Weekly Roundup: Saudi Arabia changes narrative on Khashoggi murder, European leaders meet on Syria in Istanbul, and Libyan National Oil Company holds rare conference
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has held office since 1999, will seek reelection as the National Liberation Front candidate. If reelected, the 81-year-old Bouteflika will serve a fifth consecutive term. Bouteflika has been wheelchair-bound since suffering a stroke in 2013, and last publicly addressed the nation more than six years ago.
Security leaders gathered for the Manama Dialogue October 26th for discussions on global security challenges. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis spoke on the threat Iran poses to international security and said the October 2nd murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi undermines regional stability. By contrast, Bahrainin Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad spoke on the importance of shared initiatives to combat terror threats, praising Saudi Arabia as a guarantor of regional security.
Prime minister Mostafa Madbouly met with Chinese Vice President Wang Kishan on October 26th to discuss progress on Egyptian-Chinese bilateral cooperation initiatives. PM Madbouly was proud to announce that the progress achieved by the two countries reflected the goals of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership initially agreed upon by the country’s respective presidents last month. The meeting is indicative of Egypt’s strengthening ties with Asia, and part of Sisi’s plan to increase Chinese direct investment in its markets. Egypt also enjoys waxing ties with Russia. The two countries are expected to cooperate on counter-terrorism efforts and illegal migration in a departure from Russia’s characteristic approach to these issues.
On October 28th, an Aswan court postponed the trial of 32 Nubian activists until November 24th. The activists were among dozens arrested since September 2017 for organizing peaceful protests advocating for greater state recognition of Nubian people and a return to ancestral Nubian lands after decades of forced displacement. The case was delayed in March 2018 when judges recused themselves, forcing the selection of new jurists.
Iran’s newly appointed Finance Minister Farhad Dejpasand said October 28th that he was eying financial measures such as easing customs duties, increasing privatization and fighting corruption. The move is meant to brace Iran for renewed US sanctions expected November 4th. The comments came three days after Iran announced it aims to provide financial support to twenty million lower-income people, with extra relief to 11 million of the country’s poorest.
Also on October 28th, Iran sold crude oil through the newly established Iran Energy Exchange for the first time. At $4 below the initial asking price, private buyers bought 280,000 barrels of the 1 million barrels offered. Buyers will pay twenty percent of the total value of their purchases in Iranian rials, with the remaining payments made in foreign currencies after loading.
The efforts to combat sanctions coincide with new sanctions passed against Iran by the US and Gulf allies. On October 23rd, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and senior Quds Force officers, including IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani, as actors supporting terror groups. US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was also present for the announcement, and said the new designation was intended to disrupt training and material support for the Taliban. Despite the move, Mnuchin signaled October 25th that the Trump administration is considering easing pressure on European allies to enforce aggressive US sanction snapbacks in November.
Iraq’s newly elected Prime Minister Adel Abul-Mahdi was sworn in October 24th, but parliament approved only 14 of the 22 candidates for cabinet posts he put forward. Key positions such as Justice Minister, Interior Minister, and Defense Minister are among the seats that remain unfilled. Parliament accused the rejected candidates of corruption or ties to Saddam Hussein, and will reconvene November 6th to consider candidates for the remaining eight posts. Abdul-Mahdi met with those ministers that were approved on October 25th.
On October 25th, 37 middle school students and their chaperones were swept into a valley in a flash flood by the Dead Sea while on a school trip to the nearby Ma’in hot springs. 21 people, mostly schoolchildren, have been announced dead, and another 35 were injured in the flood. The Civil Defense Directorate continues to search for survivors in a large-scale operation involving 2,000 military personnel and civil state agencies. The Israeli Air Force’s search-and-rescue team assisted in the search efforts.
Lawmakers revived a debate over implementing the value-added tax (VAT) across all sectors of the population on October 28th. This decision sparked backlash, with some lawmakers arguing that the government should increase fees for expatriates who live in the state but not implement the tax for its own citizens. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have implemented the VAT in recent years.
Also on October 28th, security services announced the arrest of three Egyptian men for stealing and selling the data of over one million Kuwaiti citizens and foreigners living in the country. Kuwaiti security officers detained the suspect after posing as buyers for the data.
President Trump signed the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act of 2018 on October 25th, the anniversary of the 1983 US Marine barracks bombing in Beirut. The new legislation aims to reduce funding for Hezbollah. The White House released a statement stressing the impact the sanctions will have on Hezbollah agents and their associates, notably Iran.
On October 26th, a convoy of two hundred and fifty Syrians left Lebanese territory for Syria on buses provided by the Assad government’s Transportation Ministry. The group departed as part of a larger repatriation program between the Syrian and Lebanese governments that has transferred several hundred refugees to Syrian government territory in recent weeks. Those refugees remaining in Lebanon faced heavy rainfall and flooding, which killed six Syrians living in camps throughout the week.
Following nearly two weeks of armed clashes between the Fatah Movement and Hezbollah associated Ansar Allah, the two rivals reached an agreement for a cease-fire on October 28. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Islamic Jihad will monitor the cease-fire and assist in the distribution of food.
After delays due to a deadly attack on Libya’s national oil company in early September, the NOC successfully opened its “Benghazi Oil and Gas Exhibition and Forum” on October 24th. The conference was billed as an opportunity to build bridges between Libya’s two rival governments and their separate oil operations. 68 companies participated in the two-day event, which is the first major conference to be held in Benghazi since 2014.
Protests broke out October 25th at the southwestern oilfield of El Sharara, where employees are demanding better state services, including better access to water and bank liquidity, in the neglected southern region of Fezzan. Protestors have set a November 11th deadline for the state to meet their their demands. This is the latest in many disruptions to production in El Sharara, which has recently suffered raids, kidnappings, and blockages.
Moroccan youth took to the streets in celebration of Boujloud, or Moroccan Halloween, on October 28th in a festival repurposed to elevate disenfranchised or underrepresented voices. Organizers expressed hope that the event would highlight the diversity of Moroccan society and foster creative expression of cultural heritage.
Israeli soldiers killed three Palestinian boys along the southeastern Gazan border fence on October 28th. A Palestinian health ministry spokesperson identified the victims as Khaled Bassam Mahmoud Abu Saeed, 14; Abdul Hameed Mohammed Abdul Aziz Abu Zaher, 13; and Mohammed Ibrahim Abdullah al-Sutari, 13. Separately, Israeli soldiers killed one Palestinian person and wounded three others in an October 24th raid on a West Bank village. On October 25th, Israeli soldiers attacked alleged Hamas training and weapons storage facilities in retaliation for a projectile fired from Hamas territory towards Israel.
The United Nations General Assembly voted to elect Palestine as the chair of the group of 77 developing nations (G77) on October 16th. This decision will grant the Palestinian Authority responsibilities similar to those of member states. Palestinian representatives will be able to make statements, put forth proposals and amendments, give rights of reply, and raise points of order. There were 146 votes supporting the proposition, with only three countries (United States, Israel, and Australia) voting against it.
On October 25th, Saudi Arabia changed it’s story on Khashoggi’s death at the consulate, calling the killing a premeditated murder instead of attributing the journalist’s death to an accident or “rogue killers.” The Saudi prosecutor arrived in Istanbul on October 28th to discuss the Khashoggi case. Additionally, Khashoggi’s son Salah, a dual US and Saudi citizen, arrived in the US on Oct 26th after having been barred from leaving the Kingdom. The European Union is discussing potential ways to respond to the Saudi situation. Despite withdrawals of many executives over the Khashoggi incident, the Saudi Future Investment Fund took place as planned.
UN Syria Envoy Staffan De Mistura announced his intent to resign on October 17th. On October 27th, the leaders of Russia, Turkey, France, and Germany met in Istanbul to discuss constitutional reform and the Idlib Agreement. Merkel and Macron echoed Putin’s October 27th call for a constitutional committee meeting before the year’s end, and stressed the need to strictly enforce the Idlib deal despite flagrant ceasefire violations throughout the week. De Mistura visited Damascus October 24th to discuss the constitutional committee, but deplored Assad government obstruction after Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem told him that the UN should stay out of the constitutional process entirely.
On October 28th, the Turkish military struck targets affiliated with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in a northern Aleppo province town near the Euphrates River, across from which Turkish-backed forces are based.
Nine people were injured when a suicide bomber detonated explosives in central Tunis on October 29th. An Interior Ministry spokesman said the bomber was the only one killed, and that eight of the wounded were police officers.
The Machrou Tounes party issued a statement October 24th denying any consensus with other parties after the National Party called for centrists to organize and cooperate on October 21st. Machrou Tounes clarified that it is ready to participate in a government with rival parties, but disputed reports that it plans to merge with another political bloc following the October 14th merger between the National Political Union and Nidaa Tounes.
Istanbul’s third airport opened on October 29th, coinciding with Turkey’s Republic Day, this year the 95th anniversary of the country’s founding. Only shortly before the airport’s opening, a construction worker was killed in a fall, according to the worksite. Two more workers were injured in an electrical panel explosion on October 27th. The deaths follow strikes last month by construction workers protesting against irregular pay, subpar working conditions, and worker deaths. Many striking workers were arrested, and thirty workers and a union leader remain in jail awaiting criminal investigations.
Also on October 29th, Istanbul’s chief prosecutor met the Saudi prosecutor spearheading an investigation into Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death at Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate. On October 26th, Turkey requested the extradition of 18 Saudi suspects believed to be responsible for Khashoggi’s murder. Riyadh rejected the request.
A Saudi-led coalition airstrike on a fruit-and-vegetable market near the port of Hodeida killed at least 21 civilians on October 24th. The next day, Senator Bernie Sander demanded an end to U.S. support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen, capitalizing on renewed pressure in the wake of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. According to UN experts, half of the country’s population is on the brink of starvation after three years of civil war.