Category: Sacred Land of Hijaz


June 15, 2017

King Salman of Saudi Arabia has given Pakistan’s prime minister an ultimatum over Qatar. In an attempt to force Nawaz Sharif to take sides, the monarch jibed, “Are you with us or with Qatar?” the Express Tribune has reported.

The king posed the question during a meeting between the two leaders in Jeddah on Monday as part of the effort to find a diplomatic solution to the Qatar crisis. “Pakistan has told Saudi Arabia it will not take sides in the brewing diplomatic crisis in the Middle East after Riyadh asked Islamabad ‘are you with us or with Qatar’,” the newspaper pointed out.

Pakistan has been treading a careful path since Saudi and other Gulf countries cut diplomatic ties with Qatar. However, the Saudi government wants Pakistan to side with the kingdom.

Citing a senior government official, who was briefed on the talks at the monarch’s palace in Jeddah, the Express Tribune said that Pakistan would not take sides in any event that would create divisions within the Muslim world. “Nevertheless, in order to placate Saudi Arabia, Pakistan offered to use its influence over Qatar to defuse the situation. For this purpose, the prime minister will undertake visits to Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey,” the newspaper added.

Sharif traveled to Jeddah accompanied by army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and other senior officials to discuss the emerging situation in the Gulf. It is thought that Prime Minister Sharif’s mediation visit to Saudi did not achieve any immediate breakthrough.

According to an official statement, Sharif met King Salman in Jeddah and urged an early resolution of the impasse in Gulf in the best interest of all Muslims.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170615-saudi-king-gives-pakistans-prime-minister-an-ultimatum-over-qatar/.

May 04, 2017

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Thursday his first foreign trip as president will feature stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican, where he will meet with Pope Francis, an ambitious foray onto the world stage that will include meetings with NATO and a summit in Italy.

Senior administration officials said Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first stop to show his commitment to improving U.S. relations with the Muslim world. Trump will meet with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and other leaders where they are expected to discuss efforts to defeat terrorism and discredit radical ideologies, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe internal planning.

Trump, joining religious leaders in the Rose Garden on Thursday, said his first foreign trip would “begin with a truly historic gathering in Saudi Arabia with leaders all across the Muslim world.” “Saudi Arabia is the custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam and it is there that we will begin to construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism and violence and to embrace a more just and hopeful future for young Muslims in their countries,” Trump said.

The weeklong trip will mark the president’s first trip abroad and come about six weeks after the U.S. launched Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian air base in the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack in the war-ravaged country.

The trip will inject Trump into the thorny quest for Middle East peace, a prospect that has proven elusive for Trump’s predecessors. The announcement follows Trump’s meeting on Wednesday with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and his optimistic pledge to mediate peace efforts between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Trump has sought to forge strong ties with Israel’s President Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of his presidency in hopes of facilitating peace. The visit to Israel will reinforce that alliance, officials said.

“Our task is not to dictate to others how to live but to build a coalition of friends and partners who share the goal of fighting terrorism and bringing safety, opportunity and stability to the war-ravaged Middle East,” Trump said.

The Palestinians want to create a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Abbas noted that demand when he joined Trump at the White House.

But Netanyahu has rejected the 1967 frontier as a baseline for border talks and ruled out partitioning Jerusalem where Palestinians hope to establish a capital. Netanyahu’s government has expanded settlements despite U.S. efforts to curb the construction.

The White House had said previously that Trump would travel to Belgium for the NATO meeting and Italy for the G7 summit before Memorial Day. The president previously called NATO “obsolete” but has since recanted after listening to European leaders make the case for the military alliance.

Trump will be making his first overseas trip late into the start of his presidency compared to his predecessors. Former President Barack Obama visited nine countries by late April 2009, his first three months in office, meeting with allies such as Canada, Britain and Germany. The last first-term president to wait until May to venture abroad was Jimmy Carter in 1977.

His visit will also give him the opportunity to connect with Roman Catholics with his visit with Pope Francis at the Vatican. The White House said the president met privately Thursday with Roman Catholic cardinals.

Trump and Francis couldn’t be more different in their approaches to some of the pressing issues of the day, with immigration and climate change topping the list. Francis has spoken of the need for bridges between nations, not the walls that Trump has called for. He has called for an end to the use of fossil fuels, while Trump has pledged to cancel payments to U.N. climate change programs and pull out of the Paris climate accord.

But both share a populist appeal and speak with a down-to-earth simplicity that has endeared them to their bases of supporters. And both share a common concern about the plight of Christians in the Middle East at the hands of Islamic militants.

Francis recently called for the U.S. and North Korea to step away from the brink and use negotiations and diplomacy to diffuse tensions on the Korean peninsula — an issue that is likely to feature in any Vatican audience.

During the campaign, when asked about Trump’s border wall with Mexico, Francis famously said anyone who wants to build a wall is “not Christian.” Trump shot back that it was “disgraceful” for a religious leader to question someone’s faith.

Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Vatican City contributed to this report.

April 04, 2017

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — British Prime Minister Theresa May has forgone wearing a headscarf during her visit to Saudi Arabia. May stepped off a plane in the Saudi capital of Riyadh Tuesday morning without the headscarf the kingdom favors for women.

Under the kingdom’s dress code, Saudi women are required to wear a headscarf and loose, black robes in public, but covering one’s head is not required for foreigners. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama also declined to wear headscarves during visits to the country.

May is getting a mixed reaction on social media to the move. Some users see it as a display of feminism, while others call it disrespectful. May’s Downing Street office had no comment on her wardrobe choice.

Davos, Switzerland (AFP)

Jan 17, 2017

The rise of China will be a source of global stability not conflict, major oil supplier Saudi Arabia said at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday.

“As China gets integrated into the world, and into the world financial and economic systems, it has a tremendous interest in stability of those systems,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said.

“And so I think the rise of China should be one that is welcomed, not one that is viewed as a source of a threat,” he told a discussion in the Swiss resort, where 3,000 members of the political and business elite gathered for annual talks.

Asia is the number one market region for Saudi Arabian oil.

Jubeir’s comments came after China’s President Xi Jinping warned, also at Davos, against scapegoating globalization for the world’s ills or retreating behind protectionist walls.

US President-elect Donald Trump has blamed China and globalization for the loss of millions of American factory jobs.

Washington is a longstanding ally of Saudi Arabia but ties were strained under President Barack Obama, who hands power to Trump on Friday.

Riyadh felt Obama was reluctant to get involved in the civil war in Syria and other regional conflicts while tilting towards Saudi Arabia’s rival Iran.

Jubeir said he expects the Trump administration to be more engaged in the Middle East, and the world in general, while “rebuilding” relationships with allies.

“I think the change will happen,” the Saudi minister said.

Among Saudi concerns has been the regional role of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement, which is backed by Iran.

“Our concern is that Lebanon not be a source of danger to us, mainly Hezbollah,” Jubeir said.

But the election in November of Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, who was backed by Hezbollah, will contribute to a “healing process” in Lebanon, Jubeir said.

“He has acted as a statesman as soon as he was elected” and last week visited Riyadh as his first foreign stop, the Saudi minister said.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Saudi_Arabia_sees_China_rise_as_stabilising_999.html.

Riyadh (AFP)

Jan 10, 2017

Saudi Arabia and Lebanon agreed Tuesday to hold talks on restoring a $3-billion military aid package, opening a “new page” in relations, a Lebanese official source said.

“The blockage is lifted,” said the official in the delegation of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who held talks over lunch with King Salman in the Saudi capital.

After a tense year which saw Saudi Arabia freeze the aid deal over what it said was the dominance of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement, Aoun arrived in Riyadh on Monday night with a delegation of ministers.

It was his first trip to the kingdom since his election in November ended a two-year deadlock between Iran- and Saudi-backed blocs in the Lebanese parliament.

Aoun, a Maronite Christian former army chief who was backed by Hezbollah, clinched the presidency with shock support from Saudi ally Saad Hariri, a leading Sunni figure who in return was named prime minister.

Analysts say Saudi Arabia is hoping for a more stable Lebanon, after concerns over the role played by Hezbollah in the Lebanese government and the threat posed by jihadists and the war in neighboring Syria.

The Iran-backed Shiite militant group has fighters in Syria supporting forces of President Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, backs some rebels opposed to his government.

Riyadh last March declared Hezbollah a “terrorist organisation” and urged its citizens to leave Lebanon.

In February, the kingdom halted the $3-billion (2.8-billion-euro) military aid package to Lebanon to protest what it said was “the stranglehold of Hezbollah on the state”.

The program would see Riyadh fund the transfer of vehicles, helicopters, drones, cannons and other military equipment from France, which has been seeking to boost arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.

The Lebanese official told AFP that a “new page” in relations with Riyadh had been turned and said the aid was “going to move”.

“There is truly a change. But when and how, we have to wait to see,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

He added that King Salman’s son, the powerful Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will discuss with his Lebanese counterpart how to move the package forward.

– ‘Security, stability’ –

After Aoun’s election, France’s foreign ministry said it was in “close dialogue” with Lebanon and Saudi Arabia in hope of a deal.

Aoun told Saudi state news channel Al-Ekhbaria that his ministers of foreign affairs, education, finance and information would meet their Saudi counterparts “to find some fields of cooperation.”

Asked vaguely about the military aid, Aoun said: “Of course we will discuss all the possible issues.”

Syria’s nearly six-year civil war has been a major fault line in Lebanese politics, and the country hosts more than one million Syrian refugees.

Aoun said that Lebanon’s partners “have agreed to build Lebanon, regardless of the results in the other countries, because building Lebanon is for all, and secondly, security and stability is for all.”

He told Al-Ekhbaria his country’s internal political situation had improved, and expressed confidence that “balance” can be maintained.

“The state must realize, and maintain, security and stability for individuals and groups even if there are different political visions regarding neighboring and regional countries,” Aoun said.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Saudi_unblocks_military_aid_to_Lebanon_Lebanese_source_999.html.

October 10, 2016

Former Chief of the Saudi Royal Court, Khalid Al-Tuwaijri, yesterday condemned the Egyptian regime for voting on a Russian draft resolution.

In a tweet, Al-Tuwaijri expressed his disappointment and reminded the Egyptian authorities that it was the Saudis who assisted the Sisi regime.

Egypt voted on Saturday for two opposing draft resolutions on the Syria conflict. The first was a French-Spanish version and the other was by Russia, calling for relief in Syria, particularly in Aleppo.

Russia vetoed the French-drafted resolution demanding an immediate halt to the bombing campaign that the Syrian government and Russia are carrying out against opposition-held areas of Aleppo.

The Russian draft, which made no mention of a bombing halt, was rejected because it failed to get the minimum nine “yes” votes needed for approval.

Syria has been trapped in a civil war for the last five years between its long-serving government and opposition factions who seek to eliminate Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Shortly after the war began, military and political power vacuums left room for extremist factions to grow, leaving the country in a military quagmire.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161010-saudi-criticises-sisis-backing-of-russia/.

September 10, 2016

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Close to 2 million people from around the world began performing the first rites of the Islamic hajj pilgrimage on Saturday, which calls for entering into a state of physical and spiritual purity and circling the cube-shaped Kaaba with their palms facing upward in supplication and prayer.

Notably absent this year are Iranian pilgrims. Last year, some 64,000 Iranians took part in the hajj, but disputes with the Saudi government prompted Tehran to bar its citizens from taking part this year.

Saudi Arabia has blamed Iranian officials for the decision and suggests it was politically motivated to publicly pressure the kingdom. Iran says Saudi “incompetence” caused a crush and stampede during last year’s hajj that killed more than 460 of its citizens. On Friday, thousands of Iranians marched through the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities to protest Saudi Arabia, chanting prayers against the kingdom’s Sunni rulers after midday prayers.

The hajj is one of the world’s largest pilgrimages. It draws the faithful to the holy city of Mecca and areas around it for five intense days of rituals and prayers aimed at erasing past sins and drawing Muslims closer to God. The pilgrimage is required of all Muslims to perform once in their lifetime.

To begin the hajj, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims circle the Kaaba in Mecca’s Grand Mosque. In a sign of humility and equality before God, the pilgrims shed symbols of materialism, entering a state of “ihram.” Women forgo makeup and perfume and wear loose-fitting clothing and a head covering, while men dress in seamless, white terry cloth garments.

Since arriving in Mecca over the past several weeks, hundreds of thousands have chanted, “Labayk Allahuma Labayk,” or “Here I am, God, answering your call. Here I am.” While following a route the Prophet Muhammad once walked, the rites of hajj are believed to ultimately trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.

The Interior Ministry says more than 1.3 million people from 160 different countries have arrived to the kingdom to perform the hajj this year. Most pilgrims will spend the evening outside Mecca in a valley called Mina that houses more than 160,000 tents. They will head to an area called Arafat on Sunday for the pinnacle of the pilgrimage, an emotional day of repentance and supplication.

For the first time in more than three decades, Saudi Arabia’s top cleric will not be delivering this year’s prestigious hajj sermon on Sunday. Al-Riyadh newspaper reported Saturday that Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, who has delivered the sermon since 1981, will be replaced by Sheikh Saleh bin Hamid.

Hamid previously served as chairman of the top consultative Shura Council and was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Council before serving as a royal adviser. The newspaper did not give a reason for the change.

The mufti sparked controversy this week when, in response to the Iranian criticisms, he was quoted as saying that Iran’s Shiite leaders “are not Muslims.”

09 September 2016 Friday

Millions of Muslims from around the world have started arriving in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, a central pillar of the Islamic faith that re-enacts the actions of the Prophet Muhammad from more than 1,400 years ago.

Worshipers from more than 150 countries began gathering on Friday in the city, one of the holiest sites in Islam, to prepare for the five-day pilgrimage which starts on Saturday, September 10.

A spiritual journey meant to cleanse the faithful of sin and bring them closer to God, this year’s Hajj is expected to be attended by more than 1.5 million pilgrims.

To address security concerns, nearly a thousand new surveillance cameras have been installed at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, which will monitor crowd numbers, and the Jamarat stoning (a symbolic stoning of the devil based on historic tradition) will be more tightly controlled than in previous years.

Also for the first time, pilgrims will be given electronic bracelets storing personal and medical information that will help authorities provide care and identify people.

Water-resistant and connected to GPS, the devices will also instruct worshipers on timings of prayers and a multilingual help desk will guide pilgrims around the various rituals.

Last year’s Hajj was marred by a stampede that killed more than 750 people. However, counts carried out by countries who repatriated bodies showed that more than 2,000 people may have died in the crush, according to news agencies.

The disaster deepened tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, as many of the pilgrims killed were Iranian.

Relations between the two countries hit a new low earlier this year when they failed to reach a deal on arrangements for Iranian citizens attending this year’s pilgrimage.

Source: al-Jazeera.

Link: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/09/hajj-2016-millions-muslims-start-arriving-mecca-160909061605825.html.

April 15, 2016

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian security forces fired tear gas Friday at demonstrators protesting President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Chants of “leave, leave!” directed at el-Sissi marked the first significant wave of street protests since the former army chief became president in 2014.

Riot police first cracked down on protesters in Cairo’s twin city of Giza, where demonstrators had gathered at two prominent mosques after Friday prayers and started marching toward Tahrir Square downtown. Many carried signs reading, “Land is Honor” and denouncing the surrender of the islands. Others chanted, “The people want the fall of the regime” and “Down with military rule!”

After police fired tear gas, the protesters ran in all directions, according to videos posted online by activists. Several photojournalists covering the protests were briefly detained near al-Istiqama mosque in Giza, according to witnesses at the scene who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared for their own safety.

All unauthorized demonstrations in Egypt are illegal and security forces have, in the past, used lethal force against peaceful demonstrators. Egypt’s state news agency quoted an unnamed official as saying that the protesters were members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood group and that they chanted “anti-regime slogans.” The official said police responded with tear gas after protesters threw rocks at them.

Another demonstration of nearly 2000 protesters gathered outside the Press Syndicate downtown, a few meters from a collection of armored vehicles and hundreds of police in full riot gear who sealed off the surrounding streets. The protesters there chanted, “They sold our lands to the Saudis.” Except for a handful of bearded men and female protesters wearing full-face veils, there was little sign of an organized Islamist presence among the demonstrators.

“If we give up the lands now, there will be more future concessions for him to stay in power, for few more months,” said Alaa Morsi, one of the protesters, echoing a widely-held notion that el-Sissi essentially sold Egyptian territory in exchange for much-needed Saudi financial support, to shore up his rule.

What infuriated many was the secretive nature of the deal and particularly its timing. It was announced at the same time the Saudis were pledging billions of dollars of loans, causing critics and even some former el-Sissi supporters to accuse the president of a desperate and humiliating territorial sell-off.

“He should have told us before the deal,” said 28-year-old lawyer and protester Rania Rafaat, who was carrying a banner read, “el-Sissi sold his land, leave.” El-Sissi has defended his decision on the islands and tried to defuse the controversy.

The government maintains that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba belong to Saudi Arabia, which asked Egypt in 1950 to protect them from Israel. Israel captured the islands in the 1967 Middle East war, but handed them back to Egypt under their 1979 peace treaty.

In response, Egyptians have taken to social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter, posting numerous old maps to prove Egypt’s ownership of the islands. Though relatively small in number, the protests come at a time of public tension and tight security, underscoring increasing public discontent at el-Sissi’s rule since he was elected president in the summer of 2014. A year earlier, as army chief, he led the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi following mass protests against Morsi’s rule. El-Sissi also led the military’s crackdown on thousands of Islamists who staged sit-ins and rallies across Egypt to demand Morsi’s reinstatement. Thousands were imprisoned and hundreds killed in the crackdown.

El-Sissi is Egypt’s fourth president in six years, after millions of Egyptians revolted against the longtime autocratic President Hosni Mubarak and his police state in 2011. Hailed by his supporters at the time as the country’s savior, el-Sissi has faced a series of crises in recent months including a surging Islamic insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, a declining economy, and deeply disenchanted youth and democracy advocates who see him as another version of Mubarak.

Away from the capital, el-Sissi once again defended his decision to give up the islands to the Saudis, saying that they always rightfully belonged to Saudi Arabia and were only temporarily placed under Egyptian protection.

Speaking to a number of carefully-chosen youth in an under-construction Red Sea resort city, he promised to turn Egypt into a new economic and culture powerhouse. El-Sissi acknowledged in his lengthy speech that he kept the talks over the islands secret in order to avoid public debate which he perceived as harmful to Egyptian foreign relations.

The rare show of defiance, the Friday demonstration reinvigorated demands of retribution to killings of the youth protesters. Some protesters waved a banner carrying the picture of Mina Danial, a young protester killed when army troops crackdown in 2011. Others carried pictures of detained Islamists.

El-Sissi still retains a large base of support among Egyptians who fear for their security, and see him as the only protection against an Islamist takeover and state disintegration. At a small rally Friday in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria, dozens of supporters carried posters with photographs of the president and chanted, “We love you, el- Sissi!”

The calls for the Friday protests in Cairo prompted the Interior Ministry to beef up security in Tahrir Square, shutting down the Tahrir subway station and positioning dozens of police vehicles mounted by masked riot police around the square and the surrounding area.

Earlier, the state MENA news agency quoted an unnamed ministry official as saying police were “encircling” all the strategic routes into the capital. The official said the precautions would prevent “infiltration of the terrorist group” bent on causing chaos — a reference to Morsi’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

The Islamist group, which has been declared a terrorist organization, had joined calls by secular and leftist groups for mass demonstrations over the islands issue. The Islamist presence in the Press Syndicate demonstration was relatively low, and some protesters prevented others from raising pro-Brotherhood signs. One Islamist protester who identified himself by an elias, Abu Shehab, told The Associated Press, “I am protesting against everything. El-Sissi is not fit to be a president.”

Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Egyptian government on Saturday evening said a new maritime border agreement with Riyadh would put the Red Sea islands of Sanafir and Tiran – long considered Egyptian possessions – within Saudi territorial waters.

“The Red Sea islands [Sanafir and Tiran] fall within Saudi territorial waters in light of the new border demarcation agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” the Egyptian government said in a statement.

On Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Sharif Ismail signed the deal with Saudi officials at the presidential palace in Cairo in the presence of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the latter of whom is currently visiting Egypt.

The government statement went on to describe the agreement as an “important achievement” that would allow both countries to take full advantage of their “rich natural resources”.

It added that the border demarcation deal was the “result of six years of hard work and 11 rounds of meetings”, noting that two technical committees had used the latest scientific methods to accurately demarcate the maritime border between the two countries.

“Ratification of this agreement will allow Egypt to take advantage of the exclusive economic zone in the Red Sea and will provide Egypt with exploration opportunities for additional natural resources,” the government statement read.

It went on to note that the deal would be brought before Egypt’s parliament – which is dominated by pro-regime MPs – for ratification.

Criticism

The agreement came in for heavy criticism by opposition figures, including many prominent former officials and parliamentarians.

In a joint statement, they asserted their “total rejection” of “all agreements concluded by this illegal regime, including the relinquishment of Egypt’s historical right to territorial waters, land and airspace, along with the management of its airports and wealth and its territorial jurisdiction and national sovereignty.”

The statement was signed by former MP Tharwat Nafi; Saif Abdul Fattah, a former adviser to ex-President Mohamed Morsi (who was ousted in a 2013 military coup); journalist Abdul Rahman Yousef; former MP Gamal Heshmat; former MP Hatem Azzam; former government minister Amr Darrag; Tariq al-Zumr, head of the Building and Development Party; Ayman Nour, a former presidential candidate; Ihab Shiha, head of the Asala Party; Yahiya Hamid, former assistant to ousted President Morsi; and Muhammad Mahsoub, a former government minister.

Tiran Island (80 square kilometers) lies at the entrance of the Strait of Tiran, which separates the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea only six kilometers from the Sinai coast. Sanafir Island (33 square kilometers) is located to the east of Tiran Island.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/africa/24935-egypt-cedes-two-red-sea-islands-to-saudi-arabia.