Omar Ahmed – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Thu, 16 Sep 2021 04:40:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Does the end of Bromance between Saudi’s Bin Salman and UAE’s Bin Zayed mean Breakup of OPEC? Fri, 09 Jul 2021 04:02:49 +0000 ( Middle East Monitor ) – The disagreement between the UAE and Saudi Arabia over a proposed deal by OPEC+ to increase oil production is the latest sign that the close relations between the two Gulf states, and in particular those of their respective de facto rulers, are turning into a bitter rivalry.

The Saudi-led cartel was forced to postpone the planned output increases on Monday for the third time as the UAE, despite agreeing in principle to the increase, demanded a higher baseline believing it to be “outdated”. The UAE’s oil production is anticipated to rise as a result.

On Friday, the 23-member bloc voted in favour of increasing output by 400,000 barrels a day from next month until the end of the year, “adding another 2 million barrels a day of production by the end of the year.” The impasse sent US benchmark oil prices to a six-year high at the start of the week before taking a fall, linked to the market’s concerns that the UAE would unilaterally add barrels, forcing other OPEC members to follow suit and increase supplies, said the director of energy futures at Mizuho, Bob Yawger.

However, the OPEC stand-off represents just one example of the growing rift between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, whose Crown Princes, Mohammed Bin Salman and Mohamed Bin Zayed respectively, were once lauded for their “bromance”. This is said to have blossomed during a desert camping trip in 2015 and a mutual love of falconry. The Wall Street Journal called this the “turning point in the burgeoning friendship” two years later, and compared it to a presidential golfing vacation.

Further camping trips are said to have followed, along with at least one excursion to the Seychelles involving luxury yachts. “Bin Zayed has been cultivating Bin Salman now for half a decade,” commented Ahmed Gatnash, co-founder of the Kawaakibi Foundation.

The bond between the two princes has been crucial in Riyadh’s noticeable foreign policy shift. The Kingdom has aligned itself with its smaller, liberal neighbour and emulated Abu Dhabi’s aggressive stance towards Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood at home and abroad.

The connection between Bin Salman and Bin Zayed has been described as one between a mentee and mentor, with the wily Emirati taking the younger, inexperienced Saudi under his wing. While the disastrous 2015 war against Yemen is viewed widely as a Saudi-led coalition, the UAE under its crown prince’s influence has arguably been the driving force behind efforts to overthrow the Iranian-supported Houthi-led government in Sanaa and reinstate the internationally-recognised President-in-exile, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Both objectives remain elusive.

Bin Zayed took a leading role in the Gulf Crisis of 2017 by imposing a blockade on neighbouring Qatar over allegations of supporting terrorism and the state’s close ties with Iran. Earlier this year, the dispute came to an unremarkable end with a US- and Kuwaiti-brokered reconciliation. While the blockade was also a UAE initiative, the Saudis under Bin Salman chose to bring about an end to the stand-off, much to the apprehension of Abu Dhabi which had a longer-term strategic vision for it.

According to Dr Andreas Krieg, Assistant Professor at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, this trend whereby Bin Salman takes an increasingly assertive role has effectively meant that “the honeymoon period between the crown princes is certainly over.”

Crucially, much of the tension that has built up between the two has been due to Bin Zayed’s insistence on maintaining his own distinct foreign policy, which is something that Qatar was punished for. For example, while both states headed the Arab coalition in Yemen, the UAE sought to carve out its own influence by directly supporting the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), whose militia has been fighting against the pro-Hadi, Saudi-backed Islah forces. This conflict of interests has had a negative impact on the coalition’s efforts against the Houthis and caused several setbacks in the power-sharing deal known as the Riyadh Agreement. The STC presently dominates the port city of Aden, which is meant to be the interim capital of Hadi’s government, in addition to exercising considerable control on the island of Socotra, where the UAE is accused of violating Yemeni sovereignty.

Moreover, the UAE has maintained important and lucrative trading ties with Saudi’s regional arch-rival Iran, despite a presumed “cold war” between the two powers. According to Courtney Freer, an expert on the Gulf states and research fellow at the London School of Economics Middle East Centre, “Iran figures largely in Bin Salman’s thinking if only because his ambition to be the regional leader is thwarted by Iran. For Bin Zayed, Iran is not as big an issue.”

Whether it serves as a testing ground for the Saudis, or is another example of the UAE diversifying its security and economic interests, last year’s normalisation between the Emirates and Israel has shown, as with Abu Dhabi’s rejection of the OPEC+ proposal, that the UAE is determined to forge its own path by placing self-interest at the heart of its foreign policy decisions. The consequences of this threaten not only the OPEC bloc, but also the unity of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which in turn could present future opportunities for both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The bromance is not quite over, but the power couple are a long way away from those fraternal camping trips in the desert.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor or Informed Comment.

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What’s behind the dispute between Saudi Arabia and the UAE? | Inside Story

Riots or Uprising? If this Turmoil were in Iran, Trump would be Cheering on Arsonists and Dreaming of Regime Change Tue, 02 Jun 2020 04:03:50 +0000 (Middle East Monitor ) – The scenario is all too familiar: the almost casual murder in Minneapolis of an unarmed African American citizen — say his name: George Floyd — by police officers has sparked a wave of social unrest and protests across the country. Since Floyd’s killing on 25 May, we have seen what are arguably the worst “race riots” in a generation, following Los Angeles in 1992 and Detroit in 1967, for example. What makes the current protests different, though, is how rapidly they have spread across America helped in part, no doubt, by the availability and use of social media. The events are taking place with the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic in a country with the highest recorded number of cases and deaths.

Yet while numerous cities are burning, stores are being looted and violent clashes are occurring between citizens and law enforcement officers, the framing of these events as “riots” is hypocritical. Commentators and politicians may well be blinded by US exceptionalism as they rush to describe similar protests in the Middle East and Hong Kong, for example, as “uprisings” or “revolutions”, while home-grown unrest is labelled as anything but. With “riots” implying that blame lies with the citizens on the streets, the subtle distinctions are rarely explained.

Last year, I wrote about the Iranian protests in reaction to the sanction-hit government’s raising of subsidised fuel prices. Many Western officials and analysts at the time were salivating at the prospects of a popular uprising against the “Mullah regime”, as they have for the past 40 years. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the developments and said at the time, “The world is watching”, as did President Donald Trump. Indeed, in a supreme irony given the current situation in the US, Trump tweeted: “To the leaders of Iran – DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS. Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you, and the World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching. Turn your internet back on and let reporters roam free! Stop the killing of your great Iranian people!” He has, of course, threatened to turn “ominous weapons” and “vicious dogs” on US protesters. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

The world is now watching the US as Black Lives Matter protests spread to over 30 cities, including the capital. Secret Service agents clashed with protestors who knocked down security barricades outside the White House, where Trump and his family were taken to a secure bunker.

In Iran, as I pointed out last year, amidst the legitimate protests there were also arson attacks on state institutions, banks and other properties. Similar events have occurred in Iraq and Lebanon. As I said, “Reactions may differ, but no government would tolerate arson attacks on state institutions.” What’s more, in the aftermath of Iranians’ angry protests over the downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane in January, Ali Motahari MP said that such reactions were natural to a degree, but no government would accommodate protests with “subversive agendas.”

We are now witnessing such events in the US, with the National Guard fully mobilised in the State of Minnesota and Trump announcing that the left-wing anti-fascist movement Antifa will be designated as a “terrorist” organisation.

The Arab Spring, it is worth recalling, was ignited by the self-immolation of a Tunisian man in protest at the injustice of local police officers. The civil war in Syria was kick-started by the government’s brutal response to protests that followed the torturing of some young boys by police officers for spraying graffiti on some walls. George Floyd was killed because of a similarly minor infringement of the law. Indeed, there are numerous examples of black US citizens being shot and killed, or brutalised and abused for traffic offences and other incidents that would warrant a caution or fine in any other democracy.

While in places like Syria the divide is drawn along religious lines, in the US it is most definitely race which is the defining factor, along with the low social status that too many non-whites experience. Foreign states backed armed opposition groups and army defectors during the early days of the conflict in Syria. The US was one of a number of countries financing and arming terrorist groups in the country, often including foreign fighters not even from Syria.

As is usual when governments are faced with any kind of opposition, the spectre of “extremists” was invoked in Syria and now we are hearing the same mantra in the US. Attorney General William Barr has said that peaceful protests were “hijacked by violent radical elements”, while the Governor of Minnesota, Tim Walz, blamed the violence and criminal activity on “outsiders” from other states within America.

Although widespread defections from the security forces are very unlikely in the US, we have seen footage of at least one Sheriff, Chris Swanson from Flint, Michigan, siding with the protestors. There have also been satirical posts on a Twitter account of the “Free American Army”, reversing the role that the US usually plays when meddling in other countries’ affairs.

Another phenomenon in common with the dictatorial regimes of the Middle East and elsewhere are “regime loyalists” and paramilitaries who seek to crush popular dissent by any means. Many Trump supporters are gun-owners and activists. As recently as April, armed Trump supporters, some brandishing Confederate flags, staged protests of their own in response to social-distancing orders intended to curb the coronavirus outbreak. The state and federal responses were muted compared with those facing the Black Lives Matter protesters. In a worst-case scenario, the die is cast for conflict along racial lines, but there is hope: white citizens have also taken to the streets as the #ICantBreathe protests spread.

Nevertheless, the deliberate targeting of journalists in an effort to stifle the media has been seen in the US over the past week. Such crude attempts at press censorship are more associated with non-democracies, but one Denver-based journalist said that her cameraman was hit four times by police with paintballs and his camera was also hit, while a black CNN correspondent was arrested live on air while reporting, despite showing his press ID. Another reporter and her cameraman filming in Louisville were shot at by police using rubber bullets.

What is missing in America at the moment is the overseas funding and arming of protesters. The US has geography on its side, but is already awash with weapons and ammunition in any case. If terrorist groups do emerge as they did and continue to do so in Syria with the help of neighbouring, regional and international actors — including the US — would Washington have a moral leg to stand on?

While it may be argued that at least the US authorities are not bombing their own citizens that has actually happened. On 13 May 1985, Philadelphia police dropped a satchel bomb made up of FBI-supplied C-4 explosives and Tovex, on a largely African-American residential neighbourhood targeting the black liberation group MOVE. Eleven people were killed, including five children, and 61 homes were destroyed; hundreds were left homeless. The scant regard that too many people in power and in uniform have for the human rights of their fellow citizens in America mirrors in many respects the dehumanisation endured by people and states facing US and US-funded aggression and occupation.

At the time of writing, it is unclear where the Black Lives matter protests are going in the US, but doubts are already being expressed about whether George Floyd’s family and friends can expect justice for him any time soon. Not only did it take days for the police officer involved to be arrested and charged, but his colleagues who stood by and did nothing to stop him are also still at liberty.

Floyd’s murder could be an era-defining moment, with the Trump administration’s disastrous response to Covid-19, mass unemployment and a devastated economy all thrown into the mix. Far from “making America great again”, Trump is presiding over a country whose standing in the world has never been lower. China’s GDP is on course to overtake that of the US by the end of the decade and the declining power of the petro-dollar means that Americans face tough times ahead. They need to get a grip on the racism that blights their society before it is too late; it could be the factor that tips the balance.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor or Informed Comment.

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France 24 English: “One week after George Floyd’s death, the US awakens to cities in shambles”

Despite Trump support for Saudi Arabia, it is finally on the verge of defeat in Yemen Thu, 16 Apr 2020 04:02:34 +0000 By Omar Ahmed | –

( Middle East Monitor ) – Exactly five years ago, the US-backed, Saudi-led Arab coalition carried out its first air strikes on Yemen in an effort to reinstate the disgraced, exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. He is a statesman in name only who I have argued previously has neither power, authority nor legitimacy. The strikes targeted the Houthi movement, which is supported by the Yemeni armed forces, and the war, claimed the Saudis, was supposed to be over in a matter of weeks.

The war’s devastating effects have claimed over 112,000 lives and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The steadfast and resilient Yemeni people have prevented the coalition from toppling the Houthi-aligned government in the capital, Sanaa.

After five years, in fact, it is fair to say that the Saudis and their mercenaries are on the verge of defeat. The Yemeni armed forces and “popular committees” which include Houthi forces are continuing their advances with their sights set firmly on the stronghold of Marib and the pro-Hadi, Islah militia which makes up the coalition-backed force on the ground.

The province of Marib is currently facing onslaughts on several main fronts: from the Nahm district of Sanaa province to the west; much of the recently-liberated Al-Jawf in the north; and from Sirwah district – a part of Marib already under Houthi control — and from the south in the Baydah province. Saudi air strikes continue in support of its mercenary ground forces although, as the years of conflict have shown, they are strategically ineffective.

The terrain, internal divisions among the mercenary forces, local distrust of Hadi and the relative ease of establishing relations in tribal areas captured by the Houthis are also reasons for their advance. Developments in missile defence systems which, according to the Yemeni armed forces, have been effective against some Saudi air strikes, coupled with more pre-emptive cross-border operations targeting Saudi military and economic interests are likely to change the direction of the war.

READ: Houthis: More than 1,000 ballistic missiles targeted Saudi Arabia and UAE

The Saudis know that the stakes are high in Marib, and losing it would be the end of the Saudi ground war against the Houthi-Yemeni army forces, which is why there have been fierce counterattacks, especially in Al-Jawf, which until recently had been in the hands of pro-Hadi fighters for the past five years. The province not only shares a border with Saudi Arabia, but the region is also rich in natural resources. Decades of Saudi policy, though, have ensured that Yemen has remained poor and unable to exploit its own oil reserves fully.

It is clear that the so-called Riyadh Agreement has failed to prompt a concerted effort among Saudi and UAE proxies to set aside their political differences and refocus their attention on the Houthis in the north. Clashes between the Saudi-backed Islah militia forces and those aligned with the UAE-supported separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) are now routine, and have intensified in recent days in the southern port city of Aden.

The Sanaa-based government has made it clear that it will confront the coalition and its mercenaries in the country’s south and east. This not only implies fighting in the de-facto STC-held Aden, which was under the control of the Houthis back in 2015 before they were driven out, but also the oil-rich Shabwa province.

Having control of most of the population and the capital Sanaa; having a lot of the Yemeni military, including the Republican Guards, on their side; and with potential access and control of Yemen’s resources, the Houthi-aligned National Salvation Government (NSG) may finally get international recognition at the expense of the “legitimate” UN-recognised Yemeni government in exile under Hadi in Riyadh. At the moment, the NSG only has diplomatic relations with Iran and Syria.

READ: The fall of Hazm is the latest strategic blow for Saudi’s war in Yemen

Earlier this week, the Houthi-aligned Yemeni military spokesman, Brigadier General Yahya Saree, told a press conference that there have been more than 257,000 coalition air strikes over the past five years and warned that the sixth year “will be harsher and more painful”. In doing so he affirmed that Yemen is not in the same position militarily that it was at the start of the conflict.

In light of the Houthi forces’ strategic advances and superior political resolve, it is thus possible that we will see a political agreement to end the war, if not this year then next. In a promising sign, a leading member of the Supreme Political Council, Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, tweeted that he welcomed Saudi Arabia’s decision to support a ceasefire at the behest of the UN Secretary-General due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It remains to be seen, therefore, how much longer the Saudis will continue their disastrous and illegal intervention in Yemen, especially with the oil war and looming bankruptcy as oil prices fall, not to mention domestic political crises between de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and his rivals. The Saudis will soon find that they have neither the will nor the wealth to carry on.

That being said, the fall of Marib to the Yemeni military and its Houthi allies might be the catalyst to bring about an end to the war, but there are reports of thousands of civilians being displaced as a result of the current escalations. There is also the brutal siege of the port of Hudaydah by the coalition that needs to be addressed; the UAE occupation of Socotra; and — arguably the most worrying — the direct Saudi military presence in the eastern province of Al-Mahrah.

Earlier this month I speculated how the resistance movement in Al-Mahrah may soon turn into an armed struggle against a Saudi occupation. This materialised several days later, with the Southern National Salvation Council (SNSC) announcing a call for armed resistance against the foreign forces.

Following the coalition defeat, the future of the NSG and the alliance between the Houthi movement and Yemeni military will be tests of the stability and security of Yemen. Alliances tend only to serve a purpose against a common enemy. That’s an issue for the future, though; for now, that enemy is on the verge of defeat.

READ: Saudis torture and ‘disappear’ civilians in Yemen, claims HRW

Omar Ahmed has an MSc International Security and Global Governance from Birkbeck, University of London. He has travelled throughout the Middle East, including studying Arabic in Egypt as part of his undergraduate degree. His interests include the politics, history and religion of the MENA region.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor or Informed Comment.

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TRT World: “Ceasefire called in war-torn Yemen amid first COVID-19 case”

Are Syria’s Social Media Meme Wars the Face of Modern Warfare? Sat, 07 Mar 2020 05:02:15 +0000 ( Middle East Monitor) – Social media continues to influence our perception of conflicts around the world, though rapid updates around the clock on developments on the battlefield often hours before mainstream news picks it up, disseminating propaganda or spreading misinformation and fake news to the sharing of graphic content and the ugly brutality of the realities of war and its atrocities on combatants and civilians alike. However just as much as social media is shaping the way we follow war-related news, can it also serve as a tactical tool in contemporary warfare? One recent incident in Syria appears to suggest so.

The Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) operation codenamed “Dawn of Idlib 2” commenced in December in an effort to reclaim more state territory from various factions of the armed opposition holding onto their final Syrian province, Idlib. It followed on from the previous operation which ran over the summer of 2019 leading to an unsteady ceasefire, similarly to the one presently in place.

Supported by Russian airpower and Iranian and Hezbollah allied forces, the SAA has made rapid advances in reclaiming sovereign territory, despite increased Turkish military presence, offenses and support offered to foreign fighters who form the main forces fighting against Damascus.

In line with working towards the strategy of retaking the M5 and M4 highways, the SAA managed to reclaim the iconic town of Kafr Nabl, known as the “heart of the Syrian revolution” due to its residents making use of humour in their anti-government banners which naturally became viral online in the early years of the conflict in Syria.

On 25 February, Kafr Nabl fell back under government control having eluded it for eight years. Turkey and its allies have been seeking to push back SAA gains beyond the de-escalation zone boundaries and there have been ebbs and flows along east and southern Idlib. The strategic town of Saraqib , currently held by the SAA , has exchanged hands several times over the past month.

On Twitter, there are a plethora of accounts belonging to supporters on either side of the conflict in Syria including those of belligerents active on the ground, or those claiming to be in contact with them creating a (sometimes dubious) form of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) or what is called Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT). Following an intense Turkish-offensive over last weekend which resulted in significant loss in terms of manpower and equipment of the SAA, the government forces managed to reverse the losses made in the following days.

In what could arguably be seen as a form of using social media as a war tactic, on 3 March accounts affiliated or in support of the SAA began to proliferate word that the Syrian armed forces had withdrawn from the captured town of Kafr Nabl to shift attention on more strategically pressing fronts in Idlib or that the opposition had recaptured it. In fact, SAA units were lying in position to ambush the incoming jihadists who undoubtedly followed the “news” online. They were “annihilated”, with the SAA retaking two further towns.

Describing the events, Colonel W. Patrick Lang, a retired senior US Military Intelligence officer remarked: “The jihadi counteroffensive in southern Idlib was blunted in a unique way.”

“This ambush is something I would have advised them to do. I love the ambush.”

Other observers had reported that pro-opposition accounts had confirmed that “mujahideen” had indeed been ambushed having followed “regime media”. It is clear that followers and belligerents on both sides keep track of one another’s accounts as a form of intelligence. But it can sometimes be lethally deceptive.

It may not be the first time that such a tactic has been used, but it seems to be unprecedented in modern warfare.

War of memes on social media [Twitter]

However, the use of social media in contemporary warfare is certainly not new. The Vietnam War was known as “the first television war”, the Gulf War was known as the first war broadcast around the clock, the 2003 Iraq War became the first internet war, though social media was still in its infancy, information, propaganda and war footage was being shared and streamed on blogs and YouTube bypassing mainstream media coverage.

By the time of the emergence of Daesh in Iraq and Syria in 2014, the use of social media as a tool of warfare was already set on its way, hashtags were in use and Daesh members openly discussed tactics and shared information on Twitter for all to see. It was a direct result of these online tactics that Daesh was able to recruit some 30,000 fighters from more than 100 countries. Although strategically defeated, Daesh remains a security threat. Late last year there were reports the group had tried to infiltrate the video-sharing app Tik Tok in order to recruit and spread its ideas.

As with most online communities, there are inevitable memes mocking or satirising developments in the conflict in Syria. They may appear to be harmless fun but can also act as propaganda and psychological warfare. Such imagery can be used to discredit, “troll” and drive a wedge between the opposing party.

The unfortunate inevitability of war and conflict being an intrinsic part of human nature and the increasing democratisation of online access across the globe means social media will continue to play an ever-important role in not only shaping the way in which we all follow but also the way in which we conduct, warfare.

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