Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

LDESP Middle East News Update – November 2012


Note: The bimonthly LDESP Iraq News Update has transitioned to the monthly LDESP News Update From the Middle East. The Middle East update will include news coverage from Iran to Egypt. As with all LDESP news briefs, the information contained within the Middle East News update is to increase situational awareness concerning events that may affect your mission. The Middle East update will focus on issues concerning the Gulf and the Levant, including articles central to transatlantic security and stability as well as cultural and economic issues that may impact the region and U.S national interests in the region.

Disclaimer: Articles are taken from established and diverse professional periodicals, news articles, and editorial commentaries from different countries, reflecting a range of political views/biases, that are intended to provide readers with a better understanding of various interests and perspectives regarding the situation in the region. External links may expire at any time depending on the archiving policy of the particular news agency. News summaries may highlight only a portion of an article that is relevant to the readers and may not necessarily be the focus of the entire article or the headline. Opinions expressed in the articles, commentaries and features do not constitute endorsement by the Department of Defense, the US Navy, or the LDESP staff.

A ceasefire between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers took hold on 22 November after eight days of conflict, although deep mistrust on both sides cast doubt on how long the Egyptian-sponsored deal can last. Even after the ceasefire came into force late on 21 November, a dozen rockets from the Gaza Strip landed in Israel, all in open areas, a police spokesman said. In Gaza, witnesses reported an explosion shortly after the truce took effect at 9 p.m (1900 GMT), but there were no casualties and the cause was unclear. The deal prevented, at least for the moment, an Israeli ground invasion of the Palestinian enclave following bombing and rocket fire which killed five Israelis and 162 Gazans, including 37 children. But trust was in short supply. The exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, said his Islamist movement would respect the truce if Israel did, but would respond to any violations. “If Israel complies, we are compliant. If it does not comply, our hands are on the trigger,” he told a news conference in Cairo. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had agreed to “exhaust this opportunity for an extended truce”, but told his people a tougher approach might be required in the future. Both sides quickly began offering differing interpretations of the ceasefire, brokered by Egypt’s new Islamist government and backed by the United States, highlighting the many actual or potential areas of discord. If it holds, the truce will give 1.7 million Gazans respite from days of ferocious air strikes and halt rocket salvoes from militants that unnerved a million people in southern Israel and reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time. (Reuters)
Israeli authorities arrested an Arab Israeli on 23 November on accusations he planted a bomb on a bus in Tel Aviv that wounded 27 people and threatened to sabotage efforts to broker a cease-fire to end the fighting in Gaza, police said. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the man, from the village of Taybeh in Israel, was connected to the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups. A Palestinian militant cell based in the West Bank village of Beit Lakiya sent the man to put a bomb connected to a mobile phone on the Tel Aviv bus on 21 November, Rosenfeld said. After he planted the bomb, the man, who police declined to identify, left the bus and called his handlers, who remotely detonated the explosive by calling the phone, he said. `’He admitted to carrying out the terrorist attack,” Rosenfeld said. Attacks by Israeli Arabs are rare, though they have happened in the past. The attack brought back harsh memories of frequent bus bombings during last decade’s violent Palestinian uprising. (Press Telegram)
The courtship of Hamas between rivals Iran and Qatar has been one of the Middle East’s intriguing subplots of the Arab Spring. The bloodshed in Gaza has now sharpened their competition for influence with the Palestinian militant group and the direction it takes in the future. Qatar has sought to use its vast wealth to win over Hamas with investments and humanitarian aid and encouraging Arab partners to do the same — part of the hyper-rich U.S. allied nation’s broader campaign to bring under its wing Islamist movements that have risen to power in the region the past two years. Qatar’s influence with Hamas could edge it away from armed action toward diplomacy. Iran, meanwhile, is invigorating its longtime role as the builder of the rocket arsenal for Hamas’ military wing. For Hamas, there are benefits in both directions — and it’s happy to play both sides. During a celebration rally in Gaza City after an Egyptian-mediated cease-fire came into place ending fighting between Israel and Hamas, Gazans wildly waved flags of Qatar, along with those of Egypt and Turkey, in gratitude for those countries’ diplomatic support. At the same time, Hamas’ leader-in-exile Khaled Mashaal, who is based out of Qatar, gave a very public thanks to Iran for standing by Gaza with crucial military assistance. Fighters in Gaza also hailed the new reach of their arsenal, with Iranian-designed Fajr-5 rattling Israel by reaching the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. (Fox News, Associated Press)

With events in Gaza dominating the news from the Middle East, the long-running conflict in Syria has slid down in the headlines. To the extent that Syria is being reported at all, the main story for several days has been of political wrangling over leadership of the opposition. (…) Rebel fighters have made significant gains while the regime, despite its continuing ability to flatten whole streets with bombs and shellfire, appears to be making an unsteady retreat. In mid-November, after a siege of more than a month, rebels overran the 46th Division’s base at Atarib, west of Aleppo city. The base, spread over 12 sq km and said to be the largest in northern Syria, had played a key role in the Assad regime’s defence of Aleppo. (…) This doesn’t mean that the fall of the regime is imminent. But it does mean the regime is now well beyond any point from which it can seriously hope to recover. And, as the rebels capture more and more of its own weapons, its decline is likely to quicken. (Al-Bab)
Syrian warplanes bombed Damascus suburbs and rebel-held areas in the country’s north 21 November as the government blasted the European Union for endorsing a newly formed opposition coalition. The raids struck several eastern suburbs of the Syrian capital and the strategic northern city of Maaret al-Numan, a key supply route linking Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo, said two activist groups. Both the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees also reported violence elsewhere in Syria. The state-run news agency SANA said the army continued its pursuit of “terrorists” — a government term for rebel fighters — in the Damascus suburb of Arbeen, inflicting casualties on the enemy. The report also said that attackers targeted a mosque in Daraya suburb. (ABC News, Associated Press)
Syrian opposition factions signed a tentative agreement on 11 November to create an umbrella organization, paving the way for international diplomatic recognition as well as more funding and improved military aid from foreign capitals. After three days of haggling at a luxury hotel here, opposition negotiators agreed to the new coalition and then elected as its president Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, a former imam of the historic Umayyad mosque in Damascus and a respected national figure within Syria. “Today in Doha is the first time the different factions of the Syrian opposition are united in one body,” said Riyad Farid Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister and the highest-level defector from the Damascus government. “So we ask the international community to recognize the Syrian opposition as the representative of the Syrians.” The umbrella organization was designed to subsume the Syrian National Council, a previous attempt at unification that has appeared increasingly marginalized as Syria has descended into civil war. That group’s authority was undercut when it failed to attract sufficient support from key minorities, religious and tribal figures, businessmen, and, most important, rebel units conducting the fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The hope among Western countries is that the new coalition, called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, can give local opposition councils the legitimacy to bring fighters under their authority. That would give an important countervoice to the well-armed jihadist commanders who in many places have set the pace of the fighting and created worries that Islamists will gain a permanent hold. An important change in the new agreement is that revolutionary councils from 14 Syrian provinces now each have a representative, though not all live in Syria. The hope is that will bind the coalition to those inside the country. (New York Times)
In his first news conference since winning reelection, President Barack Obama said he still hopes for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. Obama also discussed the situation in Syria. Most of the questions to Obama dealt with the U.S. economy, but he was asked about Syria and Iran. On Syria, the president was asked about the continuing brutal crackdown by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and whether the United States formally recognizes the newly-formed coalition of Syrian opposition groups. Obama said he is encouraged by the development, adding U.S. envoys will be talking with the coalition.  But he stopped short of voicing any formal recognition, as France as done. He underscored U.S. concern that the Syrian umbrella opposition group show it is committed to certain basic principles. (Voice of America)
Syria’s state television said on 27 October that insurgents had assassinated an air force commander in Damascus, as news accounts from antigovernment activists reported an intensified aerial bombing campaign against rebel targets, including the first warplane attack inside the Syrian capital since the conflict began 20 months ago. The developments were reported a day after the expiration of a four-day truce for the Muslim holiday of Id al-Adha that had been widely and persistently violated. Each side accused the other of subverting the cease-fire, which was negotiated by the special Syria peace envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, Lakhdar Brahimi. Mr. Brahimi had said he hoped it would form the basis for the beginning of dialogue between President Bashar al-Assad’s loyalists and his armed opponents. An announcement carried on state television said the air force commander, Gen. Abdullah Mahmud al-Khalidi, was killed in the Damascus district of Rukn al-Din on 26 October by armed terrorist groups, the government’s categorical term for its adversaries. The announcement did not specify how the commander had been killed, but it described him as one of the country’s top aviation experts. Agence France-Presse, in a report from Damascus, quoted an unidentified security source as saying the commander had been shot to death while leaving a friend’s home. (New York Times)
Two main Kurdish groups have agreed to join forces in a standoff with hundreds of Islamist rebels in northeastern Syria, a Syrian Kurdish representative and an activist say. Hundreds of fighters loyal to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – which has close ties to Turkey’s rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – have been locked in fierce battles with fighters of the jihadist Al-Nusra Front and allied Ghuraba al-Sham group in Ras al-Ain on the border with Turkey. The agreement sets the stage for an expanded conflict in the area between Islamist rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian Kurdish forces. (…) Talks on the formation of the joint forces between the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan and the Kurdish National Council, which comprises a number of Syrian Kurdish parties, began in mid-November, Rasho said, adding that they took place under the supervision of the presidency of Iraqi Kurdistan. (The Australian)
Syrian rebels and a Kurdish militia appear to be negotiating a cease-fire after clashes in the battle-scarred northern city of Aleppo on 27 October left at least 21 fighters dead and more than 100 people kidnapped. According to Ahmad Afash, a commander from the rebel Free Syrian Army, or FSA, at least 16 FSA fighters were killed when they clashed with armed members of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, on 27 October. He said at least five Kurdish fighters were also killed in the battle. (…) The FSA is an armed movement fighting the Syrian government. It is largely made up of Arabs from Syria’s majority Sunni Muslim sect. The PYD says it represents Syria’s long-oppressed ethnic Kurdish minority. It is also the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a pan-Kurdish nationalist movement better known internationally for the guerilla war it has fought for nearly three decades against the government of neighboring Turkey. (CNN)
International charity Save the Children has warned 200,000 Syrian refugee children are at serious risk from freezing temperatures, as winter sets in the Middle East. Many families have fled across the borders to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. More than two million are displaced inside Syria, as fighting between government forces and rebels continues. Save the Children says many are living without proper shelter and clothing and may not survive the harsh conditions. (BBC)
Syria would need about $60 billion in external assistance to help rebuild the country if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is toppled, a senior Syrian opposition figure said on 21 November. The opposition would be approaching Arab and international countries in due course for loans to help rebuild the country and assist refugees, said George Sabra, head of the Syrian National Council. (…) The $60 billion would be needed for reconstruction and other assistance within the first six months of the ousting of Mr. Assad’s government, he said. It would be needed to rebuild towns such as Homs and Aleppo, which have suffered massive destruction as a result of battles between government and opposition forces, and to assist about 5 million Syrians who have fled the country or been forced to leave their homes and relocate to other areas of the country, he said. (Wall Street Journal)
Three Syrian tanks entered the demilitarized zone in the Golan Heights on 1 November, Israel said, raising concerns violence from Syria’s civil war could heat up a long-quiet frontier that has not seen such an incursion in nearly 40 years. Israel complained to U.N. peacekeepers present in the area, a relatively low-key response that suggested it did not see the Syrian armor as an immediate threat. But the entry marks the most serious spillover of Syria’s turmoil to date at the frontier, where stray ordnance has exploded on the Israeli side in the past. Neighboring countries are dealing with a variety of incidents linked to the conflict — Turkey exchanged artillery fire with Syria for a week last month, while Jordan has seen several shootings at the border and clashes linked to the uprising against President Bashar Assad have broken out in Lebanon. Some in Israel worry that that if Assad goes, the country could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists or descend into sectarian warfare that would destabilizing the region. Islamic fighters — some from abroad — are increasingly taking part in key engagements alongside the rebels. (Fox News, Associated Press)
Jordan has stepped up its support for neighboring Syria’s political and military opposition, including allowing some light arms to flow across the border, according to Syrian rebels and an Arab official familiar with the operation. Several shipments of arms—including assault rifles, Russian-designed antitank missiles and ammunition—have been delivered to the border in Jordanian military trucks and then taken into Syria by rebel brigades, according to Syrian rebel fighters. Dozens of other shipments have been smuggled to Syria with the covert support of Jordanian border officials, these people say. Saudi Arabia and Qatar pay for these arms and transport them to Jordan, say rebel fighters based along the Syria-Jordan border and a person involved in arms procurement for the rebels. (…) For most of Syria’s 20-month-old civil war, King Abdullah resisted pressure from patron Saudi Arabia to make his small nation into a front-line command center for the rebels, similar to the one erected along the border in Turkey. Jordan feared that overt military support for the revolution could provoke Syrian retaliation and endanger the king’s grip on an already fragile domestic political situation, regional officials say. Since the spring, however, the kingdom has played an increasing role in opposition military and intelligence matters, several people familiar with the situation say. In June, Jordan’s capital served as the initial debriefing location for Brig. General Manaf Tlass, a high-profile general and personal friend of President Assad who defected that month. In August, then-prime minister Riad Hijab defected to Jordan. (Wall Street Journal)
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague met with Syrian opposition leaders in London on 16 November and said he was encouraged by their discussions. London’s meeting comes after France became the first western nation to accept the opposition coalition as the legitimate government-in-exile. European countries are considering new ways to up their assistance to the Syrian opposition. After initial talks with leaders of the Syrian opposition on 17 November, Hague said talks were positive. (…) David Hartwell is a Middle East expert at the security analyst group IHS Jane’s. He says France’s call for providing “defensive weapons” has not specified what arms would fall into that category. “You could argue that the two major weapons the opposition has been asking for, which are anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft weapons, could be included in that,” Hartwell said. “So it’s a very cagey, very difficult definition to extend and I think that’s the problem will have in selling that to its European partners.” (Voice of America)
In a sign that the U.S.-backed kingdom of Jordan may yet be vulnerable to the “Arab Spring” upheaval, angry demonstrators on 16 November denounced King Abdullah II and his ruling circle as “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and demanded swift reform or an end to the monarchy. Across the country, demonstrators in mid-November have been calling for the king’s ouster, a demand previously muted in the strategically situated kingdom, which has mostly avoided the political tumult that has convulsed the region. The protests at times have turned violent, resulting in at least one death. However, the rallies of several thousand in Amman, the capital, seemed mostly peaceful, carefully monitored by gendarmes in full riot gear. Police separated protesters from small groups of pro-monarchy counter-demonstrators and vowed to use an “iron fist” against anyone inciting violence. (…) Major instability in Jordan — which shares borders with Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq — would add fresh uncertainty to a region already undergoing a profound transformation. Jordan is one of two Arab nations, along with Egypt, that have signed peace treaties with Israel and helped the U.S. pursue its goals in the Middle East, although the rise of an Islamist government in Cairo has already weakened Washington’s influence in the region. Amman also has close ties with U.S. and Western intelligence agencies and has been a front line in the battle against Islamic extremists. Just in October, Jordanian authorities announced the arrest of 11 Jordanian militants in an alleged plot to attack shopping malls and Western diplomatic missions, apparently using weapons smuggled in from strife-ridden Syria, which some regional analysts now view as an extremist incubator. Jordan labeled the plot an attempt to destabilize the kingdom. The spark for the current unrest was the government’s decision to cut subsidies for gasoline, cooking gas and heating fuel. The move drove up prices and taxed Jordanians already struggling to eke out a living in a moribund, largely aid-dependent economy plagued by high unemployment and inflation rates and few opportunities for the young. (Los Angeles Times)
It’s usually a few younger protesters who break out in the chant — startling and almost unheard of in this country where the monarchy has always been almost sacrosanct — “Down, down with the king.” The rest of the opposition, including its biggest and most powerful faction, the Muslim Brotherhood, are quick to make clear they don’t demand the ouster of Jordan’s King Abdullah II. But after the past week’s angry protests sparked by a government hike in gas and fuel prices, they warn that this usually placid U.S. ally will be thrown into turmoil unless the king allows change. The unusually violent protests have shifted the focus of discontent from the government, at which anger was focused in the past, squarely on Abdullah for the first time. As a result, the monarch faces the biggest test yet of his democratic reform program, which his critics say does not do enough to end his monopoly on power. Anger over the price hikes has given the opposition, led by the Brotherhood, a rallying point to push him for more dramatic moves. (Fox News, Associated Press)
The Arab awakening is stalking its next victim, King Abdullah II of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a key American ally. President Obama and his national-security team have another critical challenge. Jordan is the invention of Winston Churchill. At the end of World War I, England needed to give their Arab Hashemite allies a reward for their loyalty in the fight against the Ottoman Turks. King Abdullah I was given the kingdom after Churchill drew its borders on a map in Cairo. It has always been a fragile place surrounded by stronger neighbors eager to eat it. Abdullah I secretly made peace with Israel. His grandson Hussein made it official, and his son Abdullah II keeps the peace. (…) For most of the last two years, the unrest in the Arab world simmered in Jordan, but never boiled. Like his father before him, Abdullah II often promised reform and changed prime ministers and spy chiefs constantly to buy off demands for real change. For decades, the Hashemites were written off as antiques who would not survive. Now the country is boiling. Cuts in gas subsidies produced massive protests and riots across the kingdom—the worst riots in the country since Abdullah became king in 1999. Most important, for the first time, protesters called for the regime to fail. No more reform, just revolution. The main opposition party is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has avoided calling for an end to the monarchy. The country is deeply divided between the Palestinians—refugees and their descendants from the West Bank, and their Hashemite counterparts from the East Bank. (Daily Beast)
The United States is supporting long-time ally, Jordanian King Abdullah, who is facing protests over higher fuel prices. King Abdullah’s political opponents are boycotting January’s parliamentary vote because of an electoral law that they say favors the monarch’s supporters. (…) U.S. State Department Spokesman Mark Toner says the Obama administration believes King Abdullah is on the right track despite the protests. “We call on protestors to do so peacefully. We support King Abdullah II’s roadmap for reform and the aspirations of the Jordanian people to foster a more inclusive political process that will promote security, stability as well as economic development,” Toner said. (Voice of America)
Bahrain’s government has failed to put in place changes it promised after cracking down on a popular uprising last year, and it instead has expanded its repression of political opponents, according to a report released on 20 November by Amnesty International. The group said that the human rights situation had “markedly deteriorated” in recent months. It also warned that the government’s failure to follow through on the reforms, recommended almost a year ago by an independent panel, posed a looming threat to the tiny Persian Gulf nation, which remains deeply polarized, racked by nightly protests and reeling from escalating violence. “Bahrain risks sliding into protracted unrest and instability,” the report said. The group said that the human rights situation had “markedly deteriorated” in recent months. It also warned that the government’s failure to follow through on the reforms, recommended almost a year ago by an independent panel, posed a looming threat to the tiny Persian Gulf nation, which remains deeply polarized, racked by nightly protests and reeling from escalating violence. “Bahrain risks sliding into protracted unrest and instability,” the report said. (…) The government has repeatedly insisted that it is committed to the changes and is carrying them out, while blaming the violence by some protesters for the country’s increasingly bitter divisions. Bahrain’s rulers have often been unwilling to acknowledge the grievances of the protesters, claiming they have been manipulated by foreign powers. (New York Times)
President Mohammed Mursi has appeared before supporters in Cairo to defend a new decree that grants him sweeping powers. He told them he was leading Egypt on a path to “freedom and democracy” and was the guardian of stability. He was speaking as thousands of opponents gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and offices of the president’s party were attacked in several cities. The decree says presidential decisions cannot be revoked by any authority. (…) Mr Mursi also vowed to defend the independence of the executive, judiciary and legislature and not issue decrees to settle scores. But across the capital in Tahrir Square, thousands of the president’s opponents heeded calls to demonstrate against the decree. Chants of “Mursi is Mubarak… revolution everywhere” rang out. There were clashes between protesters and police in the square, with tear gas fired at demonstrators and Molotov cocktails thrown in return. According to Egypt’s state-run news agency, Mena, three people were injured in violence in Cairo’s central Mohammed Mahmoud street. (BBC)
Egyptian authorities confiscated trucks carrying explosive warheads and a variety of small-arms ammunition smuggled from Libya, security officials said on 21 November. A flood of weapons from its western neighbor has added to Egypt’s security concerns as police have yet to fully return to their duties since last year’s uprising. Smuggled weapons often fall into the hands of Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula, or pass via underground tunnels to the Gaza Strip, the site of fierce fighting over the past week between Hamas militants and Israeli forces. (…) Also on 21 November in Egypt’s troubled northern Sinai region, troops from a multinational observer force fired on protesters demonstrating outside their base against the Israeli offensive in Gaza. Egyptian security officials said that one person was killed and another injured. The 12-nation observer force is part of the peace treaty signed by Egypt and Israel in 1979. American troops make up the largest contingent of the 1,650-strong force. Libya’s revolution last year unleashed a flood of small arms and heavy weapons, including shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, into circulation through the vast Sahara desert of North Africa. Military experts say weapons that cross Libya’s porous borders with neighboring Egypt and Sudan could be falling into the hands of Islamic militants. Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants in Gaza have stockpiled Grad rockets and fired them at Israeli territory over the years, including in the latest round of fighting. (Fox News, Associated Press)
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood said on 31 October it is committed to enshrining Islamic Shariah law as the main source of a new constitution, seeking to mollify ultraconservative Islamists who accuse the group of not advocating strongly enough for Islamic rule. Islamic influence in Egypt’s governance is the most inflammatory issue following last year’s ousting of longtime President Hosni Mubarak. Islamists have swept elections since then, and the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi is the president — but the Brotherhood faces criticism from even more stringent Islamists as much as from liberals. Ultraconservatives known as Salafis have pushed for firm language in the new constitution to ensure implementation of Shariah, even calling for demonstrations on 26 October. (…) Together, Salafis and the Brotherhood dominate the 100-member assembly writing the new constitution. The controversy centers on the phrasing of key articles that expand the role of Islamic Sharia laws. The previous constitution said “the principles of Shariah” are the basis of law in Egypt. Liberals favored such phrasing, which they say allows greater leeway, meaning legislation can meet the broad ideas of Islam. Salafis wanted that changed to “the rulings of Shariah,” implying Egypt’s laws would have to abide by the strict letter of what clerics say is meant in Islamic law. Liberals fear that could bring heavy restrictions on many rights and would forge a new role for religious scholars similar to clerical rule in Iran. In its statement, the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to try to accommodate liberals’ demands by keeping the phrase “principles of Shariah,” while adding an article explaining what that means: the principles would include “the juristic rules” of Shariah agreed upon by scholars and the “accepted sources” of the Quran’s interpretation. (Fox News, Associated Press)
A number of liberal politicians withdrew on 18 November from the Islamist-dominated assembly drafting Egypt’s new constitution, saying they were not given the opportunity to discuss articles and their suggestions were being ignored. The departure of at least 12 liberals from the 100 member assembly follows the resignation of five Christian delegates – as well eight out of 10 members of a advisory committee providing technical assistance – over similar complaints. The constitution is a cornerstone in Egypt’s democratic transition after the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak last year. Without it, the country cannot hold elections to replace a parliament that a court declared void in June. But bickering between Islamists and liberals over subjects such as the role of Islam in politics, civic freedoms and women’s rights has delayed voting on articles in the charter. And analysts have expressed worries that if the constitution does not enjoy broad consensus it will be a short-lived one, especially as it will have to be put to a referendum. Pressure is mounting on the assembly to finish before a 12 December deadline but members say they will continue on schedule. “Passing the constitution in its current form is a loss to everyone, we can’t be part of this constitution,” former Arab League secretary general and assembly member Amr Moussa told reporters, adding that differences were on “basic” articles. “We were deprived of discussing articles which is the main task of the assembly,” the former presidential candidate added, criticizing the assembly’s “rush” to finish. Liberals, who include people behind the uprising that toppled Mubarak as well as figures who worked alongside him, have threatened to quit the assembly several times before. They say they will work on drafting an alternative constitution. (Reuters)
Egypt reached a preliminary agreement on 20 November with the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion loan, a step seen as vital to shoring up the nation’s finances. Investors who abandoned Egypt during the political turmoil that followed the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last year have been looking to the IMF to give its seal of approval to the government’s economic program. (…) Egypt said the deal included agreement to rein in Egypt’s budget deficit with measures including tax changes targeting the wealthy and more careful spending on subsidies intended to help the poor. The deficit goal is 8.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in fiscal 2013/14, from 11 percent in the financial year that ended June 2012. However, the 25 percent top rate for income and corporate tax would not change, the cabinet said in a statement issued after the deal was announced. The government has repeatedly said its program would protect the poor, many of whom rely heavily on subsidized food and other essentials. The uprising that ousted Mubarak was driven as much by demands for social justice as it was by calls for political freedom. (…) A recovery has been complicated by weak export and tourism markets and fear among potential investors of a sharp drop in the Egyptian pound currency that could wipe out their returns. (Reuters)
The new pope of Egypt’s Orthodox Coptic church was enthroned on 18 November in an elaborate ceremony lasting nearly four hours, attended by the nation’s Muslim prime minister and a host of Cabinet ministers and politicians. Pope Tawadros II, 60, was elected 4 November, but the official enthronement ceremony was held 18 November at the Coptic cathedral in Cairo. He replaced Shenouda III, who died in March after leading the ancient church for 40 years. (…) Egypt’s Christians make up about 10 percent of the nation’s estimated 83 million people, making them the largest single Christian community in the Middle East. Christians have long complained of discrimination, particularly in the last four decades as the country’s Muslim majority moved toward religious conservatism. The rise to power of Islamists after the ouster nearly two years ago of authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak has deepened their concerns, amid increasing attacks targeting their churches and businesses. (Atlantic Journal Constitution)
A train collided with a school bus on 17 november in Egypt, killing 51 people and injuring 17, according to the health ministry. Most of the dead were children. The crash in the central Egyptian province of Assiut prompted some officials to go to the area to give assistance and others to resign. The city of Assiut is about 200 miles south of Cairo. (…) The train dragged the bus for nearly half a mile. Children’s shoes, books and school bags were strewn across the tracks. The twisted shell of the bus was left under the train. (…) Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy ordered an investigation to find those responsible for the crash, and to hold them accountable. Local residents protested the president, calling on him to resign. The government is giving the family of each person killed around $1,500 in compensation. The family of each injured victim will receive about $900, according to the prime minister’s office. (CNN)
Egypt and Turkey are forging an alliance that showcases two Islamist leaders maneuvering to reshape a Middle East gripped by political upheaval and passionate battles over how deeply the Koran should penetrate public life. The relationship may foreshadow an emerging regional order in which the sway of the United States gradually fades against Islamist voices no longer contained by militaries and pro-Western autocrats. Each country has a distinct vision of political Islam, but Turkey, which straddles Europe and Asia, and Egypt, the traditional heart of the Arab world, complement each other for now. Turkey’s strong economy may help rescue Egypt from financial crisis, while Cairo may further Ankara’s ambition to rise as a force among Islamic-backed governments. What bonds and rivalries may ensue is unclear, but they are likely to affect what rises from the bloodshed in Syria, the influence of oil nations in the Persian Gulf, future policies toward Israel and the volatile divide between moderate and ultraconservative Islamists. The nations offer competing story lines playing out between the traditional and the contemporary. (Los Angeles Times)
The Lebanese army disabled a rocket on 22 November which was primed to be fired into northern Israel and said two others were launched late on 21 November but fell short of the border. An army statement said the incidents all took place near the southern Lebanese town of Marjayoun, about five km (three miles) from Israel’s northern border. On 19 November the army dismantled two rockets aimed towards Israel, which fought an eight-day conflict with the Islamist Hamas movement ruling the Gaza Strip. The two sides agreed a ceasefire on 21 November. Southern Lebanon is a stronghold of the Shi’ite movement Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war with Israel six years ago, as well as several much smaller Palestinian militant groups. Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has not threatened military action against Israel over the Gaza conflict. (Reuters)
With its rival political leaders not talking to each other to defuse sectarian tensions linked to the 20-month-old bloody conflict in Syria, Lebanon appears to be poised for a prolonged political crisis. With the current stalemate anything could happen, from the opposition March 14 bloc’s escalating its street protests to bring down the government to incidents that can jolt the country’s security. The 11 November clash between supporters of Hezbollah and Sunni preacher Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir in Sidon that left three people dead, last month’s assassination of the country’s top intelligence official and frequent clashes between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the northern city of Tripoli have raised fears about the country’s security and stability amid local and international concerns over a spillover of the turmoil in neighboring Syria into Lebanon. Worse still, the two regional heavyweights – Saudi Arabia and Syria – that used to intervene in the past to prevent the country’s slide into sectarian violence and even to help in the government formation efforts, are currently locking horns over the uprising in Syria. This situation, which further complicates things in Lebanon, has left the feuding parties on their own to iron out their political differences and try to reach a deal to prevent the country from drifting toward the abyss. Furthermore, Israel’s current military blitz against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which has left more than 60 Palestinians dead and over 460 wounded since the start of the assault 19 November, has for now overshadowed attempts to bring the feuding parties to the dialogue table as popular and government attention has been shifted to the Gaza conflict and its possible implications on Lebanon. “Unless the March 14 [parties] drop their conditions for National Dialogue, the current political stalemate is expected to drag on for long,” a ministerial source told The Daily Star. (The Daily Star)
At least 17 people have been killed and dozens wounded in bombings across Iraq, on the eve of the Islamic new year and the holy month of Muharram. Six car bombs and roadside devices exploded in the capital, Baghdad, and four other cities, the AFP news agency cited officials as saying. In the deadliest attack, at least three bombs went off simultaneously in Kirkuk, killing at least five people. Muharram is an important part of the Shia Muslim religious calendar. During its first 10 days, millions will commemorate the martyrdom in 680AD (61 in the Islamic calendar) of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala. The mourning culminates in the festival of Ashura. Shia religious events have in the past frequently been targeted by extremist Sunni Islamist militant groups, including al-Qaeda in Iraq. (BBC)
A suicide bomber driving a car packed with explosives detonated the vehicle near an Iraqi military base as soldiers changed shifts north of Baghdad on 6 November, killing at least 33 people and wounding 56, according to authorities. The blast struck around midday as troops were leaving the base in Taji, 12 miles north of the capital, police said. Twenty-two soldiers were among the dead, and several vehicles were damaged, they said. The casualty toll was high because the attacker blew up the car while large numbers of soldiers were walking to and from a parking area for waiting minibuses that take them to work, officials said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, though suicide car bombings are a favorite tactic of Sunni militant groups such as al Qaeda. Insurgents frequently target members of the country’s security forces in an effort to undermine confidence in the Shiite-led government. Although violence has ebbed in Iraq since the height of the insurgency, attacks still occur frequently. (CBS News, Associated Press)
An Iraqi court handed the country’s fugitive Sunni vice president a new death sentence on 4 November after finding him guilty of ordering his bodyguards to attack Shiite pilgrims, the latest verdict in a trial that has fueled resentment among Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority. It was the third case in which Tariq al-Hashemi was sentenced to death since last spring, when judicial authorities started to try him on terrorism charges. All verdicts have been delivered in absentia, since al-Hashemi is in exile in Turkey after fleeing in December 2011 when the Shiite-led government leveled accusations against him. The court also sentenced his son-in-law, Ahmed Qahtan, to death on similar charges: planning to attack pilgrims by a car bomb last December in southeastern Baghdad. Security forces reportedly foiled the attack and seized the car. All the five bodyguards who testified said they got their orders from Qahtan, who allegedly told them that he was passing al-Hashemi’s orders. On 1 November, the same court unexpectedly sentenced both men to death on charges of instigating bodyguards to assassinate a senior official at the Interior Ministry. Al-Hashemi’s defense team said it had not been made aware of the proceedings. (…) The first death sentence came in September, for masterminding killings of a lawyer and two government security officials which was submitted as one case. Al-Hashemi was found not guilty on one count, but guilty on two others. All sentences are to be carried out by hanging. Al-Hashemi is a longtime opponent of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim. The government has accused the vice president of playing a role in 150 bombings, assassinations and other attacks from 2005 to 2011. That was a period when Iraq was mired in retaliatory sectarian violence that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime. He has dismissed the charges as a political vendetta pursued by his long-time rival, al-Maliki. (Atlantic Journal Constitution)
The autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq is witnessing an economic boom, drawing back many exiled Kurds who had fled oppression and now dream of helping to create an independent homeland. In Erbil’s ancient bazaar, in a city inhabited for 8,000 years, many Kurds now feel more hopeful than ever for the future of their people amid economic gains. (…) They tell a history of failed Kurdish alliances in Iraq, of uprisings brutally suppressed, of chemical warfare under Saddam Hussein. In all, an estimated 182,000 Kurds were killed. Finally, after the U.S.-led intervention that ousted Hussein in 2003, Khalil said Kurds are free. Still, the Kurdistan Regional Government – KRG – does not have plans to break away from Iraq, said Hemin Hawrami of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party. “If Kurds will be regarded as true partners within this democratic constitutional federal Iraq, the Kurdistan region will be part of this Iraq,” he said.  “But definitely Kurdistan is not going to be part of any dictatorial Iraq that is not ruled by democracy.” The KRG estimates GDP growth of more than nine percent this year. It has signed exploration deals with foreign oil giants like ExxonMobil, while building a new million-barrel-per-day pipeline to export the oil via Turkey – angering the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad.  “This is our constitutional right and we want to practice our right, we haven’t asked for anything else,” Hawrami said. “When we are administrating our own oil sector, the revenue is not only for us, the revenue is for all Iraqis.” (Voice of America)
Iraqi authorities have for a second time this month ordered an Iranian cargo plane heading to Syria to land for inspection in Baghdad to ensure it isn’t carrying weapons, an Iraqi official said 28 October. The move may be aimed at easing U.S. concerns that Iraq has become a route for shipments of Iranian military supplies that might help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad battle rebel forces in his country’s civil war. The head of the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority, Nassir Bandar, said that the inspection took place 27 October because officials were concerned the plane might be carrying arms. The inspectors allowed the plane to continue its journey after they determined there were no weapons onboard, he said. “Our experts found that the plane was carrying only medical supplies and foodstuffs. So the flight was allowed to proceed,” Mr. Bandar said. (…) Iraq ordered another Iranian cargo plane to land for inspection on 2 October. No weapons were found in that search either. Last month, Iraq banned a North Korea plane from using its airspace over suspicions it was carrying weapons to Syria. American officials have expressed concern that Iranian planes may be ferrying weapons over Iraq, and they have pressed Baghdad to take stronger action to ensure that no transfers occur. (Wall Street Journal)

Iranian warplanes shot at an American military surveillance drone flying over the Persian Gulf near Iran last week, Pentagon officials disclosed on 8 November. They said that the aircraft, a Predator drone, was flying in international airspace and was not hit and that the episode had prompted a strong protest to the Iranian government. The shooting, which involved two Russian-made Su-25 jets known as Frogfoots, occurred on Nov. 1 and was the first known instance of Iranian warplanes firing on an American surveillance drone. George Little, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department’s weeklong silence about the episode was a result of restrictions on the discussion of classified surveillance missions. He answered questions about it during a Pentagon news conference on 8 November only after it had been reported by news organizations earlier in the day. (…) Late last year, an RQ-170 surveillance drone operated by the C.I.A. rather than the military crashed deep inside Iranian territory while on a mission that is believed to have been intended to map suspected nuclear sites. That episode came to light only after Iran bragged that it had electronically attacked the drone and guided it to a landing inside its borders. American officials said the drone had crashed after a technical malfunction. A senior administration official sought to contain any ripple effects from the episode last week, noting that it should not be viewed as a precursor to a broader military confrontation with Iran and that it should not derail potential diplomatic contacts between the two countries over the nuclear program. (New York Times)
Iran’s Army and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) have test-fired a range of missiles and unveiled their military achievements in the ongoing joint air defense drill starting on 5 November. Code-named “Modafe’ an-e Aseman-e Velayat 4”, or “The Defenders of the Sky of Guardianship 4”, the seven-day drill is held in an area of more than 850,000 square km, accounting for half of the country, in which a large number of soldiers are participating. On 7 November, the third day of the drill, Iran testified S-200 air defense missile system “successfully” in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas, said the commander of Iranian Khatam al- Anbia Air Defense Base, Farzad Esmaili, adding that the missile system has been developed for high-altitude targets. The missile system can also confront strategic aircraft and semi-ballistic missiles, Esmaili was quoted as saying. (Xinhua)
Intelligence officials from several countries say Iran in recent weeks has virtually completed an underground nuclear enrichment plant, racing ahead despite international pressure and heavy economic sanctions in what experts say may be an effort to give it leverage in any negotiations with the United States and its allies. The installation of the last of nearly 3,000 centrifuges at a site called Fordo, deep under a mountain inside a military base near the holy city of Qum, puts Iran closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon, or come up to the edge, if its leaders ultimately decide to proceed. The United States, Israel and the United Nations have all vowed to prevent that from happening, imposing increasingly tough sanctions on the country and using cyberwarfare to slow its progress in obtaining a weapon. President Obama said last week that the time for a negotiated settlement was “running out.” (New York Times)
Iran is enriching uranium at a constant pace and international sanctions aimed at making Tehran suspend the activity are having no visible impact, the U.N. nuclear watchdog chief said in unusually blunt remarks on 20 November. The point made by Yukiya Amano, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, reinforced the view of many analysts that increased Western economic pressure on Iran has failed to make it change its nuclear course. He spoke a day before senior officials from six world powers were to meet in Brussels to weigh strategy towards Iran amid signs of a renewed push to resolve the dispute diplomatically after U.S. President Barack Obama’s re-election. (…) The United States and its Western allies have sharply ratcheted up punitive steps on Iran this year to target its vital oil exports, hoping this will convince the country to finally back down in a stand-off that has raised fears of war. But asked whether sanctions had produced any deterrent effect, Amano told reporters in Paris: “We are verifying the activities at the nuclear sites in Iran and we do not see any effect. They are, for example, producing enriched uranium up to 5 percent and 20 percent with a quite constant pace.” (…) The report, submitted to IAEA member states on 16 November, underlined the tough task facing the powers in seeking to persuade Tehran to suspend work which Iran says is peaceful but they fear is aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability. It is a “very troubling report”, a senior Western official in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, said. (Reuters)
Iran’s attorney general, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’ii said in a press conference on 12 November that Iranian blogger Sattar Beheshti’s body was bruised. He cited forensic reports which said five areas on his body showed bruising, including his leg, calves, hands, and shoulders. On 11 November, the deputy head of the Iranian parliament, Mohammad Aboutorabi, called for the formation of a special committee to investigate Beheshti’s death. (…) Ayatollah Amoli Larijani, head of the judicial system in Iran, also issued a call for an immediate investigation into Beheshti’s death, saying all responsible should be brought to justice immediately. The call came on 11 November in a statement by the High Council for Human Rights. (…) Ayatollah Amoli Larijani, head of the judicial system in Iran, also issued a call for an immediate investigation into Beheshti’s death, saying all responsible should be brought to justice immediately. The call came 11 November in a statement by the High Council for Human Rights. (Voice of America)
Sitting on one of the many crowded benches in the waiting room of the International Red Crescent’s pharmacy in central Tehran, Ali, 26, was working his phone. After nearly six weeks of chasing down batches of Herceptin, an American-made cancer medicine, Ali, an engineer, was wearing out his welcome with friends and relatives in other Iranian cities, who had done all they could to rustle up the increasingly elusive drug. At home his mother waited, bald and frail after chemotherapy for her breast cancer, but Herceptin had disappeared from pharmacies and hospitals in the capital. “So you are telling me that a pharmacy in Qazvin has 20 batches left?” Ali asked, talking about a city two hours’ drive east of Tehran. “Please buy whatever you can get your hands on.” But five minutes later bad news came: “Gone? O.K., thank you for your troubles. If you do find some please call me by the soonest.” Herceptin, like many other Western-made medicines, has become increasingly hard to obtain in Iran as a result of the American-led sanctions meant to force Iran to stop enriching uranium, a critical element in what the United States says is a nuclear weapons program. Iranian doctors, patients and officials say that, in particular, a ban on financial transactions is so effective that even medicines and other critical supplies that are exempted from the sanctions for humanitarian reasons are no longer exported to the Islamic Republic. (…) Officials here estimate that potentially about six million patients, many of them with cancer, are affected by the shortages. For Iran’s sick, it amounts to life on what feels like the front lines of a battle between governments. Every day patients and their relatives line up at special pharmacies in Tehran, where those suffering from cancer, hemophilia, thalassemia, kidney problems and other diseases are increasingly told the foreign-made medicines they need are no longer available. (New York Times)
An Iranian naval task force has docked in Sudan, carrying with it a “message of peace and security to neighbouring countries”, Iranian state media report. The vessels, which include a corvette and freighter, set sail from Iran last month, the Irna news agency said. Their arrival comes six days after explosions destroyed an arms factory in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. Sudan has complained to the UN that Israel bombed the factory, which is believed to have been operated by Iran. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the incident. According to Iranian state media, the naval task force which docked in Sudan on 29 October morning includes the Shahid Naqdi, a corvette-class vessel, and the Kharg, a supply vessel that can carry three helicopters. (…) Iran made no connection between the task force’s arrival and the explosions at the al-Yarmouk military depot and ammunition plant, which left two people dead. However, unconfirmed reports over the weekend suggested the facility was being used by Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) to produce weapons for the Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas. On 27 October, the Satellite Sentinel Project said satellite images showed six large craters, about 16m (52ft) across and “consistent with impact craters created by air-delivered munitions, centred in a location where, until recently some 40 shipping containers had been stacked.” (…) “A 12 October image shows the storage containers stacked next to a 60m-long shed,” it added. “While we cannot confirm the containers remained on the site on 24 October, analysis of the imagery is consistent with the presence of highly volatile cargo in the epicentre of the explosions.” Reports suggest that shortly after midnight on 24 October, four Israeli warplanes attacked the factory with two one-tonne bombs. They were supported by helicopters carrying commandos to rescue any of the air crew in case they were shot down, the reports added. Another aircraft jammed Sudanese radar and air-defence systems, as well as disrupting local communications. They reportedly took off from the Negev desert and re-fuelled in flight. It is alleged that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency found documents relating to Iranian and Sudanese weapons manufacture on a senior Hamas official it is accused of assassinating in Dubai in 2010. (BBC)
Saudi Arabia plans to produce electricity from its first nuclear plant by 2020 and begin operating a solar farm by 2015, said an official at the agency developing the country’s renewable energy program. The country will start work on its first solar-power facility early next year, which may take as much as 24 months to complete, Khalid al-Suliman, vice president at the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, told the state-owned Saudi Press Agency. Al-Suliman said the project will get underway once the government approves his agency’s plan for renewable energy. He told the press agency on 21 November that he expects to receive official approval early next year. Saudi Arabia, which is tapping renewable energy as a way to free more crude oil for export, is planning for $109 billion in investment to create a solar industry that generates a third of the nation’s electricity by 2032. The world’s largest crude oil exporter targets 41,000 megawatts of solar capacity within two decades, according to the plan that was announced in May. Al-Suliman said 16,000 megawatt of that will be generated from photovoltaic panels. The rest comes from solar-thermal technology, which use mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on heating fluids that turns a power turbine. Al-Suliman said that they want renewables and nuclear reactors to supply half of the Kingdom’s electricity in the coming two decades. Solar would supply a fifth of that energy. (Bloomberg)
Manar Saud graduated in May from Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., with a master’s degree in organizational leadership, paid for by a Saudi government scholarship. She came home to Riyadh eager to put her new skills to work, but after six months of looking for a job, she is still unemployed. “It’s really sad,” said Saud, 27, sipping coffee in a Starbucks, a black scarf framing her face, with floral trim on her long black abaya robe. “You come back so well prepared and so eager. Then all of a sudden, there is a brick wall in your face.” Saud is part of a rising generation of young Saudi women caught between a government spending billions to educate and employ them, and a deeply conservative religious society that fiercely resists women in the workplace. Although Saudi Arabia has vast oil riches, its per capita gross domestic product ranks only 40th in the world, and many here note that the national economy would be stronger if half the brainpower in the country were put to better use. (…) Unemployment among Saudi women who want to work is 34 percent — almost five times as great as the 7 percent unemployment rate for men, according to government figures. Those unemployed women are disproportionately college-educated. Of Saudis receiving unemployment benefits, 86 percent are women, and 40 percent of those women have college degrees. In a country where more than two-thirds of the population is younger than 30, thousands more college-educated women each year try to enter the workforce, and many of them are striking out. (Washington Post)
Denied the right to travel without consent from their male guardians and banned from driving, women in Saudi Arabia are now monitored by an electronic system that tracks any cross-border movements. Since mid-November, Saudi women’s male guardians began receiving text messages on their phones informing them when women under their custody leave the country, even if they are traveling together. Manal al-Sherif, who became the symbol of a campaign launched last year urging Saudi women to defy a driving ban, began spreading the information on Twitter, after she was alerted by a couple. The husband, who was traveling with his wife, received a text message from the immigration authorities informing him that his wife had left the international airport in Riyadh. “The authorities are using technology to monitor women,” said columnist Badriya al-Bishr, who criticised the “state of slavery under which women are held” in the ultra-conservative kingdom. Women are not allowed to leave the kingdom without permission from their male guardian, who must give his consent by signing what is known as the “yellow sheet” at the airport or border. (Turkish Weekly)
Saudi Arabia’s women will be separated by a screen when they join the country’s main advisory body early next year. The move to allow women to join the advisory body has been deemed as a major step for women’s rights in the country, but they will only be able to debate with their male colleagues via an internal communications system. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz confirmed female members will be able to attend the 150-member Shura Council from early 2013 who act as formal advisory body to the King. It is not yet clear how many women will be allowed to join the assembly, but the oli rich country are taking steps to improve the rights of women in the country, despite the fact that compromise must be made with powerful hardline religious clerics, many of whom oppose the even the smallest of advances. Segregation between men and women in the country is widespread due to the  ultra-conservative Wahhabi sharia law. Restrictions on women in the country mean they are not allowed to drive, they must use separate entrances at banks and offices, and a plan to build a city for female workers only has been announced. (Daily Mail)
Saudi Arabia is stepping up efforts to lower unemployment among its citizens by fining private sector firms that employ more foreigners than Saudis, the labour ministry said in a statement carried by state news agency SPA on 13 November. The policy, which will be implemented at the start of the new Islamic year on November 15, will require private companies with majorities of foreign workers to pay a fee of 2,400 riyals a year for each excess foreigner. The fines will not be applied for foreigners with Saudi mothers, citizens of other Gulf Cooperation Council countries – the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain – or household help, the statement said. “The aim of this decision is to increase the competitive advantage of local workers by reducing the gap between the cost of expatriate labour and local labour,” it said. If it is strictly enforced, the policy could have a major impact on some firms. Roughly nine in 10 employees of private companies in Saudi Arabia are expatriates, according to official estimates; firms prefer to hire foreigners, many from south or southeast Asia, because they command lower wages than locals. This has helped to boost the unemployment rate among Saudi citizens to about 10.5 percent – a social problem and potentially a political one too in the long run. Saudi Arabia has a population of over 27 million, of which about 9 million are believed to be foreigners. (Reuters)
Saudi Arabia is funding a $100m mosque and Islamic education centre in Kabul that will teach thousands of students a year and help bolster Saudi influence in Afghanistan as the west withdraws. Work on the sprawling 30-hectare (75-acre) hilltop complex is due to be completed by early 2016, when Afghan security forces will likely be trying to hold off the Taliban with little Nato support. “This Islamic centre has several aims, one is to ensure good relations between Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia,” said the acting Saudi minister of hajj and Islamic affairs, Dr Dayi al-Haq Abed. Afghanistan’s neighbours and allies have been jostling for power in the country for years; spending millions of dollars on aid, education, TV and radio channels. (…) Abed said the centre was a decade-old project conceived by Saudi Arabia’s late King Fahd, not a hasty effort to bolster the Gulf state’s role in Afghan affairs. “It’s not a political centre, its an independent centre,” he told the Guardian. “This centre will never try to work against the interests of Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. It is firstly a place for prayer and secondly for education.” (Guardian)
Kuwait’s government has made clear it is willing and able to suppress unauthorized street protests, saying it must protect public safety, but risks provoking worse popular unrest by taking a hard line. Police fired tear gas and smoke bombs to disperse thousands of Kuwaitis protesting over new voting rules late on 4 November. Last month a prominent opposition figure was arrested after speaking at a protest rally where he appealed to the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, to avoid “autocratic rule”. OPEC member Kuwait allows more dissent than some of its fellow Gulf states. Opposition-led protests usually take place peacefully in a square outside parliament but in recent weeks they have spread to the streets beyond and resulted in clashes, with small groups of people being taken to hospital. Elsewhere in the Gulf, governments have cracked down on protests with force. Bahrain turned to foreign troops, mainly from neighboring Saudi Arabia, to suppress protests last year. It banned all rallies and gatherings in late October, saying this was to ensure public safety, but on Monday five bombs exploded in Manama, killing two people. Analysts and diplomats say Kuwaiti authorities do not appear to want a full-scale crackdown. However, tensions are rising between the government and a group consisting of opposition lawmakers, youth groups and their supporters. (…) While Kuwaitis have been protesting for months against voting rules, corruption and for democratic change, the harder line was taken after opposition figures made comments that might be seen as criticizing the emir. The constitution says the emir is “immune and inviolable”. “The events of the past two weeks have crossed so many red lines and we now are seeing acts of mass civil disobedience as tens of thousands of people defy government warnings and the Family Council’s call for obedience to the emir,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, research fellow on Gulf States at the London School of Economics. (Reuters)
Kuwaitis should use the ballot box to express their demands in a parliamentary election on 1 December and not take to the streets “screaming and wailing” in protest, the Gulf Arab country’s ruling emir said on 21 November. Thousands of people have staged regular demonstrations since late October against Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah’s emergency decree reducing the number of votes allowed per citizen from four to one for the sake of Kuwait’s “security and stability”. The opposition movement, which includes former members of parliament and youth groups, has called a boycott of the election in the major oil producer and strategically located U.S. ally situated across the Gulf from Iran. Protests are planned on the eve of the vote in Kuwait, which has the most open political system in the Gulf, with parliament able to pass legislation and question ministers. But the emir has the final say in state matters and can veto laws. (…) Analysts say the next assembly may be more government-friendly and help ease the passing of laws. But it could lack legitimacy if the election turnout is low, and may not be seen as independent – an outcome likely to raise political tensions. The opposition – whose demands generally entail an elected cabinet including prime minister with at least some posts held by people other than relatives of the emir – held some 35 seats in the 50-seat parliament elected in February 2012. (Reuters)
Kuwait’s national high commission for the elections has barred 39 candidates from running in the parliamentary polls next month. The list includes former lawmakers and Kuwaitis competing for the first time for one of the 50 seats in the parliament, local media reported. The commission, believed to have based its decision on the justice records of the candidates, is expected to hold a press conference to explain the reasons for its move. However, the disqualification is not final and the candidates have the right to challenge it. Officials said that 397 people this month signed up to run in the elections on 1 December and candidates have until 23 November to pull out. The figure was unexpectedly high after a slow start and amid reports that the boycott calls launched by the opposition were being followed. The opposition has vowed to push for a national boycott of the elections after the government insisted that it would uphold an amendment to the controversial 2006 electoral law that reduced the number of candidates a voter could elect from four to one. (GulfNews)
Kuwait has not faced widespread unrest since the Arab Spring uprisings erupted last year across the Middle East, but opposition supporters are still determined to press their demands for greater democratic rights, reports BBC Arabic’s Khaled Ezzelarab. On 4 November night, hundreds of vehicles came to a standstill as the police diverted traffic away from Kuwait City’s main road along the waterfront, where opposition activists had planned to hold a demonstration. It caused a traffic jam unlike any that Sayyed had seen in his 10 years as a taxi driver. Sayyed, who asked that his surname be withheld, is a foreign migrant like almost all taxi drivers in Kuwait, and he feared that he might get into trouble for talking about politics if his identity was revealed. An Egyptian, he rejected suggestions that the political upheaval in Kuwait was a continuation of the Arab Spring which had seen his compatriots overthrow President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. “In Egypt people revolted because they had nothing, no food, no money… but here they have everything,” he said. (…) The current crisis in Kuwait was sparked by a decree issued by the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed Al Sabah, on 19 October, which amended the election law that will be applied in parliamentary elections scheduled for next month. The opposition – comprising Islamist, liberal and tribal groups – said the changes favoured pro-government candidates. They also vowed to boycott the elections and organise protests until the emir retracted his decree. (BBC)
The United Arab Emirates has tightened its law on internet use, making it a criminal offence to mock its rulers or organise unauthorised demonstrations. A presidential decree says anyone who creates or runs a website or uses the internet to deride or damage the state or its institutions faces imprisonment. The institutions include the rulers and senior officials across the federation of seven semi-autonomous Gulf emirates. Activists have criticised the move as an attempt to limit freedom of speech. The UAE has not experienced the unrest seen elsewhere in the region. However, since March the authorities have detained without charge more than 60 civil society activists, some of whom have ties to Islah – a local group that advocates greater adherence to Islamic precepts – including human rights lawyers, judges and student leaders. The authorities have also been accused of deporting and harassing human rights defenders, denying legal assistance to political detainees, and intimidating and deporting lawyers seeking to assist detainees. Government and police officials have said the crackdown is a response to a foreign-inspired Islamist plot that aims to overthrow the government. (BBC)
Despite regional challenges, the tourism industry in the UAE over the past year has remained strong and prosperous. According to forecasts, Dubai will remain stable with ongoing growth and Abu Dhabi is likely to remain under pressure with continued growth in hotel supply. “While some traditionally popular destinations, such as Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, etc. have been affected by security concerns and travel advisories, other destinations, including Dubai, have proven resilient and even thrived in the recent months, partially benefitting from the crisis,” said Christopher Hewett, Consultant with TRI Hospitality Consulting in Dubai. (…) “Dubai’s hospitality market have shown signs of prosperity again, assisted by its image as the regional safe haven, but mainly powered by its large variety of leisure and entertainment options, number of key regional and international conferences, and growing business demand, all of which helped improve occupancy levels, room rates, and profits throughout 2012,” Hewett said. (GulfNews)
The UAE and Bahrain have the highest levels of economic freedom in the Arab world, a report shows. The report, released by the Fraser Institute, aims to assess financial security, market regulation and freedoms on trading internationally. The Emirates improved its score from last year’s report, moving from second place to joint first with Bahrain. Algeria was ranked as having the worst economic freedom in the region, followed closely by Mauritania and Syria. (The National)
Qatar and the United Arab Emirates want to buy Lockheed Martin Corp. LMT air-defense interceptors, radar, parts and support valued at as much as $7.6 billion if all options are exercised, according to the Pentagon. The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress on 4 November of a potential $6.5 billion sale to Qatar, location of a key U.S. regional air-operations center. It also announced a $1.13 billion sale to the United Arab Emirates for additional weapons, launchers and spare parts — its second purchase of the interceptor system known as Thaad. The interceptors are part of the regional defense that President Barack Obama’s administration is deploying in the Middle East against Iran’s medium- and long-range ballistic missiles. Batteries of land-based interceptors would be linked with the U.S. Navy’s detection systems on Aegis-class destroyers and cruisers. Iran’s military continues to improve the accuracy and killing power of its long- and short-range ballistic missiles, including designing a weapon to target vessels, according to a Pentagon report to Congress. “Iran has boosted the lethality and effectiveness of existing systems by improving accuracy and developing new submunition payloads” that extend the destructive power over a wider area than a solid warhead, according to the June 29 assessment. The latest UAE request is in addition to two Thaad units the nation bought from Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed in December 2011, valued at about $1.96 billion. The UAE was the first international buyer of Thaad. (Bloomberg Businessweek)
The mood in Gaza was jubilant when the Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, became the first head of state to visit the Hamas-run territory last month. Just weeks later, Qatar’s relationship with Hamas has evolved: Israel’s aerial attacks stand to solidify the Qatari role in Palestinian politics. Doha has taken a hawkish tone in the current crisis, adding diplomatic influence to its previous financial and humanitarian support for Hamas. The moves come as part of a broader push to sway Hamas from its Iranian backers toward new patrons in the Arabian Gulf, analysts said. (…) When the Israeli air strikes began, Doha’s prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani,called for a strong international response. “This filthy crime must not pass without a punishment,” he said in mid-November. Recently, Qatar’s top leaders have pushed for a seat beside Egypt at the forefront of diplomatic efforts to broker a truce between Hamas and Israel. The Qatari emir and prime minister flew to Cairo for meetings with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 17 November. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, called the Qatari prime minister 18 November to discuss the crisis. Qatar suspended its ties with Israel during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in December 2008. In January 2009, Qatar asked the head of Israel’s office in Doha to leave the country. It does not officially recognise Israel as a state. Doha’s increasing influence was also on vivid display at a meeting of the Arab League over the weekend, where the Qatari prime minister, who is also the foreign minister, called for a review of the body’s dealings with the Arab-Israeli peace process. (…) Qatari-funded building materials were set to arrive in Gaza through Egypt, a move that Hamas’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, had jubilantly declared would aid in the “break of the economic blockade and political blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip by the forces of injustice”. (The National)
Qatar’s draft media law came under fire on 30 October from Human Rights Watch, which singled out “loosely worded provisions” penalising criticism of the Gulf emirate and its neighbours. The New York-based organisation urged Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani not to approve the law as drafted, calling it “a commitment to censorship”. Qatari officials could not immediately be reached for comment. Freedom of expression is tightly controlled in the tiny autocratic Gulf state, with self-censorship prevalent among national newspapers and other media outlets. A close U.S. ally that hosts a large U.S. military base, Qatar has escaped the unrest that has engulfed other parts of the region. It lacks any organised political opposition. Qatar finances and hosts the pan-Arab satellite TV network al-Jazeera, which has closely covered Arab revolts elsewhere. Although the draft calls for abolishing criminal penalties for media law violations, it contains some sweeping provisions. Article 53 prohibits publishing or broadcasting information that would “throw relations between the state and the Arab and friendly states into confusion” or “abuse the regime or offend the ruling family or cause serious harm to the national or higher interests of the state”. Violators would face fines of up to 1 million Qatari riyals ($275,000). The draft approved by the emir’s advisory Shura Council in June would be the first change to Qatar’s media law since 2008, when the government set up the Doha Centre for Media Freedom. (Reuters)
Following the protests of Yemen’s Arab Spring, its Gulf neighbors brokered a deal to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh after 33 years in the presidential palace. Saleh was replaced in February by Abd-Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, his vice president of the past 13 years. Mr. Hadi’s task is formidable. He needs to rebuild the central government, unite the nation’s fractious tribes, lead a project to rewrite the constitution, hold new national elections and kick-start the country’s economy. He’s been at it for eight months and he has about 16 months left to finish the job before holding a new national election. Since Hadi took office in February, he has surprised many of his skeptics with a few bold security moves. Even so, he is still far from rescuing Yemen from political and economic failure. Whether or not he succeeds, Yemen can boast one distinction among its neighbors: it has gotten rid of its dictator through negotiations and avoided the months of the bloodshed experienced by Libya and Syria. Even in the best of times, Yemen has been a troubled nation, one with political and tribal divisions that is loosely held together by patronage. Its government has been known for nepotism and corruption and is threatened by secessionist movements and a forbidding terrain where terrorists have found safe havens. (…) And Hadi has addressed two major security issues. The first was to restructure the military and to remove Saleh’s eldest son, Ahmed, as commander of the Republican Guard and its special forces. The effort ended in a stalemate when Ahmed’s officers threatened a public protest. (…) “He (Hadi) had been fairly successful but he hasn’t taken the major step that everybody knows he has to take,” said Gregory Johnsen, a  Yemen expert at Princeton University and author of book, “The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia,” to be published soon. (…) In his public enthusiasm for the U.S. military strikes, Hadi has taken responsibility for some of the more than 35 aerial assassination missions carried out by Predator and Reaper drones. Johnsen argues, however, that the drones may eventually present a risk for Hadi, Yemen and the U.S. government. (Voice of America)
A Yemeni intelligence officer was assassinated in a drive-by shooting by unidentified gunmen on 7 November in the capital, Sanaa, in the latest attack against security forces in the country, officials said. Officials say at least 55 military, intelligence and police officers have been killed in Yemen since mid-2011. Most of the assassinations focused on individuals working in counterterrorism operations. The officials say Mohammed El-Fil was shot in the head by assailants on a motorbike. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters. Last month, two senior officers were assassinated by militants in a drive-by shooting just outside the capital. Officials believe that al-Qaida is waging a retaliation campaign against top officials after a military offensive pushed its militants out of their strongholds in southern Yemen. Meanwhile, Yemen’s air force, backed by US drones, have struck militant hideouts in several areas of Yemen. The latest airstrike was on 7 November when local tribesmen said an aircraft targeted a vehicle outside of a village on the outskirts of Sanaa, killing two. Local tribal officials said the airstrike was a rare attack near Sanaa, in the Sanhan district, hometown of the former longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh. (Fox News, Associated Press)
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pledged on 19 November to help rescue stumbling efforts to implement a power transfer deal in Yemen that pulled the Arabian Peninsula country back from the brink of civil war last year. Restoring stability in Yemen, a U.S. ally grappling with al Qaeda militants and southern separatists, is an international priority due to fears of disorder ripping apart a state that flanks top oil producer Saudi Arabia and major shipping lanes. “The United Nations is standing here to reconfirm its strong commitment that we stand side by side with the government and people of Yemen in your (pursuit of)… progress towards a better and prosperous future, characterized by reconciliation and democratic participation,” Ban told a joint news conference with President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Sanaa. Ban was making his initial visit to the impoverished Arab country to mark the first anniversary of the U.S.- and Gulf-sponsored power transfer accord that ended months of mass protests against veteran strongman President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The deal mandates Hadi to oversee major reforms during a two-year interim period to ensure a transition to democracy, including amending the constitution and restructuring the armed forces to break Saleh’s family grip on them. The process is expected to lead to presidential and parliamentary election in 2014. (Reuters)
A tribal leader suspected of links to al Qaeda’s active Yemeni wing returned to his home in southern Yemen on 5 November, triggering an armed standoff between his supporters and militiamen allied to the government, tribal sources said. Tarek al-Fadli, who was raised in Saudi Arabia and fought in Afghanistan, leads a major tribe in the restive Abyan province and had taken refuge in the mountains over the summer after a U.S. military-backed onslaught drove militants linked to al Qaeda from southern towns. (…) “The return of Fadli to his house triggered protests from those allied to the army who surrounded his house and asked him to go back where he came from,” a source allied to the government told Reuters. Protesters asked the government to intervene to get him out of the town, the source said, adding that a security committee would meet on 6 November to discuss the matter. A source close to Fadli told Reuters that he was at his home in Zinjibar and that no one had the right to force him out. The U.S. military has intensified a campaign of missile strikes on suspected Islamist militants in recent months, often using pilotless drones. Yemen’s wealthier Gulf neighbors and Washington are concerned that al Qaeda and other Islamist fighters operating there could pose a threat to Saudi Arabia and to nearby oil shipping channels. (Reuters)
Flows through Yemen’s main oil export pipeline were stopped after the line was blown up in two places on the night of 11 November, the state news agency and local government sources said. The SABA news agency said the pipeline was attacked in two spots in the Wadi Abidah region of western Yemen. “Unknown assailants blew up the pipeline that carries crude oil to the main export terminal in the Red Sea in the middle of the night on 11 November, in the Damashka area of Wadi Abidah,” a source in the area told Reuters. The 270-mile long Maarib pipeline used to carry around 110,000 barrels per day (bpd) of Marib light crude to the Ras Isa export terminal on the Red Sea coast until a spate of attacks in 2011 and 2012. SABA did not identify the attackers but Yemen’s oil and gas pipelines have been repeatedly sabotaged by Islamist militants and disgruntled tribesmen since anti-government protests created a power vacuum in 2011. A long closure of the line last year forced the country’s largest refinery at Aden to shut, leaving the small producer dependent on fuel donations from Saudi Arabia and imports. The Maarib oil pipeline was last blown up in September but Yemen’s main gas export line was blown up again only in late October. (Chicago Tribune, Reuters)
A year after a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council saved Yemen from a civil war, the country’s interim president is promising that parliamentary elections will go ahead in February next year as set out in the transition agreement. (…) The dialogue sessions have been delayed as various groups refused to participate. Among those are southern Hirak movement that is seeking an independent state, the pro-Shia Houthis who are seeking a greater role in government, and youth activists. (…) Another obstacle to the country’s unity is the continuing popularity of the former president. He was granted immunity for his actions during 30-years of rule but not barred from political activity and continues to lead his The General People’s Congress, the country’s largest party. Mr Saleh’s son Ahmed, and other relatives, still hold key military and security posts. Activists say that dialogue is useless if the Saleh family remains in positions of power in the country’s military. Islah, the country’s leading opposition party, insists that restructuring the army and uniting it under one leader is critical to further political progress. Its influence on Mr Hadi, through its tribal, religious and military presence, may have been reflected in the president’s statement on 19 November. (The National)

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