A Young Prince is Re-imagining Saudi Arabia

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

A Young Prince is Reimagining Saudi Arabia

Two years into his campaign as change agent in this conservative oil kingdom, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to be gaining the confidence and political clout to push his agenda of economic and social reform.

The young prince outlined his plans in a nearly 90-minute conversation Tuesday night at his office here. Aides said it was his first lengthy on-the-record interview in months. He offered detailed explanations about foreign policy, plans to privatize oil giant Saudi Aramco, strategy for investment in domestic industry, and liberalization of the entertainment sector, despite opposition from some people.

Mohammed bin Salman said that the crucial requirement for reform is public willingness to change. “The most concerning thing is if the Saudi people are not convinced. If the Saudi people are convinced, the sky is the limit.” he said.

Change seems increasingly desired in this young, restless country.

A recent Saudi poll found that 85 percent of the public, if forced to choose, would support the government rather than other authorities, said Abdullah al-Hokail, the head of the government’s public opinion center.

He added that 77 percent of those surveyed supported the government’s “Vision 2030” reform plan, and that 82 percent favored entertainment performances at public gatherings. Though these aren’t independently verified numbers, they do indicate the direction of popular feeling, which Saudis say is matched by anecdotal evidence.

“MBS,” as the deputy crown prince is known, said that he was “very optimistic” about President Trump. He described Trump as “a president who will bring America back to the right track” after Barack Obama, whom Saudi officials mistrusted. “Trump has not yet completed 100 days, and he has restored all the alliances of the US with its conventional allies.”

A sign of the kingdom’s embrace of the Trump administration was the visit here this week by US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. While the Obama administration had criticized the Saudi war in Yemen, Mattis discussed the possibility of additional US support if the Houthis there don’t agree to a UN-brokered settlement.

(Writer’s note: I traveled to Saudi Arabia as part of the press corps accompanying Mattis.)

Mohammed bin Salman has been courting Russia, as well as the United States, and he offered an intriguing explanation of Saudi Arabia’s goal in this diplomacy.

“The main objective is not to have Russia place all its cards in the region behind Iran,” he said. To convince Russia that Riyadh is a better bet than Tehran, the Saudis have been “coordinating our oil policies recently” with Moscow, he said, which “could be the most important economic deal for Russia in modern times.”

There’s less apparent political tension than a year ago, when many analysts saw a rivalry between Mohammed bin Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is officially next in line for the throne.

The deputy crown prince appears to be firmly in control of Saudi military strategy, foreign policy and economic planning. He has gathered a team of technocrats who are much younger and more activist than the kingdom’s past leadership.

Reform plans appear to be moving ahead slowly but steadily. Mohammed bin Salman said that the budget deficit had been cut; non-oil revenue increased 46 percent from 2014 to 2016 and is forecast to grow another 12 percent this year. Unemployment and housing remain problems, he said, and improvement in those areas isn’t likely until between 2019 and 2021.

The biggest economic change is the plan to privatize about 5 percent of Saudi Aramco, which Mohammed bin Salman said will take place next year. This public offering would probably raise hundreds of billions of dollars and be the largest such sale in financial history. The exact size of the offering will depend on financial-market demand and the availability of good options for investing the proceeds, the prince told me.

The rationale for selling a share of the kingdom’s oil treasure is to raise money to diversify the economy away from reliance on energy. One priority is mining, which would tap an estimated $1.3 trillion in potential mineral wealth.

The Saudi official listed other investment targets: creating a domestic arms industry, reducing the $60 billion to $80 billion the kingdom spends annually to buy weapons abroad; producing automobiles in Saudi Arabia to replace the roughly $14 billion the government spends annually for imported vehicles; and creating domestic entertainment and tourism industries to capture some of the $22 billion that Saudis spend traveling overseas each year.

The entertainment industry is a proxy for the larger puzzle of how to unlock the Saudi economy. Changes have begun.

A Japanese orchestra performed here this month, before a mixed audience of families. A Comic Con took place in Jeddah recently, with audience dressing up as characters from the TV show “Supernatural” and other favorites. Comedy clubs feature sketch comedians (but no female stand-up comics, yet).

These options are a modest revolution for a Saudi Arabia where the main entertainment venues, until recently, were restaurants and shopping malls. The modern world, in all its raucousness, is coming, for better or worse.

King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh hosted a Monster Jam last month with souped-up trucks. There are plans for a Six Flags theme park south of Riyadh.

Maya al-Athel, one of the dozens of young people hatching plans at the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, said in an interview that she’d like to bring a Museum of Ice Cream, like one she found in New York, to the kingdom.

“We want to boost the culture of entertainment,” said Ahmed al-Khatib, a former investment banker who’s chairman of the entertainment authority. His target is to create six public entertainment options every weekend for Saudis. But the larger goal, he said, is “spreading happiness.”

The instigator of this attempt to reimagine the kingdom is the 31-year-old deputy crown prince. With his brash demeanor, he’s the opposite of the traditional Bedouin reserve of past Saudi leaders. Unlike so many Saudi princes, he wasn’t educated in the West, which may have preserved the raw combative energy that is part of his appeal for young Saudis.

The trick for Mohammed bin Salman is to maintain the alliance with the United States, without seeming to be America’s puppet. “We have been influenced by US a lot,” he said. “Not because anybody exerted pressure on us — if anyone puts pressure on us, we go the other way. But if you put a movie in the cinema and I watch it, I will be influenced.” Without this cultural nudge, he said, “we would have ended up like North Korea.” With the United States as a continuing ally, “undoubtedly, we’re going to merge more with the changes in the world.”

Mohammed bin Salman is careful when he talks about religious issues. So far, he has treated the religious authorities as allies against radicalism rather than cultural adversaries. He argues that extreme religious conservatism in Saudi Arabia is a relatively recent phenomenon, born in reaction to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Sunni radicals later that year as a reaction to the Shi’ite radicalism.

“I’m young. Seventy percent of our citizens are young,” the prince said. “We don’t want to waste our lives in this whirlpool that we were in the past 30 years. We want to end this epoch now. We want, as the Saudi people, to enjoy the coming days, and concentrate on developing our society and developing ourselves as individuals and families, while retaining our religion and customs. We will not continue to be in the post-’79 era,” he concluded. “That age is over.”

The Washington Post

Sadr Delegation Holds Talks with Kurdistan Leadership

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Middle East

Sadr Delegation Holds Talks with Kurdistan Leadership

Sadr

Headed by Ahmed al-Sadr, son of the movement’s leader Moqtada, the delegation was welcomed in Irbil by President Masoud al-Barzani.

The president’s media officer Kifah Mahmoud told Asharq Al-Awsat that the two sides discussed the political situation in Iraq and the ongoing war against ISIS in the city of Mosul.

They also tackled the post-ISIS phase, especially in Iraq, he revealed.

The Sadr delegation said that they are making preparations for the upcoming elections, he said.

Meanwhile, Kirkuk governor Najm Eddine Karim announced that Baghdad is not offering any aid to the city.

He told reporters during a celebration in honor of Kurdish journalism: “There are over half a million refugees in Kirkuk, including 30,000 families that have fled al-Huweija district.”

“This is posing a major burden on the city and the residents are sharing medicine, water, electricity and other services with these refugees. Their patience will not last long,” he warned.

He therefore demanded that Baghdad work on allowing the displaced to return to the liberated areas “as soon as possible.”

“The delay in liberating al-Huweija does not serve Kirkuk or Iraq,” Karim said.

He said that Baghdad’s aid to refugees in Kirkuk is so slim that it is bordering on nonexistent, urging the Iraqi government and Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to seriously address Kirkuk’s demands.

“Everyone in Baghdad and anywhere else should know that the residents of Kirkuk will not accept this attitude,” he warned.

Coexistence In The Middle-East (And Every Where else On Earth): Or Self Inflected Armageddon?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY  ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Coexistence Is the Last Chance to Avoid the Precipice

Last week, Egypt’s Coptic Christians cancelled Easter celebrations in mourning for those who were killed in two separate terrorist explosions targeting churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria.

In Iraq too, new maps are being drawn by sectarianism, while minorities shrink and ethno-religious fabric change under the violence perpetrated by Iran on one side and ISIS on another.

Likewise, we openly witness how shredded Syria has become, and under the eyes of the international community, it is well on the road of partition and population exchange– finally, the less said the better it is when the subject matter is ongoing events in occupied Palestinian territories.

Given this painful regional climate, the ongoing arguments about Lebanon’s future electoral system become a travesty, not much different from the ‘crowded’ field of Iran’s presidential elections where neither votes nor abundance of candidates mean a thing against what the Supreme Leader utters and the elitist Revolutionary Gaurd the (IRGC) dictates.

In Lebanon, the Middle East’s ‘democratic’ soft belly, the Lebanese’ daily bread and butter is endless and absurd arguments and counter-arguments about what the most appropriate electoral system should look like in upcoming parliamentary elections. This is not actually new. Moreover, true intentions behind what is going on have nothing to do with what is being said, whether the intention is escalation or hypocrisy.

The real problem is that the Lebanese are acutely divided on several basic issues regarding conditions of coexistence, political representation and even the meaning of democracy.

For a start, one must ask oneself whether the next elections – regardless of what system is adopted – are going to produce any change in the status quo? Is there any common Lebanese vision as to what the country’s identity is among the ostensible ‘allies’, let alone political adversaries and those dependent on foreign backing and sectarian hegemony?

Then, one may also ask – given defective mechanisms of governance – would ‘state institutions’ still be relevant and meaningful? Would any electoral law be effective in the light of accelerating disproportionate sectarian demographics, and the fact that one large religious sect enjoys a monopoly of military might outside the state’s umbrella, while still sharing what is underneath that umbrella?

The other day in his Easter sermon the Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Ra’i said “the (Lebanese) Christians are nobody’s bullied weaklings, but are rather indispensable (!)…”. This is tough talk indeed, but it too is not new.

From what is widely known about Cardinal Ra’i, even before assuming the Patriarchate, is that he is highly interested in politics, and that political views are as candid as they are decisive. On Syria, in particular, he has been among the first to warn the West against and dissuade its leaders from supporting the Syrian uprising; when he claimed during his visits – beginning with France – that any regime that may replace Bashar Al-Assad’s may be worse, and thus it would better to keep him in power.

The same path has been followed by current Lebanese president Michel Aoun, who was strongly backed by Hezbollah, to the extent that the latter forced a political vacuum on Lebanon lasting for over two years.

Of course, Hezbollah, in the meantime, had been imposing its hegemony over Lebanon, fighting for Al-Assad in Syria, and training the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen as part of Iran’s project of regional dominance. In promoting this ‘project’ globally, but particularly in the West, Iran has given it the themes of ‘fighting terrorism’ – meaning ‘Sunni Muslim terrorism’- and ‘protection of minorities’ within the framework of a tactical ‘coalition of the minorities’.

A few days ago Aoun said during an interview that “the aim behind what is taking place in the Orient is to empty it of Christians and partition the region into several states”. Again, this is not something new, as it used to be said on the murder and kidnapping road blocks during the dark days of the Lebanese War between 1975 and 1990. Those days the fears of uprooting were common and widespread; reaching the climax within the Christian community with rumors that the mission of American diplomat Dean Brown was to evacuate Lebanon’s Christians to Canada, and within the Druze community during ‘the Mountain War’ (1983-1984) that they would be expelled to southern Syria.

However, Aoun, as it seems, has not been quite aware of who was applying the final touches on population exchange, and drawing the map for the ‘future’ states he has been warning against. He has simply ignored the full picture, turning instead, to repeat old talk in order to justify temporary interests that are harmful if not fatal to minorities, rather than being beneficial and protective.

In this context, come the ‘try-to-be-smart’ attempts to impose a new electoral law in Lebanon as a means of blackmail, as if the country’s sectarian ‘tribal chieftains’ are naïve or debutants in the arena of sectarian politics. The latest has come from Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister and President Aoun’s son-in-law, when he expressed his “willingness to entertain the idea of a Senate, on the condition that it is headed by a Christian!”. This pre-condition was quickly rejected by the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri on the basis that the presidency of a Senate, as approved in “Taif Agreement” – which is now part of Lebanon’s Constitution – was allocated to the Druze; and thus, what Bassil had suggested was unconstitutional.

It is worth mentioning here that all suggestions regarding the future electoral law have ignored the issue of a Senate. It was has also been obvious that another item in the “Taif Agreement” was being intentionally ignored too, which is adopting ‘Administrative De-Centralization’.

However, if some Lebanese parties feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘De-Centralization’, more so as both Iraq and Syria seem to be on their way to actual partition, it is not possible anymore to separate Lebanon’s politics from its demographics.

The latter are now being affected by radical and everlasting demographic changes occurring across the country’s disintegrating eastern borders with Syria. These include what is being reported – without being refuted – about widespread settlement and naturalization activities in Damascus and its countryside. Furthermore, once the population exchange between Shi’ite ‘pockets’ of northern Syria and the Sunni majority population of the Barada River valley is completed, the new sectarian and demographic fabric of Damascus and its countryside would gain a strategic depth and merge with a similar fabric in eastern Lebanon.

This is a danger that Lebanese Christians, indeed, all Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis and all Arabs, must be aware of and sincere about. The cost of ignoring facts on the ground is tragic, as blood begets blood, exclusion justifies exclusion, and marginalization undermines coexistence.

Nation-building is impossible in the absence of a free will to live together. It is impossible in a climate of lies, while those who think they are smart gamble on shifting regional and global balances of power.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978.

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Saudi-Egyptian Summit in Riyadh to Discuss International, Regional Developments

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Saudi Arabia

Saudi-Egyptian Summit in Riyadh to Discuss International, Regional Developments

Egypt

Cairo – Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud will hold a summit with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Sunday in Riyadh.

The summit will address means of boosting strategic bilateral relations and consultations on various regional and international issues of common interest, especially combating terrorism.

The Egyptian Presidency issued a statement on Friday saying that the Egyptian President will arrive in Riyadh following a visit by the King during the sidelines of the 28th Arab Summit that was recently held in Jordan.

The statement said that the meeting comes in the framework of the two sides’ keenness on maintaining joint coordination, which contributes in enhancing the distinguished relations between Riyadh and Cairo in various fields, and discussing ways to deal with the challenges facing the Arab nation.

For his part, Egyptian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Nasser Hamdy told Asharq Al-Awsat that Sisi will arrive in Riyadh heading a high-ranking delegation of ministers, noting that the visit will comprise a Saudi-Egyptian summit.

Hamdy explained during the phone call with Asharq Al-Awsat that the visit will last two days to discuss political issues, terrorism and strategic files.

He said that a number of meetings between ministers of two countries will be held on the sidelines of the summit.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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U.S. Delivers 3 F-35 Fighter Jets To Israel

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Middle East

US Delivers 3 F-35 Fighter Jets to Israel

Tel Aviv- Three US F-35 stealth fighter planes are on their way from the United States to Israel to join two other warplanes which landed in the country last year, The Israeli air force has announced.

The five fighter jets are part of a deal to provide Israel with 50 jets by 2021. Israel is set to receive six to seven per year, until the first batch of 33 jets is delivered.

The five F-35 (known by its Hebrew name “Adir” or “Mighty) jets will participate for the first time in the Air Force Flyover during Independence Day.

Once the jets arrive in Israel, they will not leave except for combat missions.

The defense ministry says the Jewish State depends on such planes as a “deterrent force against a possible Iranian threat.”

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which costs 90 million dollars each and is capable of carrying 16 tons of missiles, is known for having a long flight range.

The F-35 was designed to strike ground targets and for air-to-air combat. It can also sneak undetected behind enemy radar.

Israel receives annually 3.8 billion dollars of US military assistance.

It is the first country after the US to have in its possession the F-35 stealth fighter planes.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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Iran’s Supreme ‘Fraud/Liar’ Will Never Allow Honest Elections Or Any Semblance Of Honesty Or Freedom!

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Iran Blocks Telegram

It is not strange that Iran is the only country in the Middle East that blocks services which are considered essential now like Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp as part of its continuous blackout policy. Tehran even disturbs the signal of several broadcast channels blocking citizens from any external media access.

Of all international social media applications available, Iranians are only left with the messaging application Telegram.

Telegram was formed by two Russian brothers and is headquartered in Germany. Almost 40 million Iranians use its voice messages, while 20 million use the application for texting. Being the only application available, this precious service is in high demand among Iranians who amount up to a quarter of Telegram’s users across the world.

But then the government quelled Iranians’ sole source of joy by blocking most of Telegram’s services, precisely the voice messages under the pretext of protecting national security.

The truth is that the regime blocked the application fearing it would affect the course of the upcoming elections; a course that had already been engineered.

Thousands of local candidates are “filtered” according to the criteria of the “democratic Iranian religious clerics”. In the end, only those whom they are satisfied with are allowed to run for elections. It is not a secret system and, eventually, no one is allowed to win the elections or even run for it if the Supreme Leader doesn’t agree.

The 2009 elections caused a great embarrassment both domestically and internationally because those who diverted from the leadership were figures licensed by the leaders of the regime to run for the elections.

The supreme leadership decided that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would become president and forged the results accordingly. This angered the candidates who had the best chance in winning and led to the famous “Green Movement” revolution, during which many died or were injured and arrested. The memory of the uprising has been haunting the authorities that believe this massive antagonist movement wouldn’t have been possible, especially in Tehran, hadn’t it been for Twitter and Facebook.

Indeed, back then al-Arabiya Channel relied almost completely on the videos, photos and information it received from those two platforms to cover the Iranian events after the authorities shut down its office and expelled its correspondent. The results were astounding! The regime was in confusion after images of the protests, clashes, and injuries were broadcast on international media outlets.

After reading a report published about a month ago in the Los Angeles Times about the influence of Telegram inside of Iran, I sensed the regime’s fear and anticipated its next move. The report mentioned that the security authorities had already begun warning users of political messages and forced anyone who owned a channel with over 5,000 subscribers to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Culture. The government then began a series of arrests for active users on the application.

Iran has now shut most of Telegram’s services hoping to contain the atmosphere of the parliamentary and presidential elections, which are mostly an encore of the same charade. Results can be partially or completely forged, even after the filtration and suspension done during the early stages of candidacy.

The regime is really concerned with controlling the reactions of the Iranian street to avoid the repetition of the Green Revolution.

No surprises on the level of the presidential elections are expected because the approved candidates are just copies of each other.

Even former President Ahmadinejad, despite his importance and history, was banned by the Supreme Leader from running for this election. Ahmadinejad shocked everyone and announced himself a candidate with a series of clarifications and apologetic statements saying he didn’t disobey the directives of the Supreme Leader. He pledged to withdraw from the elections after the first round and said he only participated to support his friend, a presidential candidate, and give him the media and public attention.

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya television. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine Al-Majalla. He is also a senior columnist in the daily newspapers Al-Madina and Al-Bilad. He has a US post-graduate degree in mass communications, and has been a guest on many TV current affairs programs. He is currently based in Dubai.

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Iran Widens It’s Influence In Bahrain In Attempt To Over through Their Goverment

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS)

Exiled cleric points to Iran’s widening influence in Bahrain

A still image taken from a video provided by Bahraini security officials shows Bahraini forces raiding a speedboat manned by Shi’ite militant fugitives it says were heading for Iran from Bahrain’s northeastern coast, February 9, 2017. Bahraini security officials/Handout via REUTERS
By Noah Browning and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin | MANAMA/DUBAI

At a wake in Iran’s holy city of Qom in February, a small group of Bahraini emigres and clerics mourned a young militant killed in a gun battle with Bahrain’s security forces.

The eulogy was delivered by an exiled Bahraini cleric who has called for the island’s Shi’ite Muslim majority to uproot the Sunni Al Khalifa monarchy in a holy war.

“The choice of resistance is widening and spreading on the ground,” said the cleric, Murtada al-Sanadi, who has been named by the United States as a “specially designated global terrorist” backed by Iran.

The ceremony shines a light on Iran’s widening influence over an armed fringe of the opposition in Bahrain, a country with a strategic value that belies its small size. It hosts a U.S. naval base and is a close ally of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival. A quickening tempo of mostly crude bombing and shooting attacks has accompanied a government crackdown, which culminated last year in the dissolution of the main opposition bloc.

The dead 29-year-old militant, Reda al-Ghasra, was shot and killed when security forces ambushed the speedboat carrying him and fellow fugitives at dawn on February 9. Ghasra had just a few weeks earlier escaped from a prison where he was serving a life sentence for terrorism.

Ghasra’s two brothers, both wanted on militant charges, also appeared at his wake in Qom. They played a recorded phone call of Reda saying his boat was on its way. The Bahraini government has asserted he was fleeing to Iran.

A confidential assessment by Bahrain security officials, reviewed by Reuters, names Sanadi as the leader of the Ashtar Brigades, a militant group that has carried out bombings and shootings directed at the kingdom’s police. In a statement online, the group hailed Ghasra as a “martyr commander” on his death.

According to the security assessment, Sanadi tasked Ghasra with forming militant cells with Iranian help.

Iran’s foreign ministry called Bahraini government accusations that Iran had any role in supporting Sanadi or the Ashtar Brigades in violent acts “baseless and fabricated.” Sanadi did not respond to requests for comment.

 

SUPREME LEADER

An uprising by some in Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority was quelled in 2011 with the help of a Saudi intervention.

Low-level protests followed. Clashes with police killed scores of activists and suspected militants, while Bahrain says 24 of its officers have been killed. Most clashes involve youths throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, but there has been a series of bombings in recent years. Opposition activists say these attacks show that a government crackdown is pushing Shi’ite youths into the arms of extremists.

An analysis of years of statements by Bahrain’s public prosecutor on Ashtar Brigades suspects suggests that the group operates in cells of fewer than 10 young men overseen by emigre militants like Sanadi based in Iran.

Recruited on religious pilgrimages or study trips to Iran, Bahrain’s prosecutor has said, the suspects were given weapons and explosives training in Iran or neighbouring Iraq. Iran denies the accusation.

Sanadi has powerful allies in Iran, where he has lived since he went into exile in 2012.

The official website of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei published an editorial by Sanadi in December accusing the U.S. of helping repress Shi’ite activism in Bahrain.

The U.S. State Department put Sanadi on its proscribed “terrorist” list on March 17. His name appears alongside leaders in al Qaeda and Islamic State. The U.S. cited Sanadi’s links to the Ashtar Brigades which, it said, “receives funding and support from the Government of Iran.”

Bahrain accuses Sanadi of having organized deadly attacks on police and smuggling arms from Iran.

According to Bahraini security dossiers on Ghasra and Sanadi reviewed by Reuters, Bahraini authorities consider the Ashtar Brigades to be the armed wing of Sanadi’s Islamic Wafa Movement, a political party that is banned in Bahrain.

Wafa and the Ashtar Brigades did not respond to requests for comment about their relationship. A Wafa party representative contacted by Reuters agreed to relay questions to Sanadi but did not ultimately reply.

Sanadi, the security documents say, receives funding from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and commissioned Ghasra to organize the military training of Bahraini militants in Iran by the IRGC and in Iraq by the Hezbollah Brigades militia.

The Ashtar Brigades announced an alliance with the Iran-backed Hezbollah Brigades via an online statement in February.

Sanadi spoke of his relationship with Ghasra in a communication to his followers on messaging app Telegram, dated in March and seen by Reuters. “I found him a lover of (Shi’ites), ready for the highest sacrifice and dedicated to the choice of resistance.”

Ghasra’s brother Yasser, speaking to Reuters from Iran, acknowledged that his brother Reda was a fighter but denied he received Iranian help. He declined to comment on links between his brother and Sanadi.

 

PROUD TO BE AN ENEMY

Speaking to Iranian state TV channel al-Alam in March Sanadi said: “I’m proud that America considers me an enemy.”

While not commenting directly on the state department accusations, he said the U.S. was using “so-called terrorism and … an imaginary danger they claim is coming from the Islamic Republic of Iran” to sell arms to Gulf allies and maintain influence.

Sanadi is the only official of his party to have eluded a long-term jail sentence, though he spent six months behind bars amid 2011 protests on rioting charges.

Six months later he departed legally for Iran.

Chronicling his experiences in a prison manifesto called “Pain and Hope” published in Iran last year, he said he suffered torture and watched fellow detainees killed at the hands of Jordanian and other foreign officers he scorns as “mercenaries.”

Bahraini security officials denied to Reuters that Sanadi suffered torture in custody. “There have been isolated abuses which have been investigated and addressed but this is not a systematic phenomenon,” said one official

In January, Sanadi called on Bahrain’s opposition to abandon mostly peaceful protests in public squares and to take up arms. “From today and hereafter, the period has changed. We in the Islamic Wafa Movement announce that we have begun a new phase as a tribute to the martyrs: one grip on the squares and one grip on the trigger!” he said in a speech in Qom.

Iran’s promotion of Sanadi appears to point to an endorsement of his agenda. Next to an Iranian flag and a banner reading “Death to the House of Saud,” referring to Saudi Arabia’s rulers, Sanadi delivered a sermon at Friday prayers in the country’s most prestigious mosque in Qom in September – an exceptional honor.

Sanadi also took to the main stage at a 2013 conference of Ahl al-Bayt, a Qom-based global fraternity of scholars founded by Khamenei in 1990. The meeting commemorated Bahrain’s uprising. “We are truly thankful to the Iranians, especially the leader of all Muslims, Ayatollah Khamenei,” Sanadi declared.

For his part, Iran’s Supreme Leader in a speech last summer warned that Bahrain government moves against top opposition figures was “removing an obstacle in front of the passionate, heroic Bahraini youth to fight against the ruling system.”

(edited by Janet McBride)

5 Things We’re About to Learn About Syria, Putin and Trump

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

5 Things We’re About to Learn About Syria, Putin and Trump

As a result of the US airstrikes against the Syrian regime forces last week, we are all about to learn a great deal. It is, surely, too soon to know precisely what impact the strikes ordered by President Donald Trump will have on the regime and where the Syrian civil war is heading. This is largely because key players including the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran and the Syrian opposition — not to mention the US — are still plotting their next moves.

But it seems certain that the events of the coming weeks will help answer five crucial questions about the civil war and the various actors that are now struggling to shape the outcome of that conflict.

First, how much of a gambler is Vladimir Putin? The Russian president has gained a reputation over the past three years as a shrewd risk-taker, able to outmaneuver his opponents with the well-timed coup de main.

Now, the Trump administration has demonstrated that it is willing to use force against Putin’s ally in Damascus, and that it is prepared to risk significantly higher tensions with Moscow. During the Barack Obama presidency, in other words, Putin confronted a US that was predictably — if perhaps understandably — prudent. Now he faces a president whose risk calculus is far harder to discern.

So how will Putin respond? Will he double down on support for Assad — perhaps by helping the Syrian regime harass or target US aircraft — in hopes that he can still out-escalate the Americans? Or will he seek to reduce tensions — perhaps by shoving Assad toward renewed negotiations with the opposition — in hopes of avoiding a sharper showdown with Washington?

Second, how crafty is Assad? The Syrian leader was once seen as the mild-mannered ophthalmologist and a would-be reformer; now he is perhaps the greatest butcher of the young 21st century. Yet brutality aside, Assad’s strategic acumen has so far remained difficult to discern. He has proven a far more skillful survivor than nearly anyone would have predicted in 2011, but his heavy-handedness also helped turn what were at first peaceful protests into a zero-sum civil war; and he has now managed, through ghastly chemical attacks, to turn the initially friendly Trump administration against his remaining in power. So is Assad a shrewd if morally abhorrent statesman, or simply another dictator who substitutes savagery for strategy?

What he does next will tell us a great deal. If Assad confines himself to a symbolic and non-escalatory response, if he desists from using chemical weapons, if he at least feigns a willingness to negotiate with the opposition, he may be able to escape the noose once again — and perhaps even return to the less spectacular forms of murder that the international community has proven willing to tolerate for more than six years. If, however, he lashes out, whether by continuing to use chemical weapons or by seeking to extract revenge on the US, he may succeed in eliciting the decisive international intervention the has so far managed to avoid.

The answers to these first two questions will also bear heavily on the answer to a third: How slippery is the slope? The Obama administration’s go-to argument against military intervention was always that the options that could be executed at a tolerable cost were unlikely to alter the trajectory of the civil war in any meaningful way — and that a first step was thus likely to lead inexorably to pressures to take a second step and then a third.

Proponents of military intervention, in contrast, argued that a bold but limited American stroke could dramatically shift the psychology of the conflict and put Assad and his patrons on the defensive. No second or third step would be necessary, this argument went, because the first step — if executed with sufficient skill and resolve — would be sufficient.

We are about to find out which thesis is correct. Perhaps even the very limited American intervention undertaken to date will force Russia to rethink its support for Assad, or force Assad to accept that he cannot use the only weapons — his chemical arsenal — that might allow him to reconquer remaining rebel-held territories. Perhaps Trump’s limited engagement will thereby create a new strategic equilibrium more favorable to an acceptable political settlement or some other tolerable outcome.

Alternatively, perhaps the psychological impact of the strikes will be equivalent to their military impact — which is to say, not much. Perhaps the strikes will even cause Russia and Iran to redouble their own efforts to checkmate US intervention. In that case, Trump would soon be confronted with the question of whether to double down or risk looking the paper tiger, and the slope may come to seem slippery indeed. The first scenario would make Obama’s caution from 2011 through 2016 look excessive in retrospect; the latter would make it seem fairly wise after all.

These questions, in turn, relate to a fourth key issue: Is a negotiated settlement even possible? Over the past six years, myriad diplomatic and political processes have been launched in hopes of bringing about an end to the civil war. Every single one has failed. In the weeks preceding Assad’s latest chemical weapons attack, it did seem that the conflict was perhaps reaching a new equilibrium, with the regime largely having consolidated control over the western spine of the country, and various opposition forces controlling their own chunks of territory in other areas. But with Assad still determined — at least rhetorically — to retake the entire country, and with many opposition groups still vehemently opposed to his remaining in power, the prospects for turning that equilibrium into a sustainable settlement remain uncertain at best.

The question now is whether the strategic shock of US strike can create a new diplomatic context in which the parties — particularly the regime — are more amenable to compromise. Or, alternatively, will the aims of Assad and the opposition — not to mention the outside parties supporting them — remain so divergent and intractable that no negotiated settlement is possible?

Finally, as these issues come into sharper focus, we will also learn more about a fifth crucial question: Is the Trump administration capable of effective strategy?

Crises can be clarifying moments. They can cast new light on the contours of an ongoing conflict; they can lay bare the characteristics — and competence — of the parties involved. The Syria crisis is the acid test of the Trump administration: We are about to find out whether the president and his advisers can make the grade. Given the outsized role that the US plays not just in Syria but around the world, this may well be the most important question that the Syria crisis will help us answer.

Bloomberg View

Russia (Putin) is Defending itself not Assad

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Russia is Defending itself not Assad

Yesterday, we discussed Bashar al-Assad’s trouble following the US strike and his denial of the town of Khan Shaykhoun chemical attack by saying it was 100% fabricated.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the reports indicating there is a chemical attack in the town are fake. Lavrov’s statements came during a press conference in Moscow on Friday held jointly with the Assad’ regime FM and the Iranian FM.

Are Lavrov and Assad on the same page? Is Lavrov defending Assad? They may share the same understanding but surely the motives are different. It seems that Lavrov is not defending Damascus’ criminal as much as he is protecting Russia which vowed in 2013 to remove Assad’s chemical arsenal after using it against Syrians.

Moscow took that pledge so that Assad can evade crossing the red lines set by former US President Barack Obama who was lenient towards Assad’s crime and cast a blind eye as part of a Russian debunked trick.

Things are different today, precisely after the US strike. Russia can no longer be the honest mediator after Assad used chemical weapons once again. One can’t rely on the credibility of Russia in Syria.

It is astounding that Russia, Iran and Assad’s regime, are demanding via Lavrov a thorough and honest investigation into the chemical attack in Idlib.

It is “astounding” because Russia itself had used the veto for the 8th time during the security council’s session on Wednesday to protect Assad from being condemned for using the toxic gas and thus pressuring Assad to cooperate with an international investigation into that incident!

It is also “astounding” since Assad himself had told AFP: “Syria would only allow an impartial investigation into the poison gas incident involving unbiased countries in order to make sure that they won’t use it for politicized purposes.”

He added that during the days that followed the attack, they discussed with Russia the possibility of an international investigation.

So, who should do such an investigation? How can it be international without being under the umbrella of an international organization of the UN? Is it that they want Russia to do the investigation and thus repeat the charade of Arab observers in Syria?

This is quite strange and it gives away the fact that Russia is not defending Assad as much as it is trying to protect its credibility. That is why Moscow hindered the UN project and demanded a new definition of “impartial” investigation and outside the UN monitoring.

Russia is doing this to protect its credibility that was tampered by Assad, which is his game. By game here we mean lying. But who believes Moscow now?

Is using chemical weapons any different that explosive barrels? Or killing Syrians with Russian-Iranian weapons?

Tariq Alhomayed

Tariq Alhomayed

Tariq Alhomayed is the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. Mr. Alhomyed has been a guest analyst and commentator on numerous news and current affair programs, and during his distinguished career has held numerous positions at Asharq Al-Awsat, amongst other newspapers. Notably, he was the first journalist to interview Osama Bin Ladin’s mother. Mr. Alhomayed holds a bachelor’s degree in media studies from King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. He is based in London.

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Unprecedented Verbal Attack between Palestinian Authority, Hamas

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT AND REUTERS)

Middle East

Unprecedented Verbal Attack between Palestinian Authority, Hamas

Palestine

Ramallah, Gaza – An unprecedented verbal attack has broken out between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on the eve of a planned meeting between the two sides in Gaza in order to put an end to the Palestinian division.

Hamas Movement said that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is leading a fourth aggression on Gaza on behalf of Israeli occupation authorities with his latest decisions on Gaza salary cuts.

Hamas Spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in a statement, on Saturday, that Abbas is responsible for Gaza siege and isolation as well as the power and water crises other than the lack of health services.

Barhoum also held Abbas responsible for denying workers of their basic rights and suspending allocations of martyrs, the wounded and other needy categories.

This language is different from that spoken by Hamas in the past few days as they welcomed the delegation from the central committee of Fatah movement that is supposed to arrive to Gaza any time before the end of April to hold talks with Hamas movement and other factions.

Notably, Fatah delegation carries with it a specific initiative from Abbas, which calls for dissolving Hamas’s committee it has established earlier to manage Gaza and then carrying out public elections, otherwise the alternative would be to enact more difficult measures against Gaza.

Hamas escalated its speech against President Abbas following the latter’s threats to take unprecedented measures in case Hamas refused the options that will be suggested by the central delegation.

The Palestinian authority government started last month to cut salaries of Gaza employees by 30 to 50%, which sparked a wave of anger among the Fatah leadership in Gaza and their staff before the president threatened to take unspecified further steps.

Abbas warned that he will take “unprecedented steps” to end the political division between his West Bank-based autonomy government and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Abbas told Palestinian diplomats in Bahrain during conference of the ambassadors of Palestine to Arab and Muslim countries: “These days, we are in a dangerous and tough situation that requires decisive steps, and we are to take these decisive steps.”

“Therefore, we are going to take unprecedented steps in the coming days to end the division.”

Gaza’s Energy Authority went on strike on Friday in protest of the unjust measures taken against Palestinians in the besieged strip.

During the protests, several participants carried candles in a message to Abbas and his government that Gaza would never yield to their extortions and threats.

For his part, Mushir al-Masri, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, told demonstrators: “We are not blind to the enemy’s use of tricks including tightening the siege using its cheap tools: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Tightening the siege will blow up in the occupation’s face.”