Weekly Roundup: Hariri speaks about his resignation, Saudi blockade intensifies famine in Yemen, and an earthquake hits the Iran-Iraq border

Lebanon

On Sunday, November 12, Saad Hariri spoke publicly for the first time since the announcement  of his resignation as prime minister of Lebanon on November 4th. Hariri, a Sunni Muslim and a long-time ally of Saudi Arabia, initially blamed his resignation on Iranian interference in Lebanon. There has been widespread speculation in Lebanon that Hariri was forced to resign by Saudi leaders and that he is being held hostage in Riyadh. In this most recent statement, Hariri sought to address these rumors, saying that his resignation was to protect his safety against possible assassination attempts and that the Saudis are not dictating his actions. He added that he has complete freedom of movement and that he will return to Lebanon in a matter of days. His statement comes following the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah’s, statement that Saudi has “declared war” on Lebanon. Both Lebanese and and the United States officials are calling for Hariri to return to Lebanon.

Iran

Over 400 are dead and 7,000 injured in Iran’s Kermanshah Province after an earthquake struck Halabja, Iraq. Though the quake centered on the Iraqi town of Suleymaniyah, the damage appears most severe in Iran, with thousands still trapped in remote towns with limited emergency services. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed condolences for the victims. During a phone call with President Hassan Rouhani, Kermanshah governor Hooshang Bazvand expressed concern that the death toll will continue to rise.

The Iranian government suspended publication of the hardline newspaper Keyhan this week after it printed an article encouraging Houthi missile attacks on Dubai. The move comes as Tehran tries to distance itself from the November 5th missile attack on Riyadh’s main airport. Given the government’s denial of involvement, the decision to punish Keyhan appears to be a signal from the Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guards for Iranian media to tone down its language and toe the official line.

Iraq

Iraqi Kurdistan also suffered from the earthquake that rocked the Iran-Iraq border during the night of November 12th. Over 300 have been hospitalized in the Kurdistan region, and the town of Darbandikhan has been hardest hit. The United Nations sent an assessment team to Darbandikhan on the morning of November 13th, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office said it will continue to monitor Darbandikhan’s dam for structural integrity.

On November 6th, Iraq’s Supreme Court ruled that no region can lawfully secede in a move to further discredit the region’s bid for independence. The following day, hundreds of Arab Iraqis demonstrated in Kirkuk demanding that Prime Minister al-Abadi help them to locate relatives detained by Kurdish security forces. Abadi was quick to announce his support, saying his office will investigate the issue.

Syria

Two days after the Syrian army announced the recapture of the city of al-Bukamal, an eastern town in Deir Az Zor province, ISIL has recaptured nearly 60 percent of the town. Al-Bukamal has been a center for fighting between the Syrian army and ISIL. ISIL’s new agency, Amaq, released a video on Friday that shows ISIL fighters battling forces of Bashar al-Assad’s on the outskirts of al-Bukamal. Meanwhile, the Syrian government announced that Russian experts have been removing land mines left by ISIL in al-Bukamal. The conflicting announcements indicate the ongoing narrative battle between ISIL and the Syrian government over who is succeeding in territorial control in Syria.

Egypt

Last Wednesday, Egypt’s Court of Cassation upheld a five-year jail sentence against prominent opposition activist Alaa Abdel Fattah. This final ruling cannot be appealed, meaning that Abdel Fattah will have to carry out the length of the sentence. Abdel Fattah, who has already served more than three years in prison, was jailed in 2013 for violating Egypt’s protest law. The blogger and software engineer was a leading voice among youth who helped lead Egypt’s 2011 uprising. He is one of several activists jailed since the the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

Egyptian officials arrested ten Nubian activists on Tuesday for protesting the death of Gamal Sorour last week. Sorour was among the many protesters who were arrested in September for participating in the “Nubian Gathering Day” march.  The march demanded the return of the Nubians to the lands that were unjustly taken away from them to make way for the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. Sorour died after entering a diabetic coma when he and others went on a hunger strike in police custody.

Palestine/Israel

The impact of Lebanon’s burgeoning political crisis on Israel is yet to crystallize. But the Washington Post suggests that it could increase the likelihood of conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the political and military movement the Jewish state sees as increasingly calling the shots in Lebanon. The departure of Prime Minister Saad Hariri magnifies the impression that the Shi’ite party indeed holds the reins of power there, a state of affairs that has alarmed Israel as it has watched the Iran-allied Hezbollah make substantial military gains on the side of the Assad regime in Syria.

Meanwhile, in Gaza, thousands of Palestinians have commemorated the 13th anniversary of the death of former Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah leader Yasser Arafat—the first time in a decade that the date has been publicly celebrated in the Strip. Arafat was formerly the leader of Fatah, the Palestinian political party and bitter rival of Hamas, the Islamist party that has governed Gaza since it drove out Fatah forces in 2007. The size and public nature of the commemoration activities seemed to reflect a growing, if still tentative, rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah following the signing of their preliminary reconciliation agreement in October.

Saudi Arabia

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, made a surprise visit to Saudi Arabia this week following his two day visit to the United Arab Emirates. Amidst growing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Macron had a two hour meeting with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. According to the French press the pair discussed the situations in Lebanon and Yemen, whilst an official communiqué released after the visit by the office of the President stated that Iran was not amongst the matters discussed. The Saudi press claimed the opposite, stating that the French president “bluntly blamed Iran” for the missile that exploded near Riyadh last week.

The Arab League will meet next Sunday at the request of Saudi Arabia. According to a memorandum shown to Al-Arabiya reporters, Saudi Arabia requested the meeting to discuss “violations” committed by Iran in the region. It accuses Iran of being complicit in last week’s rocket attack as well as meddling in the domestic affairs of Lebanon and Qatar.

Yemen

Following last week’s decision by the Saudi Government to blockade Yemen, the British newspaper, The Guardian, has claimed that it may cause the world’s largest famine in decades. The blockade of Yemen prevents aid organizations, like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from entering the country and providing vital aid. Yemen is already facing the world’s worst cholera outbreak and seven million people are at risk of famine.  

Bahrain

Bahrain has accused Iran of being involved in an oil pipeline explosion near its capital, Manama. In a statement to the press, Bahrain’s interior minister claimed that the blast was “the latest example of a terrorist act performed by terrorists in direct contact with, and under instruction from, Iran”. No suspects were formally named and no injuries were reported. Iran has rejected any involvement in the blast.

United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has agreed to a preliminary $1.6 billion deal with American aerospace and defense technology company Lockheed Martin to upgrade its eighty F-16 fighters. The Emirati defense ministry also announced a $17 million deal with U.S.-based OTNA INC for Blu-109 “bunker buster” bombs and a $9.5 million agreement with Thales Communications and Security SAS to secure defense communications. The UAE is part of a coalition with its close ally Saudi Arabia, who is currently waging war against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Jordan

The World Bank released its Ease of Doing Business index last week, ranking each country in the world based on its regulatory framework and the ease with which new businesses can open. Out of 190 countries, the UAE ranked highest among MENA nations at 21st, while Libya, Yemen, and South Sudan occupy places 185-187. Jordan ranks 103rd after jumping eighteen places from its previous ranking. The modest increase met with criticism from the Jordanian press, who pointed out the country still ranks 146th in insolvency regulations and protection for minority investors.

Libya

In what is becoming a regular occurrence, nearly thirty bodies bearing marks of torture were found dead in the restive Wershafana region, forty miles west of the capital Tripoli. The bodies were uncovered by locals after clashes between militia groups last week. In the Eastern border region, the Egyptian military destroyed a convoy of ten vehicles carrying what it claims were “arms, ammunition, and smuggled goods.” The porous Libyan-Egyptian border has seen an uptick in Egyptian activity amid an increased spirit of cooperation between Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and former Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, whose militia controls nearly half of Libya. Meanwhile, the UNHCR successfully evacuated a group of 25 refugees who were trapped in Libya after fleeing from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and the Sudan.

Spotlight on Migration & Refugees

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) carried out its first evacuation of vulnerable refugees residing in Libya. The refugees will be moved to Niger, who has agreed to host the group until their resettlement to a third country is processed. The UNHCR is searching for more safer and longer-term living situations for refugees who have been facing human rights violations in Libya.

Turkey

On November 11th, the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C. strongly denied allegations of attempting to bribe then-National Security Advisor Mike Flynn to facilitate the illegal kidnapping and rendition of Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen to Turkey. The Wall Street Journal reported that, under the alleged proposal, the Turkish government would have paid some $15 million to Mike Flynn and his son, Mike Flynn Jr. for Mr. Gülen’s delivery. Mr. Gülen is accused of orchestrating the July 15th, 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, though U.S. authorities have not found Turkish evidence of Mr. Gülen’s involvement sufficient to justify extradition.

The U.S. Department of State eased visa restrictions on Turks on November 6th ahead of Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s visit. Meanwhile, Mr. Yıldırım and his two sons were named in the Paradise Papers for investments in Malta and a Bermuda-based law firm to shelter the family’s fortune.

On November 10th, authorities detained over 100 individuals across the country on suspicion of ties to ISIL in operations in Istanbul and Izmir, as well as the Black Sea region and Adana. Turkey’s National Security Council extended the country’s state of emergency in late September.

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