Despite furor over Jerusalem move, Saudis seen on board with U.S. peace efforts

Reuters reports: Saudi Arabia pulled no punches when it condemned President Donald Trump’s move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But Palestinian officials say Riyadh has also been working for weeks behind the scenes to press them to support a nascent U.S. peace plan.

Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy on Wednesday with his announcement and instructions to begin the process of moving the embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite warnings that it would drive the wedge between Israel and the Palestinians deeper.

The Saudi royal court described the decision as “unjustified and irresponsible” and “a big step back in efforts to advance the peace process.”

But Arab officials privately say that Riyadh appears to be on board with a broader U.S. strategy for an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan still in its early phases of development.

Four Palestinian officials, who spoke on condition they not be named, said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas discussed in detail a grand bargain that Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, are expected to unveil in the first half of 2018.

One official said Prince Mohammed asked Abbas to show support for the U.S. administration’s peace efforts when the two met in Riyadh in November.

Another Palestinian official said Prince Mohammed told Abbas: “Be patient, you will hear good news. This peace process will go ahead.”

The U.S.-Saudi relationship has improved dramatically under Trump, partly because the leaders share a vision of confronting Riyadh’s arch-rival Iran more aggressively in the region.

Kushner, 36, whose father knew Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, has also nurtured strong personal ties with the 32-year-old crown prince as he asserts Saudi influence internationally and amasses power for himself at home. [Continue reading…]

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The Jerusalem announcement won’t really hurt U.S. alliances with Arab rulers

Shadi Hamid writes: Most Arab countries won’t care much about Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which might seem counterintuitive. The official announcement, though, comes at an important and peculiar time, when Arab regimes—particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt—find themselves more aligned than ever with Israel on regional priorities. They all share, along with the Trump administration, a near obsession with Iran as the source of the region’s evils; a dislike, and even hatred, of the Muslim Brotherhood; and an opposition to the intent and legacy of the Arab Spring.

The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has developed a close relationship with Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner (who recently outlined the administration’s Middle East vision at my institution, Brookings). If Saudi officials, including the crown prince himself, were particularly concerned with Jerusalem’s status, they would presumably have used their privileged status as a top Trump ally and lobbied the administration to hold off on such a needlessly toxic move. As my colleague Shibley Telhami argues, there was little compelling reason, in either foreign policy or domestic political terms, for Trump to do this. This is a gratuitous announcement, if there ever was one, and it’s unlikely Trump would have followed through if the Saudis had drawn something resembling a red line, so to speak.

It appears that the Saudi regime may have done the opposite. As The New York Times reported:

According to Palestinian, Arab and European officials who have heard Mr. Abbas’s version of the conversation, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented a plan that would be more tilted toward the Israelis than any ever embraced by the American government.

Falling short of even what previous Israeli leaders Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert had considered, the Saudi proposal, by the Times’s account, would have asked Palestinians to accept limited sovereignty in the West Bank and forfeit claims on Jerusalem. Whether or not the Saudi crown prince presented this “plan” out of sincerity or as a gambit to lower the bar and pressure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to make concessions is almost beside the point. That these ideas were even so much as floated suggests a Saudi regime increasingly close to both Israel as well as the Trump administration. (The Saudi government denied any changes in its position on Jerusalem in an official statement.)

These are odd positions for the Saudi leadership to be in. As the birthplace of Islam and custodian of the faith’s two holiest sites, Saudi Arabia has long presented itself as a protector and representative of Muslims worldwide. Yet it now finds itself in close embrace with the most anti-Muslim administration in U.S. history and stands as one of the few countries genuinely enthusiastic about Trump’s foreign-policy agenda. [Continue reading…]

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The axis of Arab autocrats who are standing behind Donald Trump

David Hearst writes: So Donald Trump revealed his hand on Jerusalem. In so doing, he tossed aside any lingering pretence of the US being able to broker a deal between Israel and Palestine. There can be no “neutrality” now. Without Jerusalem as its capital, no Palestinian state can exist. Without that it is only a matter of time before another uprising starts.

Only a symbol as powerful as Jerusalem can unite Palestinians as viscerally opposed to each other as Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. Only Jerusalem has the power to unite the inmates of all the prisons and places of exile Palestinians find themselves in – Israel’s physical prisons and its metaphorical ones, the Palestinians in 1948, Gaza, West Bank, the refugee camps and the diaspora. Only Jerusalem speaks to billions of Muslims around the world.

As Trump will soon learn, symbols are powerful. They have a habit of creating a reality all of their own.

Trump, however, does not act alone. Whatever domestic constituency he thinks he is appealing to, and the evangelical Christians appear high on the list, Trump could not and would not have made his announcement unless he had regional backers.

The support of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and religious nationalists from Jewish Home are a given, but they are wearily familiar. The exotic and temptingly alien support comes from a new generation of Gulf Arab superbrats – young, irreverent, dune-bashing, selfie-taking, in your face, and appearing in a coup near you.

Under Trump they have formed an axis of Arab autocrats, whose geopolitical ambition is as large as their wallets. They really do think they have the power to impose their will not just on the shards of a Palestinian state, but on the region as a whole.

Under construction, at least in their minds, is a network of modern police states, each wearing a lip gloss of Western liberalism. All see Likud as their natural partners, and Jared Kushner as their discreet interlocutor. [Continue reading…]

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Killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh changes dynamics of Yemen’s civil war

The Guardian reports: The killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former Yemeni president, removes the country’s most important political figure for four decades from a complex equation that has plunged the Arab world’s poorest nation into conflict and sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

His death marks a dramatic shift three years into a war in a state of stalemate. It risks the conflict becoming even more intractable.

Saleh was an important player in Yemen’s descent into civil war. His reluctant departure from power in 2012 – forced upon him by the Arab spring after 33 years of rule – brought his Saudi-backed deputy, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, into office.

But in 2014 Saleh forged an uneasy, unlikely alliance with his former enemies, the Houthis, to facilitate their takeover of Sana’a and ultimately to force Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia.

It was an alliance doomed to fail, but few predicted the man who sided with the rebels he fought six wars against between 2004 and 2011 would eventually be killed by them.

While it lasted, the alliance benefited both sides. Saleh used Houthi firepower and manpower, while the rebels gained from Saleh’s governing and intelligence networks.

In the past week, that equation changed as Saleh moved to increase his power in Sana’a and signalled that he was swapping sides, seeking a dialogue with the Saudis and their allies, including the United Arab Emirates. There were reports that Saudi bombing of Sana’a in recent days was targeting Houthi areas in a move to help Saleh – but that did little to prevent the rebels killing him.

Without Saleh, the Houthis are strengthened – at least in the short term. “There’s a possibility that [Saleh’s] apparatus will be radically weakened, if not marginalised in the coming period; this leaves the Houthis as the key power in northern Yemen,” said Adam Baron, visiting fellow at European Council on Foreign Relations. [Continue reading…]

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It’s official: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri not resigning after all

The New York Times reports: A month after he declared under Saudi Arabian pressure that he was quitting his post, Lebanon’s prime minister officially rescinded his resignation on Tuesday, closing a chapter in a curious political saga that threatened to destabilize Lebanon and transfixed the region.

The reversal by the prime minister, Saad Hariri, was considered a setback for Saudi Arabia and its brash young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who had summoned Mr. Hariri to Riyadh last month.

Western diplomats and Lebanese officials have said the prince coerced Mr. Hariri into announcing his resignation and effectively kept him under house arrest for more than two weeks, until an international diplomatic scramble brought him home.

The episode was widely seen as an attempt by Saudi Arabia to counter its regional rival, Iran, by collapsing Mr. Hariri’s government, which includes Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and political party that is Iran’s Lebanese ally.

But with Mr. Hariri and his government staying in place for now, that maneuver has failed, with Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon undamaged and possibly stronger. [Continue reading…]

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Saleh’s death in Yemen sends a message to other dictators

Krishnadev Calamur writes: Ali Abdullah Saleh once described ruling Yemen as “dancing over the heads of snakes.” The former president’s reported death Monday, at the hands of Houthi rebels who were his allies just a few days ago, shows not only the perils of that balancing act, but also the political shifts in a country wracked by civil war since 2015. More importantly, perhaps, is that it shows how difficult it will be to resolve the civil war—and the proxy fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran that helps fuel it—in the most impoverished country in the Arab world.

Saleh’s apparent death, six years after Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was killed and his body paraded on the streets of his hometown of Sirte, will send a signal to strongmen around the world, most notably Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Assad is more firmly in control of Syria than at any point since the civil war began in March 2011. But his rule, despite military and diplomatic support from Russia and Iran, is fragile. Syria’s Arab neighbors and Turkey all want him gone—as does the United States. As long as he remains in power, instability will almost certainly remain a feature of Syrian politics and life. But the fate of Saleh and Qaddafi before him is a powerful example of what dictators most fear—not just losing their power, but losing their lives. Assad could thus cling closer to his political benefactors in order to ensure he doesn’t meet the same fate.

After Saddam Hussein, who was hanged in Iraq in 2006, and Qaddafi, Saleh is the third former Arab dictator to be killed following a regime change in the region. Other longtime Arab leaders, from Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, were also ousted in the Arab uprisings of 2011, but survived. Where leaders clung on to power in the face of protests, such as in Syria and Bahrain, civil war and political unrest, respectively, have become the norm. And the fates of Hussein and Qaddafi, in particular, are believed to preoccupy another incumbent dictator outside the Middle East: Regional experts say Kim Jong Un accelerated his nuclear and missile programs in part because both leaders, after giving up such programs, saw their regimes and their lives ended. They say he sees these weapons as an insurance policy against ending up like them. [Continue reading…]

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Talk of a peace plan that snubs Palestinians roils Middle East

The New York Times reports: In a mysterious trip last month, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, traveled to Saudi Arabia’s capital for consultations with the hard-charging crown prince about President Trump’s plans for Middle East peace. What was said when the doors were closed, however, has since roiled the region.

According to Palestinian, Arab and European officials who have heard Mr. Abbas’s version of the conversation, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented a plan that would be more tilted toward the Israelis than any ever embraced by the American government, one that presumably no Palestinian leader could ever accept.

The Palestinians would get a state of their own but only noncontiguous parts of the West Bank and only limited sovereignty over their own territory. The vast majority of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which most of the world considers illegal, would remain. The Palestinians would not be given East Jerusalem as their capital and there would be no right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

The White House on Sunday denied that was its plan, saying it was still months away from finalizing a blueprint for peace, and the Saudi government denied that it supports those positions.

That left many in Washington and the Middle East wondering whether the Saudi crown prince was quietly doing the bidding of Mr. Trump, trying to curry favor with the Americans, or freelancing in order to put pressure on the Palestinians or to make any eventual offer sound generous by comparison. Or perhaps Mr. Abbas, weakened politically at home, was sending out signals for his own purposes that he was under pressure from Riyadh.

Even if the account proves incomplete, it has gained currency with enough players in the Middle East to deeply alarm Palestinians and raise suspicions about Mr. Trump’s efforts. On top of that, advisers have said the president plans to give a speech on Wednesday in which he would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, even though both sides claim it, a declaration that analysts and regional officials say could undermine America’s role as a theoretically neutral broker. [Continue reading…]

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Long divided, Iran unites against Trump and Saudis

The New York Times reports: The busiest square in Tehran is dominated by an enormous billboard with a drawing of a young man in the uniform of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, extending his hand to invite Iranians to follow his path. Underneath the image, teenagers line up, flashing victory signs, as they take selfies with the placard in the background.

In life, the man on the billboard, 26-year-old Mohsen Hojaji, was just as anonymous as the thousands of other Iranians who have rotated in and out of war zones in Iraq and Syria in recent years. But after having been taken prisoner, videotaped and later beheaded by the Islamic State in August, Mr. Hojaji has been transformed by Iran’s government into a war hero, the face of a new surge in Iranian nationalism.

After years of cynicism, sneering or simply tuning out all things political, Iran’s urban middle classes have been swept up in a wave of nationalist fervor.

The changing attitude, while some years in the making, can be attributed to two related factors: the election of President Trump and the growing competition with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s sectarian rival, for regional dominance.

Iranians listened during the 2016 campaign as Mr. Trump denounced the Iran nuclear treaty as “the worst deal ever negotiated” and promised to tear it up. They watched in horror when, as president, he sold more than $100 billion worth of weapons to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and participated in a traditional war dance in Riyadh. And they are alarmed at the foreign policy moves of the young Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, whom they see as hotheaded and inexperienced. [Continue reading…]

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Hezbollah, on the rise in Lebanon, fends off Saudi Arabia

The Washington Post reports: Even as Arab countries step up pressure on Hezbollah for its ties to Iran, the Lebanese Shiite militant group has cemented its status as a regional power, projecting military strength beyond Lebanon’s borders and weathering political crises at home.

The group’s rise comes as Iran and Saudi Arabia vie for hegemony in the region, intensifying conflicts from Syria to Yemen. Saudi Arabia sees Hezbollah as Iran’s most potent proxy, and in recent weeks has spearheaded an effort to isolate the movement.

But Hezbollah’s dominant position was made apparent this month in the ongoing saga of Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri.

According to U.S. and Lebanese officials, Saudi Arabia forced Hariri’s resignation, shattering Lebanon’s coalition government, which included Hezbollah ministers. Saudi Arabia hoped the move would undermine Iran by paving the way for more aggressive action against the Shiite militants, the officials say.

Instead, it rallied Lebanon in support of its prime minister and cast Hezbollah as the stabilizing force. On Wednesday, Hariri announced he was suspending his resignation as he held talks with Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

Now Hezbollah is set to potentially benefit from the turmoil, using its political and military prowess — and vast social networks in Lebanon — to entrench itself further. From its strongholds in southern Lebanon, where it made its name fighting Israeli troops, to the battlefields of Syria, Hezbollah is ascendant, with few able to challenge it. [Continue reading…]

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Autocracies breed terror in Middle East, says Qatari foreign minister

The Guardian reports: Qatar’s foreign minister has claimed the root cause of Middle East terrorism lay in authoritarian rulers, and lack of human rights, presenting Qatar as a more reliable western ally in the fight against terror than “impulsive, crisis-making” Saudi Arabia.

Speaking in front of British ministers at a Qatar-sponsored anti-terror conference in London, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani stressed his country’s commitment to use political and economic policies, as well as security measures to attack extremism’s “breeding ground of injustice and authoritarianism”.

Qatar is run by a royal family and critics claim the Doha-based broadcaster al-Jazeera is more free to criticise other Gulf states than its hosts, but the emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, announced this month that Qatar would hold elections for a 45-strong consultative shura council in 2019.

Such elections have been delayed three times, but pressure from the publicity of holding the World Cup in 2022, and the country’s ongoing dispute with Saudi Arabia, is thought to make a fourth postponement less likely. Qatar is also revising its much-criticised labour laws and plans to grant citizenship rights to some expatriates. [Continue reading…]

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Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri puts his resignation on hold

The Washington Post reports: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri suspended his shock resignation delivered weeks earlier from Saudi Arabia, marking a stunning return to Beirut on Wednesday after weeks of speculation over his freedom of movement.

Hariri’s Nov. 4 announcement from Riyadh blindsided political allies and foes alike, and stoked regional tensions amid suggestions that he had been coerced by his main regional patron.

But standing in the marble hallway of Beirut’s presidential palace Wednesday, Hariri said that he had agreed to delay his resignation to hold a “dialogue” that would lead Lebanon out of crisis.

The announcement appeared to roll back a bold push by Saudi Arabia in recent weeks aimed at countering Iranian influence across the region. [Continue reading…]

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The catastrophe of Saudi Arabia’s Trump-backed intervention in Yemen

Nawal Al-Maghafi writes: In the main hospital in the Yemeni port city of Hudaydah this August, the malnutrition ward overflowed with patients. In the corridor, a man sat on the floor, with two children beside him whose ribs protruded under their pale skin. Inside the makeshift ward, every bed held two skeletal children. Saleha, a mother in her thirties, sat on the corner of a bed with her nine-year-old daughter, Fateena, on her lap. The child appeared thin and weak, and gasped for air. She urgently needed tests, according to doctors, but the hospital’s labs were overwhelmed. Saleha told me that the local hospital in her village was closed. It took the family three days of hitchhiking with strangers most of the way to reach the city, on the west coast of Yemen, and its hospital. “The war has really taken its toll on her,” Saleha told me, pointing to her daughter. “Now she just lays there until her body seizes again.” The staff of the government-run hospital said that they hadn’t been paid for months. “We are hungry, but we might as well come to work than starve to death at home,” one doctor told me. “We can’t go to war on the frontline but this is our way of fighting against the aggression, by saving people.”

On Thursday, the heads of three United Nations relief agencies called on a nine-nation military coalition led by Saudi Arabia to end a tightened blockade it imposed on Yemen after Houthi rebels fired a ballistic missile into Riyadh, the Saudi capital, last weekend. “Closure of much of the country’s air, sea and land ports is making an already catastrophic situation far worse,” a joint statement issued by the United Nations Children’s Fund, World Food Program, and World Health Organization, said. “The space and access we need to deliver humanitarian assistance is being choked off, threatening the lives of millions of vulnerable children and families.”

The U.N. officials said that more than twenty million people, including more than eleven million children, are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance; at least 14.8 million lack basic medical care, and a cholera outbreak has infected more than nine hundred thousand. Yemenis are caught in a nearly three-year conflict that began as a domestic power struggle and evolved into a brutal proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, killing more than ten thousand people and shuttering more than half of the country’s medical facilities. Saudi armed forces, backed by more than forty billion dollars in American arms shipments authorized by the Trump and Obama Administrations, have killed thousands of civilians in air strikes. They have also blockaded the country to varying degrees for two years and intermittently prevented journalists and human-rights researchers from flying into the country. [Continue reading…]

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America’s constant if confused role in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen

Iona Craig writes: Along with a coalition of regional nations, Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen since March 2015 in an effort to push back Houthi rebels, whose political alignment to Iran has been cited as the pretext for the campaign. And from the get-go, the U.S. has helped.

In the first year of the bombing campaign, the U.S. government authorized the sale of 2,800 guided bombs to Saudi Arabia that were equipped with the MAU-169L/B computer control group, according to the Defence Security Cooperation Agency. That transaction was a mere fraction of more than $100 billion in arms sold to the Kingdom under then-President Barack Obama. Those sales were suspended in December, 2016, due to growing concerns over civilian casualties, but that stand didn’t last long under President Donald Trump, who signed a deal during his visit to Riyadh in May, pledging nearly $110 billion in future weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

Yet it’s not just weapons sales that tie the U.S. to Yemen’s war: The U.S. continues to provide political and logistical support to Saudi Arabia’s campaign, most notably the refueling of Saudi coalition fighter jets used in daily bombing runs.

For Yemenis, the results have been disastrous: Coalition airstrikes have punished Yemen’s civilians, and its children specifically, destroying hospitals, schools and vital infrastructure. In total, Saudi-led airstrikes are responsible for over 60 percent of civilian deaths in Yemen’s war, according to the United Nations, leading many human rights organizations to accuse the U.S. of taking part in potential war crimes. [Continue reading…]

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How can Yemen’s humanitarian crisis be solved?

 

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Israeli military chief wants closer Saudi ties as Iran tensions rise

The Guardian reports: Israel’s military chief has given an “unprecedented” interview to a Saudi newspaper underlining the ways in which the two countries could unite to counter Iran’s influence in the region.

Speaking to the Saudi newspaper Elaph, Gen Gadi Eisenkot described Iran as the “biggest threat to the region” and said Israel would be prepared to share intelligence with “moderate” Arab states like Saudi Arabia in order to “deal with” Tehran.

The interview, however, is particularly striking in its very public and confrontational messaging: an appeal by Israel to Riyadh for a joint action on Tehran, delivered by Israel’s most senior soldier.

It is the latest dramatic twist in weeks of turmoil in the region, which followed an unexpected purge of Saudi princes and officials by crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has also increasingly locked Saudi Arabia on a path to confrontation with Iran. [Continue reading…]

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International law is meant to prevent what’s happening in Yemen

Nathalie Weizmann writes: Every day brings worse news from Yemen. This morning, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced that water and sewage systems in three cities in Yemen – Hodeidah, Sa’ada and Taiz – had stopped operating because imports of fuel were at a standstill. And just yesterday, the heads of the World Food Programme (WFP), UNICEF and the World Health Organization described the current situation in Yemen as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.”

Yemen was already struggling with a humanitarian disaster after two years of war, but the situation grew far worse last week, when the Saudi-led military coalition stopped critical commercial supplies and humanitarian aid deliveries from entering Yemen, and blocked the movement of relief workers into and out of the country. The coalition announced the closure of all Yemeni airports, seaports and land crossings in response to a ballistic missile fired by Ansar Allah (also referred to as Houthi) opposition forces in Yemen and intercepted by the Saudi military over Riyadh’s international airport.

Reacting to the shutdown, the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, warned that if it isn’t lifted, “it will be the largest famine the world has seen in many decades, with millions of victims.” According to key members of the humanitarian community in Yemen, “There are over 20 million people in need of humanitarian assistance; 7 million of them are facing famine-like conditions and rely completely on food aid to survive.” [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia has no idea how to deal with Iran

Emile Hokayem writes: Few things are as explosive as the combination of power, ambition and anxiety — and there is plenty of all three in Riyadh these days.

Once a cautious and passive regional power, Saudi Arabia has found a new purpose in recent years. The ruthless ambition of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in full display at home with his crackdown on businessmen and members of the royal family, also radiates across the Middle East, driven by the urgency to check Iranian influence. Prince Mohammed has a point. Iran is set on becoming the dominant power from Iraq to Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia may exaggerate Iranian intentions and power, but Western and Asian countries typically understate them. The Iranians themselves are clear about how they view the region: “No decisive actions can be taken in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, North Africa and the Gulf region without Iran’s consent,” Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, reportedly boasted last month. Tehran may not be in full control in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, but thanks to its proxies and allies, it can decisively shape their battlefields and politics.

Given these circumstances, Prince Mohammed has good reason to question the value of his predecessors’ risk aversion on foreign policy. Under previous kings, Riyadh was indeed keen to reach out to Tehran despite provocative Iranian actions, including fast-tracking its nuclear program just as King Abdullah courted Presidents Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, and plotting to assassinate a Saudi ambassador in the United States.

Now Saudi foreign and security policy has gone into overdrive. Rather than carefully pushing back Iran and enrolling broad support for this effort, the approach has been haphazard, unsettling and counterproductive — and Iran remains one step ahead. [Continue reading…]

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Lebanese prime minister departs from Saudi Arabia and arrives in France

The New York Times reports: Lebanon’s absent prime minister arrived in France on Saturday morning after two weeks in Saudi Arabia, a mysterious stay that touched off intense speculation that he was being held against his will.

The prime minister, Saad Hariri, who has dismissed the speculation but has not publicly explained the nature or length of his stay in Saudi Arabia, later met with France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, at the Élysée Palace.

The office of Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, also said on Saturday on Twitter that the two leaders had spoken and that Mr. Hariri had said he would be in Lebanon for the country’s Independence Day holiday, which is Wednesday.

Mr. Hariri announced on Nov. 4 from Riyadh, the Saudi capital, that he was stepping down as Lebanon’s prime minister, but officials in Lebanon have said that his departure would not take effect until he delivered his resignation in person in Beirut.

Mr. Hariri’s unexpected trip and resignation unsettled the Middle East, sparking a political crisis in Lebanon and even raising fears of war. Saudi Arabia was widely seen as pressuring Mr. Hariri to resign as part of its escalating regional feud with Iran and its effort to isolate Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia and political party that is part of Mr. Hariri’s coalition government.

Mr. Hariri, for his part, said he feared for his safety in Lebanon.

With European diplomats scrambling to defuse the crisis, France seized the role of mediator. France has strong ties to Lebanon, dating from the early 20th century, and to the Hariri family. Mr. Hariri’s father, Rafik, was close to former President Jacques Chirac. The father, also a prime minister of Lebanon, was assassinated in 2005. [Continue reading…]

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