It has been a month of high pressure for two major players in the region – with Saudi Arabia facing diplomatic censure and Iran experiencing a new economic squeeze. The Christians of Egypt, meanwhile, were grieving after another terror attack that security forces were unable to prevent.
The fallout from the brutal murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi continues. Turkey has chosen a strategy of gradually leaking details of what they know of the crime and consciously increasing international pressure on Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler. Many think such a bold and brutal operation could not have happened without high level authorisation and simply do not buy the official line that the Saudi government knew nothing about it. It is clear that Turkish President Erdoğan is using the incident, if not to block the Crown Prince’s accession, then to pressure King Salman to rein the prince in from the aggressive moves at home and abroad for which he has become known. At the same time, Ankara has been careful not to escalate tensions too far, wary of losing Saudi investment in the country.
The situation highlights the traditional competition between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for influence and leadership in the Sunni Muslim world, as well as in shaping events in the Middle East. They have found each other on different sides of the fence since the start of the “Arab Spring”. While Erdoğan’s AKP party welcomed the rise of political Islam and supported the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, Saudi and most of the Gulf states have a long history of opposition to the Brotherhood and fear uprisings in their own states. Turkey also helped Qatar, offering aid and food shipments, when Saudi led the current economic blockade by other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. For Turkey, there are risks in both increased Saudi-Iranian tensions and improved Saudi-Israeli relations. Ankara also has political and humanitarian concerns over the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen, a country where Turkey had been seeking to grow its “soft-power”. The reactions to the journalist’s murder are as much about geopolitics as the crime itself.
Fears for Hodeidah
A small step was taken in limiting the devastating war in Yemen when the US announced (9 November) that it will stop refuelling the jets flown by the Saudi Arabian coalition bombing Yemen. To date, the jets have relied on US tanker planes to refuel in mid-air. The US administration nevertheless remains committed to the coalition campaign, despite bipartisan concern in Congress. On 12 November, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt flew to Saudi Arabia to raise the case of Jamal Khashoggi and press for an end to the war in Yemen. At the same time, after several days of intensified coalition air strikes, UAE-backed ground forces entered the crucial port city of Hodeidah to recapture it from Houthi rebels. UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres urged the warring sides to end hostilities to avoid a “catastrophic” situation.
The new US sanctions on Iran have come into force, though with waivers for a number of US allies who depend on Iranian oil and gas to continue buying it. President Trump recently said of Iran: “When I came in here, it was a question of ‘When would they take over the Middle East?’… Now it’s a question of, ‘Will they survive?’” The US administration believes that renewed sanctions on Iran will force it to cease its nuclear ambitions, pull back from its increased reach across the region and threats to Israel, and ultimately lead to regime change in the country. Most Iran analysts, however, note that previous, still harsher sanctions did not bring this about. Even though they caused severe hardship for citizens, Iranians are patriotic people and the regime has remained deeply entrenched. Many Iranians fear that the new sanctions will prevent the importation of medicines, consumer goods and reverse economic investments and openings in the country.
In Jordan, more than 12 people have died in flash floods in several areas of Jordan following heavy rains. Some 4,000 tourists visiting the ancient site of Petra have been evacuated, and a state of emergency was issued for the Red Sea resort of Aqaba. This is the second extreme weather incident in a month. Some 21 people, mostly children, died when a flash flood swept away a school bus on an outing to the Dead Sea.
The Church in Egypt was also mourning after a terrorist attack on a group of pilgrims killed seven and injured 19. A 12-year-old girl and 15-year-old boy were among those who lost their lives. Gunmen fired on three buses returning from St Samuel the Confessor monastery in a remote desert area of Minya governorate. The attack, claimed by so-called Islamic State (IS), came after a similar one on the same route last May. Shortly after the incident, Egyptian authorities said they had killed 19 militants including the gunmen responsible in a shoot-out at a desert hideout.
Repeated attacks on Egypt’s Christian community have led to tighter police security at churches and the closure of the main desert road to the monastery. Terrorists, however, were said to have used desert tracks to mount the ambush. Minya province has the highest per capita proportion of Christians in Egypt at 35 per cent of the population, though this has not shielded them from terrorism or mob violence. SAT-7 broadcasts, including a live transmission from a Days of Harvest Christian festival in the northern Minya city of Maghagha, featured prayers for families of the victims and injured.
Recent reports from Iraq have continued to uncover the brutality of IS. A UN investigation found some 200 mass graves in previously IS-held territories. The report said as many as 12,000 bodies might have been buried in these sites. Yet, there are hopeful signs that Iraq is beginning a journey to reconstruction and restoration after years of conflict and instability. The recently formed Iraqi government is more focused on delivery to citizens than sectarianism. In a region where religion often decides job opportunities, especially in the public sector, Prime Minister Mahdi stunned everyone by using Facebook to invite citizens of all backgrounds to send their CVs for top ministerial jobs. He then appointed five people from some 15,000 applicants to cabinet positions: a small but important political gesture.
Meanwhile, management of Iraqi resources is still proving tricky. Iraq and Saudi Arabia recently agreed on working together to stabilise oil markets and improve electric grid connections between the two countries. Similarly, there have been reports that Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government are close to achieving a deal to restart oil exports from the disputed Kirkuk region. This could go a long way to help stabilise the price of oil and protect Iraq from the fallout of new US sanctions on Iran, which do not exempt Iraq.
There was a positive sign for Iraqi Christians, too, in the reopening of the oldest Christian school in formerly IS-held Mosul. Some 400 children began a new school year at Shimon Safa Elementary School after it was closed for four years. The school is located in a predominantly Christian district, although it is open to children of all faiths. “The school has … been subjected to national and sectarian discrimination; it is now resuming its practical and social mission again,” the school principal said.
In Syria, a church that is deeply committed to reconstruction – both physically and spiritually – was encouraged by a visit from Vatican representatives. Cardinal Zenari, the Papal Nuncio to Syria, and two other senior clergy visited the Latin Parish of St Francis in Aleppo, and saw its work on the ground in serving and rebuilding the community. The church has rebuilt 1,200 houses and financed 400 micro-projects. Having lost two-thirds of the population, Fr Ibrahim Alsabagh, says they are doing all they can to make life in the city possible for residents. But he stresses that rebuilding the country means more than rebuilding homes and jobs: “We must undertake a deeper reconstruction of the human person.”