News Roundup: Palestinian Authority calls Arab States to boycott the Warsaw Conference, Morocco halts involvement in Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and Turkey breaks silence over Uyghur oppression in China
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, visited Lebanon on February 8th to offer his support for the newly formed government. Lebanon formed a new government on January 31st after a nine-month deadlock that has exacerbated the country’s economic situation. Iran’s foreign minister offered military assistance to the U.S-backed Lebanese army and Hizbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah is working to facilitate this offer. This is only two days before the Warsaw meeting, a global meeting that will focus on how to thwart Iran’s perceived missile threat. On February 11th, Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil along with Iranian foreign minister announced that Lebanon would be boycotting the Warsaw Meeting. Lebanon is still in an ongoing war with Israel, thus Lebanese officials tend to avoid conferences that host Israeli officials. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to be in attendance.
On February 10th, Algeria’s president Abdel Aziz Bouteflika announced that he would pursue a fifth term in the upcoming presidential elections set to take place on April 18th. The announcement comes amid media speculation concerning Bouteflika’s declining health. Bouteflika has been in office since 1999 but rarely makes public appearances after suffering a stroke in 2013. He is expected to be successful in the upcoming elections as the Algerian opposition remains fragmented and its candidates pose no immediate threat to Bouteflika’s prospects.
The Speaker of Egypt’s House of Representatives, Ali Abdel-Al, announced that the vote on the constitutional amendments to increase the presidential term limit would be held on Wednesday, February 13th rather than the initial February 17th date. If the parliament approves the amendments in principle, the 26-page report will then be referred to the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee which will then have 60 days to produce the final text of the amendments.
On February 4th, a committee headed by the Minister of Social Solidarity, Ghada Waly, drafted amendments to the 2017 NGO Law. The amendments are expected to eliminate the power of administrative authorities from suspending NGOs as it was considered unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court on February 2nd. Additionally, the amendments will require the government to approve foreign funding within 30 days of the submitted request and will reduce establishment fees for foreign NGOs.
On February 7th, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and the Secretary General of the Tunisian General Labor Union signed an agreement to increase wages for public employees. This increase will impact 670,000 Tunisians currently employed by the government and the increase will range between 135 to 180 dinars. The agreement states that this will be allocated in three installments in March, July, and January 2020. Although Tunisia is under immense pressure from the international community to reduce spending and cut public wages, the government enacted the increase to avoid civil unrest.
On February 6th, Slim Riahi, the secretary general of Nidaa Tounes was sentenced to five years in prison for check fraud after he wrote a 300,000 dinar check that bounced. He is currently in the United Arab Emirates on an alleged “business trip” so the sentence was determined in absentia. This is not the first time Riahi has run into legal trouble; in 2017 his assets were frozen due to allegations of money laundering.
On February 7th, a Moroccan government official announced that Morocco was halting its involvement in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The official stated that Morocco was no longer attending the coalition meetings and later Morocco recalled its ambassador in Saudi Arabia. Tensions between the two countries have increased in light of international concerns over Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen. Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita appeared in an interview with Al-Jazeera where he implied that Morocco had several reservations concerning the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s tour of Arab countries during the controversy surrounding the Jamal Khashoggi case. Additionally, the Moroccan King did not host the Bin Salman due to scheduling conflicts. Shortly after the Bourita interview aired, Al-Arabiya released a documentary about the disputes in the Western Sahara implying that Morocco did in fact invade it after the Spanish colonizers left. The Gulf has traditionally supported Morocco’s claims to the Western Sahara, so the documentary appeared to be a jab at the North African Kingdom.
Iraqi President Barhim Salah rejected a plan by Donald Trump, which proposed to use US bases in Iraq to monitor Iran. The US plans to keep troops in Baghdad, however, at the request of Iraq’s government.
On February 7th, Major General Jabbar Yawar, secretary-general of Kurdistan’s Peshmerga Ministry, voiced concern over the US’s plans to withdraw from Syria. According to the Peshmerga Ministry, there are still a significant number of ISIS fighters in both Iraq and Syria.
On February 11, Iranians took to the streets in droves to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution. President Rouhani held a speech in front of tens of thousands of supporters in Tehran’s Azadi square, as he vowed to defy US pressures and sanctions. Since the fall of the Shah in 1979, the Iranian government has seen it as essential to display grassroots support for the Islamic Republic.
Lynton Corsby, Australian political strategist for right wing parties, is allegedly working with self-proclaimed Qatari opposition leader Khaled al-Hail to cancel Qatar’s 2022 World Cup winning bid according to a leaked plan published by the Guardian. Al-Hail fled Qatar after asserting he had been tortured and detained. The plan, according to the report written last April, is to have the 2022 World Cup bidding process restarted and awarded to another country. In exchange for $7 million, Corsby’s firm, CTF Partners would lobby politicians, journalists and academics in different countries against Qatar through fake grassroots media campaigns, anti-Qatar talks, and conferences around the world. Corsby’s lawyers denied that any part of the plan was implemented and claimed that the firm only provided minimal PR guidance to Al-Hail last July during the visit of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad to London.
A report in the New York Times on February 7th stated that the National Security Agency and other American intelligence agencies uncovered an intercepted conversation in which Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told a top aide in a conversation in 2017 that he would use “a bullet” on Jamal Khashoggi, if Mr. Khashoggi did not return to the kingdom and end his criticism of the Saudi government. A bipartisan group of US senators introduced legislation February 8th that would bar certain arms sales to Riyadh in response to the Khashoggi murder and Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen. This coincided with President Trump failing to meet the congressional deadline originating from the Global Magnitsky Act, which gave the president 120 days to determine whether the U.S. intended to impose sanctions on any person or persons deemed responsible for violating the rights of any individual exercising their right to freedom of speech and expression.
In spite of the controversy surrounding the Kingdom and its leadership, Saudi Arabia is moving forward with its plans to open the country up to tourism. On February 10th officials celebrated the launch of a mega tourism project in the historically rich area of al-Ula.
In response to reports of the death of well-known Uyghur musician Abdurehim Heyit, imprisoned in China for his music, Turkey broke the relative silence of many Muslim-majority countries on China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority. A statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized China’s “reintroduction of internment camps in the [twenty-first] century and the policy of systemic assimilation against the Uighur Turks[.]” Heyit’s death was contested by China, which in response to Turkey’s statements published a video purporting to show him alive.
As the Turkish government has voiced support for Venezuelan President Maduro over the past weeks, Reuters reported that Venezuela’s central bank has been shipping gold to Turkey—to the tune of $900 million in 2018. The Reuters report added that Turkish products, such as powdered milk and pasta, are “staples in Maduro’s subsidized food program.”
On February 11, Ankara and Istanbul municipalities began to sell fruits and vegetables directly to consumers, in response to rising concerns over high food inflation. The prices of staples such as eggplants and cucumbers are reported to have risen 81% and 53%, respectively; president Erdoğan has described the inflation as “food terrorism.” Also on February 11, Erdoğan said that opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) 28% share in Turkey’s largest bank, İş Bankası, would be transferred to the Treasury “sooner or later.“
The Palestinian Authority is calling on Arab countries to boycott the upcoming Warsaw Meeting claiming that is nothing more than an American-Israeli scheme to completely erase the Palestinian cause. The meeting in Poland is meant to cover topics on peace and security in the Middle East and North Africa. Saeb Erekat the PLO’s Secretary General that Palestinians will not be attending the meeting and have not authorized anyone to speak on their behalf. So far, only Lebanon has stated that it will be boycotting the conference.
On February 11th, Benjamin Netanyahu stated in a press conference that he would not be forming a government with his opponent and former army chief, Benny Gantz. Naftali Bennett, the current Education Minister and head of the newly formulated Hayamin Hehadash (the New Right) party had originally believed Netanyahu would form an alliance with Gantz and adamantly claims that he, himself will never form a coalition with Gantz. Gantz has been trying to situate himself as a centrist leading up to the elections and while he has proven to be successful among voters, he has received criticism from politicians on both the left and the right.
Sources within Libya’s internationally recognized Tripoli-based government confirmed on February 10th that their forces had reached the El Sharara oil field. El Sharara, the state’s largest oil field, has been closed since it was seized by tribesmen and protesters in December 2018, and has now become a battleground between the official government and rival Eastern government, led by Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA). An LNA spokesman announced on February 6th that they had seized the oil field from local forces, although civilian reports have suggested that only one pumping substation is actually under LNA control. The LNA’s offensive in El Sharara is the latest in their campaign to take control of the state’s neglected south. Official government forces were dispatched to El Sharara after the LNA banned all flights in Southern Libya without its authorization on February 8th, which led to the interception of a civilian flight on February 10th. The plane was eventually searched and allowed to land in Tripoli, amid protests from official government leaders.
Jordan has launched a National Action Plan for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. Some of the major priorities addressed in the National Action Plan include peace operations, women and girl refugees in Jordan, security sector reform, building a culture of equality, and reducing gender-based violence. The plan was also one of the first of its type to address women’s role in countering violent extremism.
On Tuesday, February 5th, Jordan hosted another round of UN brokered talks between Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and the Houthis regarding a prisoner swap of thousands of detainees on both sides.
Hakeem al-Araibi, former Bahraini soccer player who was detained on arrival by Thai authorities last November and faced extradition to Bahrain has been released after a court dropped his case on February 11th. Al-Araibi has Australian refugee status and feared for his life in Bahrain. Bahrain has sentenced him in absentia to 10 years in prison over vandalism allegations which he strongly denies.
Talks between Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government could drag on for months due to disagreement on prisoner swap name lists from both warring parties. These talks are being held in Amman, Jordan as part of confidence building measure of the United Nations supported peace talks.
Houthi rebels refused to give permission to United Nation officials to access the Red Sea Mills where the World Food Program is storing wheat grains that could feed 3.7 Million Yemenis. If the grains are not distributed soon, they could get spoiled and will have to be discarded. At least 10 million Yemenis are on the verge of famine.