Weekly Roundup: US Senate advances vote on war in Yemen as belligerents prepare for peace talks, Israeli police charge Netanyahu and wife with corruption, and Astana talks fail to advance Syria constitutional convention plans


Algeria

President Bouteflika cancelled his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who visited Algiers December 2nd. A spokesperson said Bouteflika  Bouteflika, who is 81 years old, has held the presidency since 1999. Critics hope his deteriorating health may force him to step down before the next presidential election, in 2019.

 

Bahrain

On December 1st, Navy Admiral of the fifth fleet in Bahrain, Scott Stearney, was found dead in his residence in Bahrain. The Ministry of Interior in Bahrain is cooperating on the investigation  with the Naval Criminal Investigation according to a statement by Admiral John Richardson, the chief of naval operations. The same statement also noted that “no foul play was suspected”. The deputy commander of Fifth Fleet, Admiral Paul Schlise has assumed command.

Bahraini voters cast ballots December 1st in a parliamentary runoff election that the opposition al-Wefaq boycotted in protest. On December 2nd, Bahrain’s cabinet announced its resignation, as required by law, to make way for the new government.

 

Egypt

On November 29th, Italian authorities announced their investigation of seven Egyptian intelligence agents for their role in the 2016 murder of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni. Rome also announced its intention to suspend relations with Egypt until there is a breakthrough in the Regeni case, a largely symbolic move. Egyptian authorities said December 3rd that they will not charge police with the Regeni murder, denying the involvement of the security services in his killing.

 

Iran

On December 1st, the head of the Iran-South Korea chamber of commerce, Hossein Tanhayi, announced that Iran and South Korea have finalized a deal to trade oil for goods in order to bypass US sanctions targeting Iran. According to the plan, goods will be given to Iranian importers, with the goods’ price subtracted from the value of oil exported to South Korea. The importers will then pay the price of the goods to the Iranian government. South Korea is Iran’s third largest trading partner after China and the United Arab Emirates.

 

Iraq

As Iraq moves to select a new cabinet, Iraqi Parliament voting was delayed due to political disagreements. Populist Sairoon Coalition leader Muqtada al-Sadr spoke out strongly against the delay, charging the Iraqi government with corruption. Sadr’s Sairoon Coalition won the parliamentary elections in May, and he remains critical to Iraqi politics despite not holding office himself.

Deadly flooding continued in Iraq this week, forcing authorities in the province of Nineveh to declare a state of emergency. At least four people died in the latest round of floods.

 

Jordan

Approximately 300 people gathered in a demonstration on November 30th to protest the new IMF-backed tax bill that the parliament passed in November. Critics argue that this new bill only made cosmetic changes to the tax law that sparked outrage in June 2018 and led King Abdullah to replace then-Prime Minister Hani Mulki. The new bill contains steep tax hikes, particularly focusing on income tax, to decrease the public debt and receive funding from the IMF.

 

Lebanon

On December 1st, police raided the home of pro-Syrian former minister Wiam Wahhab, killing one of his bodyguards. The raid is an escalation of existing tension between Wahhab and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, triggered by a video of Wahhab making vulgar comments widely believed to refer to Harir’s father Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005.

Finance Ministry officials confronted a budget shortfall November 28th as Lebanon overran its allotted funds for the year. Prime Minister Hariri has struggled to form a government since parliamentary elections were held in May. Officials promised that Lebanon would continue to meet its debt servicing obligations through 2019 despite dramatically rising living costs, which were a major factor in straining the government’s budget.

The Lebanese Army detained nearly 400 Syrians in raids on refugee camps November 29th, mostly for holding expired identification documents. The raids came amidst the continuing process of repatriating Syrian refugees.

 

Libya

The US military announced on November 30th that an airstrike near Libya’s southwestern town of Al Uwaynat killed 11 suspected members of al-Qaeda. The attack, which was carried out by the US Africa Command (Africom), was the third against al-Qaeda militants since March. No civilians were killed or injured, according to an Africom statement.

On December 2nd, protestors stormed the headquarters of Libya’s internationally recognized government in Tripoli, demanding wages as well as the dismissal of the Minister for the Affairs of Families of Martyrs Missing Persons Naser Jibril. Many of the protestors were employed by foreign companies that left the country following Muammar Gaddafi’s 2011 ouster, and they claim not to have received salaries in the years since.

 

Palestine & Israel

On 2nd December, Israeli police recommended that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife Sara be indicted on bribery and corruption charges. The case, dubbed Case 4000, concerns a conflict of interest between the prime minister and Shaul Elovitch, former head of Israel’s largest telecommunications firm Bezeq, and popular news website Walla. According to investigators, the prime minister intervened with regulators to help Bezeq secure a one billion shekel (roughly USD 250 million) deal in exchange for favourable coverage from Walla about Netanyahu and his wife. Police said they have found evidence that Mr. Netanyahu blatantly intervened with Walla’s news coverage while prime minister between 2014 and 2017. This is the third time the Israeli police have recommended the PM be indicted. In Case 1000 and 2000, police recommended indictment for bribery and breach of trust. As in the previous cases, Netanyahu denied the charges.

On November 27th, Israel’s UN Envoy Danny Dannon said that the long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan of Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt could appear as early as the start of 2019. The Trump administration had hesitated over releasing the plan for fear that it might coincide with early Israeli elections in March or May next year. But now that elections in Israel look unlikely to come until the end of the four-year cycle in November of next year, the path has been cleared for the Trump administration to table its plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Expectations for the peace plan are low, especially due to Palestinian opposition to working with the Trump administration after last year’s move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

 

Qatar

Qatar’s newly appointed Energy Minister Saad Al-Kaabi announced on December 3rd that Qatar is to withdraw from the oil organization OPEC in January 2019. Qatar’s departure may not have a significant impact on the organization, but carries significant symbolic weight. Former Prime Minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani tweeted that the withdrawal from OPEC is a “wise decision” and on top of the organization becoming useless, it is being used for purposes that harm the country’s national interests.

 

Saudi Arabia

On November 30th and December 1st, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman attended the G20 Summit in Argentina. MbS was the only Arab leader in attendance at the summit, which marked crown prince’s first appearance on the international stage since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The prince’s interactions with world leaders at the summit were heavily scrutinized. On November 30th, a warm exchange between MbS and President Putin made headlines, as did an apparently a heated conversation between MbS and French President Macron.

On November 28th the US Senate voted 63-37 to advance Res SJ 54, which forces a vote to end US involvement in the war in Yemen. The move represents the most significant progress to date in the efforts to end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and underscored the deepening divisions in the US-Saudi relationship since the assassination of Khashoggi.

On December 2nd, MbS resumed his tour of Arab countries following the G20 summit when he traveled to Algeria and Mauritania. The crown prince is expected to visited Jordan next before returning to Saudi Arabia.

 

Syria

Following the 11th round of Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan on November 29th, outgoing UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said that there was no “tangible progress” to the formation of a constitutional committee. In a joint statement, Russia, Iran and Turkey reaffirmed their commitment to a political solution to the Syrian conflict and prioritized efforts to hold opposition groups and the government to the ceasefire deal in Idlib. The ceasefire was weakened by a chemical attack in Aleppo that injured over 100 and that the Syrian government blamed on rebel forces. Syrian opposition leader Nasr al-Hariri said Damascus’ accusations were an attempt to justify breaking the ceasefire and invading the country’s north.

On November 29, U.S. envoy for Syria engagement Amb. James Jeffrey testified in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), saying that said the Trump administration’s policy in Syria “is not regime change,” but an “irreversible political process which will change the nature and behavior of the Syrian regime.”

On November 30th, the Syrian regime claimed to have shot down an Israeli military plane and several missiles, alleging that Israel was conducting an airstrike on Syrian government and Iranian forces. The Israeli military refused to comment on the Syrian allegations, but denied a Russian statement corroborating Damascus’ allegations. Russia subsequently withdrew the statement.

On December 2nd, the US-led anti-ISIL coalition announced the killing of senior ISIL member Abu al-Umarayn, who was accused of killing a US citizen. A coalition spokesman said Abu al-Umarayn was killed in an airstrike, along with several other ISIL fighters.

 

Tunisia

Authorities announced November 29th that they had dismantled several terror cells, seizing weapons and explosives. The interior ministry said the operations had foiled attacks, but did not specify any suspected targets.

Saudi Arabia will lend $500 million to Tunisia and will finance two projects worth an additional $140 million. The revelation follows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s November 26th visit to Tunis, which drew hundreds of protesters chanting “No to the murder” and “Tunisia is not for sale.”

 

Turkey

At the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, President Erdoğan continued to press Saudi leaders on journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and call for an investigation, stating that his killing was a “world issue.” Speaking to Russian President Putin, Erdoğan also suggested the idea of another summit discussing a demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib.

On November 30th, an Ankara court dismissed a petition requesting the release of jailed former Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtaş, who faces up to 142 years in prison on charges of links to terrorism that he denies. The petition followed a European Court of Human Rights ruling that called for his release from pre-trial detention, which Turkey’s Foreign Minister said Turkey planned to challenge.

The rising price of onions, which local media reported increased by over 45% in November, highlighted Turkey’s economic struggles this week. Price increases prompted criticism, a flurry of onion jokes on social media, and police raids on onion distributors after the government said the price increases were due to onion stockpiling.

 

United Arab Emirates

The UAE celebrated its 47th National Day on December 3rd, forging ahead with a domestic policy promoting wisdom and perseverance. The UAE celebrated this year’s event with a fly-over of the four major carriers operated in the emirates including those of Emirates, Etihad, FlyDubai and Air Arabia.

 

Yemen

On December 2nd, fifty wounded Houthi rebels were transported on a UN plane to receive treatment in Oman, after receiving approval from the Saudi-led coalition. The move formed part of UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths’ efforts to encourage peace talks between warring parties. The belligerents are expected to send representatives for talks in Sweden next week. Iran voiced its support for the talks on December 3rd, endorsing an end to the conflict and calling for improved humanitarian aid deliveries. A previous round of peace negotiations collapsed in September when the Houthi delegation failed to arrive, a predicament for which Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi blamed the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade of the country.

 

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