: In a U-turn at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Western governments dropped plans Wednesday for an international inquiry into human rights violations by all parties in the war in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians in the last six months.

The change of direction came as the Netherlands withdrew the draft of a resolution it had prepared with support from a group of mainly Western countries that instructed the United Nations high commissioner for human rights to send experts to Yemen to investigate the conduct of the war.

That proposal was a follow-up to recommendations by the commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who detailed in a report this month the heavy civilian loss of life inflicted not only by the relentless airstrikes of the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia but also by the indiscriminate shelling carried out by Houthi rebels. [Continue reading…]


Senior Saudi prince calls for regime change in Riyadh

The Guardian reports: A senior Saudi prince has launched an unprecedented call for change in the country’s leadership, as it faces its biggest challenge in years in the form of war, plummeting oil prices and criticism of its management of Mecca, scene of last week’s hajj tragedy.

The prince, one of the grandsons of the state’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, has told the Guardian that there is disquiet among the royal family – and among the wider public – at the leadership of King Salman, who acceded the throne in January.

The prince, who is not named for security reasons, wrote two letters earlier this month calling for the king to be removed.

“The king is not in a stable condition and in reality the son of the king [Mohammed bin Salman] is ruling the kingdom,” the prince said. “So four or possibly five of my uncles will meet soon to discuss the letters. They are making a plan with a lot of nephews and that will open the door. A lot of the second generation is very anxious.” [Continue reading…]


Saudi Arabia is worried – and not just about its king

Brian Whitaker writes: Extreme caution has long been the watchword of Saudi monarchs: caution in foreign policy, and caution especially when it comes to internal change. Since 2005, when the king nervously decided it was safe to allow elections for half the members of municipal councils (the other half were to be appointed by the king), it has taken a further 10 years to get around to letting women take part.

Of course, there are good reasons for this caution. Saudis often cite the assassination of King Faisal in 1975 as a warning, linking it to his attempts at reform and especially his introduction of television, which many at the time regarded as encouraging sin.

Large sections of Saudi society, and most notably the influential religious scholars, remain deeply conservative, and this social resistance means the rulers cannot implement change – supposing they actually want to – at anything like the pace needed in a rapidly changing world. To a large extent the rulers’ hands are tied, but this is something the House of Saud has brought upon itself by hitching its political legitimacy to the Wahhabi sect. If it can’t untie that knot, it is ultimately doomed. [Continue reading…]


Airstrikes hit wedding in Yemen; as many as 135 dead

The Los Angeles Times reports: Airstrikes devastated a wedding party in southern Yemen on Monday, killing and injuring dozens, witnesses said. Medics put the death toll as high as 135, including many women and children, in the latest bombardment reported to have caused large numbers of civilian deaths and injuries.

The Saudi-led air offensive in Yemen, now in its seventh month, has killed at least 3,500 people, perhaps half of them civilians, according to aid groups.

Some witnesses suggested that tents put up to accommodate guests at wedding festivities outside the Red Sea port of Mokha might have been mistaken for military encampments of pro-government troops and their allies. At least two tents were hit in a series of strikes.

The attack, one of a string involving large numbers of civilian casualties, came as the Yemen conflict was under scrutiny at the United Nations. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon blamed all combatants for demonstrating a “disregard for human life,” but said most fatalities and injuries were being caused by the campaign of airstrikes that began in March. [Continue reading…]


Saudi Arabia doesn’t ‘do’ refugees – it’s time to change that

By Julie M. Norman, Queen’s University Belfast

As the Syrian refugee crisis has garnered global attention in recent weeks, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have faced increasing criticism, from sources both domestic and international, for failing to open their borders to those displaced by the conflict.

On social media, political cartoons and hashtags shaming the Gulf states’ inaction have been widely shared and circulated, as have maps and human rights reports slamming Saudi Arabia and its neighbours for offering zero resettlement spaces to refugees.

Saudi Arabia has previously responded to such criticism by pointing to the estimated $700m in humanitarian aid it has given to support Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. Then, last week, a government official told the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) that Saudi Arabia has received nearly 2.5m Syrians since the conflict began, just not as refugees.

Though the numbers claimed by the unnamed official appear unsubstantiated at best and spurious at worst, it is likely that Saudi Arabia has in fact welcomed between 100,000 and 500,000 Syrians on visas.

This very unclear data is just another sign of the fundamental problem: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states simply don’t “do” refugees.

[Read more…]


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…]


Mecca belongs to all Muslims, and Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be allowed to run it

Haroon Moghul writes: If you think the Islamic State’s war on antiquities is horrifying, you are right. But it is not exceptional. It has its roots in a perverse and excessive iconoclasm, which has seen Saudi Wahhabist mandates literally crush, demolish, smash, erase, and break down the very sites and landscapes that Muslims worldwide know so well. If you think I am exaggerating, don’t. Several years ago, I helped lead a small group of American Muslims on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. We had a Saudi guide with us who, during our bus tour around Mecca and Medina, refused to let our driver stop at mosques of historical significance, because he thought we might cross the line and worship in a manner unbecoming of an austere and hardheaded Wahhabist. He treated us like children.

Which, of course, none of us were: Wahhabists, or children. (In revenge, I spent the ride back happily pointing out sites of Ottoman significance, while describing the House of Saud’s unseemly alliance with non-Muslim powers against their fellow Muslims.) My fellow pilgrims were incensed. They had paid, scrounged up and saved, and here they were, in their holy city, and they weren’t allowed to stop at, for example, the mosque where Mohammed was commanded by God to turn away from the first direction of prayer, Jerusalem, to the current direction of prayer, Mecca. (It matters if you’re Muslim.) They felt outraged. They felt they were denied the chance to experience their Islam because someone else had decided their interpretation of Islam mattered more.

And that is precisely the point. Mecca and Medina are ruled by Saudi Arabia, but they belong to the Muslim world. They are our collective sacredness. They shouldn’t be an individual possession. Islam is a very egalitarian religion. (As some Muslims joke, people who dislike organized religion should join Islam, because we’ve mastered disorganization.) Islam has few hierarchies, and those that exist are not widely shared. Why then does a regime which represents a sliver of Muslims, exports and enforces an ideology that is historically antithetical to Islam’s rich traditions of pluralism, spirituality and cosmopolitanism, allowed to control our holy cities? Why don’t everyday Muslims get a say? [Continue reading…]


Islam’s tragic fatalism

The New York Times reports: At least 717 people were killed and 863 injured in a stampede near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday morning…

In a statement, the Saudi health minister, Khalid al-Falih, said the stampede may have been “caused by the movement of some pilgrims who didn’t follow the guidelines and instructions issued by the responsible authorities.”…

Madawi al-Rasheed, an anthropologist and visiting professor at the London School of Economics, said: “There is no accountability. It’s shocking that almost every year there is some kind of death toll.”…

A vast majority of pilgrims are not from Saudi Arabia and have not been able to exert pressure on the government to improve crowd control or public safety around the hajj. Professor Rasheed said that officials in the kingdom had avoided responsibility in part by citing the Islamic doctrine that anyone who dies during the pilgrimage — one of the five pillars of Islam, and a duty for all able-bodied Muslims with the means to make the trip — goes to heaven. [Continue reading…]

Mustafa Akyol writes: Earlier this month, on the Muslim holy day of Friday, a horrible accident took place in Mecca near Islam’s holiest site — the Kaaba. A huge crane fell on the mosque that encircles the cube-shaped shrine, killing 118 pilgrims and injuring almost 400. This tragedy was the deadliest crane collapse in modern history, and thus it begged for an investigation. Yet, in a highly religious country, the technicians that operated the crane, the Saudi Binladen Group, had an easy way out. One of them spoke to the press and simply said: “What happened was beyond the power of humans. It was an act of God.”

To their credit, the Saudi authorities did not buy this argument. King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud immediately suspended the company from work, ordered an investigation, and offered compensation for the families of victims. The investigators soon concluded that the company was responsible for the accident, because it did not “respect the rules of safety” and violated the manufacturers’ operating instructions.

While this factual investigation is a step forward, we must still ask why the technicians publicly absolved themselves of responsibility, and probably in their own minds as well, by evoking “fate.”

This is not the first time that this metaphysical excuse has come up in such circumstances. Worse accidents have happened near the Kaaba before, during the overcrowded season of pilgrimage, the Hajj, and the blame was reflexively placed on the divine. In 1990, 1,426 pilgrims died in a stampede caused mainly by a lack of ventilation. Nonetheless, the king at the time, Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, then argued: “It was God’s will, which is above everything.” “It was fate,” he added.

This isn’t just a Saudi problem; it is a global Muslim problem. Fatalism is constantly used as an excuse for human neglect and errors. [Continue reading…]


Why Saudi Arabia is having such trouble with its Syria policy

By Simon Mabon, Lancaster University

The violent civil war in Syria and rise of Islamic State (IS) has forced millions to flee their homes, cascading across Europe in search of safety. And yet, despite the crisis unfolding on its doorstep, the response from the Saudi Arabian government has been far from welcoming.

Why is it that Saudi Arabia, the home of the world’s largest oil supplies – a state with vast swaths of empty territory, has done so little to help?

The Saudi relationship with the Syrian crisis is complex – a tangle of domestic and regional priorities. Abroad, Riyadh wants to see the Assad regime toppled and Iran’s influence in the Levant weakened, but at home Saudi policy has been much more reactionary and conservative, working hard to quash dissent and maintain stability.

[Read more…]


Who is Ali Mohammed al-Nimr and why is Saudi Arabia planning to behead and crucify him?

International Business Times reports: Ali Mohammed al-Nimr’s name is well-known in eastern Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of the country’s Shia minority and the scene of a burgeoning protest movement.

Ali, 21, is the nephew of Shia cleric and activist Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, who was jailed and sentenced to death for his fiery speeches against Saudi Arabia’s ruling House of Saud dynasty, which has controlled the Arabian Peninsula since the 1930s. Sheikh al-Nimr was detained and then sentenced to death on terrorism charges as well as “waging war on God” for his speech during anti-government protests in Qatif, a city that saw massive street protests followed by a bloody crackdown by the Saudi authorities in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Most of the 2.7 million Shia in Saudi Arabia live in al-Ahsa and al-Qatif districts in the country’s eastern province, which also contains the bulk of the kingdom’s oil. Ruled by a Sunni monarchy and under a strict interpretation of Islam, Wahabbism, Shia are often portrayed as heretics or agents of Riyadh’s major rival, Iran. [Continue reading…]


Arab coalition bombs Yemen’s capital, killing dozens

The New York Times reports: The airstrikes [overnight on Saturday] hit the headquarters of the Interior Ministry and a military honor guard [in Sana, the Yemeni capital], killing at least 17 security and military personnel, according to government officials and witnesses. But several of the targets appeared to have no military value, witnesses said.

One set of airstrikes crushed a group of houses, killing at least 10 members of one family and destroying at least two other houses, all in the Old City, which has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years.

Other bombs struck an underpass, damaging a passing truck, as well as a four-story residential building.

The aerial campaign has helped coalition forces advance in parts of Yemen, but has been marked by a persistent imprecision that has led to the deaths of more than a thousand civilians, according to human rights groups. The warplanes have bombed homes, markets, refugee camps and hospitals, but the coalition has consistently refused to acknowledge any culpability for the deaths. [Continue reading…]


Saudi-Iran talks key to resolving Middle East wars

Barbara Slavin reports: As desperate migrants from wars in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East keep pouring onto the European continent, it is hard to imagine diplomatic solutions that can diminish this massive exodus anytime soon.

But if the wars are ever to end, one prerequisite is a willingness on the part of Saudi Arabia and its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to discuss these crises with Iran.

During a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council on Monday, Nasser Hadian, a professor of political science at the University of Tehran who is close to the government of President Hassan Rouhani, said Iran has tried to reach out to the Saudis both privately and publicly but that its overtures have so far been rebuffed.

“They [the Saudis] have made up their minds [about Iran] and no matter what is happening, they have their own perspective,” Hadian said. He added that Iran does not regard Saudi Arabia as a threat but the Saudis see Iran as they primary regional foe. “We have to try to put to rest their concerns but that is not an easy thing to do,” Hadian said. [Continue reading…]


The war in Yemen as a rite of passage

Rami G. Khouri writes: The Saudi-led war in Yemen is one of the most dangerous and paradoxical developments in the region in recent decades. The six-month conflict continues to intensify and attract troops from other Arab countries, threatening to exacerbate violence and insecurity across the Middle East.

The war in Yemen is a rite of passage for members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who are asserting their power and the maturity of their statehood by launching a war against a weaker neighbor. It is equally driven by their exaggerated but nonetheless real fear of growing Iranian influence in the region. The Saudis were especially terrified of being surrounded by Iran’s involvement in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and finally in Yemen, given Tehran’s links with the Houthis.

Half a year into the war, the risks of this venture are just becoming clear for the Saudis and their allies. The aerial bombings that began in March have failed to wrest back control of all Yemen from the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who late last year swept into Sana’a and dissolved the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia and its multi-nation coalition are expected to launch ground operations, which could threaten and burden the region for years. This may also increase local and global terrorism threats by providing Al-Qaeda with a substantial territorial base similar to that of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). [Continue reading…]


Western superiority and Arab denial

Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel writes: Most Arabs and Muslims will not grant that the West’s civilization is superior. They will admit that it is more technologically or materially advanced, but they deny that the West has achieved any cultural or ethical advance or superiority. There is a half-deliberate, half-incidental disregard for the West’s political and legal achievements, which are sometimes dismissed by referring to the contradictions that seem to undermine their foundation. This is abundantly clear when we hear acknowledgements of the West’s tremendous industrial capabilities alongside descriptions of its cultural decadence and lack of moral discipline. Most currents and schools of thought in the Arab world agree on this point, even if they differ in their explanations, descriptions and details. None of them have ever asked themselves: Could a decadent and morally undisciplined culture have provided the basis for tremendous industrial capabilities? Maybe for this reason time will show that the Arab-Islamic attitude toward the West is mistaken in its outlook, justifications and conclusions. This attitude reveals that the Arab-Islamic perspective (with the possible exceptions of Malaysia and Indonesia) continues to be in thrall to a past that could only ever be resurrected through destructive means. But its error is even more dangerous than that, because it expresses a civilizational impotence and exhaustion more than it expresses any coherent political stance, civilizational vision, or alternative civilizational project. The greatest evidence of the incoherence and injustice of this vision is that you find Baathists, Nasserists, Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood, nationalists and leftists all joining together to mock the West, deride its ethical incoherence and despise or disregard its political achievements. This comes at a high cost, because it does not reflect a real consensus as much as it represents an empty opportunism void of political substance and the least amount of moral probity.

This attitude brings together such disparate figures as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the leader of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammed al-Julani, head of the Change and Reform bloc Michel Aoun, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (who is incidentally also the Secretary-General of the Arab Socialist Baath Party – Syria Region). Ranged alongside them are other figures who have since left this world, such as Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, Abdel Nasser, Abd al-Karim Qasim, Abdul Salam Arif, and many more. They are also joined by Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood sheikhs and sheikhs from various other schools of thought. Lately Houthi leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi has joined the list as well. What is striking – and significant – is that whereas they concur in this coarse opportunism, they disagree on everything else. They are engaged in brutal, bloody clashes on the battlefields of religious wars in Iraq and Syria, fighting on the basis of a sectarianism that they have no shame in avowing. [Continue reading…]