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Jordan’s future stability

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Thanks to the Russian intervention the long sequence of the so-called “Arab springs” has long been interrupted in Syria, but it keeps on expanding elsewhere, considering the many players in the various national “civil societies” that still act within this strategic framework of the Arab springs, which was put in place mainly by the USA and its allies in the Sunni world.

This is undoubtedly the case of the revolt which took place in Jordan early June.

On June 4 last, after the revolt in various cities of the Kingdom and, above all, in Amman, King Abdallah accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki.

Hani Fawzi Mulki, former director of Aqaba’s Special Economic Zone, studied in Egypt and in the USA.

It is also worth noting that Mulki led the team that ratified the 1994 Peace Treaty between Jordan and Israel. Later,  after holding many important posts, he was appointed Prime Minister on May 29, 2016.

The major issue for Hani al Mulki’s government was above all the huge increase of the Jordanian public debt: after being renegotiated in 2016 during Mulki’s government, the Jordanian national debt was rescued with a package of 732 million dollars – a three-year loan of the International Monetary Fund.

A loan that was apparently supposed to bring the debt / GDP ratio down from 95% to 77% by 2021.

Debts, however, must be repaid and Jordan has been  forced to follow the usual strategy: less public spending and increase in prices, especially the administered and regulated ones which obviously have a strong political impact.

It is strange for an expense to magically become a revenue, but it is worth noting that Jordan’s public debt is the sum of the dinar-denominated local debt and the external one, which has always been denominated in foreign currencies.

Even in this case the IMF has made no difference. Therefore, in 2016,Jordan’s public debt rose by 4.9%, but almost all this cost regards foreign currencies and not Jordanian dinars.

The magical debt reduction foreseen by the IMF analysts did not materialize.

Nevertheless, also the dinar-denominated prices and values have obviously borne the brunt.

If we sum both the external and internal debt, we reach 39.5% – the official percentage recorded in late 2016.

According to Jordan’s government statistics, the current public debt / GDP ratio amounts to 95.3% – much higher than the 77% foreseen by Western bankers.

Obviously the austerity program needed to repay the international loan in a short period of time created the conditions for the increase in basic commodities and electricity tariffs while,on June 1, King Abdallah ordered the immediate cessation of price increases.

Hence, if we leave the international financial bodies free to operate according to market rules -which are often manipulated – and in key countries from a strategic viewpoint, there will be no humanitarian or non-humanitarian intervention which can restore the status quo ante or regain a credible strategic hold of the Western Forces.

Hani Mulki’s government, however, had proposed to increase the employment tax between 20 and 40%, while the electricity cost for users has risen by 55% since last February.

Has the strategic universe still supporting the failed Arab spring project targeted Jordan, after having failed in Syria, Egypt and, initially, even in Tunisia?

Is somebody thinking to a long war that – pending Syria’s pacification – moves to Jordan, thus setting fire to the most dangerous area in the Middle East? Let us hope not.

After Mulki, the King of Jordan appointed Omar Al-Razzaz as Head of government.

Who is the new Prime Minister?

He is an economist who studied at Harvard and worked for the World Bank, both in the USA and in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

As former Education Minister, he often opposed free-market policies which destabilize the Third World’s poor masses without producing any acceptable economic result – and he did so when no one was even barely thinking about that.

Moreover, King Abdallah has not yet reaffirmed his support for Muhammad bin Sultan’s new Saudi policies.

Has Saudi Arabia put its invisible hand in Jordan’s destabilization? We cannot rule it out.

But it would be suicidal for the EU and the USA to support Saudi Arabia in this operation.

Saudi Arabia, however, is still key to Jordan’s economic and geopolitical rescuing, although the Jordanian King knows very well that his strategic region is currently ever more complex and multi-faceted and it also includes the Jewish State.

In fact, according to official statistics, Jordan hosts at least 675,000 refugees, probably in addition to further 540,000 unregistered ones.

It is worth recalling that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has a total population of 9.5 million people, of whom 3 million are old migrants or – to put it in the UN jargon – displaced persons while, since 2011, the most recent Syrian crisis alone has cost at least 2.5 billion US dollars to Jordan.

The latest ILO data shows that, in late 2017, Jordan had 2,100,000 Palestinians, 655,900 Syrians and additional 315,000 migrant workers officially registered.

Currently foreign workers are estimated at 950,000 of the total Jordanian population.

The migrants include Egyptians (61.63%), Bangladeshi (15.66%) and Filipinos (5.37%), while the Sri Lankans and the Indians range between 4.72% and 3.65%.

Moreover, the International Donor Conference for supporting Jordan, organized in February 2016, decided that the international community should provide Jordan with 1.7 billion dollars of loans and funds, but only in exchange for the opening of its internal labour market to Syrian migrants and with the further promise of abolishing the tariffs on Jordan’s products to the EU.

The Jordanian economy is currently worth 38 billion a year.

Syria’s clothing industry is mainly functional to the US market, which absorbs about 78% of products, above all thanks to the free-trade agreement reached between the two countries.

In February 2017, however, Jordan raised additional 900 billion foreign funds, including 147 million of World Bank loans, and an additional cash transfer between the USA and Jordan amounting to 300 million – a transaction carried out in December 2016.

It should be reiterated that the basic assumption was that Jordan’s clothing industry, which currently accounts for 20%of the GDP and employs mainly Asians, could provide job opportunities to the large mass of migrants from Syria and work above all for the US market – as already happens nowadays.

Nevertheless 80% of Syrian refugees – 1.3 million currently  in Jordan – live in major cities and not in the regions where clothing is produced, while the statutory minimum wage in Jordan is not enough to even cover the minimum subsistence costs throughout the Kingdom.

This data was probably unknown to those who signed the above stated Jordanian Compact in London in February 2016.

Hence currently the positive results for Jordan are probable access to the EU free markets, as well as the above stated three-year loan to the tune of 1.7 billion euro and finally a ten-year exemption from import tariffs within the European Union.

Hence too little to replace Jordan’s Welfare State with  private economy, which can survive only thanks to wage compression and to the “goodwill and generosity” of Western importers, who can always buy low value-added goods in Africa, in other Middle East countries, in central Asia or in India.

Hence the criterion of bilateral or multilateral commercial treaties, which is currently the compass for both the US and EU actions, is not at all sufficient to support the peripheral countries’ economic development.

We need a real, fast and significant aid program for Jordan, linked to foreign direct investment.

A program that can quickly be a stopgap solution to the economic and social crises of the now imploded Middle East. The danger of jihadist destabilization, with no way out, is closer than we believe.

As Karl Kraus said, “when the house burns, you can pray or wash the floor, but praying is more practical”.

The peripheral countries should be allowed to enter the world market, not with small commercial tricks and stratagems, which always last from the day until the  morning, but with the analysis of every Middle East country’s productive specializations.

It should be recalled, however, that in exchange for funds the Jordanian government had to provide at least 220,000 “job opportunities” for Syrian refugees. Currently the Syrians employed are 39,500.

Jobs are not created, but are self-generated. Otherwise they are more properly called subsidies or unproductive activities disguised as work.

However, confusing the issue of refugees from Syria with the issue of Syria’s economic take-off was a big mistake.

Moreover, the primary economic and political choice made by the Jordanian government was, above all, ensuring new jobs for the refugees in the Special Economic Zones, such as Al Dulayl, north of Amman.

The true economists of the past knew that the labour market elasticity is always limited by its average productivity and the investment share.

In 2017, however, Jordan’s GDP grew less than 3% and currently the GDP growth foreseen by the Jordanian government is less than 2%.

Nevertheless, Jordan must at least double its current growth rate so as to reabsorb – without further political disasters – its internal unemployment which is currently at least 15%.

Hence, what about the economic relationship between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally been essential for the survival of the Hashemite Kingdom?

In 2011, a largely non-bank 5 billion US dollar fund was set up for Jordan by the various Gulf powers, just as the global financial crisis was worsening.

Between 2011 and 2012, Saudi Arabia guaranteed additional 1.4 billion US dollars of cash flow only, as well as further 1.5 billion US dollars of deposits with the Jordanian Central Bank.

During King Salman’s visit to Amman in March 2017, an agreement was also signed regarding 15 bilateral economic transactions between Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which also entails a future agreement for additional 3 billion funds to back Saudi Arabian projects in Jordan.

With specific reference to tourism, which is essential for Jordan’s balance of payments, revenues have fallen by 2-2.5% in recent years.

Currently minimum aid is provided by Saudi Arabia and by the Sunni Gulf powers – and this is precisely the root cause of the Jordanian economic crisis.

Certainly what is at stake is the redesign of the Saudi geopolitical alliances and of the Saudi project known as Vision 2030,within which Prince Muhammad bin Salman plans to create – in the future – an economy no longer depending on the oil financial cycle and oriented to investment where it is more useful, namely in the West.

No more Saudi “free lunch” in the Middle East.

Jordan’s current riots take place in the usual scenario which saw the birth and implementation of the “Arab spring” project.

Increase in the prices of basic commodities, before the outbreak of riots. Later, gradual destruction of the Welfare State to raise money and finally exert control over masses transferred to the jihadists or the Muslim Brotherhood – as happened in Egypt, where the Brotherhood carried out crowd control and provided law enforcement service at Tahrir Square.

Over a longer period of time, the aims are the destruction of the remaining pro-Western middle class, as well as the decline in people’s support for moderate regimes, and finally the breaking of borders.

If this happens in Jordan in the future, Jordan’s crisis will spill over and will inevitably add to the Syrian destabilization, to the Iraqi failed state and to the military tensions on the border between the Hashemite Kingdom and Israel. The worst possible scenario.

It is surprising how the international investment banks are free to destabilize in the Greater Middle East.

In Jordan, as elsewhere in the Middle East and in Northern Africa, the old social contract was defined by some scholars as “autocratic exchange”.

The middle class was supported and expanded thanks to the government selective benefits which obviously bought political stability, while the contributions for food and housing -albeit generic – stabilized the poor people and turned  them into “subordinate masses”, as Elias Canetti said.

The Public Administration wages, which could be found in every family, were interpreted by the masses as very useful safety nets.

Just at the beginning of this millennium, however, this type of social contract has become financially unsustainable.

Nevertheless what was lost with the freeze of public employment wages and the number of civil servants, or with the end of subsidies to the poor, was not recovered by the private sector.

It was obvious that this happened.

At the beginning of the great crisis of 2000, in a world where the social elevator had ensured very fast upward social mobility, unemployment hit especially young people with good qualifications.

As Isaiah Berlin taught us in his extraordinary book The Soviet Mind, they became the arrogant unemployed people we could find at the beginning of every modern revolution, from the French to the Bolshevik one.

From this viewpoint, Al Qaeda’s sword jihad  is the response of the new masses of rootless Arabs at the end of their Welfare State and of the political pact that created and stabilized the Middle East, which had been reshaped and defined in the Cold War and during Nasser-style “national socialism”.

Against this background of slow,but relentless social and economic degeneration, a central role is played by the wasta, i.e. the connections with the power elites, above all of the financial power connected to international “aid”.

Protests in Jordan, however, have now a long-standing tradition.

In 1996 they broke out especially in the poor South of the country against the increase in the price of bread, whereas in 1989 the revolt had been confined to the city of Maan, where King Husseyn managed to hush up and silence the masses, to reform the support network for the poor and to eliminate – as far as possible – the Muslim Brotherhood’s network.

Today, a solution to Jordan’s crisis could be to rebuild contacts with Qatar.

The recent anti-Qatari measures decided by Saudi Arabia and by many of its allies, including Westerners, which also saw Jordan’s partial and lukewarm support, were clearly at the origin of the new tension between Saudi Arabia and the Hashemite Kingdom.

Hence a way out for King Abdallah could now be new support from Qatar and also a new relationship with Turkey.

There is also the issue of refugees that Jordan cannot keep  on its territory. This entails an annual cost of 5.6 billion US dollars of which only one fourth is, in fact, available for Jordan’s finances.

Another safety net for Jordan now comes from Kuwait, with a recent mix of investment, loans and grants.

However, also religion matters in the recent disagreement between Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The Saudi Prince had asked King Abdallah II not to attend the Istanbul Conference on Jerusalem, but the Jordanian King decided to go anyway, arguing that Jordan is responsible for the city’s Islamic structures, namely the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in addition to all the other Islamic sites in East Jerusalem.

Abdallah’s refusal was immediately followed by the freeze of the latest Saudi funding to Jordan, with a recent 750 million US dollar tranche that was stopped in Riyadh.

In response, Jordan decided to stop the transit of Saudi trucks to its territory – a traffic of around 3,000 vehicles a day, which is vital to Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia stopped the operations of the Saudi military mission on the border with Syria, in the point where the Jordanian forces hit targets in Syria from Jordanian areas.

Therefore, the link between economic crisis, military strategy and redesign of the traditional equilibria in the Middle East results not only from Western indecision, but also from the end of the Arab Welfare State, which will destabilize those societies as never before.

Certainly a EU and possibly US share of fast aid to the Hashemite Kingdom would be a good solution, at least to begin with.

We doubt, however, that Western decision-makers currently understand the link existing between economy and strategy.

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. “

Middle East

From ‘Decisive Storm’ to Secret Talks: The Journey of Saudi Conquest of Yemen

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In the last days of the spring of 2015, Saudi generals were sitting around a V-shaped table in front of a newly appointed defense minister, dwelling on the answer to the rise of Houthi rebels in Yemen which had critically threatened the security of the southern border. For decades, Saudi Arabia has been known for its wise and cagey foreign policy, often following the lead of Washington, in any regional or global military conflict but this time was different.

When the 29-year-old defense minister, Muhammad bin Salman, ordered, “Send in the F-15s,” it shocked all of them. Despite having spent only eight months heading the armies of the kingdom, he was about to shape an aggressive or rather reckless foreign policy of one of the most resourceful and conservative countries in the world.

The Unresolved Conflict

After six years of war in Yemen, 233,000 lives have been ravaged of which more than 3,000 were children, 3.3 million have been displaced from their homes, 24 million Yemenis are in dire need of humanitarian support, while 16.2 million Yemenis are on the verge of food insecurity. Now, Saudi Arabia is finally looking for a way out.

“We want the guns to fall completely silent,” remarked Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, in March, laying out the Yemen Peace Initiative. The Houthis rejected the plan as it imparted “nothing new” according to them. “We expected that Saudi Arabia would announce an end to the blockade,” stated the Houthis’ chief negotiator, Mohammad Abdulsalam, to Reuters.

Riyadh had severed diplomatic ties with Tehran in January 2016 after the Saudi embassy was stormed by the protestors angry at the execution of Sheikh Nimr, a top Shia cleric from Saudi Arabia’s eastern province—a region known for being marginalized on the sectarian basis.

Saudi Arabia and Iran held the first official talks, brokered by the Iraqi government, in Baghdad on 9th April. The Baghdad talks canvassed the Yemen conflict as well as the political and economical instability of Lebanon to evaluate whether both countries can reach a common understanding of the situation.

The Zaidiyyah Imamate

Coming to the Yemen conflict, the rugged Yemeni mountains known for their finest coffee growing regions have a thousand-year-long history of the rule of Zaidiyyah imamate carved on them.

The Zaydism Shia sect is rooted in the unsuccessful rebellion of Zayd bin Ali, the grandson of Husayn bin Ali – the direct descendent of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) – against the Umayyad Caliphate in 740AD. Zaidiyyah’s theology differs from Iran’s Twelver Shiism and Ismaili branches in being far more tolerant towards early Islamic caliphs and in set qualifications for an imam to be a ruler.

The Creation of the Yemen Arab Republic

The imamate resisted the Romans and Ottomans to some extent for centuries but a revolution was brewing and the imams provided the catalyst themselves. Amid 1930’s modernism, Yemeni Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din stepped up from his conservative policy of not allowing foreign travel and authorized around forty boys to study abroad. He envisioned them as his “Famous Forty”—leaders of politics, military, and administration.

Until 1959, several hundred boys had gone through advanced studies from Iraq, Egypt, and Europe but they had envisioned something else. They laid the foundation of a progressive republican movement marked with several attempted coups and the assassination of Imam Yahya (1948) till 1962 when the last imam, al-Badr, was deposed by the revolutionary movement. This led to the emergence of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) with Abdullah Sallal as its leader and after that, Yemen was never the same.

Tracing the Root of the Saudi-Yemen Conflict

Al Saud had troubling relations with the imamate since Saudi Arabia had emerged as a kingdom in 1932. “Who is this Bedouin coming to challenge my family’s 900-year rule?” stated Imam Yahya once, which erupted the 1934 war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and ended up in the Treaty of Taif. The treaty demarcated the border and granted Jizan, Asir, and Najran to Saudi Arabia after the kingdom’s victory.

The Saudis then cultivated alliances within the bordering Yemeni tribes to erect a makeshift buffer zone during the 1960s civil war in Zaydi Imamate. Al Saud sided with Yemeni loyalists when the republican government tossed away the Treaty of Taif in 1962 and Egypt lined up 70,000 troops to assist the republic against Imam Badr’s guerrilla opposition.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, North and South Yemen struggled for coexistence and peace with continuous border clashes, including a bloody civil war in the South, which John Kifner aptly referred to as MassacrewithTea, that cost thousands of souls. Eventually, after 20 years of political and military turmoil, South Yemen’s Ali Salim al-Baidh joined with the North’s Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign the unification agreement of the two states on November 30, 1989.

Yet, while Ali Abdullah Salih was being declared as the president of a unified Yemen and the country was facing an economic collapse, something worse was brewing in the heights of northern Yemen.

The Houthis and the Saudi Construct

Feeling his unique sect threatened by the Saudi-funded proselytization through Salafist preachers, Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi, a Zaydi scholar from Maran range established a seemingly political and revivalist movement, Ansar Allah (Supporters of God)to preserve the Zaidiyyah sect, followed by 40% of the Yemeni population, which turned into an aggressive armed insurgency in no time.

The point is that the current regional discord has centuries-old bad blood embedded in its roots. The Houthi movement, their substantial public support, and their military successes must be deconstructed from the local perspective, along with the regional one, to reach a better understanding of the conflict.

The Saudi-led coalition has been portraying Houthis just as an Iranian proxy, which is far from reality. In their annual policy paper, the Middle East Institute of Washington D.C stated that the current civil war of Yemen is entrenched in widespread public resentment over political marginalization, a paralyzed economy, and a corrupt and failed state.

Where Saudi Arabia’s policy of sectarian expansionism across the borderlands made the descendants of Zaidiyah Imamate, ousted from a centuries-long rule, feel more vulnerable, discrimination for Shia sects by Abdullah Saleh’s regime and corrupt practices tossed Yemen into a cycle of political upheaval and violence—all of which had nothing to with Iran.

The Houthis took arms against the Yemeni government six times from 2004-2010, a chapter remembered as the Saada Wars, long before Tehran came into the picture.

Civil War in Yemen

In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, the Houthi leader, Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, called countrywide demonstrations to end Saleh’s 33-year rule but after Saleh resigned and declared his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the head of state in exchange of immunity, hopes rose for peace. However, Hadi, shockingly, stepped down in January 2015 and fled the country after the National Dialogue Conference failed to agree on the division of Yemen in the UN-backed transitional process and the Houthis stormed the Presidential Palace.

After the Houthis took over Sanaa in February 2015, Jamal Benomar, the UN special envoy for Yemen, went straight to Riyadh, which highlights Saudis’ concerns over the matter. On March 26, 2015, the Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm, with Saudi jets targeting the military compounds around the capital overnight.

The tactical inabilities of the coalition air force manifested to reality when three days later, Saudi warplanes accidentally bombed a refugee camp killing at least 40 and injuring 200. It was the beginning of one of the most horrible bombing campaigns, a disaster from a civilian and military perspective.

As civilian casualties mounted, the United States, concerned by the human cost of the conflict, urged Saudi Arabia to reach a negotiating position as soon as possible. Riyadh ended Operation Decisive Storm on 21 April, claiming the achievements, and rolled out Operation Renewal of Hope. But the truth was, the Saudis failed to deliver a considerable blow to the Houthis’ hold of the capital.

In May and June, the first reports came of mortar and Scud missile attacks by Houthis across the Saudi border. The Houthis proved tenacious and provoked Riyadh for a ground invasion, which worked out disastrously for the Saudi-led coalition. Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Sudan, and others had deployed hundreds of ground troops by the end of the year.

Although they spawned some temporary gains in forcing the Houthis out of key southern provinces, like the vital Aden seaport in July, Zinjibar, and Al-And Airbase in August, the Houthis also inflicted heavy casualties to the coalition. In just one Houthi missile attack on a weapon depot in Marib in September 2015, 45 Emirati and Five Bahraini troops were killed.

The Kuwait Talks: A Failed Attempt at Resolving the Conflict

After a year into the war with no end in sight, reports came in March 2016 of the first Houthi delegation’s visit to Saudi Arabia, led by Mohammed Abdel-Salam, the Houthis’ senior advisor and spokesperson.

Two weeks later, the UN envoy for Yemen, Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed, stated that talks will circumvent the withdrawal and disarmament of militias and inclusive political dialogue. Kuwait’s emir and legendary peacemaker, late Sheikh Sabah, mediated talks between the delegations of the Houthis, Abdullah Saleh, and ousted president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who had returned to coalition controlled Aden in September 2015. Riyadh kept its distance from the Kuwait talks held in April  2016.

“Saudi Arabia seeks through the Kuwait talks to exonerate itself from its aggression against Yemen and to portray said aggression as a civil Yemeni war,” accused Yahya Saleh, a former general and Saleh’s nephew, after the Kuwait talks struck a stalemate over Houthis demanding a new consensual transitional regime while Hadi’s delegation insisted on a return to the current government, an out and out surrender for Houthis.

The peace talks were formally suspended in August 2016 when Houthis announced a new ten-member governing body to replace the interim Supreme Revolutionary Council, which had run the country since February 2015. The unilateral move was immediately denounced by Saudi Arabia and the United Nations. “Houthis, as well as their supporters, are making the search for a peaceful solution more difficult,” declared the statement issued by the group of G18 ambassadors of nations that backed the UN peace talks while tens of thousands of Houthi supporters rallied through Saana to show their support for the Houthis.

In all of this, a frangible ceasefire was held throughout the year with occasional skirmishes. In October 2016, a coalition double airstrike cremated a crowded funeral hall, killing around 140 mourners, adding to the domestic and international pressure on the US to review the billion dollars arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition.

Previously, The Guardian had concluded that each one in three Saudi strikes hit civilian targets but the coalition kept sweeping all of this under the rug. The Houthis also left no stone unturned to kill any hopes of negotiations when in March 2017, a Pro-Houthi court sentenced President Hadi and six other top officials to death in absentia for high treason. This was followed by the Burkan missile attack on Mecca in July 2017, although the Houthis claimed that it was aimed at the King Fahad airbase.

The United States’ Endless Support of Saudi Arabia

In August 2017, the Middle East Eye reported an email leak between UAE’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, and a former high-level US diplomat, Martin Indyk, which revealed that the kingdom’s de-facto ruler, Muhammad bin Salman, wanted out of Yemen but Riyadh could not withdraw without ensuring the cross-border security.

On the other hand, in a striking development, the Houthi-Saleh split went real in December 2017 amid Saleh’s attempt to switch sides with the coalition and turned up in Houthis killing the former president of Yemen, who had been the sole ruler for more than three decades.

As 2018 unfolded, the international criticism for Saudi intervention and Washington’s role in the Yemeni chapter of war crimes plummeted. Houthis were no angels either as a UNHCR report published in Aug ‘18 noted coalition hitting civilian targets, it also documented blanket use of force on the civilian population in Houthi controlled areas.

“The group of experts is concerned by the alleged use by the Houthi­-Saleh forces of weapons with wide-area effect in a situation of urban warfare.” stated the report. It also stated that the Houthis were hitting women and children through shelling and snipers in their homes, fetching water at local wells, or traveling to seek medical attention.

On August 18, another coalition strike annihilated 40 boys, aged from six to eleven, in their school bus. As Bellingcat traced back the Mk-82 bomb, approved by the US Department of State, used in the attack to Lockheed Martin, it added to the criticism of the US’s unconditional support to the Saudi regime.

In June 2018, the Yemeni National Army backed by a Saudi-led alliance had launched an offensive to recapture the northwestern port city of Hodeidah, a significant economic hub and fourth-largest city. After six months of intense fighting, both parties agreed to a truce, total withdrawal from Hodeidah, and a “mutual understanding” in Taiz.

Blaming Iran

In January 2019, the Council of Foreign Relations and the Italian Institute of International Political Studies had listed Yemen in the Top Conflict Watch of the year. As Houthis scaled up their military capabilities, shooting down US MQ-9 reaper drone with Iranian assistance—according to CENTCOM—reports came of UAE pulling out from Aden, amid intensified tensions between the US and Iran in the Persian Gulf.

On September 14, 2019, at 3:31 to 3:42 am in morning, the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry and the world’s largest oil processing facilities, Abqaiq and Khurais Oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia, were attacked by Houthi drones, shutting down half of the kingdom’s crude output.

Despite the Houthis’ taking credit for the attack and the UN’s claims regarding the Houthis acquiring long-range drones (1200-1500km) capable of hitting Riyadh, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi, the United States and Saudi Arabia asserted that the attack hadn’t stemmed from Yemen. Instead, Iran was directly behind the “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” tweeted the US Secretary of State at that time, Mike Pompeo.

Tehran immediately refuted all such accusations. Despite this continuous rhetoric, US President Donald Trump’s statements had hinted that Washington would avoid any additional escalation with Iran which would have doomed global energy supplies further down the hill while markets hadn’t recovered from the previous attacks on Saudi facilities.

The Saudi-Emirati Rivalry in Yemen

On the other hand in a dramatic twist, the civil war turned multi-layered when the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) separatists seized Aden’s control from coalition-supported government forces. Few days after a joint statement was released from both Saudi and Emirati foreign ministers urging for peace talks between the Yemeni government and southern separatists, the UAE struck Hadi’s forces to aid southern separatists, killing 30 Yemeni troops as per Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

In November 2019, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia successfully struck the Riyadh agreement, between the southern separatists and the Yemeni government, which entailed power-sharing in cabinet and the military withdrawal of all forces from Aden, Abyan, and Shabwah. The landmark deal granted the absolute authority of southern Yemen to Saudi Arabia. Later in the same month, Reuters reported indirect talks in Oman between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis.

In January 2020, the Houthis claimed to seize 1,500 square miles of territory in Al-Jawf and the Marib governorate, and in March, they successfully captured the strategic city of Al Hazm. “Control of the capital of Al-Jawf could totally change the course of the war. The Houthis are changing the balance in their favor,” Majed al-Madhaji, executive director of Sanaa Centre, deciphered the situation to AFP. 

Bethan McKernan, The Guardian’s Middle East correspondent reported the same that Saudi-Emirati tussle had been dragging the conflict as Riyadh was already back channeling with Houthis through Oman while the UAE was pressing the attacks to keep the Saudi-backed Islah faction in check.

The One-sided Agreement

In April 2020, in light of the proposal sent by UN Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths, the coalition announced a unilateral ceasefire amid the globally surging COVID-19 pandemic, although the coalition forces kept violating the ceasefire with at least 106 airstrikes in just a week.

The Houthis had already called it a “ploy”, demanding the lifting of air and naval blockade of Yemen which had been depriving the population of food and medicines. It seemed like the international pressure on the coalition, and the financial strain on Al Saud was dealing with, had not gone unnoticed by those controlling most of northern Yemen.

The Houthis had released their own proposal which Elana DeLozier from the Washington Institute narrated as a “wish list”, as it had thrown all the responsibility of ceasefire on the coalition with demands of demilitarization of borders and above all, war compensations and salaries in northern Yemen for a decade, but all were non-starters for Riyadh.

The Saudis kept extending the one-sided ceasefire but things only got worse. The STC separatists withdrew from the Riyadh agreement six months after signing, announcing the establishment of self-rule in southern Yemen. The Saudi-backed Yemeni government immediately denounced the declaration while the Houthis were claiming to “liberate” 95% of the Al-Jawf governorate; this left only the Marib province in the north under the control of Hadi’s forces.

The Houthis were keenly observing and seizing the fruits of coalition infighting. Separatists moved to redirect the revenues from ports, free zones, and an oil refinery to the STC accounts as reports surfaced of the Yemeni government attacking the separatists in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province.

A week later, the STC president, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, landed in Riyadh to talk over the deadlock that persisted between supposedly anti-Houthi allies. The Yemeni government and STC separatists agreed to a ceasefire to begin peace talks in June 2020. In December 2020 while a freshly established cabinet of coalition-backed government arrived in Yemen after agreeing to equal power-sharing, two blasts shook Aden International Airport. With cabinet members remaining safe, 22—with most being aid workers—were killed in this fatal attack.

Coalition’s Failure in Yemen

“Incompetence, lack of unified leadership, and the absence of a military strategy by the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition played into the hands of the Houthis,” stated Nadwa Al-Dawsari from the Middle East Institute. Local tribes lacked the medium-range surface-to-air ballistic missiles and other advanced weaponry on which Houthis built their tactical achievements.

The Houthi combat units constituted 20, or even fewer men, and three trucks for higher mobility to counter the constant aerial surveillance by coalition UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and the US satellites. According to Jamestown Foundation, disregard for meritocracy and skills, the weary chain of commands, and persisting corruption in Yemeni government forces due to Saudi black-cheque strategy laid the ground for coalition failures. While perpetual imprecise bombings cost thousands of civilian lives and the worst humanitarian crisis due to the air and naval blockade, the public resentment against the coalition fueled.

In the aftermath of King Abdullah’s death in January 2015, his brother Salman bin Abdulaziz ascended to rule but being 79 with speculations of dementia and Parkinson’s enabled his most ambitious son, Muhammad bin Salman, to rise as a de facto ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Reportedly he is named “little general” behind his back due to his craving for respect from Washington and turning down his advisers who predicted a catastrophic outcome from an all-out Yemeni offensive, including former foreign minister Saud al-Faisal. Saudi military failure in Yemen hatched from a “panicked reaction of an inexperienced prince with too much to prove” rather than from his desire to check Iranian influence and rescue Yemen, wrote Sophia Dingli, a lecturer in international relations from the University of Hull.

Besides all this, Washington has also altered its course with Joe Biden in the Oval Office. “The war in Yemen must end,” stated President Biden in his first significant foreign policy speech. A week later, the state department repealed the Houthis’ status of Specially Designated Global Terrorist Organization(SDGT) and Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) enacted a day before Donald Trump left the Oval Office.

Saltana Begum, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) advocacy manager in Yemen, voiced that at that time “We had famine warnings where 16 million people – that’s one in two Yemenis – were close to starvation.”

Setting Terms for Peace

In June this year, the Saudi-led coalition even ceased the air raids temporarily for “preparing the political ground for a peace process in Yemen,” remarked the coalition spokesperson Turki al-Malki. The gesture came as efforts ramped up for a political settlement. The US Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking had visited Riyadh in the same month where he met several government officials along with UN Envoy Martin Griffiths.

Saudi and Houthi camps have been reportedly close to a ceasefire deal. The Houthis want the end of the blockade “without impossible conditions” before a “comprehensive ceasefire”, stated Houthi’s chief negotiator Mohammed Abdulsalam. As promising as it all might seem, and although Oman has been an excellent mediator with its impartial and carefully measured foreign policy, there are still a lot of bridges to cross and compromises to be made from both sides for a mutually beneficial post-war arrangement.

The Saudis would not just demand guarantees on border security from Oman and Iran but also a check to Iranian influence and even that won’t cater to the grievances of anti-Houthi factions battling alongside coalition forces. So, the peace process has to be inclusive for sustainable accords.

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Middle East

Turkey’s Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Artsakh

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The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin of the Armenian Apostolic Church has recently hosted a conference on international religious freedom and peace with the blessings of His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.

Tasoula Hadjitofi, the founding president of the Walk of Truth, was one of the invited guests. She spoke about genocide and her own experience in Cyprus, warning of Turkey’s religious freedom violations. Hadjitofi also called for joint legal actions against continued ethnic cleansing and destruction of Christian cultural heritage in Cyprus, Turkey, Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and other places by the Turkish government and its regional allies including Azerbaijan.

During the two-day conference, access to places of worship in war and conflict zones, the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, and preservation of cultural heritage were among the topics addressed by many distinguished speakers.  The conference paid particular attention to the situation of historic Armenian monasteries, churches, monuments, and archeological sites in parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that have been under Azeri occupation since the 2020 violent war unleashed by Azerbaijan.

Hadjitofi presented about the situation of Cyprus, sharing her recent visit to the Cypriot city of Famagusta (Varoshia), making historic parallels between the de-Christianisation of Asia Minor, Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh by Turkey, and its allies such as Azerbaijan. See Hadjitofi’s full speech here.

Author of the book, The Icon Hunter, Hadjitofi spoke with passion about her recent visit to the ghost city of Famagusta, occupied by Turkey since 1974. Her visit coincided with the 47th anniversary of the occupation. She was accompanied by journalist Tim Neshintov of Spiegel and photographer Julien Busch as she made several attempts to visit her home and pray at her church of Timios Stavrou (Holy Cross).

Hadjitofi explained how her own human rights and religious freedoms, alongside the rights of tens of thousands of Cypriots, were violated when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan illegally entered her country and prayed at the newly erected mosque in her own occupied town whereas she was kneeling down in the street to pray to her icon in front of her violated Christian church. In comparison, her church was looted, mistreated and vandalized by the occupying forces.  

Hadjitofi reminded the audience of the historic facts concerning Turks discriminating against Christian Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians. They also massacred these communities or expelled them from the Ottoman Empire and the modern Republic of Turkey, a process of widespread persecution which culminated in the 1913-23 Christian genocide. Hadjitofi then linked those genocidal actions with what Erdogan is doing today to the Kurds in Syria, and the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh by supporting Turkey’s wealthy friends such as the government of Azerbaijan.  She also noted that during her recent visit to her hometown of Famagusta, a delegation from Azerbaijan referred to Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus as “Turkish land” and a “part of Greater Turkey”. This is yet another sign of Turkish-Azeri historic revisionism, and their relentless efforts for the Turkification of non-Turkish geography.

Hadjitofi called for a series of legal actions against Turkey and its allies, reminding Armenians that although they signed the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC), they have not ratified it. She noted that it must be the priority of Armenians if they want to seek justice. Azerbaijan and Turkey, however, neither signed or ratified the Rome Statute.

During her speech Hadjitofi also emphasized the need for unity amongst all Christians and other faiths against any evil or criminal act of destroying places of worship or evidence of their historical existence anywhere in the world. 

In line with this call, the Republic of Armenia instituted proceedings against the Republic of Azerbaijan before the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, with regard to violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

In its application, Armenia stated that “[f]or decades, Azerbaijan has subjected Armenians to racial discrimination” and that, “[a]s a result of this State-sponsored policy of Armenian hatred, Armenians have been subjected to systemic discrimination, mass killings, torture and other abuse”.

Hadjitofi said that “Armenia’s lawsuit against the government of Azerbaijan is a positive move in the right direction and more legal actions should be taken against governments that systematically violate human rights and cultural heritage. I’m also in the process of meeting members of the Armenian diaspora in Athens, London, and Nicosia to discuss further joint legal actions. But the most urgent action that Armenia should take is the ratification of Rome Statute of the ICC,” she added.

Other speakers at the conference included representatives of the main Christian denominations, renowned scholars and experts from around the globe, all of whom discussed issues related to international religious freedom and the preservation of the world’s spiritual, cultural and historical heritage.

Baroness Cox, a Member of the UK House of Lords and a prominent human rights advocate, was among the participants. She has actively defended the rights of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia through her parliamentary, charity and advocacy work.

Meanwhile, the organizing committee of the conference adopted a joint communiqué, saying, in part:

” We re-affirm the principles of the right to freedom of religion or belief, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international and regional human rights treaties. We claim this right, equally, for all people, of any faith or none, and regardless of nation, history or political circumstances – including for those Armenian prisoners of war still illegally held in captivity by Azerbaijan, for whose swift release and repatriation we appeal and pray, and for the people of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh whose rights to free and peaceful assembly and association necessarily implicate the sacred character of human life.”

On September 11, the delegates of the conference were received by the President of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian, in his palace in Yerevan where they were thanked. The guests also visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial-Museum (Tsitsernakaberd), where Hadjitofi was interviewed on Armenian national TV. She said:

“I read about the Armenian Genocide and I am glad that more countries recognize it as such but I am disappointed that politicians do not condemn actions of Turkey and its allies in their anti Christian attitude towards Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh. I see an interconnection between the genocide and the adopted politics of Azerbaijan, when the ethnic cleansing takes place, when cultural heritage is destroyed, gradually the traces of the people once living there are eliminated and that is genocide”. 

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Middle East

After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians

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The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.

The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.

“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”

Scandal of Al Hol’s children

Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.

“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”

Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. 

Blockades and bombardment

The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.

“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.

In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.

Living in fear

In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.

At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.

Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.

Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.

Division remains

The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”

Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants

The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.

“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”

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