Archive for category Arabian Peninsula

US Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales, UK suspends licenses

By Michael Mathes, with Dmitry Zaks in London

Washington (AFP)

June 20, 2019

Saudi Arabia’s controversial military campaign in Yemen suffered a double blow Thursday as US lawmakers voted to block President Donald Trump’s arms sales to Riyadh hours after Britain temporarily suspended similar sales.

In Washington, the Senate voted to prevent $8.1 billion in US arms in a symbolic bipartisan rebuke to the president and his close ties with the kingdom.

A handful of Republicans joined Democrats in voting against 22 separate sales of aircraft support maintenance, precision-guided munitions and other weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan at a moment of heightened tensions in the Middle East.

The votes were only assured this week when Republican leadership agreed to hold the sensitive roll calls on the arms sales, which critics say will aggravate the devastating war in Yemen.

Trump’s administration took the extraordinary step of bypassing Congress to approve the sales in May, declaring Iran to be a “fundamental threat” to regional stability.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said the administration was responding to an emergency caused by Saudi Arabia’s historic rival Iran, which backs the Huthi rebels in Yemen.

But critics in the United States and Britain have expressed concern about the devastating toll that the four-year Saudi bombing campaign in neighboring Yemen has taken on civilians.

“When they target civilians how can we continue to sell those arms?” Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, author of the resolutions, said Thursday.

The conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives and triggered what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst existing humanitarian crisis.

Britain’s temporary sales suspension was announced by International Trade Secretary Liam Fox after a British court ordered the government to “reconsider” the sales due to their toll on non-combatants.

“We disagree with the judgement and will seek permission to appeal,” Fox said in a statement delivered in parliament, adding authorities “will not grant any new licenses to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners which might be used in the conflict in Yemen.”

Government figures analyzed by CAAT show that Britain, which accounts for 23 percent of arms imports to Saudi Arabia, has licensed nearly 5 billion pounds ($6.4 billion, 5.6 billion euros) in weapons to the kingdom since its Yemen campaign began in 2015.

Germany halted all arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to Saudi opposition columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 killing and called on other EU governments to follow suit.

– ‘Resolve or weakness’ –

The process in Washington, traditionally a major provider of weaponry to the kingdom, is more protracted.

The measures, which passed with votes of 53-45 and 51-45, now go to the Democratic-led House of Representatives, where they are expected to win approval and then head to the president’s desk.

Trump is likely to veto them, and it will remain an uphill climb for Congress to come up with a two-thirds vote to override a veto.

Some of the president’s allies in Congress are outraged by Saudi Arabia’s behavior.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he hoped his vote to block the sales would “send a signal to Saudi Arabia that if you act the way you’re acting, there is no space for a strategic relationship.”

Khashoggi’s murder in Turkey by Saudi agents triggered a full-blown crisis in Riyadh’s relations with the West.

“There is no amount of oil that you can produce that will get me and others to give you a pass on chopping somebody up in a consulate,” Graham said.

Senator Tom Cotton, a hawk who backs Trump’s policies in the Gulf, warned colleagues that Tehran would be watching the Saudi arms sales votes “for signs of resolve or weakness” by Washington.

Congress rebuked Trump in March with a historic resolution curtailing the president’s war-making powers and ending American support for the Saudi-led coalition.

Trump vetoed the measure in April.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/US_Senate_votes_to_block_Saudi_arms_sales_UK_suspends_licenses_999.html.

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Israel company admits spying on Emir of Qatar

January 14, 2019

The CEO of Israeli spyware company NSO Group has admitted that its software was used to spy on the Emir of Qatar.

In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth this weekend, Shalev Hulio admitted that his company’s product was used to spy on Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, as well as Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani.

The interview disclosed that NSO’s “Pegasus” software – which can be used to remotely infect a target’s mobile phone and then relay back data accessed by the device – was used to intercept phone calls and text messages made by both the Qatari foreign minister and the Emir. These conversations reportedly concerned “hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom to Iran and Hezbollah for the release of several Qataris,” some of which was allegedly sent to the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani.

This spying was seemingly undertaken at the behest of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Hulio revealed that the Israeli Defense Export Control Agency (DECA) authorized three deals with the UAE for the sale of NSO software, despite the fact that DECA is only supposed to give authorization for the “purpose of fighting terrorism and crime”.

These deals – allegedly mediated by former senior Israeli defense officials with close ties to a senior Emirati official – raised a total of $80 million in revenue for NSO.

NSO’s Pegasus software has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months after the product was revealed to be complicit in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Though Hulio stressed in the interview with Yedioth Ahronoth this weekend that “Khashoggi was not targeted by any NSO product or technology, including listening, monitoring, location tracking and intelligence collection,” it appears that Saudi Arabia used NSO software to spy on many of Khashoggi’s friends and associates.

US whistle-blower Edward Snowden has been at the forefront of these claims, telling the Israeli newspaper: “I do not pretend that NSO is involved in hacking [directly] into Khashoggi’s phone, so their denial does not take us to a different conclusion. The evidence shows that the company’s products were involved in hacking into the phones of [Khashoggi’s] friends Omar Abdel Aziz, Yahya Assiri, and Ghanem Al-Masarir.”

The UAE is also known to have been using NSO’s software for some time. In 2016, Citizen Lab and Apple revealed there were attempts to infect an iPhone owned by the Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. Mansoor had raised the alarm after receiving suspicious text intended to “bait to get him to click on a link, which would have led to the infection of his Apple iPhone 6 and control of the device through a spy software created by the NSO Group”.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190114-israeli-company-admits-spying-on-emir-of-qatar/.

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Saudi woman fleeing alleged abuse heads for asylum in Canada

January 12, 2019

BANGKOK (AP) — An 18-year-old Saudi woman who said she was abused by her family and feared for her life if deported back home left Thailand on Friday night for Canada, which has granted her asylum, officials said.

The fast-moving developments capped an eventful week for Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun. She fled her family while visiting Kuwait and flew to Bangkok, where she barricaded herself in an airport hotel to avoid deportation and grabbed global attention by mounting a social media campaign for asylum.

Her case highlighted the cause of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, where several women fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Human rights activists say many similar cases go unreported.

Alqunun is flying to Toronto via Seoul, South Korea, according to Thai immigration Police Chief Surachate Hakparn. Alqunun tweeted two pictures from her plane seat. One with what appears to be a glass of wine and her passport and another holding her passport while on the plane with the hastag “I did it” and the emojis showing plane, hearts and wine glass.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed his country had granted her asylum. “That is something that we are pleased to do because Canada is a country that understands how important it is to stand up for human rights and to stand up for woman’s rights around the world and I can confirm that we have accepted the U.N.’s request,” Trudeau said.

Several other countries, including Australia, had been in talks with the U.N.’s refugee agency to accept Alqunun, Surachate said earlier in the day. “She chose Canada. It’s her personal decision,” he said.

Canada’s ambassador had seen her off at the airport, Surachate said, adding that she looked happy and healthy. She thanked everyone for helping her, he said, and added that the first thing she would do upon arrival in Canada would be to start learning the language. She already speaks more than passable English, in addition to Arabic.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees welcomed Canada’s decision. “The quick actions over the past week of the government of Thailand in providing temporary refuge and facilitating refugee status determination by UNHCR, and of the government of Canada in offering emergency resettlement to Ms. Alqunun and arranging her travel were key to the successful resolution of this case,” the agency said in a statement.

It wasn’t immediately clear what prompted Alqunon to choose Canada over Australia. Australian media reported that UNHCR had withdrawn its referral for Alqunon to be resettled in Australia because Canberra was taking too long to decide on her asylum.

“When referring cases with specific vulnerabilities who need immediate resettlement, we attach great importance to the speed at which countries consider and process cases,” a UNHCR spokesperson in Bangkok told The Associated Press in an email reply on condition of anonymity because the person wasn’t authorized to discuss the case publicly.

Australia’s Education Minister Dan Tehan said Saturday that Australia had moved quickly to process her case but Canada decided to take her in. He added that, ultimately, the outcome was a good one. “She’s going to be safe,” he said.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, cited Alqunun’s “courage and perseverance.” “This is so much a victory for everyone who cares about respecting and promoting women’s rights, valuing the independence of youth to forge their own way, and demanding governments operate in the light and not darkness,” he said in a statement.

Alqunun was stopped Jan. 5 at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport by immigration police who denied her entry and seized her passport. She barricaded herself in an airport hotel room and took her plight onto social media. It got enough public and diplomatic support that Thai officials admitted her temporarily under the protection of U.N. officials, who granted her refugee status Wednesday.

Alqunun’s father arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday, but his daughter refused to meet with him. Surachate said the father — whose name has not been released — denied physically abusing Alqunun or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, which were among the reasons she gave for her flight. He said Alqunun’s father wanted his daughter back but respected her decision.

“He has 10 children. He said the daughter might feel neglected sometimes,” Surachate said. Canada’s decision to grant her asylum could further upset the country’s relations with Saudi Arabia. In August, Saudi Arabia expelled Canada’s ambassador to the kingdom and withdrew its own ambassador after Canada’s Foreign Ministry tweeted support for women’s right activists who had been arrested. The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and ordered their citizens studying in Canada to leave.

No country, including the U.S., spoke out publicly in support of Canada in that spat with the Saudis. On Friday, Trudeau avoided answering a question about what the case would mean for relations with the kingdom, but he said Canada will always unequivocally stand up for human rights and women’s rights around the world.

Canadian officials were reluctant to comment further until she landed safely in Canada. Alqunun had previously said on Twitter that she wanted to seek refuge in Australia. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne met Thursday with senior Thai officials in Bangkok. She later said Australia was assessing Alqunun’s resettlement request.

Payne said she also raised Australia’s concerns with Thai officials about Hakeem al-Araibi, a 25-year-old former member of Bahrain’s national soccer team who was granted refugee status in Australia in 2017 after fleeing his homeland, where he said he was persecuted and tortured.

He was arrested while vacationing in Thailand in November due to an Interpol notice in which Bahrain sought his custody after he was sentenced in absentia in 2014 to 10 years in prison for allegedly vandalizing a police station — a charge he denies. Bahrain is seeking his extradition.

Al-Araibi’s case is being considered by Thailand’s justice system, she said.

Gillies reported from Toronto. Associated Press video journalist Samuel McNeil in Sydney contributed to this report.

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Thai police: Canada, Australia willing to accept Saudi woman

January 11, 2019

BANGKOK (AP) — Several countries including Canada and Australia are in talks with the U.N. refugee agency on accepting a Saudi asylum seeker who fled alleged abuse by her family, Thai police said Friday.

Thailand’s immigration police chief, Surachate Hakparn, told reporters the U.N. was accelerating the case, though he gave no indication of when the process would be complete. Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun was stopped at a Bangkok airport last Saturday by Thai immigration police who denied her entry and seized her passport.

While barricading herself in an airport hotel room, the 18-year-old launched a social media campaign via her Twitter account that drew global attention to her case. It garnered enough public and diplomatic support to convince Thai officials to admit her temporarily under the protection of U.N. officials.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees granted her refugee status on Wednesday. Alqunun’s case has highlighted the cause of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Several female Saudis fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. Human rights activists say many similar cases have gone unreported.

By Friday, Alqunun had closed down her Twitter account. Sophie McNeill, a reporter with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation who got in contact with Alqunun while she was stuck in the airport hotel room and has kept in touch with her, said Friday in a Twitter posting that Alqunun “is safe and fine.”

“She’s just been receiving a lot of death threats,” McNeill wrote, adding that Alqunun would be back on Twitter after a “short break.” Alqunun had previously said on Twitter that she wishes to seek refuge in Australia.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne met with senior Thai officials in Bangkok on Thursday. She later told reporters that Australia is assessing Alqunun’s request for resettlement but there was no specific timeframe.

Payne said she also raised Australia’s concerns with Thai officials about Hakeem al-Araibi, a 25-year-old former member of Bahrain’s national soccer team who was granted refugee status in Australia in 2017 after fleeing his homeland, where he said he was persecuted and tortured.

He was arrested while on holiday in Thailand last November due to an Interpol notice in which Bahrain sought his custody after he was sentenced in absentia in 2014 to 10 years in prison for allegedly vandalizing a police station — a charge he denies. Bahrain is seeking his extradition.

Al-Araibi’s case is being considered by Thailand’s justice system, she said.

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Activists call on Australia to accept fleeing Saudi woman

January 08, 2019

BANGKOK (AP) — Human Rights Watch has called on the Australian government to allow entry to a Saudi Arabian woman who’s being processed by UN refugee authorities in Thailand after fleeing her homeland.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun was detained after arriving in Bangkok on Saturday, but has come under the protection of the UN’s refugee agency after refusing to return home. The 18-year-old says she had a visa to continue to Australia, but media reports say the Australian government has now cancelled it. Australian officials have not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Human Rights Watch’s Australian director Elaine Pearson says since Australia has expressed concern in the past about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, it should “come forward and offer protection for this young woman.”

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Hasan Minhaj jokes about ‘Patriot Act’ episode pulled from Saudi Arabia

JAN. 3, 2019

By Wade Sheridan

Jan. 3 (UPI) — Patriot Act host Hasan Minhaj has poked fun at Netflix for pulling an episode of the series from Saudi Arabia due to its content revolving around slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The streaming service announced they had removed the episode on Wednesday following a valid legal request from the Saudi government.

Minhaj is featured in the episode blaming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for having Khashoggi — a Saudi citizen, U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist — killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. The CIA concluded in November that Salman ordered the killing.

“Clearly, the best way to stop people from watching something is to ban it, make it trend online, and then leave it up on YouTube,” Minhaj said on Twitter.

Minhaj’s comments refer to how the episode can still be accessed globally on YouTube.

Minaj also asked for donations to help the International Rescue Committee in Yemen. “Let’s not forget that the world’s largest humanitarian crisis is happening in Yemen right now. Please donate,” he said.

The IRC is asking for donations to help save lives in war-torn Yemen, stating that 22 million are in need of humanitarian aid.

Netflix launched Patriot Act in October. The talk show features Minhaj, a former star on The Daily Show, discussing politics and culture.

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: https://www.upi.com/Entertainment_News/TV/2019/01/03/Hasan-Minhaj-jokes-about-Patriot-Act-episode-pulled-from-Saudi-Arabia/1501546519504/.

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Khashoggi’s son leaves Saudi Arabia, US praises decision

October 26, 2018

ISTANBUL (AP) — The son of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi has left Saudi Arabia after the kingdom revoked a travel ban and allowed him to come to the United States. State Department spokesman Robert Palladino says Washington welcomes the decision.

It’s the latest turn in the saga of the killed Saudi writer and dissident after the kingdom on Thursday cited evidence showing that his killing was premeditated — changing its story again to try to ease international outrage over the macabre circumstances of Khashoggi’s Oct. 2 death at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had discussed the case of Khashoggi’s son, Salah Khashoggi, during his recent visit to the kingdom, making it “clear to Saudi leaders” that Washington wanted the son to return to the United States.

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