Saudi Arabia has declared an end to its oil war with the U.S.

Quartz reports: Two years after quietly declaring war on upstart US shale, Saudi Arabia says the need for the fighting is over. In remarks to journalists while on a US visit, Saudi Arabian energy minister Khalid Al-Falih said that the worldwide oil glut has vanished, signaling an end to Saudi Arabia’s strategy of flooding the global market with oil to try to put American drillers out of business.

The implication was that Saudi Arabia owned the victory. But a three-week-long resurgence of US oil drilling after 21 months of decline suggests that Saudi and the US fought to a draw.

Falih noted that a record volume of oil remains in storage in the US and around the world (paywall), built up during the glut, but once much of that is sold off, the kingdom can resume its traditional role managing supply and demand. [Continue reading…]

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Severe food insecurity widespread in Yemen

FAO-WFP reports: Vast swathes of Yemen – 19 out of 22 governorates – are facing severe food insecurity according to a new joint assessment by the UN and partners, which warns that the situation within affected areas is likely to deteriorate if conflict persists.

The latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis confirms that over half the country’s population is living in “crisis” or “emergency” levels of food insecurity, with some governorates seeing as much as 70 percent of their population struggling to feed themselves.

At least 7 million people – a quarter of the population – are living under Emergency levels of food insecurity (Phase 4 on the five-tiered IPC scale). This reflects a 15-percent increase since June 2015. A further 7.1 million people are in a state of Crisis (Phase 3). [Continue reading…]

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Saudis used financial threats to coerce UN in effort to cover up war crimes in Yemen

The New York Times reports: The United Nations secretary general is supposed to answer to every nation on earth — and no nation at all.

So the unusually frank admission by the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, on Thursday that he had essentially been coerced into removing a Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen from an ignoble list of armies that kill and maim children was a rare window into the limits of his moral and political authority — and an object lesson for whoever succeeds Mr. Ban next year.

On Thursday, Mr. Ban told reporters that he had been threatened with the loss of financing for humanitarian operations in the Palestinian territories, South Sudan and Syria if he did not temporarily delete the Saudi-led coalition from the list.

The coalition has been accused of indiscriminately bombing civilian and nonmilitary targets in its battle against Houthi rebels in Yemen for more than a year. The coalition, which is backed by the United States, has consistently denied the accusations.

Mr. Ban’s office issued a report last week on violations of children’s rights in war zones, and it cited deadly coalition attacks that had hit schools and hospitals. By Monday, however, the coalition was taken off the list, after lobbying by Saudi Arabia and some of its wealthiest allies who help finance United Nations humanitarian operations. [Continue reading…]

Human Rights Watch: “The secretary-general’s decision flies in the face of overwhelming evidence that violations by the Saudi-led coalition have killed and maimed hundreds of children in Yemen,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Allowing governments that commit abuses against children to bully their way off the list makes a mockery of the UN’s children protection efforts.”

The UN has verified that at least 785 children have been killed and 1,168 injured in Yemen during fighting in 2015, with 60 percent of the casualties attributed to the Saudi-led coalition, the secretary-general’s report said. The UN also verified 101 attacks against schools and hospitals, attributing nearly half of the attacks to the Saudi-led coalition. Nongovernmental organizations have made similar findings. [Continue reading…]

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UN includes — then removes — Saudi coalition from list of child violators in Yemen

At Human Rights Watch, Kristine Beckerle writes: Every year, the United Nations secretary-general releases a “list of shame” of government forces and armed groups that have committed grave violations against children during armed conflict. This year, the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen was listed for the first time, identified as being responsible for killing and maiming children in Yemen and for attacks on schools and hospitals.

There was a six-fold increase in the killing and maiming of children in Yemen during 2015, with at least 785 children killed and 1,168 injured, according to the secretary-general’s report. The Saudi-led coalition was responsible for 60 percent of these child deaths and injuries.

The UN recorded 101 attacks on schools and hospitals in Yemen, double the number of attacks recorded in 2014. The Saudi-led coalition was responsible for nearly half of these attacks. Almost all caused the partial or complete destruction of facilities. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: Following a vehement protest from Saudi Arabia, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday removed the Saudi-led coalition fighting Shiite rebels in Yemen from a list of government forces that committed grave violations against children last year, pending a joint review of cases.

Saudi Arabia’s U.N. Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi insisted “the removal is unconditional and irreversible,” explaining that the government has no problem with a review and is confident it will conclude that the coalition was “wrongly placed on the list.”

Earlier, he asked for an immediate correction saying Saudi Arabia’s inclusion on the list was based on “inaccurate and incomplete” information. [Continue reading…]

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Mecca fast becoming a Las Vegas for pilgrims as world’s largest hotel soon opens

The Guardian reports: Four helipads will cluster around one of the largest domes in the world, like sideplates awaiting the unveiling of a momentous main course, which will be jacked up 45 storeys into the sky above the deserts of Mecca. It is the crowning feature of the holy city’s crowning glory, the superlative summit of what will be the world’s largest hotel when it opens in 2017.

With 10,000 bedrooms and 70 restaurants, plus five floors for the sole use of the Saudi royal family, the £2.3bn Abraj Kudai is an entire city of five-star luxury, catering to the increasingly high expectations of well-heeled pilgrims from the Gulf.

Modelled on a “traditional desert fortress”, seemingly filtered through the eyes of a Disneyland imagineer with classical pretensions, the steroidal scheme comprises 12 towers teetering on top of a 10-storey podium, which houses a bus station, shopping mall, food courts, conference centre and a lavishly appointed ballroom.

Located in the Manafia district, just over a mile south of the Grand Mosque, the complex is funded by the Saudi Ministry of Finance and designed by the Dar Al-Handasah group, a 7,000-strong global construction conglomerate that turns its hand to everything from designing cities in Kazakhstan to airports in Dubai. For the Abraj Kudai, it has followed the wedding-cake pastiche style of the city’s recent hotel boom: cornice is piled upon cornice, with fluted pink pilasters framing blue-mirrored windows, some arched with a vaguely Ottoman air. The towers seem to be packed so closely together that guests will be able to enjoy views into each other’s rooms.

“The city is turning into Mecca-hattan,” says Irfan Al-Alawi, director of the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, which campaigns to try to save what little heritage is left in Saudi Arabia’s holy cities. “Everything has been swept away to make way for the incessant march of luxury hotels, which are destroying the sanctity of the place and pricing normal pilgrims out.”

The Grand Mosque is now loomed over by the second tallest building in the world, the Abraj al-Bait clocktower, home to thousands more luxury hotel rooms, where rates can reach £4,000 a night for suites with the best views of the Kaaba – the black cube at the centre of the mosque around which Muslims must walk. The hotel rises 600m (2,000ft) into the air, projecting a dazzling green laser-show by night, on a site where an Ottoman fortress once stood – razed for development, along with the hill on which it sat.

The list of heritage crimes goes on, driven by state-endorsed Wahhabism, the hardline interpretation of Islam that perceives historical sites as encouraging sinful idolatry – which spawned the ideology that is now driving Isis’s reign of destruction in Syria and Iraq. [Continue reading…]

The construction of towering luxury hotels in Mecca seems to conflict with what can be described as the leveling effect for pilgrims performing the annual Hajj.

A 2008 Harvard study which compared attitudes of 800 successful Hajj lottery applicants from Pakistan, to an equal number of unsuccessful ones, found:

Hajjis have more positive views about people from other Muslim countries and are more likely to believe that different Pakistani ethnic and Islamic sectarian groups are equal and that they can live in harmony. Despite non-Muslims not being part of the hajj experience, these views also extend to adherents of other religions: Pilgrims are 22 percent more likely to declare that people of different religions are equal and 11 percent more likely to state that different religions can live in harmony by compromising over their disagreements.

Paralleling the findings on tolerance, hajjis report more positive views on women’s abilities, greater concern for their quality of life, and are also more likely to favor educating girls and women participating in the workforce.

Hajjis are also less likely to support the use of violence and show no evidence of any increased hostility toward the West. They are more than twice as likely to declare that the goals of Osama bin Laden are incorrect, more likely to express a preference for peace between Pakistan and India, and more likely to declare that it is incorrect to physically punish someone if they have dishonored the family. Hajjis also become more sensitive to crimes against women.

It thus seems that in many respects, the value of Hajj has less to do with the quality of accommodation available to pilgrims than it does with the avenues of access.

“These are the last days of Mecca,” Alawi tells The Guardian. “The pilgrimage is supposed to be a spartan, simple rite of passage, but it has turned into an experience closer to Las Vegas, which most pilgrims simply can’t afford.”

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Peace talks in Kuwait: Will they solve Yemen’s crisis?

Helen Lackner writes: Thirteen months into the full scale war which has encompassed the country, negotiations started in Kuwait on 21 April between the Saleh-Huthi alliance who control the Yemeni northern highlands and the capital Sana’a and the internationally recognised government of president Hadi who was elected in 2012, and has been in exile in Riyadh for most of the last year.

A month into the talks, their main achievement is that they have not definitively broken down. Insofar as any negotiations are taking place, it is thanks to the systematic interventions from the Shaikh of Kuwait or other senior figures from different countries to bring one or the other side back to the table after their routine almost daily walk outs. Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the UN special adviser and his team do their best and this time, at least, have real support from the international community.

While naïve observers might think that the ongoing and worsening suffering of 25 million Yemenis might have brought the warring parties to their senses to seek a solution without imposing further starvation, thirst, destitution and death, it would seem they consider this irrelevant.

Ensconced in their luxury hotels in Riyadh or their protected environments in Sana’a, living conditions of the population appear to be the least of their concerns. Instead, their petty rivalries, long-standing feuds and greed for power and control determine their tactics. Any planning they may be doing for the future may well focus more on how they will appropriate future external humanitarian and development funding.

So, why are these negotiations taking place? Answering this question may also help to understand their likely outcome. In addition to the military stalemate, and the collapsed economy, the role of external actors is as relevant today as it was to reach the Gulf Cooperation Council Agreement of 2011 and the transitional regime which followed it. [Continue reading…]

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How Kosovo was turned into fertile ground for ISIS

The New York Times reports: Every Friday, just yards from a statue of Bill Clinton with arm aloft in a cheery wave, hundreds of young bearded men make a show of kneeling to pray on the sidewalk outside an improvised mosque in a former furniture store.

The mosque is one of scores built here with Saudi government money and blamed for spreading Wahhabism — the conservative ideology dominant in Saudi Arabia — in the 17 years since an American-led intervention wrested tiny Kosovo from Serbian oppression.

Since then — much of that time under the watch of American officials — Saudi money and influence have transformed this once-tolerant Muslim society at the hem of Europe into a font of Islamic extremism and a pipeline for jihadists.

Kosovo now finds itself, like the rest of Europe, fending off the threat of radical Islam. Over the last two years, the police have identified 314 Kosovars — including two suicide bombers, 44 women and 28 children — who have gone abroad to join the Islamic State, the highest number per capita in Europe.

They were radicalized and recruited, Kosovo investigators say, by a corps of extremist clerics and secretive associations funded by Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab gulf states using an obscure, labyrinthine network of donations from charities, private individuals and government ministries.

“They promoted political Islam,” said Fatos Makolli, the director of Kosovo’s counterterrorism police. “They spent a lot of money to promote it through different programs mainly with young, vulnerable people, and they brought in a lot of Wahhabi and Salafi literature. They brought these people closer to radical political Islam, which resulted in their radicalization.”

After two years of investigations, the police have charged 67 people, arrested 14 imams and shut down 19 Muslim organizations for acting against the Constitution, inciting hatred and recruiting for terrorism. The most recent sentences, which included a 10-year prison term, were handed down on Friday.

It is a stunning turnabout for a land of 1.8 million people that not long ago was among the most pro-American Muslim societies in the world. Americans were welcomed as liberators after leading months of NATO bombing in 1999 that spawned an independent Kosovo.

After the war, United Nations officials administered the territory and American forces helped keep the peace. The Saudis arrived, too, bringing millions of euros in aid to a poor and war-ravaged land.

But where the Americans saw a chance to create a new democracy, the Saudis saw a new land to spread Wahhabism.

“There is no evidence that any organization gave money directly to people to go to Syria,” Mr. Makolli said. “The issue is they supported thinkers who promote violence and jihad in the name of protecting Islam.”

Kosovo now has over 800 mosques, 240 of them built since the war and blamed for helping indoctrinate a new generation in Wahhabism. They are part of what moderate imams and officials here describe as a deliberate, long-term strategy by Saudi Arabia to reshape Islam in its image, not only in Kosovo but around the world.

Saudi diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2015 reveal a system of funding for mosques, Islamic centers and Saudi-trained clerics that spans Asia, Africa and Europe. In New Delhi alone, 140 Muslim preachers are listed as on the Saudi Consulate’s payroll.

All around Kosovo, families are grappling with the aftermath of years of proselytizing by Saudi-trained preachers. Some daughters refuse to shake hands with or talk to male relatives. Some sons have gone off to jihad. Religious vigilantes have threatened — or committed — violence against academics, journalists and politicians.

The Balkans, Europe’s historical fault line, have yet to heal from the ethnic wars of the 1990s. But they are now infected with a new intolerance, moderate imams and officials in the region warn.

How Kosovo and the very nature of its society was fundamentally recast is a story of a decades-long global ambition by Saudi Arabia to spread its hard-line version of Islam — heavily funded and systematically applied, including with threats and intimidation by followers. [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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Four ideas about the crisis of the Arab world that need to be repudiated

sykes-picot

An editorial in The Economist says: Arab states are suffering a crisis of legitimacy. In a way, they have never got over the fall of the Ottoman empire. The prominent ideologies — Arabism, Islamism and now jihadism — have all sought some greater statehood beyond the frontiers left by the colonisers. Now that states are collapsing, Arabs are reverting to ethnic and religious identities. To some the bloodletting resembles the wars of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Others find parallels with the religious strife of Europe’s Thirty Years War in the 17th century. Whatever the comparison, the crisis of the Arab world is deep and complex. Facile solutions are dangerous. Four ideas, in particular, need to be repudiated.

First, many blame the mayhem on Western powers — from Sykes-Picot to the creation of Israel, the Franco-British takeover of the Suez Canal in 1956 and repeated American interventions. Foreigners have often made things worse; America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 released its sectarian demons. But the idea that America should turn away from the region — which Barack Obama seems to embrace — can be as destabilising as intervention, as the catastrophe in Syria shows.

Lots of countries have blossomed despite traumatic histories: South Korea and Poland — not to mention Israel. As our special report (see article) sets out, the Arab world has suffered from many failures of its own making. Many leaders were despots who masked their autocracy with the rhetoric of Arab unity and the liberation of Palestine (and realised neither). Oil money and other rents allowed rulers to buy loyalty, pay for oppressive security agencies and preserve failing state-led economic models long abandoned by the rest of the world.

A second wrong-headed notion is that redrawing the borders of Arab countries will create more stable states that match the ethnic and religious contours of the population. Not so: there are no neat lines in a region where ethnic groups and sects can change from one village or one street to the next. A new Sykes-Picot risks creating as many injustices as it resolves, and may provoke more bloodshed as all try to grab land and expel rivals. Perhaps the Kurds in Iraq and Syria will go their own way: denied statehood by the colonisers and oppressed by later regimes, they have proved doughty fighters against IS. For the most part, though, decentralisation and federalism offer better answers, and might convince the Kurds to remain within the Arab system. Reducing the powers of the central government should not be seen as further dividing a land that has been unjustly divided. It should instead be seen as the means to reunite states that have already been splintered; the alternative to a looser structure is permanent break-up.

A third ill-advised idea is that Arab autocracy is the way to hold back extremism and chaos. In Egypt Mr Sisi’s rule is proving as oppressive as it is arbitrary and economically incompetent. Popular discontent is growing. In Syria Bashar al-Assad and his allies would like to portray his regime as the only force that can control disorder. The contrary is true: Mr Assad’s violence is the primary cause of the turmoil. Arab authoritarianism is no basis for stability. That much, at least, should have become clear from the uprisings of 2011.

The fourth bad argument is that the disarray is the fault of Islam. Naming the problem as Islam, as Donald Trump and some American conservatives seek to do, is akin to naming Christianity as the cause of Europe’s wars and murderous anti-Semitism: partly true, but of little practical help. Which Islam would that be? The head-chopping sort espoused by IS, the revolutionary-state variety that is decaying in Iran or the political version advocated by the besuited leaders of Ennahda in Tunisia, who now call themselves “Muslim democrats”? To demonise Islam is to strengthen the Manichean vision of IS. The world should instead recognise the variety of thought within Islam, support moderate trends and challenge extremists. Without Islam, no solution is likely to endure. [Continue reading…]

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Saudia Arabia and Iran: The Cold War of Islam

Der Spiegel reports: No previous US president had been made to suffer such an indignity when visiting America’s supposedly closest ally in the Arab world: When Barack Obama touched down at the airport in Riyadh in mid-April, King Salman opted to remain in his palace. The most powerful man in the world was received by the governor of Riyadh instead. There was no pomp or ceremonial reception and state-controlled television declined to broadcast the arrival. Obama seemed slightly at a loss on the tarmac before trying to cover up the affront with a broad smile.

The message was clear: Saudi Arabia feels as though it has been left in the lurch by America and is not afraid to show that it isn’t happy.

The story of the failed reception is more than just an anecdote from the international diplomatic stage. It serves to illustrate the massive geo-political shift and the growing conflict that has gripped the entire Middle East. It has become the Cold War of our era, pitting Saudi Arabia against Iran, the two rivals that are striving for supremacy in the region. And it is not entirely clear which side the US is on.

The Middle East as we have long known it is changing dramatically. And no matter where one looks, Tehran and Riyadh are standing behind at least one of the parties involved in the conflict. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, host and protector of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina, sees itself as the home of Sunni Islam, to which the majority of the world’s Muslims belong. The Islamic Republic of Iran, a Shiite theocracy, claims leadership of the Shiites, which make up roughly 13 percent of Muslims worldwide. For both regimes, religion is an important tool of power.

Today’s bloodiest civil war, the conflict in Syria, is entering its sixth year and has thus far cost the lives of more than 250,000 people — and the cease-fire that has been in place for the last two months doesn’t look as though it will last much longer. In Syria, and also in the conflicts in Iraq and in Yemen, the fighting fronts run primarily along confessional lines: Sunnis against Shiites. A fragile peace holds in Lebanon and Bahrain, but it is one that could be shattered at any time by confessional unrest.

All of these proxy wars and confessional conflicts have unleashed a wave of migration among those who have been displaced: more than 6 million people from Syria and Iraq along with almost 3 million from Yemen. And out of the rubble of the Middle East, hydra-headed monster has risen that seeks to terrorize Brussels, Paris, Istanbul and the rest of the world: Islamic State. In an irony of history, the Sunni terror militia sees both Iran and Saudi Arabia as its enemies.

At its essence, the escalation in the Middle East also has to do with America and its changing role in the world. After decades of enmity with Iran, US President Barack Obama wanted to restart a dialogue with the country and he negotiated a nuclear treaty with Tehran. The hope is that the deal will limit Iran’s ability to pursue a nuclear weapon while making it possible for the country to do business with the West in return.

At the same time, though, the US would prefer to withdraw from this complicated, crisis-plagued region of the world. Current developments are also a product of this trend.

Iran, meanwhile, following decades of isolation, would like to revert to its former position of regional importance. The more Middle Eastern countries there are under the control of Shiites, the stronger Iran feels — and the more hard-pressed Saudi Arabia feels, a country whose rulers once rose to power by way of a pact with Sunni fundamentalists, the Wahhabis.

This new Cold War affects the entire world, making it vital to search out its causes and to scrutinize what is pushing Saudi Arabia and Iran to continue on the path of escalation. A team of SPIEGEL reporters went to both countries to investigate and spoke with politicians, religious leaders, activists, intellectuals and normal people on the streets. [Continue reading…]

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As war strangles Yemen, many fear the grip will never break

yemen-bombing

The New York Times reports: The familiar thud of shelling echoed off the mountains that cradle this besieged and ravaged city. For a few terrifying minutes, a warplane circled over neighborhoods and humming afternoon markets before dropping a bomb that momentarily silenced the guns.

But the fighting never stops for long in Taiz, or across Yemen for that matter, a country that has endured 14 months of shattering civil war.

Yemen’s government and its main opponents, the Houthi rebels, have been negotiating for weeks to end the conflict, under intense pressure from the United States and from other Western nations alarmed that Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is gaining recruits, weapons and money in the midst of the country’s collapse.

A frenzied escalation of violence over the last few days is threatening a nationwide cease-fire that was supposed to build confidence for the talks. The bloodshed has laid bare the furious rivalries — between aging warlords, tribes, Islamist groups and regional powers — that are making Yemen’s hostilities almost impossible to stop.

Even if the negotiations somehow succeed, Yemenis scarred by the vicious fighting, past broken promises and deepening divisions say they fear that any truce would just be a prelude to an even uglier war, fought between regions, religious sects — even neighbors. [Continue reading…]

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UK’s claim Saudi Arabia hasn’t breached humanitarian law in Yemen adds to ‘anything goes’ attitude, say MPs

The Guardian reports: The British government’s claim that Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen has not breached international humanitarian law is “deeply disappointing” and contributes to an “anything goes” attitude from the opposing sides in the conflict, the international development select committee has said.

The finding comes as a rebuke to the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, who made the assessment despite a UN-sponsored report and many charities presenting evidence to the contrary. The Conservative-dominated committee said the Saudi inquiry into the Yemen campaign, supported by the Foreign Office, was inadequate and called for an independent inquiry.

“It is deeply disappointing that the UK government does not accept that breaches of international humanitarian law have taken place in Yemen,” the committee said in a report. “The failure to hold parties to the conflict to account for their actions appears to have contributed to an ‘anything goes’ attitude by both sides to this conflict.” [Continue reading…]

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How the curse of Sykes-Picot still haunts the Middle East

Robin Wright writes: In the Middle East, few men are pilloried these days as much as Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot. Sykes, a British diplomat, travelled the same turf as T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), served in the Boer War, inherited a baronetcy, and won a Conservative seat in Parliament. He died young, at thirty-nine, during the 1919 flu epidemic. Picot was a French lawyer and diplomat who led a long but obscure life, mainly in backwater posts, until his death, in 1950. But the two men live on in the secret agreement they were assigned to draft, during the First World War, to divide the Ottoman Empire’s vast land mass into British and French spheres of influence. The Sykes-Picot Agreement launched a nine-year process — and other deals, declarations, and treaties — that created the modern Middle East states out of the Ottoman carcass. The new borders ultimately bore little resemblance to the original Sykes-Picot map, but their map is still viewed as the root cause of much that has happened ever since.

“Hundreds of thousands have been killed because of Sykes-Picot and all the problems it created,” Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, the Governor of Iraq’s Erbil Province, told me when I saw him this spring. “It changed the course of history — and nature.”

May 16th will mark the agreement’s hundredth anniversary, amid questions over whether its borders can survive the region’s current furies. “The system in place for the past one hundred years has collapsed,” Barham Salih, a former deputy prime minister of Iraq, declared at the Sulaimani Forum, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in March. “It’s not clear what new system will take its place.”

The colonial carve-up was always vulnerable. Its map ignored local identities and political preferences. Borders were determined with a ruler — arbitrarily. At a briefing for Britain’s Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, in 1915, Sykes famously explained, “I should like to draw a line from the ‘E’ in Acre to the last ‘K’ in Kirkuk.” He slid his finger across a map, spread out on a table at No. 10 Downing Street, from what is today a city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast to the northern mountains of Iraq.

“Sykes-Picot was a mistake, for sure,” Zikri Mosa, an adviser to Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani, told me. “It was like a forced marriage. It was doomed from the start. It was immoral, because it decided people’s future without asking them.” [Continue reading…]

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Could the latest blunder by Egypt’s Sissi be the nail in his coffin?

Sarah Yerkes wrote on April 25: Today, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is witnessing the most vocal and angry objection to his rule since he took power via a military coup in 2013. Across Cairo and beyond, Egyptians are gathering and chanting some of the same slogans from the January 2011 revolution — such as “the people want the fall of the regime” and “down with military rule.” These protests are not a spontaneous uprising. They were planned and announced on April 15, when thousands of Egyptians took to the streets, protesting the latest in a series of bold and controversial decisions that are slowly and steadily chipping away at Sissi’s once solid support structure abroad and at home.

During Saudi King Salman’s recent visit to Cairo, the Egyptian government announced that it had agreed to transfer sovereignty of two Red Sea islands — Tiran and Sanafir — to Saudi Arabia. This decision, which coincided with a $22 billion oil and aid deal, has a clear short term pay-off: a substantial Band-Aid on Egypt’s gaping economic wounds. But Sissi and his government are once again dramatically underestimating just how self-destructive their behavior can be. As my colleague Tamara Wittes eloquently noted, Egypt “continues to throw obstacles in the road of U.S.-Egyptian cooperation.” But even worse than the self-sabotage in Egypt’s foreign relations is the damage Sissi is doing to his reputation at home. [Continue reading…]

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Tony Blair: The former prime minister for hire

The Guardian reports: hen Jonathan Powell, the gatekeeper to the corporate empire of Tony Blair, sat down to lunch with the former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Faisal Al Turki in June 2010 he could not have known how lucrative it would turn out to be for the former British prime minister.

As the high-profile mediator of the stuttering peace process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Blair had to be careful not to mix business with pleasure. However, one of those lunching with Powell at the annual “global mediator’s retreat”, organised by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was looking to make a deal.

Nawaf Obaid, a security analyst who accompanied Prince Faisal, emailed Powell a week later, according to documents seen by the Guardian, with a suggestion to work with his brother Tarek’s company, PetroSaudi, which he “co-founded and co-owns with Prince Turki bin Abdullah, son of King Abdullah”.

“They have several projects that [they] are working [on] and I think it would [give] a very interesting perspective to see if we could establish a strategic partnership with former PM Tony Blair and yourself,” he wrote.

Tarek Obaid was a former banker who styled himself as an adviser to members of the Saudi royal family and a director of a joint venture with Malaysia’s multibillion-dollar development fund, 1MDB. This fund had put $300m through PetroSaudi and as the latter’s chief executive, Obaid was on the lookout for deals.

On paper PetroSaudi looked impressive: its chief investment officer was a former Goldman Sachs banker, Patrick Mahony. The chief operating officer was listed as Rick Haythornthwaite, a City insider who was also chairman of Network Rail and MasterCard.

Blair’s team sold the former prime minister as someone who could help “unlock situations which might otherwise be blocked by political factors” in places such as China and Africa. PetroSaudi was interested in Beijing’s appetite for oil and how Blair’s firm could help. [Continue reading…]

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