Over the past few weeks I’ve asked several western officials whether Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen signalled a fundamental change in Riyadh’s behaviour. Should we expect a far more aggressive kingdom under recently installed King Salman, or is Yemen a one-off war to blow off steam? Are we facing a new Saudi Arabia?
The answer has been consistent: we don’t know yet.
Early this morning, at the curious hour of 4 am Riyadh time, King Salman went some way towards providing an answer. In a bombshell announcement, he sacked crown prince Muqrin, who had been close to the late King Abdullah, and elevated Muqrin’s deputy, the security-minded interior minister Mohammed bin Nayef, to crown prince. More importantly – and controversially – he appointed his favourite son, the young Mohammed bin Salman, as next in line for the throne after bin Nayef. Read more
Militia men loyal to Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi loot the barracks of the Special Forces in Aden
As Saudi jets launched bombing raids against Yemeni rebel targets, escalating another war in the Middle East, the Sunni world showed remarkable unity. A coalition of the willing — all Sunni — was assembled, stretching from Egypt to Pakistan. Supporters and critics of the Saudi regime alike agreed that it was time to teach Shia Iran.
And yet, Sunni communities should have little cause for satisfaction. It may be understandable that Riyadh considers Iranian backing for advancing rebels in Yemen as a step too far – Yemen is the Saudi backyard after all. But however large the Saudi-led coalition, and however united in its resolve to confront Iran, the latest intervention in Yemen is unlikely to save the country from sliding into all out civil war.
Indeed, Yemen is turning into another worrying case of Saudi-Iranian proxy war, a heightening power struggle that has engulfed other nations in the region and spread mayhem throughout the Middle East. Read more
Tomahawk missile being fired from a US warship. Photo: US Navy (Roderick Eubanks)
Syrians’ pleas for western military help to stop the Assad regime have gone unanswered for the past three years, no matter how brutal the government’s methods of repression.
More than 200,000 deaths later, the US has entered the Syrian fray with the first air strikes as it also prepares to begin training and equipping a rebel force in Syria. The goal, in this case, is not to take on the regime, but to confront a jihadi menace that has spread spectacularly to Iraq, and has begun to pose a broader threat to the region.
But if fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the group known as Isis, might just prevent Iraq from breaking up, the chances of this campaign bringing peace to Syria are more remote than ever. Read more
Has Qatar’s luck run out? Just a year ago the small, rich Gulf state was at the top of its game, well on its way to establishing itself as a regional political and global financial force.
Splashing its gas-fuelled wealth across the globe it accumulated a multibillion-dollar portfolio of assets, and spread its influence in an Arab world in turmoil, setting itself as the champion of rising Islamist powers.
So confident was its emir of his own standing that in June 2013 he abdicated in favour of his son, in an attempt to demonstrate that Qatar is the most progressive among Gulf states stubbornly attached to the status quo.
Egyptian policemen standing guard outside the courthouse in Minya during the trial of some 683 Islamists on March 25, 2014. AFP/Getty Images
That Egypt’s judiciary is politicised is nothing new. Usually, though, at least it goes through the motions of a trial, allowing some form of defence and taking its time in issuing controversial verdicts.
A court in the southern city of Minya, however, has dispensed with all formality, opting instead for an absurd and outrageous miscarriage of justice. On Monday, it delivered the biggest mass death penalty in the country’s modern history, sentencing 529 Muslim Brotherhood followers to death for an August attack on a police station, in which the deputy police chief was killed. The defendants’ lawyers were not allowed into the proceedings – which lasted a mere two days. Read more
As western leaders prepare to strike Syria, many ordinary people and observers, inside and outside the Middle East, are inevitably drawing parallels between this attack and the US-led war on Iraq a decade ago. Whether in its complicated ethnic composition and its prospects for further violence, in the weapons of mass destruction as a trigger for military action, or in the questions of legality and the likely diplomatic bypassing of the UN security council, a growing perception is that we are about to witness a repeat of recent history.
The Middle East is such a complicated place that these perceptions are not unreasonable. It’s not easy to make sense of Sunni versus Shia, Alawite versus Sunni, regime versus jihadis. Also complex is the debate over legality versus legitimacy of intervention. Western shifts of policy can be confusing, from watching tens of thousands of Syrians slaughtered to declaring the death of hundreds in an alleged gas attack a moral obscenity that cannot go unpunished. Read more
Police arrest a supporter of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi at a protest camp in Cairo last week. (Getty)
Saud al-Feisal, the veteran Saudi foreign minister, delivered a strident warning to Europe and the US this week as western nations consider suspending financial assistance to Egypt’s new military-backed government.
Slamming what he said was a refusal to recognise reality, in which Islamists alone were to blame for the violence and chaos spreading in Egypt, he warned that Cairo had friends in the region who would make up any reduction in aid.
He went further, hinting at potential consequences for western relations with Saudi Arabia itself. If the “strange” international policy on Egypt continued, he said, “we will not forget … and will consider it hostile attitude towards Arab and Muslim security and stability”.
Riyadh had already shown its commitment to Egypt’s new government, rushing in after the July coup with billions of dollars of assistance. Saudi officials argue that western reluctance to embrace the new government in Cairo runs against the demands of the popular majority and encourages the Islamists’ defiance, thereby provoking more violence.
Although often indecisive, and sometimes shy, Riyadh appears to be acting on Egypt in the same resolute way it handled Bahrain two years ago.Read more
In a rambling weekend statement, Egypt’s state information service complained of “severe bitterness” towards some western media coverage, which it deemed “biased” in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood. Forget that the Brothers had won legislative and presidential elections and are now facing one of the most brutal crackdowns in their more than 80-year history; they are, says the statement, terrorizing citizens, killing innocent people, and attacking the police. And they are being aided in their devious acts by al-Qaeda.
The police and army, meanwhile, are the heroes who have rushed to protect the people and their revolution and are now standing in the face of “terrorist” attempts to “fling the country into violence.”
Expressing dismay that several western media have been focusing on the outraged reaction of some western governments, the statement recommends that they pay closer attention to the support in Egypt’s war against terrorism delivered by the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (the autocratic supporters of the anti-Brotherhood campaign.) Read more
Egyptians in Tahrir Square celebrate the army's 48-hour ultimatum to President Morsi (Getty)
In the surreal world of Egyptian politics, the embattled president, Mohamed Morsi, issued his response to the army’s ultimatum at 2 am on Tuesday morning. You’re too confusing, he told the generals, and why didn’t you consult me before?
The army itself, shortly after telling Mr Morsi that he had 48 hours to fix Egypt’s irreconcilable political differences — a threat that looked very much like a creeping coup –went on to post a clarification. It’s not a coup, said the second military statement, only an attempt to push politicians to reach consensus.
John Kerry and William Hague discuss Syria (Getty)
It’s comforting to see that there is a flurry of diplomacy on Syria. But it not the Geneva peace conference sponsored by the US and Russia that had been expected this month. The conference plan has run into a few problems, including that the regime’s gains on the ground have made it even less likely that Bashar al-Assad would hand over power to a transitional government, which is supposed to be the basis of peace negotiations. There’s now talk that the conference could take place in early July, starting just before the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. Or it might be delayed until the end of the summer. Or it might never happen.Read more
“Aren’t you ashamed?” charged a visibly angry Eric Chevalier, the French ambassador to Syria, as he chastised opposition members for failing to expand the Syrian National Coalition after a week of negotiations.
In the Youtube video clip that was making the rounds of social media sites on Tuesday, the French diplomat goes on to ask how Coalition leaders elected only eight members, when they agreed to add 22. “There is a problem,” he said. Read more
Mr Bouteflika wields enormous power and he has dominated the country’s politics since the late 1990s. He also has been at the centre of the diplomacy in the Sahel.
Yet when the going got tough, the 75-year-old president was nowhere to be seen or heard (although he did bother to send a note of encouragement to the national football team, which is competing in the Africa Cup of Nations). Instead he left it to his prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, to field the anxious calls of world leaders and to communicate – rather poorly – with the public. The British government, for example, tried to contact Mr Bouteflika but was told that he was not available. Read more
It’s too early to pass judgment, said William Hague, British foreign secretary, about Algeria’s handling of the worse hostage crisis in decades. And he might be right.
It is not easy for western governments to strike the right balance between criticism of the Algerian assault on the In Amenas gas plant and the ensuring bloodbath, and the need to appear tough and determined in combating terrorism.
But questions about whether Algeria’s military moved too rapidly on the offensive when jihadi militants took one of the country’s vital gas facilities will have to be asked by governments and by the families of those who died. Read more
A breach of the security at gas and oil installations was the Algerian regime’s nightmare back in the 1990s, when the country was wracked by an Islamist insurgency.
Under intense financial pressure at the time, and desperate to attract foreign investment into its energy sector, installations in the southern part of the country were heavily guarded exclusion zones that seemed a world apart from the heavily populated north.
There are two Algerias, people would say at the time, one soaked in blood, the other peaceful and bursting with oil and gas. Read more
There is no doubt that the group has established itself as the jihadi front in Syria and that, if left unchecked after the fall of the Assad regime, it would become a threatening al-Qaeda franchise in the Levant that also bolstered its Iraqi affiliate.
“Al-Nusra has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes,” US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
Memories of the blowback from Afghanistan are still fresh in the minds of American officials. Back in the 1980s, the US and Saudi Arabia backed the Mujahideen’s fight against the Soviet Union and, along the way, sowed the seeds of what became Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist organisation. No one wants to repeat the same mistake. Read more
Every defection, or assumed defection, from the Syrian regime heartens its opponents and gives fresh impetus to the “this is a big blow to Bashar al-Assad” comments from western capitals desperate for a collapse of the government – and desperate not to be forced into military intervention to get rid of it.
But defections often come with a measure of disinformation, which is designed to protect the official or general until he or she is in safe hands and properly debriefed by whichever intelligence service assisted him. Families back home also have to be protected because there is no limit to the cruelty that could be inflicted on relatives of a defector.
So it is no surprise that the whereabouts of Jihad Makdissi, the suave, English-speaking mouthpiece of the foreign ministry, are still a mystery two days after the first report of his departure from Damascus emerged. Read more
In Israel and the Gaza Strip, there might be no real winners from the week-long conflict that ended last night. But there is already a clear loser, writes Roula Khalaf – he is Mahmoud Abbas and he is the president of the Palestinian Authority. Read more
Gideon became chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times in July 2006. He joined the FT after a 15-year career at The Economist, which included spells as a foreign correspondent in Brussels, Washington and Bangkok. He also edited The Economist’s business and Asia sections.
His particular interests include American foreign policy, the European Union and globalisation