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Archive for the ‘Sacred Land of Hijaz’ Category

Investigators enter Saudi Consulate where writer vanished

October 15, 2018

ISTANBUL (AP) — A team of investigators entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Monday for what Turkish officials called a joint inspection of the building where Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared nearly two weeks ago.

The team arrived by unmarked police cars at the consulate and said nothing to journalists waiting outside as they entered the building. Police then pushed back journalists from the front of the consulate, where they’ve been stationed for days, setting up a new cordon to keep them away.

The makeup of the investigative team that entered the diplomatic compound was not immediately clear. International concern continues to grow over the writer’s Oct. 2 disappearance. American lawmakers have threatened tough punitive action against the Saudis, and Germany, France and Britain have jointly called for a “credible investigation” into Khashoggi’s disappearance.

A Foreign Ministry official had earlier said the team would visit the diplomatic post Monday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations. Officials in Saudi Arabia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Turkish officials have said they fear a Saudi hit team that flew into and out of Turkey on Oct. 2 killed and dismembered Khashoggi, who had written Washington Post columns critically of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The kingdom has called such allegations “baseless” but has not offered any evidence Khashoggi ever left the consulate.

Such a search would be an extraordinary development, as embassies and consulates under the Vienna Convention are technically foreign soil. Saudi Arabia may have agreed to the search in order to appease its Western allies and the international community.

However, it remained unclear what evidence, if any, would remain nearly two weeks after Khashoggi’s disappearance. As if to drive the point home, a cleaning crew with mops, trash bags and cartons of milk walked in past journalists waiting outside the consulate on Monday.

President Donald Trump has said Saudi Arabia could face “severe punishment” if it was proven it was involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance. Trump tweeted Monday that he had spoken with Saudi King Salman, “who denies any knowledge” of what happened to Khashoggi.

“He said that they are working closely with Turkey to find answer,” Trump wrote. “I am immediately sending our Secretary of State (Mike Pompeo) to meet with King!” On Sunday, Saudi Arabia warned that if it “receives any action, it will respond with greater action, and that the kingdom’s economy has an influential and vital role in the global economy.”

“The kingdom affirms its total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether by threatening to impose economic sanctions, using political pressures or repeating false accusations,” said the statement, carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

The statement did not elaborate. However, a column published in English a short time later by the general manager of the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya satellite news network suggested Saudi Arabia could use its oil production as a weapon. Benchmark Brent crude is trading at around $80 a barrel, and Trump has criticized OPEC and Saudi Arabia over rising prices.

Saudi media followed on from that statement in television broadcasts and newspaper front pages Monday. The Arabic-language daily Okaz wrote a headline on Monday in English warning: “Don’t Test Our Patience.” It showed a clenched fist made of a crowd of people in the country’s green color.

The Saudi Gazette trumpeted: “Enough Is Enough,” while the Arab News said: “Saudi Arabia ‘will not be bullied’.” The Arab News’ headline was above a front-page editorial by Dubai-based real-estate tycoon Khalaf al-Habtoor, calling on Gulf Arab nations to boycott international firms now backing out of a planned economic summit in Riyadh later this month.

“Together we must prove we will not be bullied or else, mark my words, once they have finished kicking the kingdom, we will be next in line,” al-Habtoor said. Already, international business leaders are pulling out of the kingdom’s upcoming investment forum, a high-profile event known as “Davos in the Desert,” though it has no association with the World Economic Forum. They include the CEO of Uber, a company in which Saudi Arabia has invested billions of dollars; billionaire Richard Branson; JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Jamie Dimon; and Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford.

News that the CEO of Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi, would pull out of the conference drew angry responses across the region. The foreign minister of the neighboring island kingdom of Bahrain, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, tweeted Sunday night that there should be a boycott of the ride-hailing app both there and in Saudi Arabia.

Late Sunday, Saudi King Salman spoke by telephone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about Khashoggi. Turkey said Erdogan “stressed the forming of a joint working group to probe the case.” Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, said King Salman thanked Erdogan “for welcoming the kingdom’s proposal” for forming the working group.

The king said Turkey and Saudi Arabia enjoy close relations and “that no one will get to undermine the strength of this relationship,” according to a statement on the state-run Saudi Press Agency. While Turkey and the kingdom differ on political issues, Saudi investments are a crucial lifeline for Ankara amid trouble with its national currency, the Turkish lira.

Prince Mohammed, King Salman’s son, has aggressively pitched the kingdom as a destination for foreign investment. But Khashoggi’s disappearance has led several business leaders and media outlets to back out of the upcoming investment conference in Riyadh, called the Future Investment Initiative.

The Saudi stock exchange, only months earlier viewed as a darling of frontier investors, plunged as much as 7 percent at one point Sunday before closing down over 4 percent. On Monday, Riyadh’s Tadawul exchange closed up 4 percent.

Concerns appeared to spread Monday to Japan’s SoftBank, which has invested tens of billions of dollars of Saudi government funds. SoftBank was down over 7 percent in trading on Tokyo’s stock exchange.

Khashoggi has written extensively for the Post about Saudi Arabia, criticizing its war in Yemen, its recent diplomatic spat with Canada and its arrest of women’s rights activists after the lifting of a ban on women driving. Those policies are all seen as initiatives of the crown prince.

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey, and Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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Saudi Arabia, Turkey have no US ambassadors amid crisis

October 13, 2018

WASHINGTON (AP) — The disappearance of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi after visiting a Saudi consulate in Turkey has thrown the large number of diplomatic vacancies under President Donald Trump into the spotlight — notably in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It’s a gap the administration says it has been trying to fix but with limited success.

Khashoggi’s case and the fact that there are no American ambassadors in either Ankara or Riyadh have prompted concerns about dozens of unfilled senior State Department positions almost two years into Trump’s presidency. And, those concerns have sparked an increasingly bitter battle with Congress over who is to blame.

Aside from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Trump has yet to nominate candidates for ambassadorial posts in 20 nations, including Australia, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, Pakistan, South Africa, Singapore and Sweden. At the same time, 46 ambassadorial nominees are still awaiting Senate confirmation, prompting angry complaints from the administration and pushback from Democratic lawmakers.

A number of ambassador positions to international organizations also remain unfilled as do 13 senior positions at the State Department headquarters, for which five have no nominee. It’s unclear if high-profile issues like Khashoggi’s disappearance suffer from neglect in the absence of an ambassador. Indeed, Turkey freed American pastor Andrew Brunson on Friday after repeated complaints and sanctions from Washington. But the management of day-to-day diplomatic relations can languish without a personal representative of the president present.

The difference between having an ambassador in country or having only a charge d’affaires running an embassy is a matter of degree but can be substantial, according to Ronald Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. Non-ambassadors can have trouble getting access to senior officials and may not be viewed as the legitimate voice of the president or his administration.

“It’s a lot harder when you’re not the presidential appointee and you don’t have Senate confirmation,” he said. “An ambassador is the personal representative of the president. A charge is the representative of the State Department.”

In addition to problems with access, some countries may resent not having an ambassador posted to their capital, Neumann said. “Countries may get grouchy without an ambassador and that may affect relations,” he said. “Without an ambassador, there is a greater chance of misunderstanding and greater chance you aren’t able to persuade them to do something we want.”

“There are real, direct impacts of not having these people confirmed,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this month, making the case for the Senate to act quickly. Those remarks set off a war of words with Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who was singled out by Pompeo for blame.

“I want every single American to know that what Sen. Menendez and members of the Senate are doing to hold back American diplomacy rests squarely on their shoulders,” Pompeo said. He later maintained that Senate Democrats are blocking more than a dozen nominees “because of politics” and are “putting our nation at risk.”

Menendez fired back, accusing Pompeo of politicizing the process and blaming confirmation delays on the unsuitability of candidates for certain posts and the Republican leadership for not calling votes on the others. He also slammed the administration for failing to nominate candidates for critical posts.

“We cannot confirm nominees who have not been nominated,” he noted wryly, adding that some nominees had been or are currently being blocked by Republicans. Two cases in point: The nominee for the top U.S. diplomat for Asia, a career foreign service officer, was forced to withdraw earlier this year after Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he would do everything in his power to stop the nomination. The career diplomat nominated to be ambassador to Colombia is being blocked by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.

Pompeo responded by again blaming Menendez for holding up more than 60 nominees and using them as a “political football.” ”We need our team on the field to conduct America’s foreign policy,” he said.

Perhaps as a result of the sparring, the Senate late Thursday did vote to confirm several ambassadorial nominees, including those to Bangladesh, Nicaragua, Suriname and Somalia.

Iran video threatens missile strikes on UAE, Saudi Arabia

September 25, 2018

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — An Iranian media outlet close to the country’s hard-line Revolutionary Guard published a video Tuesday threatening the capitals of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with missile attacks, further raising regional tensions after a weekend militant attack on a military parade in Iran.

The video tweeted and later deleted by the semi-official Fars news agency comes as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for the attack in the city of Ahvaz on Saturday, which killed at least 25 people and wounded over 60.

The threat amplifies the unease felt across the greater Persian Gulf, which is seeing Iran’s economy upended in the wake of America’s withdrawal from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers and Saudi and Emirati forces bogged down in their yearslong war in Yemen.

Meanwhile, Iranian officials on Tuesday identified the five men who carried out the parade attack, which authorities have blamed on Arab separatists. At least two of the men identified have appeared in a video distributed by the Islamic State group in its own claim of responsibility for the Ahvaz attack. This further complicates the process of determining who exactly was behind the assault.

The Fars video shows file footage of previous ballistic missile attacks launched by the Guard, then a graphic of a sniper rifle scope homing in on Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. The video also threatened Israel.

“The era of the hit-and-run has expired,” Khamenei’s voice is heard in the video, the segment taken from an April speech by the supreme leader. “A heavy punishment is underway.” Iran has fired its ballistic missiles twice in anger in recent years. In 2017, responding to an Islamic State attack on Tehran, the Guard fired missiles striking targets in Syria. Then, earlier this month, it launched a strike on a meeting of Iranian Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq.

The Guard, a paramilitary force answerable only to Khamenei, has sole control over Iran’s ballistic missile program. Under Khamenei’s orders, Iran now limits its ballistic missiles to a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles), which gives Tehran the range to strike Israel, Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as regional American military bases.

Saturday’s attack targeted one of many parades in Iran marking the start of the country’s long 1980s war with Iraq, part of a commemoration known as “Sacred Defense Week.” Militants disguised as soldiers opened fire as rows of troops marched past officials in Ahvaz.

Arab separatists in the region claimed the attack and Iranian officials have blamed them for the assault. The separatists accuse Iran’s Persian-dominated government of discriminating against its ethnic Arab minority. Iran’s Khuzestan province, where Ahvaz is the provincial capital, also has seen recent protests over Iran’s nationwide drought, as well as economic protests.

IS also claimed Saturday’s attack, initially offering incorrect information about it and later publishing a video of three men it identified as the attackers. The men in the video, however, did not pledge allegiance or otherwise identify themselves as IS followers.

Iran’s Intelligence Ministry identified the attackers as Hassan Darvishi, Javad Sari, Ahmad Mansouri, Foad Mansouri and Ayad Mansouri. It said two of them were brothers and another was their cousin. Darvishi and Ayad Mansouri both appeared in the IS video. A third man in the video resembled either Ahmad or Foad Mansouri, but The Associated Press could not independently verify his identity.

Iranian officials have maintained that Arab separatists carried out the attack. A spokesman for an Ahvazi separatists group on Saturday also identified one of the attackers by name — Ahmad Mansouri — in an interview with AP reporters.

State TV reported late Monday that authorities have detained 22 suspects linked to the group behind the attack and confiscated ammunition and communication equipment. The Guard’s acting commander, Gen. Hossein Salami, vowed revenge Monday against the perpetrators and what he called the “triangle” of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States.

“You are responsible for these actions; you will face the repercussions,” the general said. “We warn all of those behind the story, we will take revenge.” Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, said Monday that the attack showed Iran has “a lot of enemies,” according to remarks posted on his website. He linked the attackers to the United States, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

“Definitely, we will harshly punish the operatives” behind the terror attack, he added.

Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

Saudi Arabia buys Iron Dome defense system from Israel

September 13, 2018

Saudi Arabia is reported to have purchased the Iron Dome missile defense system from Israel signaling a rapprochement between the two countries, according to several diplomatic sources quoted in Al-Khaleej Online.

Saudi Arabia not only wants political convergence with Israel, said the sources, but also seeks to reach a level where it publicly purchases heavy and developed weapons from Tel Aviv like the UAE does.

Israeli-Saudi relations are the best they have ever been. Chief of staff of the Israeli army, General Gadi Eisenkot, recently said in an interview with the British-based Saudi Elaph newspaper that Israel was prepared to share intelligence with the Saudi side in order to counter Iran’s influence.

Moreover, a former senior official in the Israeli army revealed that he had recently had two meetings with two prominent Saudi emirs, who confirmed that Israel was no longer an enemy of Saudi Arabia.

The sources confirmed that Saudi Arabia has recently convinced Israel through very strong mediation by the United States during secret tripartite meetings in Washington to sell it its advanced Iron Dome system.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180913-saudi-arabia-buys-iron-dome-defence-system-from-israel/.

Bin Salman threatens to target women and children in Yemen despite international criticism

August 27, 2018

Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Bin Salman has threatened to target women and children in Yemen with the Saudi-led Arab coalition despite international criticism, Al-Khaleej Online has reported.

According to an “informed source”, who asked not to be named, the Crown Prince issued his threat during a meeting with the coalition’s military commanders following the massacre in Hodeida earlier this month.

“Do not care about international criticism,” Bin Salman is alleged to have told his officers, a reference to the international condemnation of military operations against civilians in Yemen, particularly raids that kill women and children. “We want to leave a big impact on the consciousness of Yemeni generations. We want their children, women and even their men to shiver whenever the name of Saudi Arabia is mentioned.”

Bin Salman’s threats coincide with condemnation of the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s bombing of displaced civilians as they fled from the fighting in Hodeida province.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180827-bin-salman-threatens-to-target-women-and-children-in-yemen-despite-international-criticism/.

Saudi Arabia prepares for the annual Muslim hajj pilgrimage

August 18, 2018

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia is preparing to host the annual hajj pilgrimage beginning Sunday, as over 2 million Muslim faithful are ready to take part in the ultraconservative kingdom. The pilgrimage represents one of the five pillars of Islam and is required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life. In recent weeks, the faithful have arrived in Mecca from across the world, all chanting “Labayk Allahuma Labayk,” or “Here I am, God, answering your call. Here I am.”

The hajj offers pilgrims an opportunity to feel closer to God amid the Muslim world’s many challenges, including the threat of extremists in the Mideast after the Islamic State group was beaten back in Iraq and Syria and the plight of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority.

“My feeling is indescribable to perform the hajj,” said Imad Abdel-Raheem, an Egyptian pilgrim. “I also want to pray for all Muslim countries, for them to live free in all places, in Palestine and in Burma, in all places, in Afghanistan and in India.”

Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, the spokesman of the Saudi Interior Ministry, told journalists Saturday that over 2 million Muslims from abroad and inside the kingdom would be taking part in this year’s hajj.

Men attending the hajj dress in only terrycloth, seamless white garments meant to represent unity among Muslims and equality before God. Women wear loose clothing, cover their hair and forgo makeup and nail polish to achieve a state of humility and spiritual purity.

Since arriving, many have circled the cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca — Islam’s holiest site. The Kaaba represents the metaphorical house of God and the oneness of God in Islam. Observant Muslims around the world face toward the Kaaba during their five daily prayers.

Muslims believe the hajj retraces the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as those of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail — Abraham and Ishmael in the Bible. After prayers in Mecca, pilgrims will head to an area called Mount Arafat on Monday, where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon. From there, pilgrims will head to an area called Muzdalifa, picking up pebbles along the way for a symbolic stoning of the devil and a casting away of sins that takes place in the Mina valley for three days.

At the hajj’s end, male pilgrims will shave their hair and women will cut a lock of hair in a sign of renewal for completing the pilgrimage. Around the world, Muslims will mark the end of hajj with a celebration called Eid al-Adha. The holiday, remembering Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son, sees Muslims slaughter sheep and cattle, distributing the meat to the poor.

While a holy, once-in-a-lifetime experience for pilgrims, the hajj is by no means an easy journey. The temperature in Mecca and Mina will be around 42 degrees Celsius (107 degrees Fahrenheit). Pilgrims walk between 5 to 15 kilometers (3 to 9 miles) a day. Long lines and even longer waits can strain even the most patient as they weave through the throngs of people.

For Saudi Arabia, the hajj is the biggest logistical challenge the kingdom faces. Its ruling Al Saud family stakes its legitimacy in part on its management of the holiest sites in Islam. King Salman’s official title is the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” at Mecca and Medina. Other Saudi kings, and the Ottoman rulers of the Hijaz region before them, all have adopted the honorary title

The kingdom has spent billions of dollars of its vast oil revenues on security and safety measures, particularly in Mina, where some of the hajj’s deadliest incidents have occurred. The worst in recorded history took place only three years ago. On Sept. 24, 2015, a stampede and crush of pilgrims in Mina killed at least 2,426 people, according to an Associated Press count.

The official Saudi toll of 769 people killed and 934 injured has not changed since only two days afterward. The kingdom has never addressed the discrepancy, nor has it released any results of an investigation authorities promised to conduct over the disaster.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia also faces threats from al-Qaida militants and a local faction of the Islamic State group. Days earlier, the Interior Ministry acknowledged arresting a Saudi wearing an explosive vest in the kingdom’s central al-Qassim region who shot at security forces.

Politics often intrude into the holy pilgrimage. Saudi Arabia under King Salman and his son, the assertive 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have had strained ties with Iran, which boycotted the 2016 hajj They will be there this year, as will Qataris, whose small country on the Arabian Peninsula is being boycotted by Saudi Arabia and three other Arab nations.

Meanwhile, a Saudi-led war in Yemen against Shiite rebels drags on without an end in sight. The rebels have fired over 150 ballistic missiles on the kingdom during a conflict that has seen Saudi airstrikes hit markets and hospitals, killing civilians.

And perhaps most surprising, Canadians recently found themselves in the cross-hairs of Saudi anger over their diplomats tweeting their desire to see detained women’s rights activists released. Those on the hajj said they hoped for better relations across the Muslim world.

“I hope this year would be a good one for the Islamic nations,” said Ahmad Mohammad, an Egyptian pilgrim. “I hope the situation will be better, and I ask Allah to accept my pilgrimage.” That was a feeling shared by Jordanian pilgrim Jehad Hussein.

“I pray to Allah to grant victory to all of them, the people of Palestine, the people of Gaza, Syria and all Arab countries. Allah willing,” she said.

Canada’s PM: We will not apologize to Saudi Arabia

August 10, 2018

The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stressed, Wednesday, his country’s persistence in defending human rights, refusing to apologize to Saudi Arabia for Canada’s opposition to the detention of activists in Saudi prisons.

Trudeau said that although his country appreciates the “importance” of Saudi Arabia in the world, it would continue to speak “clearly and firmly about human rights issues in the country and abroad” whenever needed.

This came in a press statement by Trudeau during his participation in an event held in Montreal, the capital of the province of Quebec, east of the country.

Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Canada last Monday, and declared the ambassador of Canada in Riyadh “persona non grata,” against the backdrop of what Riyadh called “explicit and blatant interference in the country’s internal affairs.”

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has announced “the freezing of all new trade and investment dealings with Canada and retaining its right to take further action.”

This came following the Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s call on Riyadh to release the so-called “civil society activists” who were arrested in the Kingdom.

At the same time, Trudeau explained that the diplomatic talks with Riyadh would continue, “but without taking a single step back from the criticism of the Foreign Minister regarding the arrest of Saudi activists.”

The Prime Minister said that Freeland held extensive talks with her Saudi counterpart, Adel Al-Jubeir, on Tuesday, without giving further details.

Trudeau stressed that they were keen to communicate directly with the Saudi government in order to re-establish diplomatic relations between the two countries, and pointed out that “the issue of Canada’s apology for the criticism of human rights violations were not addressed during the talks.”

He added: “Canadians have always expected our government to speak firmly, decisively and politely about the need to respect human rights around the world.”

He went on: “We will continue to defend Canadian values and human rights. This is something that I will always do.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180810-canadas-pm-we-will-not-apologise-to-saudi-arabia/.

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