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Turkey: Kurdish politician urges Ankara to talk to PKK's Ocalan like Sisi and Assad

Thu, 12/01/2022 - 11:40
Turkey: Kurdish politician urges Ankara to talk to PKK's Ocalan like Sisi and Assad
Former HDP leader says government must seek engagement with PKK leader to prevent a military offensive in Syria against Kurdish militants
MEE staff Thu, 12/01/2022 - 11:40
A woman holds pictures of former leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party HDP Selahattin Demirtas, in jail for a year and a half, and HDP candidate for the upcoming presidential election, during a rally on May 4, 2018 in Besiktas district of Istanbul. (AFP)
A woman holds pictures of jailed former leader of the Peoples' Democratic Party Selahattin Demirtas during a rally on 4 May 2018 in the Besiktas district of Istanbul (AFP)

Imprisoned Turkish politician Selahattin Demirtas on Wednesday called on Ankara to reach out to PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan as it readies itself for a military operation against Kurdish militants in northern Syria in response to the 16 November Istanbul bombing. 

Demirtas, a former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), said the government recently legitimised and normalised engagements with former foes such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Israel, and the UAE.

'We believe it is an extremely objectionable policy for Turkey to impose military operations as the only choice when it comes to the Kurds' 

- Selahattin Demirtas 

Ocalan, the 74-year-old head of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), has been serving a life sentence on Imrali Island off the coast of Istanbul since his capture in 1999.

“We believe it is an extremely objectionable policy for Turkey to impose weapons and military operations as the only choice when it comes to the Kurds,” Demirtas told Turkish opposition news channel Halk TV

Demirtas said he does not see a beginning of a new resolution process by the government for the Kurdish question in the country, yet he still wants to do more than just watch as tensions flare up at the Syrian border and consoling people who lose their loved ones.

He added that some Turkish nationalist leaders in the past proposed to talk to Assad to rebuild the bridges for Turkey’s peace and security.

“We would like to talk to Ocalan, who is in Imrali Island, for the same reason,” he said. 

Life sentence on island

Demirtas on Wednesday made an official request through the Justice Ministry to arrange a video call with Ocalan.  

Ocalan is being kept in near-complete solitary confinement, which was only interrupted in March 2021 with a brief telephone conversation with his brother Mehmet Ocalan. 

The last time Ocalan's lawyers were able to contact him was three years ago, in August 2019. 

Fear ramps up in Turkish-Syrian borderlands as major offensive looms
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Turkey, the EU and the US designate PKK as a terror group due to its attacks on civilian targets since the 1990s.

The PKK now says it seeks “cultural autonomy” for the Kurdish citizens of Turkey, renouncing its original aim to establish a Kurdish state. Thousands of people have died in bloody clashes in the country between Turkey and the PKK since 1980, and some analysts put the death toll between 40,000 and 50,000. 

After decades of violence, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government began a peace process with Ocalan and agreed a ceasefire with the PKK in 2013.

The ceasefire collapsed after hostilities were renewed in 2015 following the capture of large swaths of territory in Syria by the Syrian Kurdish allies of the PKK. 

The peace process had focused on Turkey ensuring that the outlawed PKK lay down its arms in order to start negotiations, as the government ratified laws for the use of the Kurdish language in education, politics and the media. 

Demirtas has been serving a constantly changing jail time in Edirne since November 2016, on various charges from terror propaganda to instigating violence and insulting the Turkish nation.

Hundreds of pro-Kurdish politicians have been arrested and jailed since the coup attempt in 2016.

Kurdish politician urges Turkey to talk to PKK's Ocalan like Sisi and Assad

World Cup 2022: For Morocco's football fans, nationality is a fluid concept

Thu, 12/01/2022 - 11:38
World Cup 2022: For Morocco's football fans, nationality is a fluid concept
Fans says Morocco's success will be built on the talent in its diaspora, with 14 of the 26-man squad in Qatar born overseas
Austin Bodetti Thu, 12/01/2022 - 11:38
Morocco's players celebrate their win against Belgium at the Qatar World Cup on 27 November 2022 (AFP)
Morocco's players celebrate their win against Belgium at the Qatar World Cup on 27 November 2022 (AFP)

There's a special feeling in the air.

Morocco's red and green flag is flying from cars, football shirts are worn proudly, and there's a genuine optimism that the Atlas Lions can perform strongly at the Qatar World Cup.

After beating Canada 2-1 at the Al Thumama stadium in Doha on Thursday, Morocco's success on the pitch is rallying fans across the region, bringing about a rare moment of pan-Arab unity.

'As long as you have a blood link to Morocco, you are Moroccan'

Fatima-Ezzahra Hayad, football fan

With fans relishing the on-field magic, Morocco is being cited by some as an example of how countries ranked outside Fifa's top 20 nations can successfully turn to their global diaspora to achieve victory.

Morocco's stand-out player at the tournament, Achraf Hakimi, was born in Spain. Sofiane Boufal, who has been instrumental in their build-up play, hails from France; while the brilliant Hakim Ziyech was born in the Netherlands.

With more than 130 players at the World Cup representing a country other than that of their birth, the issue of turning to the diaspora isn't specific to the Moroccan national team. 

Star midfielder Wahbi Khazri is among several French-born players in the Tunisia squad; and the US, England, Australia and hosts Qatar have all called in players who were born abroad.

But no team at the tournament has more foreign-born players than Morocco.

Born abroad, bound to Morocco

At the 1998 World Cup in France, Morocco's team featured only two players who were born outside the country. This time around, a staggering 14 players in the 26-man squad were born overseas.

The Moroccans have done nothing wrong when it comes to selecting their players, and a majority of fans Middle East Eye spoke to said the issue wasn't particularly problematic given that the players maintained strong ties to the country.

Ayman El Felyani, a student in Tetouan, a city 220km north of the capital, Rabat, told MEE that he saw nationality as a fluid concept.

World Cup 2022: Morocco finds support in several places but not Western Sahara
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One of his favourite players, the Dutch-born defender Noussair Mazraoui, made his career with European clubs but has Moroccan parents.

"As a Moroccan, I wouldn't care if the players were born on Mars," Felyani said.

Fans' willingness to overlook their national team's heavy reliance on foreign talent may have something to do with the players' multifaceted identities.

Hakimi, a household name in the kingdom, continues to pay tribute to his Moroccan heritage and has repeatedly earned praise from legendary players such as Noureddine Naybet, who have called him a "pride for Morocco and a joy for the country".

Wisal Elkha, a Moroccan expatriate in Italy and longtime Atlas Lions fan, described the national side's recruitment from European clubs as a practical endeavour. 

"Here we know that you find the top clubs in Europe, where there's a chance to play with big players and benefit from them, and the level of football is high as well."

Success over everything

Morocco has a big net of talent to choose from. In 2018, the country's diplomatic missions recorded 4.2 million Moroccans living outside the kingdom, estimated at about 10 percent of its population at the time.

Nonetheless, the diaspora retains close ties to the kingdom. A study in September by the Council of the Moroccan Community Abroad, a government agency, concluded that 61 percent of Moroccans in Europe between the ages of 18 and 35 visit the kingdom every year.

To the Atlas Lions' most dedicated fans, patriotism and the potential for the team's success outweigh the fact of where anyone was born.

'Moroccans appreciate the fact that many of these footballers had the option to play for European national teams but opted to play for their countries of origin instead'

Mohamed Ben Moussa, professor, University of Sharjah

Fatima-Ezzahra Hayad, a marketing professional from Sale, a city in northwestern Morocco, said having a star player like Hakimi in the squad, who is considered one of the best defenders in Europe this season, would energise the team.

"If you are the best in your position, you should be called for the national team," said Hayad, who is at the tournament in Doha. 

"The actual team - especially the players who are binational or have lived their entire lives abroad - are representative of Morocco as long as they have a love for the country and contribute to its success.

"As long as you have a blood link to Morocco, you are Moroccan. Any success of yours or contribution to Morocco would be considered a source of pride."

It was this kind of national pride that inspired Hayad to travel to Qatar, and she isn't alone. Mohamed Sitri, Morocco's ambassador in Doha, claimed in a recent interview with the website Winwin that Moroccans ranked among the top 10 purchasers of World Cup tickets by nationality. 

The diaspora

The presence of Hakimi, Mazraoui and other second-generation immigrants in Morocco's national team points to a trend as old as the World Cup itself: the flow of Moroccan immigrants to Europe.

Said Saddiki, a professor of international relations at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University in Fes, said that emigrants from Morocco, like other diasporas from the Maghreb, feel a durable attachment to their homeland.

"This strong relationship appears in major public events such as football matches," he told MEE. 

"An example of this is the riots that take place in Paris or Brussels when a Maghrebi team wins or loses in a big match."

Following Morocco's 2-0 upset win over Belgium, riots broke out in several Belgian and Dutch cities. 

Mohamed Ben Moussa, an associate professor of communications at the University of Sharjah, said ties between the homeland and diaspora were increasingly strong, thanks to frequent travel as well as marriage.

"There is hardly any Moroccan household that does not have a family member or more in the diaspora.

"The national team is seen to represent this fundamental aspect of modern Moroccan identity. In fact, living and succeeding abroad, like these footballers, is a source of additional pride."

Domestic talent

Some Atlas Lions fans argue that Morocco shines when it puts footballers from within its own borders front and centre.

After Morocco appointed the retired Bosnian footballer Vahid Halilhodzic as head coach in 2019, he had a series of bust-ups with key players, including Ziyech and Mazraoui, leading to their absence from the Moroccan squad.

In August, Halilhodzic was replaced with Walid Regragui, a French-born coach with Moroccan roots who used to play for the Atlas Lions and several European clubs.

Almost immediately, Regragui recalled both Ziyech and Mazraoui to the 26-man squad.

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Abderrazak Khettabi, a football fan in Casablanca, questioned the dedication some Moroccan footballers attached to foreign clubs showed to the national side. 

He cited Ziyech and now retired forward Marouane Chamakh as two examples of players who, in his view, didn't wear the shirt proudly.

"There are some players like Ziyech who play extremely well in their club and then, when it comes to the national team, they play as if they're afraid of injuries," said Khettabi. 

"This is something we used to say about Chamakh too, back in the day. Maybe their managers are telling them not to play seriously to avoid injury, because otherwise they might lose their salary in Europe."

Khettabi contrasted Ziyech and Chamakh with retired Moroccan-born players Hussein Ammouta and Jamal Sellami, who he said "poured their hearts into the game".

Ammouta now serves as head coach of Wydad AC, a Casablanca-based club and Khettabi's favourite. 

Building better infrastructure

Fans worry that a lack of investment in the Moroccan domestic league could hinder the search for brights stars in future tournaments.

Felyani, the student in Tetouan, lamented that "many young footballers see their dreams of making it big locally squandered, because of the scarce - or rather total lack of - sporting infrastructure to support these budding talents".

Several years ago, Fifa echoed some of these concerns. Morocco's bid to host the 2026 World Cup fizzled out after a 2018 report raised questions about the suitability of the kingdom's infrastructure and the quality of its facilities for players. The inspectors highlighted stadiums as a particular area of "high risk".

Morocco: Mohammed VI's silence on the country's woes speaks volumes
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Today, Moroccans appear eager for their leaders to further the development of football at home. 

A 2022 survey by the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, a Moroccan government agency, found that 60 percent of respondents believed that "policies should target" football.

Morocco has already taken steps to address these concerns, opening the Mohammed VI Football Academy as a new pipeline for domestic talent in 2009 and hosting a "talent development" workshop with Fifa in June.

For this iteration of the World Cup, though, fans plan to support the Atlas Lions as they stand.

"Moroccans appreciate the fact that many of these footballers had the option to play for European national teams but opted to play for their countries of origin instead," Ben Moussa, professor at the University of Sharjah, told MEE. 

"That's the ultimate proof of being a 'true' Moroccan."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Rabat
Morocco's foreign-born players put the 'world' in World Cup

Syria: Islamic State says leader killed in October operation

Thu, 12/01/2022 - 11:21
Syria: Islamic State says leader killed in October operation
US confirms death of Abu al-Hassan al-Hashemi al-Quraishi in an operation 'conducted by the Free Syrian Army'
MEE staff Thu, 12/01/2022 - 11:21
A wall bearing the Islamic State flag in the city of al-Qaim, in Iraq's western Al Anbar province near the Syrian border, 3 November 2017 (AFP)

The US Central Command confirmed on Wednesday the death of the Islamic State (IS) group leader Abu al-Hassan al-Hashemi al-Quraishi in mid-October in Syria's Daraa province.

Centcom, the military arm of the US in the Middle East, said in a statement that the death of Quraishi was "another blow to ISIS".

"This operation was conducted by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Daraa province in Syria. ISIS remains a threat to the region. Centcom and our partners remain focused on the enduring defeat of ISIS," it added, using an alternative acronym for IS.

Syrian fighters told Reuters that Quraishi was hiding in a secret house with his aides when they were discovered in the town of Jasem in Daraa, and that Quraishi had blown himself up after being surrounded by FSA fighters.

"The leader and a companion blew themselves up with suicide belts after our fighters succeeded in storming their hideout," Salem al Horani, a former fighter who participated in the siege of the three houses where the Quraishi cell was discovered, told Reuters.

Hours before Centcom's confirmation, an audio statement by an IS spokesperson on Telegram, Abu Umar al-Muhajir, announced the death of Quraishi while "in combat", without specifying the date or place of his death. 

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Muhajir had named the IS group's new leader as Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Quraishi.

The FSA was an armed group that rebelled against the government of Bashar al-Assad following his brutal crackdown on the 2011 peaceful protest movement in Syria. Some of its fighters have remained in Daraa in south Syria since 2018, when Damascus took back control following Russian-brokered reconciliation deals.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to comment on whether US forces were involved in the operation. 

"We are pleased to see the removal of ISIS leaders in such quick succession," Jean-Pierre said.

"The United States remains committed to countering the global threat from ISIS and stands ready to work with international partners," she added.

John Kirby, the US National Security Council spokesperson, said "we welcome the announcement that another leader of ISIS is no longer walking the face of the Earth".

France's Foreign Ministry said that Quraishi's death "deals a new blow to the terrorist organisation, but it will not lead to minimising the persistent threat [IS] poses".

After his rise to group leader in February, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashemi al-Quraishi remained a mysterious figure, and little was known about him. His name is thought not to be real, and some believe the leader to be Juma Awad al-Badri. 

In July, the US assassinated Maher al-Agal, a senior IS group leader, in a drone strike in Syria, and in February it killed the group's previous leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.

Islamic State says leader killed in October operation in Syria

Fear ramps up in Turkish-Syrian borderlands as major offensive looms

Thu, 12/01/2022 - 09:42
Fear ramps up in Turkish-Syrian borderlands as major offensive looms
Civilians on both sides of the border are tired of rockets and tired of war, but as Turkey prepares a ground offensive life is likely to get worse fast
Yusuf Selman Inanc Thu, 12/01/2022 - 09:42
Syrians in a recently bombed displacement camp on the Turkish border watch the World Cup (AFP)
Syrians in a recently bombed displacement camp on the Turkish border watch the World Cup (AFP)

Karkamis, Turkey, and Azaz, Syria - From the door of a half-empty kebab restaurant in the southern Turkish town of Karkamis can be seen a gaping hole in the ground. It’s a reminder to the customers here, and all the town’s residents, of the danger they faced and continue to face.

One man walked through that door grumbling about his daughter, mixing Kurdish words with his Turkish ones in a heavily accented voice.

“She is still in fear, doesn’t leave her mother for a moment,” he said to the owner.

“This restaurant should have been full now. But people are afraid to go outside. The rocket, you know, landed over there,” he told Middle East Eye.

Ten days ago, rockets slammed into this community, killing three people, including a teacher and a child. It was part of escalating violence between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish groups, sparked by a bombing in Istanbul and likely to end in a full-scale Turkish ground offensive in northern Syria.

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“If the rocket landed two minutes before, dozens of children would be dead,” the father said.

A wounded woman is carried to hospital after one of the rockets fired from northern Syria hit a school in the Karkamis district, 21 November (Reuters)
A wounded woman is carried to hospital after one of the rockets fired from northern Syria hit a school in the Karkamis district, 21 November (Reuters)

In Karkamis, people are frightened they will look up into the sky and see more rockets fired their way. Ankara says they have been fired by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which Turkey considers an arm of the outlawed PKK armed group. The YPG denies any part in the 13 November Istanbul bombing that ratcheted up tensions in the first place.

Here in Turkey’s southern borderlands, exhaustion with the fallout of Syria’s decade-long war is reaching boiling point.

“Wallahi, we are fed up with this war,” the restaurant owner said. That exasperation is increasingly being translated into animosity towards Syrians themselves. When a Syrian beggar approached, the restaurateur angrily shouted “Yallah, yallah,” shooing him from his premises.

“Our soldiers are dying there [Syria], yet these insolents still ask for money!”

Karkamis is a small town near the Syrian border, situated on the opposite side of Syria’s Jarabulus, a town under Turkish control. Not much is stirring among its traditional, brown-walled homes. After the latest attack, the streets are vacant, and all schools and many shops remain firmly closed.

People are advised not to go outside or gather in squares. They are clearly rattled. There aren’t many sources of income for a tiny town like this, especially in Turkey’s current economic crisis. But being placed in a semi-lockdown by rocket fire is only making things worse.

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'We are terrified'

At a pocket-sized barber shop nearby, a fierce debate was taking place.

“We are terrified. Most residents have gone to Gaziantep. But this bloody war never ends,” one customer complained, admiring his clean-shaven face in the mirror.

The barber bristled. He’s got a very clear idea of who is to blame: the Turkish government. Kurdish fighters can be seen jumping the border fence all the time, he claimed. Why couldn’t the border guards just beat them?

Another customer had been waiting his turn to speak. “You know, my father is confined to bed. One of the rockets hit the wall of our garden. It could have hit the house and killed us all,” he said.

“We can’t sleep at night. We are used to the sound of bullets and rockets but still terrified if more missiles hit us. Never trust the PKK!”

Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic all intermingle on the streets of Karkamis, with the latter being heard more and more in recent days: increasing numbers of Syrian refugees are crossing the border to visit relatives ahead of the likely military offensive.

'We can’t sleep at night. We are used to the sound of bullets and rockets but still terrified if more missiles hit us'

- Karkamis resident

“May God help us!” said Syrian resident Soleiman. “Most of my relatives fled to Azaz. Now they are hitting there, too.”

The day after the rocket attack on Karkamis, more fell on Azaz, a town 100km away in Syria, killing five civilians. The rockets were reportedly fired from Tal Rifaat, a strategic Kurdish-held enclave that looks likely to be the first target of Turkey’s offensive.

Like Karkamis, commerce has been hollowed out by the attack, spelling bad news for swathes of the Aleppo countryside that uses it as a hub.

Azaz merchants are now living in fear, one called Khaled al-Ahmed told MEE.

“Now, we are facing stagnation. The real estate and automobile sectors were also affected by the latest bombing,” he said.

Maha Afadli, an internally displaced Syrian, once felt she’d finally found safety in Azaz. But now she’s worried the war will reach her there again.

“I am from Aleppo, but moved to Tal Rifaat, was displaced by the PYD there, and settled in Azaz in 2016,” she said, referring to the YPG’s political arm. “I want all the displaced to return to their lands,” she said, despairing that international powers haven’t managed to wage peace in Syria.

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'Nylon tents do not protect us'

Things are no less fraught in the displacement camps that stretch along the Syrian side of the Turkish border. In the Jabal Bursaya camp near the Bab al-Salama border crossing, Khalaf al-Jassem recalls recent attacks with a grimace.

“My family and I have been looking for a safe place to live. We are terrified by the recent bombings. The children were crying, and the women were screaming in terror, because this place is considered safe,” he said.

The United Nations estimates that 6.5 million Syrians have been internally displaced since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. Most of them live in camps.

Jassem is worried for his family. “Nylon tents are very thin and do not protect us from a shell or a missile. If one of them hits our tent, we’ll be certainly dead,” he said, adding they have no place to go - Azaz was the last safe haven.

Jabal Bursaya camp near the Bab al-Salama border crossing (MEE/Ali Hajj Suleiman)
Jabal Bursaya camp near the Bab al-Salama border crossing (MEE/Ali Hajj Suleiman)

Cecelia al-Taweel’s story is no different. Her journey searching for a safe place began in 2012 when she left her hometown of Homs for Damascus. She then fled to Daraa, then Quneitra in 2018, and ended up in Azaz.

She believes the Kurdish shelling attacks will only increase if Turkey launches its offensive.

That tension is felt a handful of kilometres over the border in Oncupinar, in Turkey's Kilis province, as well. The border town was hit by Kurdish shelling on 21 November, wounding eight police officers.

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With troops building up, military vehicles frequently ferry men and equipment from place to place. Turkey is expected to attack Tal Rifaat from Oncupinar alongside 4,000 allied Syrian rebels, if negotiations with Damascus’ ally Russia fail.

Ankara has been trying to get Russia to convince Syrian government forces and Kurdish fighters to pull out of Tal Rifaat to avoid bloodshed. That eventuality looks more unlikely by the day. The sound of shelling and rockets are heard all the time.

“People are more terrified than ever,” said an NGO worker who frequently visits the camps in Syria’s north. “People are aware that Turkey doesn’t want more refugees. And there is no safer place in Syria [than Azaz],” they added.

Tunisians turn to online smuggling networks for land route to Europe

Thu, 12/01/2022 - 08:00
Tunisians turn to online smuggling networks for land route to Europe
Faced with unsafe sea routes, many Tunisians are using Facebook and WhatsApp to liaise with people smugglers to help them cross overland into Europe
Souhail Khmira Thu, 12/01/2022 - 08:00
Refugees and migrants set up makeshift camps in Serbia as they wait to cross into Hungary (MEE/Ilir Tsouko)

Clenching a fistful of dirt, Mabrouk Gaceur struggled to contain his emotions as his eldest son was being laid to rest.

Like thousands of Tunisians before him, 16-year-old Aboubakr attempted to migrate to Europe earlier this year in the hope of starting a new and better life.

But on 5 September, while trying to enter Hungary from neighbouring Serbia, the vehicle he was in crashed into the Danube during a high-speed police chase, killing him and another Tunisian national.

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Aboubakr was aware of all the risks, but all he could think about was leaving Tunisia, his father told Middle East Eye shortly after the funeral.

"He kept telling me that all his friends had left, and that his cousins had taken the same path. He wanted out," he added, his voice cracking with emotion.

Like millions of Tunisians, the Gaceurs were hit hard by the country's financial crisis with northward migration seen as the only exit strategy.

The economy, which was moribund for years after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, experienced further tumult last July when President Kais Saied dismissed the government and suspended parliament in what many observers have called a bloodless coup.

Increases in global food and energy prices sparked by the war in Ukraine have further added to the burden of ordinary Tunisians, pushing inflation to record highs.

The precarious financial climate has seen more than 13,000 Tunisians attempt to cross into Europe since the start of the year, with many seeking dangerous smuggling routes by sea.

A young Tunisian girl walks along the beach in Zarzis, a small coastal town used by migrants to take boat journeys to Europe (MEE/Faisal Edroos)
A young Tunisian girl walks along the beach in Zarzis, a small coastal town used by migrants to take boat journeys to Europe (MEE/Faisal Edroos)

According to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), at least 500 people have gone missing or perished off the Tunisian coast over the same period. 

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"There are multiple factors that can explain the surge in irregular departures from Tunisia, but usually decisions are influenced by a combination and interplay of social and economic factors," Tasnim Abderrahim, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, told MEE.
 
"If we look at figures from the latest Arab Barometer, which was released in July, around 55 percent of Tunisians report that they run out of food before they have money to buy more, which raises concerns about food insufficiency. 
 
"The dual dynamic of rising prices and limited livelihood options has created an expanding pool of migrants, and a lot of people are thinking about looking for other opportunities elsewhere."

The Kazawi army

Stories of crushed dreams and tragedy are common in interior regions of Tunisia such as Tataouine, but they're also accompanied by the success stories of those who reached Europe and made it their home.

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At Aboubakr's funeral, several residents told MEE that news of a Moroccan smuggler, who was advertising his smuggling network on WhatsApp and Facebook, had gripped the community.

The smuggler, who goes by the name "Kazawi", charges would-be migrants at least $3,500 for relatively safe passage to Europe, the residents said.

Employing what is known as his "Kazawi army", the journey begins over social media and involves travel across the so-called Balkan route.

The route involves flights from Tunis to the Turkish city of Istanbul. After a short layover, the would-be migrant takes another flight to Belgrade before travelling across Serbia's northern borders into Hungary or another state within the Schengen zone.

Depending on the type of service, the migrants pay either $3,500 in person or wire $3,800 to an account in France, the sources said.

 Balkan route (MEE)

The migrants are given meagre provisions by the smugglers and head for the Radanovac forest on the Serbian-Hungary border. Their names are then added to a list where they await their turn to cross.

At this point, the amount that is paid will determine the level of comfort for the remainder of the trip.

According to the sources, there are two ways of deciding on how to proceed next. The first is "Tasslima", where the smuggler guides the migrants 30km by foot through the forest, the Danube river and across military lines.
 
After bustling them into a van, drivers from the Kazawi army will transport them across Hungary and drop them off near the Austrian border. Once there, or at Traiskirchen, a small town south of Vienna, they turn themselves in to Austrian authorities where they apply for asylum.

The second method, known as "Taktiaa", is far cheaper - ranging in cost from $1,500 to $2,000 - but can be fraught with problems, the sources said.

Mohsen Lihidheb, a former post office worker from Zarzis, has created an art installation at his small museum where displays the shoes of migrants who are presumed to have died while crossing to Europe (MEE/Faisal Edroos)
An art installation in Zarzis displays the shoes of migrants who are presumed to have died while crossing to Europe (MEE/Faisal Edroos)

An organising tool

Several would-be migrants told MEE that the Kazawi army's presence on social media remained an important organising tool, and a practical aid for those travelling to and then through the European Union's 26 Schengen area states.

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Still, dangers remain.
 
According to photos viewed by MEE, dog bites, barbed wire scratches and bruises from beatings could be seen on the legs and feet of migrants in the forests near Subotica on the border with Hungary.

MEE reached out to the Hungarian foreign ministry for comment over the alleged use of force, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

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One migrant pointed MEE to videos and messages posted on Instagram. The videos are usually tagged as harka or haraga, a colloquial word used in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Libya to describe Mediterranean crossings.  

These videos often include migrants traversing the Mediterranean on small boats and dinghies, but they can also include people packed in vans driving through dusty roads.

In February, a viral haraga video by a Tunisian woman drew worldwide media coverage for apparently glamorising illegal migration. 

Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, told MEE that videos referencing smuggling services would be subject to moderation and taken down.

A few days after the Kazawi army's page was brought to Facebook's attention, a Meta spokesperson said that it had taken appropriate action and the page had been removed.

"People smuggling across international borders is illegal and coordinating this activity on our platforms is not allowed. We take action as soon as we become aware of it, and continue to work with law enforcement and experts from across the world to tackle this issue," the spokesperson said.

Surge in departures

In an effort to curb so-called illegal migration, several EU member states have intensified pressure on Serbia to tighten its visa regime. The Tunisian embassy in Belgrade told MEE that from 20 November Tunisian citizens needed a visa to travel to Serbia.

The Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn't answer MEE's questions over the decision but said: "They are aware of the issue and are currently considering the next steps to follow in face of these new procedures."

"Removing the visa requirement may increase the importance of smuggling networks for Tunisians migrating through the Western Balkan route. The journeys will become longer, more expensive, and more dangerous," Abderrahim said.

Tunisia already restricts travel for under-35s, with border police at airports often requiring parental permits for those travelling to Turkey, Morocco, Algeria and Libya.

Matt Herbert, the research manager for the North Africa and Sahel Observatory at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, told MEE that despite recent boat wrecks off the Tunisian coast, the Balkan route had surged in importance over the course of the last year.

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"Considerably more expensive than the maritime journey, this itinerary is seen as both safer than the maritime route and in an era of heightened border enforcement by Tunisian authorities is considered to be more secure.
  
"From January to August, what we've seen is that over 5,000 Tunisian nationals have been intercepted along the Balkan route. This is up from 842 throughout all of last year," he added.

Hundreds of unnamed men, women and children who died trying to cross the Mediterranean to seek a new life in Europe have been buried in unmarked graves in Zarzis (MEE/Faisal Edroos)
Hundreds of men, women and children who died trying to cross the Mediterranean to seek a new life in Europe have been buried in unmarked graves in Zarzis (MEE/Faisal Edroos)

It's unclear whether it is primarily men who are making the journey, but according to the latest national survey, Tunisia is undergoing a severe brain drain - partly as a result of budget cuts to the higher education and research sectors. Around 39,000 Tunisian engineers and 3,300 doctors left the country between 2015 to 2020.

Mohamed Ali Talbi, a researcher on migration, told MEE that many of the Tunisians who had made their way to Europe blamed the government for their predicament.

'Do you understand what it means to watch two people literally fighting to death, until one kills the other, in a remote Serbian forest?'

-  Said, Tataouine resident

Once they're off the trucks or vans, many of these young men can be seen and heard shouting "Rakh la" ("No turning back") and slogans such as "the people of Tataouine", Talbi said.
 
"This is a way of saying that these young men are loyal to the region rather than the country. It’s their way of saying: ‘We have been neglected by the country and we’re on our own,'" he added.
 
Said, a Tataouine resident who refused to give his last name, said he had recently helped his brother migrate to Europe a little over a month ago. "It's the government's fault that all these young men are leaving," he told MEE. "I sent my brother because I had no choice, there was no hope or future for him here.
 
"My brother is a tough man and this journey made him cry, it made me cry. It's not a walk in the park or as easy as people think. He’s seen death.

"Do you understand what it means to watch two people literally fighting to death, until one kills the other, in a remote Serbian forest? That scene will haunt you for the rest of your life."

Tataouine, Tunisia
Tunisians turn to online smuggling networks as their compass to reach Europe

US: Lawyer accuses Saudi crown prince of attempting to 'manipulate' court system

Wed, 11/30/2022 - 20:57
US: Lawyer accuses Saudi crown prince of attempting to 'manipulate' court system
US court should reject Biden administration's suggestion to award immunity to Mohammed bin Salman, says lawyer
MEE staff Wed, 11/30/2022 - 20:57
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman authorised the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018, according to both Turkish intelligence and the CIA.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman authorised the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018, according to both Turkish intelligence and the CIA (AFP/File photo)

A lawyer for Hatice Cengiz has accused Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of attempting to "manipulate" the US court system, after the administration of US President Joe Biden declared in recent documentation that the Saudi royal should be given immunity in a lawsuit accusing him of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

In a 10-page legal filing, lawyer Keith Harper, who represents both Cengiz, a writer and Khashoggi's fiancee, and Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn), urged the court to reject the Biden administration's suggestion.

"In this rarest of cases, the court should decline to shield MBS for his ordering of the murder of US-resident Jamal Khashoggi," the filing said, first reported by The Guardian.

The lawyer said while it was customary for courts to defer to the executive branch on judgments of whether foreign leaders should be given diplomatic immunity, this case was unique because Riyadh engaged in an unprecedented legal move to name the crown prince the country's prime minister.

Harper said the move had no precedent "in the history of international law".

Biden 'betrays' own words by giving Saudi crown prince immunity in Khashoggi killing, says Hatice Cengiz
Read More »

Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018, in an operation that both Turkish intelligence and the CIA have said was sanctioned by the crown prince.

Cengiz and Dawn sued the crown prince and his associates in 2020, accusing him of conspiring to kidnap, torture and murder Khashoggi.

In June, the district court invited the US government to give its own opinion about whether the crown prince deserved to be treated as a head of state, which in most cases would lead to the dismissal of his name from the case.

In its filing on the matter in late October, the Biden administration cited the decision by Saudi Arabia's King Salman to appoint his son prime minister as grounds for Mohammed bin Salman to be given immunity.

The appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as prime minister is a rare move in Saudi history, as the post is traditionally held by the king. The move was announced just days before an earlier court-appointed deadline for the Biden administration to offer its opinion. 

Some human rights activists viewed the move as an attempt by the Saudi government to manipulate the court system in favour of giving the crown prince immunity in the US.

The parties are due to meet for a hearing on 9 December in Washington.

On Tuesday, Mohammed bin Salman's lawyer argued the case was all but closed, and that the Biden administration had effectively divested the court of its jurisdiction.

However, Dawn's executive director Sarah Leah Whitson previously told Middle East Eye that while the Saudi crown prince's removal from the lawsuit would be a blow to directly holding him accountable for the killing, the legal battle was far from over.

There are still 20 other co-defendants in the case, including Saud al-Qahtani, a top confidante and senior adviser to Mohammed bin Salman.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit last year, and the court has yet to rule on this. If the court rejects the motion and allows the case to proceed, it would then move to the discovery phase, which would allow Dawn to request answers, evidence, and even the deposition of the Saudi officials named in the suit.

If that happens, it "means that the truth of the evidence about Mohammed bin Salman's personal role in the murder of Khashoggi will continue to come out and this lawsuit will continue to be a thorn in Mohammed bin Salman's side", Whitson said.

"They can choose to not cooperate with the court, but that would be a pretty embarrassing look for Saudi Arabia."

Lawyer accuses Saudi crown prince of attempting to 'manipulate' US court system

New House Democrat leader's staunch ties to US-Israel groups

Wed, 11/30/2022 - 19:18
New House Democrat leader's staunch ties to US-Israel groups
Hakeem Jeffries has been selected as the new House minority leader. His biggest donor this past year was a pro-Israel group
MEE staff Wed, 11/30/2022 - 19:18
Congressman Hakeem Jeffries talks to reporters on Capitol Hill on 30 November 2022 in Washington.
Congressman Hakeem Jeffries talks to reporters on Capitol Hill on 30 November 2022 (AFP)

New York Congressman Hakeem Jeffries' selection for the role of House minority leader next year has made history as a sign of a changing party, but the lawmaker's ties to major pro-Israel groups has raised questions over whether that change will extend to the largely uncritical support the US shows for Israel.

Jeffries, who on Wednesday was chosen to replace former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 82, as the Democratic Party's leader in the House of Representatives, will be the first Black lawmaker to hold the position.

"This is a moment of transition," Jeffries told a small group of reporters on Tuesday night. "We stand on the shoulders of giants, but are also looking forward to being able to do what's necessary at this moment to advance the issues."

Jeffries' ascension to lead the Democrats in the House is a net positive for pro-Israel groups, who have dealt with growing opposition and criticism of Israel stemming from within the Democratic Party.

'Back home in New York City we consider Jerusalem to be the sixth borough'

- Hakeem Jeffries, US congressman

The congressman maintains close ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the largest pro-Israel lobby in the US, as well as other pro-Israel groups.

Amid the increasing criticism of Israel coming from Democrats, Aipac launched a new Super PAC, the United Democracy Project (UDP), that began pouring millions of dollars into electoral campaigns ahead of the November midterm elections.

Some of these donations were given to candidates running against progressive Democrats who had voiced criticism of Israel.

Jeffries, on the other hand, has been unequivocally in support of Israel throughout his political career, and also vocally supported several pro-Israel Democrats instead of their progressive challengers in this year's midterms.

Over the past year, he has received nearly $460,000 in campaign donations from pro-Israel groups, including more than $213,000 from Pro-Israel America, his largest single donor.

He has been opposed to the conclusion made by Israeli and international human rights groups that Israel's treatment of Palestinians amounts to apartheid. He said such reports were "designed to isolate Israel in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the world".

He also criticised Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh for using the term apartheid to describe Israel during a visit the congressman made to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories earlier this year.

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Jeffries also opposed a bill introduced last year by fellow Democrat Betty McCollum, which would ensure that the nearly $4bn in annual US military aid to Israel was not used to illegally annex Palestinian land, demolish Palestinian homes, or to detain Palestinian children in Israel's military prisons.

In 2020, Jeffries told Aipac that US aid to Israel should continue with "no conditions", and added: "Back home in New York City, we consider Jerusalem to be the sixth borough." Jeffries attended this conference despite several Democratic leaders, including multiple presidential candidates, deciding not to attend.

Hakeem Jeffries with AIPAC in 2020:

- Jerusalem is NYC's 6th borough

- Important to maintain Israel's "qualitative military edge" and oppose efforts to "delegitimize Israel" like BDS (AIPAC talking points)

- No conditions for U.S. military aid

- AIPAC lobbying is important pic.twitter.com/rZpl3HONEp

— Walker Bragman (@WalkerBragman) November 17, 2022

Robert Wexler, a former Democratic congressman, told Jewish Insider that "if the pro-Israel community wanted to create a Democratic leader for the future, we would create Hakeem Jeffries".

But Jeffries is set to take over the Democratic House leadership as a new far-right government is to take power in Israel, posing a challenge for the party's more staunchly pro-Israel members.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bloc won 64 seats out of 120 in this month's Israeli election, and is expected to form a government with ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), as well as with Itamar Ben-Gvir's far-right Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit alliance.

Ben-Gvir, like Netanyahu, is opposed to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, which would be an essential part of a two-state solution that many Democrats continue to support.

Washington

Qatar World Cup: Tunisia exit after bittersweet win over France

Wed, 11/30/2022 - 16:51
Qatar World Cup: Tunisia exit after bittersweet win over France
Victory over defending champions is not enough to send Carthage Eagles to the knockout stages
MEE staff Wed, 11/30/2022 - 16:51
Tunisia's Issam Jebali reacts in Tunisia v France match at the World Cup in Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan, Qatar on 30 November 2022 (Reuters)
Tunisia's Issam Jebali reacts in Tunisia v France match at the World Cup in Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan, Qatar on 30 November 2022 (Reuters)

Tunisia failed to advance to the World Cup knockout stages despite a historic win over defending champions France on Wednesday.

The 1-0 win took the Carthage Eagles to the third spot of Group D with four points, missing out on qualification by two points to France and Australia who gained six points each.

The North Africans dominated most of the play until they broke the deadlock in the 58th minute with a brilliant effort by Wahbi Khazri. The French-born striker glided past the French defence and put the ball in the net in an impressive individual effort.

The goal briefly put Tunisia in the second spot of the group from which they could have qualified for the first time ever to the last 16 of the tournament.    

Qatar World Cup: A historic tournament for Arab nations, on and off the pitch
Read More »

But the celebrations quickly turned into heartbreak after Australia scored their winning goal in the other match against Denmark and sent Tunisia back to the third spot. 

France, who made nine changes for this match from the team that beat Denmark, finished top of the group on goal difference from runners-up Australia.

Tunisia started the tournament with a goalless draw against Denmark before losing 1-0 to Australia in the second match.

They became the third team from the Middle East and North Africa to miss out on qualification after Qatar and Iran crashed out on Tuesday.

All eyes now turn to Saudi Arabia, who need a win in their match with Mexico later on Wednesday to secure qualification, and Morocco, who need a draw from their match against Canada on Thursday to advance.

Tunisia exit World Cup after bittersweet win over France

Turkey's looming invasion of Syria tests US-Kurdish ties

Wed, 11/30/2022 - 16:48
Turkey's looming invasion of Syria tests US-Kurdish ties
US ties to its Kurdish allies become less of a priority as Washington focuses on the war in Ukraine
Sean Mathews Wed, 11/30/2022 - 16:48
A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter aims a machine gun during a joint military exercise with forces of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group in al-Malikiya, in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province, on 7 September 2022 (AFP)

Turkey’s threatened incursion into northern Syria is testing US efforts to balance between an important counterterrorism partner in the Middle East and a pivotal geopolitical ally in the war in Ukraine.

At the heart of the tussle between Ankara and Washington is the United States’ support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-majority militia Washington has partnered with to fight the Islamic State (IS) group.

Ankara views the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has waged a decades-long war for independence against Turkey. The US considers the group, known as the PKK, a terrorist organisation, but refuses to cut ties with the SDF, which Washington sees as the most effective fighting force against IS.

'The US needs Turkish buy-in on other issues'

- Andrew Tabler, former Syria director National Security Council

Turkey launched its first invasion of Syria in 2016, with the aim of depriving Kurdish fighters of a base along its border. Two more military forays followed in 2018 and 2019, giving Turkey and its Arab allied militias control over large swaths of Syrian territory.

Turkey has been threatening a new ground offensive for months, but its artillery and air campaign in the region accelerated after a bombing in Istanbul killed six people and wounded dozens more in November. Turkey blamed the attack on the PKK and its associated groups. Both the PKK and SDF denied involvement.

The US has tried to prevent escalations between the two during previous flareups, but analysts and former US officials are less optimistic about Washington’s mediation efforts this time.

“The larger issue is that the US has bigger fish to fry in Europe,” Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former Syria director on the White House National Security Council, told Middle East Eye.

“The US needs Turkish buy-in on other issues, so the response to this potential incursion has been pretty muted.”

SDF
Fighters with the Turkish-backed "Syrian National Army" along the frontlines of areas under control by the Syrian government and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), on 29 November 2022 (AFP)

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Turkey has emerged as a swing player in the Ukraine war. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one of the few Nato leaders to still maintain communication with Vladimir Putin. Russian and American spy chiefs have met on Turkish soil, while Ankara has helped broker a UN-backed deal to unblock Black Sea grain.

“You cannot extricate what’s going on in northern Syria from the wider political climate,” Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East security programme at the Center for New American Security and a former Department of Defence official, told MEE.

While Erdogan has billed himself as a mediator, critics see an untrustworthy partner leveraging Turkey’s position inside Nato to extract concessions on foreign policy goals that run counter to western interests.

In September, Erdogan made a veiled threat to invade neighbouring Greece, as Ankara is locked in a series of maritime disputes with Athens. Turkey is also blocking the Nato ascension bids of Sweden and Finland over what it says is their support for Kurdish militant groups.

Turkey Grain deal
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres shake hands in western Ukrainian city of Lviv, on 18 August 2022 (AFP)

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On Syria, Lord said: “There is no question that Ankara has longstanding security concerns regarding PKK activities, but what Turkey is doing now fundamentally undermines our [US] capability to counter IS.”

The US has already been caught in the crossfire.

//--> //--> //--> //-->

Last week, a Turkish drone strike on a base in Hasakah, Syria, came within 300 metres of American troops. Without naming its Nato ally, the Pentagon said the strike “directly threatened” US forces.

“The continued conflict, especially a ground invasion, would severely jeopardise the hard-fought gains that the world has achieved against ISIS and would destabilise the region,” a Pentagon spokesperson said on Tuesday. 

“The SDF are using the only card they have to persuade the Americans to do everything in their power to stop the Turkish incursion and protect them"

- Natasha Hall, CSIS

But the looming Turkish incursion is also testing Washington’s relationship with a longtime counterterrorism partner at a time when international attention has moved away from Syria.

“The counter-IS campaign is not the kind of mobilising force in public opinion that Ukraine is today,” Sam Heller, a Syria expert at the Century Institute based in Beirut, told MEE.

The SDF has gone public, calling for more support from its ally. Mazloum Abdi, the group’s chief, has repeatedly demanded a “stronger” US message to stop a Turkish assault.

The group has said it is halting operations against IS to refocus on fending off a Turkish attack. On Tuesday, the Pentagon said it had reduced patrols in northern Syria because of SDF cutbacks.

But the SDF’s leverage with the US is limited compared to Ankara’s.

“The SDF are using the only card they have to persuade the Americans to do everything in their power to stop the Turkish incursion and protect them,” Natasha Hall, senior fellow with the Middle East programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told MEE.

Hall said the SDF has been “on alert” since the Trump administration withdrew troops from northern Syria and that mistrust likely grew after the Biden administration’s Afghanistan pullout.

“They (the SDF) have gotten guarantees, but given the mass public relations campaign [they] have been on, it’s clear that they know that there are different levels of support and protection. It doesn’t bode well when the Pentagon says that Turkey has the right to defend its southern border.”

Syrian-Kurdish demonstrators
Syrian-Kurdish demonstrators protest Turkey's threats against their region, in the northeastern city of Qamishli, on 27 November 2022 (AFP)

//--> //--> //--> //-->

Tabler, the former White House official, said the SDF is working to show it remains an “indispensable partner” to the US in combating IS, even as it scales back operations.

//--> //--> //--> //-->

“The SDF relationship is not very high up on the priority list for the US right now. But that still begs the question: Who keeps IS in check? There are two options: Turkey and the SDF,” he said.

“Turkey wants a security belt along its border, but it does not want to go all the way down the Euphrates and do counter-terrorism operations,” Tabler added.

'The US is not going to go to bat for the SDF against the Turks in the way the SDF lobbies for'

- Sam Heller, Century Institute

Heller, from the Century Institute, said that previous Turkish military actions have been negotiated through the Astana format, with Russia and Iran.

Moscow has used previous flareups to cement its position as a powerbroker in Syria, fixing deals that have seen Turkey and the Assad government gain territory at the expense of the Kurds. Analysts say the Kremlin's influence has not waned despite being bogged down in Ukraine. 

“Right now it’s Russia that has more influence to dissuade Turkey on whether an incursion goes forward [rather] than the US," Heller said. 

Erdogan said last week that Turkey will target the areas of northwest Syria including Kobane (known as Ain al-Arab in Arabic), Manbij and Tal Rifaat. The latter two are outside the US’s area of military operations, a key difference compared to 2019 when US troops withdrew from northeast Syria in the face of Turkey’s ground offensive.

As for the SDF’s pleas to Washington, analysts say the Kurdish militia is likely to be disappointed.

“The US is not going to go to bat for the SDF against the Turks in the way the SDF lobbies for. It’s just not plausible,” Heller said. 

“Turkey has taken big bites out of SDF territory before, and the group's ties with the US have continued.”

American arrested in UAE facing deportation to Egypt

Wed, 11/30/2022 - 15:57
American arrested in UAE facing deportation to Egypt
US citizen Sherif Osman was arrested in Dubai this month, and is now facing extradition to Egypt - where he was born
MEE staff Wed, 11/30/2022 - 15:57
Dubai's court building
Pedestrians walk past Dubai's court building during a hearing on 4 April 2010 (AFP)

Sherif Osman, a US citizen who was arrested this month by UAE authorities, faces possible deportation to his native country of Egypt. 

Osman was arrested because of a request "from an Arab League entity that coordinates among member states on law enforcement and national security", The Wall Street Journal reported. According to that official, the UAE is working to secure legal documentation for his extradition.

Egyptian-American arrested in UAE after calling for Cop27 protests in Egypt
Read More »

Osman was born in Egypt, but hasn't been in the country since before the 2011 uprising. 

He is an outspoken supporter of protests against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He was arrested after he arrived in Dubai to visit his sister, a UAE resident, and his mother, who was visiting from Egypt. He was arrested by police outside his sister's home, Middle East Eye reported earlier this month. 

A former Egyptian army officer, Osman was one of three exiles who called for anti-government protests in Egypt on 11 November during the UN climate summit (Cop27), held in the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh. The demonstration was also referred to as the 11/11 protest, in which nearly 1,000 people were detained in the ongoing crackdown against government critics in Egypt. 

Rights groups estimate Egypt holds about 60,000 political prisoners. At least 4,500 political prisoners were detained without trial in one six-month period, many facing life-threatening conditions, The New York Times reported

"Though he is being treated well now, Sherif's life is in danger in Dubai detention, and if the US allows his extradition, we fear that his fate will be sealed," Radha Stirling, a UAE legal expert, told the Jerusalem Post. 

"Sherif's extradition is certain unless the US takes a stand… This is almost a replay of the Saudi killing of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, except that Sherif is still alive, and the US has a chance to intervene before it is too late.”"

Researchers fear UK sale of artefacts could include items looted from Yemen

Wed, 11/30/2022 - 15:42
Researchers fear UK sale of artefacts could include items looted from Yemen
Antiquities researchers say the lack of an exact origin on items raises concerns over where the artefacts came from, as some resemble items stolen from Yemen
Umar A Farooq Wed, 11/30/2022 - 15:42
Artefacts that were recovered before being smuggled out of the country, at the National Museum in Taez, Yemen on 22 February 2022.
Artefacts that were recovered before being smuggled out of the country, at the National Museum in Taiz, Yemen, on 22 February 2022 (AFP)

An auction in the UK has sparked concerns over the sale of artefacts that researchers say resemble the types of items looted from Yemen, after the auction house did not label their place of origin.

The issue has shone light on the stolen antiquities market, which has continued to thrive despite international efforts to curb sales.

On Tuesday, London's TimeLine Auctions began the online bidding of thousands of antiquities from all around the world. It will run until 3 December.

In the weeks leading up to the auction, Yemeni antiquities researcher Abdullah Mohsen posted on Facebook that a few of the artefacts to be auctioned off resemble artefacts that are from Yemen, though the exact provenance of the items is unknown to the researchers. It is unclear whether or not the auction house knows the precise origins of the items. 

'It's very difficult to be sure of the very provenance of these objects that are present in different areas in Yemen'

- Jeremie Schiettecatte, antiquities researcher

One item, a set of gold jewellery beads, sold for 715 pounds ($850), while a bronze camel figurine was sold for 975 pounds ($1160). A statue of a camel rider is also being auctioned and is estimated to be valued at £400-600 ($480-720).

Middle East Eye reached out to TimeLine Auctions for comment but did not receive a response.

Jeremie Schiettecatte, an antiquities researcher who focuses on artefacts from Yemen, said he couldn't confirm if the items were indeed stolen, but they resembled ones he had personally seen and knew had been looted from areas of Yemen. 

"Nevertheless, this is something that I have been able to see in private collections, not the same item but similar items in a collection, which was held in Yemen," he told MEE.

He said the items had been mostly comprised of stolen antiques, and "among these, there were some jewellery, almost similar or resembling those on sale in London".

Schiettecatte noted that the artefacts on sale this week are unusual compared to the usual types of auctioned items coming from Yemen.

"This is not the kind of item we usually see on sale coming from Yemen. Most of the recent artefacts are mostly inscriptions on stone or bronze plates. It's not so common to have these artefacts that we can see here," Schiettecatte told MEE.

He added that one of the main issues when it comes to trying to identify stolen items is that auction houses do not provide the item's provenance, or its exact origin, both in terms of time and place.

"It's very difficult to be sure of the very provenance of these objects that are present in different areas in Yemen. We can find these kinds of artefacts in different areas. It's very difficult to discern whether it comes from a looted area or any other unlooted area."

History of looted items

Manel Chibane, legal programme manager for the Clooney Foundation for Justice's Docket initiative, told MEE that she was not surprised by the concerns.

Stolen antiquities trade fuels conflict in Middle East, report says
Read More »

In their latest report on stolen antiquities, which found that hundreds of thousands of artefacts have been stolen from war-torn countries in the Middle East in the past decade, Chibane said that TimeLines was not named. However, they had been named in a report regarding the trade out of Libya.

"In a study back from 2011, [researchers] spotted four portraits from Cyrene that had been traded through or by this auction house."

In May 2020, the TimeLines auction house was involved in the sale of a stolen artefact, this one being a Sumerian temple plaque from around 2400 BC. It was eventually returned to Iraq.

That same year, The Guardian reported that a sculpture stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan had appeared on the auction house's website.

There is "this feeling of impunity" that auction houses and dealers have, Chibane said.

Stolen antiquities trade fuels conflict

In terms of Yemen, Chibane noted that the ongoing war in the country has led to an increase in the smuggling of looted antiquities.

"Basically you have regular reports of arrests of individuals being involved in the smuggling of antiquities from Yemen," she said.

"Yemen is a conflict area, there is an international conflict happening there and there are several armed groups there, and they've contributed to the looting of antiquities."

'Pillaging qualifies as a war crime'

- Manel Chibane, the Clooney Foundation 

Chibane said it was difficult to determine the origin of the current items for sale on TimeLines because it says they are from a 1980s collection, well before the Clooney Foundation's Docket initiative was tracking the sales of stolen items.

"When it comes to Yemen, we researched and we saw that there was pillaging happening in Yemen since 2011 and that feeds conflict."

According to the Docket initiative, nearly 150,000 items were looted from Yemen. According to Unesco, the illicit trade in cultural goods - of which antiquities trafficking is a part - is worth $10bn a year. A portion of these profits is known to be used to finance conflicts and global terrorism.

Chibane said that her work at the Clooney Foundation is focused on using strategic litigation to stop the trade of stolen goods, rather than simply calling for more regulation.

"And that's why we think that going to the international crime aspect and the litigation aspect is a good deterrent for those dealers who should realise what their role is in this," she said.

"Pillaging qualifies as a war crime, so that's where the dealer operating in the various places in London or Paris would probably be deterred if they're being prosecuted for those sorts of legal grounds."

Turkey in final stage of talks for up to $10bn funding from Qatar: Sources

Fri, 11/25/2022 - 10:54
Turkey in final stage of talks for up to $10bn funding from Qatar: Sources
Qatar has strong ties with Turkey, which supported Doha when it was blockaded by several Arab countries
MEE and agencies Fri, 11/25/2022 - 10:54
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (centre) is welcomed by Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (right) in Doha on 24 July 2017 (Reuters)

Turkey and Qatar are in the final stages of talks for Doha to provide up to $10bn in funding for Ankara, including up to $3bn by the end of this year, according to two senior Turkish officials.

One of the officials told Reuters the total funding could take the form of a swap, eurobond or other method, and that the Turkish and Qatari leaders had discussed the issue.

Turkey is also in the final stage of talks with Saudi Arabia over Riyadh placing a $5bn deposit at the Turkish Central Bank, a Saudi finance ministry spokesman said on Tuesday.

The foreign funding could help shore up foreign exchange reserves to backstop Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's unorthodox policy of pursuing interest rate cuts and other stimulus measures despite soaring inflation and a slumping currency.

Azerbaijan denies negotiating a currency swap deal with Turkey
Read More »

Turkey's treasury and officials in Qatar were not immediately available for comment.

With western countries balking at investments in Turkey, Ankara has turned to "friendly" countries for foreign resources to backstop its policy of supporting the lira by balancing the economy's supply and demand for foreign exchange.

Turkey's central bank already had in place a swap deal with Qatar's central bank, which was originally worth $5bn but was tripled in 2020 to $15bn.

The sources spoke to Reuters under condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the funding.

"Talks for Qatar to provide new resources to Turkey have reached the final stage," the first official said.

"A minimum amount of $8bn is foreseen" but it could total "as much as $10bn", of which $2bn-$3bn is to be obtained this year and the rest next year, the source added. 

"This could be a swap or eurobond, but they are discussing several methods. There is a mutual agreement."

The second Turkish official said the talks for $2bn-$3bn funding for this year were focused on the eurobond.

Multiple swap deals

Qatar has strong ties with Turkey, which supported Doha when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt imposed an embargo on Qatar in 2017, in a row that was resolved early last year.

Erdogan was in Qatar for the opening game of the football World Cup on Sunday, while Turkish finance minister Nureddin Nebati met his Qatari counterpart Ali bin Ahmed Al Kuwari last month.

Turkey's finance ministry has so far borrowed $9bn in 2022, of the $11bn foreign borrowing foreseen for the year.

The ministry foresees $10bn foreign borrowing for 2023, but it can bring forward its debt issuances when needed for earlier financing.

Ankara already has a total of $28bn in currency swap deals with the UAE, China, Qatar and South Korea and bankers calculate around $23bn-$24bn are already in the Turkish central bank's reserves.

Instead of swap deals, Turkey's central bank has recently preferred depo accounts, which involves dollars or euros entering the system instead of local currencies.

Turkey in final stage of talks for up to $10bn funding from Qatar

Iran protests: Security forces intensify deadly crackdown on Kurdistan region

Sun, 11/20/2022 - 18:40
Iran protests: Security forces intensify deadly crackdown on Kurdistan region
Iranian forces kill at least four demonstrators, stepping up crackdown on anti-government protests around the country's Kurdish region
MEE and agencies Sun, 11/20/2022 - 18:40
Iranians mourn in front of the coffins of people killed in a shooting attack, during their funeral in the city of Izeh in Iran's Khuzestan province, on 18 November (AFP)

Iran's clerical rulers have stepped up suppression of persistent anti-government protests in the country's Kurdish region, deploying troops and killing at least four demonstrators on Sunday, activists and rights groups said. 

Iran protests: Three reported killed in Kurdistan region as Amini unrest continues
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Nationwide protests, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in September in the custody of morality police, have been at their most intense in the areas where the majority of Iran's 10 million Kurds live.

Videos on social media, which have not yet been verified, showed a convoy of military vehicles with heavily armed troops, purportedly in the western city of Mahabad. The sounds of heavy weaponry could be heard in several other videos. 

The Norway-based human rights group Hengaw said military helicopters carried members of the widely feared Revolutionary Guards to quell the protests in the Sunni-dominated Kurdish city of Mahabad.

Prominent Sunni cleric Molavi Abdolhamid, a powerful dissenting voice in Shia-ruled Iran, called on security forces to refrain from shooting at people in Mahabad. 

'Pressure and crackdown'

"Disturbing news is emerging from the Kurdish areas, especially from Mahabad ... pressure and crackdown will lead to further dissatisfaction. Officers should refrain from shooting at people," Abdolhamid tweeted. 

Hengaw said at least four protesters were killed in the Kurdish area. The widely-followed activist account 1500Tasvir said a 16-year-old student and a school teacher were killed in the Kurdish city of Javanrud. The details could not be independently confirmed. 

Confirming the unrest in Kurdish region, Iran's state media said calm had been restored in the area, but activists and Hengaw said on Twitter that "the resistance" continued in several Kurdish cities. 

"In (the Kurdish city of) Marivan repressive forces have opened fire at people," Hengaw said. 

No, Iran has not sentenced 15,000 protesters to death
Read More »

On Saturday, Hengaw reported that at least three protesters had been killed in the town of Divandarreh. 

The uprising has turned into a popular revolt by furious Iranians from all layers of society, posing one of the boldest challenges to the clerical leaders since the 1979 Islamic revolution that swept them to power.

Iranian authorities, who have blamed Amini's death on pre-existing medical conditions, say the unrest has been fomented by foreign adversaries and accuse armed separatists of perpetrating violence.

Protests have stretched into a third month despite violent state clampdowns and death sentences issued for at least six protesters. 

Hrana said 410 protesters had been killed in the unrest as of Saturday, including 58 minors. Some 54 members of the security forces were also killed, it said, adding that more than 17,251 people have been arrested. Authorities have not provided an estimate of any wider death count.

Two Iranian actresses, who had posted pictures of themselves on Instagram without the compulsory headscarf in solidarity with the protest, were arrested on Sunday for stoking protests, Iranian state media reported. 

Videos posted on social media showed Iranians in several other cities kept up protests, from Tehran to the northwestern city of Tabriz, calling for the toppling of the Islamic Republic and chanting "Death to (Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei".

Qatar humbled by Ecuador in opening World Cup match

Sun, 11/20/2022 - 18:16
Qatar humbled by Ecuador in opening World Cup match
Hosts beaten comfortably 2-0 by South American nation, leaving uphill battle to qualify for knockout stages
Rayhan Uddin Sun, 11/20/2022 - 18:16
Qatar's Akram Afif gestures during the Group A football match between Qatar and Ecuador at the Al-Bayt Stadium (AFP)
Qatar's Akram Afif gestures during the Group A football match between Qatar and Ecuador at the Al-Bayt Stadium (AFP)

Hosts Qatar were comfortably beaten by Ecuador in the opening match of the World Cup on Sunday, dampening the spirits of Qataris after a grand opening ceremony

Ecuador won 2-0 at al-Bayt Stadium in al-Khor, on the outskirts of Doha, thanks to two first-half goals by former West Ham and Everton forward Enner Valencia. 

It means that Qatar become the first host nation to lose the opening match of a World Cup. 

The scoreline could have been worse for the hosts. An early goal by Valencia was ruled out for offside by the video assistant referee after a lengthy stoppage. 

The cheer as the goal was ruled out was perhaps the biggest of the night, but Qatar were unable to profit from the let-off. 

Several journalists noted that thousands of home fans left the stadium at half time and did not return. More filed out during a flat second half when Qatar failed to rally and cause their opponents signifcant difficulties. 

It will now be an uphill battle for Qatar to make it to the knockout stages. 

Their remaining two games will be against the Netherlands and Senegal, both ranked higher than Ecuador. 

Arab leaders attend opening ceremony

Before the match kicked off, fans enjoyed a glitzy opening ceremony attended by several leaders from the Middle East. 

Among the stars to perform were Qatari singers Dana and Fahad al-Kubaisi, as well as Jung Kook, a member of South Korean boyband BTS. 

Erdogan and Sisi meet for the first time during Qatar World Cup opening ceremony
Read More »

American actor Morgan Freeman delivered a message of unity and overcoming divisions with disabled Qatari influencer Ghanim al-Muftah.

Fans were also treated to a traditional sword dance (known as Ardah), followed by a display of flags of all the participating nations and a mashup of previous World Cup songs, including Shakira's Waka Waka and K'naan's Wavin Flag.

Several Middle Eastern leaders were in attendance, including Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Erdogan and Sisi, whose countries are in the process of normalising relations after years of tensions, were pictured shaking hands and speaking to each other for the first time.

Ukraine war: Russia deploys Syrian fighters to shore up its defences

Wed, 11/09/2022 - 10:52
Ukraine war: Russia deploys Syrian fighters to shore up its defences
A few hundred Syrians have been sent to eastern Ukraine after training in Russia, but are yet to see combat
Levent Kemal Wed, 11/09/2022 - 10:52
A Ukrainian soldier of an artillery unit fires towards Russian positions outside Bakhmut on November 8, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
A Ukrainian artillery unit fires towards Russian positions outside Bakhmut on 8 November 2022 (AFP)

Russia has deployed more than 500 Syrian fighters in Ukraine for primarily non-combatant roles, tasking them generally with safeguarding facilities in Luhansk and Donetsk in the past few months, regional intelligence sources told Middle East Eye. 

The sources said the experienced fighters were drawn mainly from pro-Syrian government units that were backed, trained and managed by Russia in the fight against opposition forces and the Islamic State group (IS). These include the 25th Special Mission Forces Division, known as the Tiger Forces, Fifth Corps and Liwa al-Quds, a militia made up predominantly of Palestinian Syrians. 

A Syrian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told MEE that Russia had recruited the Syrians, including former rebels, through its special forces and the notorious Wagner Group private military contractor, and transferred them to Ukraine. 

In March, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said during a United Nations Security Council meeting that Moscow had received more than 16,000 applications from people in Middle Eastern countries to help fight in Ukraine.

However, that was perceived by many observers as an attempt to scare Ukraine and other European countries in the conflict's early days.

Members of the Tiger Forces in Aleppo in 2016 (AFP)
Members of the Tiger Forces in Aleppo in 2016 (AFP)

//--> //--> //-->

In the same month, MEE reported that adverts were circulating in Syria calling for potential recruits, promising substantial salaries of around "$3,000, depending on the specific skills and expertise each person has” - large sums in Syria's shattered economy. 

The official Telegram channel of IS Hunters, a Russian-backed group that was created in 2017 to fight IS, also issued a widespread call for recruits to report to their base in Homs for registration, to fight alongside the Russians in Ukraine.

However, with little evidence that Syrians had been deployed in Ukraine following reports of recruitment, suspicions arose that the calls to arms were a scam.

'The Syrians aren’t partaking in the actual fighting, they are mainly functioning as logistics near the front lines'

- Syrian government official

The New York Times reported earlier this year that at least 300 Syrian fighters had been sent to Russia for further training, before being deployed in Ukraine.

The Syrian government official told MEE that about 1,000 Syrian fighters were flown to Russia for the training, but only half of them had gone to Ukraine.

The official said the main task of the Syrian fighters was providing security and protection for areas managed by Wagner and other military contractors in Luhansk and Donetsk, but they could be called to the front for combat if an emergency or pressing need presented itself. 

A Ukrainian official told MEE that Kyiv had seen indications from the field that Syrians have been deployed to Ukraine. 

People familiar with the Syrian deployment say the fighters weren’t sent to the front line due to a set of technical issues, such as problems that may arise over coordination and a language barrier.

“They wouldn’t be able to communicate smoothly with the fellow Russian regiments in an open battlefield, and for example the Russian artillery could hit them,” a person familiar with the issue said.

“There would be issues of conduct, since the front line is a quite large area.” 

Those sources told MEE that the Syrians might be serving under the Russian military contractor Shchit (“Shield”) and a Wagner subsidiary group called Task Force Rusich, which earned a reputation for its self-declared neo-Nazi ideology during its deployment to eastern Ukraine in 2014. 

Russia-Ukraine war: Moscow rejoins grain deal after Turkey's mediation
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There are already reports of Syrian casualties in eastern Ukraine. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group that monitors Syria's conflict, claimed earlier this month that nine fighters from Liwa al-Quds and the Tiger Forces have died since September.

The Observatory also alleged that 2,000 Syrian fighters have been participating in the defence of Russian-occupied territory in Kherson and Donetsk.

However, the Syrian government official said the number of Syrian fatalities was much higher than reported, with at least 50 killed in the Ukrainian bombardment so far.

“The Syrians aren’t partaking in the actual fighting, they are mainly functioning as logistics near the front lines. However, there is a small number of them that work as part of the artillery,” the official told MEE. 

Russia has previously deployed Syrian fighters in Libya during the 2019-2020 Libyan conflict, where they fought as part of the Wagner Group on behalf of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar.

Middle East Eye has previously reported that Syrians were used by Wagner during massacres in the Central African Republic.

Turkey, meanwhile, has deployed Syrian fighters in conflicts in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Exclusive: Russia deploys Syrian fighters to Ukraine to shore up its defences

Israel: Netanyahu ally Smotrich calls for football to be banned on Saturdays

Wed, 11/09/2022 - 10:36
Israel: Netanyahu ally Smotrich calls for football to be banned on Saturdays
Religious Zionism MP Bezalel Smotrich describes football on Shabbat as 'non-Jewish act'
MEE staff Wed, 11/09/2022 - 10:36
Israel supporters wave the national flag during the UEFA Nations League - League B Group 2 - football match between Israel and Albania at the at the Bloomfield Stadium, in Tel Aviv on September 24, 2022 (AFP)
Israel supporters at a Uefa Nations League match against Albania at the Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv, on 24 September 2022 (AFP)

A far-right Israeli MP poised to become a minister in the incoming government has demanded that football be banned on Saturdays in Israel, in order to respect the Jewish Shabbat.

Bezalel Smotrich, a member of the Religious Zionism party, said that he regarded playing football on the holy day as an "undemocratic, unsportsmanlike, non-Jewish act that must be stopped.

"It is unfortunate that for you, new crowds do not include Shabbat-keeping fans," wrote Smotrich in a letter to the commissioner of the Israeli Professional Football Leagues, Erez Halfon. "You have chosen to ignore a large audience of players, children and families."

According to Jewish religious law, no work is allowed on Shabbat - which takes place between sunset on Friday and sunset Saturday - while electricity must not be turned on or off and engines must not be operated.

However, in response to Smotrich, the Israeli Professional Football Leagues said that football had been played on Shabbat "even before the founding of Israel", adding that they had "changed the hours of the games in order to allow as many children and families to arrive at the games", according to the Jerusalem Post.

'Theocracy' alarm

Smotrich and his party are currently in negotiations with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox parties to form a new government in Israel, following the fifth election in less than four years.

Israel's Channel 12 has previously reported that Smotrich is a likely candidate to become either finance or defence minister, while his fellow party member Itamar Ben-Gvir has demanded the public security minister role, which would put him in charge of the police.

Israel: Ben-Gvir 'to demand harsh conditions for jailed Palestinians' in coalition talks
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There has been alarm both inside Israel and abroad at members of Religious Zionism joining the government. The party is the successor to the banned Kach party and has ideological links to the Jewish Defence League, an organisation banned as a terrorist group in numerous countries, including the US.

The party espouses greater influence of Jewish religious law in the state and society and has been branded "racist, anti-Arab, homophobic and anti-democratic" by the Anti-Defamation League. 

Following Smotrich's letter to the football leagues, Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli accused him in a tweet of wanting to impose "theocracy" on Israel.

"Smotrich has not yet sat in his [coalition] seat and already, he's trying to force his religious way of life on the entire nation of Israel," she wrote.

"Soccer games will continue as usual and if you dare to change it, the public will show you the way out. Israel will not be a theocracy."

Bezalel Smotrich, likely future minister, calls for football to be banned on Saturdays

Qatar World Cup 2022: A lost economic opportunity for Bahrain?

Wed, 11/09/2022 - 10:29
Qatar World Cup 2022: A lost economic opportunity for Bahrain?
The tournament is proving to be a boon for some Gulf Arab countries, but Bahrain's long-standing rivalry with Qatar means there's a subdued World Cup mood in Manama
AP Muhammed Afsal Wed, 11/09/2022 - 10:29
A Bahrain supporter waits for the start of the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup Final football match between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia at the Khalifa International Stadium in the Qatari capital Doha on 8 December, 2019 (AFP)

Football fever has engulfed much of the Middle East, but one Gulf Arab country doesn't appear to be too excited over the upcoming Qatar World Cup.

Every four years, the World Cup captivates the region's football fans and businesses for the better part of four weeks. It could be down to an Arab country's appearance, or revenues the tournament helps generate for local businesses.

And with just days until kick-off, countries which were once at odds with Qatar, are eagerly hoping to cash in on the sporting spectacle.

World Cup 2022: Qatar's foreign minister denounces 'hypocrisy' of criticism
Read More »

Gas-rich Qatar has spent an estimated $220bn on building world-class infrastructure, including new roads, public transport and sporting facilities - but a significant shortfall on hotels remains.

The Emirate of Dubai, which is just a 45-minute flight away, is expecting a last-minute surge in bookings as more than 1.2 million people prepare to descend on Qatar.

Dubai's hotels are offering special packages for fans and the emirate has prepared fan zones at parks, beaches and in the financial centre.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which had largely cut itself off from tourism until it began issuing tourist visas in 2019, is offering those with Hayya cards the opportunity to visit the kingdom for 60 days.

But just a few nautical miles from Qatar there appears to be little fanfare in the Kingdom of Bahrain over the Middle East's first World Cup.

There are no direct flights, no fan zones, and little advertising for the tournament playing out a short trip across from its shores.

"Bahrain seems to have missed the World Cup opportunity, especially given its tourism-friendly hospitality sector," Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University's Baker Institute, told Middle East Eye.

'Slow rapprochement'

Ties between Bahrain and Qatar have been tense in recent years and broke down completely in June 2017 following the Gulf diplomatic crisis.

Bahrain joined Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in cutting ties with Qatar and imposed a blockade on its neighbour over allegations that it supported "terrorism" and had close relations with Iran. Doha denied the charges and said the boycott was aimed at curtailing its independence.

'It just appears that the rapprochement process is going too slow for Bahraini businesses to reap anything out of the World Cup'

- Bahraini academic 

Since last year's historic Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Saudi Arabia's Al-Ula, which saw the official end to the rift, Qatar's ties with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent the UAE markedly improved. Despite the development, there hasn't been a real mending of relations between Doha and Manama.

Two weeks after the Al-Ula summit, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani accused Qatar of not taking the "initiative" to solve its dispute with the kingdom.

"It is certainly the case that diplomatic and political relations between Bahrain and Qatar have been the slowest to improve," Ulrichsen said.

A UK-based Bahraini academic, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said he wouldn't characterise Bahrain's attitude as a lack of enthusiasm.

"It is the World Cup, after all... [it] just appears that the rapprochement process is going too slow for Bahraini businesses to reap anything out of the World Cup."

Several people who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity said there was a largely subdued World Cup mood in Manama, with residents struggling to gauge the government's attitude to the event.

Qatar World Cup 2022: How to watch, what are the match dates and times?
Read More »

A newspaper executive told MEE that there was an instruction from the Bahraini government to tone down coverage of World Cup events.

MEE reached out to the Bahraini embassy in London for comment but did not receive a response by time of publication.

According to the executive, World Cup sponsors who have business interests in the kingdom were also cautious about running print and outdoor ad campaigns because of fears over how the government would respond.

MEE reached out to five major sponsors of the tournament but did not receive a response by time of publication.

The newspaper executive added that his company had rented a stadium for the 2018 Russia World Cup and set up giant TV screens for football fans - but there was nothing of that scale planned for this year's event.

"Bahraini malls used to be abuzz [with excitement] when World Cups were held elsewhere. But now - even though the event is very close - there are no usual commercial rituals like the sale of discount TVs," he said.

Watching from home

Historically, Bahrain and Qatar have clashed over control of the Hawar and Janan islands as well as the town of Zubarah; as well as Al Jazeera's coverage of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, and Qatar's decision to grant citizenship to Sunni Muslims from the Shia-majority kingdom.

A travel agent in Manama said the long-standing dispute meant that chances were slim of direct flights between the two countries.

'A chance to host World Cup fans could do well for Bahrain's economy and [there is] still hope it will happen'

- Kamal Mohiyuddin, realtor, Manama

According to Kamal Mohiyuddin, an Indian realtor in Manama, the issue of Bahraini fans' commuting to Qatar wasn't the only fallout from the absence of direct flights.

Shuttle services from Doha to Manama, the region's most permissive city with around 20,000 hotel rooms, would have benefitted everyone, he said. 

"A chance to host World Cup fans could do well for Bahrain's economy and [there is] still hope it will happen," Mohiyuddin said.

"Bahrain's budget targeted 20 percent of revenue from tourism this year, and it has already achieved 18 percent," he said, citing a report that claimed a 984 percent increase in tourists' arrival in Bahrain in the first quarter of this year following the end of pandemic-related restrictions.

Oman's Ministry of Heritage and Tourism has said the World Cup is poised to "raise the profile of many regional destinations" and the financial upturn associated with the event could extend well after the tournament finishes. 

In the first quarter of this year, 1.483m tourists entered Bahrain through the King Fahd causeway that connects the island nation with Saudi Arabia - compared with last year's 84,000, a huge growth attributed to the easing of Covid-19-related travel restrictions.

As a result, Qataris, too, were back in Bahrain. "I see a lot of Nissan Patrols [a favourite vehicle of Qatari nationals] with Qatari number plates here," a greengrocer told MEE.

Qatar World Cup 2022: Where will the games be played? How do you get to the stadiums?
Read More »

He claimed this happened after Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa met on the sidelines of the Jeddah Summit in July.

The grocer said he saw news of the meeting through a screenshot of the banned dissident website Bahrain Mirror, which also reported that Manama removed Qatar from the list of countries that Bahrainis were forbidden from visiting.

"Whenever we see the photographs of Qatari and Bahraini leaders shaking hands and smiling, but still no air travel, we think they forgot to discuss the issue yet again," the grocer said.

Still, some fans said they would take the five-hour car journey to watch the matches live, while others would still celebrate the Arab world's first World Cup from the comfort of their homes.

"Some of us Bahrainis may be unable to come to Qatar, but we will watch all the games on TV," Ammar Ahmadi, a Bahraini business consultant, told MEE.

"We are ardent football fans, and it's a major sport here. I want to come to all the games that Brazil plays, but I didn't get a ticket."

Doha

Saudi Arabia detains US woman who said she had been trapped in kingdom

Wed, 11/09/2022 - 08:50
Saudi Arabia detains US woman who said she had been trapped in kingdom
Carly Morris and her daughter have not left the country since her ex-husband persuaded them to visit in summer 2019
MEE staff Wed, 11/09/2022 - 08:50
This undated handout image released by the Morris family on 21 September 2022 shows US citizen Carly Morris, at an unspecified location in the central Saudi city of Buraydah (AFP photo/Family handout)
This undated handout image released by the Morris family on 21 September 2022 shows US citizen Carly Morris, at an unspecified location in the central Saudi city of Buraydah (AFP photo/Family handout)

A US citizen trapped in Saudi Arabia in a custody battle over her eight-year-old daughter was temporarily detained by authorities this week, a rights group said on Tuesday. 

Carly Morris and her daughter Tala have been in the Gulf kingdom since her Saudi ex-husband persuaded the two to visit the country in 2019. 

On Monday, Morris was detained after being called by police in the central city of Buraydah to clarify documents, according to advocacy group the Freedom Initiative

She was held for at least a day, during which it was unclear whether her daughter was detained with her. Morris was later released, according to reports early on Wednesday. 

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that Washington was "aware of the reports that Ms Morris has been detained". 

"Whenever a person is detained abroad, we seek immediate access to visit the individual, to aid him or her with all appropriate consular assistance," he said during a press conference on Tuesday. 

"Our embassy in Riyadh is very engaged on this case; they're following the situation very closely."

Custody battle

Morris met her husband in 2012 while he was studying in the US. The two divorced after five years of marriage in 2018.

After agreeing to visit Saudi Arabia on holiday in summer 2019 to introduce Tala to her father’s family, the Saudi man seized their documents and refused to give them back.

He later registered a hotel room, where Morris and her daughter have lived for more than three years. 

'Morris’ detention means that we’re now aware of three Americans behind bars in Saudi Arabia'

- Allison McManus, Freedom Initiative

Morris told MEE earlier this year that her husband took Tala on 30 March and didn't return her. 

"I can't believe how they could take a woman's child from her. I didn't even know where my daughter was. I didn't know where they took her," she said. 

"I didn't even know if she was alive. I sat in this hotel apartment every day for two months not knowing where my daughter was. And they were absolutely ignoring every one of my phone calls and messages. It was absolute cruelty."

Three months later, the police finally reunited Tala with her mother. During that time, Morris discovered her ex-husband was filing for custody of their daughter. She wrote a 16-page letter to the court - and on 23 August the Saudi court gave Morris full custody of her daughter.

The US citizen eventually got her passport back, but found out that her ex-husband reportedly converted Tala's US citizenship into Saudi citizenship.

'End the abuse of women'

While Morris can technically leave the country, her daughter cannot leave without her father's permission due to Saudi Arabia's legal male guardianship system

When a woman is born, her father is her legal guardian until she is married, when her husband becomes her legal guardian. Women need approval from their "guardians" to apply for passports, travel, and work at a paying job. These rules extend to foreign women who marry Saudi men, such as Morris. 

Morris has in recent months taken to social media to seek help from Saudi and US officials. 

Saudi man pleads guilty to lying to feds investigating dissident harassment
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According to the Freedom Initiative, she was placed under a travel ban after being summoned by the public prosecutor in the Qassim province of Saudi Arabia on 15 September. She was charged with “disrupting public order” - a common charge brought against those who speak out in ways seen as critical of authorities. 

Morris’s Twitter account was deleted on Monday after she entered the police station in Buraydah. 

“Morris’ detention means that we’re now aware of three Americans behind bars in Saudi Arabia, yet another sign that Saudi simply does not value the US as an ally,” said Allison McManus, the Freedom Initiative’s director of research. 

“Before we hear any more reference to Saudi’s strategic partnership, we need to see an end to the abuse American citizens. We need to see an end to the abuse of women and children whose only crime is their gender.” 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Cop27: Climate activists slam hostile and 'impossible' environment in Egypt

Wed, 11/09/2022 - 03:28
Cop27: Climate activists slam hostile and 'impossible' environment in Egypt
The dissent that has come to characterise the annual climate conference has been greatly diminished in a host country where activism is criminalised
Azad Essa Wed, 11/09/2022 - 03:28
Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest outside the venue hosting the Cop27 climate conference, on 9 November 2022 (AFP)

Climate conferences are usually inclusive forums that bring together world leaders, NGOs, activists and civil society groups. But advocates have told Middle East Eye there is little space for any serious activism at this year's UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt, also known as Cop27.

A culture of fear, intimidation, and arrests has not only stifled the work of grassroots activism in Egypt over the past decade, but it has also ensured there will be limited mobilisation efforts amongst civil society groups at the conference itself.

"This year's Cop is very different from previous Cops, especially since there is a lack of engagement from Egyptian civil society and a complete shutdown of all outside engagement and protest at Cop," Sharif Zakout, a community organiser with the Arab Resource & Organizing Center (Aroc), told MEE.

"I participated in Cop26 and can see the stark difference between the role of civil society at last year's conference compared to this year," said Zakout, who is currently representing Aroc as part of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and It Takes Roots delegation at Cop27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh. 

Cop27: Surveillance and fear in Sharm el-Sheikh as Egypt clamps down on activists
Read More »

Over the past week, Egypt's human rights record has made international headlines, with activists and scholars using the event to highlight how President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's government arbitrarily arrests and tortures dissidents and academics.

Since Sisi came to power in a 2013 military coup, his government has run roughshod over basic components of governance, with civil-society organisations crippled by draconian laws prohibiting NGOs from engaging in public affairs.

"Cop27 attendees and those following outside Egypt will not hear of Sisi’s environmental and social injustices because Egypt’s General Intelligence Service controls large parts of the country’s news media, film, and television outlets," said a group of anonymous Egyptian journalists and academics, known as the "Egypt unsilenced collective".

A spokesperson for the climate conference disputed assertions that this year's conference - which the UN manages in full - hasn't been as vibrant and open to civil society.

"The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat will maintain the same high standard in the facilitation of conference registration and NGO demonstrations at the Cop venue as in any past sessions," the spokesperson said.

"In regards [to] the demonstrations at the venue, the secretariat works with any and all observer organisations regardless of their views, in order to facilitate their demonstrations on site in accordance with the established procedure, which respects the UN safety and security guidelines and the code of conduct," the spokesperson said.

No room for resistance

But activists say the issue is not a question of protesting at the venue under UN protection. It's a question of what remains when the UN leaves.

At a side event on Tuesday at the conference, "Climate justice and human rights at Cop27 and beyond", noted Egyptian rights activist Hossam Bahgat said Egypt's human rights crackdown had made it impossible to lobby, investigate or protest government policy in the country.

Even local communities impacted by egregious "development projects" have declined to mobilise due to fear of the state, he said.

"Egypt was never a liberal democracy. Egypt has always had a problematic human rights record, with areas of concern, some systemic. But we had a fighting chance.

Climate change: Half of youth in Middle East and North Africa reconsider having kids
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"We had the room for resistance. We had the ability to engage in strategic litigation; to access members of parliament to lobby; to spread and disseminate our information through independent media; to organise at the community level; to give direct support to [the] most at risk, most affected, most vulnerable communities. None of this is available right now," Bahgat, executive director of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), said. 

On 6 November, Amnesty International said the Egyptian government had arrested "hundreds of people" on the suspicion of calling for protests during the conference.

"The arrest of hundreds of people merely because they were suspected of supporting the call for peaceful protests raises serious concerns over how the authorities will respond to people wishing to protest during Cop27 - an essential feature of any UN climate conference," Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa research and advocacy director, said in a statement.

"World leaders arriving in Sharm el-Sheikh for Cop27 must not be fooled by Egypt's PR campaign. Away from the dazzling resort hotels, thousands of individuals including human rights defenders, journalists, peaceful protesters, and members of the political opposition continue to be detained unjustly," Luther added.

On Tuesday, several activists expressed concerns over the level of surveillance in and around the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, noting that their movements were being monitored.

"Everything is being recorded and monitored, and connected to an interior ministry that we know are involved in crimes against humanity, Amr Magdi, a human rights researcher, told MEE. 

MEE reached out to the Egyptian consulate in New York for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Cop27: Climate reparations are on the table and will be hard to ignore

Tue, 11/08/2022 - 20:23
Cop27: Climate reparations are on the table and will be hard to ignore
The question of whether developed countries should provide 'loss and damage' funds is at the heart of this year's Cop27 climate conference
MEE staff Tue, 11/08/2022 - 20:23
Poor, underdeveloped countries argue that rich countries bear the brunt of the blame for the heating of the Earth's atmosphere and increased climate hazards.
Poor, underdeveloped countries argue that rich countries bear the brunt of the blame for the heating of the Earth's atmosphere and increased climate hazards (AFP/File photo)

As world leaders come together this week to strategise and discuss the best ways to curb the effects of climate change, underdeveloped countries are using the platform to raise the issue of climate reparations, as global climate-induced catastrophes wreak havoc on the most vulnerable nations.

The question of whether developed countries should have to pay for the atmospheric damages done to their underdeveloped neighbours is at the heart of this year's United Nations climate conference, known as Cop27, taking place in the Egyptian Red Sea resort town, Sharm el-Sheikh.

'Developed nations ... want to straight up avoid saying, okay, these are reparations'

Mirette Mabrouk, Middle East Institute

For the first time in history, climate reparations were adopted in the climate summit's main agenda.

"The fact that it was put on the table is really, really big. Egypt had been pushing this for a long time," Mirette Mabrouk, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and founding director of its Egypt studies programme, told Middle East Eye.

"You could say well, all they've agreed to is to talk and talk and talk about it. Yes, but once you start talking about something, it's actually very difficult to pull it back."

At the same time, the discussions around reparations have also received some pushback from western countries who say the topic is divisive and would only hamper efforts to unite in a goal to stay under 1.5 degrees Celsius - the agreed-upon limit for the rise in global temperatures.

But what are climate reparations and why are underdeveloped nations pushing for these payments to be made?

Loss and damage

Poor, underdeveloped countries argue that rich, industrialised countries bear the brunt of the blame for the heating of the Earth's atmosphere and increased climate hazards - and they want rich countries to pay.

These payments are what are referred to as climate reparations, also known as "loss and damage" in UN vernacular.

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The "loss" refers to the economic impacts of climate change, including how much economic output is lost because of extreme heat; how much agricultural revenue is lost due to rising sea levels or floods; or how much tourism revenue is lost because of natural disasters.

"Damage" - the easier of the two to quantify - refers to the physical destruction of infrastructure, including roads, homes, buildings, and bridges.

The issue had remained at the sidelines of diplomatic discussions around the environment for decades, until it reached a boiling point last year during the Cop26 summit in Glasgow. 

Now, in Egypt, it is driving talks.

"Loss and damage have been the always-postponed issue," UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said last Thursday, ahead of the summit.

"There is no more time to postpone it. We must recognise loss and damage and we must create an institutional framework to deal with it."

How much money is owed?

In 2009, wealthy nations promised to provide $100bn each year in financing to poorer countries to help them mitigate the effects that climate change was having on their economies. By 2020, only $83bn was delivered, and only a third of that went towards adaptation while most went towards mitigation.

"That distinction is important. Mitigation is cleaning up the mess. Adaptation is attempting to ensure that you don't need to clean up as much. Adaptation is enormously important," Mabrouk said.

In addition to receiving this funding, many countries have said that "loss and damage" funds would constitute a separate pot of money issued to compensate for the damage the climate has had on their own economies.

'We small islands and people of the small islands have every right to exist in the world, just as all you major nations of the north'

- Bakoa Kaltongga, Vanuatu's climate envoy

A study by several climate-vulnerable nations found that their countries' would have been 20 percent wealthier without the effect of climate change. The report also found that those countries lost a total of $525bn dollars because of climate change.

And given the difficulties in assessing how much these underdeveloped countries have lost as a result of climate change, especially in terms of the "loss" category, there has yet to be an agreed-upon monetary amount.

And as the climate only gets hotter, that monetary compensation may balloon. One study shows that costs from loss and damage could reach $290bn to $580bn in 2030, and rise to more than $1 trillion per year by 2050.

Mabrouk said given the number of climate variables, it is difficult to produce a single figure in terms of these reparations.

The damage from specific climate disasters could also be a window into how much money could be demanded. The catastrophic floods in Pakistan earlier this year led to the deaths of more than 1,500 people and roughly $30bn in damage. 

The small island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific has laid out a starting point for its loss and damage needs: $177m. The more than 80 islands that make up the country face the brunt of the climate crisis, as its lands are in danger of rising sea levels and increasing cyclones.

"What is happening now is affecting human lives and human rights," said Bakoa Kaltongga, Vanuatu's climate envoy. "We small islands and people of the small islands have every right to exist in the world, just as all you major nations of the north."

On Monday, the UN chief issued a plea to help Pakistan and other vulnerable countries suffering the consequences of a warming climate.

"If there is any doubt about loss and damage, go to Pakistan," Guterres said.

Western countries hesitant

So far, a small number of European countries have offered up what they say are "loss and damage" funds, including Scotland, which pledged an extra five million pounds ($5.7m), and Denmark which offered 100 million Danish crowns ($13.5m).

Other European countries, including Germany and Austria, have offered to provide tens of millions to fund insurance and disaster protection finance. However, many nations do not see this as the reparations they have been seeking.

'The consequences of letting your poorer neighbours drown to death ... are going to be huge'

- Mirette Mabrouk, Middle East Institute

The United States, the world's biggest climate emitter, has meanwhile signalled for the first time an openness to the idea of "loss and damage", without mentioning a figure.

However, while the Biden administration has signalled a nod to issue payments for the amount of carbon it has pushed into the atmosphere, any such proposal to spend billions would require approval from Congress. And such a move is unlikely to get much support from the Republican Party.

And other western countries that have historically made up most of the world's carbon emissions have been less supportive of the idea of paying more climate-vulnerable countries.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said it was "morally right" for the country to commit to its climate pledges. But in his speech to the climate summit, he did not mention the issue of reparations or loss and damage.

The country's former prime minister, Boris Johnson, said on Monday that the UK did not have the financial resources to be able to provide other countries with climate reparations.

"Developed nations go on to say we are happy to try and provide financing to help and to provide technical assistance, because they want to straight up avoid saying, okay, these are reparations. Because if they open that door, they're afraid they might not be able to close it," Mabrouk said.

She added that recent world events, including the war in Ukraine, have shown that "the world is now very, very, very small".

"So the consequences of letting your poorer neighbours drown to death or dehydrate to death or burn to death are going to be huge," she said. "I sincerely hope that we are past the stage of dragging our feet."

Climate reparations are on the table and will be hard to ignore

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