Saudi-led coalition war planes bombed Yemen’s capital on Monday as Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, blew up the house of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, prompting unconfirmed reports that he had been killed.
The radio station of the Houthi-run interior ministry said Saleh – a former ally of the rebels who switched sides in recent days – had been killed by militiamen after his house was destroyed in fierce fighting in the capital, Sana’a.
Unverified video footage circulated by Yemeni social media users and a Houthi-run TV station appeared to a show the corpse of a man resembling Saleh.
More than 125 civilians have been killed and 238 injured in clashes in Sana’a in the last five days, in the latest disastrous turn for Yemen’s three-year civil war. The fresh violence comes after the sudden collapse of the political and military alliance between the Houthi rebels and forces loyal to Saleh. The two groups had held Sana’a for the past two years.
The high casualty figures were given by the International Red Cross, which also warned it was struggling to keep the hospital functioning in Sana’a and access its warehouse of medical supplies.
The distribution of humanitarian aid across the country is already fraught, with seven million people dependent on aid in what the UN has described as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. The civil war has so far claimed 10,000 lives.
On Saturday, Saleh gave a televised address in effect announcing that he was swapping sides in the civil war, and would be seeking a dialogue with the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led coalition that he had been fighting alongside the Houthis since 2015. The Saudis have sought to reinstall the UN-recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and defeat the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a Middle East-wide power struggle that has the potential to envelop the whole region in a war.
It is widely thought that UAE diplomats persuaded the 75-year-old Saleh to swap sides.
“Yemeni citizens have tried to tolerate the recklessness of the Houthi over the last two-and-a-half years but cannot anymore,” Saleh said in his TV address, and ordered forces loyal to him in the capital to stop taking instructions from the Shia Houthi rebels.
The alliance of convenience between Saleh and the Houthis has been close to collapse for months, with claims that Houthis tried to kill Saleh’s son.
Hadi also ordered forces loyal to him – mainly based in the southern city of Aden – to capitalise on the disarray in the opposition and advance north to Houthi positions. Hadi’s staff also said they will offer an amnesty to anyone that has collaborated with the Houthi regime.
Saleh’s conversion was immediately welcomed by the Saudis and the UAE.
It is widely thought that they had been engineering his conversion for months after they became disillusioned with Hadi’s leadership, and looked for a new way to break the political and military deadlock. Hadi has been living in exile in Riyadh, and there are reports that he now has little independence from Saudi control.
Neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia foresaw that their intervention in Yemen would prove so costly or protracted, so Saleh’s volte face could represent a political breakthrough if his forces do not capitulate to the Houthi militia in Sana’a.
Saudi-led coalition planes have been targetting Houthi-held positions in the capital for two days in a bid to force the Houthis back. Targets have included Houthi bases near the airport and the interior ministry. But the loss of Saleh’s house suggests Saudi air power is not enough to win the battle in the streets.
Riyadh’s determination to crush the Houthis hardened last month after an Iranian-made missile was fired from Houthi positions at Saudi Arabia’s international airport in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia responded by mounting a three-week long blockade of goods entering Houthi-controlled ports, prompting widespread shortages.
Saudi billionaire Alwaleed to walk free ‘within days’
AL JAZEERA — Prominent Saudi businessman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, says he expects to soon be released after two months of detention on allegations of corruption.
Prince Alwaleed, who was arrested among dozens of other royal family members, ministers, and top businessmen, said in an exclusive interview with Reuters news agency on Saturday that he expected to be cleared of charges and released from custody within the next few days.
“There are no charges. There are just some discussions between me and the government,” the 62-year-old said.
“I believe we are on the verge of finishing everything within days.”
He and his counterparts were arrested in early November during the kingdom’s “anti-corruption purge”, and were held collectively in the country’s Ritz Carton hotel.
In his interview, Prince Alwaleed said he was continuing to maintain his innocence of any corruption in talks with authorities. He also said he expected to remain in full control of his global investment firm, without being required to give up assets to the government.
During a previous interview with Reuters, a Saudi official said charges against the billionaire prince included money laundering, bribery and extorting of officials.
Also speaking to officials in the kingdom, the Reuters news agency said Saudi authorities were asking detainees to hand over assets and cash in return for their freedom.
The deals involve separating cash from assets, such as property and shares, and looking at bank accounts to assess cash values, one source told Reuters.
Prince Alwaleed appeared frail in comparison to his last public appearance in a televised interview last October, but confirmed that he was being treated well, dismissing rumors that had said otherwise.
Showing off his private office, dining room and kitchen in his hotel suite, Prince Alwaleed said he agreed to the interview mainly to prove that such rumours were false.
The release of Prince Alwaleed, whose net worth has been estimated by Forbes magazine at $17bn, may reassure investors in his business empire. Directly or indirectly through his firm, Kingdom Holding, he holds stakes in companies such as Twitter Inc and Citigroup Inc,
He has also invested in top hotels around the world, including the George V in Paris and the Plaza in New York City.
Saudi authorities said they aimed to reach financial settlements with most suspects and believed they could raise some $100bn for the government this way.
In recent days, there have been signs the purge is winding down; several other prominent businessmen, including Waleed al-Ibrahim, owner of regional television network MBC, have reached financial settlements with authorities, an official source told Reuters on Friday, though terms were not revealed.
Prince Alwaleed said his own case was taking longer to conclude because he was determined to clear his name completely, but he believed the case was now 95 percent complete.
“There’s a misunderstanding, and it’s being cleared. So I’d like to stay here until this thing is over completely and get out and life goes on,” he said, adding that he plans to live in the kingdom after his release.
A bitter rivalry between Arab states is spilling into Africa
THE rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on one side and the Gulf state of Qatar on the other is spilling poison into the Horn of Africa, embittering animosities between half a dozen countries in the region. Several of them have seized an opportunity to benefit from instability in the Arabian peninsula by offering bases. But if Arab conflicts spread, countries in the Horn could be dragged into the fray.
Broadly speaking, the regional imbroglio pits two camps of Muslims. One is a more vigorously Islamist lot, including Qatar and Turkey, which have been friendly towards the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement spanning many countries, and seek better relations with Iran. The other is an alliance led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, whose governments all loathe the Brothers and proclaim themselves as moderate Sunnis particularly hostile to the Shia version of Islam promoted by Iran.
But peripheral countries are being affected, too. According to one recent report, not confirmed by independent sources, Egypt has deployed troops in Eritrea near the latter’s border with Sudan. This followed a bout of bad blood in which Egypt’s government accused Sudan’s of boosting the Brotherhood, which ruled Egypt for a year from 2012 until overthrown by General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, now Egypt’s president. On January 15th Eritrea’s long-serving president, Issaias Afwerki, furiously denied the report, saying that “outright lies” had been “repeated ad nauseam by an assortment of Eritrea’s detractors” led by Qatar and its influential broadcaster, Al Jazeera.
The civil war just across the Red Sea in Yemen, where Iranian-backed Houthi rebels are fighting a Gulf coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is further increasing regional tension. The countries of the Horn of Africa have been called on to take sides; many officially espouse neutrality, yet offer naval and military facilities.
A merry-go-round of island-swapping and port-lending is taking place. Even before the Yemen conflict erupted, Djibouti had earned billions of dollars by providing France (its former colonial master), America and China with military bases. Until a recent row it also hosted the UAE, which now uses a base in the Eritrean port of Assab, close to Djibouti, as a key spot from which to attack Houthi positions in Yemen. Sudan, which has deployed troops as part of the Gulf coalition against the Houthis, has been making friendly noises to Qatar, and has recently enraged Egypt by letting Turkey develop an old Ottoman port at Suakin, on the Red Sea. Egypt, for its part, last year delighted Saudi Arabia by ratifying an agreement that two small uninhabited islands near the Gulf of Aqaba belonged to the kingdom.
Somalia has been particularly friendly to Turkey and leans towards the Islamist camp. But Somaliland, the internationally unrecognised breakaway statelet on the Red Sea coast, which functions far better than the supposed mother country, has done a big deal with the UAE. The Emirates are building another base there and paying for a new road to connect Somaliland’s port of Berbera with landlocked Ethiopia. To confuse matters more, some of Somalia’s federal states, displaying their own quasi-independence, have made deals that seem to flout the foreign policy of the federal capital, Mogadishu. For instance, Somalia’s north-eastern statelet of Puntland last year signed a deal with the UAE to develop its port, Bosaso, to the annoyance of the government in Mogadishu. A hashtag called #HandsOffSomalia has become popular among Somalis prickly about what they see as infringements of their sovereignty.
Ethiopia tries to keep out of the regional spat, though it is still at loggerheads with Egypt over the nearly completed Great Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, which Egypt says will drastically curb the flow of the Nile river. The Ethiopians are cosy with Turkey, a big investor, but have also put out friendly feelers to the UAE. Recently, by way of balance, they let Al Jazeera open an office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.
In any event, Ethiopia is likely to oppose anything Eritrea supports: the two countries’ armies still glower at each other across a disputed border, though full-scale fighting ceased in 2000. Meanwhile Eritrea has seized the chance to boost its depleted coffers. Not only has it let the UAE build its base at Assab, by the mouth of the Red Sea. Eritrea is also said to let Israel, which has quietly provided intelligence to Saudi Arabia on Yemen, have discreet use of facilities in the Dahlak archipelago, along with a listening station on an Eritrean mountain. The Houthis in Yemen accuse the Saudis of cosying up to the Israelis—a most heinous crime in some Islamist circles.
Prize camels keep tradition alive in changing Saudi, but please no Botox!
The dromedaries paraded down a dusty racetrack as judges rated the size of their lips, cheeks, heads and knees. Crowds of men watched from the bleachers, hooting when the beasts representing their own tribe loped down the track.
A dozen beasts have been disqualified from this year’s Saudi “camel beauty contest” because their handlers used Botox to make them more handsome.
“The camel,” explained the chief judge of the show, Fawzan al-Madi, “is a symbol of Saudi Arabia. We used to preserve it out of necessity, now we preserve it as a pastime.”
Much is changing in Saudi Arabia: the country is getting its first movie theaters. Soon women will be permitted to drive. The authorities eventually hope to diversify the economy away from the oil that has been its lifeblood for decades.
But as they seek to transform the conservative kingdom, the Saudi authorities are trying to smooth the path for reform by emphasizing traditional aspects of their culture. And for the Bedouin of Arabia, nothing is more essential than the camel, used for centuries for food, transport, as a war machine and companion.
So, the authorities have ramped up the country’s annual month-long camel festival, which was relocated last year from the remote desert to the outskirts of the capital. On a rocky desert plateau, the government has erected a permanent venue to host the headline events: races and show competitions with combined purses of 213 million riyals. ($57 million)
The pavilion features an auction where top camels can fetch millions of riyals.
There are food stalls and souvenir shops, a petting zoo featuring the world’s tallest and shortest camels, a museum with life-size sand sculptures of camels, tents for tasting camel’s milk and viewing camel-hair textiles, and a planetarium showing how Arabs rode camels through the desert guided by the stars.
Organizers say this “heritage village” will expand in coming years as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – who is heir to the throne, defense minister and head of oil and economic policy – takes the reins through a newly-created official Camel Club established by royal decree last year.
Halfway through this year’s festival, attendance is up about a third from last year, with about 300,000 people making the 1-1/2 hour trip from Riyadh so far, said Fahd al-Semmari, a Camel Club board member.
“The vision is for the (festival) to become a global, pioneering forum for all classes of people to come for entertainment, knowledge and competition.”