Aoun Says Relations with Saudi Arabia Back to Normal

SOURCE: Asharq Al Awsat

Time: April 09, 2018

Lebanese President Michel Aoun has stressed that relations with Saudi Arabia were back to normal, saying the funds and loans secured by Lebanon at the CEDRE conference held in Paris last week will help the country’s economy.

In a meeting with journalists from several French news outlets on Sunday, Aoun said that the Saudi contribution at the CEDRE conference is a sign of rapprochement between the two countries.

“We now have bigger confidence in relations with Saudi Arabia because they are back to normal,” the president told the reporters at Baabda Palace.

Asked about promises made by Lebanon to carry out reforms, he said the country can overcome some difficulties in the implementation of projects.

“As for fighting corruption, it is much more difficult because it spans several sectors,” Aoun stated. “Some influential figures continue to protect corrupt individuals. So at first those involved in corruption should be held accountable.”

International donors pledged on Friday more than $11 billion in low-interest loans and aid for Lebanon at the Paris conference. Lebanon for its part promised a string of reforms including tougher measures to fight corruption.

The conference was aimed at giving Lebanon a boost as it prepares for its first general elections in almost a decade in May.

Aoun stressed that the parliament would witness changes during next month’s elections because the new electoral law allows both the minority and the majority to be represented.

Asked about repeated calls made by Lebanese officials for the return of Syrian refugees to their home country, the president said that the displaced can go back to Syria after military confrontations have been limited to small pockets.

“Bashar Assad is currently the president of his country,” Aoun said.

“We must engage with the existing government – we have no other option,” he stated, responding to a question about Assad’s political future.

A Wild Ride Behind the Scenes as Saudi Crown Prince Does America

SOURCE: Bloomberg Politics

Time: April 2, 2018

 

The phone call came at 8 p.m. from the Saudi royal court: Come to The Plaza, immediately.

We journalists rushed over to the Manhattan hotel, but it was almost three hours before anything happened. And when it did — when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Masayoshi Son, Softbank’s chief executive officer, wordlessly signed papers and declared that a “huge step in human history” had been taken — we had no idea what they were talking about. As the prince left, Son stood still for several long seconds before taking questions.

“What just happened?” I ventured.

The public signing of a Saudi plan to build a $200 billion solar facility was indeed historic. If successful, it will be the world’s largest solar-energy installation by a factor of 100. But no one told us what was going on as we sat on the floor (no chairs). It was just another day — or night — in the chaotic life of the hundreds of officials, business figures and communications consultants who are trailing the heir to the Saudi throne around the world as he tries to drum up investment and boost his country’s image. He’s in the middle of a three-week U.S. visit. After Washington, Boston and New York, the delegation headed to the West Coast for meetings with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the heads of Amazon, Apple, Google and Uber.

 Visa Rush

The trip got off to a madcap start when the Saudis applied at the last minute for more than 500 U.S. visas, according to a person familiar with the matter. As organizers weighed whether to allow media access to a gala dinner in Washington, I was invited, dis-invited and then re-invited.

At least three government entities, along with outside firms, are involved in coordinating press coverage of the visit but information has been scarce. Journalists gleaned the outline of the prince’s schedule -– when he would travel to different cities, who would accompany him and whom he would meet –- through rumors and anonymous sources.

Part of the tension appears to be over how much to publicize — and how much change the Saudi public can handle. While in New York, Prince Mohammed met with pro-Israel leaders in the U.S., including from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the American Jewish Committee. But the participants were sworn to secrecy. Meanwhile, another meeting he held in New York, with religious figures including Roman Catholic clergy and two rabbis, was heralded by the Saudi embassy as inter-religious dialogue that “emphasized the common bond among all people, particularly people of faith.”

Asked about the unannounced meeting, one Saudi government representative didn’t respond while a second referred back to the press release about the interfaith gathering without further comment.

Glazed Eyes

The prince is in a hurry to remake the once fiercely closed-off Islamic kingdom, diversifying its economy away from oil and loosening social restrictions even as he tightens his political grip over the authoritarian state. He’s famous for working long hours and late nights, as the glazed eyes of the employees arranging his trip can attest. He’d barely finished official visits to Egypt and the U.K. when he jetted to Washington.

Some chaos is inevitable on a trip of such scale. But it’s also a symptom of the growing pains Saudi Arabia is going through as its secretive government pledges more transparency — crucial in the lead-up to the initial public offering of as much as 5 percent of state oil company Saudi Aramco. For a society that has long valued discretion, a road show promoting openness is a bit of an alien concept.

The Saudi government has undeniably opened up during the past few years, issuing a slew of visas for foreign journalists and appointing spokesmen where none existed. In New York, Prince Mohammed met with reporters and editors at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, albeit mostly off the record.

“We have committed to increasing the level of transparency and accountability,” said Husameddin AlMadani, head of Saudi Arabia’s National Center for Performance Management, a government agency that measures progress on the targets set by the prince. “It helps investors. It helps think tanks and researchers.”

How that will play out is far from clear as officials lurch between traditional silence and promises of openness. The result is often a bizarre blend, a kind of twilight zone where something — it’s just not always clear what — is being announced. That’s what happened last week at the Plaza at midnight. As quickly as it started, the event was over. Reporters were left to meander past the closed bar and dishes of Saudi dates, observing a handful of delegates working into the morning hours.

— With assistance by Jonathan Ferziger

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Saudi Crown Prince to open embassy in Baghdad

Time: March 13, 2018

 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud will visit Iraq in April in the first official visit to the country by a Saudi official since 1989.

During his visit, Prince Mohammed will help inaugurate the new Saudi embassy in Baghdad, a Saudi consulate in Najaf and a new border crossing between the two countries at Arar.

It is the latest round of diplomacy from the Crown Prince, who is seeking to build international relations following his anti-corruption purge late last year. He will be leading a high-level delegation to the oil-rich country consisting of ministers, government officials and businessmen.

Sky Press Agency quoted a Saudi source as saying that “the  in the economic and investment fields”.

The visit comes at an invitation from Iraqi premier Haider Al Abadi, who is seeking re-election in the May 12 national poll. He is the head of Dawa, which is billed as a cross-sectarian political party.

This article was first published in Arabian Business

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Saudi Arabia’s use of soft power in Iraq is making Iran nervous

SOURCE: The Economist

Time: March 8, 2018

It almost feels like old times. Before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Gulf Arabs partied on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab river in southern Iraq. Many owned villas in the fields around Basra and took Iraqi wives. Now, after a break of three decades, they are back. Saudi Arabia is putting the finishing touches on a consulate in Basra’s Sheraton hotel, where Iraqi crooners sing love songs and waiters dance. Last month a dozen Saudi poets travelled to Basra for a literary festival.

Air links between Saudi Arabia and Iraq have also resumed, with 140 flights each month. Several state-owned businesses, including SABIC, the Saudi petrochemical giant, are registering offices in Baghdad. At a conference in Kuwait last month, the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, pledged $1bn in loans and $500m in export credit to support Iraq’s reconstruction after the war with Islamic State (IS).

Saudi interest was initially pricked by America, which has been marshalling Gulf support to help stem Iran’s push west. It was a hard sell. Iraq, under Saddam, threatened to invade Saudi Arabia. More recently, it has allowed Shia militias backed by Iran to set up camp on the Saudi border. In response the kingdom, which considers itself the region’s Sunni champion, is accused of bankrolling Sunni jihadists in Iraq.

But Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, is shaking the kingdom from its sectarian logic. In 2015 he was central to restoring diplomatic relations and last year reopened the kingdom’s borders with Iraq. He has shifted money from Sunni politicians to more effective Shia ones. He has even hosted Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric, and Qasim al-Araji, Iraq’s interior minister who is close to Iran. Diplomats note the disparity in help offered by Saudi Arabia and Iran, which pledged nothing at the conference in Kuwait. “Having failed to outfight Iran, the Saudis now want to outspend it,” says a delighted Iraqi official.

In a country where Shia Arabs make up the majority of the population, Iran has sought influence by stoking sectarianism and gaining the allegiance of Shias. Saudi Arabia wants to win them back by reviving the country’s Arab identity, and setting Iraqis against Persian Iran. Arab nationalism was largely smothered when Iraq’s former ruling Baath party was banned in 2003.

Much of the focus is on Basra, which is Iraq’s richest province. Projects earmarked by the Saudis for investment include Basra’s moribund petrochemical plant, which could help wean Iraq off Iranian products. Saudis have also eyed the scrub along the border, which the kingdom wants to turn into fertile fields by tapping underground aquifers. Iraqi officials hope it will finance railroads and reopen the pipeline that, until 1990, shuttled Iraq’s oil to the Red Sea.

Southern Iraq has drifted so far into Iran’s orbit that highways are named after the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution; Iranian-backed Shia parties rule the roost. But some in Tehran are nervous, recalling how Saudi Arabia goaded Iraq’s Arabs, even Shias, to wage an eight-year war on Khomeini’s Iran beginning in 1980. Iranian businessmen worry about fresh competition for Iraq’s market, their second largest for non-oil products after China.

So to tie Iraq even closer, Iran has opened a free-trade zone next to the Shalamcheh crossing near Basra. It has unilaterally lifted visa requirements for Iraqis to ease their shopping sprees in Khuzestan, on the border. The collapse of Iran’s currency has sucked in custom. Iraq imports over 100 times more from Iran than it exports, in terms of value.

Meanwhile, Iranian-backed factions in Iraq are trying to sully the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. Their politicians cite the 3,000 or so Saudis who joined IS. “How can we welcome our killers?” asks a militiaman in Basra. Clerics in Najaf have dithered on the kingdom’s request to open a consulate in the Shias’ holiest city.

But overall the Saudi charm offensive has proven popular. For all their sectarian bonds with Iranian Shias, the people of Basra fought on the front lines of Iraq’s brutal war with Iran. Many view Iranian engagement as colonisation. And even militias are swayed by the prospect of more commerce. Saudi investors, they hope, will need protection and help dealing with the country’s tortuous bureaucracy.

Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, seems happy to juggle the regional rivalry. His security forces reportedly confiscated posters, printed by a pro-Iranian group, that denounced the Saudi consulate in Basra. But the kingdom may need more reassuring. To date it has done little more than window-shop for potential investments. It will probably wait until after the Iraqi elections in May before signing any deals.

Other Gulf states dismiss Iraq as a corrupt black hole. The young Prince Muhammad, too, might lack the strategic patience to see through his initiative. But if the Saudis were hoping for a quick win, their first football match in Iraq for nearly 40 years offers a salutary reminder. The Saudi players paraded across the pitch in Basra holding Iraqi scarves aloft. In the end, though, they got a thrashing, losing 4-1.

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