Friday, January 30, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

What was the Pentagon Thinking? 
By Robin Wright 
The Pentagon must not be reading the State Department’s reports about Saudi Arabia.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff this week announced a research and essay competition, to be run through National Defense University, to honor Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who died last week at about age 90. “This is an important opportunity to honor the memory of the king, while also fostering scholarly research on the Arab-Muslim world,” Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said in a statement. He characterized the king as a “man of remarkable character and courage.”
King Abdullah was considered a modest reformer, but that’s judging by very conservative local standards. Officially, the United States takes a different view, as reflected in these reports on human rights, human trafficking, and religious freedom on the Web site of the U.S. embassy in Riyadh. This is the description of the kingdom’s practices from the most recent State Department human rights report:
“The most important human rights problems reported included citizens’ lack of the right and legal means to change their government; pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children, and noncitizen workers.”
Virtually every category assessed–gender, religion, sect, race, and ethnicity–is vulnerable to “common” rights abuse, the report said. Among other violations of international norms: torture; arbitrary arrest and denial of due process; and arbitrary interference with privacy, including correspondence.
Last year, the kingdom beheaded more than 80 people, including 19 in just 17 days in August.
This comes from the most recent State Department report on trafficking in persons:
“Saudi Arabia is a destination country for men and women subjected to forced labor and, to a lesser extent, forced prostitution. Men and women from countries in South Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa … voluntarily travel to Saudi Arabia as domestic workers or low-skilled laborers; many subsequently face involuntary servitude, experiencing nonpayment of wages, withholding of passports, confinement to the workplace, long working hours without rest, deprivation of food, threats, physical and sexual abuse, and restrictions on movement.”
Women and girls are vulnerable to the widest range of abuse. Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest rates of domestic workers, a sector that has the highest average working hours in the kingdom, the report said.
“Some female domestic workers are reportedly kidnapped and forced into prostitution after running away from abusive employers. … Some Saudi nationals engaged in sex tourism during the reporting period in various countries worldwide,” the report noted. The kingdom “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.”
The young often don’t fare well. “Children from Yemen, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Chad, and Sudan are subjected to forced labor as beggars and street vendors in Saudi Arabia, facilitated by criminal gangs,” the report said.
The most widespread complaint among foreign workers in the oil-rich kingdom–where the per capita income exceeds $30,000 a year–is non-payment of wages.
Finally, consider this from the most recent State Department report on international religious freedom“Freedom of religion is neither recognized nor protected under the law and the government severely restricted it in practice,” and all practices of non-Muslim worship are illegal.
High school “textbooks retained inflammatory and anti-Semitic material. For example, the textbooks stated apostates from Islam should be killed if they did not repent within three days of being warned, and described Islamic minorities and Christians as heretics. Some Quranic passages likening Jews and Christians to apes and swine continued to be included,” the report said.
The document also cited “religious vigilantes” who harass citizens and foreigners, as well as unconfirmed reports of government-funded imams using anti-Semitic, anti-Christian and anti-Shiite themes in their sermons. “Particularly at times of heightened political tensions with Israel, editorial cartoons featured stereotypical images of Jews along with Jewish symbols. Anti-Semitic comments by journalists, academics, and clerics occasionally appeared in the media,” the report said.
Gen. Dempsey had a personal relationship with the king, whom the general met as a U.S. adviser to the Saudi National Guard in 2001, according to the Defense Department’s news release. “In my job to train and advise his military forces, and in our relationship since, I found the king to be a man of remarkable character and courage,” Gen. Dempsey said.

Somewhere, there’s a terrible disconnect.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The New Yorker

A Victory in Kobani?
By Robin Wright 

The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has suffered its first major defeat in Syria. An unusual coalition—Kurdish warriors fighting room to room on the ground and Western warplanes bombing on a daily basis from the skies—has forced the militants out of Kobani, a dusty Syrian town that was built around a train stop near the Turkish border a century ago.

Kurds hoisted their yellow flag atop Kobani’s highest hill late on Monday, to replace the Islamic State’s black-and-white banner. The fighters, who had only vintage arms, danced by firelight into the night. U.S. Central Command praised the Kurds for fighting “aggressively, with resilience and fortitude.” Since October, Kobani has been the test case for American power against the jihadi onslaught.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The New Yorker

Trouble and Transition in the Gulf
by Robin Wright 
      King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia was born into a backwater of desert outposts and mud-walled compounds almost a decade before his kingdom came into existence. He was one of forty-five sons (and more than fifty daughters) of Ibn Saud, a tribal warrior who forged the kingdom from rival fiefdoms. Abdullah’s death earlier today, of complications from lung disease, ended two decades of rule over one of the world’s top twenty economies, now a country of opulent palaces and glass-and-steel high-rises. His death comes at a time of trouble and transition across the Gulf region, from poor Yemen and the sultanate of Oman to war-ravaged Iraq--all, notably, on Saudi Arabia's borders. 
      Here's the link:

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Wall Street Journal


A New Afghanistan
By Robin Wright January 20, 2015

When I first went to Yemen, two decades ago, it struck me as the one place on earth closest to understanding life on another planet. Everything seemed so different, from the architecture to the rough unsettled terrain. It was as culturally beguiling as it was politically troubled.

The outside world often views Yemen from the vantage of terrorism. It has been the unwilling base for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula since Saudi Arabia’s crackdown forced it out of the kingdom a decade ago. AQAP has become the biggest and boldest al Qaeda franchise since Osama bin Laden’s death. It was invoked by the Kouachi brothers during the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris two weeks ago.

A lot of bad boys have ties to Yemen. The bin Laden family was of Yemeni descent. Among those who still live there is Saudi-born Ibrahim al Asiri, a master bomb-maker linked to the plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. Yemen was the home of American-born Anwar al Awlaki, the AQAP ideologue, until a U.S. drone strike killed him in 2011.

The U.S. has launched more than 115 drone strikes against extremists in Yemen since 2002. Many have been killed. Many more still exploit Yemen’s chaos.

But Yemen, which is four times the size of Alabama, is important for other reasons that should be just as important to the outside world. It shouldn’t be written off or seen through a single prism.

Yemen was one of four countries where peaceful demonstrations ousted autocratic leaders in 2011 and 2012. Although the media focuses on the infamous in Yemen, its uprising also produced Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakol Karman, a young dissident, blogger and mother of three, and hundreds of thousands of others who braved danger and death in their strike at the University Square protest camp.

They had plenty of political grievances. Surrounded by oil-rich sheikhdoms, Yemenis have always also had the hardest economic slog. They live in the poorest of the 22 Arab countries–and don’t have massive oil exports to exploit. Per capita income is less than $200 a month. At least 45% of the 26 million people live below the poverty line.

Life is particularly tough for the young generation that led the uprising. The median age is 18–and unemployment among youth is as high at 40%. Yemenis also have the lowest literacy rate.

Like Libya, Yemen has imploded politically since the uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the strongman who ruled for 23 years. (He also led North Yemen for another dozen years before the two halves of the country united in 1990).

His successor, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has been unable to enforce the consensus on a new power-sharing formula that emerged from the U.N.-backed National Dialogue in 2013-14. It calls for Yemen to create a federal system with six regions. 

But Mr. Hadi’s power has eroded since Houthi rebels of Asarallah, or “Partisans of God,” seized part of the capital, San’a, last September.

Yemen is now riven by many fissures: The old north-south divide still defines politics, with a secessionist movement growing ever louder. Strife among diverse tribes, clans and sects have destabilized large chunks of the country. Mr. Saleh’s loyalists and allies in the Republican Guards have maneuvered on behalf of the former president, perhaps hoping for a comeback of sorts.

On Tuesday, less than a day after negotiations between the government and Houthis over a ceasefire and power-sharing deal broke down, Houthi rebels took over the presidential palace and the headquarters of the country’s presidential guard.

Yemen remains in peril. The government is too fragile to be viable, despite support from the U.S. and Gulf monarchies. Key countries began evaluating Monday whether to withdraw diplomats and their nationals in Yemen.

If the outside world doesn’t come back to vigorously help stem the tide, Yemen may formally crumble into a failed state, with militias seizing more power and full scale war erupting among rival powers on multiple fronts.

The dangers then widen for both Yemenis and the world. Without viable political order, loyal security forces, or rule of law, Yemen could become another Afghanistan—a failed state dominated by warlords and extremists, and with even fewer prospects for the young revolutionaries who just three years ago thought their nightmare had ended.

Saturday, January 10, 2015


A Short History of Islamism
By Robin Wright 
Islamists have produced tectonic political shake-ups across the Middle East, with a rippling effect worldwide. Islamists now take many forms, from moderates in Tunisia to militants in the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
Together, the disparate factions have arguably altered the Middle East more than any trend since the modern states gained independence over the past century. They have redefined politics and even borders.
The turmoil and transformation have in turn redefined security challenges for the outside world too. In early 2015, Americans overwhelmingly—by 70 percent—identified the Islamic State as the main threat to the United States, according to a poll by the University of Maryland. The next two top threats—the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (13 percent) and Iran (12 percent)—also involved Islamist movements.
Read on at this link:

Friday, January 9, 2015

The New Yorker

By Robin Wright      
 Saudi Arabia condemned the Charlie Hebdo attack, then sentenced a young blogger to a flogging -- 1,000 lashes, to be precise -- for commentary on religion with a sarcastic tone. Raif Badawi dared to mock religious police for patrolling candy stores and flower shops in search of people celebrating Valentine's Day in attempt to stop infidel celebration of Valentine's Day. He called for religious tolerance of other faiths, all banned in the kingdom. He got the first 50 lashes today. He gets another 50 lashes every week for the next 19 weeks, plus 10 years in prison and a quarter million dollar fine. Heinous punishment.      
     Here's a link to the story:

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

Obama's 3 Mideast Must-Dos in 2015
By Robin Wright 
President Barack Obama may be entering the lame-duck phase on domestic policy, but 2015 could be a defining year for his foreign policy. He faces several urgent tasks, notably three in the Middle East.
1. A nuclear deal with Iran.
A deal would end 36 years of tension between Washington and Tehran that has played out across the Middle East, contributing to setbacks in U.S. policies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and beyond, as well as with the Palestinian Authority.
A deal would check a nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile region, especially among the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms that feel most threatened by the Islamic Republic. Nuclear proliferation would draw the United States deeper into the region, not just because of energy issues and Israel.
A deal between Iran and the world’s six major powers would also help check a more deadly split between Sunnis and Shiites. Islam’s sectarian divide already affects a wider swath of territory than at any time since the faith was founded 14 centuries ago. A nuclear component would not help things.
Defusing tensions would be Mr. Obama’s biggest foreign policy accomplishment, dwarfing even his daring overture to Cuba. Iran has been been the nemesis of every U.S. president since its 1979 revolution. For the first time in decades, Washington and Tehran are nearing the same page, at the same time.
Hard as it may be, a nuclear deal is also the most possible of these three must-dos.
2. A hard press against Islamic State in Iraq.
Confronting or even just containing the world’s most aggressive extremist movement has to begin in Iraq, where Washington has a friendly government and may be able to rebuild the military.
The administration’s task includes helping Iraq retrieve Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, then pushing the extremist militia back toward the Syrian border. Since August, the U.S.-led coalition has launched more than 840 airstrikes to prevent Islamic State fighters from seizing territory beyond the third of Iraq it already controls.
But air power alone is not enough to force a retreat. And Iraq’s Shiite-led government has yet to convince enough Sunnis, through their tribal leaders, that it’s in their long-term interest to help. U.S. training will be critical to rebuilding a non-denominational military capable of expediting the ground campaign and holding Iraq together.
The odds of success anytime soon are slim. But the alternatives are much worse for the region and the rest of the world.
3. Salvaging Syria–and U.S. strategy.
The toughest of these three challenges is dealing with the multilayered war in Syria, which has produced more than 1,000 disparate fighting forces. The new U.S. plan is to create another rebel militia this spring by training and equipping 5,000 rebels annually for the next three years.
The new U.S.-backed fighters have two missions: defeating Islamic State extremists,with airpower support from a U.S.-led coalition; and pushing back the forces of PresidentBashar al-Assadwithout foreign airpower, so that the regime is forced to negotiate.
The U.S.-backed rebels are grossly outnumbered: Mr. Assad’s army is estimated at 70,000 to 100,000, mainly air force, paramilitary, and special forces, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Islamic State is estimated to have more than 20,000 fighters in Syria. U.N. and Russian diplomatic initiatives surfaced last month, but neither has managed to win enough support to move forward. Syria urgently needs new, and bigger, thinking.
Syria is the strategic center of the Middle East. Its civil war has created the region’s most costly humanitarian disaster, with every country in the neighborhood destabilized–to different degrees–by spillover. Making it the second phase of the battle against Islamic State, to be addressed more robustly after Iraq, carries big costs.
But the list of pressing issues in the Middle East is long. Other areas that may demand Washington’s attention include Libya, a failed state that is rapidly crumbling into civil war. The costly NATO investment in ousting Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 looks almost like a waste of money.
Saudi Arabia may be closer to a transition; aging King Abdullah went to the hospital for medical tests last week. When Mr. Obama visited the kingdom last spring, oxygen tubes for the king–who reportedly smoked heavily for decades–were visible during their meeting.
Lebanon was floundering politically before Syrian refugees became a quarter of its population. Jordan, where the majority of the population is now Syrian, Iraqi, and Palestinian refugees, also feels vulnerable to regional instability. And the Palestinian-Israel conflict is a perennial, though little is likely to happen over the next year given other, more pressing issues.
Mr. Obama faces a packed agenda in the Middle East–again. But the stakes–ending two new wars and preventing a third–are higher this year.