Archive | February, 2011

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Tens of Thousands of Houthi Supporters Join Yemen Protests

Posted on 22 February 2011 by hashimilion

On Monday morning, tens of thousands of people from Saada, Sahar, Majz and Qatabeer took part in a demonstration in Dhahyan. Demonstrators called for the end of the regime and announced their support for the demonstrators in Aden, Abyan, Sanaa, Taiz.

The demonstrators said that the protests had reached the point of no return and actively encouraged others to join these peaceful protests.

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Three Saudi Shi’ites Released After Rare Protest

Posted on 21 February 2011 by hashimilion

Three Shi’ites held in prison for over a year were freed in Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing Eastern province, a Shi’ite preacher and a local journalist said on Sunday, days after a rare protest demanding their release.

Shi’ites staged a small protest on Thursday in the town of Awwamiya, near the Shi’ite centre of Qatif on the Gulf coast, to demand the release of the three, who had been held without charges.

“They were released today,” preacher Khoder Awwami told Reuters on the sidelines of a ceremony in a small mosque where the three were welcomed.

“I am so happy,” said Muneer al-Jasas, a blogger and one of the released men.

Officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite minority mostly live in the Eastern province, which holds much of the oil wealth of the world’s top crude exporter.

The province is near Bahrain, scene of protests by majority Shi’ites against Sunni rulers.

Saudi Arabia applies an austere Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam and Shi’ites say that, while their situation has improved under reforms launched by King Abdullah, they still face restrictions in getting senior government jobs.

The government denies these charges.

Awwamiya, a town visibly less affluent than the rest of the country, was the scene of protests for weeks in 2009 after police launched a search for firebrand Shi’ite preacher Nimr al-Nimr, who had suggested in a sermon that Shi’ites could one day seek their own separate state.

The secessionist threat, which analysts say was unprecedented since the 1979 Iranian revolution provoked anti-government protests, followed clashes between the Sunni religious police and Shi’ite pilgrims near the tomb of Prophet Mohammad in the holy city of Medina.

Since then, Shi’ites say the situation has calmed down but they are still waiting for promised reforms to be carried out.

Officials say Shi’ites make up 10 percent of the Saudi population, although diplomats put it closer to 15 percent.

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Tunisia asks Saudi Arabia to Extradite Ben Ali

Posted on 21 February 2011 by hashimilion

Tunisia’s interim government on Sunday asked Saudi Arabia to extradite deposed strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as it faced a second day of protests demanding its resignation.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi’s government made the official request to Riyadh, where Ben Ali fled on January 14 with his family after weeks of popular revolt against his 23-year regime, said a foreign ministry statement cited by state news agency TAP.

The government acted “following a new batch of charges against the ousted president regarding his involvement in several serious crimes aimed at perpetrating and inciting voluntary homicide and sowing discord between the citizens of the same country by pushing them to kill one another,” it said.

The caretaker government also asked Saudi Arabia for information about 74-year-old Ben Ali’s health following reports this week that he had fallen into a stress-induced coma and was being treated in a hospital in Jeddah.

Two days ago Tunisian officials spurned the reports, saying Ben Ali’s health was “not the government’s business”.

Radhouane Rouissi, Tunisian state secretary at the foreign ministry, said in televised remarks that the government was certain “Saudi authorities will give a positive answer to our demands, which are the demands of an entire people who suffered so much under Ben Ali’s regime”.

Sunday’s requests came as Ghannouchi faced fresh demonstrations, including a protest by around 4,000 people in central Tunis, demanding his resignation.

In Sunday’s rally many protesters waved Tunisian flags and banners proclaiming: “Resignation of the prime minister.”

“We are against Ghannouchi’s government because our revolution has led to nothing with Ghannouchi. This is Ben Ali’s team and it has changed nothing,” said teacher Samia Mahfoudh, 50.

Ghannouchi was prime minister under Ben Ali from 1999 until his ouster.

On January 17, he took the reins of a transitional government of national unity, which included many ministers who were part of the old regime.

The authorities have appointed a panel to prepare free elections due in six months while several opposition parties have demanded the election of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution.

The government also announced Friday a first set of urgent social measures and ordered reservists to join the army Wednesday to fill a security vacuum.

But protestor Sami Ben Moumen was unmoved: “They are taking us for fools.”

“All members of the government and regional councils have been elected by the former regime, the constitution has been reformed by the former regime. The RCD wants to sow terror,” he said, referring to the banned former ruling party.

Saturday, hundreds of Tunisians also marched to demand a secular state following the murder of a Polish priest, verbal attacks on Jews and an attempt by Islamists to set fire to a brothel.

Meanwhile hundreds of fearful Tunisians fled what they called “real carnage” in Libya on Sunday to head home via the coastal Ras Jdir border crossing, a union official told AFP.

“Hundreds of Tunisians left Libya Sunday through the Ras Jdir border post. There are a lot of people and there is a big bottleneck in the area,” said Houcine Betaieb, a member of Tunisia’s influential UGTT trade union.

“These are people who work there, who have left Libya out of fear that something would happen to them,” he said.

Inspired by events in neighbouring Tunisia, protests have erupted in Libya against the regime of longtime leader Moamer Kadhafi, who has responded with a violent crackdown that Human Rights Watch said had killed more than 170 people.

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For US, More at Stake in Bahrain Than Base Alone

Posted on 21 February 2011 by hashimilion

As political unrest shakes its tiny Gulf ally Bahrain, much more is at stake for the United States than just the fate of the US Fifth Fleet’s base, analysts said.

Also in play are Washington’s extensive strategic ties with Bahrain’s influential oil-rich neighbor Saudi Arabia and efforts by US arch-foe Iran to spread its influence from across the Gulf, they said.

In many ways, the unrest in Bahrain “is much more dangerous” for the US than the current state of affairs in Egypt, more than a week after mass protests forced president Hosni Mubarak to step down, said analyst Aaron David Miller.

To be sure, Egypt has greater weight than Bahrain, said Miller, a former State Department analyst and negotiator who is now an analyst with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

It is the largest and most powerful Arab state, has a peace treaty with Israel and receives $1.3 billion in US military aid each year.

And the Egyptian-US alliance remains intact, at least for now.

However, Bahrain’s vulnerability “to more convulsive change and the impact that it could have vis-a-vis Arab policy for Iran, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf makes it … a more hot-button issue right now,” Miller told AFP.

The Sunni Arab leaders of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, who govern over restive Shiite Arab populations near Shiite but non-Arab Iran, fear Washington’s push for reform will sow greater instability, said analyst Patrick Clawson.

They strongly opposed Washington’s pressure on Egypt for a transition to democracy to ease out Mubarak, according to Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The perception in the (Gulf) region is that democracy means either the complete chaos you had in Iraq or else the stasis and bickering you had in Kuwait,” he said.

And if needed, the Saudis may be prepared to repeat their intervention in Bahrain in the 1990s, when they sent armored personnel carriers across the causeway linking the neighbors.

“So the Saudis are in a position to ensure that things don’t get out of hand in Bahrain and they are of a mind to do that. That is a powerful constraint to what the United States can do under these circumstances,” Clawson said.

The course of events could put a strain on the US-Saudi strategic relationship, which involves US military bases and billions of dollars in US weapons sales, as well as close cooperation on regional diplomacy and counter-terrorism.

Bahrain, fearing Iran’s meddling, may continue taking a tough line toward unrest, although Bahraini security forces withdrew Saturday from a Manama square that had been the focal point of bloody anti-regime protests.

The implications of the apparently conciliatory move were not immediately clear.

“The Gulf rulers will be petrified that there is an Iranian influence in all of this, but I think the Iranians will be pretty incompetent” in trying to gain influence in the region, Clawson said, noting that will not prevent them from making a “good attempt” to do so.

What’s more, he said, Arab Shiites increasingly look to their own leaders rather than Iran for guidance.

Nonetheless, analysts expressed concern about Iran.

“The issue of Iran is critical. What is a good outcome for us?” Miller asked.

“Here you have Iranian access to that Shia majority. You could argue that an Iraq-like outcome is not out of the question,” he continued, referring to how Shiites now dominate affairs in Baghdad with some backed by Iran.

Michelle Dunne, a former Middle East specialist at the State Department, agreed that the Saudis would have a hard time accepting political change in Bahrain and that the Iranians would try to exploit instability there.

“The Bahraini problem is definitely a home-grown problem,” said Dunne, now a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“This is not Iran manipulating the politics of an Arab state, but the Bahraini Shia are desperate. They will accept support from where they can get it.”

As for the naval base, analysts said its presence is not currently the focus of Shiite-driven protests, though it could develop as such if protesters eventually succeed in changing the government.

“At some point, that’s going to be rethought… whether it’s appropriate to have a US naval base there or not,” said Dunne.

Anthony Cordesman, a former Defense Department intelligence analyst, said the US base in Bahrain is “very important” in light of the “steady buildup” by the naval branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards over the past decade.

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King Abdullah ‘to return to Saudi on Wednesday’

Posted on 21 February 2011 by hashimilion

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is to return home this week after convalescing in Morocco from operations in New York, a source close to the oil-rich Gulf monarchy said on Sunday.

“The king is expected to return Wednesday and preparations are underway” to greet Abdullah, the official told AFP, requesting anonymity.

Another source said the heads of Saudi state media, especially television channels, have been instructed to begin from Tuesday to broadcast special programmes on the king’s return.

The streets of Riyadh have already been decorated with national flags for the monarch’s return.

Riyadh’s ambassador to Rabat told AFP on Friday the king would soon return to his country. “I was talking to him 15 minutes ago and I can assure you he is very well,” Mohammed ibn Abderrahman al-Bishr said.

King Abdullah, 86, arrived in Morocco on January 22 after surgery on his back in the United States and will return home to a Middle East rocked by anti-regime uprisings, although his own country has been spared.

In his absence, mass street protests led to the departure of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia’s close ally whom the king has backed in a phone call from Morocco.

Before Mubarak’s ouster on February 11, Tunisia’s strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea city of Jeddah after protests toppled his regime in mid-January.

Tension has also reached the conservative Gulf monarchy’s neighbour Bahrain, where Shiite protesters have taken to the streets to push for reform in the Sunni-ruled state.

King Abdullah flew to New York on November 22 and was operated on two days later for a debilitating herniated disc complicated by a haematoma that put pressure on his spine.

That surgery was declared a success, as was a second operation to repair several vertebrae.

The monarch’s advanced age combined with health problems have raised concerns about the future of Saudi Arabia, which has been ruled by the Al-Saud family since 1932.

Abdullah’s half-brother, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, who has held the post of defence minister ever since 1962, is 83 and has been slowed by what is believed to be cancer.

Little seen at home for the previous two years, Sultan himself flew back from Morocco on November 21 to take over the running of the government in Abdullah’s absence.

Prince Nayef, 77, third in line to the Saudi throne, was appointed second deputy prime minister in March 2009.

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Turmoil in the Middle East: Will Saudi Arabia be Next?

Posted on 21 February 2011 by hashimilion

With the recent turmoil across North Africa and the Gulf, investors are now becoming increasingly concerned that the ‘political contagion,’ as the wave of upheaval has come to be known, may flow over into Saudi Arabia as well.

The worry is that the protests in various parts of the Arab World will embolden Saudi youths, or the minority Shiites in the east, to revolt in a similar fashion.

The country supplies about 12% of global oil production and sits on at least a fifth of the world’s oil reserves.

By being on the eastern border of the Kingdom, Bahrain is near key parts of the country’s crude reserves. Although doubtful that Saudi Arabia would be drawn into the contagion, “the fear factor could potentially force oil prices higher and leave the equity markets lower”, Gary Dugan, CIO at Emirates NBD, told CNBC.

Using information from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) for 2009: If you take of Saudi Arabia, and add to that other major oil exporters in the region that have seen turmoil in recent days, such as OPEC members Libya and Algeria, you’re looking at roughly 16% of total oil production that could be at risk. Pricing the risk premium in the current environment will prove to be a daunting guessing game for traders.

Saudi Arabia faces a problem that was a major driver of protests in Tunisia and Egypt to begin with: Youth unemployment. Data by the Central Department of Statistics & Information (CDSI) estimates that 39% of Saudis between the age of 20 and 24 were unemployed in 2009 – up from 28.5% in 2000. But in its most recent report, Saudi Banque Fransi adds that the Kingdom has an “enormous stash of oil wealth it can draw on to finance schemes to sooth popular frustrations without exerting too much strain on its budget”. Saudi Arabia held an estimated $440 billion in net foreign assets in 2010.

Amid the ongoing geopolitical instability, Dugan points out that he has seen “international investors largely retreat from the MENA markets with only hedge funds opportunistically buying local bonds at low price levels.” Emerging market equity funds had net outflows of $5.45 billion last week, according to EPFR.

Indeed, the political future of Saudi Arabia is far from certain. King Abdullah is 87 years old and has spent a lot of time abroad recently for treatment. The crown prince is an octogenarian as well, while the plan for succession is unclear. Angus Blair, head of research at Beltone Financial, told CNBC that “Saudi Arabia will not be excluded from the profound changes sweeping through the Arab world”. He also expects to see reforms through the Shura Council, which is “likely to be awarded more powers as part of a long term program of increased devolution of power”.

The cost of insuring exposure to Saudi Arabia risk for a five-year period rose 15 bps to 140 bps on Friday, according to Markit.

By Yousef Gamal El-Din

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Houthis Put Their Weight Behind Yemen Protests

Posted on 20 February 2011 by hashimilion

Yahya al-Houthi condemned the tactics of Ali Saleh’s regime in dealing with the protests, where peaceful demonstrators were attacked and killed.

He described the regime’s response to the protests in Sanaa and the South as “savage” and urged Saleh to step aside.

Al-Houthi also called on all political parties, civil, legal institutions and MPs to part take in the protests and call for the removal of the regime.

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Yemen President Offers Opposition Dialogue

Posted on 20 February 2011 by hashimilion

Yemen’s embattled president on Sunday sought a way out of the political crisis gripping his impoverished Arab nation, offering to oversee a dialogue between his ruling party and the opposition to defuse the ongoing standoff with protesters demanding his ouster.

The offer by the U.S.-backed Ali Abdullah Saleh came as protests demanding that he step down continued for the 11th straight day, with 3,000 university students demonstrating Sunday at Sanaa, the Yemeni capital.

The protests pose the most serious challenge to Saleh’s rule to date.

He has already made a series of concessions, pledging that his son would not succeed him and that he would not seek another term in office. On Sunday, he repeated his offer for negotiations.

“Dialogue is the best means, not sabotage or cutting off roads,” Saleh, in office for more than 30 years, told a news conference. “I am ready to sit on the negotiating table and meet their demands if they are legitimate,” said the Yemeni leader, who warned against “infiltrators” seeking to divide Yemenis and sabotage their country.

Saleh’s rule continues to show signs of resilience in the face of the sustained protests, that have seen security forces and regime supporters battling demonstrators, mostly university students.

The Yemeni regime, however, is not doing as well in the south of the country, where resentment of Saleh’s rule is far more entrenched and a secessionist movement is steadily gaining strength.

There have been deadly clashes there between protesters and security forces using live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas. South Yemen used to be an independent nation, but became united with the north in 1990. An attempt to secede by the south in 1994 was brutally crushed by Saleh’s army and allied tribesmen.

Yemen is a tribal society where almost every adult male has a firearm. A decision by the country’s major tribes to take sides in the standoff between Saleh and his critics could decide the president’s fate.

On Saturday, riot police fired on marchers in Sanaa, killing one and wounding five.

A total of seven people have been killed since the unrest began.

The protesters seek to oust Saleh, a key U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaida, and have been inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Marching students on Sunday chanted and carried signs reading “Get out Ali for the sake of future generations.” Riot police watched the march but did not intervene.

Past protests were often attacked by government supporters, degenerating into riots.

Saleh’s regime is one of several in the Arab world currently coming under popular pressure to reform or step down. Since uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt toppled the two nation’s autocratic leaders, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Libya and Algeria have been gripped by anti-government protests.

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