Algeria’s ruling coalition officially named current president Abdelaziz Bouteflika as its candidate for the upcoming April elections. Bouteflika, 81, has yet to confirm his intention to run. If successful, this would be Bouteflika’s fifth term as president. After suffering a stroke in 2013, Bouteflika has rarely been seen in public. Critics have alleged that his health concerns compromise his ability to perform his duties as president. In light of this, a secular opposition party declared its intention to boycott the elections in protest.
Hakeem Al Araibi, a jailed Bahraini footballer who fled his country and has refugee status in Australia, arrived in a Thai court on February 4th to fight an extradition request from Bahrain. Araibi, who fled Bahrain in 2014 before being granted permanent residence in Australia, was arrested while in Bangkok in November on an Interpol notice issued at Bahrain’s request. Al Araibi says he faces persecution and torture if he is sent back to Bahrain. Last week, a Thai prosecutor submitted the Bahraini extradition request to the court, saying it showed Araibi had committed criminal wrongdoing. Araibi was convicted of vandalizing a police station in Bahrain, charges he denies, and sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia.
Parliament will consider a proposal to amend the Egyptian constitution to extend presidential terms from four to six years in the coming weeks after several MPs submitted a motion detailing several proposed amendments on February 3rd. If passed, the change would allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to run for president two more times, surpassing his expected term end-date of 2022. Proponents of the change argue that extending term limits would help maintain stability and allow the president to accomplish more.
Egypt is set to host members from Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad in an effort negotiate peace talks between the groups and Israel. Egypt has been working to avert a violent escalation in Gaza after Israel blocked critical funding from reaching the occupied zone and imposed conditions on its delivery.
On January 31st, Germany, France and the United Kingdom announced the creation of a new financial mechanism that aims to facilitate trade with Iran. The three nations asked the remaining member states of the European Union to join them in the effort. This new transaction channel, known as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), seeks to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran. For now, INSTEX will only allow for trade in medicine, medical devices, and food. Senior Iranian officials were quick to show support for the measure, while the United States previously has signaled its opposition to the instrument.
U.S. President Trump said on February 3rd that he plans to keep American troops in Iraq to monitor and maintain pressure on neighboring Iran. Trump’s comments come as the U.S. has continued to negotiate with Iraq for weeks to allow hundreds of American commandos and support troops now operating in Syria to shift to bases in Iraq and fight ISIS from there. Iraqi President Barham Salih said in an interview on February 4th that the U.S. did not ask Iraq’s permission for its “watch Iran” mission, and said he would consider any U.S. military activity outside the scope of counterterrorism to be illegitimate.
After nine months of deadlock, Lebanon formed a new government on January 31st. Much of the standstill was attributed to disagreements over the cross-sectarian allocation of various ministries. Four women will take office, including Raya al-Hasan as the first woman to hold the position of interior ministry. Gebran Bassil, leader of the Hezbollah allied, Christian controlled Free Patriotic Movement, will remain as foreign minister, and Ali Hassan Khalil, of the Shia Amal, will continue as minister of finance. Prime Minister Saad Hariri ceded to Hezbollah’s demands by allowing one of the six Sunnis supported by Hezbollah to take a place in the cabinet. He also issued a statement of apology to the Lebanese people for the delayed formation of the government and its impact on the country’s economy.
On February 2nd, Jordan and Iraq reached an agreement on the trade of oil and exported goods between the two countries. Iraq will begin to deliver 10,000 barrels of Kirkuk oil daily to Jordan. Both sides also agreed to implement studies to establish an oil pipeline from Basra to Aqaba Port, and to move forward with a joint industrial zone, which will enable Iraqi industries to take part in free trade agreements that Jordan has established with other countries in the region.
In addition, King Abdullah met with Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan February 2nd. The leaders agreed to expand economic cooperation and discussed issues including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and finding a political solution to the crisis in Syria.
Violent clashes in southern Libya on February 1st left at least 14 dead and over sixty wounded, according to the World Health Organization. The deaths represent the first major resistance to Libyan National Army’s (LNA) offensive, which began about two weeks ago. The LNA, which is loyal to Khalifa Haftar, says its campaign is intended to combat Islamic militants and secure oil facilities in the south, which include El Sharara, Libya’s biggest oilfield. El Sharara has been closed since December following fighting.
Meanwhile, the UN is expected to delay a conference intended to prepare Libya for elections this year until there is more support from rival leaders. UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame aimed to hold the national conference in “the first weeks of 2019” with potential elections by June, but momentum for the plan was lost due to resistance from major factions in the country’s conflict.
On February 1st, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it had ended its assistance to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The deadline also marks the end of about $60 million in U.S. aid for the Palestinian security forces, who cooperate with Israeli forces on security in the West Bank. The halt was requested by the Palestinian Authority, and was linked to a January 31st deadline set by new U.S. legislation under which foreign aid recipients would be more exposed to anti-terrorism lawsuits. The Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act empowers Americans to sue foreign aid recipients in U.S. courts over alleged complicity in “acts of war.” The Palestinian Authority reportedly declined further U.S. funding over worries about potential legal exposure.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on February 3rd that Israel would begin a new phase of construction on a barrier along its border with Gaza.
On January 29th, the United Arab Emirates lost to Qatar 4-0 in a politically charged semifinal match during the AFC Asian Cup which was hosted by the UAE. Qatari fans were not allowed to attend the match in Abu Dhabi due to an embargo imposed on Qatar by several Arab states in June 2017. Political tensions were tangible as UAE fans started booing when Qatar’s national anthem was played, as well as throwing shoes and water bottles at the Qatari national team when they scored.
On January 30th, nearly 15 months after rounding up dozens of Saudi Arabia’s richest and most powerful people and imprisoning them in the Ritz-Carlton, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared the raid a success. An anti-corruption commission headed by the crown prince said a total of about $107 billion had been recovered from 87 people. Associates of many of those detained have said they were subjected to torture and physical abuse, then coerced into turning over large sums of money or other assets in exchange for their release.
The U.S. Senate voted on January 31st to back Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s challenge to President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, as well as Afghanistan. The chamber, in a 68-23 vote, advanced a nonbinding amendment that would be attached to a bill on broader U.S. policy in the Middle East. It warns that a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces could benefit ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
On February 3rd, President Donald Trump acknowledged the possibility that ISIS and other terror groups could regain their strength in Syria if he withdraws or reduces troops, and noted that he would send U.S. forces back if they did.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi welcomed Jordan’s King Abdullah II for a visit on February 4th. The two leaders discussed a number of regional issues, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. According to a government statement, the talks were held in preparation for the 30th Arab Summit, which will be held in Tunis in late March.
On February 30th, parliament elected Nabil Baffoun president of the Independent Higher Authority for Elections (ISIE). Baffoun’s election follows the January 27th founding of Tahya Tounes (“Long Live Tunisia”), a new political party led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and MPs dissatisfied with the policies of Nidaa Tounes. Nidaa Tounes is led by President Beji Caid Essebsi, and has struggled to deliver on lofty economic promises to voters.
After arriving in Istanbul last week to investigate the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Agnes Callamard concluded her work in the country, saying she was a “bit disappointed” with the information she gathered there. Media reported that Turkey would have Callamard listen to its audio recordings of Khashoggi’s death, but Saudi Arabia refused to allow her to access the consulate or speak with officials.
On February 2nd, Former pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) politicians Gültan Kışanak and Sebahat Tuncel were sentenced to 14- to 15-year prison terms for alleged membership in a terrorist organization and disseminating terrorist propaganda. Both were accused of making speeches supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, the EU, and the U.S. designate a terrorist organization. The HDP responded via Twitter, calling the decisions represented a political move to wipe out democratic politics in Turkey. On February 3rd, protesters in Istanbul rallied to support HDP deputy Leyla Güven and other hunger strikers, who are calling for the release of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Güven was jailed in January 2018 for criticism of Turkey’s military operations targeting Kurdish groups in northwest Syria and was ordered to be released in late January of this year.
Also on February 3rd, Turkey announced it would loan Iraq $5 billion for reconstruction, ahead of a planned visit by Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to Baghdad and Erbil.
United Arab Emirates
Pope Francis arrived in the United Arab Emirates for the first ever papal visit to the Arabian peninsula on February 4th. He was in Abu Dhabi by Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. The Pope will take part in an interfaith conference and hold Mass in which 120,000 people are expected to attend.
An investigation by Reuters found that a team of former U.S. government intelligence operatives working for the United Arab Emirates hacked into the iPhones of activists, diplomats, and rival foreign leaders with the help of a sophisticated spying tool called Karma. The cyber tool allowed the UAE to monitor hundreds of targets beginning in 2016.
On February 3rd, the warring parties in Yemen met on a UN ship in the Red Sea outside of Hodeidah port to discuss the stalled troop withdrawal from Hodeidah Port. The withdrawal was initially scheduled to take place on January 7th, but has been delayed due to disagreements between the two parties and myriad ceasefire violations. The meeting was the third time the UN-led Redeployment Coordination Committee convened since it was formed in December, bringing together the Houthis and the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized Yemeni government and UN mediators.