Saudi Arabia bombs Yemen in bid to halt Houthis

The New York Times reports: More than 100 Saudi Arabian jets pounded Yemeni targets early Thursday in a drive to stop the Houthi advance through the country, and the Saudi news media declared that the first night of the offensive had fully disabled the Houthi-aligned air force.

Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival and the Houthis’ main ally, denounced the assault as an American-backed attempt “to foment civil war in Yemen or disintegrate the country.” Houthi-controlled television channels broadcast footage of dead bodies and wounded civilians, blaming “American-backed aggression.”

The movement’s leaders warned that the battle could widen into a regional conflict, but they also vowed to overcome the Saudi attacks without Iranian help. “The Yemeni people are prepared to face this aggression without any foreign interference,” Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a Houthi spokesman, told Reuters.

The price of crude oil spiked about 4 percent on Thursday on concerns that the fighting in Yemen might affect the passage of tankers through the Bab el Mandeb strait, a narrow chokepoint between Yemen and Africa that is the entrance to the Red Sea.
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The United States and most of the Arab nations moved quickly to support the Saudi-led operation in Yemen, which Saudi Arabia has called Operation Decisive Storm.

The White House said in a statement that the United States would provide “logistical and intelligence support” to the Saudi-led military operations. “While U.S. forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen in support of this effort, we are establishing a joint planning cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support,” Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

NBC News reports that Saudi Arabia has mobilized 150,000 troops to support its airstrikes on Yemen.

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Foreign intervention in Yemen is the worst course anyone could take

Right before Saudi Arabia started bombing Yemen, Adam Baron wrote: While the chief combatants in the civil war are certainly playing the sectarian card to some degree, there is reason to think that Yemen will not necessarily become part of some regional sectarian conflict. Regardless of their foreign ties, both the Shiite Houthis and their Sunni opponents are deeply rooted in Yemen, and they are motivated primarily by local issues.

The main danger now is that the Western powers, Saudi Arabia or Egypt will overreact and seek to intervene, ostensibly to counter Iranian influence or to quash the efforts of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to gain territory. Yet foreign intervention could very well be the worst approach now—further regionalizing what is still a local fight, injecting a stronger sectarian tone into the conflict while threatening to push Yemen closer to implosion.

The roots of Yemen’s current conflict date back more than a decade, to a little-covered series of six brutal wars fought by the government of Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in the aim of defeating an insurgent group—widely referred to as the Houthis—based in the country’s far north. The Houthis’ founder, firebrand cleric Hussein al-Houthi, hailed from a prominent Zaidi Shi’a family and was a leader of the revival of Zaidism, a heterodox Shi’a sect found nearly exclusively in Yemen’s mountainous north. Notably the group’s foundation was, itself, rooted in a reaction to foreign intervention: a key aspect of the Houthis ideology was shoring up Zaidism against the perceived threat of the influence of Saudi-influenced ideologies and a general condemnation of the Yemeni government’s alliance with the United States, which, along with complaints regarding . the government’s corruption and the marginalization of much of the Houthis’ home areas in Saada constituted the group’s key grievances. [Continue reading…]

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Iran-backed rebels loot Yemen files about U.S. spy operations

The Los Angeles Times reports: ecret files held by Yemeni security forces that contain details of American intelligence operations in the country have been looted by Iran-backed militia leaders, exposing names of confidential informants and plans for U.S.-backed counter-terrorism strikes, U.S. officials say.

U.S. intelligence officials believe additional files were handed directly to Iranian advisors by Yemeni officials who have sided with the Houthi militias that seized control of Sana, the capital, in September, which led the U.S.-backed president to flee to Aden.

For American intelligence networks in Yemen, the damage has been severe. Until recently, U.S. forces deployed in Yemen had worked closely with President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s government to track and kill Al Qaeda operatives, and President Obama had hailed Yemen last fall as a model for counter-terrorism operations elsewhere. [Continue reading…]

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White House still claims Yemen is a counter-terrorism success story

McClatchy: Yemen’s president is reportedly on the run amid rebel advances, but the White House insisted Wednesday that the country continues to be a model for its counter terrorism initiatives and that the U.S. continues to have extremists there “in the cross hairs.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he could not confirm the whereabouts of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi – “I have my hands full confirming the whereabouts of one world leader,” – but said the country remains a template for thwarting terrorism.

“We would greatly prefer to have U.S. personnel on the ground in Yemen that would enhance our efforts. But the fact that they have had to temporarily relocate does not mean that we are unable to continue to apply pressure on extremists who may be plotting against the United States and the West inside of Yemen,” Earnest said. “We do continue to have that capability. So, for as dangerous as Yemen is to American personnel, Yemen is also a dangerous place for those extremists. Because the United States continues to have the ability to place significant pressure on them.”

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A historical review of relations between Yemen and Saudi Arabia

Brian Whitaker writes: Yemen has long been the odd man out in the Arabian peninsula: poor, populous and republican in a region dominated by extraordinarily wealthy but less populated monarchies. Even without the presence of al-Qaeda, it has generally been viewed warily by its neighbours.

Relations with Saudi Arabia have always been a central feature of Yemeni foreign policy, not merely because the kingdom is the dominant state in the peninsula and Yemen’s most important neighbour, but also because the Saudis’ perception of their security needs is that they should seek to influence Yemen as much as possible in order to prevent it from becoming a threat.

According to this view, Saudi interests are best served by keeping Yemen “on the wobble” (as one western diplomat put it) – though not so wobbly that regional stability is jeopardised. Before the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, this amounted to ensuring that both parts of the country focused their attentions on each other rather than on their non-Yemeni neighbours.

For that strategy to succeed, it was essential to maintain an equilibrium between both parts, so that neither became dominant. Thus Soviet support for the south was generally matched by Saudi support for the north, coupled with frequent meddling in the internal affairs of both parts. To some extent, the north exploited this policy to its own financial advantage, but even so there were drawbacks. Most importantly, it created dependence on the Saudis. Apart from official aid and unofficial aid (in the form of bribes to various tribal leaders), by the 1980s remittances from Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia had become the mainstay of the northern economy. [Continue reading…]

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Is the Shiite revival here?

Ali Mamouri writes: In the book “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future,” Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American researcher on the crises in the Middle East, came to the conclusion in 2006 that the religious struggle resulting from the rise of the Shiite identity in the region would reshape the Middle East. Developments in recent years have proved that this view seems accurate.

Today, Shiite forces are strongly present in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They are united and firmly associated with the Iranian axis. This new situation did not happen by chance or overnight. Rather, it was preceded by many arrangements that Iran has been making for decades.

The sectarian rivalry in the region began with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when Saudi Arabia and Iran raced to find and endorse revolutionary groups that fought different governments based on Islamic ideology and inspired by the Quranic terms of jihad in the Middle East. These groups include al-Qaeda for the Sunnis and Hezbollah and the Houthi movement for the Shiites. While Saudi Arabia has invested in jihadist organizations in Afghanistan — such as the Afghan Arabs, or the Arab mujahedeen, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — Iran has invested in the Shiite opposition forces in the Arab countries, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hezbollah al-Hejaz in Bahrain and the Badr Brigade in Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia building up military near Yemen border

Reuters reports: Saudi Arabia is moving heavy military equipment including artillery to areas near its border with Yemen, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, raising the risk that the Middle East’s top oil power will be drawn into the worsening Yemeni conflict.

The buildup follows a southward advance by Iranian-backed Houthi Shi’ite militants who took control of the capital Sanaa in September and seized the central city of Taiz at the weekend as they move closer to the new southern base of U.S.-supported President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The slide toward war in Yemen has made the country a crucial front in Saudi Arabia’s region-wide rivalry with Iran, which Riyadh accuses of sowing sectarian strife through its support for the Houthis.

The conflict risks spiraling into a proxy war with Shi’ite Iran backing the Houthis, whose leaders adhere to the Zaydi sect of Shi’ite Islam, and Saudi Arabia and the other regional Sunni Muslim monarchies backing Hadi.

The armor and artillery being moved by Saudi Arabia could be used for offensive or defensive purposes, two U.S. government sources said. Two other U.S. officials said the build-up appeared to be defensive.

One U.S. government source described the size of the Saudi buildup on Yemen’s border as “significant” and said the Saudis could be preparing air strikes to defend Hadi if the Houthis attack his refuge in the southern seaport of Aden. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen’s Houthi militia close in on president’s Aden base

Reuters: Houthi militia forces in Yemen backed by allied army units seized an air base on Wednesday and appeared poised to capture the southern port of Aden from defenders loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, local residents said.

After taking al-Anad air base, the Houthis and their military allies, supported by heavy armor, advanced to within 20 km (12 miles) of Aden, where Hadi has been holed up since fleeing the Houthi-controled capital Sanaa last month.

Soldiers at Aden’s Jabal al-Hadeed barracks fired into the air to prevent residents from entering the base and arming themselves, witnesses said, suggesting that Hadi’s control over the city was fraying.

The Wall Street Journal reports: Western-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has fled the port of Aden on a boat after Houthi militants drew closer to seizing the southern city where he had been holed up amid an intensifying assault, local officials said Wednesday.

A convoy of Saudi Arabian diplomatic officials helped Mr. Hadi escape, according to local officials and Houthi spokesman Mohammed Al Bukhaiti.

The Shiite-linked Houthi militant group recently seized control of Yemen’s capital, San’a, and forced Mr. Hadi from power. He fled the capital to Aden, where he enjoys support from local security forces. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen’s Houthis advance towards Aden but deny it’s their target

Reuters: Fighters from Yemen’s dominant Houthi movement drew closer to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s refuge in Aden on Tuesday, taking over two towns north of the port city as columns advanced from different directions.

A Houthi official said however that they were not targeting Aden but were defending the country against Islamist militants.

The Houthis and allied army units captured Kirsh, a town about 100 km (62 miles) north of Aden, after heavy fighting with forces loyal to Hadi, officials and residents said.

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Yemen, long on the brink of catastrophe, may have tipped over the edge

The Wall Street Journal reports: The militant group that controls Yemen’s capital moved to extend its power southward with an attack on a major city, deepening chaos that has given terror groups greater room to proliferate and forced the U.S. to suspend military operations inside the country.

American officials now see Yemen teetering on the brink of a civil war involving the besieged president, a former president and a patchwork of militant groups. The leader of the Houthi militant group behind the southern offensive and a United Nations envoy both warned that Yemen is in imminent danger of becoming another Iraq, Syria or Libya — a conflict fueled by sectarian violence and warring terrorist networks.

The U.S. withdrew its remaining 100 military personnel from a base in southern Yemen over the weekend, American officials said on Sunday. Special Operations Forces had to halt, at least temporarily, the training of Yemeni troops and cooperation in operations against one of the world’s most dangerous al Qaeda offshoots. The U.S. had already closed its embassy in the capital San’a last month. [Continue reading…]

Brian Whitaker writes: Yemen has often been portrayed as a country on the brink of catastrophe. Equally often, it has defied expectations and muddled through – if only just. But the suicide attacks on two mosques that left at least 142 people dead in Sana’a last Friday are one sign, among many, that it has finally tipped over the edge.

The UN is warning helplessly about a rapid downward spiral and calling for a resumption of efforts towards a political settlement, but the prospects of that happening are virtually nil and the scene is set for a protracted civil war with multiple protagonists.

Inside Yemen, the lineup of forces is complicated. One key player is Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted from the presidency in 2012 after 34 years in power and has been causing trouble ever since.

Saleh appears to be colluding with the Houthis, whom he previously fought in a series of wars in the far north of the country. His alliance with the Houthis is seen by many as a tactical move aimed at eventually installing his son, Ahmad, as president. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports from Aden: This port city, perched on an extinct volcano protruding into the Arabian Sea on Yemen’s far southern edge, has become perhaps the last refuge of the country’s embattled president, and it feels like now all his enemies are bearing down on it.

Driven out of the capital, Sanaa, by Shiite rebels who have taken over much of the north, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the remains of his government have made Aden their provisional capital. If they lose here, Hadi – the man the U.S. had hoped would stabilize the chaotic nation and fight al-Qaida’s powerful branch – likely will fall, plunging Yemen into a civil war.

In his first speech since fleeing Sanaa, Hadi on Saturday denounced the rebel takeover as “a coup against constitutional legitimacy” and declared Aden the country’s “temporary capital.” [Continue reading…]

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Yemeni implosion pushes southern Sunnis into arms of al Qaida and ISIS

The intrepid, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, reports: In a hollow in the sands of eastern Yemen, a line of pickup trucks carrying tribal fighters idled. A squat man with a shock of black hair, dressed in an overflowing dusty dishdasha, walked around slowly, inspecting the men and the vehicles, loaded with heavy machine guns and light artillery.

“The Houthis are behind that hill,” he shouted, pointing at a rocky outcrop sheltering the imaginary foe – northern Yemenis who overthrew the government last autumn, and seized the country’s third largest city on Sunday, according to security and military officials. “We will start by shelling their positions, and then you will storm the hill by cars and finally climb the hill on foot.”

His men call him the Biss – the Cat. After a rather desultory attempt to overrun the supposed adversary, they discovered that he had claws. “If the Houthis were actually there, they could have ended you all with one shell,” the Cat spat.

It’s a forlorn landscape, but one that contains compelling clues as to the shifting balance of power in the Middle East, and the new faultlines.

In Yemen there is little history of sectarian strife. The two main sects, Shia Zaidi and Sunni Shafi, have traditionally been seen as moderate with minimal differences.

But this changed when the Houthis, followers of an obscure Shia tradition who are accused of serving Iranian interests in Yemen, stormed the capital, Sana’a, in September, forcing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to the southern port city of Aden.

Their advance had a galvanising effect in the country’s Sunni-dominated south, where al-Qaida is particularly strong and the jihadis of Islamic State are just starting to secure a toehold. [Continue reading…]

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Shiite rebels seize Yemen’s 3rd largest city, protests erupt

The Associated Press: Shiite rebels backed by supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh seized Yemen’s third largest city of Taiz and its airport on Sunday, security and military officials said, as thousands took to the streets in protest.

If the rebels hold onto the city, the capital of Yemen’s most populous province, it would be a major blow to embattled current President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who established a base in the southern city of Aden just 140 kilometers (85 miles) away after fleeing the rebel-held capital last month.

The seizure comes a day after the rebels, known as Houthis, called for a general mobilization against forces loyal to Hadi, who had just given a defiant speech challenging the Houthis in his first public address since leaving Sanaa.

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Yemen bombings bring country closer to civil war

BBC News reports: Islamic State (IS) say its militants carried out suicide bombings on two mosques in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, which killed at least 137 people.

The attacks are the first claimed by IS – a Sunni group – since it set up a branch in Yemen in November.

Both mosques were used mainly by supporters of the Zaidi Shia-led Houthi rebel movement, which controls Sanaa. [Continue reading…]

The Toronto Star reports: Many fear the bombings Friday, coupled with Thursday’s battle between rival political factions for control of the airport in the southern city of Aden, will spark a series of retaliatory attacks.

Perhaps the grimmest indicator of how dire the situation has become is the fact that the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) quickly distanced itself from Friday’s suicide bombings.

AQAP’s leadership has in the past denounced the viciousness of the Islamic State’s tactics and the targeting of Muslims. Which means, in crude counterterrorism terms, that AQAP, once the world’s most feared Al Qaeda group, is now perceived as the more principled terrorists.

Washington-based analyst Sama’a Al-Hamdani said while the scale of the attack was unprecedented, it fits a pattern of escalating violence in Yemen.

“Everyone is expecting that someone will light a match and then an explosion will happen, but in Yemen is it more like a snowball effect,” she said in an interview Friday.

“It’s slow but consistent, in the same direction.”

This week marked the four-year anniversary of a seminal event that changed Yemen’s history — a day known locally as the “Day of Dignity.”

On March 18, 2011, forces loyal to then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh shot at unarmed demonstrators marching in the streets during the Arab Spring protests, killing 40. The snipers fired from rooftops and from behind a wall that Saleh’s forces had constructed days earlier near the demonstrators’ main camp, Change Square.

That day marked the beginning of the end for Saleh, who was forced to resign in 2012.

But Saleh never really went away as a deal brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council, United States and Saudi Arabia, which paved the way for his successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, also granted him immunity from legal action.

Thursday’s battle for Aden airport was indicative of Saleh’s enduring power, as the clash pitted forces loyal to him against Hadi.

The Associated Press journalist Hamza Hendawi was at the airport on a flight bound for Cairo when the fighting broke out. “We were caught in what would become an hours-long battle, part of the bigger conflict tearing apart this chaotic, impoverished nation,” Hendawi wrote. [Continue reading…]

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Yemen strife threatens neighbours too

Gamal Gasim writes: Only time will tell whether Friday’s deadly blasts in two mosques in the Yemeni capital were isolated attacks by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or whether the organisation is flexing its muscles with the assaults in Sanaa and in Tunisia’s capital Tunis.

For now, these attacks have again demonstrated the inability of the Houthi group – which lacks proper training as a police force – to provide security and enforce the rule of law in Sanaa and other areas that are under its control.

The continued political chaos and uncertainty is likely to increase the potential for violence.

The Houthis, together with the supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, may seize this political opportunity to mobilise people for a military and political expansion, probably in the direction of Taiz and Aden, where the Shia Houthis face a severe legitimacy crisis. [Continue reading…]

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Meeting the Houthis — and their enemies

Safa AlAhmad writes: Last September, thousands of fighters from northern Yemen seized control of the country’s capital, Sanaa. The government was weak, its army fractured, and the rebels – called the Houthis – took the city in only four days.

The secretive Houthi movement was always a mystery to me.

I went to Yemen to follow them, to understand where they came from and what they want since they have suddenly become the most powerful people in Yemen.

I discovered a divided country. The Houthis who belong to the Zaidi sect- an offshoot of Shia Islam, still control the capital, but face a determined alliance of al-Qaeda and other Sunni militants further south.

Mass protests against the Houthis have been reported in some of Yemen’s largest cities. I encountered a very different mood – and a sense of the country fragmenting – as I crossed front lines and travelled the country speaking to the Houthis and their enemies.

During my first week in Sanaa, al-Qaeda bombs the main square, as the Houthis, in power for only a few weeks, are staging a rally.

“The power of the explosion threw people in the air,” a witness tells me when I arrive on the scene soon afterwards. “There were many dead children and old men. So many people.” A suicide bomber is blamed for the carnage.

The Houthi slogan is posted on walls across Sanaa. It’s an Iranian-inspired political chant from the days of that country’s 1979 revolution and reads: “God is great. Death to America. Death to Israel. God curse the Jews. Victory for Islam.”

They have established a so-called Revolutionary Committee, now the de facto government, which claims to be clamping down on corruption.

While in Sanaa, I stay with the family of my close friend Radiya, a human rights activist, and her father Dr Mohamed Al Mutawakil, a politician.

“Honestly, I think this is the worst phase Yemen has ever gone through,” Radiya tells me.

When I return to the city a few weeks later, the mood has changed. Houthi slogans are crossed out everywhere. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon loses track of $500 million in weapons, equipment given to Yemen

The Washington Post reports: The Pentagon is unable to account for more than $500 million in U.S. military aid given to Yemen, amid fears that the weaponry, aircraft and equipment is at risk of being seized by Iranian-backed rebels or al-Qaeda, according to U.S. officials.

With Yemen in turmoil and its government splintering, the Defense Department has lost its ability to monitor the whereabouts of small arms, ammunition, night-vision goggles, patrol boats, vehicles and other supplies donated by the United States. The situation has grown worse since the United States closed its embassy in Sanaa, the capital, last month and withdrew many of its military advisers.

In recent weeks, members of Congress have held closed-door meetings with U.S. military officials to press for an accounting of the arms and equipment. Pentagon officials have said that they have little information to go on and that there is little they can do at this point to prevent the weapons and gear from falling into the wrong hands. [Continue reading…]

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Iranian special operatives free diplomat abducted in Yemen

The Associated Press: Iran said Thursday that a team of special operatives has freed an Iranian diplomat abducted more than 19 months ago in Yemen, a rare acknowledgement by Tehran of an intel operation carried out on foreign soil.

The official IRNA news agency quoted deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdolahian as saying that intelligence officers undertook a “difficult and complicated operation” to secure Nour Ahmad Nikbakhat’s freedom from the “hands of terrorists.”

Amirabdollahian added that the operation took place “in a very special area in Yemen,” without elaborating or providing further details.

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Yemen Houthis take over U.S.-trained special forces base in Sanaa

Reuters: Armed men from Yemen’s newly dominant Houthi group took over a special forces army base in the capital Sanaa early on Wednesday, soldiers there said.

The clashes, which lasted around six hours, started late on Tuesday when Houthis shelled the camp with heavy weapons, soldiers from the camp said. At least 10 people were killed.

The troops had been trained and equipped by the United States as an elite counterterrorism unit during the rule of ex-president Ali Abullah Saleh, who was ousted by Arab Spring protests in 2011, military sources told Reuters.

Houthi militiamen seized Sanaa in September, eventually leading President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to Aden this week where he seeks to set up a rival center of power.

For more than a decade the United States has watched with alarm as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – the most powerful arm of the global militant group – has grown in Yemen as the political chaos has mounted.

The U.S. military trained and kitted out Yemeni soldiers under Saleh, and under Hadi the CIA has stepped up drone strikes aimed at killing suspected militants.

U.S. officials have expressed concern that the rule of the resolutely anti-American Shi’ite Muslim Houthis will harm their counterterrorism efforts in a country that shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, the world’s [largest] oil exporter.

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