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Yemen’s looming famine is on 20th-century scale



FINANCIAL TIMES — Famine has killed at least 105m people since 1870, according to research conducted by the World Peace Foundation.

The vast majority were victims of political decisions and acts of war rather than drought. But by the turn of the millennium such man-made disaster had diminished to the extent that experts in the field, such as the UK academic and writer Alex de Waal, felt mass starvation might be a thing of the past.

This year that progress has dramatically reversed. The renewed use of starvation as a weapon of war is threatening millions of lives in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. The situation in Yemen is the most catastrophic.

The conflict there descended into a new circle of hell after Saudi Arabia committed its air force to defeating Houthi rebels in March 2015. In the process, roads, bridges and markets have been destroyed, the container docks at the port of al-Hudaida were bombed, and other infrastructure ruined. At Riyadh’s insistence and with the backing of Britain and the US, the UN Security Council imposed a blockade on the country.

Its purpose is to prevent weapons reaching the rebels and in theory food is exempted. In practice, laborious inspection procedures mean food is reaching hungry mouths fatally slowly. And that was before a recent decision by Saudi Arabia to block humanitarian aid in retaliation for a missile fired at Riyadh earlier this month.

The consequences are terrifying. The UN says two-thirds of Yemen’s 28m population face shortages of food and clean water. A staggering 7m are now on the brink of famine.
A cholera epidemic is raging. The war itself has claimed an estimated 10,000 people. But as was the case in most of the worst 20th-century conflicts, starvation is certain to be a greater killer. Mark Lowcock, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, last week said the continued closure of borders to aid shipments would threaten “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades”. The blockade, which Saudi Arabia appears to have partially lifted at the weekend, is tantamount to a war crime. And Riyadh’s allies should be wary of complicity.

Before he was forced to resign last month over allegations of sexual harassment, Sir Michael Fallon, then the UK’s defence secretary, begged MPs to cease all criticism of the kingdom.

This risked jeopardising BAE Systems’ £4bn deal to sell the kingdom fighter jets, he said. Sir Michael showed similar blindness about what is morally acceptable in his public evidence to the defence committee. He is gone. But sadly, his posture reflected that of a government which in its dealings with Saudi Arabia treats human rights as little more than a commercial inconvenience.

Donald Trump’s administration has been more craven still in encouraging Saudi Arabian over-reach. Washington’s silence over the tragedy unfolding in Yemen is as deafening as it is strategically misguided.

The intervention in Yemen was supposed to mark the arrival of a more assertive Saudi Arabia, rallying Sunni and other allies to counter Iranian, and Shia, influence. Instead, Saudi forces have proved as ineffectual as they are brutish. Even before Iran was actively involved, Riyadh was unable to defeat the rag-tag rebels. There is little sign they are any closer now.

There is also little doubt that without a change of heart in Riyadh, Yemenis will starve on a scale the 21st century has yet to see. In such circumstances, the US and Britain would be found guilty of complicity in crimes committed in the name of Saudi hubris.

Middle East

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.

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Middle East

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.

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Middle East

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.”

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