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Saudi Arabian

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Al-Matrafi’s Tweet

Killing journalists is no big deal. “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do,” said Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin, the one international leader that he never criticises or condemns. They were joking together at the G20 summit meeting in Japan on Friday, and Putin replied: “We also have. It’s the same.”

No it isn’t. Twenty-six Russian journalists have been murdered since Putin became president, and the Russian media have become very cautious about what they say. No journalists have been killed for political reasons in the United States on Trump’s watch, and the American media can still do their jobs. Some of them do, and some don’t, but there’s nothing new about that.

What is relatively new is that it’s getting seriously unhealthy for journalists in the Middle East to criticise the United States or its local allies. The highest-profile case of recent date was the slaughter of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul by an Saudi government death squad. (‘Slaughter’ is the right word: they cut him up after they killed him.)

Khashoggi wrote for the Washington Post, so his murder attracted a lot of attention, but the group facing the biggest threat are the journalists who work for the Al Jazeera Media Network. It’s the best news network in the Arab world (with a full English-language service as well), and it’s worried that Saudi Arabia is going to bomb its headquarters in Qatar.

In fact, the Al Jazeera management have been taking out full-page paid ads in leading world newspapers (e.g. New York Times 23 June, The Guardian 29 June) pointing out that they now face a “credible death threat” from Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, they’re right.

It began with a tweet in mid-June from high-ranking Saudi journalist Khaled al-Matrafi claiming that Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar was “a legitimate and logical target” for the Saudi-led, US-backed coalition that has been bombing the living daylights out of Yemen for the past four years.

Al-Matrafi is not just some loose cannon. He is the former director of the Al Arabiya news channel, originally founded by relatives of the Saudi royal family to counter criticism coming from Al Jazeera. He is also known to be close to the kingdom’s decision-makers (including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who probably gave the orders to murder and dismember Jamal Khashoggi).

Twitter took down al-Matrafi’s tweet after a day, but Al Arabiya is often used to convey official Saudi threats. When Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies imposed a blockade on the small Gulf sheikhdom of Qatar in 2017 (partly to force it to close down Al Jazeera), Al Arabiya’s general manager at the time, Abdulrahman al-Rashed, warned that if Qatar did not submit Al Jazeera staff (94 nationalities) would be massacred when the invasion came.

The invasion did not happen, probably due to American intervention, so Qatar is still independent and Al Jazeera is still in business. But Washington was trying to avoid embarrassment, not to save Al Jazeera. In fact, it generally sees the network as an enemy.

Back in 2001, when George Bush was planning the invasion of Afghanistan, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia’s closest ally, urged him to bomb Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul and gave him its coordinates. By an amazing coincidence, the United States did bomb the Al Jazeera office in Kabul a couple of weeks later.

By an even more amazing coincidence, exactly the same sequence of events led to the destruction of Al Jazeera’s Baghdad office during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The US was given the office’s co-ordinates (by Al Jazeera itself this time), and US forces proceeded to destroy the office – killing three journalists on that occasion.

So it’s understandable that the network’s journalists take a Saudi threat to attack them seriously, especially when it looks like the United States and Saudi Arabia are both thinking about going to war with Iran. Or rather, Saudi Arabia is pushing for AMERICA to go to war with Iran, while the Saudis (and the Israelis) cheer from the sidelines.

Qatar, a small peninsula sticking out into the Gulf from the Arabian coast, is directly between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It might not get invaded by Saudi Arabia in that hypothetical war, but would either the US or Saudi Arabia take out Al Jazeera’s headquarters if a war gave them the excuse? Of course they would.

Would Saudi Arabia do it even before that war starts, using the Yemen war as a pretext, as Khaled al-Matrafi suggested this month? Less likely, but not unthinkable. There’s not a great deal left that’s unthinkable in today’s Middle East.
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To shorten to 725 words omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Back…occasion”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Trump and MbS: Shared Delusions

“It’s a suffering tape, it’s a terrible tape,” the Snowflake-in-Chief told Fox News on Sunday, defending his refusal to listen to the recording of journalist Jamal Khashoggi being murdered and sawn into pieces in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on 2 October. “I know everything that went on in the tape without having to hear it. It was very violent, very vicious and terrible.”

At least five weeks after the Turks made the recording available to American intelligence, Donald Trump has finally admitted that it exists. (It only exists because the Saudi hit team who did the murder were so amateurish that they didn’t even sweep the consulate for bugs.)

But Trump’s purpose in going on Fox was to say that the man who almost certainly ordered the hit, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), is still his friend and ally. “It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” said Trump, but “the United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia.”

Fair enough. We all have to consort with murderers and torturers occasionally as we go about our business. But this relationship between Trump and MbS, genuinely warm and yet deeply cynical, does offer us an entry-point into the weird pseudo-strategies that bind the White House and the Saudi leadership together.

The focus of the US-Saudi relationship for the past four decades has been shared enmity towards Iran. This is perfectly natural for Saudi Arabia, which faces a far more populous and powerful Iran across the Persian Gulf. The sheer disparity of power, combined with the fact that Iran has a revolutionary regime and Saudi Arabia a deeply conservative one, guarantees that the latter will see the former as a threat.

It’s harder to explain the US obsession with Iran. The mullahs engage in lots of anti-American and anti-Israeli sloganeering, but they are much too sane to act on it. Iran’s ability to project hard military power abroad is so limited that it couldn’t possibly invade Saudi Arabia. It poses no threat whatever to the United States. And yet….

The depth and duration of the American obsession with Iran is best explained not by strategy but by psychology. Iran, like Cuba, overthrew an American puppet ruler long ago (the Shah in Iran, Batista in Cuba) and successfully defied subsequent US attempts to snuff out the revolution. For that, neither country has ever been forgiven.

It is that long-cherished American grudge, not some subtle strategic calculation about potential Iranian nuclear weapons, that drives Trump’s current trade embargo against the country. If he were really worried about nukes, he would be concentrating on North Korea, not Iran.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel feed Trump’s obsession with Iran, because they would love to entangle the US in a war with that country. Much better to get the Americans to do the fighting, if war is inevitable.

But war is actually far from inevitable, and even Trump’s close advisers (with the possible exception of John Bolton) know that attacking Iran would be a very bad idea. It is, for a start, much bigger than Vietnam.

However, Trump himself seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid. He prefaced his statement about sticking with Saudi Arabia despite the Khashoggi murder with a rant about the evil Iranians who are allegedly waging “a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen.”

Despite constant claims that the Houthi rebels in Yemen are just a front for Iran (for the most part swallowed uncritically by the Western media), there are no Iranians in Yemen, and no Iranian weapons either. On one side there are Houthi fighters and the home-made, hopelessly inaccurate missiles that they occasionally fire at Saudi cities in retaliation for the huge, relentless bombing campaign by the Saudi-led ‘coalition’.

On the other side is the aforesaid coalition, the military wing of Arab Military Dictators and Absolute Monarchs Inc., plus some mercenaries that the United Arab Emirates has hired to stiffen the local pro-government forces. And MbS waded into Yemen almost three years ago to put that ‘government’, installed by the Saudis in 2012 without an election, back into power.

There’s not an Iranian in sight anywhere. The geography alone makes the claim utterly implausible. How could this farrago of shameless lies and distortions be repackaged into a casus belli for an American attack on Iran?

Alleged North Vietnamese attacks on American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, subsequently disproved, gave US President Lyndon Johnson an excuse to start bombing North Vietnam in 1964. Saddam Hussein’s non-existent ‘weapons of mass destruction’ were President George W. Bush’s pretext for invading Iraq in 2003.

So yes, the Yemen war, creatively reinterpreted, could indeed be used by MbS and Trump to justify an American attack on Iran. It is said that war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography, but the wars always come first.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 8. (“At…bugs”; and “It…Iran”)

The Khashoggi Tapes

How odd! Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sends an audio recording of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to the governments of all Turkey’s major NATO allies, and the only one that gets it is Canada.

What happened to the copies that President Erdogan sent to the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Germany? Lost in the mail-room, no doubt, or maybe just lying unopened on somebody’s desk. Or perhaps the Turks just didn’t put enough stamps on the packages.

“We gave them the tapes,” said Erdogan on Saturday. “They’ve also listened to the conversation, they know it.” But still not a word out of Washington or London acknowledging that they have heard the recordings, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denied that France has received a copy.

When asked if that meant Erdogan was lying, Le Drian replied: “It means that he has a political game to play in these circumstances.” Like most Western politicians and diplomats, he is desperate to avoid calling out Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as a murderer.

The French have a highly profitable commercial relationship with the oil-rich kingdom, mostly selling it arms, and they don’t want to acknowledge the evidence on the recording (which may directly implicate the Crown Prince) because it could jeopardise that trade.

Erdogan was furious when the French foreign minister issued his denial, and his communications director insisted that a representative of French intelligence had listened to the recording as long ago as 24 October. But it was all just ‘he said/she said’ stuff until Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blew the game wide open on Monday.

Yes, Trudeau said, Canadian intelligence has the recording, and he is well aware of what is on it. In fact, Canadian intelligence agencies have been working very closely with Turkey on the murder investigation, and Canada is “in discussions with our like-minded allies as to the next steps with regard Saudi Arabia.”

Why did Trudeau come clean? One popular theory is the nothing-left -to-lose hypothesis. Last August the tempestuous Crown Prince killed all future trade deals with Canada, pulled thousands of Saudi Arabian foreign students out of Canadian universities, and generally showered curses on the country after Canadian officials called for the release of detained Saudi campaigners for civil rights and women’s rights.

Canada’s bridges to Saudi Arabia have already been burned, according to this theory, so Trudeau felt free to say the truth. But he’s not really free: Canada still has a $13 billion contract to build armoured vehicles for Saudi Arabia that the Saudis might cancel, and this is a real contract, not one of Trump’s fantasy arms sales.

Maybe Trudeau is just braver than the others, but his purpose is clear. He waited more than three weeks after getting the recording for the “like-minded allies” to agree to a joint policy towards the murderous prince – nobody believes Khashoggi could have been killed without Mohammed bin Salman’s consent – and then he spilled the beans.

Of course all the major NATO governments have the recordings. They have had them for at least three weeks. They were just dithering over what to do about them, and Trudeau decided it was time to give them a push. Good for him, but what exactly can they do about Mohammed bin Salman’s crime?

It almost certainly was MbS (as they call him) who ordered the killing. Since his elderly father, King Salman, gave him free rein to run the country less than three years ago, he has become a one-man regime. Nothing happens without his approval, least of all the murder of a high-profile critic in a foreign country by a 15-strong Saudi hit squad including several members of his personal security team.

No Western leader (except perhaps Donald Trump) will be seen in public with MbS any more, foreign investment in Saudi Arabia this year is the lowest in several decades, and the price of oil is falling again. So he has to go, if it’s still possible for anybody in Saudi Arabia to remove him from power. But that’s the big question.

The Saudi royal family is no longer a tight, united body that can just decide MbS has to go and make it stick. It’s a sprawling array of people many of whom scarcely know each other, and without the agreement of King Salman any smaller group within the family that organised a coup against the Crown Prince would almost certainly fail.

So he may go on for while despite the disaster of his military intervention in Yemen, his pointless, fruitless blockade of Qatar and even this ugly murder. He wouldn’t be the only killer in power. But the bloom is definitely off this particular rose.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Why…sales”)

Yemen: The Bigger Lie

While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) frantically tries to scrub Jamal Khashoggi’s blood off his hands like a Middle Eastern Lady Macbeth – “Here’s the smell of blood still. Not all the sweet perfumes of Arabia will sweeten this hand.” – could we have a word about his war in Yemen too?

In the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago, the Crown Prince’s henchmen murdered one high-profile critic of his rule. In Yemen, on Saudi Arabia’s southern border, his air force and those of his allies have been killing around a hundred men, women and children a week for more than three years now. To little avail, it must be said, but the futility of MbS’s bombing campaign does not excuse it.

When the war in Yemen is discussed in the Western media, two phrases recur constantly. One is the “internationally recognised president”, a phrase meant to suggest that the man in question, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, is somehow the legitimate and even the democratically elected leader of the country.

Hadi has been living in exile in Saudi Arabia for the past three years, with only occasional brief visits to the sliver of territory in southern Yemen still controlled by his supporters. He is currently in the United States for medical treatment.

The other misleading phrase is the “Iranian-backed Houthi rebels”, a formulation meant to suggest that the Houthis, who have controlled most of Yemen for the past three years, are mere pawns of the evil Iranians.

‘Iranian-backed’ is also meant to suggest that the Houthi rebels are actually being supplied with weapons by Iran, an allegation that is used by Arab countries beholden to Saudi Arabia and by MbS’s American and European arms suppliers to justify their support for his war on Yemen. Both phrases are deliberately misleading.

Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi came to power in Yemen in 2012, when the ‘Arab spring’ revolt that overthrew long-ruling dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh was threatening to topple into civil war. Saleh had always resisted Saudi Arabia’s attempts to control its far poorer Yemeni neighbour, and the Saudis exploited his fall to put their own man, Hadi, into power.

Hadi was ‘elected’ president in 2012, in a vote where nobody else ran, to serve a two-year transitional term while the country sorted out a new constitution. He was effectively overthrown by Houthi tribal militia in 2014, partly because he was a Saudi puppet but mainly because he supported a Saudi scheme to create a federal system that would impoverish the Houthis.

The northern highlands where the Houthis live are the poorest of all Yemen’s regions, but the proposed federal system would have reserved the country’s dwindling oil revenues for the sparsely populated southwestern provinces where the oil actually is.

Were the Saudis deliberately trying to hurt the Houthis, who are Shia and therefore not trusted by Riyadh? That’s certainly how the Houthis saw it, so they rebelled. It had nothing to do with the Iranians.

Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen is really about putting its own placeman, Hadi, back into power. He is ‘internationally recognised’ (although his mandate ran out four years ago), but that’s no great accomplishment. Even Saddam Hussein was ‘internationally recognised’.

Iran certainly approves of the Houthi revolt, partly because the Houthis are fellow Shias but mainly because they overthrew a Saudi puppet president. But there is no reason to believe that Iran actively encouraged the revolt – the Houthis understand their own interests quite well – and absolutely no evidence that it has supplied the Houthis with weapons.

It’s just not necessary: Yemen is flooded with weapons, and always has been. Besides, there is no way for Iran to get weapons and supplies in to the Houthis. Yemen is a thousand kilometres from Iran, with Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies in between. Saudi Arabia and its allies control the seas around Yemen and the airspace over it. The whole idea is nonsense.

The Saudis make a great fuss about the missiles that the Houthis occasionally launch
at Saudi Arabian targets, in a pathetic retaliation for the intense Saudi air attacks they live under every day. Riyadh claims that the missiles must be Iranian, because the Yemenis are too primitive to handle that technology.

This is more nonsense. The missiles are just upgraded Scuds, a 1950s Soviet design that was sold to half the countries in the Third World. The Yemeni armed forces had them, the Houthis captured them, and Yemeni technicians are perfectly capable of extending their range to reach Riyadh and other Saudi cities. But they have not managed to make them accurate at those ranges: they rarely hit anything.

The Houthis are not an admirable lot, but they are just fighting their corner. There are no Iranians in sight, but Saudi stories about them win American support for MbS’s war. And the Western media almost never question these much bigger lies, although they are having a collective meltdown over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 9 and 10. (“Hadi…treatment”; and “the northern…Iranians”)