To Iran’s dismay, Iraq engages Saudi Arabia

Al Monitor reports: Pictures displaying Iran’s Quds Force commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani during the battles with the Islamic State stopped circulating online with the military phase that ended in the liberation of Mosul. The Iranian presence and support for the Iraqi forces were absent in the liberation battles.

Simultaneously, Iraqi officials visited Saudi Arabia and Arab Sunni states that cheer for the Saudi axis. Sadrist leader Muqtada al-Sadr visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Aug. 13-15, with clerics and politicians welcoming him as an Iraqi leader. Prominent Sunni Iraqi cleric Ahmed al-Kubaisi and leading politicians met with Sadr during his visit to the UAE. This was only a few days after his visit at the end of July to Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other officials had welcomed him.

In the wake of the visit, Saudi Arabia took various measures in favor of Iraq, such as announcing the opening of a Saudi Consulate in Najaf, where Sadr lives. Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, did not object to this proposition, as in the past he had called for openness in relations. [Continue reading…]

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The crisis of regional order in the Gulf

Ahmet Davutoglu, the former prime minister of Turkey, writes: At a time when the Middle East is in dire need of a positive agenda and a plan to overcome division, ominous new developments are dominating the scene and the forces of disintegration appear to have been unleashed.

The current “Gulf” crisis is just the latest manifestation of this trend. Before considering the way out of this crisis, it is important to accurately depict it, its root causes, and its regional implications.

There have been many depictions of the Qatari crisis, and several different names have been used to describe the nature of the issue.

“The Qatari crisis”, “the Gulf crisis”, “the contest to define a new regional order”, and “the latest chapter of the Arab Spring showdown” have all been employed on various occasions to describe the crisis.

These are all valid descriptions contingent upon observers’ own operational logic. In fact, the politics of naming a crisis is no frivolous endeavour. [Continue reading…]

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The strange role North Korea is playing in the Persian Gulf crisis

Adam Taylor writes: In the ongoing diplomatic crisis in the Persian Gulf between Qatar and a Saudi-led bloc, an unusual role is being played by a country thousands of miles away: North Korea.

In recent days, both sides of the dispute have been accused of having an illicit economic relationship with the isolated nation — a touchy subject in Washington, given Pyongyang’s advancing nuclear weapons program and antagonism toward the United States.

Last week, reports detailing an alleged arms deal worth $100 million between North Korea and a company in the United Arab Emirates resurfaced online. Then on Tuesday, UAE rival Qatar was accused of having a “dangerous” relationship with North Korea in an op-ed published in the Hill newspaper.

There’s at least some truth to both allegations. Details of the sale of North Korean weapons to an Emirati company were revealed in a 2015 leak of UAE government emails first reported by the New York Times; the emails showed that Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, was summoned to a meeting with the State Department because of the deal. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s gift to Putin in the Mideast

Vali Nasr writes: Over the past two months, even as American-trained forces were driving Islamic State insurgents out of the major Iraqi city of Mosul, the war next door in Syria was taking a dangerous but little-remarked turn — one far more favorable for Russia’s ambitions to regain a position of broad influence in the Middle East.

First, a major gaffe by President Trump helped Saudi Arabia split a Sunni Muslim alliance that was supposed to fight against the Islamic State — so much so that Qatar and Turkey moved closer together and became open to cooperation with Iran and Russia. Later, when Mr. Trump sat down with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Germany, the American president virtually handed the keys to the region to his adversary by agreeing to a cease-fire in Syria that assumed a lasting presence of Russian influence in that conflict — which only consolidated the likelihood of wider regional influence.

With Mr. Trump’s inner circle often at odds with one another and the president going his own unpredictable way, Mr. Putin seems never to miss an opportunity to expand Russia’s presence in the region. That has helped to blur even the longstanding lines of sectarian division between Sunni and Shiite states and to complicate America’s strategic position.

To be sure, Mr. Trump sent his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to the region to sort out the mess. But among the monarchs of the Middle East, an underling’s voice stood no chance of undoing the damage already done by his master’s tweets. [Continue reading…]

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UAE orchestrated hacking of Qatari sites, sparking regional upheaval, according to U.S. intel officials

The Washington Post reports: The United Arab Emirates orchestrated the hacking of Qatari government news and social media sites in order to post incendiary false quotes attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, in late May that sparked the ongoing upheaval between Qatar and its neighbors, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

Officials became aware last week that newly analyzed information gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed that on May 23, senior members of the UAE government discussed the plan and its implementation. The officials said it remains unclear whether the UAE carried out the hacks itself or contracted to have them done. The false reports said that the emir, among other things, had called Iran an “Islamic power” and praised Hamas.

The hacks and posting took place on May 24, shortly after President Trump completed a lengthy counterterrorism meeting with Persian Gulf leaders in neighboring Saudi Arabia and declared them unified. [Continue reading…]

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Decimated Muslim Brotherhood still inspires fear. Its members wonder why

The New York Times reports: For Magdy Shalash, an Egyptian exile living here in Turkey, there is a certain irony to a recent diplomatic spat that has divided the Middle East.

Several Arab countries — led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt — are enmeshed in a standoff with Qatar and, to a lesser extent, Turkey. One major reason? Qatari and Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that Mr. Shalash helps lead.

To its enemies, the Brotherhood is a terrorist group that seeks to unravel the established Arab order, and not just in Egypt, where the group was founded in 1928, but in countries like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, where the group has inspired similar movements.

Yet, members like Mr. Shalash, many of whom are either in jail in Egypt or in exile in countries like Turkey, say the group is not only democratic, but decimated and divided. They say it has little ability to exert control over even its own members, let alone the governments of the Middle East.

“Us sitting here,” said Mr. Shalash, in reference to the exiled Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Turkey, “we can’t really do anything.” [Continue reading…]

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Three big lessons of the Qatar crisis

Marc Lynch writes: While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is currently in the Gulf attempting to broker an end to the crisis between Qatar and four Arab countries, the conflict shows no signs of a resolution. The crisis broke on June 5, shortly following President Trump’s visit to the region. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain declared a blockade of Qatar with no evident immediate cause. The anti-Qatar quartet released an extreme list of 13 demands which seemed intended to be rejected.

After Qatar brushed aside the Quartet’s July 3 deadline, the list of 13 demands was whittled down to six. Secret agreements from the resolution of the last round of the crisis were leaked in an effort to increase pressure on Doha by demonstrating its failure to abide by previous agreements. Despite Tillerson’s active diplomacy, the spat seems no closer to resolution. What began with the expectation of Qatar’s rapid capitulation, with the threat of regime change or war raised by influential columnists, has instead settled down into a “long estrangement.”

Should this have been a surprise? Here are a few big things we have learned about the international relations of the Middle East from the crisis: [Continue reading…]

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The secret documents that help explain the Qatar crisis

CNN reports: Qatar made a series of secret agreements with its Gulf neighbors in 2013 and 2014 barring support for opposition and hostile groups in those nations, as well as in Egypt and Yemen.

The existence of the agreements has been known, but both the content and the documents themselves were kept secret due to the sensitivity of the issues involved and the fact that they were agreed in private by heads of state. The agreements were exclusively obtained by CNN from a source from the region with access to the documents.

The Gulf countries have accused Qatar of not complying with the two agreements, which helps explain what sparked the worst diplomatic crisis in the Middle East in decades.

Abiding by the agreements was among six principles the Gulf nations set as requirements to mend relations with Qatar in a statement released last week.

In a statement to CNN, Qatar accused Saudi Arabia and UAE of breaking the spirit of the agreement and indulging in an “unprovoked attack on Qatar’s sovereignty.”

The first agreement — handwritten and dated November 23, 2013 — is signed by the King of Saudi Arabia, the Emir of Qatar and the Emir of Kuwait. It lays out commitments to avoid any interference in the internal affairs of other Gulf nations, including barring financial or political support to “deviant” groups, which is used to describe anti-government activist groups.

The agreement, referred to as the Riyadh agreement, specifically mentions not supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Gulf allies have repeatedly alleged Qatar supports, as well as not backing opposition groups in Yemen that could threaten neighboring countries.

In justifying their boycott launched last month, Qatar’s Gulf counterparts accuse Doha of financially supporting Hezbollah and other terror groups, in addition to backing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. [Continue reading…]

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Tillerson and Mattis struggle to clean up Trump and Kushner’s Middle East mess

Mark Perry writes: On March 25, 2011, a Qatar Air Force Mirage 2000-5, took off from Souda Air Base, in Crete, to help enforce a no-fly zone protecting rebels being attacked by Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. Qatar was the first Persian Gulf nation to help the U.S. in the conflict.

Qatari operations were more than symbolic. The Qatari military trained rebel units, shipped them weapons, accompanied their fighting units into battle, served as a link between rebel commanders and NATO, tutored their military commanders, integrated disparate rebel units into a unified force and led them in the final assault on Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli.“We never had to hold their hand,” a retired senior U.S. military officer says. “They knew what they were doing.” Put simply, while the U.S. was leading from behind in Libya, the Qataris were walking point.

The Qatar intervention has not been forgotten at the Pentagon and is one of the reasons why Defense Secretary James Mattis has worked so diligently to patch up the falling out between them and the coalition of Saudi-led countries (including the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt), that have isolated and blockaded the nation. In fact, Mattis was stunned by the Saudi move. “His first reaction was shock, but his second was disbelief,” a senior military officer says. “He thought the Saudis had picked an unnecessary fight, and just when the administration thought they’d gotten everyone in the Gulf on the same page in forming a common front against Iran.”

At the time of the Saudi announcement, Mattis was in Sydney with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to dampen concerns about the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accords. The two glad-handed Australian officials and issued a reassuring pronouncement on U.S. intentions during a June 5 press briefing with that nation’s foreign and defense ministers. When the burgeoning split between the Saudis and Qataris was mentioned, Tillerson described it as no more than one of “a growing list or irritants in the region” that would not impair “the unified fight against terrorism …”

But while Tillerson’s answer was meant to soothe concerns over the crisis, behind the scenes he and Mattis were scrambling to undo the damage caused by Saudi action. The two huddled in Sydney and decided that Tillerson would take the lead in trying to resolve the falling out. Which is why, three days after the Sydney press conference, Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to ease their anti-Qatar blockade and announced that the U.S. supported a Kuwaiti-led mediation effort. The problem for Tillerson was that his statement was contradicted by Donald Trump who, during a Rose Garden appearance on the same day, castigated Qatar, saying the emirate “has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”

A close associate of the secretary of state says that Tillerson was not only “blind-sided by the Trump statement,” but “absolutely enraged that the White House and State Department weren’t on the same page.” Tillerson’s aides, I was told, were convinced that the true author of Trump’s statement was U.A.E. ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, a close friend of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. “Rex put two-and-two together,” his close associate says, “and concluded that this absolutely vacuous kid was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters. Otaiba weighed in with Jared and Jared weighed in with Trump. What a mess.” The Trump statement was nearly the last straw for Tillerson, this close associate explains: “Rex is just exhausted. He can’t get any of his appointments approved and is running around the world cleaning up after a president whose primary foreign policy adviser is a 31-year-old amateur.”

Worse yet, at least from Tillerson’s point of view, a White House official explained the difference between the two statements by telling the press to ignore the secretary of state. “Tillerson may initially have had a view,” a White House official told the Washington Post, “then the president has his view, and obviously the president’s view prevails.”

Or maybe not. While Trump’s June 9 statement signaled that the U.S. was tilting towards the Saudis and the UAE, Tillerson and Mattis have been tilting towards Qatar. And for good reason. [Continue reading…]

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In Yemen’s secret prisons, UAE tortures and U.S. interrogates

The Associated Press reports: Hundreds of men swept up in the hunt for al-Qaida militants have disappeared into a secret network of prisons in southern Yemen where abuse is routine and torture extreme — including the “grill,” in which the victim is tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Senior American defense officials acknowledged Wednesday that U.S. forces have been involved in interrogations of detainees in Yemen but denied any participation in or knowledge of human rights abuses. Interrogating detainees who have been abused could violate international law, which prohibits complicity in torture.

The AP documented at least 18 clandestine lockups across southern Yemen run by the United Arab Emirates or by Yemeni forces created and trained by the Gulf nation, drawing on accounts from former detainees, families of prisoners, civil rights lawyers and Yemeni military officials. All are either hidden or off limits to Yemen’s government, which has been getting Emirati help in its civil war with rebels over the last two years.

The secret prisons are inside military bases, ports, an airport, private villas and even a nightclub. Some detainees have been flown to an Emirati base across the Red Sea in Eritrea, according to Yemen Interior Minister Hussein Arab and others.

Several U.S. defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the topic, told AP that American forces do participate in interrogations of detainees at locations in Yemen, provide questions for others to ask, and receive transcripts of interrogations from Emirati allies. They said U.S. senior military leaders were aware of allegations of torture at the prisons in Yemen, looked into them, but were satisfied that there had not been any abuse when U.S. forces were present. [Continue reading…]

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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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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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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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Blackwater founder held secret Seychelles meeting to establish Trump-Putin back channel

The Washington Post reports: The United Arab Emirates arranged a secret meeting in January between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian close to President Vladi­mir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump, according to U.S., European and Arab officials.

The meeting took place around Jan. 11 — nine days before Trump’s inauguration — in the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean, officials said. Though the full agenda remains unclear, the UAE agreed to broker the meeting in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump administration objective that would be likely to require major concessions to Moscow on U.S. sanctions.

Though Prince had no formal role with the Trump campaign or transition team, he presented himself as an unofficial envoy for Trump to high-ranking Emiratis involved in setting up his meeting with the Putin confidant, according to the officials, who did not identify the Russian.

Prince was an avid supporter of Trump. After the Republican convention, he contributed $250,000 to Trump’s campaign, the national party and a pro-Trump super PAC led by GOP mega-donor Rebekah Mercer, records show. He has ties to people in Trump’s circle, including Stephen K. Bannon, now serving as the president’s chief strategist and senior counselor. Prince’s sister Betsy DeVos serves as education secretary in the Trump administration. And Prince was seen in the Trump transition offices in New York in December. [Continue reading…]

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The fatwa hotline: ‘We have heard everything’

Hamida Ghafour writes: Sheikha Naeema lifts her glass to take a sip of water, but the large grey telephone on her desk blinks again, red and insistent. It is only 9am and she has already spoken to 11 callers. The woman on the other end of the line is in distress.

“Peace be upon you, blessings be upon you,” Sheikha Naeema says in a soothing tone. The woman tells her she has given birth twice and that both babies were stillborn. Now she is pregnant again. Her doctor has said the foetus is showing signs of severe complications and will probably die. The woman wants to know if Islam will permit her to have an abortion. After clarifying a few other details, Sheikha Naeema issues a fatwa. “If the foetus is severely ill and will not survive, you may have an abortion,” she tells the woman. “You must take advice from your physician, he will guide you. Religion does not conflict with medicine.”

She explains that abortion is allowed under certain circumstances: within 120 days, or 17 weeks after conception if doctors believe the baby has life-threatening defects. The fatwa – a non-binding religious ruling – is justified on the basis of a hadith, a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, which states that at 120 days a baby is given a soul, or spirit. When Sheikha Naeema finishes the call, she swivels in the office chair and makes a note. “Normally it’s quiet on Thursday mornings,” she says.

We are in the small, cramped office of the fatwa hotline on the eighth floor of the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments in Abu Dhabi, better known by its Arabic acronym, the Awqaf. [Continue reading…]

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