Billions of our species, Homo sapiens, individually and in groups, enjoy helping others navigate through this Life that can range from most pleasurable to most painful. A smaller number, I refer to as Homo the Sap, have become dangerously powerful through worshiping the God of Greed. How fares the Middle East?
SAUDI ARABIA: here was hope, starting in June 2017, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, (known as bin Salman or MbS) was appointed by his father, King Salman, a Sunni Muslim and king since January 2015, to be his deputy prime minister on a platform of needed reforms. MbS is also chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, chairman of the Council of Political and Security Affairs, and minister of defense. He has led several successful reforms, including regulations restricting the powers of the religious police, removing of the ban on female drivers (except for those who first proposed it), the first Saudi public concerts by a female singer, the first Saudi sports stadium to admit women, an increased presence of women in the workforce, and opening the country to tourists by introducing an e-visa system which can be issued to foreigners from the Internet to attend events. Since 2011 Saudi Arabia has accepted 500,000 Syrian refugees.
Despite praise for his strides towards social and economic freedoms, human rights groups are frightened at bin Salman's leadership and the shortfalls of his reform program, citing a rising number of detentions and torture of human-rights activists, his bombing of Yemen, the escalation of the Qatar crisis, the Lebanon–Saudi Arabia dispute, the diplomatic spat with Canada, the arrest of members of the Saudi royal family in November 2017, the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and of being an autocratic leader with no tolerance for dissidents.
On 24 April 2019 the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, condemned the silence of US President Donald Trump's administration on Saudi Arabia's mass execution of 37 people convicted of terrorism. He complained: "After a wink at the dismembering of journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, not a whisper from the Trump administration when Saudi Arabia beheads 37 men in one day -- even crucifying one two days after Easter."
Nothing new for King Salman. In January 2016, he executed 47 civilians, tortured and convicted for terrorism in 12 provinces. Also killed was Shi’a Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The executed included 11 men convicted of spying for Iran, and 14 others convicted of violence during their participation in anti-government demonstrations in the Shi’a majority Eastern Province between 2011 and 2012. The 14 men were subjected to prolonged pre-trial detention and were tortured for ‘confessions’. Also, among those executed is Abdulkareem al-Hawaj – a 16-year-old Shi’a man - for anti-government protests. Under international law, the use of the death penalty against those who are under the age of 18 is strictly prohibited.
The House of Saud was founded in 1744. King Salman has a net worth estimated at $17 billion. The net worth of the entire royal family has been estimated at well over $1.4 trillion, making them one of the wealthiest families in the world if not the wealthiest. Power and wealth is possessed by a group of about 2,000 of them.
YEMEN: In 2015, the Saudis led 8 other Sunni states to join the Yemeni conflict, supporting the government against the Iran-aligned Shi'a Huthi rebels. One of the poorest Arab-World countries, Yemen is being devastated largely by Saudi indiscriminate airstrikes using aircraft and help from the USA, UK, and France, blamed for up to 65% of the reported 68,000 deaths. A war-induced famine puts 13 million at risk of starving. Cholera has 1.5 million suspected cases with 3,000 deaths. More than 3 million people - including 2 million children - are acutely malnourished, making them more vulnerable to disease. The charity, Save the Children, estimates that 85,000 children with severe acute malnutrition may have died between April 2015 and October 2018.
Aden, a trading port for some 3,000 years and former capital of South Yemen, was occupied in January 1839 when the British East India Company landed Royal Marines to stop pirate attacks on shipping to India. Aden’s importance greatly increased when the Suez canal opened in 1869. It became the British Aden Protectorate and one of the world’s busiest trading ports. Northern Yemen remained part of the Ottoman Empire until 1918. The British left in 1967 and Aden became The Republic of South Yemen with the capital in Sanaa which Houthi rebel fighters entered in September 2014 and took full control by January 2015. The conflict has its roots in the failure of a transition supposed to bring stability to Yemen following an Arab Spring uprising that forced its longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to relinquish power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in 2011.
Hadi struggled with jihadists, a separatist movement in the south, Saleh loyalists, as well as corruption, unemployment, and food insecurity. It was a divided country that he Saudis invaded to destroy Iranian influence.
DAESH or ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shi'a Muslims in areas it controls. ISIS evolved from the jihad mujahideen guerrilla fighters employ by western forces to oppose the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, greatly augmented by the disbandment of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni army in Iraq.
MOSUL: Left in a crippled state after the 2003 US-led invasion, Iraq was unable to prevent Daesh from capturing and controlling Mosul in 2014. The 9-month, 2016-17, street-to-street battle to retake it by Iraqi, Kurdish, and Western forces caused up to 11,000 civilian casualties and widespread devastation and disease. Reconstruction is plagued by corruption. The 2019 budget of $560 million allocated, in face of $1.8 billion needed, is largely misspent. There are still 4 million tons of debris to be cleared.
The total estimated population of 1,377,000 is over 60% Sunni Arab, 25% Kurds, and smaller numbers of Shi’a Arabs, Turkmen, Shabak, and Christians. Mosul is divided by the Tigris River, which creates different dynamics. The much longer occupation of West Mosul and the higher scale of damage incurred during the liberation of West Mosul create different priorities.
PALESTINE and ISRAEL: 137 of the world’s 193 nations recognize Palestine as an independent nation. The US is the leading denier. With considerable help from the US president, Donald Trump, Israel’s Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has won a 5th term (1996-1999 and 2009 to the present) as prime minister. It was a close and hard fight with challenger Benny Ganz, a centrist and former military chief whose Blue and White alliance promises a continued opposition to the right wing policies of the Likud Party and personal corruption charges Netanyahu needs to face.
Netanyahu plans to continue expanding Israel at the expense of Palestine and Iran. Palestinian frustration increases the number of missiles fired into Israel most of which are intercepted by the Iron Dome’s increasing deployment since 2011, even out to sea. Foreign sales have been made and financial help received from the USA. Hamas rocketing seems foolish, doing little harm compared to massive Israeli reactions that kill hundreds and destroy much infrastructure. During the 3-day conflict in May 2019, of the 600 rockets Gaza fired into Israel about 155 were nullified by the Iron Dome. The others killed 4 Israelis. Israeli air strikes killed 27.
The long-standing belief in the USA that Israel can do no wrong is now shifting towards Palestinian sympathies. When Roger Waters, a world-renowned musician, organized at the University of Massachusetts, for May 04, 2019, a panel named “Not Backing Down”, 80 right-wing organizations, demanded that the event be cancelled and that the university disassociate itself from anything to do with it. A judge ruled it could proceed. The university invited as a speaker Hanan Daoud Mikhael Ashrawi, age 72, a Palestinian leader, legislator, activist, and scholar who served as a member of the Leadership Committee and as an official spokesperson of the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace process, beginning with the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991. The Trump administration denied her a visa.
HEZBOLLAH: After its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Israel occupied a strip of south Lebanon, which was controlled by the South Lebanon Army (SLA), a militia supported by Israel. Hezbollah was conceived by Shi’a Muslim clerics and funded by Iran primarily to harass the Israeli occupation.
HAMAS: A Palestinian Sunni-Islamist fundamentalist organization. It has a social service wing, Dawah, and a military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. It has been the de facto governing authority of the Gaza Strip since its takeover of that area in 2007. During this period it fought several wars with Israel.
IRAN: Human Rights activists may operate in Iran and some progress has been made, but the UN criticizes its abuses. There were 273 executions in 2018 and in 2019 two teenagers were flogged and executed.
In 1901 a British speculator got a concession to explore for oil in southern Iran and to develop any found. Oil was found in 1908. Since then Iran has been exploited by the UK, US, USSR, and various companies, while receiving a pittance for its oil and being charged inflated prices for the goods it imported.
In 1941 the UK imposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavin to rule Iran and the US even offered him nuclear weapons. Iranian resentment continued to grow. In 1951 the Majlis (Iranian parliament) forced the Shah to allow Mohammad Mosaddegh to nationalize the oil. In reprisal Iranian oil was boycotted and the Abadan Refinery, one of the world’s largest was forced to close. In 1953 Prime Minister Mosaddegh was overthrown by a military coup by the CIA and UK MI6 and kept under arrest until his death in 1967.
In 1979 Iranian college students took over the US embassy, holding 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days. Six other US diplomats were smuggled out by the Canadian diplomatic staff. In 2015 a deal was signed curtailing Iran’s ability to start a nuclear weapons program. Iran has lived up to it but Trump withdrew the US in 2018, tightening sanctions. Survival forces Iran into closer ties elsewhere.
Unbelievably bizarre, apparently at the bequest of Netanyahu, is Trump’s inhumane treatment of Iran, Aiming to destroy it economically, he is actually misusing US economic might by weaponizing it and dictating to the world that they must not trade with Iran or face crippling sanctions. Trying to cut Iran’s oil revenue from $50 billion annually to zero, he imposed sanctions in 2018, allowing a 6-month exemption to those dependent on Iranian oil: China, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey to find other sources.
A year after Tump pulled out of the nuclear pact with Iran, Iran, having lived up to its terms and getting nothing in return, announced it would start enriching uranium for peaceful purposes while Trump sends a carrier group to the Mediterranean to teach Iran a lesson.
EGYPT: An absolute and very dangerous scoundrel, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in a controlled election, has won a second term as president. And, what is so demoralizing is the presidential praise he got during a New York visit and the restoration of US military aid. The EU adopted a strong resolution against Egypt’s behaviour and the UN detailed a long list of abuses including widespread torture and execution for mild dissent. Canada complained: “ In 2013, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, grabbed power from the democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi in a coup d'etat, cheered on by Washington. El-Sisi has tortured and killed thousands of followers of Morsi's Islamic Brotherhood, most of the rest of whom rot in prison, along with Morsi.”
TURKEY: June 2018 saw President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan re-elected president, but his AKP party lost control of Ankara and Istanbul. Turkish human rights are protected by international law treaties, Yet they are of high importance for the negotiations to join the European Union. They include the status of Kurds and numerous human rights violations over the years. There is an ongoing debate on the right to life, torture, freedoms of expression, religion, assembly and association. Minorities cannot get a primary education in their mother tongue. The largest minority, the Kurds, 15% of the population, have no right to self-determination yet Turkey signed the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). In March 2017, the UN accused the Turkish government of "massive destruction, killings and numerous other serious human rights violations" against the Kurds. Turkey has imprisoned more journalists than any other country.
But, to many in the US and NATO, Turkey’s major crime is their purchase of the cheaper Russian S-400 Triumph surface-to-air missile defence system, currently deployed in China and Syria, and is not NATO compatible.
ALGERIA: Free elections were held from 1988, but a victory by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in 1991 sparked a military coup d'état and the imposition, of a state of emergency under which basic human rights were suspended. Freedom of expression, association, and assembly were severely restricted, and many were arrested without charge. A civil war raged from 1991 to 1999, and there have been no official investigations into the massive human-rights violations during the conflict. The government's main opponent was the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a violent Al Qaeda affiliate also causing a wave of bombings in Paris in 1995. The terrible fratricide got little coverage in Western media, despite the fact that it probably claimed twice as many lives as the Bosnian conflict, which ran concurrently and received nonstop Western attention.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president since 1999, lifted a state of emergency in 2011 and human rights have improved recently, but large scale protests continue over restrictions on freedom of expression, of the press, of association, of assembly, and of movement. Extensive corruption and discrimination against women remains.
There is so much more; I do need to continue in my next blog. May I leave you with a frightening example?
PAKISTAN: ASIA BIBI, a poor Pakistani Christian woman farm worker spent 8 years on death row for insulting Islam, a charge she denies. In 2009 she was convicted of blasphemy after a dispute with 2 farm workers who refused to drink out of the same container as a Christian. She was sentenced to be hanged.
The case got international attention as it emphasized Pakistan’s harsh laws that harass minorities such as Christians who make up 1.6% of the population. In 2011 her case sparked the assassination of Salmon Taseer, governor of Punjab by his own bodyguard claiming it was their duty because he supported Bibi.
Shahbaz Bhatt, the only Christian member in the cabinet, was also killed.
In Oct 2018, the Pakistan Supreme Court overturned Bibi's conviction. Thousands took to streets protesting acquittal. In Nov 2018 Canada asked that she be allowed to fly to Canada where her husband, Ashiq Masih, and her two daughters lived having fled Pakistan during her incarceration. She has arrived in Canada but her location is being kept secret as hard-line muslims have vowed to pursue and kill her.
Over 1,300 in Pakistan have been accused of religious offences since 1987.
Ye Olde Scribe
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