Middle East Ticker

Kurdish Leader Resigns Under Pressure from Iraq, Benghazi Militant Captured, Saudi Arabia Gives Investors Futuristic Sales Pitch

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, October 31, 2017, 10:21 AM

Vacuum Emerges in Kurdish Politics as Iraqi Forces Push North

Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government who pushed through the regional independence referendum, said on Sunday that he will resign. He announced his decision to step down in a speech that followed two weeks of Iraqi military pressure and Kurdish political paralysis; it was Barzani’s first public comment since Iraqi commandos and militias advanced into Kirkuk on October 15. Barzani had planned to leave office soon anyway—elections, cancelled earlier this month, were scheduled for November 1—but that was intended to be a triumphant send-off, in which he would pass the reins to the government that would secure the KRG’s independence from Iraq. Instead, Barzani is leaving a vacuum in the Kurdish leadership with his national ambitions frustrated. He named no immediate successor and has left the powers of his office divided among the prime minister, parliament, and judiciary.

The Iraqi government has driven Kurdish forces back from areas they’ve held since pushing out the Islamic State, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi last week rebuffed a Kurdish offer to “freeze” the referendum result, saying that Baghdad would only accept a complete annulment of the independence vote. U.S. officials have confirmed that Kurdish officials are negotiating with the central government, and on Sunday Iraqi media reported that discussions were underway regarding the transfer of control of border crossings to the Iraqi military. The New York Times reports that the potential agreement could also “fundamentally recalibrate how the region’s oil is exported.” Though no deal has been announced yet, as of this morning Iraqi forces have now taken control of the Habur border crossing between Iraq and Turkey for the first time since before 2003.

Abadi’s decisive action has won him support even from his political rivals, and Iraqi political analysts told the Washington Post that his bolstered nationalist credentials have sharply improved his odds of being reelected next year. His response has been coordinated with regional partners, Iran and Turkey, who share his concerns about Kurdish national aspirations. He has traveled to both Ankara and Tehran in the past two weeks. And despite U.S. concerns about the effect the ongoing crisis is having on the fight against the Islamic State, the Iraqi military is simultaneously continuing its fight against the terrorist group. Last week, the Iraqi military announced a new effort to retake al-Qaim and Rawa, the Islamic State’s last territory in the country near the Syrian border.

 

U.S. Forces Capture Benghazi Militant

U.S. Special Operations Forces captured Mustafa al-Imam, a militant involved in the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in a raid in Misrata on Sunday, U.S. officials said yesterday. Imam was reportedly under surveillance “for some time,” CNN reports. He is now the second person involved in the attack detained by U.S. forces; Ahmed Abu Khatallah, the alleged mastermind, was captured in a raid in June 2014 in Benghazi and went on trial in Washington, DC, earlier this month. Imam is one of the approximately 20 men who stormed the U.S. consulate and annex and was identified from video footage of the attack.

Imam has been transferred to a U.S. Navy ship and is reportedly being brought to the United States.

Little is known about the raid so far, but the Associated Press reports that it was carried out with the knowledge and support of the Libyan Government of National Accord. That’s a stark difference from previous U.S. raids in Libya to arrest Khatallah and Abu Anas al-Libi, which prompted Libyan officials to complain that the United States had violated Libya’s sovereignty—such that it is. Misrata, where Imam was captured, is under the control of forces aligned with the GNA and continues to be the target of militant violence. On October 4, three Islamic State terrorists armed with firearms and explosives attacked the city’s courthouse, killing at least four people. In a statement, President Trump said today that the “United States will continue to support our Libyan partners to ensure that ISIS and other terrorist groups do not use Libya as a safe haven for attacks against United States citizens or interests, Libyans, and others,” and praised U.N. efforts to bring stable governance to the country.

Imam has been transferred to a U.S. Navy ship and is reportedly being brought to the United States. That’s in line with the Obama administration’s policies, under which terrorist suspects captured overseas have been interrogated at sea before being Mirandized and indicted by a U.S. grand jury. The process has frustrated civil liberties advocates, but it’s a marked shift from Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Both the president and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had previously said captured terrorists should be held at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and not be tried in civilian courts.

 

Saudi Arabia Tries to Woo Investors

Saudi Arabia is working to reassure the business community that its economic reform plan, Saudi Vision 2030, remains on track. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) hosted a three-day conference this past week to woo foreign investors. The prince told executives from companies including Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of China, about his plans to build a new business zone called Neom—the name is a messy, multilingual mix of prefix and acronym meaning “new future” —on the country’s northern Red Sea coast. Bloomberg described the city as the kingdom’s own version of Dubai, but MBS’s plans are more ambitious. “Everything will have a link with artificial intelligence, with the Internet of Things—everything,” he told them. Saudi officials are also trying to reassure investors about other aspects of the reform agenda. The CEO of Saudi Aramco told reporters that the oil giant’s planned IPO is still expected to proceed by this time next year, after rumors that it would be postponed indefinitely, and the Saudi stock exchange touted Saudi Arabia’s inclusion in new global indexes that will classify the kingdom as a “secondary emerging market.”

The ambitious plans follow concerns that Saudi Arabia’s enthusiasm for reforms may dampen as its economy continues to stall. The country’s economy has slipped back into a recession, according to data released last month, and the government has issued billions in bonds to compensate for low oil prices—prices that the government is telling OPEC should be extended, despite the damage to Riyadh’s revenue stream.

Saudi officials have framed Neom as a bubble that will be insulated from economic and social reforms that may occur more slowly elsewhere in the country.

Investors at the conference last week were still ambivalent, despite Saudi officials’ reassurances and ambitious plans. “Beyond the challenges of funding and building a project of this scale, the seemingly ad hoc nature of this, and other, announcements only serves to add to Saudi policy unpredictability,” one told Reuters, and an expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University told Bloomberg that “[t]he question is whether one can isolate a megacity from the inefficiencies of the country’s economy.” Previous efforts to build investment-friendly neighborhoods adjacent to existing cities, like the $10-billion King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, never found their market—and have largely been abandoned.

Saudi officials have framed Neom as a bubble that will be insulated from economic and social reforms that may occur more slowly elsewhere in the country. As Brian Whitaker notes, the plan’s emphasis on “societal innovation” and reliance on artificial intelligence—like the android Sophia that was ceremonially granted Saudi citizenship at the conference—suggest a possible compromise between the country’s religious code and the demands that come with a modern city that will welcome the world. “At the very least, this implies creating an array of new laws applicable only inside Neom — financial laws to attract foreign investors, construction laws to meet the environmental requirements plus, presumably, new air-traffic laws for the passenger-carrying drones,” he writes. “But the plan goes further and talks of Neom as a place for ‘societal innovation’ — which appears to be code for a sharia-free zone where, in order to attract foreigners, gender segregation, female dress codes and other rules based on wahhabi doctrine won’t apply.”

MBS has accelerated Saudi Arabia’s glacial progress on extending basic rights to women; according to a new government policy, women will soon be granted the right to drive, and on Sunday, the country’s General Sports Authority announced that women would also be allowed to attend sports events starting next year. In an interview with the Guardian, MBS promised “a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.” The crown prince frames this as a return to form that will eliminate extremist interpretations of Islam, but as Whitaker writes, it’s unclear to what tradition he’s referring and, given the scale of the reforms he’s proposing, “it’s easy to underestimate [the] theological consequences.” The risk is clear: MBS’ necessary progress may move too fast for conservative Muslims and too slow for investors. It will be a difficult balancing act.