Under Saudi blockade, Yemen faces severe humanitarian crisis

The New York Times reports: Pressure is mounting on the Saudi-led military coalition that seeks to stanch a rebellion in Yemen, as aid officials prepare to add Yemen to the ranks of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises and human rights groups point to what may be war crimes.

United Nations officials are expected to declare Yemen a so-called Level 3 — or most severe — humanitarian crisis, as the de facto military blockade on commercial ships restricts the supply of food and fuel into the Arab world’s poorest country, diplomats said Tuesday.

That is sure to complicate what is already a delicate diplomatic balance for allies of Saudi Arabia, including the United States, which are reluctant to even call it a blockade. The preferred term, as one United Nations Security Council diplomat put it, is a “controlled maritime area.”

Whatever it is called, its effects on civilians have been dire. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi officials linked to jihadist group in WikiLeaks cables

The Wall Street Journal reports: Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, had high-level contacts with America’s most deadly adversary in Afghanistan, the Haqqani network, according to purported Saudi diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.

The documents, which couldn’t be independently verified, say the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan met in 2012 with Nasiruddin Haqqani, the chief fundraiser for the jihadist group who has been on a United Nations terrorism watch list since 2010.

In the meeting, Mr. Haqqani requested medical treatment in Saudi Arabia for his father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the terrorist organization, the diplomatic correspondence says. The documents indicate the elder Haqqani carries a Saudi passport. [Continue reading…]

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Yemeni heritage, Saudi vandalism

Lamya Khalidi writes: For more than 10 years, I was one of a number of American and Yemeni archaeologists surveying and excavating sites dating to the fabled South Arabian kingdoms and beyond, to prehistoric times. We were members of the Dhamar Survey Project, started by the University of Chicago and named for a historic town in highland Yemen.

The team spent decades exploring the magnificent megalithic monuments and walled towns of a civilization that developed terraced agriculture as early as the third millennium B.C., an ancient tradition that has stunningly etched the entire surface area of the region’s steep mountains like a topographical map. The project collected thousands of artifacts from more than 400 sites, including tools, pottery, statuary and inscriptions in ancient South Arabian languages.

We ensured that all of these artifacts, evidence of ancient cultures that traded at great distances during the Neolithic period and eventually built roads to link the highland towns to major incense trade routes, were deposited in the Dhamar Regional Museum. There, they were restored and studied by foreign teams and Yemeni archaeologists, and put on display.

This museum has just been obliterated from the air. In a matter of minutes, the irreplaceable work of ancient artisans, craftsmen and scribes — not to mention the efforts of Yemeni and foreign researchers who have dedicated years of their lives to studying and preserving this legacy — were pulverized. The museum and its 12,500 artifacts were turned to rubble by Saudi bombs. [Continue reading…]

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Theft of Saudi documents suggests an Iranian hack

The Washington Post reports: The purported theft of confidential Saudi documents that have been released by WikiLeaks bears the hallmarks of Iranian hackers linked to cyberattacks in more than a dozen countries, including the United States, according to cybersecurity experts and Middle East analysts.

Last week, WikiLeaks published about 70,000 of what it said were half a million documents obtained from Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry. The transparency advocacy group promises more releases of the diplomatic cables, whose authenticity has not been independently verified.

Experts said that the cables, apparently stolen over the past year, paint an unflattering portrait of Saudi diplomacy as reliant on oil-wealth patronage and obsessed with Iran, the kingdom’s chief rival, but appeared to contain no shocking revelations. [Continue reading…]

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How leaked Saudi documents might really matter

Marc Lynch writes: On Friday, WikiLeaks and the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar released just over 60,000 out of a half-million leaked diplomatic cables from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The immediate response to the announcement followed a predictable script. First, elites sympathetic to Saudi Arabia rushed to minimize the importance of the cables, declaring (remarkably quickly, given the number of documents to be perused) that there was nothing new or interesting to be found in the release. Then, a legion of online Arabs dug into the archive and posted titillating nuggets online, while media outlets began reporting the major finds. Now, those documents are circulating widely through social media, dominating public discourse and could continue to do so for quite some time, with more than 400,000 more documents slated for release over the course of the month of Ramadan.

It’s easy to be jaded by the routinized script of such leaks, by the pugnacious politics surrounding WikiLeaks itself, by the limited impact of previous leaks, or by the toxic public discourse surrounding the Middle East’s sectarian and partisan conflicts. What’s more, the leaks can have only a limited direct political effect in the current highly polarized and collectively repressive regional environment. Don’t expect the cables to cause uprisings in Riyadh or the expulsion of Saudi diplomats from Arab capitals anytime soon. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the significance of these leaks. They are likely to matter more than many of the previous such leaks because of how they resonate with two of the most potent issues in today’s Middle East: the regional proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran; and fierce Arab regime efforts to control an inexorably expanding Arab public sphere and erase the gains of the 2010-2011 uprisings. [Continue reading…]

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Cables released by WikiLeaks reveal Saudis’ checkbook diplomacy

The New York Times reports: It seems that everyone wants something from Saudi Arabia.

Before becoming the president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi wanted visas to take his family on a religious pilgrimage. A Lebanese politician begged for cash to pay his bodyguards. Even the state news agency of Guinea, in West Africa, asked for $2,000 “to solve many of the problems the agency is facing.”

They all had good reason to ask, as the kingdom has long wielded its oil wealth and religious influence to try to shape regional events and support figures sympathetic to its worldview.

These and other revelations appear in a trove of documents said to have come from inside the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and released on Friday by the group WikiLeaks. [Continue reading…]

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FBI agent: The CIA could have stopped 9/11

Jeff Stein reports: Mark Rossini, a former FBI special agent at the center of an enduring mystery related to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, says he is “appalled” by the newly declassified statements by former CIA Director George Tenet defending the spy agency’s efforts to detect and stop the plot.

Rossini, who was assigned to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) at the time of the attacks, has long maintained that the U.S. government has covered up secret relations between the spy agency and Saudi individuals who may have abetted the plot. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who flew commercial airliners into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and a failed effort to crash into the U.S. Capitol, were Saudis.

A heavily redacted 2005 CIA inspector general’s report, parts of which had previously been released, was further declassified earlier this month. It found that agency investigators “encountered no evidence” that the government of Saudi Arabia “knowingly and willingly supported” Al-Qaeda terrorists. It added that some CIA officers had “speculated” that “dissident sympathizers within the government” may have supported Osama bin Laden but that “the reporting was too sparse to determine with any accuracy such support.” [Continue reading…]

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Saudis’ war effort struggles on three fronts

Dr. Madawi Al-Rasheed writes: Saudi Arabia’s aggressive, interventionist foreign policy has so far led it to wage two external wars in addition to an ongoing battle on the domestic front. The government does not appear to be fighting the three campaigns with the same degree of commitment and dedication, but more important, none of its battles is yet to result in victory.

Riyadh’s war against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq — being fought through a commitment to the US-led international coalition challenging the group destabilizing the Levant — has spilled over into the heartland of the kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern Province, prompting the necessity of fighting IS terrorism within its own borders as well as in the Levant. Recent attacks in Saudi Arabia have dismissed any doubt about the limits of IS’ reach. Meanwhile, to the south, the kingdom has been launching airstrikes against the Houthis in Yemen under an umbrella of 10 reluctant, mainly Arab states.

King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud has delegated the management of these multiple wars to two key princes. His son Mohammed, deputy crown prince and minister of defense, is in charge of the Yemeni war, and it seems he has also been asked to improve Saudi foreign relations. He recently visited Russia with the goal, according to Saudi sources, of bolstering relations. The multiple tasks handed the prince seem to blur the boundaries between his role in the war on Yemen and that as foreign envoy. This is not unusual in the kingdom, as previous princes in key positions also combined several roles into one, but this multitasking cannot mask the stalemate of the Yemeni war. After several months and one cease-fire, fighting continues unabated, with neither party able to claim victory. [Continue reading…]

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Sorry, Fareed: Saudi Arabia can build a nuclear weapon any time it likes

Jeffrey Lewis writes: Fareed Zakaria has written a predictably buzzy article suggesting that, whatever Saudi officials might say, Riyadh is simply too backward to build a nuclear weapon. “Whatever happens with Iran’s nuclear program,” Zakaria writes, “10 years from now Saudi Arabia won’t have nuclear weapons. Because it can’t.”

While I don’t think it is terribly likely that Saudi Arabia will choose to build nuclear weapons, I think it is deeply misguided to conclude that Saudi Arabia (or pretty much any state) cannot do so. Simply put, Zakaria is wrong — and it’s not all that hard to demonstrate why.

Zakaria isn’t explicit about what he believes to be the technical requirements for building a nuclear weapon, but he clearly thinks it is hard. Which was probably true in 1945 when the United States demonstrated two different routes to atomic weapons. Since then, however, the technologies associated with producing plutonium and highly enriched uranium have been developed, put to civilian use, and spread around the globe. The fact that most states don’t build nuclear weapons has a lot more to do with restraint than not being able to figure it out.

Zakaria’s argument that Saudi Arabia can’t build nuclear weapons is pretty shallow and relies largely on two assertions: a flip comment about Saudi Arabia lacking even a domestic automotive industry, and a superficially data-driven claim about Saudi Arabia’s “abysmal” math and science ranking.

First, automobile production is a terrible indicator of whether a state can build a nuclear weapon. The technologies are really not at all similar — or at least they don’t have to be. India, Pakistan, and North Korea all succeeded in building nuclear weapons despite not having much of an auto industry at home. And the Soviets were really good at building nuclear weapons, even though their cars famously sucked.

And, anyway, Saudi Arabia is investing in a domestic auto industry. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry is hoping the Meeya will be on the market by 2017. So, there’s that.

More importantly, Saudi Arabia is investing in a civil nuclear industry. “Where would Saudi Arabia train the scientists to work on its secret program?” Zakaria wonders. Oh, I don’t know, how about the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy? Somehow Zakaria never mentions that Saudi Arabia is building a dedicated city for training nuclear scientists. I can’t predict whether this investment will pay off, but then again neither can Zakaria — if he even knows it exists. [Continue reading…]

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Did Saudi Arabia play a role in September 11?

Max Fisher writes: Late on Friday, the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General finally released the findings of its internal investigation, concluded in 2005, into intelligence failures leading up to the attacks of September 11, 2001. The few sections left un-redacted in the 500-page report do not appear to offer any major revelations.

But the very final section of the report, titled “Issues related to Saudi Arabia,” touches on a question that has swirled around US inquiries into 9/11 since the first weeks after the attacks: Was there any involvement by the government of Saudi Arabia?

This section of the report is entirely redacted save for three brief paragraphs, which say the investigation was inconclusive but found “no evidence that the Saudi government knowingly and willingly supported the al-Qaeda terrorists.” However, it adds, some members of the CIA’s Near East and Counterterrorism divisions speculated that rogue Saudi officials may have aided al-Qaeda’s actions.

The findings, though frustratingly inconclusive, are in line with what many analysts and journalists have long suspected: that, while the Saudi government was probably not involved, rogue Saudi officials sympathetic to al-Qaeda may have been. Like so many investigations into Saudi links to 9/11, this report adds credence to the “rogue officials” theory, but it ultimately settles nothing. [Continue reading…]

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To U.S. allies, Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria becomes the lesser evil

The Wall Street Journal reports: In the three-way war ravaging Syria, should the local al Qaeda branch be seen as the lesser evil to be wooed rather than bombed?

This is increasingly the view of some of America’s regional allies and even some Western officials. In a war now in its fifth year, in which 230,000 people have been killed and another 7.6 million uprooted, few good options remain for how to tackle the crisis.

The three main forces left on the ground today are the Assad regime, Islamic State and an Islamist rebel alliance in which the Nusra Front — an al Qaeda affiliate designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and the United Nations — plays a major role.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the more secular, Western-backed rebels have found themselves fighting shoulder to shoulder with Nusra in key battlefields. As the Assad regime wobbles and Islamic State, or ISIS, gains ground in both Syria and Iraq, reaching out to the more pragmatic Nusra is the only rational choice left for the international community, supporters of this approach argue. [Continue reading…]

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How a 29-year-old Saudi prince has accumulated more power than any prince has ever held

The New York Times reports: Until about four months ago, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 29, was just another Saudi royal who dabbled in stocks and real estate.

He grew up overshadowed by three older half brothers who were among the most accomplished princes in the kingdom — the first Arab astronaut; an Oxford-educated political scientist who was once a research fellow at Georgetown and also founded a major investment company; and a highly regarded deputy oil minister.

But that was before their father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, 79, ascended to the throne. Now Prince Mohammed, the eldest son of the king’s third and most recent wife, is the rising star.

He has swiftly accumulated more power than any prince has ever held, upending a longstanding system of distributing positions around the royal family to help preserve its unity, and he has used his growing influence to take a leading role in Saudi Arabia’s newly assertive stance in the region, including its military intervention in Yemen.

In the four months since his coronation, King Salman has put Prince Mohammed in charge of the state oil monopoly, the public investment company, economic policy and the ministry of defense. [Continue reading…]

BBC News reports: Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court has upheld the sentence of 1,000 lashes and 10 years of imprisonment on blogger Raif Badawi, despite a foreign outcry.

Speaking from Canada, his wife Ensaf Haidar told news agency AFP, “this is a final decision that is irrevocable.”

In March, the kingdom expressed “surprise and dismay” at international criticism over the punishment.

At the time, the foreign ministry issued a statement saying it rejected interference in its internal affairs.

In 2012, Badawi was arrested and charged with “insulting Islam through electronic channels”. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia’s widening war

Gary Sick writes: The level of turmoil in the Middle East is greater than at any other time in my nearly fifty years of watching this region. Amid this perfect storm comes the most dramatic shift in Saudi policy since at least World War II– marking a critical turning point in Saudi Arabia’s relations with its historical protector, the United States, and with its neighbors in the Middle East. The Saudi regime’s insistence on seeing threats to the Kingdom in fundamentally sectarian terms — Sunni vs. Shia — will put it increasingly at odds with its American patrons and could lead the Middle East into a conflict comparable to Europe’s Thirty Years War, a continent-wide civil war over religion that decimated an entire culture.

Driving the Saudi strategy is fear of Iranian regional hegemony. This wariness of Iran is nothing new, but, since the early days of the Clinton administration, Saudi Arabia has been able to rely on Washington to contain Iran. The United States surrounded Iran with its bases and troops, and imposed ever-increasing economic punishment on the Iranian revolutionary state. This policy began after the George H.W. Bush administration completed its brilliant military victory over Saddam Hussein’s forces, and as the Soviet Union was collapsing, leaving the United States as the sole military power in the Persian Gulf.

The Clinton administration had briefly considered balancing Iran or Iraq against the other as a way to maintain a degree of regional stability and to protect the smaller, oil-rich Arab states on the southern side of the Gulf. Policy of this sort had prevailed for the two decades prior to the Persian Gulf War. However, Martin Indyk, chief of Middle East policy at Clinton’s National Security Council, formally rejected this policy and announced a new “dual containment” policy. With Iraq boxed in by UN sanctions, and Iran nearly prostrate after eight years of war with Iraq, the United States had the “means to counter both the Iraqi and Iranian regimes,” declared Indyk. Now, he said, “we don’t need to rely on one to balance the other.” [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia and Israel share same enemy

The New York Times: A new merging of strategic interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel was on display on Thursday as two former officials from those countries appeared on the same stage to discuss their concerns about Iran’s actions across the Middle East.

In an appearance at the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations, a retired major general in the Saudi armed forces, Anwar Eshki, and a former Israeli ambassador close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Dore Gold, described their common interests in opposing Iran. It was the culmination of five meetings between the two men, who both run think tanks, though Mr. Gold will become the director general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sunday.

“We’re both allies of the United States,” Mr. Gold said after the presentation. “I hope this is the beginning of more discussion about our common strategic problems.”

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ISIS’s Saudi chess match

Aaron Y. Zelin writes: Over the past two weeks, the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) has claimed two attacks on Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-majority Eastern Province, one in Dammam and the other in Qatif. While the incidents might not have an immediate impact on the kingdom’s overall security, they are relevant to long-term IS strategy of weakening the Saudi government by exposing its alleged hypocrisy. They also illustrate how IS has choreographed its actions in phases for its Arabian Peninsula theater. For example, when IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced new wilayat (provinces) for the so-called caliphate in Saudi Arabia and Yemen last November, he told supporters that Shiites should be targeted first. And in remarks made last month, he zeroed in on the Saudi state and what he described as its failed Yemen war. The latest attacks are therefore harbingers of a wider IS threat to Saudi Islamic legitimacy.

By attacking the Eastern Province, IS seeks to place Riyadh in the position of defending or appeasing Shiites, at the expense of a Saudi Wahhabist state ideology that does not tread too far from that of IS (e.g., Saudi schools teach students that Shiites are unbelievers and not Muslims). In that sense, the group likely considers Riyadh’s actions following the first attack a victory.

In response to the May 22 suicide bombing in Qatif, Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki stated that the goal of IS was to spread sectarianism, while Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef visited the town and gave condolences to the victims and their family members. Moreover, Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz ibn Abdullah al-Sheikh condemned the “criminal plot.” From the Islamic State’s perspective, such actions highlight Riyadh’s rank hypocrisy, showing “true” believers in the “land of the two holy places” how the Saudi state is contravening both God and its own founding standards. By casting themselves as the true bearers of Islam, IS leaders hope to draw more recruits and supporters.

Beyond the potential for gaining new supporters, IS knows that Saudi Arabia has been a hotbed for foreign fighter and jihadist activism since the 1980s. In all of the major foreign fighter mobilizations over the past three decades (Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq, and Syria), Saudis have been the leading nationality to join up. Most important, Saudis composed the largest bulk of foreign IS members last decade when the group was calling itself al-Qaeda in Iraq, and once again in Syria and Iraq over the past couple years. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen: Scores of civilians killed and injured by anti-aircraft fire and airstrikes on weapons depots

Amnesty International: Scores of casualties in Sana’a have been caused by anti-aircraft munitions shot by the Huthi armed group which detonated after landing in populated areas killing and maiming civilians, said Amnesty International.

During a week-long trip to the Yemeni capital, the organization spoke to medical staff at nine hospitals and residents who said that anti-aircraft weapons were the leading cause of casualties in the capital. Saudi Arabian-led coalition airstrikes against weapons depots in residential areas have triggered further explosions, also killing and injuring other civilians.

“Sana’a’s residents are caught in a deadly crossfire between the Saudi Arabian-led coalition airstrikes and anti-aircraft fire from the Huthi armed group. Both sides have failed to take the necessary precautions to protect civilian lives in violation of the laws of war. Instead they have carried out attacks that have had devastating consequences for the civilian population,” said Lama Fakih, Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International.

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Saudis reflect on the extremism and sectarianism being fueled inside their own mosques

Hassan Hassan writes: The role of clerics in stoking tensions is again under scrutiny in Saudi Arabia. ISIL’s suicide bombing inside a Shia mosque in Al Qudeeh on May 23 has triggered an important debate in the kingdom that should not be missed.

Last year, a similar debate following ISIL’s takeover of Mosul and the subsequent carnage committed in the name of Islam, led many activists in Saudi Arabia to question the roots of such acts. For example, Saudi commentator Ibrahim Al Shaalan tweeted: “ISIL’s actions are but an epitome of what we’ve studied in our school curriculum. If the curriculum is sound, then ISIL is right, and if it is wrong, then who bears responsibility?”

After last weekend’s attack, similar questions have been raised. A day after the bombing, Tariq Al Hamid, a prominent Saudi writer, criticised the sectarian incitement that still spewed in schools and at the pulpit. He said: “What needs to be said, especially after the Al Qudeeh terrorist attack that targeted Saudi Shia nationals, is that the educational, religious, cultural and media discourse in Saudi Arabia must be changed … through laws and regulations. Reform must punish incitement in all forms, at traditional and other pulpits.”

Al Hamid added that reform would prevent a “fertile ground that turns young Saudis into fodder in any battle” taking place in the region. He said that attacks target both Sunnis and Shia in the country, citing the ISIL cell recently uncovered by Saudi authorities, which targeted security officers. Equally important, he echoed a rare admonition of the kingdom’s top clerics by the late King Abdullah about the failure of religious and media figures at speaking out against extremists.

Saudi Gazette’s editor was similarly candid in an article titled “Sectarian divide threatens national security”. He criticised clerics who he said spewed hatred and spread falsehood. “The perpetrators of these murderous acts are driven by an insane ideology disseminated by self-appointed clerics,” he wrote. “For too long, we have kept quiet as they used the mosques, the media … to spread their evil philosophy.” [Continue reading…]

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ISIS claims responsibility for bombing at Saudi mosque

The New York Times reports: The Islamic State extremist group claimed responsibility Friday for a suicide bombing during midday prayer at a Shiite mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Health Ministry said at least 21 people had been killed and more than 120 others injured.

It appeared to be the first official claim of an attack inside the kingdom by the Islamic State, which has seized control of much of Syria and Iraq.

The group attributed the attack to a new unit, the Najd Province, named for the central region of Saudi Arabia around Riyadh. But it was unclear whether the attack was planned by Islamic State leaders, initiated independently by a Saudi sympathizer, or merely claimed opportunistically after the fact.

The attack was a sign that Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the sectarian conflict in Yemen may be escalating tensions at home. Members of the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia, who make up about 15 percent of the population and live mainly in the Eastern Province, have long complained of insults and discrimination by Saudi Arabia’s Sunni majority and its clerical establishment. [Continue reading…]

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