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

Egypt And U.S. Share Comprehensive Efforts To Combat Terrorism

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

Cairo – Conflicts in the Arab region, most notably in Syria, Libya and Yemen, should be resolved, stressed Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukry.

The minister added there is a possibility to contain terrorism through Western intelligence agencies, not just military operations.

Speaking to Asharq al-Awsat, the FM said that certain known factories are providing terrorist organizations with arms and equipment, calling for serious and effective cooperation to end this.

Shoukry pointed out that the US administration shares the same vision as Egypt in countering terrorism. He also discussed the situation in the region and the importance of giving people a chance to end their struggles and solve their problems.

When asked if there were any initiatives for a solution in Yemen, Shoukry replied that they are monitoring the UN envoy and other countries’ efforts to establish a resolution according to the agreed bases, such as the outcomes of the national dialogue, the Gulf initiative and supporting the legitimacy.

On terrorism, the FM stressed that Egypt will continue to fight it, especially after the two attacks on the Tanta and Alexandria Churches earlier in April.

Shoukry stated that he believes terrorism is expanding because the international effort that has been established did not succeed in containing terrorism, except in Iraq recently.

He added that the situations in Syria and Libya are complicated and terrorist organizations are spreading in Africa. He also cited the frequent attacks in Europe and Egypt that are evidence of the continued presence of these terror organizations.

According to the minister, the international community should “credibly tackle the matter because it is impossible that these organizations receive weapons and support unbeknownst to the western intelligence.”

Shoukry said: “If there a real international will to fight terrorism, then the international community should begin with determining how these terrorist organizations receive all these advanced weapons and equipment.”

The FM said it is “impossible” that intelligence agencies are unable to trace and determine the parties and states responsible for backing terrorist organizations. He added that this is crucial for the credibility of anyone who says they are fighting terror.

Commenting on Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s recent trip to the US, Shoukry explained that it took place shortly after US President Donald Trump came to office and when the US policy was still being shaped.

He did say however certain concepts were agreed upon, like fighting terrorism.

When asked whether Egypt will continue to unite all three Libyan parties, Shoukry stressed that his country never did and never will stop trying to unite Libyan parties. He explained that there are three institutions in Libya: presidential council, the parliament and the state’s council, which will form a committee to agree on the amendments needed to the Sukhayrat agreement.

He added that this constant effort with Libyan leaderships, which have met with Egyptian officials in Cairo, will continue until they are successful.

The minister stressed that Egypt aims to have natural relations with regional countries according to certain bases, which include mutual respect for sovereignties.

Furthermore, Cairo does not interfere in internal affairs and does not support organizations that back terrorism.

The FM was in Sudan recently on a visit, which he described as having “positive outcomes”.

He stated that it was an opportunity to review bilateral relations and the outcomes of the meetings of the joint high committee. He also explained that Egypt and Sudan agreed on a mechanism for political dialogue and discussed the regional situation.

The minister stated that bilateral relations might have had some misunderstandings or misinterpretations, which drove brotherly relations off their track.

When asked if the past has been forgotten, Shoukry stressed that Cairo is committed to a strategic ties with Sudan, which goes beyond any special relationships, adding: “Egypt does not conspire against or interfere in the affairs of any state.”

On Ethiopia, Shoukry said that both Cairo and Addis Ababa requested better coordination and asked for more frequent meetings. He explained that this could make it clearer to the public that issues are being discussed frankly and openly.

When asked about the Egyptian-Ethiopian relations, Shoukry said that Ethiopian FM Workneh Gebeyehu conveyed his country’s prime minister’s message to Sisi during his recent visit to Cairo. He added that the visit was an opportunity to discuss the importance of the mutual relations which are based on respect and common interests.

The Ethiopian FM stressed publically that his country will not take any move that could harm Egyptian interests. Meanwhile, Shoukry confirmed that Egypt is concerned with the Ethiopian development efforts, expressing Egypt’s willingness to be part of it through investments.

Shoukry said that the two countries agreed on dialogue to reach an ongoing mechanism to hold meetings every two months in order to discuss any misunderstanding or misinterpretation that could lead to wrong assumptions.

1st Malaria Vaccine To Be Tested In 3 African Countries

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

The World Health Organization announced on Monday that Ghana, Kenya and Malawi have been chosen to test the first malaria vaccine, which will be administered to hundreds of thousands of young children next year.

The vaccine, which has partial effectiveness, has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives if used with existing measures, the WHO regional director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, said in a statement.

The challenge is whether impoverished countries can deliver the required four doses of the vaccine for each child.

The injectable vaccine, called RTS,S or Mosquirix, was developed by British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline to protect children from the most deadly form of malaria in Africa. The $49 million for the first phase of the pilot is being funded by the global vaccine alliance GAVI, UNITAID and Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

It will be tested on children five to 17 months old to see whether its protective effects shown so far in clinical trials can hold up under real-life conditions. At least 120,000 children in each of the three countries will receive the vaccine, which has taken decades of work and hundreds of millions of dollars to develop.

Kenya, Ghana and Malawi were chosen for the vaccine pilot because all have strong prevention and vaccination programs, but continue to have high numbers of malaria cases, WHO said. The countries will deliver the vaccine through their existing vaccination programs.

Malaria remains one of the world’s most stubborn health challenges, infecting more than 200 million people every year and killing about half a million, most of them children in Africa. Bed netting and insecticides are the chief protection.

Sub-Saharan Africa is hardest hit by the disease, with about 90 percent of the world’s cases in 2015. Malaria spreads when a mosquito bites someone already infected, sucks up blood and parasites, and then bites another person.

A global effort to counter malaria has led to a 62 percent cut in deaths between 2000 and 2015, WHO said. But the UN agency has said in the past that such estimates are based mostly on modeling and that data is so bad for 31 countries in Africa — including those believed to have the worst outbreaks — that it couldn’t tell if cases have been rising or falling in the last 15 years.

WHO is hoping to wipe out malaria by 2040 despite increasing resistance problems to both drugs and insecticides used to kill mosquitoes.

“The slow progress in this field is astonishing, given that malaria has been around for millennia and has been a major force for human evolutionary selection, shaping the genetic profiles of African populations,” Kathryn Maitland, professor of tropical pediatric infectious diseases at Imperial College London, wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine in December. “Contrast this pace of change with our progress in the treatment of HIV, a disease a little more than three decades old.”

Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Middle East also have malaria cases.

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat English

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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Morocco Summons Algeria Envoy over Deportation of Syrian Refugees

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

Middle East

Morocco Summons Algeria Envoy over Deportation of Syrian Refugees

Morocco

The Moroccan Interior Ministry accused Algerian authorities of deporting 55 Syrians, including women and children, towards the kingdom as Rabat summoned the Algerian envoy over the development.

The ministry statement said that the Algerian authorities have “cornered” the refugees nears the border city of Figuig.

The Moroccan authorities “condemned these inhumane actions by the Algerian authorities against these refugees, especially when it comes to women and children who are in a fragile state.”

It questioned how the authorities in the neighboring country have not catered to the displaced and instead forced them towards Moroccan soil.

The development has forced Morocco to summon Algeria’s ambassador to express concern after the Syrians attempted to “illegally enter” the country from Algeria, the ministry of foreign affairs said in a statement on Sunday.

It said 54 Syrians attempted to enter Morocco through the border town of Figuig, an area surrounded by mountains, between April 17 and 19. It accused Algeria of forcing them to cross into Morocco.

“Algeria must assume political responsibility and morality concerning this situation,” the ministry statement on MAP state news agency said.

“It is immoral and unethical to manipulate the moral and physical distress of these people, (and) to sow trouble in the Morocco-Algerian border.”

There was no immediate response from Algeria on state news agency APS.

Some 5,000 Syrians have gone through a migration regulatory process in Morocco, with several hundred receiving refugee status, according to Morocco’s ministry of foreign affairs.

Morocco and Algeria share a 1,500 km (970 mile) land border that runs from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sahara Desert which has been shut since 1994.

The North African neighbors have had a contentious relationship since independence from France. Border disputes triggered an armed conflict in the 1960s known as the “Sand War”.

One of their biggest disputes has been over Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony, most of which Morocco annexed in 1975.

Algeria supports and hosts the Western Saharan independence movement Polisario, a stance which angers Morocco.

Asharq Al-Awsat English

Asharq Al-Awsat English

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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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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Iran’s Presidential Charade: Is Another Fraudulent Slap To The Face Of The Iranian People Coming?

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

Opinion

Iran’s Presidential Charade: Another Slap Coming?

In old Hollywood, the word “chestnut” denoted a formula which though lacking originality could still provide the kernel for a moderately successful B-movie.

Anyone following the latest presidential election campaign in the Islamic Republic in Iran is bound to notice stark similarities between this Islamicized chestnut and those of old Hollywood.

Every four years, Iranians and others interested in Iranian affairs are invited to participate in or at least observe what is presented as a dramatic quest for power by rival factions defending sharply different programs. Thus a few weeks of excitement are created out of thin air to give the impression that the peculiar system created by the late Ayatollah Khomeini is an Islamic version of the cursed democracy promoted by the “Infidel”. The show is also used to blame all that is wrong in the country on the president in charge for the past four years and, almost always, end up re-electing him for four more years.

The “chestnut” script provides for the presence in the election of at least three candidates representing “the bad”, “the worse” and “the worst”.

This is important for confusing not only Iranians but also foreign powers interested in or bothered by Iran.

In 1997, quite a few Iranians fell for the fiction that Muhammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah, represented “the bad” option against Ali-Akbar Nateq Nuri, another mid-ranking mullah, who was cast as representative of “the worst”. Khatami won and Iran ended up with eight years of a presidency that witnessed the chain-killing of intellectuals, mass arrests of regime critics, strict censorship, increased support for terrorist groups and, finally, the massive expansion of Iran’s clandestine nuclear project.

In the 2005 presidential campaign, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, branded “the worst” candidate, emerged victorious. Paradoxically, in some important cases, he turned out not to be as bad as Khatami. He overlooked corruption that was spread like wildfire, but toned down the crackdown organized against critics and dissidents. His clownish performance amused some and revolted many more but it did not translate into a substantial increase in the Islamist regime’s repressive measures.

Four years ago, US President Barack Obama bent backward to help Hassan Rouhani, then believed to represent “the bad” for fear that Saeed Jalili, identified as “the worst”, might become Iran’s president. Rouhani’s four-year stint has been even worse than that of Khatami’s first term. Iran is now the world’s number one in executions, number two in political prisoners and on top of the list of states sponsoring international terrorism.

To add more spice to the mix, the regime and its lobbyists in the West also urge support for the candidate supposed to be farther from the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. That was supposedly the case with Khatami, Ahmadinejad and Rouhani.

This year, the candidate supposed to represent “the worst” while being closest to Khamenei is Ibrahim Rais al-Sadat, alias Raisi, a mid-ranking mullah who was recently appointed as head of the Imam Reza Foundation in Mash’had, perhaps the most lucrative post in the Islamic Republic.

Barring a last minute surprise, Rouhani will remain in the race as “the bad” candidate, wearing his trademark smile and waving the cardboard key that symbolizes his promise to “open all doors”.

Not surprisingly the old chestnut themes are back.

Tehran lobbyists in the West are going around demanding support for Rouhani who is supposed to be determined to do in the next four years what he couldn’t or didn’t want to do in the last.
One US-based apologist, Abdul-Karim Sorush, alias “The Martin Luther of Islam”, invites Iranians to choose “the bad”, which he dubs “Aslah” (the most qualified), meaning Rouhani.

Others have identified Raisi as the candidate closest to Khamenei and thus deserving a thrashing from an angry electorate. The list of candidates this time may also include the same old Jalili, “the worst” of four years ago who, presumably will be only “the worse” this time.

However, the fact is that in 1997 Nateq-Nuri was not Khamenei’s favored candidate just as in 2005 “The Supreme Guide” did not particularly favored Ahmadinejad. The only time that Khamenei has indicated a personal opinion about any presidential candidate was when, in 2005, he made it clear he did not want his old friend and new foe Hashemi Rafsanjani to regain the presidency.

For Khamenei, the presidential election is nothing but a four-year endorsement of the Khomeinist system, a kind of referendum on the regime’s legitimacy rather than a choice of an individual president. In the current election, too, I doubt that Khamenei is particularly keen on seeing Raisi become president. True, Raisi is an old protégé of Khamenei, hailing from his native Mash’had and holding the same narrow view of things as the “Supreme Guide”. However, Khamenei won’t mind if Rouhani wins again or if any of the other candidates whom he has pre-approved end up victorious.

Though a protégé of the late Rafsanjani, Rouhani has a 30-year record of service to the security services controlled by Khamenei. He is also close to powerful elements in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard who provide the backbone of domestic support for the regime.

The only factor that might have concerned Khamenei as far as Rouhani is concerned would have been the latter’s tentative attempts at easing tension with the United States. However, with President Barack Obama no longer around to do the pas-de-deux, Rouhani, has quickly switched to Khamenei’s “looking East” strategy of alliance with Russia. In fact, Rouhani launched his presidential campaign with a flash visit to Moscow and a photo-op with Vladimir Putin.

Four years ago Rouhani, like Khatami before him, promised reform. Now, however, it is once again clear that the Islamic Republic cannot be reformed. In his time, Ahmadinejad promised to end corruption, discrimination, and poverty, exactly as Raisi did today. Eight years later, Iran ended with more poverty, discrimination, and corruption.

The problem is not about who plays the role of president in a charade of pseudo-democracy. The problem is about an atrophied system in which all paths to reform, development and progress are rundown.

Thus the question Iranians face is not about which of the various puppets is “aslah”. The real issue is whether they wish this broken system to continue. If they have no interest in taking part in this charade. Four years ago, the presidential election scored the lowest rate of voter participation and Rouhani won with the smallest margin in Islamic Republic’s history.

In its limited way, the last election was a slap in the face for the Khomeinists. Will we see another such slap this time, too?

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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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 ‘Liar’ Ali Khamenei Criticizes Officials’ Fears from ‘Enemy Warnings’

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

World

Khamenei Criticizes Officials’ Fears from ‘Enemy Warnings’

London- Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei indirectly criticized some political parties for reiterating slogans to distance the country from war.

Khamenei addressed a gathering of top military and army staff, telling them a country would be in its worst situation if its officials fear the slightest of enemy’s threats.

“If they fear them, they have actually opened up a way for the enemy’s invasion and aggression.”

Khamenei went on to note, “if one wishes to be scared, it is alright, as long as the fear is not extended to be on behalf of the nation, because the Iranian people are courageously standing against all threats.”

“Tasks should be done with wisdom, logic and prudence — there is no doubt about that — but they should also be done courageously,” Khamenei said.

“Fearing or worrying, or becoming affected by the threats, frowns, and mistreatment that arise from the world’s superpowers, is just the beginning of a country’s misery.”

“Those who follow western media see how the enemies are trying to disrupt the elections in some way, but the Iranian nation will remain vigilant and wise to these hostile moves and the election will hopefully be held with a high turnout in a secure, passionate and lively atmosphere,” he said.

Khamenei further stressed that an election held with such parameters in mind will bring great immunity to the country.

“I place stress on the people’s living conditions; I put stress on the living conditions of the employees of various sectors; and the living conditions of the staff belonging to the armed forces: These issues should seriously be followed up. This is a duty of the officials,” he said.

He also warned that Iran’s adversaries target weak points of the Iranian economy and stressed the need to strengthen the country’s “resistance economy.”

Khamenei further stated: “The enemies–whether the United States or greater than the United States–cannot do a single thing against the Iranian regime that is linked to its people, a regime that has admiration for its people and the people admire it back.”