Top News: US-Saudi Talks to Focus on Iran, Yemen, and Syria

When King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s meets US President Barack Obama at the White House, the two leaders will be seeking a renewal of an historic US-Saudi strategic partnership recently threatened due to a rising set of challenges in the Middle East. The conflict in Yemen, civil war in Syria, nuclear deal with Iran, and recent collapse in global oil prices will all be points of discussion for the two leaders. In an attempt to reassure a vital Persian Gulf ally about the Iran nuclear deal, the Pentagon is finalizing a $1 billion arms agreement with Saudi Arabia that will provide weapons for the Saudi war effort against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and Yemen. For Obama, King Salman’s visit is a culmination of the US campaign to win support for the nuclear agreement through promises of increased regional military cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf States as laid out at the Camp David summit in May. [Al JazeeraNew York Times, 9/4/2015]



Sinai blasts injure six peacekeepers, including four Americans, Pentagon says
Six soldiers including four Americans were injured on Thursday in two blasts in northeast Sinai caused by improvised explosive devices, the Pentagon said. The Multinational Force and Observer peacekeepers were evacuated “by air to a medical facility where all are receiving treatment for non-life-threatening injuries,” Captain Jeff Davis said in a statement. The four Americans were struck by the second blast as they were en route to help the soldiers hurt in the first, according to Major Roger Cabiness. Cabiness said the Pentagon remains concerned about the deteriorating security conditions in the region. “We are considering what, if any, additional measures might be needed to ensure force protection. This includes bringing in additional equipment if necessary,” he told Reuters. An official from the Multinational Force and Observers’ peacekeeping mission in Egypt’s northern Sinai Peninsula says their vehicles that were hit with explosive devices are similar to ones used by the Egyptian army, but were painted white. The US Defense Department said Thursday the soldiers were being treated for non-life-threatening injuries. [Reuters, AP, 9/4/2015]

Politician Abul-Ghar resigns from Egyptian Social Democratic Party
Prominent politician Mohamed Abul-Ghar has resigned as head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party citing a schism within the group ahead of the long-awaited parliamentary elections. Abul-Gahr, 75, said his exit was prompted by destructive splits, “polarization,” and failed attempts to “heal the rift” within the party. “It strikes me that my desire for the party to have a clear social democratic ideology, to be popular, and to self-finance is impossible with these disagreements raging,” Abul-Ghar said in his resignation letter. Party Secretary General Ahmed Fawzy said disagreements are merely “differences of opinion over political stances.” He added that the party has not yet accepted the resignation, saying its board will convene on Saturday to decide on a course of action. If they accept the resignation then Ziad Bahaa El-Din, the party’s second in command who served as Deputy Prime Minister under an interim government following Mohamed Morsi’s 2013 removal, will take over as acting head until a new leader is elected. [Ahram Online, 9/3/2015]

Court refers three to Mufti to consider death penalty for murder of officer
A case against three people was referred to the Grand Mufti on Thursday, signaling a death sentence for the murder of an officer in Alexandria on August 14, 2013. Major Hossan Bahey of the Central Security Forces was securing the Library of Alexandria, the largest cultural complex in Egypt, when assailants shot him. The shooting occurred as part of wide-scale violence across Egypt after police forcibly dispersed the pro-Mohamed Morsi Raba’a al-Adaweya sit-in, killing hundreds of protesters. Judges seek the Grand Mufti’s unbinding religious opinion on death sentences. The judge scheduled the sentencing for September 28, after which defendants may appeal. [Cairo Post, 9/3/2015]

Egypt’s population grows by over 3.5 million since 2014: CAPMAS
Egypt’s population increased by 2.2 million in the year following January 2014 to reach 87.9 million in January 2015, and by 1.5 since then to reach over 89 million, data from the national census authority shows. Cairo hosts the most people of the country’s twenty-seven governorates with 10.5 percent of the populace, over nine million people, according the statistical yearbook released this week by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS). The yearbook said the country’s population stood at 85.78 million in January 2014 and increased by 2.56 percent over twelve months to 87.9 million in January of this year. But the CAPMAS population ticker now stands at over 89.4 million, meaning Egypt’s population has increased by over 1.5 million since January, representing a 1.7 percent change in eight months. [Ahram Online, 9/3/2015]

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GNC optimistic for Libyan political deal, if conditions met
In signs of a possible breakthrough, newly appointed envoys from Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) government in Tripoli say they are optimistic about a possible deal toward creating a unity government on the condition that a draft accord is modified first. The four-man delegation from the GNC, which withdrew from recent talks due to the resignation of their lead negotiator, arrived in Geneva for UN-brokered discussions attended by all major factions about the future of the country. The expression of optimism by a new team of envoys marked a rare positive note in a divisive process that has dragged on for more than seven months. Newly appointed GNC Envoy Abdulrahman Swehli said the delegation has not yet presented a list of proposed names for those posts. [AP, 9/3/2015]

Libya’s GNC calls for regional conference to tackle migrant influx
The Tripoli-based GNC has asked Arab and European countries to hold a regional conference this month to help the North African country stem a flow of migrants, a minister said on Thursday. Libya has turned into a major transit route for migrants fleeing war and poverty. Smugglers have exploited a security vacuum to bring Syrians into Libya via Egypt or nationals of sub-Saharan countries via Niger, Sudan, and Chad and ship them by boat to Italy. Two boats packed with migrants sank off the Libyan coast in the past week, killing around 200 people. “We call for a regional conference at the end of September … to stop this tragedy,” said Tripoli Justice Minister Mustafa Laqlaib. “Libya cannot address the flow of migrants alone,” he told reporters. “Libya is just a transit country.” [Reuters, 9/3/2015]

Tunis Air demands return tickets for Libyans travelling via Tunisia
Tunis Air has announced that Libyan passengers via Tunisian airports are obliged to buy round trip tickets – forcing them to return to Libya via Tunisia regardless of the destination. The new stipulation was revealed by Libyan Airlines and comes on the heels of the recent restart of direct flights from Libya to Tunisia. The manager of Tunis Air in Malta, who reportedly said that the new regulation was imposed without prior notice, confirmed the news. The Tunis Air in Malta office manager also said that Tunisian authorities issued a new list of Libyan passengers barred from either entering or transiting via Tunisian airports. [Libya Herald, 9/4/2015]

Protest in Tunis to denounce economic reconciliation bill
Demonstrators gathered Thursday evening in Tunis to protest the economic reconciliation bill. Known figures of the civil society and leaders of the Popular Front took part in the protest rally. The protesters chanted slogans hostile to the reconciliation bill and the Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes parties. Thursday’s rally was marked by a violent crackdown by security forces. The Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) has announced that it will open an investigation into the aggression against the peaceful rally. [All Africa/TAP, Mosaique FM (French), 9/3/2015]

Six ‘dangerous terrorists’ suspected of plotting attacks in Tunisia arrested
Four presumed “dangerous terrorists” suspected of attempting to enter Tunisian territory illegally to rally terrorist groups hiding on Mount Chaambi in Kasserine have been arrested. Their mission is thought to have been to coordinate with the Okba Ibn Nafaa group, which is plotting attacks targeting sensitive establishments, according to an Interior Ministry press release. The ministry also confirmed ties between this group and terrorist organizations based in Libya near Tunisian borders. [All Africa/TAP, 9/3/2015]

Leading Islamist party faces test in local Moroccan elections
Moroccans began voting Friday in local elections seen as a test for the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), which swept to power nearly four years ago after Arab Spring protests that prompted reforms by the monarchy. The Interior Ministry said polls opened without any hitches in the vote for 30,000 local council seats and nearly 700 regional assembly posts among nearly thirty parties. The local elections are considered a gauge of the popularity of PJD Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane and his government, as they come a year ahead of a general election. The PJD held only a few towns in 2009 elections, and Friday’s vote will show to what extent they have made a difference at grassroots level after rising to power in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts. The party ran in 2011 on a platform of changing “old regime” ways and fighting corruption, but it has not challenged the king as the country’s ultimate authority, nor has any group or party except for a small leftist coalition. Initial results are expected late on Friday. [Reuters, Reuters Africa, AFP, ANSAMed, 9/4/2015]


ISIS destroys famed tower tombs in Palmyra
Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants destroyed three ancient tower tombs in the central city of Palmyra in the last few days, said a Syrian government official on Friday. Tower tombs built on high ground are a particular feature of the Roman-era ancient caravan city. Head of the Antiquities and Museums Department in Damascus Maamoun Abdulkarim said the militants destroyed the tower tombs, including the Elahbel tower that dates back to the 103 AD. Abdulkarim said his information was based on witness accounts and satellite images provided by the Boston-based American Schools of Oriental Research. UNESCO said ISIS’s actions were war crimes aimed at wiping out Syria’s diverse cultural history. Earlier this week, it detonated explosives at the revered 2,000-year-old Temple of Baal. [AP, Reuters, WSJ, 9/4/2015]

Turkey extends mandate to send troops to Syria
Turkey’s parliament voted on Thursday to extend a mandate by one year authorizing the deployment of troops to Syria and Iraq. The NATO member opened its air bases to coalition fighter jets in July and has since taken part in joint strikes against ISIS in northern Syria. The current mandate, which served as a legal basis for recent Turkish strikes against ISIS targets in Syria and Kurdish rebel targets in Iraq, ends in October. The mandate also allows the government to authorize foreign troops to be based on Turkish soil. Turkey is working with Washington on plans to flush ISIS out of a strip of territory on the Syrian side of the border by jointly providing air cover for US-trained Syrian rebels. [Reuters, AP, 9/4/2015]

Russia says Syria’s Assad ready to share power
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is ready to hold snap parliamentary elections and could share power with a “healthy” opposition. “We are also working with our partners in Syria. In general, the understanding is that this uniting of efforts in fighting terrorism should go in parallel to some political process in Syria itself … And the Syrian president agrees with that, all the way down to holding early elections, let’s say, parliamentary ones, establishing contacts with the so-called healthy opposition, bringing them into governing.” Putin added that he had already spoken to President Barack Obama on the matter. [Reuters, International Business Times, 9/4/2015]

White House monitoring reports on Russian military in Syria
The White House said on Thursday it was closely monitoring reports of Russian military operations in Syria. “We are aware of reports that Russia may have deployed military personnel and aircraft to Syria, and we are monitoring those reports quite closely,” said spokesman Josh Earnest.  “Any military support to the Assad regime for any purpose, whether it’s in the form of military personnel, aircraft supplies, weapons, or funding, is both destabilizing and counterproductive.” The comments come after images appeared on a social media account linked to Syrian fighters purporting to show Russian aircraft and drones near Idlib province. Unconfirmed reports suggest the aircraft may have included a Russian Sukhoi 34 advanced strike fighter, which Syria is not believed to own. In related news, Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was premature to talk about Russia taking part in military operations against ISIS. Putin said, “We are looking at various options but so far what you are talking about is not on the agenda.” [AFP, International Business Times, 9/4/2015]

Drowned migrant boy Alan Kurdi is buried in Syria
The bodies of drowned Syrian boy Alan Kurdi and members of his family have been buried in Kobani in Syria after being transported there from Turkey. Photos of Alan’s body circulated on the Internet, sparking discussion about the human cost of Europe’s migrant crisis. Alan’s father crossed into Kurdish-controlled Kobani with the coffins of three-year-old Alan, his five-year-old brother Galip, and his mother Rehan who all died trying to reach the Greek island of Kos. Alan’s father described the journey that ultimately lead to the death of his family to media. [BBC, Huffington Post, 9/4/2015]


US Department of Homeland Security designates Yemen temporary protected status
The US Department of Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson has announced his decision to designate Yemen for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for eighteen months due to the ongoing armed conflict within the country. Yemen is experiencing widespread conflict and a resulting severe humanitarian crisis. Therefore, demanding Yemeni nationals in the United States to return to Yemen would pose a serious threat to their personal safety. This designation will be in effect from September 3 2015 until March 3 2015 and prevents eligible Yemeni nationals (and people without nationality who last habitually resided in Yemen) from being forced leave the United States. [USCIS, Sahafa (Arabic), 9/4/2015]

Conflicting reports over death of twenty-two UAE soldiers
Twenty-two soldiers from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were killed today in Yemen while taking part in a Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis. The Houthis said they fired a rocket at a weapons cache in a camp used by Gulf coalition forces in the central Marib area, killing dozens of Emirati and Yemeni soldiers and destroying a number of Apache helicopters and armed vehicles. The explosion comes when the coalition forces are beginning their campaign to regain control of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. Deputy Dubai Police Dahi Khalfan responded to the apparent attack by demanding “three thousand Houthi heads,” as a price for the soldiers’ deaths. However, the Yemeni Interior Minister Hudhaifi has said that the explosion was instead caused by poor storage of ammunition. The joint military command in Marib will hold a press conference later today to determine the real cause of the deaths. [Al Jazeera, The Daily Star, Sahafa (Arabic), Gulf News, 09/04/2015]

Houthi rebels arrest suspect in ICRC shooting
A suspect in the shooting of two International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) workers was arrested in Amran province in the north of Sana’a on Wednesday night. He was arrested hours after he allegedly gunned down the two Yemeni aid workers in Houthi-controlled Sana’a. The aid agency said an unidentified gunman opened fire on two ICRC vehicles after stopping them in Amran province. Houthi rebels have questioned the suspect but there has been no public release of the gunman’s identity. The ICRC has suspended its operations in Yemen. [Yahoo News, 9/3/2015]


Standard & Poor’s rates Iraq for first time
Financial services company Standard & Poor’s (S&P) issued a credit rating for Iraq for the first time on Thursday, giving the country a junk score. S&P gave Iraq a B-foreign currency rating, citing the the country’s ongoing war with the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and a steep slide in oil prices as significant risks to investors. S&P qualified its warnings by noting that Iraq “benefits from massive oil reserves and high oil exports,” although the country is facing “significant and external pressures.” Ratings agency Fitch also issued its first credit rating to Iraq last month. Fitch also gave Iraq a B-. The B- rating is an indication that Iraq’s bonds may only have a small assurance of interest and principal payments over a long time and is just one step above rating levels warning that a country is vulnerable to default on its bonds. [AFP, FT, 9/4/2015]

Saudi Aramco trims some crude-oil prices to Asia, United States
Saudi Arabia has cut the official selling price for its light, medium and heavy crude oil grades in October to Asian customers. State-owned oil company Saudi Aramco said in an emailed statement Thursday that light and heavy grades had been cut by 60 cents, while medium grade had been cut by 50 cents. The statement also noted that Aramco had reduced the price of all its grades to the US. According to Bloomberg, Saudi Arabia reduced crude production in August to 10.5 million barrels per day, marking the first decline this year. [WSJ, Bloomberg, 9/3/2015]

Libya plans to sell tanker used in attempt to export oil
Libya plans to sell a tanker that a former rebel group used in an attempt to bypass the Libyan government and export oil on its own last year, the Tripoli-based state prosecutor said on Thursday. The group had loaded crude on the “Morning Glory” at the eastern port of Es Sider and sailed in March 2014 before US Navy SEALs stopped the tanker and returned it to Tripoli. Libya briefly detained the tanker’s foreign crew, then deported them. Officials never disclosed who had planned to buy the crude loaded on the tanker. An auction is scheduled for next Thursday.[Reuters, 9/3/2015]

Yuan effect chokes Egypt as trades signal pound peg too high
Traders are convinced Egypt will not resist the pressure to weaken the pound for long. The black market for dollars on Cairo’s streets has reemerged for the first time since April, signaling that investors and businesses are betting the pound’s official rate of 7.83 per dollar no longer represents its true value. Egypt may follow nations such as Kazakhstan and Vietnam that were forced to depreciate their currencies after China’s yuan devaluation on August 11. Egypt weakened its currency peg twice in 2015, most recently in July. The country cannot afford the loss of export competitiveness as it seeks to boost foreign-exchange holdings that have barely recovered since 2011. The Central Bank’s decision to keep the pound’s dollar peg steady risks exacerbating an already widening trade deficit and turning away foreign investment. [Bloomberg, 9/3/2015]