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Saudi Arabian

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Whodunnit?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the Houthi claim that the Yemeni rebel group had carried out Saturday’s strike on two huge Saudi Arabian oil processing facilities. There was “no evidence” that the drones belonged to the Houthis, he said. Instead, he blamed Iran.

No surprise there. The way things are at the moment, if an incoming asteroid were about to strike the Earth, the United States would blame Iran. But there’s ‘no evidence’ that the drones came from Iran either. Pompeo is simply trading on the assumption that Yemenis are too ignorant to manage that sort of technology, so it must be Iran.

Saudi Arabia and the alliance of other autocratic Arab States that have been bombing Yemen since 2015 push the same line all the time. It goes down fairly well in the Kingdom, where most people look down on Yemenis for being poor and less well educated, but it isn’t actually true.

Within a year of the war’s start, the Yemenis began launching a few small ballistic missiles (with conventional warheads) back at Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis refused to believe they were doing it themselves. The Houthis, they implied, were too backward to upgrade the Yemeni air force’s old Soviet-made Scud missiles themselves. Iran must have helped them.

In fact, the Yemeni air force had Scud missiles for decades before the government collapsed in 2015, and technicians to service them. Some, maybe most of those technicians threw in their lot with the Houthis, and upgraded those Scuds by cutting them in half and inserting a larger fuel tank in the middle.

It changed their flight characteristic and made them very inaccurate, but it did extend their range enough to hit targets all over southern and eastern Saudi Arabia. And by mid-2017 the Houthis, who controlled most of Yemen, were making their own improved copies known as Burkan missiles.

The ‘Super-Scuds’ were more a morale booster than a war-winner for the Houthis, who live under a merciless daily bombardment from the air (7,290 documented civilian deaths so far). The current attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, if the Houthis’ claim is true, would just be another morale-booster, even though it has temporarily cut world oil production by around 5 percent.

But was it really the Houthis? At this point there is no clear evidence either way, but it could have been. They certainly have the motive, and they may have the technology. They have used small drones in previous air strikes, and there are bigger drones available commercially that could do the damage seen at the Saudi facilities.

The biggest currently available is the Guardian, a monster that can carry a payload of 200 kilos (more than 400 pounds). It’s made by Griff Aviation, a Norwegian company whose Lakeland factory in Florida is producing one Guardian a day and selling them to industrial, agricultural and military clients.

It would be quite a trick for the Houthis to acquire ten of them (which is how many drones they say they used in their attack), but stranger things have happened. Or maybe they did get their hands on some military drones, which would certainly be up to the job. Or maybe it was Iran, but nobody really knows yet.

One apparent flaw in the Houthi theory is that there are no civilian drones capable of flying the almost 800 km from Yemen to the Saudi targets, but that’s not really necessary. Most of the land around the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities is open desert, and launching the drones for 25-50 km away would escape detection unless the Saudis were actively anticipating such an attack.

Who would launch them? There are a million Yemenis resident in Saudi Arabia, plus 2-3 million Saudi citizens who suffer severe discrimination because they follow the Shia version of Islam. There are even Sunni Saudi citizens (mostly Islamists) who are sufficiently disaffected to attack the regime directly.

That’s a pretty large pool to fish in if you’re looking for local collaborators to smuggle the drones in and launch them – which is what the Houthis themselves say happened. In their statement claiming credit for the attacks, they express thanks for “co-operation with the honourable people inside the kingdom.”

None of this proves that it was the Houthis, or that it wasn’t the Iranians. It does leave the identity of the attackers up in the air, where it will remain until conclusive proof emerges one way or another (if it ever does). Mike Pompeo’s confident attribution of blame to Iran, later echoed by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, is just politics, not proof.

As Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted on Sunday, “having failed at max pressure (anti-Iran trade sanctions), Sec Pompeo’s turning to max deceit.” Fair comment, really. And we should be grateful that Donald Trump, for all his faults, is the grown-up in the house this time.

On Sunday Trump tweeted: “There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”

Trump doesn’t want a full-scale war with Iran, and neither does Saudi Arabia. It probably won’t happen.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 9. (“Within…them”; “It changed…missiles”; and “The biggest…clients”)

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”)