Saudi Arabia, Dec 22 (AP/UNB) — Women, some without headscarves, drove themselves to a Formula-E car race where thousands of young Saudis and hundreds of international visitors partied into the night at concerts by Enrique Iglesias, The Black Eyed Peas and DJ David Guetta.
It's a vision of Saudi Arabia that epitomizes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's top-down reform efforts. The spectacle would have been unthinkable until recently in the ultra-conservative kingdom where religious police used to enforce strict gender segregation, scolded women for not covering their hair and barged into restaurants to demand music be turned off.
The concerts and car race cap several months of profound change in Saudi Arabia, including the opening of the first movie theater in April and the lifting of the world's only ban on women driving in June.
But there's a hard limit to the reforms — as revealed by the brutal killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents close to the crown prince in October and the reported torture of several women's rights activists in detention. While the arena for fun is widening, the space for political engagement and dissent has virtually disappeared.
The 33-year-old crown prince, backed by his father King Salman, presides over a nation where he alone defines the pace and scope of change.
It's difficult to gauge the prince's domestic popularity, given the reservations and fear many have of criticizing the leadership. But his reforms are popular among young Saudis who believe their cities should offer some of the glitz and entertainment of neighboring Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
"This is a major change in Saudi Arabia and we are proud of it," said Abdelrahman al-Mahmoud, 29, a spectator at the electric car race in the capital, Riyadh. He expressed pride in a nation he feels is finally coming into its own.
When asked about the crown prince, al-Mahmoud described him as "the most popular guy" in Saudi Arabia. Pressed for his thoughts on Khashoggi's killing, he tensed up, like other Saudis interviewed at the race, and said he came to enjoy the day and didn't want to discuss politics.
The death of Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, seemed a world away from the carefree atmosphere at the race last weekend where concert-goers belted out "Long live Salman" to house beats remixed by Guetta, the DJ.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, three prominent women's rights activists are being held in Riyadh's Ha'ir Prison. They were arrested in May, enduring abuse and torture at the hands of masked interrogators in the Red Sea city of Jiddah before being transferred to Riyadh this month.
The women, among more than a dozen female activists being held, were whipped and caned on their backs and thighs, and electrocuted, according to five people with knowledge of their treatment. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal and to protect personal details about the detainees.
They said some of the women were forcibly touched and kissed, at least one was water-boarded and one attempted suicide during confinement. They said one woman was threatened with being raped, killed and dumped in a ditch, allegedly by a senior official wearing a mask. The detainee purportedly recognized him by some of his features.
The allegation could not be confirmed independently.
The government has denied charges of abuse as "wild claims" that are "simply wrong."
The arrest of women's rights activists, accused of vague national security crimes, was one of the incongruities in the reform agenda that Khashoggi wrote about in Washington Post columns before he was killed.
The kingdom denies the crown prince knew of the plot. He's been supported by President Donald Trump who has touted U.S.-Saudi ties. The U.S. Senate, however, passed a unanimous resolution saying it believes the crown prince is to blame for the murder. His critics point to U.S. intelligence reports and say an operation like this could not have happened without his knowledge.
The killing badly damaged Prince Mohammed's international image as a transformational leader committed to changes Saudi Arabia's allies in the West long hoped for.
Those changes are being promoted cautiously at home.
While the English-language Saudi newspaper Arab News touted the Formula-E as a "coming of age" event for the reform agenda, the more widely seen Arabic-language state TV channel only briefly carried images of the crown prince at the race and did not show the concerts or women without headscarves— images that much of the Saudi public strongly disagrees with.
For 22-year-old Maram Ali, who normally wears a headscarf in public, the race was a rare chance to literally let her hair down. Like many women at the event, she kept the required loose-fitting robe, known as an abaya, on but walked around without a head-covering.
"These changes should have happened a long time ago," she said, crediting the crown prince. "People are opening up. ... It's not like before where we were going backward and the world outside is moving forward."
The reform agenda is fueled in part by the need to power the economy in the face of lower oil prices. Unemployment has risen to almost 13 percent, while the cost of electricity and water have skyrocketed as subsidies are rolled back. This week, the king announced an extension of a multibillion-dollar package of monthly allowances for much of the public.
A father of two who goes by the name Abu Turki said he's been out of work for six months after he lost his job because of company cost-cutting. He supplements his government benefits, some of which run out in six months, working as a driver for the ride-hailing app Uber.
Like many Saudis, he'd heard of the Formula-E race, but for religious reasons that for decades have been propagated in this conservative nation home to Islam's holiest sites, he didn't agree with the idea of unrelated men and women mixing.
Speaking from behind a black face veil, Jawaher Othman, 55, had mixed feelings. She said the cool weather encouraged her to visit the race, but she had no intention of staying for the concert.
"May God correct their path and bless them," she said of young concert-goers. "I personally don't agree with the concerts and it's not for me, but it's not up to me ban it or say anything."
Jerusalem, Dec 20 (AP/UNB) — Israel on Wednesday urged a special session of the U.N. Security Council to condemn the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and designate it a terrorist organization following the discovery of cross-border tunnels stretching into Israel.
Following a stormy session, the council took no action on the Israeli request, though several members sided with Israel and expressed concerns over Hezbollah's violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution that ended a 2006 war between the bitter enemies.
Israel has previously urged the U.N.'s most powerful body to condemn Hezbollah, but has never succeeded because of divisions in the council, and there was no move Wednesday to circulate a draft resolution on the tunnels. A key reason for the lack of council action is that some members would insist that Israeli violations of the 2006 resolution also be included in a resolution.
Early this month, Israel announced the discovery of what it said was a network of cross-border Hezbollah attack tunnels and launched an open-ended military operation to destroy them. It so far has exposed four tunnels that it says were to be used to infiltrate and attack Israeli towns and abduct Israeli civilians.
Ahead of Wednesday's debate, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the council to condemn Hezbollah.
"This is not merely an act of aggression. This is an act of war," Netanyahu said. "The people of Lebanon have to understand that Hezbollah is putting them in jeopardy and we expect Lebanon to take action against this."
At the United Nations, Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon showed an aerial photograph of what Israel called a "private compound" near the border that concealed a tunnel. He also presented an aerial photo showing what he said were weapons-storage sites concealed in a border village.
He said Israel had given the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as UNIFIL, "precise information" about the tunnels that was shared with the Lebanese army. He accused the Lebanese army of then relaying the information to Hezbollah, allowing it to try to conceal the tunnels.
"Lebanese army officials are working for Hezbollah, while UNIFIL is not working to fulfill its mandate in the region in the necessary manner," Danon said.
The U.N.'s peacekeeping chief, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, said UNIFIL had confirmed four tunnels, including two that cross the frontier into Israel.
Calling them a "serious violation" of the 2006 cease-fire resolution, Lacroix said UNIFIL is "acting judiciously" to complete its investigation and to work with both sides to disable all tunnels that cross the border.
"This is a matter of serious concern," he said.
Lebanon's ambassador, Amal Mudallali, said her country took the matter seriously and remains committed to the cease-fire resolution.
"This commitment is not rhetoric, and these are not mere words, because this commitment is in the interest of my country and my people," she said, adding that the Lebanese army is "deployed heavily" in the south to make sure the cease-fire is honored.
But she also accused Israel of repeatedly violating the resolution by having its air force routinely fly through Lebanese skies.
"If we were to call for a Security Council meeting every time Israel had violated Lebanon's sovereignty since 2006, you will be in a 24/7 shift to address them," she said.
Several council members joined Israel in condemning the tunnels. Sweden said Hezbollah's military capabilities pose a "clear risk" to regional stability. The Netherlands strongly condemned the tunnel activities as a "flagrant violation" of Israeli sovereignty and international law.
Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov, stressed Moscow's "historically friendly relations" with Israel and Lebanon in his speech to the council. Like many other council members, he called for calm and dialogue as well as an end to "emotional polemics."
Safronkov said Russia takes note of UNIFIL's preliminary conclusion on the violation of the 2006 resolution over the tunnels. But he quickly referred to Israeli violations as well.
"We see that all violations of the provisions in this Security Council resolution should cease, from either side — all violations," Safronkov said. "We cannot have a selective approach to implementation of the resolution."
He said Israel has a right to prevent illegal incursions into its territory but expressed hope its activities "will not go against the grain" of the 2006 resolution.
Hezbollah, a powerful organization that acts independently in Lebanon, has yet to comment on the Israeli discovery.
Israel has long called for a crackdown on the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a heavily armed mini-army that is believed to possess an arsenal of some 150,000 rockets that can reach nearly all of Israel.
In recent years, Hezbollah has been bogged down in fighting in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government. But with that civil war winding down, Israeli security officials fear Hezbollah is refocusing its attention on Israel.
Though it appeared the Lebanese army was unaware of the Hezbollah tunnels, Netanyahu said, they know about it now and must neutralize them for their own country's sake. Israel holds the Lebanese government responsible for the actions of Hezbollah.
"The fact that the Lebanese army is doing nothing means that they are either unable or unwilling or both to do anything about this. But it doesn't absolve Lebanon's culpability," he said. "My message is: Hezbollah is putting you in great jeopardy."
Israel also accuses Hezbollah of using private homes to store weapons or other military activity. Netanyahu called these actions a "double war crime" since it threatened to harm Israeli civilians and put Lebanese civilians in danger as well.
On Wednesday, the Israeli military escorted reporters along the Israel-Lebanon border to the site of one of the tunnels found in recent weeks near the town of Metula. Heavy mist and rain nearly obscured the Lebanese villas perched on the mountains overlooking Israeli army bulldozers and tractors trundling through the mud.
Hezbollah, Lebanese and Palestinian flags fluttered on the opposite side of the border as Israeli soldiers lowered cameras 26 meters (85 feet) into the mouth of a rock-hewn tunnel they said was the first exposed in "Operation Northern Shield" emanating from the Lebanese village of Kafr Kela just a few hundred meters (yards) away.
Amman, Dec 18 (AP/UNB) — As the Middle East ushers in 2019, the decade's ruinous conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq seem to be winding down after exacting a painful price — many thousands killed, millions uprooted from their homes and entire cities reduced to rubble.
Yet the potential for unrest remains high, including in countries that escaped civil war after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Millions of young people in the region remain locked out of economic and political participation as authoritarian governments fail to tackle soaring youth unemployment and other deep-seated problems.
"I think 2019 is a very challenging year," said analyst Amer Sabaileh in Jordan, where weekly rallies against economic policies toppled a prime minister this year and now take aim at his successor.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump's policy of siding with one Middle East powerhouse, Saudi Arabia, against its main rival, Iran, has further heightened regional tensions. For now, Tehran seems determined to wait out Trump's presidency, sticking to its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers despite the U.S. withdrawal and restoration of heavy sanctions.
In a region where violent conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people, the brutal slaying of one Saudi writer, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, by Saudi agents has been one of the most significant events of 2018. The killing, for which Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was widely held responsible — including by the Republican-led U.S. Senate — forced a reckoning of Saudi Arabia's involvement in Yemen's civil war and a review of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Here's a look at the Middle East as it heads into 2019.
CONFLICTS WINDING DOWN
Yemen's government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, made some progress with the Iran-linked Houthi rebels toward a U.N.-sponsored peace deal last week, a first after four years of fighting killed at least 60,000 people and pushed the country to the brink of famine. A new round of talks is set for January, with expectations that U.S. pressure on Gulf Arab allies could lead to further de-escalation.
In Syria, President Bashar Assad, aided by Russia and Iran, crushed a 7-year-old rebellion and the opposition's dream of ousting him from power. The war is not over, with major fighting still ahead in the rebel-held north. Assad's inner circle and allied entrepreneurs stand to make a fortune from reconstruction, even if the West won't contribute in the absence of a political settlement.
In Iraq, it's been a year since the government declared victory over the Islamic State group, but challenges remain, including the rebuilding of devastated cities. Rioting against corruption and poor services in the oil-rich southern region of Basra signaled the urgency of addressing Iraq's economic problems.
In Libya, rival governments in the east and west have agreed to meet at a national conference in early 2019 to pave the way for a general election. Oil production remains below its pre-2011 levels, and lack of security still prevents major foreign investment or economic growth.
ECONOMIC TROUBLES AHEAD
In Iran, hit hard by renewed U.S. sanctions, the currency wildly fluctuated, but the Islamic Republic did not see the same widescale protests that opened the year.
While the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal ended billion-dollar deals for airplane and car manufacturers, the United States allowed many countries to continue importing Iranian oil for now. That led oil prices to plummet, straining the petrodollar economies of Gulf nations.
The boycott of Qatar by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates appeared no closer to ending, especially with a last-minute surprise by Doha of pulling Qatar from the Saudi-dominated OPEC oil cartel.
In Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country with 100 million people, job creation lags far behind an explosive population growth of more than 2 million per year. Investor confidence is improving, but inflation surpassed targets set by the International Monetary Fund.
In politically paralyzed Lebanon, decades of mismanagement and corruption are finally catching up, with a debt of $84 billion heightening concerns of impending economic collapse.
"I wonder what will happen with the rising sense of hopelessness among broad populations," said Jon Alterman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Will people just put their heads down and be miserable? Or will a sense that there is no public outlet, no media outlet, lead to some sort of explosion, even if it's not specifically directed toward change?"
The destructive fallout from Arab Spring uprisings could serve as a deterrent to some.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu started the year with a gift from Trump, who recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and then moved the U.S. Embassy to the city in May. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas froze ties with the U.S. administration, accusing it of pro-Israel bias concerning the most sensitive issue of the conflict, which sputtered along in 2018.
Israel kept building settlements in the West Bank, the Islamic militant Hamas led mass border marches against a decade-old blockade of the Gaza Strip and lone Palestinian assailants carried out sporadic attacks against Israelis. Dozens were killed in 2018, the vast majority Palestinians.
A U.S. peace plan, promised by Trump since the beginning of his term, still hasn't materialized — to the relief of Abbas, who fears any proposal will at best offer a Palestinian mini-state in Gaza, with a small footprint in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
With Israeli elections to be held sometime in 2019, a peace plan that calls for even minimal concessions could tear apart Netanyahu's right-wing coalition. He might not get to run for re-election if a pair of corruption cases moves forward, after police recommended charges against him.
The Trump administration's staunch support for Saudi Arabia is expected to continue despite the Khashoggi scandal, in part because the alliance with Riyadh serves as a means of pressuring Iran.
However, Washington lacks a clear Syria policy. Trump has wavered on whether he wants troops to stay in Syria, with what goal, and appears content to cede ground to the Russians.
In Afghanistan, the administration appointed a special envoy to negotiate a peaceful exit from America's longest war, but no clear pathway has emerged. Successive presidents have sought to wind down Washington's presence in Afghanistan, to no avail.
Riyadh, Dec 17 (AP/UNB) — Saudi Arabia says it rejects last week's U.S. Senate resolution that put the blame for the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi squarely on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The statement from the kingdom is an unusually strong rebuke of the Senate. Saudi Arabia said the resolution "contained blatant interferences" in its internal affairs and undermines its regional and international role.
The kingdom has denied the crown prince was involved in Khashoggi's killing in October inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, masterminded by top Saudi agents close to Prince Mohammed.
The statement early Monday says the kingdom "categorically rejects any interference in its internal affairs, any and all accusations, in any manner, that disrespect its leadership... and any attempts to undermine its sovereignty or diminish its stature."
Damascus, Dec 17 (AP/UNB)— Sudan's president on Sunday became the first Arab League leader to visit Syria since civil war erupted there nearly eight years ago.
Omar al-Bashir was greeted at the Damascus airport by Syrian President Bashar Assad before they both headed to the presidential palace, where they held talks on bilateral relations and the latest developments in Syria and the region, according to the state-run news agency.
Syria was expelled from the 22-member Arab League soon after war broke out in 2011. Arab countries have sanctioned Damascus and condemned Assad for using overwhelming military force and failing to negotiate with the opposition.
The reason for al-Bashir's visit was not immediately clear. But with the war in Syria winding down in favor of Assad as his troops recapture key cities and population centers, some Arab officials have expressed interest in exploring the restoration of ties.
In October, Assad told a little-known Kuwaiti newspaper that Syria had reached a "major understanding" with Arab states after years of hostility. He did not name the Arab countries in the interview, which was his first with a Gulf paper since the war erupted, but he said Arab and Western delegations had begun visiting Syria to prepare for the reopening of diplomatic and other missions.
The interview came on the heels of a surprisingly warm meeting between the Syrian foreign minister and his Bahraini counterpart on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September in New York. The meeting turned heads because it featured hugs between the two ministers.
The encounter raised questions about whether the Gulf countries, most of them sworn enemies of Assad ally Iran, are reconsidering their relations with Syria.
The Syrian state news agency SANA quoted the Sudanese president as saying during the meeting with Assad that he hopes Syria will recover its important role in the region as soon as possible. He also affirmed Sudan's readiness to provide all that it can to support Syria's territorial integrity.
SANA said Assad thanked al-Bashir for his visit, asserting that it will give strong momentum for restoring relations between the two countries "to the way it was before the war on Syria."
Photographs transmitted by SANA showed the two leaders shaking hands at the airport in front of a Russian plane that appears to have brought al-Bashir to Syria. Russia, a key ally of Assad, maintains an airbase southeast of the Syrian city of Latakia.
Al-Bashir has been Sudan's leader since 1989 and is wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands to face war crimes charges stemming from a conflict in his own country.