News Roundup: Saudi and Houthi forces agree withdrawal in Yemen’s Hodeidah, Kidnapped Tunisian workers freed in Libya, and Egypt’s parliament advances constitutional amendments
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced February 13th that he was dismissing national police chief Mustapha Lahbiri in favor of Abdelkader Kara Bouhadba, but did not specify the cause for Lahbiri’s firing. Bouteflika appointed Lahbiri chief of the national police in June 2018 after removing Lahbiri’s predecessor, Abdelghami Hamel, without explanation. Analysts suspect Lahbiri’s removal aims to ensure loyalty in top security posts in advance of his run for a 5th presidential term despite his advanced age. In the summer of 2018, the Bouteflika administration conducted a sweeping purge of the armed forces, removing high-ranking officials with little explanation in a move widely interpreted as a move to consolidate control and prepare for Bouteflika’s presidential run.
At a February 15th conference in Istanbul, FIFA president Gianni Infantino defended the football organization against major criticism of the organization over its perceived lack of action in the case of Hakim al-Araibi, a Bahrain-born footballer and dissident who fled to Australia in 2014. al-Araibi, who was allowed to return to Australia on February 12th, was arrested by Thai authorities at the request of the Bahraini government in November 2018 when he transited Bangkok on vacation. Infantino claimed that FIFA has been working on the case silently and from behind the scenes.
On February 14th, Egypt’s parliament approved a set of constitutional amendments that would allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to run for re-election twice more and extend his terms from four years to six. The amendments would allow al-Sisi to remain in office until 2034, and institutionalize the military’s already-pervasive control of Egyptian politics. The Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee now has 60 days to review the amendments, after which it will submit revisions to the Office of the President before a final referendum on the changes.
Separately, al-Sisi was elected the new head of the African Union for the 2019-2020 year on February 10th. In his new role, he is expected to focus the AU’s policy strategy on counter-terrorism initiatives (including monitoring and “mediation” tactics). The appointment of Al-Sisi comes less than five years after Egypt’s suspension from the AU.
On February 16th, unidentified attackers struck a military checkpoint in the northern Sinai peninsula, killing and wounding 15 soldiers. Just a few days prior, an explosion in Cairo left three civilians injured after police failed to defuse a homemade explosive device. The interior ministry blames the Muslim Brotherhood for the attempted bombing.
On February 17th, Iran summoned Pakistan’s ambassador to protest a suicide attack in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province. The February 13th attack on a Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) affiliated bus killed 27 and wounded another 20. Jaish al Adl, a Sunni group with ties to al-Qaeda operating out of Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack.
On February 18th, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Iran was ready to improve relations with its Gulf neighbors. The statement appears to constitute an overture to Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, but this latest attempt to mend Tehran’s rift with Riyadh remains unlikely to yield better results than abortive talks in 2013 and 2017.
Despite pressure from the Trump Administration, Iraq remains unwilling to participate in the sanctions regime against Iran. The US is attempting to dissuade Iraq from purchasing natural gas and electricity from Iran, but Baghdad relies heavily on Iran for energy and commercial trade. In November 2018, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said he expected trade with Iraq to rise to $20 billion annually in spite of renewed US sanctions.
On February 17th, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan officially united their border custom tariffs, and Baghdad removed domestic custom points around Kirkuk and Nineveh. The unified system is expected to help standardize the movement of trading goods.
Riots in the northern province of Ajloun left one dead and six injured on February 15th. Clashes erupted after a routine traffic stop when two men refused to show identification to security officers, according to a spokesman for the Public Security Directorate. They then contacted relatives, who blocked a highway, threw stones at passer-bys, and used automatic weapons to shoot at security vehicles. The rioters also set fire to a government vehicle and attacked the governor’s residence. Authorities used tear gas to disperse the crowd.
On February 14th, an explosion in Salt killed three members of the Public Security Directorate. An investigation is ongoing. In the Wadi al-Azraq area of Balqa, security forces located and safely detonated homemade explosives that police said were made of the same materials used in an August 2018 terror attack in Fuheis.
The Deputy Foreign Minister of Kuwait, Khaled al-Jarallah, said February 16th that the country will continue to uphold its firm stance against normalizing relations with Israel. al-Jarallah noted that such relations will continue to remain dormant until all parties can reach a fair settlement for the Palestinian territories, which he said must include the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
On February 15th, Prime Minister Hariri’s newly-formed cabinet won a vote of confidence by 111-6 in a critical and typically divisive vote after Parliament accepted the Cabinet’s policy statement. This vote was one of the last major obstacles keeping ministers from beginning their work on alleviating the degenerating socioeconomic situation in Lebanon.
Lebanon has launched a government initiative to combat violence against women and girls. It was developed by the Office of the Minister of the State of Women’s Affairs in partnership with the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia and the U.N. Population Fund. The strategy provides an action plan that lays out roles that various ministries will play in the reduction of violence against women in Lebanon, and proposes a committee of civil society representatives to monitor progress.
Protests outside of the Ministry of Education took place on February 11th over the death of George Zreik, a father who self-immolated in front of his daughter’s private school on February 8th after administrators refused to provide documents for her transfer to a public school over unpaid fees. The protest was organized by the Sabaa Party and the League of Parents’ Committees at Private Schools to call on the Ministry of Education to exercise more oversight on public and private school budgets.
On February 17th, the Tunisian Foreign Ministry confirmed the release of 14 Tunisian nationals who had been held hostage in Libya. The group were traveling to work at an oil refinery in western Libya on February 14th when they were kidnapped by a group of armed gunmen. The militants, who remain unidentified, demanded the release of a relative currently being held in a Tunisian prison on drug charges. Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemais Jhinaoui reportedly thanked his Libyan counterpart for the government’s role in the safe release of the hostages, although he did not confirm whether the Libyan prisoner was released.
A Libyan National Army (LNA) spokesman confirmed on February 11th that LNA forces had gained full control of El Sharara oil field, successfully withstanding the pressure of official forces dispatched earlier in the week by the UN-backed government in Tripoli. Libya’s state oil firm NOC commented on February 12 that it was not currently in communication with LNA forces, but hopes to resume oil production as soon as employee safety can be guaranteed. The NOC also called on the LNA to lift the no-fly zone imposed in southern Libya since February 7th, stating that workers must be free to travel to and from oil refineries throughout the region.
Authorities in the city of Sale arrested three men on February 11th on suspicion ties to the Islamic State (Daesh). Police have not revealed the identities of the suspects, and will charge them of terror financing and maintaining links to militants affiliated with Daesh.
Veteran Israeli politician and leader of the Ha-tnuah party Tzipi Livni announced her retirement from politics on February 18th. Livni, who has held the positions of Foreign Minister and Justice Minister, said she made the decision as she fears her presence on any joint center-left ticket in the upcoming Israeli elections could harm the popularity of the bloc due to her excessively dovish image. Her own Ha-tnuah party was at risk of failing to reach the 3.25% threshold of votes necessary to gain seats in the Knesset.
On February 17th, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu that he would be cancelling his planned trip to a summit in Israel this week following comments made by the Israeli PM about Polish collaboration with the Nazis during World War II.
On February 13th, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who expressed his support for an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. The meeting coincided with Saudi Arabia’s transfer of $60 million to fund the cash-strapped PA, which is struggling to meet its budget amidst shortfalls precipitated by cuts to US aid to the occupied Palestinian territories. Separately, Israeli authorities announced they would withhold $138 million in tax funds on February 18th, citing the PA’s policy of supporting the families of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. Palestinian representatives defended the policy as a necessary form of welfare for families deprived of their major breadwinner, while Israel contends that the policy encourages violence.
The Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) decided to revamp its management and investment strategy after several media outlets reported that Qatar might have unknowingly helped bail out Kushner’s 666 Fifth Avenue New York tower after Kushner’s controversial stance on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) diplomatic crisis. Qatar claims it had no knowledge of the bailout deal because it does not have direct control over decisions taken by Brookfield investment, the global property investment firm that diverted funds to the Kushner project. Qatar acquired a 9% stake in Brookfield in 2014. The incident is expected to incentivize the QIA to pursue ventures in which it enjoys a majority stake to preserve more control over spending decisions, though a QIA spokesperson denied any major strategic shifts.
On February 13th, the US House of Representatives voted to end American military assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The bill, which passed 248-177, now heads to the Senate, which approved a similar resolution in December to pull U.S. support from the Saudi-led coalition by a 56-41 vote. US President Donald Trump is expected to veto the measure if it reaches his desk, but the vote represents a significant symbolic rejection of Riyadh’s Yemen policy among Congressional representatives. Saudi Arabia relies on US tactical and intelligence support for its operations in Yemen, including critical support for its air force.
On February 17th Saudi Arabia signed $20 billion agreements to supply Pakistan with oil during Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the country. Bin Salman’s visit to Pakistan is the first stop of an Asian tour widely interpreted as an attempt to bolster ties and improve the kingdom’s image after a troubling year. Bin Salman is expected to visit India on February 19th.
Saudi state media reported on February 17th that Yemen’s Houthi rebels killed at least nine Saudi soldiers in a renewed military offensive on the Kingdom’s southern border region.
On February 15th, the head of US Central Command (CENTCOM), General Joseph Votel broke with the Trump administration on Syria policy, saying that the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are not capable of handling what remains in the fight against the Islamic State alone. US forces made substantial advances against Daesh territory on February 10th, and is expected to retake the group’s last pocket of territory imminently. Russia, Turkey, and Iran welcomed the US withdrawal during a meeting in Sochi on February 14th, calling it a positive step in efforts to restore stability in Syria. Turkey in particular hopes to fill the void left by US forces departing northern Syria, and has signaled its willingness to cooperate with Turkish security forces under a framework floated by Russia. Even so, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad insisted that only forces loyal to his regime can protect Syria in a speech on February 17th, reiterating his opposition to what he considers the illegal presence of foreign troops in former regime territory.
On February 13th, the government of Germany arrested two suspected former Syrian security operatives on allegations of crimes against humanity. These arrests were coordinated with the French government, which arrested another former Syrian secret service member on February 12th. The suspects are alleged to have been involved in torture in a Syrian prison.
On February 11th, authorities arrested and charged a man in Sfax on charges of engaging in homosexual activity after he reported to police that he had been robbed and raped by two men. He has since retracted his statement that he was raped, telling police he had consensual sex with his attackers and reported the incident as a rape after the two assaulted and robbed him. The defendant, 22-year-old A.F., was subjected to a forced anal examination despite a nominal ban on the practice, and was convicted of sodomy and filing a false rape report. Under Article 230 of Tunisia’s penal code, sodomy is punishable by up to three years in prison despite official pledges to decriminalize homosexuality.
On February 17th, security forces arrested 735 terror suspects accused of plotting a terror attack before the upcoming March 31st local elections. Pro-government media linked the detainees to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). On February 15th, police launched operations in seven provinces targeting politicians in the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a majority-Kurdish party. In Ankara, 10 HDP leaders were detained on charges of terrorist propaganda.
The Interior Ministry stated on February 16th that 3,673 people were detained across the country in February as part of a safety and peace operation. The announcement followed over 1,100 detention orders issued earlier in the week for individuals allegedly linked to the 2016 coup attempt.
Also on February 16th, Turkey said it will purchase S-400 missiles from Russia over a similar offer from the US, despite being told that the Russian weapons are incompatible with NATO’s air defense system.
United Arab Emirates
The UAE announced major weapons deals totaling $1.35 billion USD on February 17th, stating that Abu Dhabi aims to build a domestic defense system. The deals with nearly 18 domestic firms highlight UAE investment in developing its own defense manufacturing industry as part of a drive to diversify its economy away from oil ahead of Vision 2021.
The United Nations released a report on Feb 14th stating that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen remains the worst in the world with two thirds of the country in pre-famine and 80% of the population requiring some form of humanitarian assistance.
Houthi representatives and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen agreed on the first phase of troop withdrawal from the blockaded Hudaidah port on February 18th. Hodeidah is a crucial ingress point for aid deliveries to the embattled country, and the blockade of the city by the Saudi-led coalition places millions in danger of famine. The warring parties agreed a ceasefire at peace talks in Sweden in December 2018, but the agreement has been plagued by violations, including the killing of eight fishermen by Saudi air forces on February 13th, and slowed by disagreement over a prisoner swap.