Posts Tagged ‘Saudi Arabia’

Saudis Open Iraqi Border and Forge Ties to Counter Iran

August 23, 2017

Backed by U.S., kingdom pursues influence as neighbor emerges from ISIS battle

A picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace shows Saudi King Salman, right, meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Mecca in June.
A picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace shows Saudi King Salman, right, meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Mecca in June. PHOTO: BANDAR AL-JALOUD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Aug. 23, 2017 5:30 a.m. ET

ARAR, at the Saudi Arabia-Iraq Border—Saudi Arabia, with U.S. assistance, is pushing aside years of rancor with its neighbor Iraq and mounting a broad effort to win Baghdad’s allegiance and dilute Iran’s influence over the pivotal U.S. ally.

Saudi authorities are courting Iraq’s Shiite leaders, expanding the kingdom’s diplomatic presence, opening direct flights and reopening crossings closed for decades on the heavily fortified, 600-mile border.

“We share historical, cultural and social links with Iraq,” Thamer al-Sabhan, minister of state for Gulf affairs said after stopping at the newly reopened Arar border crossing. “If anything, I think we should be moving even faster.”

The shift provides a political and economic lift to the Iraqi government as it drives Islamic State from the country and moves to rebuild.

For Washington, it is part of a push to align Iraq “a little more toward the Saudi Arabias and Turkeys of the world—and to blunt a little bit the Iranian influence,” said a U.S. official, who described Saudi-Iraqi friendship as a priority for the Trump administration. “It’s never too late.”

The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, which includes Saudi forces, has fought on the same side as Iran against the Sunni extremist group. Success in largely vanquishing the group, also known as Daesh, creates an opportunity for the coalition allies to gain leverage in Iraq.

“We have been focused over the last three years not only on defeating Daesh, but on what comes after Daesh,” Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting Islamic State, said at the border with Mr. Sabhan. “We will do everything we possibly can to support your effort,” he told Iraqi and Saudi officials gathered there.

Relations, and the Saudi-Iraqi border, were shut down in 1990 with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. The Saudi monarchy kept its back turned on its northern neighbor in the years of war and instability that followed Saddam’s fall in 2003, leaving Iran to expand its sway through Iraq’s government, the powerful militias and the economy.

A new Saudi leadership is driving the shift, an example of the intensified efforts by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to counter Iranian influence across the region, including a war against rebels in Yemen aligned with Iran.

Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has welcomed the counterweight to Iran. The Saudi outreach comes as he battles a political rival who is close to Tehran, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, ahead of parliamentary elections next year.

Iraqis arrive at pilgrimage lodgings in Saudi Arabia on their way to the annual hajj this month.
Iraqis arrive at pilgrimage lodgings in Saudi Arabia on their way to the annual hajj this month. PHOTO: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/DPA/ZUMA PRESS

The first of around 140 flights connecting Baghdad, Riyadh and other cities each month are set to start in the coming weeks, Saudi and Iraqi officials said.

The border crossing at Arar was reopened this month for trade and travelers, just in time for Iraqis to make the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, now under way. Officials have agreed to open a second crossing next year.

Saudi efforts to rebuild relations got off to a rocky start. Soon after Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad in late 2015, Mr. Sabhan, the ambassador at the time, was expelled for criticizing Iraq’s Shiite militias and their ties to Iran.

But when he showed up on the Iraqi side of this desert outpost last week, Iraqi pilgrims lined up for selfies.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, receives Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 31.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, receives Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 31. PHOTO:SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/ASSOCIATED PRESS

“We are finally returning to the fold of our Arab brothers,” said Abed al-Maliki, one of the thousands of mostly Shiite Iraqi pilgrims who have crossed the border at Arar recently. A billboard of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greeted the pilgrims as they entered the kingdom.

The U.S. has been a broker in the rapprochement. Soon after the start of his tenure in February, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to persuade his Saudi counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir, that the kingdom should carve out a bigger role for itself in Iraq, a U.S. official said.

Days later, on Feb. 25, Mr. Jubeir flew to Baghdad, the first by a Saudi foreign minister in decades. The trip marked a turning point. In June, Mr. Abadi traveled to the kingdom on an official visit, during which the two sides agreed to set up a joint council to upgrade ties in areas from security to trade.

Then, at the end of July, Iraqi cleric and Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr met with Crown Prince Mohammed in Saudi Arabia.

Until recently that encounter would have been unthinkable: The Iraqi cleric had repeatedly railed against the Sunni kingdom, and condemned its execution of prominent Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr in early 2016.

An Iraqi pilgrim, far right, poses for a photo with Saudi minister Thamer al-Sabhan at the newly reopened Arar border crossing last week.
An Iraqi pilgrim, far right, poses for a photo with Saudi minister Thamer al-Sabhan at the newly reopened Arar border crossing last week. PHOTO: MARGHERITA STANCATI/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Iranian officials didn’t respond to a request for comment and Iran hasn’t commented publicly about the renewed Saudi-Iraqi ties.

Saudi Arabia is now seeking to expand its diplomatic presence across the country. The first new consulate, in Najaf, the spiritual and academic heartland of Shiite Islam, is likely to open in the next two months, Saudi and Iraqi officials said. More are set to open, in the southern city of Basra and in Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq.

But the Saudi push faces resistance. Many Iraqis blame Saudi Arabia for the rise of Sunni extremism in their country, saying the Saudis fueled its appeal through its strict interpretation of the faith.

Some Iraqis equate Saudi Arabia with Islamic State, pointing to the thousands of Saudis who have joined the group.

“The Saudis are fighting us only because we are Shiite, and now they want to be present in Najaf?” Ali Faza Mahdi, a 25-year-old member of a Shiite militia, said during a visit to Najaf’s shrine to Imam Ali, the venerable Shiite figure. “If they open a consulate here, we will attack them, just like we fought them at the front” near Mosul.

In Najaf, Shiite clerics aligned with Iran oppose rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, people close to the religious establishment said. Others—among them Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites—favor it as way to offset Iranian influence and to defuse Sunni-Shiite tensions in the region.

“Those who say: ‘We want nothing to do with Saudi Arabia’ are wrong,” said Dhiya al-Assadi, who is close to Mr. Sadr, the Iraqi cleric. “Iraq cannot ignore its surroundings.”

Saudi companies, including oil giant Aramco, are eyeing opportunities for investment in Iraq in areas including petrochemicals and agriculture. The Saudi dairy Almarai is considering producing animal feed in the impoverished border province of Muthanna, Saudi and Iraqi officials said.

Muthanna stands to benefit significantly from improved ties. Before the province’s Jumaima border crossing was closed 27 years ago, Muthanna thrived on trade between the two countries. Saudi Arabia exported goods ranging from cars to cigarettes to processed food to Iraq through the province, which in turn could sell dates and cement from its factory in the Saudi market. Shepherds and camel herders crossed the frontier freely.

Local officials in Muthanna estimated it would cost some $50 million to repair the dilapidated border crossing and the road leading to it.

“We lost all our prosperity when ties with Saudi were cut,” said Reesan Mutasher al-Zayad, a sheikh whose tribe straddles the border. “People have high hopes,” he said. “We look forward to having good relations with our Saudi brothers.”

Write to Margherita Stancati at



Qatar limits hours, ensures pay for domestic workers

August 23, 2017


© AFP/File | Foreign workers have flocked to gas-rich Qatar in recent years, including an estimated almost 100,000 women working as house staff

DOHA (AFP) – Qatar has approved a law limiting domestic staff to a maximum of 10 hours work a day, the first such protection for thousands of household maids, nannies and cooks in the emirate.The “Domestic Employment Law” also orders employers to pay staff wages at the end of each month and entitles workers to at least one day off per week and an annual leave of three weeks, the Qatar News Agency reported.

They will also receive end-of-service benefits equating to a minimum of three weeks wages for each year of service when their contract ends.

The law prohibits staff being recruited from abroad who are older than 60 and younger than 18.

Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers have flocked to the gas-rich Gulf emirate in recent years, including almost 100,000 women working as house staff.

Other domestic workers covered by the new law include cleaners, gardeners and drivers.

The legislation was issued on Tuesday by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, QNA reported.

Although Qatar has come under severe international pressure to improve its record on the treatment of construction workers in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup, until now domestic staff have not been protected by any legislation.

Critics have long campaigned for legal protection for domestic staff, with some claiming that they are subjected to working in slave-like conditions.

These included physical and sexual abuse, no wages being paid and passports being confiscated.

In 2014 it was reported that hundreds of Filipino domestic workers had sought sanctuary at their Doha embassy complaining of harsh working conditions.

The issue of ill-treatment of domestic staff stretches across the region.

In 2015 Indonesia said it would stop sending domestic staff to 21 Middle Eastern countries in protests at the treatment of maids in those countries.

The legislation comes at a time when Qatar’s laws remain under scrutiny from the International Labour Organisation.

The UN body has given Qatar until November to improve its human rights record or face sanctions.

U.S., Gulf Officials Hold Talks on Mideast Peace; Qatar-Saudi Rift Not Discussed

August 23, 2017


AUG. 23, 2017, 3:45 A.M. E.D.T.

DOHA — Senior U.S. officials including presidential adviser Jared Kushner have met with leaders in Saudi Arabia and Qatar to discuss the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians, the state news agencies of the two Gulf countries said late on Tuesday.

Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, U.S. negotiator Jason Greenblatt and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, then flew to Doha to meet the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

Apart from efforts to end Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, the two sides also discussed encouraging “security, stability and Middle-Eastern-prosperity,” SPA said. Neither of the news agencies mentioned the months-old row between Riyadh and Doha, which has defied Kuwaiti and U.S. mediation efforts.

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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Bin Salman and the official talked about ways to achieve “a real and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians” and stability in the wider Middle East and beyond, the Saudi state news agency SPA said.

In Doha, which hosts the political leadership of Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, Sheikh Tamim and the envoys discussed “the improvement of the humanitarian situation and living conditions in Gaza Strip,” Qatar state news agency QNA reported.

The White House announced the trip earlier this month, saying it was part of a regional tour including meetings with leaders from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The U.S. delegation planned to meet regional leaders to discuss a “path to substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks”, a White House official said at the time.

Kushner was charged with helping to broker a deal between Israelis and Palestinians after Trump took office.

The president went to Saudi Arabia and Israel during his first post-inauguration trip abroad and has expressed a personal commitment to reaching a deal that has eluded his Republican and Democratic predecessors.

(Reporting by Noah Browning in Doha and Sylvia Westall in Dubai; Editing by Alison Williams)

Saudi Arabia still has many cards to play in Qatar crisis

August 22, 2017


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Saudi King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz (left ) with Qatari Shaikh Abdullah Bin Ali Al Thani in Tangier last week. SPA photo

Dubai: A little-known Qatari shaikh has been thrust into the limelight as a Saudi Arabia-led bloc tries to wring concessions from his nation to end the political feud dividing the Arabian Gulf.

Shaikh Abdullah Bin Ali Al Thani, a descendant of Qatar’s founder, was welcomed warmly in Saudi Arabia by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, then jetted off to Morocco, where Saudi King Salman hosted him at his vacation spot in Tangier. And while the Qatari government said the shaikh was on a personal visit, some media outlets close to the alliance portrayed his meetings as a triumphant diplomatic effort.

Shaikh Abdullah said King Salman and his son agreed to open Qatar’s only land border, snapped shut on June 5, to allow Muslim pilgrims to travel to the holy city of Makkah. The king even offered to dispatch planes at his own expense to fly in others and set up an operations centre under the shaikh’s command to help Qataris entangled in the crisis.

Saudi Arabia and allies that severed diplomatic and transport links with Qatar in June have denied seeking regime change in Doha, making the emergence and front-page treatment of the shaikh a surprising development. Promoting him is probably part of a plan to add pressure on Qatari ruler Shaikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, who has refused to capitulate to the bloc’s 13 conditions for ending the feud, said Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a political analyst in the United Arab Emirates.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt accuse Qatar of destabilising the Middle East by supporting Islamist groups.

“Saudi Arabia has many pressure tools that it hasn’t used until now and this is one of them,” Abdullah said, adding that he doesn’t believe the alliance is currently pursuing a policy to change the Qatari leadership.

Yet should Saudi Arabia decide that is needed, it can mobilise a support network within Qatari society and the ruling family “to spur a palace coup,” he said.

Al Bayan, a Dubai-owned daily, described Shaikh Abdullah on its front page as “the voice of reason to whom the hearts of Qataris have opened.”

It also said that he’s known for being “widely accepted within the Al Thani family in particular, and Qataris in general.” The shaikh is a scion of a ruling family branch that was in power for decades until 1972. His brother, Ahmad, was deposed in 1972 by Shaikh Tamim’s grandfather, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news network said.

The shaikh’s diplomatic exploits have turned him into an instant social media celebrity. Within three days of joining Twitter, his account has attracted more than 250,000 followers. He gave out contact details of the operations center. Underscoring his reach, he said he also spoke with the Saudi central bank governor, who denied that banks in the kingdom had stopped “giving out Qatari riyals to Qatari citizens.”

“The king has honored me by accepting my mediation on behalf of my people in Qatar,” he wrote.

Other mediation efforts by Kuwait’s emir and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who visited the region last month, have failed to resolve the dispute.

Andreas Krieg, a lecturer in the department of defense studies at King’s College in London, said the shaikh is a London-based businessman with commercial interests in the Gulf, but lacks public support that would help propel him to power. His emergence, however, serves as a way of telling Qatari leaders and global powers that the crisis is far from over, he said.

And the winner is: Assad

August 22, 2017

The US is increasingly moving away from its anti-Assad course. The Syrian president appears increasingly confident, announcing that conditions will apply to countries wanting to rejig their relationship with Syria.

Syrian President Assad speaking to diplomats

On Sunday, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad gave a speech in front of dozens of his country’s diplomats. He came across as confident: Among other things, he declared that there would be no cooperation with countries “that do not clearly and definitively cut their ties to terrorism.”

This dig was aimed at several states, including some Arab ones, especially on the Arabian Peninsula. It also refers to a number of European countries – and the United States. Assad accuses them of collaborating with “terrorists.”

Assad has reason to be optimistic. He gave this speech three days after a jihadist drove into and killed 14 people in Barcelona, injuring more than 100. Attacks like these are a gift to the Syrian president: They help make him look like a potential partner to those who have, until now, opposed him. Hardly a week goes by the West without an IS-backed terror attack, Assad told the assembled diplomats, adding: “This fact has forced Western politicians to change their attitude” towards Syria.

Read more – A timeline of the Syrian civil war

A memorial left on Las Ramblas in Barcelona (Reuters/S. Vera)Terrorist attacks in Europe and the grief they provoke are playing right into Assad’s hands

Fighting IS takes top priority

And the US has indeed been taking a new approach to Syria for some time now. A few weeks ago US President Trump announced that a CIA program supporting Assad’s opponents was being discontinued. This was in response to the venture’s lack of success. Out of thousands of fighters the US had trained, only a few had proven to be reliable partners.

And it’s not only by shutting down this program that the US has signalled that it’s increasingly distancing itself from Assad’s opponents. At the same time it is growing closer to Russia, which has always supported the Assad government. In an interview with the American broadcaster Fox News in early August, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US still wanted to prevent Assad from staying in power. However, he went on to add that the US and Russia had a common interest in seeing a unified and stable Syria. In Russia’s view, that can only be achieved in the medium term with Assad as head of state.

Rex Tillerson in Manila (picture-alliance /dpa/Reuters Pool/AP/E. De Casto)US top diplomat Tillerson is plotting a new course on Syria

Hesitant US course

The Trump administration’s course is therefore just as hesitant as that of ex-president Barack Obama. The reason is obvious: People in Washington perceive the jihadist terrorist groups like so-called “Islamic State” (IS) and al-Qaida as a serious threat.

“The Salafi-jihadi movement – not [simply] distinct groups or individuals – threatens the United States, the West, and Muslim communities,” according to Critical Threats, a project of the conservative American think tank The American Enterprise Institute.

Its article continues: “Europe and the American homeland face an unprecedented level of facilitated and inspired terrorist attacks. This situation is not success, stalemate, or slow winning, and still less does it reflect an enemy ‘on the run.’ It is failure.”

Hezbollah as a partner?

Diagnoses like this are obviously gaining traction in Washington. The political consequences are becoming apparent: For example, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported in early August that American special forces were training with the Lebanese military for an anticipated confrontation with IS troops.

The Lebanese military, however, cannot clearly be separated from the paramilitary group Hezbollah, which is allied to Iran. Ha’aretz quotes the Middle East analyst Faysal Itani from the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East: “Both Lebanon and Hezbollah occupy a grey area,” he says. “Lebanon isn’t really a state, and Hezbollah isn’t a terrorist group – or isn’t only a terrorist group, depending on your view.”

The USA can’t get around this entanglement, either. The Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has clearly outlined the implications of these new alliances in the common fight against IS: “The world is currently assuming that the Syrian regime is going to stay,” Ha’aretz quoted him as saying a few days later.

Hezbollah adherents in Lebanon (Getty Images/AFPM. Zayyat)Hezbollah as a partner for the west? Here young supporters of its movement march in Kfar Hatta, Lebanon

The wrong war

But the political action taken by the Obama administration in response to the jihadist threat was controversial; the Trump administration’s even more so. Rapprochement with Russia is risky, says a study by the Washington think tank Institute for the Study of War. The most problematic thing, it points out, is the choice of new allies: “Sunni Arabs view the US as aligned with the deepening Russo-Iranian coalition and complicit in its atrocities.”

It does seem that Assad is going to stay in power, at least for the time being. He has succeeded in presenting himself as a bulwark against jihadism. From his point of view, this portrayal makes absolute sense. But if the Sunnis should come to the conclusion that they were now facing an alliance of Shiites, Russia and the USA, this would probably once again fuel jihadism. The American think tanks warn that, if this should happen, the terrorism we are seeing now would be just the precursor to a subsequent, even more brutal expression.

Saudi renews Iraq ties in bid to keep distance from Iran

August 22, 2017


© Saudi Royal Palace/AFP/File / by Ali Choukeir | A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on July 30, 2017 shows Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) receiving prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Jeddah

BAGHDAD (AFP) – Influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia at the end of July signalled the Gulf Sunni powerhouse’s ambition to distance its Iranian foe from policy-making in Baghdad.In the wake of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Riyadh severed relations with Baghdad and closed its border posts with its northern neighbour.

Ties have remained strained even after Saddam’s ouster in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, since when successive Shiite-dominated governments in Baghdad have stayed close to Tehran.

But Sadr’s rare visit to Saudi Arabia came at the invitation of Riyadh, which played up his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Two weeks later, Sadr followed up by holding talks in Abu Dhabi with its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, strongman of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and close ally of his counterpart in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).

“Hosting Sadr in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi shows regional rivals and particularly Iran that KSA/UAE are capable of tapping into and influencing intra-Shia politics in Iraq,” said Fanar Haddad, a research fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

For the Gulf monarchies, “Sadr would be a prize catch: authentically Shia-Iraqi, distrustful if not disdainful of Iran and with a genuinely organic and loyal grassroots following.”

– ‘Pulling the strings’ –

The pro-Western Arab states of the Gulf aim to show that Iran no longer holds a monopoly on influencing policy in Baghdad, according to Iraqi political scientist Hashem al-Hashemi.

Tehran “prided itself on pulling all the strings among the Shiites (of Iraq) but it seems that several strings are now beyond its grasp, like that of the Sadrists”, Hashemi said.

In June, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, also a Shiite, held meetings in Saudi Arabia, four months after a visit to Baghdad by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, a first of its kind since 2003.

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Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (left) and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi

For Michael Knights, a researcher at the Washington Institute, such interaction with Riyadh could come at a price.

“Tehran will view the Saudi Arabian engagement by Abadi and Sadr as another reason that Abadi must be displaced as premier in the 2018 elections,” said Knights.

“And Iran will work hard behind the scenes with money, media and weapons to make that happen.”

But at the same time, Haddad warned that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi should not count too heavily on Sadr to restore their influence in Baghdad at the expense of Tehran.

“They should moderate their expectations as to how much he will be willing to deliver,” he cautioned.

Tehran has played a major political, economic and military role in Baghdad since the end of Saddam’s rule, during which Shiites were barred from powerful posts and Shiite-majority Iraq fought a 1980-1988 war against Shiite but non-Arab Iran.

According to the Carnegie Middle East Center, Iranian exports, not including fuel, tripled between 2008 and 2015 to reach $6.2 billion.

Apart from military advisers on the ground in Iraq, Iran also sponsors several armed groups, in particular the paramilitary Hashed al-Shaabi units that are playing a key role in fighting the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group.

On his return from Saudi Arabia, Sadr renewed calls for the dismantling of armed groups, a stance which “makes him particularly attractive to KSA/UAE”, said Haddad.

But the firebrand cleric, whose own armed supporters fought fierce battles against US and government forces in the wake of the invasion, has steered clear of openly condemning Hashed al-Shaabi, which was set up at the request of the Shiite religious hierarchy in post-Saddam Iraq.

– Arar starting point –

Furthermore, Haddad stressed, a warming in ties between Riyadh and Sadr cannot be compared to close relations between two states.

“We’re still a long way from Iraqi-Saudi relations coming anywhere near the depth or complexity of Iraqi-Iranian ties,” he said.

But in a first decisive step, Riyadh and Baghdad have announced plans to reopen the Arar desert crossing, their main border post and a potential alternative to Iraq’s posts with Iran that are used for most of its imports.

The border has been shut for most of the past three decades to all travellers except Iraqi Muslim pilgrims heading to and from Mecca in western Saudi Arabia.

The announcement was made during a joint inspection of the Arar post by Iraqi and Saudi officials as well as Brett McGurk, the senior US envoy to the international coalition fighting IS.

by Ali Choukeir

Qatar denies blocking Saudi hajj pilgrimage flights

August 21, 2017


© AFP | Saudi Arabian Airlines on Sunday said Qatari authorities had refused to grant a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight, scheduled to transport Qatari hajj pilgrims, permission to land at Hamad International Airport

DOHA (AFP) – Qatar on Monday denied it had banned Saudi Arabian flights from landing in the emirate to transport Muslim pilgrims to Mecca, after an accusation by authorities in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabian Airlines on Sunday said Qatari authorities had refused to grant a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight, scheduled to transport Qatari hajj pilgrims, permission to land at Hamad International Airport.

The flight is one of a select few that will allow Qataris to land in Saudi Arabia, which last week temporarily opened its borders to pilgrims to the Saudi city of Mecca, the most revered site in Islam, more than two months into a diplomatic crisis that has seen Riyadh cut all ties with Qatar and ban its citizens from entering.

An official source in the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority on Monday “described as baseless the news… that allegedly claimed that the state of Qatar refused to allow Saudi Airlines to transport the Qatari pilgrims,” according to a report carried on the state-run QNA news agency.

Qatar’s civil aviation authority confirmed that it had received a request from the Saudi carrier for permission to land and had referred the airline to the ministry of Islamic affairs “in accordance with past practices”.

The hajj to Mecca, a pillar of Islam that capable Muslims must perform at least once, takes place at the start of September this year. It is expected to draw around two million Muslims from around the world.

The pilgrimage has turned into a point of contestation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are locked in a diplomatic crisis that has seen Saudi Arabia and its allies cut all ties with Doha over accusations of state support for Islamist extremist groups and ties to Shiite Iran.

Qatar has denied the allegations.

Saudi Arabia last month said Qatari pilgrims would be allowed to enter the kingdom for this year’s hajj but imposed several travel restrictions, including flying in only on airlines approved by Riyadh.

The move sparked a backlash in Doha, where authorities said the pilgrimage had been used as political ammunition.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates severed diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar on June 5 in what has become the worst political crisis to grip the Gulf region in decades.


Saudi says Qatar blocks planes from transporting pilgrims to Mecca

August 20, 2017


© AFP/File | A file photo from July 20, 2017 shows a Qatar Airways plane on the runway at Hamad International Airport in Doha
RIYADH (AFP) – Qatar has blocked Saudi planes from transporting hajj pilgrims, Saudi state media said Sunday, after Riyadh reopened the border despite a major diplomatic crisis roiling the Gulf.Riyadh last week reopened its land border with Qatar and allocated seven flights of the Saudi national carrier to bring pilgrims from Doha, in a temporary lifting of a weeks-long boycott of its Gulf neighbour.

“Qatari authorities have not allowed the aircraft to land as it did not have the right paperwork, although the paperwork was filed days ago,” the state-run Saudi Press Agency said.

“Saudi Arabian Airlines director general Saleh al-Jasser has said that the airline has thus far been unable to schedule flights to transport Qatari pilgrims from Hamad International Airport in Doha,” SPA added.

Image result for Saudi Arabian Airlines, photos

The reopening of the border initially sparked hope of a thawing in the Gulf crisis, which saw Saudi Arabia and its allies cut diplomatic ties with Doha in June over accusations that the emirate supported Islamist extremists.

Qatar has denied the allegation.

But even as Doha cautiously welcomed the reopening of the border, it blasted the move as “politically motivated”.

Doha has also accused Riyadh of jeopardising the pilgrimage to Mecca by refusing to guarantee the safety of Qatari citizens.

Its delay — or refusal — to grant landing rights to Saudi planes could now further stoke tensions.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates severed diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar on June 5 in what has become the worst political crisis to grip the Gulf region in decades.

Saudi Arabia last month said Qatari pilgrims would be allowed to enter the kingdom for hajj this year but imposed several travel restrictions, including flying in only on airlines approved by Riyadh.

The hajj, a pillar of Islam that capable Muslims must perform at least once, is to take place this year at the start of September and it is expected to draw around two million Muslims from around the world.

Qatar Welcomes Saudi Border Opening, Even if ‘Politically-Motivated’

August 17, 2017

STOCKHOLM — Qatar welcomes the opening of the Saudi-Qatari border enabling Qataris to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, even if the move is politically-motivated, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said on Thursday.

“Despite the fact it’s been politically-motivated to ban the Qatari people from haj and politically that they allow them … we welcome such a step, which is a step forward to get rid of this blockade which is imposed against my country,” Sheikh Mohammed told a news conference on a visit to Sweden.

(Reporting by Daniel Dickson, Anna Ringstrom and Sylvia Westall in Dubai, Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Military leaders from Iran, Turkey meet to discuss Syria, Kurds, and counter-terrorism

August 16, 2017

ANKARA — Turkish and Iranian military leaders held talks on Wednesday over cooperation in the Syrian conflict and counter-terrorism, officials said, during a rare visit to NATO-member Turkey by the Islamic Republic’s military chief of staff.

Turkey’s ties with Washington have been strained by U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, and the visit by Iranian General Mohammad Baqeri is the latest sign that Ankara is increasing cooperation with other powers such as Iran and Russia.

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Iranian Chief of Staff Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri (R) in Ankara to hold talks with a number of high-ranking Turkish officials on cooperation in settling the crises in Syria and Iraq and other issues

Baqeri met his Turkish counterpart on Tuesday and Turkey’s Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli on Wednesday in what Turkish media said was the first visit by an Iranian chief of staff since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

He was due to meet President Tayyip Erdogan later on Wednesday.

Turkey and Iran have supported rival sides in Syria’s six-year-old conflict, with Iran-backed fighters helping President Bashar al-Assad to drive back rebels battling to overthrow him, including some supported by Ankara.

Turkey is concerned that the Syrian chaos has empowered Kurdish forces who it says are closely tied to the long-running insurgency in its southeastern regions, as well as Islamic State fighters who have waged attacks inside Turkey, and is working with Iran and Russia to reduce the fighting in some areas.

An Iranian source said Baqeri was accompanied by the head of the ground forces of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran’s most powerful security entity.

“There have been no such visits between the two countries for a long time, but considering regional developments and security issues – border security and the fight against terrorism – there was a need for such a visit,” Baqeri told Iranian state television on arrival on Tuesday.

The Iranian source said that, in addition to the war in Syria, the two sides would discuss the conflict in Iraq as well as dealing with Kurdish militants in the Turkish-Iranian border region, where Turkish media say Turkey has started building a frontier wall.


Turkey, Iran and Russia agreed in May to set up “de-escalation zones” in Syria to try to stem the fighting in some parts of the country, including the northern province of Idlib, which borders Turkey and has since been overrun by jihadists linked to a former al Qaeda affiliate.

That has thrown into question any suggestion that the three countries could deploy a force to police the Idlib region.

“The negotiations regarding the Idlib issue are still ongoing,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Turkish broadcaster TRT Haber on Wednesday.

“After the Iranian chief of staff, the Russian chief of staff will also come to Turkey,” he added.

Turkey has said for months that it is close to buying an S-400 missile defense system from Russia, and Erdogan said in July that the deal had already been signed.

Cavusoglu said Russia understood Turkey’s sensitivities about arming Kurdish fighters better than the United States, although he said U.S. officials had informed Turkey that the most recent shipments to the YPG did not include guns.

“The United States gives us reports about how many weapons they have given to the YPG every month,” he said. The latest “said they gave armored vehicles and a bulldozer, but no guns.”

Turkey’s stepped-up military talks with Iran and Russia coincide with a major oil and gas deal involving firms from the three countries.

The Turkish firm Unit International said this week it has signed a $7 billion agreement with Russia’s state-owned Zarubezhneft and Iran’s Ghadir Investment Holding to drill for oil and natural gas in Iran.

Turkey is also discussing transporting more goods through Iran to the Gulf state of Qatar, which is locked in a dispute with its neighbors Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz and Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Editing by Dominic Evans and Alister Doyle)