Archive for April, 2014

An extraordinary meeting: Gulf ministers agree to end tension with Qatar


JEDDAH – Gulf foreign ministers agreed a deal Thursday to end months of unprecedented tension between Qatar and other members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council over the Muslim Brotherhood.

At an extraordinary meeting in Riyadh, the ministers agreed that the policies of GCC member states should not undermine the “interests, security and stability” of each other, a statement said.

Such policies must also not affect the “sovereignty” of a member state.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Qatar last month, accusing it of meddling in their internal affairs and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.

The three states said at the time that Doha had failed to comply with a commitment by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, to non-interference, made during a summit in Riyadh last year with Kuwait’s emir and the Saudi monarch. During the tripartite meeting in Riyadh in November, Kuwait’s emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah sought to ease tensions between Saudi King Abdullah and Sheikh Tamim.

On Thursday, the foreign ministers met for more than two hours at a Riyadh air base and agreed on an “implementation mechanism” to the November agreement, the GCC statement said.

Tensions rose because Doha supported Egypt’s Islamist president Mohamed Morsi while most Gulf countries hailed his overthrow by the army last July.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies have long been hostile towards Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, fearing that its brand of grass-roots activism and political Islam could undermine their authority. Tensions that had been simmering for months peaked in early February when Abu Dhabi summoned Doha’s ambassador to protest against “insults” to the UAE by Egypt-born cleric Yusef al-Qaradawi, a Qatari citizen.

The coverage of the influential Doha-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel, seen by critics as biased in favor of the Brotherhood, has also increased tensions between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors.

The other GCC member states are Kuwait and Oman.

Source: Middle East Online.


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Jordan steers middle course in Saudi-Qatar dispute

April 2, 2014

Osama Al Sharif

Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s sudden, short March 30 visit to Amman took Jordanians by surprise. It was announced only a day in advance, first by the Qataris and then by the Jordanian royal court. Its significance, for both sides, could not be ignored. This was the first trip to Jordan by the young emir since his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, abdicated last June. Relations between Amman and Doha have been tepid at best, and had seen many bad days since King Abdullah was crowned in 1999 following the death of his father King Hussein.

There have been attempts by King Abdullah to mend relations with Sheikh Hamad. But few are aware of the real reasons behind the tense relationship. One major diplomatic confrontation took place a few months after Abdullah assumed the throne. A face-off between the government and Hamas leaders based in Amman ended in their expulsion. Qatar stepped in to convince the Jordanian government to change its position. It failed to do so, and the expelled Hamas leaders were put on a Qatari plane headed for Doha.

That incident triggered what became known as the Jordan-Qatar dispute. There were additional reasons for it, but unlike the Qatar government, the Jordanian royal court avoided being dragged into a war of words. More often than not, the Doha-based Al Jazeera would launch attacks on the Jordanian leadership through documentaries and political talk shows hosting anti-government figures. The local media in Amman usually responded, but the palace would show tolerance and patience.

The Hamas file has resurfaced in the past few years. In 2012, then-Crown Prince Tamim came to Amman accompanied by expelled Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal, who is also a Jordanian national. The mission succeeded and Meshaal was allowed to visit Jordan on a number of occasions. But Jordan refused to reopen Hamas’ office in Amman or allow the expelled leaders to relocate there. Again, relations between Qatar and Jordan remained on edge.

Sunday’s visit by the Qatari emir may change that. It came as Doha was feeling increasingly isolated by its Gulf neighbors following the outbreak of a dispute with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain. The three countries had pulled their ambassadors from the Qatari capital last month and rejected any mediation until Doha accedes to their demands. They want Qatar to adhere to commitments not to interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbors and stop its criticism of the new regime in Egypt. Qatar had become a hub for Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who often appear on Al Jazeera criticizing Egypt’s new leadership and the countries that support it, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatar has so far rejected these demands.

By visiting Jordan — he will later visit Sudan and Tunisia — the young emir is looking for ways to demonstrate that Doha is not isolated and that it still has friends in the Arab world. But this is not the message that Jordanians want their Saudi and other Gulf allies to receive.

Jordan had expressed its displeasure with the recent Gulf dispute while insisting on neutrality, and unconfirmed reports spoke of a possible Jordanian mediation to resolve the matter. But Jordanian officials would not confirm whether Jordan was still ready to intervene. Former chief of the royal court and veteran Jordanian politician Adnan Abu Odeh told Al-Monitor, “Jordan can play a positive [role] in Gulf reconciliation, and its role is appreciated by all parties.” He added that the visit will enhance bilateral relations and open the door to receiving more Jordanian workers in Qatar.

Information about what the two leaders discussed is scarce. The official statement by the royal palace said bilateral relations and current regional and international issues were reviewed. But Asharq Al Awsat quoted informed Jordanian sources as saying the results of the visit would become clearer in the coming few days. Doha is expected to renew its commitment to the five-year Gulf Cooperation Council’s $5 billion grant to Jordan, of which Qatar will pay $1.25 billion. The grant was approved in 2011, but Qatar had failed to pay its share until now. The newspaper reported that Jordan will send envoys to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain soon to “improve relations with Qatar.”

But a journalist covering the visit told Al-Monitor that the issue of Hamas was also discussed. He pointed to the fact that the high-level meeting was attended by Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, the king’s half-brother, who is said to be handling the Hamas file on the Jordanian side. A March 31 Al-Monitor report spoke of attempts by Hamas to end its political isolation by opening up to Jordan. The report said that Hamas wants to relocate its political bureau to the Jordanian capital, while the Middle East Monitor reported that Sheikh Tamim had tried to persuade Amman to reopen Hamas offices.

Jordanian news site El Maqar reported that the talks addressed the Syrian issue as well. Jordan has denied facilitating the passage of weapons from Gulf countries into Syria. Qatar is one of the main backers of the Syrian opposition and has called for arming the rebels.

Whatever the Qatari motives were behind this visit, Jordan could not have prevented it. Amman has always relied on Gulf financial support and job markets for its citizens. Historically, relations between Amman and Doha were close. Many Jordanians assumed senior administrative posts in the Qatari government in the early 1960s through the mid-1990s. There are about 27,000 Jordanians working in Qatar today.

Jordanian Minister of Political Affairs Khaled al-Kalaldeh told Al-Monitor that the visit had been planned for some time, before the eruption of the Gulf dispute. He added that Jordan’s “transparent position on issues qualifies it to play a positive role with its Arab brethren.”

But King Abdullah also knows that he cannot compromise the strong relations between Jordan and other Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia. This is why few details were released about the short visit, and the royal court’s description of talks was carefully worded. One political researcher who did not want to be named said that Jordan, which belongs to a moderate political axis led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, sees things differently from Qatar and Turkey, which support political Islam. He told Al-Monitor, “Jordan should be careful not to sacrifice its vital relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in light of this recent visit.”

For now, Jordan will be content to see a thaw in relations with Qatar as long as that does not come at the expense of its special ties with other Gulf countries.

Source: al-Monitor.


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Saudi Arabia replaces powerful intelligence chief


RIYADH – Saudi Arabia has replaced its veteran intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan “at his own request”, an official television station in the kingdom announced Tuesday.

In a royal decree, the powerful official was replaced “at his own request” by his deputy, Yousef al-Idrissi, said Al-Ekhbariya, a government-run satellite channel.

Bandar was abroad for several months for health reasons, with diplomats saying he had been sidelined in Saudi efforts to support rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

During Prince Bandar’s absence, Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef was put in charge of the Syrian file and of the intelligence agency.

The security officials said last week that the 65 year-old Prince was seeking medical attention in the US and resting in Morocco after surgery on his shoulder.

Bandar, who formerly served as Saudi ambassador to the US for 22 years, has had special responsibility for the Levant for years, leading Saudi intelligence and strategic affairs in the region.

Analysts and intelligence sources have repeatedly said that Bandar has been the key figure trying to boost Saudi weapons flow to Syrian rebel forces seeking to oust President Bashar Assad’s government.

The security sources said that Bandar held a number of official meetings while in Morocco, including with Saudi deputy defense minister Salman bin Sultan.

The deputy defense minister briefed Bandar on his official visits to Washington and Paris last month, they added, also saying that Bandar met Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan while in Marrakech.

Informed sources had revealed in December that Bandar would be sidelined because the King and a large number of other Saudi princes were unhappy with his handling of Syria’s crisis.

A top Saudi diplomat had previously said that Bandar could not have taken any decisions without King Abdullah’s approval, including his moves with regard to Syria.

He said that the interior minister took over Bandar’s responsibilities in his absence because he too had experience in dealing with security affairs.

Source: Middle East Online.


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Arab Group calls for permanent representation in the Security Council

Friday, 14 March 2014

The permanent representative of Kuwait to the United Nations, Mansour Al-Otaibi, has revealed that the Arab Group is calling for securing permanent representation in the United Nations Security Council.

Speaking on behalf of the group, Al-Otaibi said during the intergovernmental negotiations on Thursday night about Security Council reforms that the multiplicity of Arab issues considered by the Security Council reflects the importance of having permanent Arab representation to ensure the delivery of Arab views during the Security Council’s deliberations on a continuous basis, so as to enhance its working methods.

Al-Otaibi pointed out that the Security Council aims to secure regional representation for all geographical groups, and that the Arab Group represents nearly 350 million people and has a membership of 22 countries, which is equivalent to 12 per cent of the United Nations general membership.

The Kuwaiti official also stressed that the Arab Group is keen to contribute actively in the Security Council’s discussions in order to reach solutions that enhance the Security Council’s democratic transparency and its working methods.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


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Social challenges as Saudis draw throne’s future

April 11, 2014

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — While Saudi Arabia’s royals work out the succession of the throne behind closed doors, a few voices are raising the most sensitive matter of all in the kingdom, questioning the ruling Al Saud family’s claim to absolute power and its unchecked rights to the country’s oil wealth.

At least 10 Saudis in the past weeks have posted video statements on YouTube sharply criticizing the royal family and demanding change. At least three of those who appeared in videos have since been arrested, along with seven others connected to the videos, security officials told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

It is impossible to know how widespread the sentiments expressed in the videos are among the Saudi public. But the flurry of postings by Saudis is almost unheard-of and startling, given that public criticism of the king is strictly prohibited. It underlines the challenge that Saudi Arabia’s rulers have themselves recognized — that they must address the growing needs of the country’s youth, along with demands for transparency, reform and greater public participation in government.

At the same time, the royal family is facing an equally critical question: How to pass the throne to the next generation of Al Saud. Since Abdulaziz Al Saud founded the kingdom in the 1930s, the throne has been passed down among his sons, of whom he had several dozen by multiple wives. The succession from brother to brother has been relatively smooth for decades. But the time is approaching when the family must decide which brother’s son will get the throne next, potentially putting the monarchy into one particular branch at the expense of the others.

King Abdullah, on the throne for nearly a decade, is almost 90 and recently appeared in public with an oxygen tube. His half-brother Prince Salman, in his late 70s, is the crown prince, the designated successor. Abdullah has already outlived two other half-brothers who held the crown prince post.

Two weeks ago, the kingdom took the unusual step of officially declaring the next in line after Salman, naming Prince Muqrin, who at 68 is the youngest of Abdulaziz’s sons. Muqrin, a close aide of Abdullah, was chosen as a transitional figure toward the eventual handing of the torch to the next generation, said Joseph Kechichian, author of several books on the kingdom, including “Succession in Saudi Arabia.”

That handover is potentially divisive given the stakes. Analysts say there are more than a dozen princes among Abdulaziz’s grandsons from the various branches who could qualify for the throne after Muqrin.

The next monarch will inherit a country where half of the population of 20 million people is under the age of 25, in need of jobs, housing and education. The world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia is fabulously wealthy, but there are deep disparities in wealth and unemployment is growing among the young. The population is expected to mushroom to 45 million people by 2050.

Royals are showing that they are aware of the challenge. This week, Muqrin attended a conference unveiling a state-backed report on the minimum income families need to earn to cover their basic needs. At the conference, he criticized the country’s banks for making giant earnings while doing little to help society.

“They’re like a saw, they cut on the way in and cut on the way out,” he said. “Their contribution is small in comparison to how much they benefit from the citizens and state.” Last month, the governor of Mecca, Prince Mishaal, one of King Abdullah’s sons, said in an economic forum that there must be greater youth participation in planning and development.

The string of videos emerged on YouTube just after Muqrin’s appointment was announced. In each, a person talks to a camera, some speaking before a blank background, others in non-descript rooms. In most, the speaker holds up his or her national identity card with the speaker’s name and other information, a bold act of defiance to show they are not seeking anonymity. Two of the videos are by women, all wearing all-enveloping black robes and veils over their faces. Most of the speakers are in their 20s or 30s, though some are as old as their 50s. They are from different provinces of Saudi Arabia.

The first video to appear, by a young man who identified himself as Abdulaziz al-Doussari, appears to have inspired the others. In his 30-second video, he says he makes the equivalent of $500 a month — though he doesn’t specify his job — and says he’s fed up with being unable to afford a car, a home or marriage.

“Brother, give us some of the oil wealth you and your sons play with,” he blurts out, addressing the king. “Here, here’s my name,” he adds, holding his ID card to the camera. “Give us some of what’s rightfully ours.” The video has been viewed more than 1.8 million times.

Al-Dossari is among those subsequently arrested, the security officials said. In the past, public voices critical of Al Saud rule have been Islamic extremists — al-Qaida, for example, calls for the monarchy’s toppling — or minority Saudi Shiites protesting for equal treatment. The security officials, however, gave no indication they believed either group was behind the videos. Instead, they accused regional rival Iran but gave no further details.

The speakers in the videos don’t express allegiance to any political movement. Some accuse the royal family of corruption, others demand an accounting of its wealth and how much it receives from state coffers. Some do not refer to the kingdom as Saudi Arabia — named after the Al Saud. Instead, they call it the “land of the two holy mosques,” referring to the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina and the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

In his video, Majed el-Asmiri calls for judicial independence, freedom of speech and the dissolution of the intelligence body Prince Muqrin once headed. “It is obvious … that the people of the land of the two holy mosques suffer in every way with regards to decisions about public finances and property,” he said.

Average Saudis have limited voice in governance. Most senior positions go to the thousands of members of the Al Saud family. A royally appointed Shura Council is the closest thing to a parliament, drawing members from the main tribes and other sectors of society, but it only can advise the king and government.

The ultimate question of who is king lies solely in the royal family’s hands. Any internal disputes over succession are kept strictly private, and royals have always rallied almost unanimously over the final choice, conscious that unity is in their interest.

Several years ago, King Abdullah tried to formalize the process by creating a 34-member Allegiance Council comprised of senior male members to decide questions of succession. Its meetings are held in total secrecy.

Former U.S. Ambassador to neighboring Bahrain, Adam Ereli, says the main issue facing any future king will be “accountability”. “Obviously, the new generation is going to have different views on issues of reform and what needs to be done,” Ereli said. “I think the rulers of Saudi Arabia recognize they’ve got to be responsive.”

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Saudi Crown Prince Salman begins state visit to China

Thursday, 13 Mar, 2014

London and Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has begun a state visit to China, the latest leg of an Asian tour that has included visits to Pakistan, Japan and India. The visit is expected to include high-level talks on economic, cultural and military cooperation between Saudi Arabia and China.

The Saudi Ambassador to Beijing, Yahya Al-Zaid, told Asharq Al-Awsat that a series of visits exchanged between Riyadh and Beijing has served to strengthen bilateral relations, with Crown Prince Salman’s visit to China this week only serving to further strengthen ties.

He affirmed that economic exchange between Saudi Arabia and China stood at 73 billion US dollars in 2013, while the number of Saudi students studying at Chinese universities has increased to more than 1,300.

He said: “These two numbers emphasize the importance of relations between Riyadh and Beijing.”

“Crown Prince Salman’s visit is very important, and takes place at a time when the world is witnessing political change, most prominently in terms of economic alliances. The timing of the Crown Prince’s visit is important and will serve to strengthen bilateral cooperation, particularly in terms of the economy, which remains the basis of Saudi–Chinese relations,” he added.

Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to Beijing also highlighted the tourism and education sectors, praising the number of Saudi students studying in China and adding that “there may also be developments in the area of tourism exchange as well.”

The Chinese Ambassador to Riyadh, Li Chengwen, also hailed the timing of Crown Prince Salman’s visit to Beijing, saying it would strengthen strategic ties between the two countries.

In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, he described bilateral ties between Saudi Arabia and China as “strategic” and “friendly,” highlighting Beijing’s role in the Arab world.

He said: “Saudi–Chinese relations have witnessed ongoing development and growth over the past years, reaching the level of strategic partnership,” adding, “The important visit being paid by Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz will raise this to the highest level, and this serves the interests of the two brotherly peoples.”

“We in China take pride in this deep friendship between our two peoples, and the people of China have a great affection for the people of Saudi Arabia, based on mutual respect towards one another,” Chengwen added.

Saudi Crown Prince Salman is expected to meet Premier Li Keqiang, Defense Minister Chang Wanquan and other senior Chinese officials during his visit.

Last month, the Crown Prince visited Pakistan, Japan, India and the Maldives as part of a tour of Asia, discussing strengthening Saudi ties to the region.

Reporting by Fatah Al-Rahman Youssef from Riyadh and Adwan Al-Ahmari from London.

Source: Asharq al-Awsat.


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KSA, Kuwait nab Brotherhood members

Thu Mar 13, 2014

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have arrested two members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood at Cairo’s request, Egypt’s top prosecutor has said.

The prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Wednesday that the two men were arrested after Egypt’s interim government put an international arrest warrant on them for “inciting violence” in the city of Port Said in 2013.

“The office of the public prosecutor has received a notification of the arrest of Akram al-Shaer by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the accused Mohamed al-Qabouti by the state of Kuwait,” the statement said.

Al-Shaer was head of the health committee in parliament during ousted Mohamed Morsi’s presidency.

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have reportedly pumped billions of dollars into Egypt since the army ousted Egypt’s first democratically-elected president last July and suspended the country’s constitution and dissolved the parliament.

Egypt declared the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist” group late last year and accused its members of being responsible for a deadly bomb attack on a police headquarters building in the Delta Nile city of Mansoura in December 2013.

The Brotherhood, however, condemned the attack and denied involvement in the incident.

Last week, Riyadh followed Egypt’s suit to declare the 86-year-old group a terrorist organization.

Anti-government demonstrations have continued unabated across Egypt since Morsi’s ouster despite a heavy-handed crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters.

Human Rights Watch has denounced Egypt’s interim government for blacklisting the Brotherhood, saying the move “appears to be aimed at expanding the crackdown on peaceful Brotherhood activities and imposing harsh sanctions on its supporters.”

Source: PressTV.


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Bahrain court gives life sentence to 13 protesters

Sun Mar 30, 2014

A court in Bahrain has sentenced 13 pro-democracy protesters including several teenagers to life in prison, as the Al Khalifa regime steps up its crackdown on dissent.

The court issued the verdicts on Sunday after convicting the defendants of allegedly attempting to kill a policeman and participating in an anti-regime protest outside the capital city of Manama in March 2012.

Mohammad Al-Tajir, a lawyer for the convicted Bahrainis, said another person was sentenced to 10 years in prison in the same case. He added that the defense plans to appeal.

On March 26, another court in Bahrain handed jail terms of up to 10 years to 29 anti-regime protesters.

The prosecution accused the men of being behind an attack with petrol bombs and iron rods on a police center in the village of Sitra, south of Manama, in April 2012. A policeman was wounded in the incident.

The defendants, however, dismissed the accusations, insisting that they were tortured and their confessions were obtained under duress.

Since mid-February 2011, thousands of pro-democracy protesters have held numerous demonstrations in the streets of Bahrain, calling for the Al Khalifa royal family to relinquish power.

On March 14, 2011, troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates invaded the country to assist the Bahraini government in its crackdown on peaceful protesters.

Scores of Bahrainis have been killed and hundreds injured and jailed by the regime forces since the uprising broke out.

Last month, Amnesty International denounced the “relentless repression” of anti-regime protesters in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom, blaming Bahraini security forces for their repeated use of “excessive force to quash anti-government protests.”

Source: PressTV.


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Iran’s Rouhani congratulates Turkey on local elections

Wed Apr 2, 2014

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has extended his congratulations to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the victory of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the recent local elections in Turkey.

In a telephone conversation with Erdogan on Tuesday, the Iranian president said the Turkish people’s turnout in the country’s municipal elections was a victory for democracy in an important Muslim country.

The Turkish premier on Sunday declared victory for the ruling AKP in the country’s local elections, which are seen as a key test for Erdogan ahead of a presidential vote scheduled for August.

The official results of the Sunday elections have not been announced yet; however, according to Turkish reports, Erdogan’s AKP has won around 45 percent of the votes compared to the nearly 30 percent gained by rival the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The Turkish opposition has, however, rejected the results of the votes in Ankara and Istanbul, saying there have been irregularities in these two mega cities.

In his phone conversation with Erdogan, the Iranian president further said that strengthening ties with the Muslim country of Turkey is among the priorities of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy.

The Turkish prime minister, for his part, expressed gratitude to Rouhani for the congratulation, and felicitated the Iranian government and nation on the Islamic Republic Day.

On Tuesday, April 1, Iran marked the 35th anniversary of the historic referendum in which the nation overwhelmingly voted yes to the establishment of the Islamic Republic following the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Erdogan further said the elections in Turkey were a response by the people of his country to the “groundless allegations” against his government.

Rouhani and Erdogan further called for the continuation of bilateral consultation on regional developments.

The Erdogan administration has been faced with mass protests, a corruption scandal and criticism for blocking certain websites over the past months, which mark the most turbulent period in his 11-year rule.

Source: PressTV.


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