Archive for December, 2015

Saudi Arabia forms Islamic counterterrorism coalition

December 15, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that 34 nations have agreed to form a new “Islamic military alliance” to fight terrorism with a joint operations center based in the kingdom’s capital, Riyadh.

The announcement, published by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, said the alliance will be Saudi-led and is being established because terrorism “should be fought by all means and collaboration should be made to eliminate it.”

The statement said Islam forbids “corruption and destruction in the world” and that terrorism constitutes “a serious violation of human dignity and rights, especially the right to life and the right to security.”

The new counterterrorism coalition includes nations with large and established armies such as Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt as well as war-torn countries with embattled militaries such as Libya and Yemen. African nations that have suffered militant attacks such as Mali, Chad, Somalia and Nigeria are also members.

Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Shiite Iran, is not part of the coalition. The two support opposite sides of in the wars raging in Syria and Yemen. Saudi Arabia is currently leading a military intervention in Yemen against Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, and is part of the U.S.-led coalition bombing the Sunni extremist Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Turkey, the only country in the alliance that is also a NATO member, welcomed the new coalition. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called it the “best response to those who are trying to associate terror and Islam.”

“We believe that this effort by Muslim countries is a step in the right direction,” Davutoglu said. At a rare news conference, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman said the new Islamic military coalition will develop mechanisms for working with other countries and international bodies to support counterterrorism efforts. He said their efforts would not be limited to only countering the Islamic State group.

“Currently, every Muslim country is fighting terrorism individually … so coordinating efforts is very important,” he said. He said the joint operations center will be established in Riyadh to “coordinate and support military operations to fight terrorism” across the Muslim world.

Smaller member-states included in the coalition are the archipelago of the Maldives and the Gulf Arab island-nation of Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Other Gulf Arab countries such as Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are also in the coalition, though notably absent from the list is Oman, a neighbor of Saudi Arabia. In recent years, Oman has maintained a neutral role and has emerged as a mediator in regional conflicts, serving as a conduit from the Gulf Arabs to Iran.

Iraq and Syria, whose forces are battling to regain territory taken by the Islamic State group and whose governments are allied with Iran, are not in the coalition. A Jordanian government spokesman confirmed that the Hashemite kingdom is part of the coalition. Spokesman Mohammed Momani would not comment specifically on the alliance but said that “Jordan is always ready and actively participates in any effort to fight terrorism.”

A Lebanese government official confirmed to The Associated Press that his nation was also part of the 34-nation coalition. Tiny Lebanon has seen frequent spillovers from Syria’s civil war next door, as well as sectarian clashes and militant attacks.

“Lebanon is fighting a daily war against terrorism … Lebanon cannot but be part of the alliance that is combating terrorism,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements. Asked how Lebanon plans to contribute to the alliance, he said that “these are details that we haven’t gotten into yet.”

Benin, while it does not have a majority Muslim population, is another member of this new counterterrorism coalition. All the group’s members are also part of the larger Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is headquartered in Saudi Arabia.

Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Amman, Jordan; Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

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Saudi voters elect 20 women candidates for the first time

December 13, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi voters elected 20 women for local government seats, according to results released to The Associated Press on Sunday, a day after women voted and ran in elections for the first time in the country’s history.

The women who won hail from vastly different parts of the country, ranging from Saudi Arabia’s largest city to a small village near Islam’s holiest site. The 20 female candidates represent just one percent of the roughly 2,100 municipal council seats up for grabs, but even limited gains are seen as a step forward for women who had previously been completely shut out of elections. Women are still not allowed to drive and are governed by guardianship laws that give men final say over aspects of their lives like marriage, travel and higher education.

Though there are no quotas for female council members, an additional 1,050 seats are appointed with approval by the king who could use his powers to ensure more women are represented. Around 7,000 candidates, among them 979 women, competed in the election for a seat on the municipal councils, which are the only government body elected by Saudi citizens. The two previous rounds of voting for the councils, in 2005 and 2011, were open to men only.

The conservative capital of Riyadh saw the most women candidates win, with four elected. The Eastern Province, where minority Shiites are concentrated, saw two women elected, said Hamad Al-Omar, who heads the General Election Commission’s media council.

Saudi Arabia’s second largest and most cosmopolitan city, Jiddah, also elected two women, as did one of the most conservative regions, Qassim. The mayor of the city of Mecca, Osama al-Bar, told the AP that a woman won in a village called Madrakah, about 93 miles (150 kilometers) north of the city which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba to which Muslims around the world pray.

Another woman won in Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad’s first mosque was built. Other women hailing from the kingdom’s northernmost areas won, with two elected in Tabuk, one in al-Jawf and another in Hail. Additionally, a woman won in Saudi Arabia’s southern border area of Jizan, another in Asir and two won in al-Ahsa.

Many women candidates ran on platforms that promised more nurseries to offer longer daycare hours for working mothers, the creation of youth community centers with sports and cultural activities, improved roads, better garbage collection and overall greener cities.

In October, the Saudi Gazette reported that harsh road conditions and long distances to the nearest hospital had forced some women in the village of Madrakah, where one female candidate was elected, to give birth in cars. The local newspaper reported that the closest hospital and the nearest university were in Mecca, prompting some students to forgo attending classes. The article said residents were also frustrated with the lack of parks in the village.

It is precisely these kinds of community issues that female candidates hope to address once elected to the municipal councils. The councils do not have legislative powers, but advise authorities and help oversee local budgets.

Most ran their campaigns online, using social media to get the word out, due to strict gender segregation rules that ban men and women from mixing in public. This meant candidates could not directly address voters of the opposite sex.

In an effort to create a more level playing field for women who wear the traditional full-face veil, the General Election Committee banned both male and female candidates from showing their faces in promotional flyers, billboards or online. They were also not allowed to appear on television.

Still, al-Omar said the historic election drew a staggering 106,000 female voters out of some 130,000 who’d registered. Out of 1.35 million men registered, almost 600,000 cast ballots. In total, some 47 percent of registered voters took part in Saturday’s election.

In Jiddah, three generations of women from the same family voted for the first time. The oldest woman in the family was 94-year-old Naela Mohammad Nasief. Her daughter, Sahar Hassan Nasief, said the experience marked “the beginning” of greater rights for women in Saudi Arabia.

“I walked in and said ‘I’ve have never seen this before. Only in the movies’,” the daughter said, referring to the ballot box. “It was a thrilling experience.”

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Saudi Arabia to host Syrian opposition ahead of peace talks

December 04, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Saudi Arabia is hosting Syrian opposition groups and many of the main rebel factions next week in an effort to come up with a unified front ahead of peace talks with representatives of the government in Damascus, scheduled to begin early next year.

The meeting is the first of its kind in the Sunni kingdom, which is a main backer of the Syrian opposition, underscoring how the internationally backed effort is the most serious yet in attempts to end the nearly five-year civil war. The conflict has killed more than a quarter of a million people and triggered a refugee crisis of massive proportions.

The rebel factions’ participation points to the evolution in the position of many of them that long rejected any negotiations with Damascus as long President Bashar Assad was in power. Now they are on board to attempt a process that the United States and its allies say must eventually lead to Assad’s removal — but with no timetable for it.

At the three-day gathering that starts next Tuesday in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, the factions will try to form a unified opposition delegation and a platform regarding what is meant to be a transitional period in Syria, officials who were invited said.

“We will be negotiating Assad’s departure,” said Mustafa Osso, the vice president of the Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group. “If this regime stays, violence will continue in Syria and there will be no stability,” he said, speaking from Turkey. Osso will be part of what he said will be a 20-member delegation from the coalition at the Riyadh meeting.

A peace plan agreed to last month by 20 nations meeting in Vienna sets a Jan. 1 deadline for the start of negotiations between Assad’s government and opposition groups. The plan says nothing about Assad’s future, but states that “free and fair elections would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months.”

Among the nations that took part in the Vienna meeting were the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Russia and Iran have been Assad’s strongest supporters since the crisis began in March 2011 while Saudi Arabia and Turkey have backed factions trying to remove the Syrian president from power.

In Tehran, Iran’s deputy foreign minister denounced the planned gathering in Saudi Arabia, the official IRNA news agency reported. “The action will divert Vienna political efforts on Syria from its natural path and will drive the Vienna talks toward failure,” Hossein Amir Abdollahian was quoted as saying.

Most of the main rebel factions have been invited to the Riyadh talks, including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. Also among the invited are two of the biggest — Jaysh al-Islam and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group that has been for months trying to improve its image and market itself as a moderate faction, said Ibrahim Hamidi, a journalist who covers Syrian affairs for the Saudi-owned newspaper Al Hayat.

Spokesmen for Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham did not respond to requests for comment on whether the groups would attend. “The time for serious negotiations to find a solution has begun,” Hamidi said.

But in a sign of the splits within Assad’s opponents, no Kurdish factions have been invited, including the main Kurdish militia known as the YPG. The YPG has been the most successful group fighting the Islamic State group and captured scores of towns and villages from the extremists over the past year.

Saleh Muslim, the president of the largest Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party or PYD, said his group has also not been invited. He said Turkey, which has broad fears of Kurdish ambitions, likely pressured Saudi Arabia not to invite them or the YPG.

“We would love to participate. The conference is related to Syria’s future and we are a main part of Syria and its future,” Muslim said. Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million people. There are Kurds, including Osso, in some other factions that will attend.

Among those invited is Hassan Abdul-Azim, a veteran opposition figure in Syria who leads the Syria-based National Coordination Body for Democratic Change. He said that his group will enter talks with the Syrian government “without pre-conditions.”

“The fate of the Syrian president will be decided during the negotiations,” Abdul-Azim said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last month that the Syrian government has already put forward to the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, the makeup of its delegation to the upcoming negotiations. Lavrov last week said peace talks cannot go ahead until all parties involved agree on which groups should be listed as terrorist and which as Syria’s legitimate opposition.

Also ahead of the peace talks, Jordan is to oversee a process identifying which militant groups in Syria should be considered as terrorists and thus should be prevented from participating in any negotiations. That is to be completed by the time the political process between the government and opposition begins in January.

Separately, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that the world body is working to launch talks between Syria’s warring parties and start a nationwide cease-fire in the country in early January. He also said he expects the third round of talks on the “Vienna process” to take place in New York but wouldn’t confirm a Dec. 18 date, though that date is being considered, according to U.N. diplomats.

Also Thursday, Iyad Ameen Madani, the secretary general of the world’s largest body of Muslim nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, appealed to the Syrian opposition leaders to “close ranks and make the legitimate demands of the Syrian people for change, reform and reconstruction of institutions.

Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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UAE, Russia agree to cooperate in space industry

Abu Dhabi UAE (SPX)

Dec 04, 2015

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia on Tuesday signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to build a strategic partnership in the field of space exploration.

The MoU was inked by Chairman of the UAE Space Agency Khalifa Mohammed Al-Rumaithi and General Director of the Russian Federal Space Agency ROSCOMOS Igor Komarov.

The deal allows for extensive cooperation in space policy, human capital development and training, as well as in future development, ground station operations support and general awareness, the UAE agency said in an e-mailed statement.

The UAE Space Agency is keen to benefit from the expertise of other space programs, Al-Rumaithi said at his meeting with Komarov.

The meeting aimed to discuss ways of boosting cooperation between the UAE and Russian programs in the space industry and exploration, Al-Rumaithi added.

Conquering space is part of the UAE’s strategy to diversify the economy of the country, a major oil supplier, away from oil.

The UAE, which already developed several research and observation satellites, aims to launch a Mars mission by 2023.

Source: Space Daily.

Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/UAE_Russia_agree_to_cooperate_in_space_industry_999.html.

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