The return of famine as a weapon of war

Alex de Waal writes: In its primary use, the verb ‘to starve’ is transitive: it’s something people do to one another, like torture or murder. Mass starvation as a consequence of the weather has very nearly disappeared: today’s famines are all caused by political decisions, yet journalists still use the phrase ‘man-made famine’ as if such events were unusual.

Over the last half-century, famines have become rarer and less lethal. Last year I came close to thinking that they might have come to an end. But this year, it’s possible that four or five famines will occur simultaneously. ‘We stand at a critical point in history,’ the head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the former Tory MP Stephen O’Brien, told the Security Council in March, in one of his last statements before stepping down: ‘Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.’ It’s a ‘critical’ point, I’d argue, not because it is the worst crisis in our lifetime, but because a long decline – lasting seven decades – in mass death from starvation has come to an end; in fact it has been reversed.

O’Brien had no illusions about the causes of the four famines, actual or imminent, that he singled out in north-eastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. In each case, the main culprits are wars that result in the destruction of farms, livestock herds and markets, and ‘explicit’ decisions by the military to block humanitarian aid. In Nigeria, villages in the path of the war between Boko Haram and the army have been stripped of assets, income and food. As the army slowly reduces the areas under Boko Haram control, they are finding small towns where thousands starved to death last year. The counter-insurgency grinds on, and the specialists who compile the data fed into the blandly named ‘integrated food security phase classification’ (IPC) system, worry that in this year’s ‘hungry season’, approximately June to October, communities in the war zones will again move up the IPC scale: from level four (‘humanitarian emergency’) to five (‘famine’). Last year in Nigeria, the UN and relief agencies could say that they didn’t appreciate the full extent of the crisis. This year we have been given due warning.

In South Sudan, the government and the rebel armies have fought much less against each other than against the civilian population. In the summer of 2016, evidence from aid agencies showed nutrition and death rates in the region that met the UN criteria for determining that a food crisis has reached famine levels. Fearing that declaring famine would antagonise the South Sudanese government, already paranoid and cracking down on international aid agencies (aid workers were being robbed, raped and murdered), the UN prevaricated. By February, even veterans of South Sudan’s horrendous famines of the 1980s were saying that this was as bad as anything in their experience, perhaps worse. The UN duly declared a famine.

Yemen, however, is the biggest impending disaster. Don’t be fooled by pictures showing hungry people in arid landscapes: the weather had nothing to do with the famine. More than seven million people in Yemen are hungry; far more are likely to die of starvation and disease than in battles and air raids. The military intervention led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has strangled the country’s economy. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s business ties in Persian Gulf raise questions about his allegiances

The New York Times reports: President Trump has done business with royals from Saudi Arabia for at least 20 years, since he sold the Plaza Hotel to a partnership formed by a Saudi prince. Mr. Trump has earned millions of dollars from the United Arab Emirates for putting his name on a golf course, with a second soon to open.

He has never entered the booming market in neighboring Qatar, however, despite years of trying.

Now a feud has broken out among these three crucial American allies, and Mr. Trump has thrown his weight firmly behind the two countries where he has business ties, raising new concerns about the appearance of a conflict between his public role and his financial incentives.

Mr. Trump has said he is backing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates because Qatar is “a funder of terror at a very high level.” But his stance toward Qatar, which is host to the largest American air base in the region, has differed sharply from the positions of the Pentagon and State Department. The secretaries of defense and state have stayed neutral, urging unity against the common enemy of the Islamic State.

Mr. Trump is the first president in 40 years to retain his personal business interests after entering the White House. Other senior officials in the executive branch are required to divest their assets. Critics say his singular decision to hold on to his global business empire inevitably casts a doubt on his motives, especially when his public actions dovetail with his business interests. [Continue reading…]

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The Middle East’s dictatorships produce nothing but endless conflict and brutal repression

Iyad el-Baghdadi and Maryam Nayeb Yazdi write: Like Europe in 1914, the Middle East stands precariously at the edge of conflict. The history of the dictatorship-plagued region has shown that there is no such thing as a short and decisive war. The Yemeni and Syrian conflicts adequately demonstrate that, though both conflicts have been more or less geographically contained. If the current posturing transforms into an open regional war, the conflict will be neither brief nor conclusive. And the explosion of instability in the heart of the world’s most energy-rich region will send global economies into shock, create more opportunities for terrorists, necessitate further foreign interventions, spark new waves of refugees, and make the entire world less safe, less stable, and less prosperous.

The origins of the current round of chaos can be found in former President Barack Obama’s decision to disengage the United States from the Middle East — just as the region was undergoing a wave of pro-democracy mass protests. In the power vacuum created by the U.S. disengagement, various players saw both the space and the necessity to pursue their own independent, competing agendas — and in the ensuing melee, the voices of the Middle East’s people were brutally suppressed.

Obama’s push for a deal with Iran’s regime threw further confusion into the mix — leading to more destruction in Syria and ultimately opening the door to an overwhelming and brutal Russian intervention. Furthermore, to balance American alliances, Obama supported the Saudi leadership’s war on Yemen, adding more fuel to an already burning region.

Despite this, it is wrong to assume that Obama’s policies were the root cause of this mess. If anything, the U.S. decision to no longer police the region only exposed a deep-seated instability that has always existed. What we are witnessing is the consequence of a regional order dominated by dictatorships, coupled with outside powers’ reliance on an expired foreign-policy paradigm that focuses on short-term gain rather than long-term stability. It is time to realize that partnering with dictatorships for the sake of stability and security is unsustainable, myopic, and potentially disastrous. [Continue reading…]

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Gulf crisis seen widening split in Syria rebellion

Reuters reports: Confrontation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is creating unease among Syrian rebels who expect the crisis between two of their biggest state backers to deepen divisions in the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

Together with Turkey and the United States, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been major sponsors of the insurgency, arming an array of groups that have been fighting to topple the Iran-backed president. The Gulf support has however been far from harmonious, fuelling splits that have set back the revolt.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and transport ties with Qatar a week ago, accusing it of fomenting regional unrest, supporting terrorism and getting too close to Iran, all of which Doha denies.

It is the biggest rift among Gulf Arab states in years.

“God forbid if this crisis is not contained I predict … the situation in Syria will become tragic because the factions that are supported by (different) countries will be forced to take hostile positions towards each other,” said Mustafa Sejari of the Liwa al Mutasem rebel group in northern Syria.

“We urge our brothers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar not to burden the Syrian people more than they can bear.”

The Syrian rebellion can ill afford more internal conflict. [Continue reading…]

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Raising tensions, Iranians again link Saudis to terror attacks in Tehran

The New York Times reports: Turning up the heat in an already tense standoff, several Iranian officials on Tuesday renewed accusations against Saudi Arabia, suggesting that the Persian Gulf kingdom was behind last week’s twin terrorist attacks in Tehran.

Iran’s most influential military figure, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari, the commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, told the semiofficial Fars news agency that Iran had “precise information” that Saudi Arabia “has asked terrorists to carry out operations in Iran.”

He offered no further details.

The deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Brig. Gen. Masoud Jazayeria, a hard-liner, made similar assertions against Saudi Arabia, accusing the Saudis of “governmental terrorism.”

Other officials have echoed those remarks. [Continue reading…]

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Qatar, accused of supporting terrorism, hires ex-U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft

Reuters reports: The government of Qatar has hired John Ashcroft, the U.S. attorney general during the Sept. 11 attacks, as it seeks to rebut accusations from U.S. President Donald Trump and its Arab neighbors that it supports terrorism.

Qatar will pay the Ashcroft Law Firm $2.5 million for a 90-day period as the country seeks to confirm its efforts to fight global terrorism and comply with financial regulations including U.S. Treasury rules, according to a Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, filing on Friday with the Justice Department.

“The firm’s work will include crisis response and management, program and system analysis, media outreach, education and advocacy regarding the client’s historical, current and future efforts to combat global terror and its compliance goals and accomplishments,” according to a letter by Ashcroft firm partner Michael Sullivan included in the filing.

Qatar faces isolation by fellow Arab countries after Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt severed ties with Doha on Monday, accusing it of supporting Islamist militants and their adversary Iran. Qatar denies the allegations. [Continue reading…]

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What happens in Tehran doesn’t stay in Tehran

Hooman Majd writes: The terrorist attacks in Tehran on Wednesday — in bright daylight and at two very different yet entirely related locations — up the ante in what has become a battle royale for influence in the Middle East, and in the fight against the terrorists wreaking havoc in the region and in the West. While Iran may seem to Americans a million miles away, what happens in Tehran most definitely does not stay there.

On his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, President Trump joined many of his Arab counterparts in denouncing Iran as the foremost sponsor of terrorism, perhaps unaware of the irony of doing so while being feted in the country of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s ideological forefathers. Qatar, whose emir met with Mr. Trump in Riyadh and who was perhaps alarmed by the carte blanche being given to Saudi Arabia, subsequently reached out to Iran in an attempt to calm tensions in a combustible region. He was rewarded with the cutting off both political and economic relations by a Saudi-led coalition: Arab unity be damned.

Two days later, terrorists struck in Tehran. The timing is significant, but so are the locations: The sites of the Islamic State’s attacks demonstrate what Iran’s enemies hope to destroy and how these goals are tied to the wider instability facing the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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Terrorist attacks inflame Saudi-Iranian rivalry and Gulf tensions

The New York Times reports: If the Islamic State did carry out the twin terrorist attacks on Wednesday in Iran, as the militant group claims, it struck at an opportune time to further the cause of chaos.

Iran rushed to blame Saudi Arabia, its chief rival in a contest for power playing out in proxy wars in at least two other countries in the region, Syria and Yemen.

Saudi Arabia, however, seemed too preoccupied to respond. Its state-run news media was dominated by criticism of its neighbor and ostensible ally, Qatar, after the Saudis and other Arab allies cut off ties to Qatar as part of a different struggle for power within the Persian Gulf.

The attacks in Tehran threatened to escalate the broader regional conflict between the two heavyweight powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, at a time when the Western-allied gulf bloc is divided against itself. And Saudi Arabia, under the two-year-old reign of King Salman and his powerful son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is demonstrating an unexpected willingness to plunge into risky multifront battles.

Turkey has long been a partner to the gulf monarchs in their proxy war against Iran in Syria. But in Ankara, the Turkish capital, on Wednesday, Parliament voted to authorize sending troops to Turkey’s base in Qatar — presumably to help defend against the Saudis.

What’s more, the Saudis may actually risk driving Qatar — the world’s largest producer of natural gas, and home to the largest American air base in the region — even closer to Iran.

Tehran has eagerly offered to provide Qatar with food and other supplies to make up for a closing of the vital overland shipping routes from Saudi Arabia.

Qatar has so far rebuffed the Iranian offer, saying it prefers to rely on supplies delivered by air from Turkey. But Qatari diplomats have also quietly stepped up dialogue with their Iranian counterparts, officials close to the Qatari foreign minister say. [Continue reading…]

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How Trump’s alignment with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is inflaming the Middle East

Marc Lynch writes: President Trump took to Twitter Tuesday to offer a full-throated endorsement of this week’s surprisingly aggressive moves by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar. Trump cast the moves against Qatar as the realization of his visit to Saudi Arabia: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar.”

Trump’s tweets may not have been coordinated with the rest of his administration, or he may not have thought through the implications of promoting a blockade of a country hosting America’s most important military base for the campaign against the Islamic State. But his position builds naturally upon the full embrace of the Saudi-UAE position on regional issues articulated during his visit to Saudi Arabia. During that visit, he prioritized confrontation with Iran and an escalated campaign against “radical Islamist terrorism,” while removing questions of human rights and democracy from the agenda.

This embrace of the Saudi-Emirati axis was likely intended to rebuild American leadership of its regional alliance structure. But the focus on Iran and on Islamism misses several other critical lines of conflict in the region. As I outline in my recent book, the intra-Sunni political battle between the Saudi/UAE axis and Qatar has long been as central to regional politics as has the conflict with Iran. The campaign against the Islamic State has relied upon de facto cooperation with Iran. The focus on the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist extremism has often been a cover for a more general campaign against any form of democratic change or popular activism. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. suspects Russian hackers planted fake news behind Qatar crisis

CNN reports: US investigators believe Russian hackers breached Qatar’s state news agency and planted a fake news report that contributed to a crisis among the US’ closest Gulf allies, according to US officials briefed on the investigation.

The FBI recently sent a team of investigators to Doha to help the Qatari government investigate the alleged hacking incident, Qatari and US government officials say.

Intelligence gathered by the US security agencies indicates that Russian hackers were behind the intrusion first reported by the Qatari government two weeks ago, US officials say. Qatar hosts one of the largest US military bases in the region.

The alleged involvement of Russian hackers intensifies concerns by US intelligence and law enforcement agencies that Russia continues to try some of the same cyber-hacking measures on US allies that intelligence agencies believe it used to meddle in the 2016 elections.

US officials say the Russian goal appears to be to cause rifts among the US and its allies. In recent months, suspected Russian cyber activities, including the use of fake news stories, have turned up amid elections in France, Germany and other countries.

It’s not yet clear whether the US has tracked the hackers in the Qatar incident to Russian criminal organizations or to the Russian security services blamed for the US election hacks. One official noted that based on past intelligence, “not much happens in that country without the blessing of the government.” [Continue reading…]

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Qatar’s isolation only makes sense in Trump’s world

Jonathan Cristol writes: In the last 24 hours, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Maldives and Yemen have all cut ties with Qatar. It has been expelled from the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. In addition, Emirates, Etihad and FlyDubai have announced the imminent cancellation of flights to Doha.

While President Trump’s role in this unfolding Gulf drama may not seem immediately obvious, his vision of a Saudi-led Arab world, united against Iran, is indeed responsible for the diplomatic hullabaloo.

Two weeks ago, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani allegedly criticized Donald Trump’s Iran policy and called Iran a “regional and Islamic power.” The remarks were posted online, but Doha has argued its official news agency website was hacked and that the (generally innocuous) quotes are not real. The FBI is assisting in the investigation of the alleged hack.

Ostensibly, in response to this statement, the Saudi Press Agency said, “(Qatar) embraces multiple terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at disturbing stability in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS (Islamic State) and al Qaeda” as well as “rebel militias” in Yemen.

But the truth is there is likely something else at play here. Trump’s continued hard line against Iran, his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, his refusal to reaffirm NATO’s Article Five and his administration’s statement that “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage,” is an effective declaration that the age of negotiation and nuance is over and the era of confrontation and collision has begun. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi-led rupture with Qatar pushes isolated Gulf nation into Iran’s embrace

Bloomberg reports: The Saudi-led rupture with Qatar is backfiring where Iran is concerned — at least for now.

If the severing of ties was intended to force the Gulf nation back into Saudi Arabia’s fold and further isolate its key rival, Shiite Iran, then the opposite is happening. Qatar responded to the blockade by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt by rerouting flights to Africa and Europe via Iran, which has rallied to its ally’s defense.

“In terms of Realpolitik, this is good for Iran,” said Foad Izadi, a member of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran. Qatar is “blocked from all sides except the side that looks at Iran.”

Saudi Arabia accuses its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member of supporting a range of militant groups, from Iranian proxies to the Sunni militants of Islamic State. Qatar, which has long vexed the kingdom with its maverick alliances, has dismissed the charges as baseless, and accused the Saudis of seeking to dominate the region. [Continue reading…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cholera spreading fast in Yemen — 10,000 cases reported in last 72 hours

Al Jazeera reports: An estimated 70,000 cases of cholera have been reported by UNICEF in Yemen, with nearly 600 people dying over the past month, as the disease continues to spread at an alarming rate.

The UN agency, which provides humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and mothers in developing countries, said on Friday that the already dire situation for children in Yemen was quickly turning into a disaster.

“Cholera doesn’t need a permit to cross a checkpoint or a border, nor does it differentiate between areas of political control,” said Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF regional director, following his visit to the country, according to a statement on the agency’s website.

He gave warning that “the number of suspected cases is expected to reach 130,000 within the next two weeks” in the Arabian Peninsula country.

UNICEF said at least 10,000 cholera cases were reported in the past 72 hours alone. [Continue reading…]

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Trump is fomenting even more conflict in the Middle East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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