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Will Saudi Arabia Pick Up the Mantle?

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For a brief moment late last month, media reports about a secret meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reignited speculation that Riyadh might be ready to push ahead with normalizing relations with Israel in the waning days of the Trump administration.

In the days since, however, the meeting appears to have not only a flop but also a something of a disaster. For not only has the nighttime tête-à-tête between the two leaders failed to advance Saudi-Israeli normalization after Prince Mohammad had reportedly rebuffed Netanyahu’s entreaties to move forward before the Biden administration took office. Worse, the meeting also triggered considerable blowback from those within the Saudi ruling family vehemently opposed to normalizing relations with Israel outside the context of the Arab Peace Initiative.

The latest sign came this past Sunday, when a prominent member of the Saudi royal household, Prince Turki al-Faisal, lashed out at Israel in unusually harsh terms, criticizing it for a litany of crimes since its pre-state days to the present. Yet while the belligerent words by the former Saudi head of intelligence drew most of the attention, Prince Turki also made an impassioned plea to Israelis “to take the extended hand of peace” by accepting the Arab Peace Initiative. It is a plea he has made in the past directly to Israelis.

To those craving for comprehensive peace in the Middle East, these and other similar statements by senior Saudi officials should not be discouraging. On the contrary, they offer hope that Israeli quest for normalization with Saudi Arabia will drive home to Jerusalem the need to negotiate with the Palestinians. At the same time, and no less importantly, they underscore the unique opportunity that has opened up for Riyadh to reintroduce the Arab Peace Initiative and press the parties to resume talks on its basis.

Originally launched in March 2002, the Arab Peace Initiative is one of the most far-reaching Mideast peace proposals ever advanced. The brainchild of Saudi crown prince at the time, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the Initiative offered Israel a quid pro quo: Withdraw from Arab territory captured in the 1967 war and allow the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the entire Arab world would normalize relations with you. Unfortunately, the plan never got the chance to get off the ground.

The reasons are multiple, but bad timing played a crucial factor. Initiated at the time of the second intifada – the Palestinian uprising that began shortly after the collapse of the Camp David summit of July 2000 – the plan fell on deaf ears. Under terrorist attacks almost daily, Israel was in no mood to contemplate renewed peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

In fact, as bad luck had it, the Arab League summit that formally launched the initiative convened the morning after Israel had suffered the deadliest attack in its history – the Passover massacre at a seaside hotel, which claimed the lives of 30 civilians and wounded 140. Within days, Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield, the largest military campaign in the West Bank since the 1967 war.

The second intifada, which claimed the lives of about 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis, left Jerusalem wary of the peace process. By the time the violence had waned during 2005, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon deflected international efforts to resume negotiations by initiating Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. There was even talk of a follow-up move in the West Bank.

The new spirit of unilateralism – under which Israel proclaimed it would act to determine its own borders – was short lived, however, as rocket fire to Israel by Gaza militants, combined with the 2006 war in Lebanon (from which Israel had pulled out six years earlier), put into question the wisdom of Israel’s territorial withdrawals.

A U.S.-led push to jumpstart peace negotiations led to convening the Annapolis Conference in November 2007. But Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, initially trod a cautious path. Eventually, Olmert’s positions would evolve, but timing again was inauspicious, as his term was cut short by criminal indictments for personal corruption.

Meanwhile, the Arab Spring uprisings and the ensuing Syrian civil war meant that the Arab Peace Initiative no longer required, effectively if not explicitly, Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Instead, Arab leaders increasingly focused on the Palestinian front, adding the pragmatic proviso that any settlement agreed upon by the Palestinians, even if one that included land swaps to compensate for less than a full withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, would win their full support.

Yet, for the past 11 years Benjamin Netanyahu has capably rebuffed every effort to advance a two-state solution, including the headstrong push by the Obama administration during 2013-14. But even as he has proved averse to making any concessions to the Palestinians, Netanyahu has not lost sight of the promise encapsulated in the Arab Peace Initiative. On the contrary, he sought to win the prize without paying the requested price.

This is why Netanyahu has cast the diplomatic breakthroughs with the U.A.E., Bahrain, and even Sudan as such a triumph. Bracketing off the fact that the agreement required him to abandon his plans for West Bank annexation, Netanyahu has hailed the agreements as vindication for his long-held claim that Israel would eventually normalize relations with the wider Arab world irrespective of progress on the Palestinian front.

Tactically, Netanyahu has a point. But strategically, Saudi Arabia has something even better: the diplomatic leverage to steer the process in a more desirable direction. And the best way to use this leverage is to take the unprecedented step of inviting the Palestinian and Israeli leaders to Riyadh to launch bilateral negotiations, under Saudi auspices, on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative. 

True, the principles of the Initiative are difficult for Israel’s current leadership to accept, but Riyadh’s leverage with Israel means that it can offer an incentive only it can: immediate steps to normalize relations in tandem with real progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

To judge by the euphoria with which Israelis have greeted the agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, the prospect of normalized relations with the Saudi Arabia could well untether Israel from its deeply rooted positions on what it can and cannot do in order to reach agreement with the Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia is uniquely poised to advance comprehensive peace in the Middle East. Will it pick up the mantle?

Yonatan Touval is a senior foreign policy analyst with Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

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Middle East

Will Oman Succeed In What The UN And US Envoys Failed In Yemen?

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Since taking office on January 20, US President Joe Biden has made a priority for Yemen and appointed Tim Linderking as the US special envoy to Yemen to seek an end of the war that has been going on for more than six years, which made Yemen live “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”, as described by the United Nations.

Nearly four months after his appointment as a special envoy to Yemen, and after several visits to the region, and several meetings through Omani coordination with representatives of the Houthi movement in Muscat, Linderking returned to the United States empty-handed, announcing that the Houthis are responsible for the failure of the ceasefire to take hold in Yemen. The US State Department said “While there are numerous problematic actors inside of Yemen, the Houthis bear major responsibility for refusing to engage meaningfully on a ceasefire and to take steps to resolve a nearly seven-year conflict that has brought unimaginable suffering to the Yemeni people”.

Two days only after the US State Department statement, which blamed the Houthis for the failure of the peace process in Yemen, an Omani delegation from the Royal Office arrives in Sana’a. What are the goals behind their visit to Sana’a, and will the Omani efforts be crowned with success?

Houthi spokesman Muhammad Abdul Salam said that “the visit of a delegation from the Omani Royal Office to Sanaa is to discuss the situation in Yemen, arrange the humanitarian situation, and advancing the peace process”. However, observers considered that the delegation carried an American message to the Houthi leader as a last attempt to pressure the Houthis to accept a ceasefire, and to continue the peace efforts being made to end the war and achieve peace, especially after the failure of all intensive efforts in the past days by the United Nations and the United States of America to reach a ceasefire as a minimum requirement for peace.

Oman was the only country in the Gulf Cooperation Council that decided not to participate in what was called “Operation Decisive Storm”, led by Saudi Arabia following its consistent policy of non-interference. Due to its positive role since the beginning of the crisis and its standing at the same distance from all the conflicting local and regional parties in Yemen, it has become the only qualified and trusted party by all the conflicting parties, who view it as a neutral side that has no interest in further fighting and fragmentation.

On the local level, Oman enjoys the respect and trust of the Houthis, who have embraced them and their negotiators for years and provided them with a political platform and a point of contact with the international parties concerned with solving the Yemeni problem, as well as embracing other political parties loyal to the legitimate government, especially those who had a different position to the Saudi-Emirati agenda during the last period.

At the regional level, Oman maintains strong historical relations with the Iran, and it is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and this feature enables it to bring the views between the two sides closer to reach a ceasefire and ending the Yemeni crisis that has raved the region for several years as a proxy war between the regional rivalries Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Oman now possesses the trust and respect of all local, regional and international parties, who resorted to it recently and they are all pushing to reach a ceasefire and ending the crisis, after they have reached a conviction that it is useless. So the Omani delegation’s public visit to Sana’a has great connotations and an important indication of the determination of all parties to reach breakthrough in the Yemeni crisis.

The international community, led by the United States, is now looking forward to stop the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia also is looking for an end to the war that cost the kingdom a lot and it is already presented an initiative to end the Yemeni crisis, as well as Iran’s preoccupation with its nuclear program and lifting of sanctions.

Likewise, the conflicting local parties reached a firm conviction that military resolution is futile, especially after the Houthis’ failed attempt for several months to control Marib Governorate the rich of oil and gas and the last strongholds of the government in the north, which would have changed the balance of power in the region as a whole.

Despite the ambiguity that is still surrounding the results of the Omani delegation’s visit to Sana’a so far, there is great optimism to reach a cease-fire and alleviate the humanitarian crisis and other measures that pave the way for entering into the political track to solve the Yemeni crisis.

The situation in Yemen is very complicated and the final solution is still far away, but reaching a ceasefire and the start of negotiations may be a sign of hope and a point of light in the dark tunnel of Yemenis who have suffered for years from the curse of this war and its devastating effects.

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Saudi Arabia steps up effort to replace UAE and Qatar as go-to regional hub

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Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to outflank the United Arab Emirates and Qatar as the Gulf’s commercial, cultural, and/or geostrategic hub.

The kingdom has recently expanded its challenge to the smaller Gulf states by seeking to position Saudi Arabia as the region’s foremost sport destination once Qatar has had its moment in the sun with the 2022 World Cup as well as secure a stake in the management of regional ports and terminals dominated so far by the UAE and to a lesser extent Qatar.

Saudi Arabia kicked off its effort to cement its position as the region’s behemoth with an announcement in February that it would cease doing business by 2024 with international companies whose regional headquarters were not based in the kingdom. 

With the UAE ranking 16 on the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Index as opposed to Saudi Arabia at number 62, freewheeling Dubai has long been international business’s preferred regional headquarters.

The Saudi move “clearly targets the UAE” and “challenges the status of Dubai,” said a UAE-based banker.

A latecomer to the port control game which is dominated by Dubai’s DP World that operates 82 marine and inland terminals in more than 40 countries, including Djibouti, Somaliland, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus, the kingdom’s expansion into port and terminal management appears to be less driven by geostrategic considerations.

Instead, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Gateway Terminal (RSGT), backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, said it was targeting ports that would service vital Saudi imports such as those related to food security.

PIF and China’s Cosco Shipping Ports each bought a 20 per cent stake in RSGT in January.

The Chinese investment fits into China’s larger Belt and Road-strategy that involves the acquisition regionally of stakes in ports and terminals in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, and Djibouti, where China has a military base.

RSGT Chief Executive Officer Jens Floe said the company planned to invest in at least three international ports in the next five years. He said each investment would be up to US$500 million.

“We have a focus on ports in Sudan and Egypt. They weren’t picked for that reason, but they happen to be significant countries for Saudi Arabia’s food security strategy,” Mr. Floe said.

Saudi Arabia’s increased focus on sports, including a potential bid for the hosting of the 2030 World Cup serves multiple goals: It offers Saudi youth who account for more than half of the kingdom’s population a leisure and entertainment opportunity, it boosts Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s burgeoning development of a leisure and entertainment industry, potentially allows Saudi Arabia to polish its image tarnished by human rights abuse, including the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and challenges Qatar’s position as the face of Middle Eastern sports.

A recent report by Grant Liberty, a London-based human rights group that focuses on Saudi Arabia and China, estimated that the kingdom has so far invested in US$1.5 billion in the hosting of multiple sporting events, including the final matches of Italy and Spain’s top soccer leagues; Formula One; boxing, wrestling and snooker matches; and golf tournaments. Qatar is so far the Middle East’s leader in the hosting of sporting events followed by the UAE.

Grant Liberty said that further bids for sporting events worth US$800 million had failed. This did not include an unsuccessful US$600 million offer to replace Qatar’s beIN tv sports network as the Middle Eastern broadcaster of European soccer body UEFA’s Champions League.

Saudi Arabia reportedly continues to ban beIN from broadcasting in the kingdom despite the lifting in January of 3.5 year-long Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify and streamline the Saudi economy and ween it off dependency on oil exports “has set the creation of professional sports and a sports industry as one of its goals… The kingdom is proud to host and support various athletic and sporting events which not only introduce Saudis to new sports and renowned international athletes but also showcase the kingdom’s landmarks and the welcoming nature of its people to the world,” said Fahad Nazer, spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington.

The increased focus on sports comes as the kingdom appears to be backing away from its intention to reduce the centrality of energy exports for its economy.

Energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Prince Mohammed’s brother, recently ridiculed an International Energy Agency (IEA) report that “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply” as “the sequel of the La La Land movie.” The minister went on to ask, “Why should I take (the report) seriously?”

Putting its money where its mouth is, Saudi Arabia intends to increase its oil production capacity from 12 million to more than 13 million barrels a day on the assumption that global efforts to replace fossil fuel with cleaner energy sources will spark sharp reductions in US and Russian production.

The kingdom’s operating assumption is that demand in Asia for fossil fuels will continue to rise even if it drops in the West. Other Gulf producers, including the UAE and Qatar, are following a similar strategy.

“Saudi Arabia is no longer an oil country, it’s an energy-producing country … a very competitive energy country. We are low cost in producing oil, low cost in producing gas, and low cost in producing renewables and will definitely be the least-cost producer of hydrogen,” Prince Abdulaziz said.

He appeared to be suggesting that the kingdom’s doubling down on oil was part of strategy that aims to ensure that Saudi Arabia is a player in all conventional and non-conventional aspects of energy. By implication, Prince Abdulaziz was saying that diversification was likely to broaden the kingdom’s energy offering rather than significantly reduce its dependence on energy exports.

“Sports, entertainment, tourism and mining alongside other industries envisioned in Vision 2030 are valuable expansions of the Saudi economy that serve multiple economic and non-economic purposes,” “ said a Saudi analyst. “It’s becoming evident, however, that energy is likely to remain the real name of the game.”

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Iranians Will Boycott Iran Election Farce

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Iran and elections have not been two synonymous terms. A regime whose constitution is based on absolute rule of someone who is considered to be God’s representative on earth, highest religious authority, morality guide, absolute ruler, and in one word Big Brother (or Vali Faqih), would hardly qualify for a democracy or a place where free or fair elections are held. But when you are God’s rep on earth you are free to invent your own meanings for words such as democracy, elections, justice, and human rights. It comes with the title. And everyone knows the fallacy of “presidential elections” in Iran. Most of all, the Iranian public know it as they have come to call for an almost unanimous boycott of the sham elections.

The boycott movement in Iran is widespread, encompassing almost all social and political strata of Iranian society, even some factions of the regime who have now decided it is time to jump ship. Most notably, remnants of what was euphemistically called the Reformist camp in Iran, have now decided to stay away from the phony polls. Even “hardline” former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad realizes the extent of the regime’s woes and has promised that he will not be voting after being duly disqualified again from participating by supreme leader’s Guardian Council.

So after 42 years of launching a reformist-hardliner charade to play on the West’s naivety, Khamenei’s regime is now forced to present its one and true face to the world: Ebrahim Raisi, son of the Khomeinist ideology, prosecutor, interrogator, torturer, death commission judge, perpetrator of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, chief inquisitionist, and favorite of Ali Khamenei.

What is historic and different about this presidential “election” in Iran is precisely what is not different about it. It took the world 42 years to cajole Iran’s medieval regime to step into modernity, change its behavior, embrace universal human rights and democratic governance, and treat its people and its neighbors with respect. What is shocking is that this whole process is now back at square one with Ebrahim Raisi, a proven mass murderer who boasts of his murder spree in 1988, potentially being appointed as president.

With Iran’s regime pushing the envelope in launching proxy wars on the United States in Iraq, on Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and on Israel in Gaza and Lebanon, and with a horrendous human rights record that is increasingly getting worse domestically, what is the international community, especially the West, going to do? What is Norway’s role in dealing with this crisis and simmering crises to come out of this situation?

Europe has for decades based its foreign policy on international cooperation and the peaceful settlement of disputes, and the promotion of human rights and democratic principles. The International community must take the lead in bringing Ebrahim Raisi to an international court to account for the massacre he so boastfully participated in 1988 and all his other crimes he has committed to this day.

There are many Iranian refugees who have escaped the hell that the mullahs have created in their beautiful homeland and who yearn to one day remake Iran in the image of a democratic country that honors human rights. These members of the millions-strong Iranian Diaspora overwhelmingly support the boycott of the sham election in Iran, and support ordinary Iranians who today post on social media platforms videos of the Mothers of Aban (mothers of protesters killed by regime security forces during the November 2019 uprising) saying, “Our vote is for this regime’s overthrow.” Finally, after 42 years, the forbidden word of overthrow is ubiquitous on Iranian streets with slogans adorning walls calling for a new era and the fall of this regime.

Europe should stand with the Iranian Resistance and people to call for democracy and human rights in Iran and it should lead calls for accountability for all regime leaders, including Ebrahim Raisi, and an end to a culture of impunity for Iran’s criminal rulers.

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