Middle East Weekly Roundup: Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of interfering in Yemen, a new political party in Turkey, and the return of the formerly displaced to Nineveh

Iran

Tehran rejected Saudi Arabia’s accusation of interference in Yemen as “ridiculous and baseless.” Saudi Arabia alleged that Iran supports armed groups fighting against Saudi forces, and that Iran disrupts attempts to resolve the Yemeni conflict.

The Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that Iran is fulfilling its commitments under the nuclear deal, and there have been no hindrances with inspectors doing their job. According to Iran’s President Rouhani, the country will abandon the agreement should it no longer buoy the country’s interests. Rouhani’s statement stems from the Trump administration’s threat to pull out of the accord. While the United States may step away from the deal, other members of the agreement have reaffirmed their commitment to it.

Mohammad Baqeri, an Iranian official, announced that Iran will reopen all of its border crossings with Iraq, and that it will lift restrictions it imposed after last month’s Kurdish vote in favor of independence. Iran has its own Kurdish minority and opposes independence for Iraqi Kurds. Baqeri further warned that if the Kurdish region of Iraq secedes from the country, it would result in high-level conflict in Iraq and in bordering areas.

Israel/Palestine

The Israeli government has delayed a vote on a controversial bill that would have placed some Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the jurisdiction of Jerusalem’s municipal authorities—a move which some say could have led to their full annexation to Israel. A ministerial vote on the bill, which had been proposed by a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party, was apparently delayed after the intervention of the American Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. The United States fears that the proposed law may pose an obstacle to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The bill’s supporters in the Israeli government say that it will help to cement a Jewish majority within Jerusalem.

Egypt

On October 25th, Member of Parliament Ryad Abdel Sattar introduced a draft law that would criminalize homosexuality and subject those convicted to jail time. The measure is part of a wider crackdown on the Egyptian LGBT community after concert-goers raised rainbow flags at last month’s Mashrou’ Leila concert. US Secretary of State Tillerson faces pressure to condemn the law.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered a shakeup of senior security officials after 55 police officers and conscripts were killed during a raid in the western desert. Among the officials replaced were Gen. Mahmoud Shaarawy, head of Egypt’s National Security Agency, the head of homeland security, and the director of Giza Province security.

During a visit to France on October 24th, French President Macron chose not to press President Sisi on his human rights record, despite pressure from rights groups. Macron did question Sisi on Egypt’s imprisonment of journalists and political activists, which Sisi denied.

Libya

The bodies of 36 suspected militants were found shot dead east of Benghazi on Sunday. Benghazi, along with most of Eastern Libya, is under the control of the Libyan National Army (LNA), a coalition of fighters led by controversial former CIA informant General Khalifa Haftar. As recently as August, officers in the LNA have been accused of summary executions, a war crime. General Haftar and the LNA oppose the internationally recognized Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli, in the west of Libya.

Turkey

On October 25th, nationalist politician and former interior minister Meral Akşener announced her new party, Iyi Partisi (The Good Party), and confirmed that she will run for president against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Akşener’s new party will also challenge the ultra-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which she left in 2016 over party leader Devlet Bahçeli’s decision to ally with Mr. Erdoğan. Iyi Partisi will participate in the March 2019 municipal elections.

During a visit to Konya on October 28th, President Erdoğan lashed out at opposition CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, saying that no snap elections will be held. Kılıçdaroğlu demanded early municipal and national elections after the resignations of AKP mayors from several large cities, including popular Ankara mayor Melih Gökçek, citing a “deterioration of democracy.” Mr. Erdoğan said the elections will take place in 2019, as planned.

Police in Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, Bursa, and Erzurum arrested 143 suspected of ties to ISIL ahead of Republic Day celebrations on Sunday. Law enforcement claimed to be disrupting groups aiming to attack revelers. Meanwhile, a mass trial of 220 coup suspects resumed on October 30th.

The Levant

On Sunday, 11 civilians were reportedly killed by the Syrian government in northern Damascus. In another report, the Syrian Government rejected a UN report blaming it for the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April.

At the UN on Tuesday, a vote to renew the mandate authorizing the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) failed after being blocked by Russia. According to a Russian deputy foreign minister, Russia is preparing their own response to the report blaming the regime for its use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun. The JIM’s mandate, set to expire in mid November, may still be renewed before then. This current spat comes several months after an August statement by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in which he indicated the JIM is investigating  up to 60 alleged incidents of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime.   

Speaking in Geneva last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced there is “no role for Bashar al-Assad in the government … the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end…” This is an apparent reversal of  his statement made in March, in which he suggested Assad may remain in the country, and of his July statement, which indicated the US should let Russia decide Assad’s fate.

Spotlight on Migration & Refugees

In a meeting last week in Beirut with the British Minister of State for Middle East Affairs, Alistair Burt, Lebanese President Michel Aoun rejected a proposal to grant Syrian refugees in Lebanon the Lebanese citizenship. President Aoun went on to describe the hardships of hosting so many refugees in Lebanon, building off of his statement two weeks ago urging Syrians to return to “safe areas” of Syria.

According to the Iraqi Migration and Displacement Ministry, close to 22,000 Iraqi internally displaced people (IDPs) returned to Mosul over four days, mostly from camps in Nineveh and Dohuk. The previous week, another 15,000 IDPs returned to Nineveh. Lise Grande, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, stated earlier in October that since 2014 more than 5.4 million Iraqis have been displaced (both internally and internationally).

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia hosted its Future Investment Initiative summit in Riyadh this week. The initiative announced a blueprint to provide a platform for objective, expert-led debate on both current and long-term global investment trends. It aims to provide opportunities for achieving sustainable returns which deliver positive and lasting impacts.

A robot which was unveiled at the conference was granted Saudi Citizenship, prompting many women’s rights groups to claim it had more rights than women in Saudi Arabia. The robot, named Sophia, was presented on stage with its head and body uncovered, and without a male guardian.

Prince Salman also announced plans to build a futuristic economic zone along Saudi Arabia’s Northwest coastline bordering Egypt. Two islands recently ceded by Egypt will be part of this massive redevelopment project, which boasts  the zone will become a global hub for trade, innovation and knowledge.

Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a missile at Saudi Arabia, towards a border village in the Najran region. The missile complex hit a residential complex and injured one person.

Qatar

The Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani warned against military action amidst communication breakdowns concerning the Gulf Diplomatic crisis. Speaking to American news outlet CBS, the Emir expressed discontent at any military action, and said that US President Donald Trump offered to mediate talks between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis supposedly dismissed the offer, calling the crisis a ‘small issue’.

Bahrain

One policeman was killed and eight others injured in an attack in Bahrain’s capital Manama. Attackers targeted a police bus, reportedly opening fire on it and deploying home made bombs. The identity of the attackers remains unknown.

UAE

The UAE  announced plans for the state owned company Emirates to develop a fleet of driverless vehicles. The executive vice president of the company stated that the vehicles would be solar powered. This follows a statement from the Crown Prince of Dubai in April 2016, in which he said he would like driverless vehicles to account for 25% of journeys in the country by 2030.

Yemen

UN aid chief Mark Lowcock visited Sanaa on October 25th and expressed deep concern regarding the country’s worsening humanitarian crisis. Malnutrition and cholera are the main issues Lowcock hoped to address in his talks with authorities and independent groups during his five-day visit.

Also on October 25th, a drone strike killed seven suspected al-Qaeda militants in al-Bayda province. The US has targeted al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters throughout the campaign in Yemen. The group operates mainly in southern and eastern Yemen.

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