Saudi Arabia recruits Sunni allies in row with Iran


Saudi Arabia rallied Sunni allies to its side in a growing diplomatic row withIran on Monday, deepening a sectarian split across the Middle East following the kingdom's execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric.

Bahrain and Sudan cut all ties with Iran, following Riyadh's example the previous day. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Reuters Riyadh would also halt air traffic and commercial relations between the rival powers.

He blamed Iran's “aggressive policies” for the diplomatic action, alluding to years of tension that spilled over on Saturday night when Iranian protesters stormed the kingdom's embassy in Tehran.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), home to hundreds of thousands of Iranians, partially downgraded its relations but the other Gulf Arab countries – Kuwait, Qatar and Oman – stayed above the fray.

Shi'ite Iran accused Saudi Arabia of using the attack on the embassy as an “excuse” to sever ties and further increase sectarian tensions, as protesters in Iran and Iraq marched for a third day to denounce Saudi Arabia's execution of Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

The UAE said Iran needed to stay out of Arab affairs and not act like a protector of Arab Shi'ites. “The Arab world isn't a venue for its blatant interference … Iran does not have guardianship or jurisdiction over a large number of Arabs for some sectarian reason,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV.

A man was shot dead in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province late on Sunday, and two Sunni mosques in Iraq's Shi'ite-majority Hilla province were bombed in the fallout from the dispute between the Middle East's top Sunni and Shi'ite powers.

Oil prices spiked during European trading as the two big petroleum exporters traded insults and after violence hit other crude producers such as Iraq. But prices then eased back on evidence of economic weakness in Asia.

Stock markets across the Gulf dropped sharply, led by Qatar which fell more than 2.5 percent, with geopolitical jitters outweighing any benefit from stronger oil.

Crude importer China declared itself “highly concerned” with the developments, in a rare foray into Middle East diplomacy. The United States and Germany called for restraint, while Russia offered to mediate an end to the dispute.

SYRIA, YEMEN

The row threatened to derail efforts to end Syria's five-year-old civil war, where Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab powers support rebel groups against Iran-backed President Bashar al-Assad.

In neighboring Lebanon, newspapers said the spat had clouded the hopes of filling the vacant presidency that had been raised last month after Iran and Saudi Arabia both voiced support for a power-sharing deal.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Saudi foreign minister on Monday that Riyadh's decision to break off diplomatic ties with Iran was extremely troubling. A spokesman said Ban wanted to help ensure both countries continued their commitment to ending the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

The U.N. chief urged Saudi Arabia to renew a ceasefire it ended this weekend with the Iran-allied Shi'ite Houthi group in Yemen that it has been bombing for nine months.

But analysts said fears of a sectarian rupture across the Middle East were premature, and the break in Saudi-Iran relations could be more a symptom of existing strains than evidence of new ones.

“The fact that the UAE was unwilling to cut off ties with Iran completely, despite the closeness of its relations with Saudi Arabia, shows the difficulty that the Saudis will have in trying to isolateIran,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“The downgrading of ties is not fundamentally a question of responding to executions and the storming of an embassy… (but rather) a function of a much deeper conflict between the two states,” he added.

Trade between Saudi Arabia and Iran is small compared with the size of their economies, but some business is routed through the United Arab Emirates; comprehensive figures are not available. Investment ties are also minimal, though Saudi food conglomerate Savola has major manufacturing operations in Iran. 

“DIVINE REVENGE”

After a furious response in Shi'ite communities worldwide to the Sunni kingdom's execution of Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Iran was creating “terrorist cells” among the kingdom's Shi'ite minority.

Saudi Arabia executed Nimr and three other Shi'ites on terrorism charges on Saturday, alongside dozens of Sunni jihadists. Shi'ite Iran hailed him as a “martyr” and warned Saudi Arabia's ruling Al Saud family of “divine revenge”.

Shi'ite groups united in condemnation of Saudi Arabia while Sunni powers rallied behind the kingdom, hardening a sectarian split that has torn apart communities across the Middle East and nourished the jihadist ideology of Islamic State.

Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based seat of Sunni Muslim learning, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Saudi Arabia, condemned the attacks on Riyadh's missions and stressed Tehran's obligation to respect the internal affairs of the kingdom.

Bahrain, a Sunni-ruled island kingdom with a restive Shi'ite majority, accused Iran of “blatant and dangerous interference” in the affairs of the Gulf Arab countries, in a statement announcing the severing of diplomatic ties.

Western powers, many of which supply billions of dollars worth of weaponry to Gulf Arab powers, tried to tamp down the tensions with Iran but also deplored the executions, as human rights groups strongly criticized Saudi Arabia's judicial process and protesters gathered outside Saudi embassies.

Dozens on trial on terrorism charges in UAE


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Just days after the Islamic State bombings in Paris, a court in the United Arab Emirates heard the case of 41 people, most of them Emiratis, who are accused of plotting to overthrow the federal government and replace it with an Islamic-State style “caliphate.”

“To carry out their terrorist acts, the suspects procured firearms, ammunition and explosives using funds they raised for this purpose and communicated with foreign militants,” Salem Saeed Kubaish, the UAE’s Attorney General said at the trial. “These militants provided these suspects with funds and peple to achieve their goals inside the country.”

Prosecutors presented five weapons to the court, including Kalashnikov rifles, and machine guns, as well as seven large boxes of bullets and magazines. They said that Al Manara had received the weapons as well as other assistance from the al-Nusra Front in Syria and the Al Ansar Front in the Baluchistan province in Iraq.

Two witnesses told the court that the defendants’ intention was to overthrow the government, attack shopping malls and hotels, and overthrow the government of the UAE, which consists of seven separate confederated states run by the King.

Some of the defendants denied the charges. One man admitted that he had possessed one of the rifles but said it was a hunting rifle and belonged to his father. The judge ruled that the trial would continue next month.

Several terrorism experts told The Media Line that they had never heard of Al Manara, showing the difficulty of tracking all of these groups. Even several experts living in the area said they did not have information.

The experts said that the formation of the group could be part of the rivalry between Islamic State and al Nusra, both Sunni Arab groups. Islamic State has had more “successful” coordinated attacks such as last week’s large-scale bombings in Paris, while Al Nusra has gotten bogged down in Syria fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Al Nusra is the local affiliate of al-Qa’ida, which has claimed responsibility for the September 2011 attacks in the US.

Unlike other Sunni groups, Al Nusra praised the recent attacks in France, while still criticizing Islamic State.

“We are happy if a deviant sect successfully executes an operation against the Kufaar (infidels)” read a statement released by the group (from a Twitter account since deleted) over the weekend, adding it would have preferred that al-Nusra had carried out such an attack, according to the Middle East Eye.

Al Qa’ida is trying to regain its footing as the primary Sunni organization. Last year, the group’s branch in the Sinai Peninsula, which has been responsible for attacks that have killed hundreds of Egyptian security forces, switched its loyalty to Islamic State.

Al Qa’ida has begun publishing a news magazine in English called al-Risala, as a way of competing with Islamic State.

“Due to its sophisticated global media strategy, Islamic State manages to reach today a far wider audience than al-Qa’ida,” Adam Hoffman of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University told The Media Line. “Al-Risala (the message) is published online in English and being distributed through social media.”

He said that the magazine, with its colorful headlines and striking visual images, ridicules Islamic State and plays down their achievements.

Arab countries ban release of ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’


Several Arab countries banned the release of the film “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”

Egypt on Friday barred what its culture minister called a “Zionist film.”

“It gives a Zionist view of history and contains historical inaccuracies, and that’s why we have decided to ban it,” Gaber Asfour told the French news agency AFP.

A day earlier, Morocco banned the Ridley Scott movie as it was about to be screened in theaters throughout the country, The New York Times reported. Morocco banned the film because of scenes that showed God in a corporeal form.

The United Arab Emirates over the weekend also reportedly decided to bar the release of the film, claiming inaccuracies in the account of the biblical story.

“This movie is under our review and we found that there are many mistakes not only about Islam but other religions, too,” Juma Obeid Al Leem, the director of Media Content Tracking at the National Media Council in the UAE, told Gulf News. “So we will not release it in the UAE.”

 

Arab rifts may complicate search for Gaza truce


The push for a Gaza ceasefire risks becoming mired in a regional tussle for influence between conservative Arab states and Islamist-friendly governments, with rival powers competing to take credit for a truce, analysts and some officials say.

The main protagonists are Arab heavyweight Egypt and the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, on opposite sides of a regional standoff over Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, and its ideological patron the Muslim Brotherhood.

Both camps suggest the other is motivated as much by a desire to polish diplomatic prestige and crush political adversaries as by the humanitarian goal of protecting Palestinian lives from the Israeli military.

“Gaza has turned very suddenly into the theater in which this new alignment within the Arab world is being expressed,” said UK-based analyst Ghanem Nusseibeh.

“Gaza is the first test for these new alliances, and this has affected the possibility of reaching a ceasefire there.”

He was referring to Qatar, Turkey, Sudan and non-Arab Iran, the main members of a loose grouping of states which believe Islamists represent the future of Middle East politics.

That camp stands in increasingly overt competition with a conservative, pro-Western group led by Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, most of whom are intent on crushing the Brotherhood and see it as a threat.

That cleavage is now apparent in the diplomacy over Gaza.

CEASEFIRE PLAN

Qatar bankrolled the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, who was overthrown by the military a year ago. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have since poured in money to support strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the takeover and has since been elected president after outlawing and suppressing the Brotherhood.

Under his rule, Egypt has tightened its stranglehold on the southern end of the Gaza Strip, closing tunnels to try to block supplies of weapons and prevent militants crossing.

Egyptian officials suspect Qatar encouraged Hamas to reject a ceasefire plan Cairo put forward last week to try to end an Israeli assault that has now killed more than 500 Palestinians as well as 18 Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians.

Palestinian officials said the proposal contained little more than Israeli and U.S. terms for a truce. Hamas has its own demands for stopping rocket fire into Israel, including the release of prisoners and the lifting of an economic blockade.

With Egypt's initiative sidelined, all eyes turned to Doha, where visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday met Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who lives in the Qatari capital, a senior Qatari source told Reuters.

An official in Cairo said the Gaza battle “is part of a regional conflict between Qatar, Egypt and Turkey.

“Hamas … ran to Qatar, which Egypt hates most, to ask it for intervention, and at the end we are sure Hamas will eventually settle with an agreement that is so similar to a proposal that Egypt had offered, but with Doha's signature.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, due in Cairo late on Monday, is likely to have to mediate between Egypt and Qatar in a bid to end the fighting in Gaza.

“The dilemma is now to get Egypt and Qatar to agree. It is obvious that Hamas had delegated Qatar to be its spokesman in the talks,” said an Egyptian diplomat. “Kerry is here to try to mediate between Qatar and Egypt to agree on a deal that Hamas would approve.”

Another foreign ministry source said: “Egypt will be asked by Kerry to add in Hamas' conditions and then Kerry will go to Qatar and ask it to ask Hamas to approve the amended deal.”

For reasons of history and geography, Egypt has always seen itself as the most effective mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in neighboring Gaza.

But critics say Egypt's strongly anti-Islamist government is trying to pressure Hamas into accepting a truce offering few concessions for the group. Its aim, they say, is to weaken the movement and allied Islamist forces in Egypt.

Hamas leaders said they were not consulted on the Egyptian move, and it did not address their demands.

With peace efforts delicately poised, Gaza now appears to be a test of strength in a regional struggle for power.

INTERFERENCE

Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said Gaza mediation had seen “a lot of political interference”.

“Qatar was unhappy with the Egyptian ceasefire (plan). They are very uncomfortable that it came from Egypt. The Qataris are trying to undermine Egypt politically, and the victim is the ceasefire that Egypt has proposed.

“The terms of the problem is — who will present the ceasefire? Who will win the first political match between those two new camps within the Arab world?” Abdulla said.

At the root of the rift are opposing attitudes to the Muslim Brotherhood, which helped sweep Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt in 2011 only to be ousted itself last year.

Its ideology challenges the principle of conservative dynastic rule long dominant in the Gulf: Some of its leading members are based in Qatar and broadcast their views via the country's media, angering other Gulf Arab states

Qatar is accused of using its alliance with Hamas to elbow its way into efforts to mediate between the movement and Israel.

Critics suspect Qatar wants to repair an international image clouded by months of allegations of poor labor rights, alleged corruption over the 2022 World Cup and political tensions with its Gulf Arab neighbors.

But Western governments see Qatar, maverick though it be, as a potentially significant regional mediator because of its links to Islamist movements in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere.

Qatar denies any ulterior motive and notes that Washington has openly asked it to talk to Hamas. Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah said on Sunday Qatar’s role was just to facilitate communication.

“BLOODSHED NEEDS TO STOP”

A source familiar with the matter said Qatar will not press Hamas to change or reduce its demands.

In Saudi Arabia, where suspicion of Hamas is particularly strong, as an ally of the Brotherhood and of Iran, Riyadh's main regional adversaries, newspapers have abandoned a tradition of blaming Israel alone to also attack the Palestinian group.

“The Hamas leadership, from Egyptian blood to Palestinian blood,” was the headline of an opinion article by Fadi Ibrahim al-Dhahabi in the daily al-Jazeera newspaper on Sunday.

He argued that Hamas was stoking the war in Gaza not for the sake of Palestinian liberation, but as part of a wider Muslim Brotherhood campaign against Egypt's government and to win favour with Iran.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, part of a recently formed national unity government intended to overcome rivalry between Hamas and the more secular Fatah nationalist movement, told Reuters he had seen no tug-of-war among Arab states.

“This is not the case. There is no competition between Arab countries, they all want to stop the bloodshed,” he said.

“All Arab countries want to bring an end to this fountain of blood in Gaza, Turkey, Qatar and Egypt are all in agreement. And the leaders of these country's have put their differences aside and all agree that the bloodshed needs to stop”.

U.S. Treasury to discuss funding for Iraq militant group


Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will discuss counterterrorism financing during his visit to the Middle East, including the funding network of the group fomenting an insurgency in Iraq, Treasury officials said on Friday.

President Barack Obama on Friday said the United States was weighing how to help Iraq counter militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, which has launched a rebellion against Iraq's government.

Lew will meet with officials in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Germany next week, where he will also discuss issues of tax evasion and economic growth.

“The recent events in the Middle East do nothing but underscore the importance (of terrorist financing), and so certainly that will be a prime issue that the secretary will be discussing, our joint efforts to undermine any financial networks that support terrorist groups,” a senior Treasury official told reporters ahead of Lew's trip.

Treasury has already sanctioned leaders of ISIL, which was formerly called Al Qaeda in Iraq, and has said it was closely tracking the funding stream of the group. Treasury officials said Saudi Arabia and the UAE see “eye to eye” with the United States on the importance of stopping ISIL's activities.

In Abu Dhabi, Lew will also emphasize the need to keep pressure on Iran while discussions over its nuclear program continue, said the Treasury officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The United States and other world powers are currently in negotiations with Iran on limiting Tehran's controversial nuclear program in exchange for an end to sanctions. The UAE stands to benefit directly from any easing of sanctions that have dampened regional trade.

Reporting by Anna Yukhananov; Editing by Leslie Adler

New cybercrime law in the United Arab Emirates is rights issue


Trying to stop the Internet these days may feel like Sisyphus pushing a rock to the top of the mountain. But officials in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are certainly giving it a try.

A new cyber-crime law issued by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan protects credit card and bank account information published on the Internet, providing jail time for anyone convicted of using electronic means to forge credit cards or ID cards. It also makes it a crime to solicit prostitution or encourage someone to commit adultery.

The measure also “effectively closes-off the country’s only remaining forum for free speech,” says a new report by Human Rights Watch. It makes it illegal to “criticize senior officials, argue for political reform, or organize unlicensed demonstrations.” Anyone charged under the new law could pay penalties of up to $270,000 as well as imprisonment.

The statute comes amid growing discontent with the ruling monarchy despite massive salary increases for public sector employees and a $2.7 billion package to assist poor Emirates with outstanding loans.

“Over the last year the climate of repression in the UAE has worsened dramatically and over 60 members of the Al-Islah movement, a non-violent opposition movement, have been detained,” Nadim Khoury, the Deputy Director of the Middle East for Human Rights Watch told The Media Line. “Some have even had their citizenship revoked. That is a dangerous precedent.”

The European Parliament last week passed a resolution expressing concern about the changed atmosphere in the UAE.

Khoury says the President and other government officials have not been responsive to charges leveled by Human Rights Watch. “As the environment in the UAE has worsened, our access to the country and the willingness of the government to engage in substantive debate has declined dramatically,” he complained.

The UAE is a federation of seven ‘emiratis’ or principalities, each headed by an emir, but with one president for all seven. In the almost two years since the “Arab Spring” — protests that have swept the region — began, the unrest has bypassed these small states. Yet in recent months, opposition groups including the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Al-Islah have begun calling for regime change.

It is those calls that the new cyber-crime law is aimed against, says Dr. Theodore Karasik, the Director of Research for the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, the wealthiest of the seven emirates.

“From the UAE’s point of view, the tensions that are sweeping the region is another reason this new cyber law has been put into place,” he told The Media Line.

Karasik said that, perhaps surprisingly, most citizens seem to support the new legislation.

“It is seen as necessary because of the amount of hacking and other cyber-related crimes,” he says. “The Middle East faces cyber threats from both criminal networks and non-state actors. This law is seen as just part of doing business.”

But it also shows that the UAE’s rulers are growing increasingly nervous about the threat that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which won elections in Egypt and Tunisia, could pose to the current regimes. Other threats come from academics and human rights activists. In March, Muhammed Rashid Al-Kalbani, a young UAE national, was arrested for tweeting about the Arab Spring. He was accused of “damaging national security social peace.” Under the updated cybercrime law, he could be fined and imprisoned.

The new law will also encourage self-censorship. Wary of being arrested, activists may choose not to post on Facebook or Twitter, aware that the government is watching them.

The regime is hitting back hard at any opposition.

“We hear today that there are some who are trying to tamper with the stability of the UAE,” Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al-Qasimi, the ruler of the small Ras Al-Khaimah said recently, according to an official government press release. “I would like to say to them: the people of the UAE don’t need lessons from anyone. They are confident in themselves and in the solidarity that they share. They don’t change.”

Al-Qasimi also defended the government’s policy of stripping citizenship from some opponents of the regime.

“He who does not like this should leave for another place,” he said. “Any treachery is a shame for him and for his country.”

With the new cyber-crime law, the monarchies of the UAE are trying to stop protests from spreading on the Internet. But, like Sisyphus, they are unlikely to succeed.