Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Saudi Arabia’

UK Looks Both Ways on Saudi Arabia

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 8th July, 2020

UK Saudi ArabiaOn Monday, the British Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, made an important statement in the House of Commons, ushering in a new era of post-Brexit unilateral foreign policy. Most significantly, he announced the government’s intention to impose sanctions — including asset freezes and travel bans — on almost 50 individuals and organisations deemed responsible for extra-judicial killings, the use of forced labour and other gross human rights abuses. Myanmar and North Korea were included in the Minister’s criticisms, but the two countries with the largest number of violators cited were Russia and Saudi Arabia. In particular attention was focused on the fatal detention of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Twenty Saudis were cited in the latter instance, as is also the case in the trial now underway (in absentia) in Istanbul, with the most prominent name being Saud Al-Qahtani, who is close to the Kingdom’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. This will have caused quite a shock to the government in Riyadh as Britain has long been one of Saudi Arabia’s closest allies.

US Saudi arms salesYet just 24 hours later the British government announced that it was going to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia, despite widespread concerns that such weapons have been used in operations that have killed civilians in Yemen. Arms sales were suspended last year after the NGO  the Campaign against the Arms Trade (CAAT) won a legal case based on humanitarian concerns. But the Conservative government now says that a subsequent review found “isolated incidents” of possible violations but no pattern of non-compliance — and no clear risk of future serious breaches. The revenues from such arms sales for British defence contractors are considerable but the move obviously has a political message, too, namely that the UK government wants to reassure the Saudis about the solidity of its friendship despite the human rights sanctions. When asked on BBC Newsnight last night how he could reconcile these two contradictory positions, Tory MP Bob Seely struggled to come up with a persuasive answer. What is certain, however, is that both the Saudis and their critics are now annoyed.

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Dangerous Escalation in the Gulf

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 3rd January, 2020

49A0EB41-E8AC-4F7A-9DF1-5A1214C2A9E4The US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, reportedly on President Trump’s direct order, is a dangerous escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf that could all to easily develop into all-out war. Donald Trump has been itching to hit out against Iran ever since he came to power and last year a direct US strike was called off at almost the last moment. Meanwhile the Americans have been ratcheting up sanctions against Tehran, and the Iran Nuclear Deal, in which major European states including Britain were instrumental, has been seriously undermined by a US withdrawal. Not that all the blame rests on American shoulders, of course. Despite Iranian denials, a drone and missile attach on Saudi oil installations last September was almost certainly inspired by Tehran. And Iranian special forces — including General Suleimani’s Al Quds brigade — have been active in fighting in Iraq and Syria, sometimes in conjunction with regional allies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. But there is a real danger that tit-for-tat retaliatory acts will spiral out of control, while all affected parties claim they are the victims of aggression. Britain and France, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, potentially have an important role to play in defusing the situation, though President Macron is seriously weakened by ongoing domestic unrest and Boris Johnson may be too close to Donald Trump to be seen as a mediator. Significantly, Washington did not warn London about its planned assassination strike, despite the fact that there are UK troops and civilians in Iraq and surrounding countries. All could be potential targets for reprisals if the British government comes out in support of the US action. Instead, it should listen to the wise words of caution from both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. Tony Blair made the wrong call over Iraq in 2003 and that lesson should not be forgotten.

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Murder in Istanbul

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th September, 2019

Murder in IstanbulExactly a year ago, on the last Saturday of September in 2018, at a Palestine conference organised by Middle East Monitor, I met the Saudi journalist and former Saudi royal family intimate, Jamal Khashoggi. He seemed a little distracted, which I put down partly to the cold he was trying to fight off and anticipation for his upcoming marriage to a younger Turkish woman. He was due to fly to Istanbul on the Monday, but the day after that he was dead, apparently interrogated, tortured and then murdered inside the Saudi Arabian consulate building, while his fiancée waited outside. Through a series of leaks and a lot of speculation the story of what had happened gradually emerged, though anyone who did not follow things closely over the coming months — including a not inconsiderable number of red herrings — could be forgiven for not knowing all the details. That makes Owen Wilson’s book Murder in Istanbul (Gibson Square, £9.99) all the more useful, as well as timely. It painstakingly analyses the evidence, as revealed by the Turkish authorities and various media outlets, on both sides of the Atlantic, including the United Nations, as well as background information that makes the affair more understandable, if not forgivable. The author’s career as a journalist with the Financial Ties and as a writer of books on crime gives him just the right sort of experience and voice for the task. The British sigint agency, GCHQ, had, it appears, picked up traffic suggesting that Jamal Khashoggi (who was by this stage mainly resident in the United States and contributing to the Washington Post, critical of the regime in his home country and calling for media freedom across the Arab world) was at risk of being kidnapped and rendered to Riyadh from Britain; the logical assumption is that the British (perhaps also informing the Americans) made it clear through appropriate channels that that would be totally unacceptable.

Jamal Khashoggi Sadly, he was less safe in Istanbul, where he had just purchased an apartment for himself and his future wife, though one of the most intriguing aspects of this book is the discussion of what the Turkish intelligence service MIT (and indeed, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) really knew and when. There were all sorts of fantastic stories, worthy of a latter-day James Bond novel, regarding alleged recordings of Jamal being dismembered while still alive, supposedly transmitted via his Apple watch to the iPhone he had left with his fiancée. Wilson rightly dismisses the more preposterous reports and theories, but inevitably the conclusion was drawn that the assault on Khashoggi had been sanctioned at the highest level in Riyadh. Indeed, just this week the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, accepted ultimate responsibility “because it happened on my watch”. So there will need to be a postscript to the book at some stage to analyse “So, what now?” — though if US President Donald Trump is anything to go by then the desert kingdom with its immense oil-derived wealth is just too rich to fall out with.

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The Times Takes Aim at Qatar

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 5th August, 2019

The Times QatarIn an unusual move for a “quality” daily newspaper in the United Kingdom, The Times of London has called on the new Home Secretary, Priti Patel, to investigate the paper’s findings in its investigation into alleged Qatari sponsorship of Islamist fundamentalism and has argued that the British government should isolate Qatar if the tiny Gulf state chooses to be “in opposition to the West”. This very much echoes the tone of the Gang of Four Arab states (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt), which imposed sanctions on Qatar two years ago, listing a series of what they saw as offences, not least Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. At the centre of The Times’s investigation, however, is the client list of the Al Rayan Bank, which has over the past 15 years established itself as the largest and most effective provider of shariah-compliant financial products in Britain. Headquartered in Birmingham, the bank has around 85,000 customers, but The Times highlights 15 — notably several Islamic charities, as well as the satellite television station Peace TV — as having links with terrorist organisations or of advocating Islamist ideals and aims which undermine British values and norms. Some of the charities mentioned have indeed had their accounts frozen or closed by other banks, including Lloyds and HSBC, and The Times argues that Al Rayan — which is 70% owned by Masraf Al Rayan, Qatar’s second largest bank, and 30% by the investment arm of the country’s sovereign wealth fund — should do the same.

Al Rayan BankNo-one is suggesting that Al Rayan Bank is itself in violation of banking regulations; it has always complied with FSA/Financial Conduct Authority guidelines. Rather, it is the nature of some of its account holders, which range from the Finsbury Park mosque (formerly the base of radical preacher Abu Hamza, now in jail in the United States) and charities with links to Hamas. Some of those are currently the subject of investigation by the Charity Commissioners, just as Peace TV — which is a platform for extremist preacher Zakir Naik, who is banned from Britain — has been referred to Ofcom. But as I said in a couple of TV interviews for Sky News Arabia  this afternoon, by urging the British government to get directly involved, The Times is upping the ante considerably. The timing cannot be coincidental, as clearly the advent of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Priti Patel could be a game changer. But would Britain really go on the diplomatic offensive against Qatar, as the Gang of Four and their allies would like? Qatar is a huge investor in this country, owning flagship properties such as the Shard, Harrods and the Savoy Hotel — even a stake in British Airways. So far London has remained relatively neutral in the inter-Arab spat around the Gulf, but could that be about to change? What is certain is that not only will Al Rayan Bank be pleading its innocence in the affair but we can expect some heated ripostes from Doha as well.

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ALDE Congress in Madrid

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 10th November, 2018

DD89ADA8-523D-4525-8A5D-316420AD1B73For the latter half of this week I have been in Madrid for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Congress. Our hosts were Cuidadanos, the still relatively new kid on the block in Spanish politics, yet according to an opinion poll published today, they are level-pegging with the conservative Partido Popular (PP), on 22%. Only a fortnight ago, ALDE had to hold an emergency Council meeting in Brussels, to refuse membership to a Catalan party, PdeCAT, for reasons too complicated to go into here, but surprisingly there was no fallout from that at the Congress. This was mainly because the central focus of the Madrid gathering was the ALDE manifesto* for next May’s European elections, which was duly passed this lunchtime. But there was a plethora of other issues discussed over the three days of the Congress. I successfully moved, on behalf of the UK Liberal Democrats, an emergency motion on Saudi Arabia, which I will post on this blog on Monday, when I shall return to London and have access to a desktop computer.

9291698F-7F08-4996-8D94-E3006FA5A636There were fringe sessions on various aspects of campaigning, including social media, and it was good to have one panel that brought together not only MEPs from several EU member states but also senior executives from Facebook, Google and Microsoft. The UK Liberal Democrat Leader, Sir Vince Cable,  came over for the day yesterday, to reinforce the message that Brexit is not a “done deal” and that the LibDems are at the forefront of the campaign for a People’s Vote on any Brexit deal, with an option to remain. The resignation of Orpington MP Jo Johnson from his junior ministerial position over this very issue could not have been better timed. For the first time, the LibDems, Fianna Fáil from Ireland and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland worked as a coherent bloc in the Congress, which should be a good model to follow in future. Brexit, of course, hung like a big black cloud over the whole event, but at least we Brits left our continental colleagues in no doubt that we are doing everything we can to encourage the British people to stop it,

*The manifesto can be found on the ALDE website: https://alde.eu

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Path of Blood *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd July, 2018

Path of BloodFollowing the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, most of the world media’s Middle East focus was on what transpired in that benighted country. But from 2003 to 2009 another story was unfolding, in Saudi Arabia, though not much was reported about it in the West, partly because foreign journalists did not have easy access to the desert Kingdom. The narrative promoted by George W Bush (and his then acolyte, Tony Blair) was that the godfather of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden — initially holed up in the mountains of Afghanistan — posed an existential danger to Western civilisation, for which one obvious piece of evidence was the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. But a more immediate goal of bin Laden and his followers was the overthrow of the House of Saud. So for six years, a terror campaign was carried out in the Kingdom, mostly by radicalised young locals. Not all the attacks were successful, but some were very bloody, and on one occasion Al Qarda operatives managed to get to the Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, though somewhat miraculously he survived. It is this six-year war of underground activity that is the subject of Jonathan Hacker’s riveting documentary, Path of Blood, which combines footage from both the Saudi security forces and Al Qaeda cells. The juxtaposition provides a unique portrait of a cat-and-mouse game between what most Westerners would see as religious fanatics and a not always efficient state apparatus. Some of the shots are predictably gruesome — this is not a film for anyone who can’t bear the sight of blood, or of dismembered body parts — but other moments give an unparalleled insight into the minds as well as the practices of Al Qaeda extremists. Some scenes of the boys — and some are little more than boys — larking about inevitably raise a smile. But when a clearly rather educationally backward youth makes a real hash of recording his pre-suicide mission video, there is undeniable pathos. I have spent nearly three decades reporting on the Gulf and the wider Arab world, but this film taught me more in one-and-a-half hours than some trips to the region. It is due out in cinemas from 13 July.

http://www.pathofbloodfilm.com/

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MBS Comes to Town

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th March, 2018

Mohammed bin Salman billboard vansThe Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, has been in London today, getting right royal treatment befitting of a state visit, with lunch with the Queen, tea at 10 Downing Street and dinner with Prince Charles. There was some bemusement yesterday among Londoners as electronic billboard vans drove round the city welcoming MBS’s arrival, and today many newspapers had three half-page spreads reinforcing that message. For anyone familiar with the Gulf monarchies that is not in the least surprising, however; rulers and their crown princes are celebrated with giant pictures everywhere in their home territories, including whole sides of multi-storey buildings. Such apparent vaingloriousness is infra dig in Britain, but we should remember that we started eroding the power of absolute monarchs 800 years ago, whereas Saudi Arabia is a kingdom only 80-odd years old.

Mohammed bin Salman with Queen Elizabeth I was kept busy myself today, doing both television and radio interviews about the prince’s visit, as well as attending a session on youth’s place in Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision, at the Dorchester Hotel (where else?). Several people elsewhere asked me outright: well, are you for or against this visit? As one might expect from someone with a background in Reuters and the BBC, and with one foot in academe, I answered in more nuanced terms. As Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and actually sits on the UN Human Rights Council it must expect its domestic human rights record to come under scrutiny. The detention of dissidents has increased since MBS’s sudden ascendancy to the role of neo-dauphin and the rate of executions has actually doubled these last few months. Similarly, the immense human cost of the war in Yemen — exacerbated by the blockade of the port of Hodeidah, which has caused widespread malnutrition — is a legitimate cause for concern, even anger, made more acute by the fact that British arms sales (and some advice) has been helping the Saudi war effort there. However, on the other side of the coin, MBS (with his father’s approval, presumably) has ushered in some reforms that are noteworthy, such as the lifting of the ban on women driving later this year and at least a partial crackdown on corruption, as well as the introduction of VAT as a new source of tax revenue. So he should not be condemned out of hand, but neither should he be the object of unqualified praise. As I quipped on BBC Radio London this afternoon, under MBS’s guidance Saudi Arabia has entered the 20th century, but it hasn’t yet arrived in the 21st.

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Yemen in Crisis

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th February, 2018

Yemen in CrisisThe ancient Romans referred to Yemen as Arabia Felix, but there is little that is happy about the country now. Often divided in modern history, it is now in danger of total disintegration. With only very limited oil resources, it is by far the poorest country in the Middle East, and unlike the other states located in the Arabian peninsula, it has never been allowed to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — though the cohesion and usefulness of the GCC itself have been undermined with the recent stand-off with Qatar. Far more acute than the lack of oil, however, is Yemen’s depleted source of water; Sana’a risks becoming the world’s first capital city to run out of water completely. In rural areas that used to be fertile, subsistence agriculture is a dwindling lifestyle, as predominantly young men migrate to the cities in search of work. Such migration is of course a common feature of many developing countries, but it has been more acute in Yemen than in many other states. Moreover, the government of the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh compounded the situation by its corrupt handling of the economy, which enriched a small elite while impoverishing the masses. Hence the size and vigour of the anti-Saleh demonstrations that erupted during the 2011 so-called Arab Spring.

Yemen conflict 2However, even at the height of the uprising, the situation in Yemen was never black and white. There was always a complex nexus of rivalries, based on tribal loyalties, regional variations and a certain degree of religious difference. All too often the current conflict in Yemen is over-simplified as a battle between the Sunni-backed internationally-recognised but largely exiled government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Shi’i-backed Huthi rebels, but as Helen Lackner’s excellent book, Yemen in Crisis (Saqi, £25), explains with admirable clarity, Yemen’s modern history is far more complex than that. And as she points out, the military intervention of a Saudi-led coalition in 2015 turned a political and humanitarian crisis into a catastrophe. The Saudi blockade of the port of Hodeidah, for example, led to widespread malnutrition — not least among infants — that has been described by the United Nations as the most serious humanitarian crisis of our time. A major outbreak of cholera last year compounded the situation. As Helen Lackner rightly argues, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman probably launched the Yemen War in the hope that a quick victory would cement his rise to power. But nearly three years on, the situation is a quagmire and it is the Yemeni people who are suffering.

Helen Lackner is the ideal guide for readers wanting to understand some of Yemen’s complexities and how it has ended up in its current dire situation. She worked in the country for 15 years — largely in the field of rural development — and has been researching it for far longer. Her love of the place and its people shines through the text, which is academically sound but totally accessible to the general reader. I travelled widely in Yemen myself in the 1980s and 1990s, which Ms Lackner now sees as the good old days. Whether it will ever be possible for such a period of relative calm to return in the near future remains to be seen, but even if so, the cost of reconstruction is going to be gargantuan, as the destruction of Yemen’s infrastructure and unique cultural heritage continues apace.

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Is the GCC Unravelling?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th November, 2017

C0F4FE57-2826-47BC-B8AE-6C6F8B4B45BCThe Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, more commonly known by its previous name, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has been in existence since 1981 and aims at a degree of economic integration between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman as well as cooperation in other fields, but some of its more ambitious plans have been quietly shelved. Following the launch of the euro there was talk of moving towards a single GCC currency, to be called the khaleeji (Gulfi), but Oman said it would need to opt out and enthusiasm waned elsewhere. Then at the time of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, tentative moves were made to bring two other Arab monarchies, Jordan and Morocco, into the fold, despite neither being in the Gulf. However, the one obvious geographical absentee absentee is Iraq, which overthrew it’s short-lived monarchy in 1958, was never a serious contender while Saddam Hussein was in power and has been equally unpalatable to the Sunni Arab monarchs since Shia-dominated governments have been in charge in Baghdad following the 2003 US-led invasion. When there was stronger than usual unrest among Bahrain’s majority Shi’i population in 2011, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in troops to help the Al Khalifa monarchy quash it. Since then, Iran has been the focus of much of the GCC’s animosity, notably from Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as Tehran’s rival for regional hegemony. But since this summer, another deeply complicating factor has emerged: the embargo of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, mainly because of the activities of the Doha-based TV channel, Al Jazeera, and Qatar’s alleged cosying up to Iran (with which it shares a gigantic gas field). Kuwait has been trying to mediate, while the wily ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos, is keeping well out of it. The Saudi Foreign Minister the other day downplayed the importance of the row, but it has inevitably made the facade of GCC unity crumble. And if the standoff continues for long, the GCC would be in real danger of unravelling.

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Landmark Ruling on Arms Protesters

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th April, 2016

DSEI protestEight anti-armaments campaigners, who were charged with blocking the entrance to last September’s giant arms fair in London, DSEI 2016, were this week found not guilty, on the grounds that they had acted in good faith to prevent an even greater crime. After listening to four days of often passionate testimony, the judge said the court had heard compelling evidence of the role of weapons on sale at DSEI in repression and human rights abuses. During the trial, the defendants had particularly highlighted the use of weapons in Saudi Arabia’s attacks in Yemen, the suppression of  dissent in Bahrain and Turkey’s military activities in predominantly Kurdish areas of the country. They also argued that some illegal types of weapon had been openly displayed at the Fair. An estimated 30,000 visitors went to the Fair despite the disruption by protesters. DSEI is one of the largest such events in the world and a,though another one is planned for next year, anti-war campaigners are determined to be out in force on that occasion too.

Link: https://www.caat.org.uk/

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