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The recent death sentences in Saudi Arabia

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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On January 3, 2016 Saudi Arabia sentenced to death, among others, Nimr al Nimr, aged 56, the Shi’ite Imam on its territory, and the Head of Al Qaeda, Faris Al Zahrani.

The condemnation of Nimr al Nimr had been confirmed by the Supreme Court last October for seeking “foreign meddling” in Saudi Arabia, “disobeying” its rulers and “taking up arms against the security forces”.

In 2011 Nimr, the spiritual leader of the two million Shi’ites living in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province – very rich in oil – had asked for the secession of its province from the Wahhabi Kingdom of the Al Saud family and its merger with Bahrain when, at that time, the Emirate was witnessing the insurgency of the Shi’ite majority against the Al Khalifa’ Sunni family, who rules it with a small minority of officials linked to Saudi Arabia.

Most of the 47 convicts executed were members of the core group of Al Qaeda operating in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and were held accountable for acts of terrorism in Saudi Arabia from 2003 to 2006.

Among others, an Egyptian citizen and a citizen from Chad were executed.

Nimr Al Nimr’s brother launched an appeal for calm to the Shi’ites of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in the Eastern provinces and in the other Shi’ite countries of the region.

Before being executed, Nimr had studied in Qom and was the leader of the many Shi’ite militants living in the city of Qatif, but he never condemned the Saudi royal family.

The Imam of the “Party of Ali” had been arrested in 2012 and his trial had been condemned as irregular by many NGOs and most international organizations for human rights.

Everyone expected that King Salman, who rose to power after the death of his half-brother Abdullah in January 2015, wanted to show clemency, but this did not happen. Upon Nimr’s death, Saudi Arabia decreed the end of the “ceasefire” in force since December 15, 2015 in Yemen.

This was obviously a strategic goal: to deprive of morale the Houthi Shi’ite guerrillas in the clash with the pro-Saudi Yemen, which is now the “Vietnam of Saudi Arabia” and, in the event of Shi’ites’ victory, will allow to control the primary strategic and economic area of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Everything becomes clear if we examine the strategic equation of the Wahhabi Kingdom.

Firstly, with this death sentence of the Shi’ite Imam, Saudi Arabia forces the United States to choose between a continuation of the P5 + 1 Agreement with Iran and the strategic and financial connection with the Saudi Kingdom.

The strategic factor is well-known, considering that the US-Saudi alliance is the axis of the American presence in the Middle East, along with the agreement between the United States and Israel.

The financial connection has been operating since the agreement reached after the Yom Kippur War between the US banks and Saudi Arabia for the confidential recycling of petrodollars.

When their amount decreases, as now happens with the fall in the oil barrel price, the Saudi-US agreement loses importance, while, in fact, the United States seem to create a system of balance between the Shi’ite Iran and the Sunni world linked to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is weakening OPEC, for the excellent reason that now the Viennese agency is holding together the oil interests of two mortal enemies, namely the Shi’ites and the Sunnis. It is not unlikely for Saudi Arabia to soon revive the Sunni alliance, within OPEC, called OAPEC, the organization based in Kuwait, which was founded in 1968 by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and, coincidentally, Libya, to avoid political embargos after the “Six-Day War”.

That is a good hypothesis to clarify the future evolution of the still de facto “double” government currently operating in Libya.

Another strategic equation is related to the different configuration of the Shi’ite-Sunni conflict in the Greater Middle East: the significant minorities of the “Party of Ali” are everywhere, but they are in power only in Iran, while in Turkey they account for 20% (and we will soon witness the anti-Shi’ite fight operating in Turkey). In Iran the Shi’ites are 87% of the population; in the Lebanon the Party of Ali accounts for 47% (and the Sunnis account for 24%) and in Syria the true Shiites are 15%, apart from the Alawites who came to power with the Assads that the Imam Mussa Sadr, the founder of the “Amal” Party in the Lebanon, declared to be “true Shi’ites”, before disappearing in Tripoli, Libya, on August 31, 1978.

In Egypt the Shi’ites account for 3%, in Yemen 44%, in Bahrain 73%, in Kuwait 21%, in Qatar 18% and in Oman, the Emirate less prone to follow Saudi orders, the Shi’ites account for 5%.

Aside from the rule of taqiyya, the official denial of one’s own faith in the Imam Ali, which is permitted by the Shi’ite religious rules, the Shi’ites total 121 million people, while Sunnis are 191 million people.

In all likelihood, however, Iran will operate for the autonomy of the Amazigh movement, the Berbers in Libya who operate, in the region of Benghazi, against the Islamists and the Lebanese Hezbollah, who already operate in favor of Assad’s forces in Syria.

After the lifting of sanctions, the “sale and spinning” to the naïve West of its ambiguous policies to reduce nuclear weapons, Iran has the opportunity and the political lucidity to mobilize – if not now, in the near future – the significant Shi’ite minorities in all Sunni-ruled nations.

For Iran, too, it is a goal of hegemony over crude oil which works well precisely when the oil barrel price goes down and the geopolitical choices become – for some countries – a matter of life and death.

A struggle for possible hegemony which regards the second strategic factor, namely the “taking” of oil wells of either party, in a war which, for the time being, is a war of attrition (the Houthis in Yemen) and later, if pacification in Syria is in favor of Assad and Russia, it will turn into an overt and “traditional” war.

Russia has a dual interest, which is to maintain its presence in the Mediterranean region and to conquer a global interdiction power in the area that the United States are abandoning, completely bitten by their shale oil bug. Restricting NATO southward, towards its “jugular vein” in the Middle East, and excluding the Atlantic Alliance from the land corridor stretching from Ukraine to Georgia up to Poland. Russia aims at the land and sea lines which seal the Mediterranean region and subject it to the Russian Federation’s command and rule.

The Russian Federation wants the whole Mediterranean region and, in fact, with some sort of dullness and hard-headedness, NATO supports Turkey also after the shooting down of the Russian Sukhoi 24 aircraft which, indeed, was a way to call all the Atlantic Alliance to the war against Russia.

A goal only partially reached, considering that SHAPE – despite all possible naivety – did not follow Turkey in all its options against Russia in favor of its “Turkmen” guerrillas, which are a project of hegemony over the region when the Sunnis, who are a majority in Syria, are free from the Assad family and, hence, when Turkey’s hegemony may encompass all the populations of Turkish origin up to the Xing Kiang.

Nevertheless it shall face China there, which will not allow the presence of a NATO country along its borders – that is precisely the reason why the United States support Turkey.

Israel is still the strategic big winner in the region: it has witnessed a considerable reduction of Syrian pressure on the Golan Heights and it also sees the crisis of the Islamic world. Currently almost all Lebanese Hezbollah are in Syria, some top secret contacts with Saudi Arabia are already operating against Iran, which will launch its first nuclear bomb against what Tehran calls “the Zionist entity”.

All local players are weakening, but I imagine that Israel is arming against whoever of the two will win, even though today it looks as if it is going to be a long and complex war.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Middle East

Saudi oil attacks put US commitments to the test

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States is rushing to retaliate for a brazen, allegedly Iranian attack that severely damaged two of the kingdom’s key oil facilities.

That is not to say that Saudi Arabia and/or the United States will not retaliate in what could prove to be a game changer in the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Yet, reading the tea leaves of various US and Saudi statements lifts the veil on the constituent elements that could change the region’s dynamics.

They also shine a spotlight on the pressures on both countries and shifts in the US-Saudi relationship that could have long lasting consequences.

With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visiting the kingdom to coordinate what his office described as efforts to combat “Iranian aggression in the region,” Saudi Arabia and the United States will be seeking to resolve multiple issues.

These include collecting sufficient evidence to convincingly apportion blame; calibrating a response that would be appropriate but not drag the United States and the Middle East into a war that few want; deciding who takes the lead in any military response and managing the long-term impact of that  decision on Saudi-US relations and the US commitment to the region.

A careful reading of Saudi and US responses to the attacks so far suggests subtle differences between the two. They mask fundamental issues that have emerged in the aftermath of the attacks.

For starters, Mr. Pompeo and President Donald J. Trump have explicitly pointed the finger at Iran as being directly responsible, while Saudi Arabia stopped short of blaming the Islamic republic, saying that its preliminary findings show that Iranian weapons were used in the attack. Iran has denied any involvement.

The discrepancy in the initial apportioning of blame raises the question whether Saudi Arabia is seeking to avoid being manoeuvred into a situation in which it would be forced to take the lead in retaliating against the Islamic republic with strikes against targets in Iran rather than Yemen.

Political scientist Austin Carson suggests that Saudi Arabia may have an interest in at least partially playing along with Iranian insistence that it was not responsible. “Allowing Iran’s role to remain ambiguous could reduce Saudi leaders’ need to appear strong… The Saudis are reportedly unconvinced by shared US intelligence that attempts to link the attacks to Iran’s territory. Some experts suggest this may reflect a more cautious approach to escalation,” Mr. Carson wrote in The Washington Post.

Saudi Arabia’s initial reluctance to unambiguously blame Iran may have a lot to do with Mr. Trump’s America First-driven response to the attacks that appeared to contradict the Carter Doctrine proclaimed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter.

The doctrine, a cornerstone of the Saudi-US relationship, stated that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Gulf.

Mr. Trump’s apparent weakening of the United States’ commitment to the defense of the kingdom, encapsuled in the doctrine, risks fundamentally altering the relationship, already troubled by Saudi conduct of the more than four-year long war in Yemen and last year’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Signalling a break with the Carter doctrine, Mr. Trump was quick to point out that the attacks were on Saudi Arabia, not on the United States, and suggested that it was for the Saudis to respond.

“I haven’t promised Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out. That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them,” Mr. Trump said without identifying what kind of support the US would be willing to provide.

Despite blustering that the United States was “locked and loaded,” Mr. Trump insisted that “we have a lot of options but I’m not looking at options right now.”

Mr. Trump’s response to a tweet by US Senator Lindsey Graham, a friend of the president who favours a US military strike against Iran, that “the measured response by President @realDonaldTrump…was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness” was equally telling.

No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand.” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump further called into question the nature of the US-Saudi defense relationship by declaring that “If we decide to do something, they’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully.”

The Saudi foreign ministry maintained, with the attacks casting doubt on the Saudi military’s ability to defend the kingdom’s oil assets and Mr. Trump seemingly putting the onus of a response on Saudi Arabia, that “the kingdom is capable of defending its land and people and responding forcefully to those attacks.”  

Only indisputable evidence that the drones were launched from Iranian territory would incontrovertibly point the finger at Iran.

So far, the Saudis have stopped short of that while US officials have suggested that the drones were launched either from Iran or by pro-Iranian militias in southern Iraq.

Holding Iran responsible for the actions of a militia, whether in Iraq or Yemen, could prove more tricky given long-standing questions about the degree of control that Iran has over various groups that it supports, and particularly regarding the Houthis.

The argument could turn out to be a slippery slope given that by the same logic, the United States would be responsible for massive human casualties in the Yemen war resulting from Saudi use of American weaponry.

Military retaliation may not be immediate even if the United States and Saudi Arabia can produce convincing evidence that Iran was directly responsible.

No knee jerk reactions to this – it’s very systematic – what happens with patience is it prevents stupid moves,” a US official said.

The United States is likely to attempt to first leverage that evidence in meetings on the sidelines of next week’s United Nations General Assembly to convince the international community, and particularly the Europeans, to drop opposition to last year’s US withdrawal from the international nuclear accord with Iran and the harsh economic sanctions that the Trump administration has since imposed on Iran.

Both the United States and Saudi Arabia will also want to use the opportunity of the UN gathering to try to ensure that the fallout of any military response is limited and does not escalate into a full-fledged war that could change the geopolitical map of the Middle East.

Said foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook: “How the Trump administration responds will indicate whether U.S. elites still consider energy resources a core national interest and whether the United States truly is on its way out of the Middle East entirely, as so many in the region suspect.”

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Middle East

Growing Tensions on the Road to Persian Gulf Security

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The 14 September 2019 drone attacks on oil installations in eastern Saudi Arabia have dimmed hope for U.S. – Iranian discussions aimed to reduce tensions and potentially end the armed conflict in Yemen.  Tensions have increased, and oil prices have risen. Certain hopes created by the initiatives of the French President during the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France and the forced departure of John Bolton as U.S. National Security Advisor have lessened.  In fact, the aim of the attacks may have been to lessen the possibility of Iran – U.S. discussions which might have taken place during the start of the U.N. General Assembly in New York later in September.

There is a good deal of speculation as to who fired the drones and from where.  The Ansar Allah Movement (often called the Houthis) has taken credit, but some specialists doubt that they have  the technical knowhow to send drones from Yemen to the targets in Saudi Arabia.  Some speculate that the drones were sent from southern Iraq, possibly by Iranian-backed militias such as the Popular Mobilization Forces or by units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards stationed in Iraq.  The Revolutionary Guards are nearly “a state within the state” and could take initiatives without orders from the Iranian President or the Foreign Minister.  The Revolutionary Guards could have motivations to prevent fruitful U.S. – Iranian talks at the U.N.  There is also speculation that the drone attacks could be linked to increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates concerning the future of south Yemen where the two countries support different factions.

Whatever the locations from which the drones were launched and whomever pulled the switch, the consequences are clear.  At a time when governments were speaking of a possible path to reduce tensions a “No Exit” sign has been put up near the start of the road.  The road leads to ever-greater tensions which may slip out of the control of governments.  Thus, in addition to the French proposal at the G7, there was an earlier Russian government proposal.

On 23 July 2019, the Russian Government’s “Collective Security for the Persian Gulf Region” was presented in Moscow by the Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov.  The Russian proposal for Collective Security for the Persian Gulf follows closely the procedures which led to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the creation of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.  Bogdanov stressed multilateral ism as a mechanism for all involved in the assessment of situations, the decision-making process, and  the implementation of decisions.

It is not clear how the Russian proposal for a Helsinki-type conference will progress.  Russia does not play a leading role in the Middle East today as the USSR did in Europe in the 1970s.  In the lead up to the Helsinki Accords of 1975, non-governmental organizations had played an active role in informal East-West discussions to see what issues were open to negotiations and on what issues progress might be made.  There is a need for such non-governmental efforts today as the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East are growing ever-more tense.

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Algeria’s political impasse: What is next?

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Seven months after a wave of protests began in Algeria; people are still pilling onto the streets of the Algerian capital “Algiers” and other cities nationwide every Friday, reiterating their main demands: the departure of the regime and its symbols and the application of Articles 7 and 8 of the Constitution stating that the constituent power belongs to the people.

The demonstrations have gained a familiar rhythm and worldwide admiration since tens of thousands of Algerians first took, peacefully, to the streets on 22 February. Thousands of students turn out on Tuesdays and there are larger protests each Friday revolting against former opaque group of power-brokers that have run the country for decades.
After weeks of mass demonstrations, President of the Republic Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down, ceding power after 20 years of rule and abandoning his re-election bid. The protesters pressured the authorities, again, to cancel presidential elections originally scheduled for April.
Despite the postponement of the election, the public anger continued to mount. Thus, Army chief Gaid Salah emerged as the key powerbroker positioning himself in favor of El Hirak “Popular movement”. He publicly disavowed the former leader and called for his impeachment, winning legitimacy in the streets.

Purging Corruption

Gaid Salah responded favorably to protesters’ demands, launching a sweeping anti-graft campaign targeting high-ranked officials that have served the Bouteflika government as well as influential tycoons and businessman.

Two Prime Ministers, namely; Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, the deposed President’s brother Said Bouteflika, tens of ministers, leading industrialists, tycoons, key businessmen, Governors,  and two former Intelligence chiefs, have been remanded in custody for accusations ranging from money laundering, embezzlement, misuse of public money to using officials posts to influence industrial and commercial contracts and granting undue privileges, affiliation to suspicious parties that plot to destabilize the country, plotting against the army, and instigating the opposition to call for a transitional phase before holding any election.

Bouteflika’s resignation puts Abdelkader Bensalah, Speaker of the upper house of parliament, in charge as caretaker Head of State for 90 days until elections are held. However, elections (scheduled for July 4th) have been postponed for a second time and protesters are demanding his departure.

For his part, Bensalah, and in a bid to calm them, set a Panel of Dialogue and Mediation, composed of political actors, the civil society, the representatives of the trade union organizations and many citizens, with the aim to mediate between public authorities and people  and hold a “serious and responsible” dialogue to reach a national consensus which would help resolve the political crisis in Algeria, through the organization of a fair and transparent presidential election, as soon as possible.”

However, the Panel itself is facing rejection by protesters who are taking into the streets denouncing its formation, saying it does not represent them along other claims, such as the departure of Bensalah, a former head of the upper house of parliament, and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, who are regarded by them as part of the old guard.

Despite all these arrangements, Algeria is still at an impasse, with two camps facing each other in seemingly irreconcilable positions.

To resolve this stalemate, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, Deputy Minister of  National Defence, Chief of Staff of the People’s National Army (ANP), launched, last week, a call, saying that it would be “appropriate” to convene the electorate on the 15th of September, and that the elections could be held within the deadlines set by law.

In my previous speech, “I have spoken about the priority to seriously launch the preparation of the presidential elections within the coming weeks, and today, based on our missions, prerogatives and our compliance with the Constitution and the laws of the Republic as well, I confirm that we regard as appropriate to summon the Electorate on September 15th and the elections can be held within the deadlines provided for by the law. Reasonable and acceptable deadlines which respond to the insistent demand of the people,” said Lieutenant General.

Theoretically, if the head of state, Abdelkader Bensalah, summons the electorate on September 15, 2019, as desired by the head of the army, the presidential election should take place before the end of the current year (mid-December).  The Organic Law No. 12-01 2012 (Electoral Code) provides in article 25 that “Subject to the other provisions of this organic law, the electorate shall be convened by presidential decree within three (3) months preceding the date of the elections “.

As a response, Algerian street has expressed its rejection of elections in the current political conditions. According to demonstrators, no election should take place as long as Bouteflika-era officials remain in positions of power.

For their parts, the opposition parties and civil society groups have also demanded the resignation of the government which constitutes “a popular demand”, voicing rejection of the holding of the elections.

The people are determined to pursue the hirak until the establishment of a state of institutions, widening gap between them and the power constrained, for lack of serious candidates, to cancel the vote twice.

According to observers, these presidential elections are unachievable for the moment because the approach advocated by Ahmed Gaid Salah ” requires the revision of some texts of the electoral law to adapt to the requirements of the current situation, and not a total and profound revision that would affect all texts, as claimed by the demonstrators. The partial amendment means the holding of elections basing on the same mode of organization. This is likely to trigger the street again as the popular movement with its magnitude unparalleled in the contemporary history of the country will, likely, sabotage the preparations for this election. The political climate also does not allow the organization of such an election with the absence of total trust between voters and the political class.

However, it is imperative to go quickly to a presidential election provided that it is transparent, where the mediation initiatives of the Panel or other organizations, can lead to a consensual platform far from the occult practices of the past which saw the majority of the population sulking the ballot boxes, reflecting the state-citizen divorce, noting that an independent election monitoring commission and the departure of the Bedoui government are two prerequisites for a transparent presidential election.

This necessarily implies the cleaning up of the electoral file, the creation of an independent election supervision body where neither the executive (the government – especially the Ministry of the Interior and the Walis) nor the deputies/senators and representatives of the current APCs denounced by Al Hirak, will be stakeholders. 

Only a democratically elected legitimate president, elected on the basis of a transparent agenda, pledging to include the legitimate demands of Al Hirak including a new balance of power and the moralization of management (fight against corruption and embezzlement), can amend the constitution and carry out the profound political and economic reforms to bring Algeria to the new world and make it an emerging country: a pivotal country regionally and internationally.

Economically, it is imperative to quickly resolve the political crisis before the end of 2019 or at most the first quarter of 2020, to avoid towards a cessation of payments at the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022, and prevent Algeria the depletion of its foreign exchange reserves which would culminated in the economic, social, political insecurity.

From our partner Tehran Times

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