Saudi Arabia Battles Market Jitters After Oil Plant Attacks

 

Saudi energy giant Aramco is battling to reassure markets after devastating attacks on two oil plants, where a prolonged shutdown risks roiling investor confidence ahead of the state-owned giant’s mega stock listing, analysts say.

A wave of drones struck Abqaiq –- the world’s largest oil processing facility –- and the Khurais oil field in eastern Saudi Arabia, knocking out nearly half of the kingdom’s crude production and exposing the vulnerability of its energy infrastructure.

While Tehran-backed Yemeni rebels claimed responsibility for the pre-dawn strike on Saturday, Washington blamed Iran for what it called an “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply”.

It is a major test for the kingdom’s newly appointed energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman –- a half-brother to the crown prince –- as the attacks could dampen investor confidence in Aramco’s upcoming two-stage stock market debut.

The attacks have effectively turned off six percent of the global oil supply, raising the possibility of a spike in prices when markets re-open on Monday — even as Aramco said it will tap into its reserve stockpiles to offset the disruption.

“The worst-case scenario (for pushing oil prices higher) is an incident that takes a large amount of oil production offline in Saudi Arabia,” said energy expert Robert Rapier.

“If they can get production back online pretty quickly — or at least assure the markets they can — you might not see an enormous price spike,” Rapier wrote for Forbes online.

But the full extent of the damage at the plants and how long it will take to repair is unclear, with analysts warning that an absence of information could fuel trader speculation.

Saudi authorities, known for their penchant for secrecy, have not allowed reporters near the plants where security has been tightened since the attacks.

‘Exposed to Terrorism’

Seeking to soothe market jitters, Aramco CEO Amin Nasser has said “work is underway to regain the (lost) production quantities”.

Bloomberg News reported that Aramco expects to restart most of the operations “within days”.

“Saudi Arabia has plenty of oil stored to fulfill customer demands and don’t think Aramco will lose money over this,” said Ellen Wald, author of the book “Saudi Inc.”.

“This isn’t a company that has to pump and sell to make payroll like a tiny fracking outfit.”

Saudi Arabia is known to have vast underground storage facilities with a capacity of tens of millions of barrels of various refined petroleum products that can be tapped during times of crisis.

“All key facilities in the world are exposed to terrorism, so the point here for investors will be to judge Aramco on the speed of recovery from such attacks,” said Ali Shihabi, founder of the now-shuttered pro-Saudi think-tank Arabia Foundation.

“They have certainly been planning for such eventualities for decades.”

Impact on IPO?

The strikes are unlikely to derail the much-touted initial public offering (IPO), but it could undermine investor confidence in the mammoth listing that the government hopes will raise up to $100 billion.

It could also impact its valuation.

The IPO, earlier scheduled for 2018, has already been mired in delays as it reportedly struggled to reach a $2 trillion valuation desired by Saudi rulers.

“Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman will push the company to demonstrate that it can effectively tackle terrorism or war challenges,” said Eurasia Group analyst Ayham Kamel.

“(But) the attacks could complicate Aramco’s IPO plans given rising security risks and potential impact on its valuation.”

For many traders, the temporary loss of production is secondary.

The use of seemingly low-grade drones to strike the world’s most profitable company highlights the easy vulnerability of oil infrastructure in the kingdom, which has splurged billions on sophisticated defence equipment.

Unlike other major suppliers like the US and Russia, which rely on numerous producers spread out over large geographical areas, Saudi Arabia’s production is reliant on a single entity — Aramco.

This leaves the world’s top oil exporter comparably more vulnerable to a crippling production shutdown in the event of an attack, experts say.

The Abqaiq plant –- seen as the crown jewel of the kingdom’s oil infrastructure with a capacity of more than seven million barrels per day — is the “most vulnerable” among Saudi sites, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report.

“Abqaiq is the heart of the system and they just had a heart attack,” said Roger Diwan, an energy expert at consultant IHS Markit was quoted as saying by Bloomberg News.

Saudi Races To Restore Oil Supply After Strike Blamed On Iran

Smoke billows from an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq about 60km (37 miles) southwest of Dhahran in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province on September 14, 2019. /AFP

 

Saudi Arabia raced on Sunday to restart operations at oil plants hit by drone attacks which slashed its production by half, as Iran dismissed US claims it was behind the assault.

The Tehran-backed Huthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is bogged down in a five-year war, have claimed Saturday’s strikes on two plants owned by state giant Aramco.

But United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed the finger squarely at Tehran, saying there was no evidence the “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply” was launched from Yemen.

“The United States will work with our partners and allies to ensure that energy markets remain well supplied and Iran is held accountable for its aggression,” the top US diplomat added.

That drew an angry response from Tehran, where foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said: “Such fruitless and blind accusations and remarks are incomprehensible and meaningless.”

The remarks were designed to damage Iran’s reputation and provide a pretext for “future actions” against the Islamic republic, he said.

Saudi de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose nation is pitted against Iran in a decades-old struggle for regional dominance, has said the kingdom is “willing and able” to respond to this “terrorist aggression”.

But a tit-for-tat strike on Iranian oil fields is “highly unlikely”, Middle East expert James Dorsey told AFP.

“The Saudis do not want an open conflict with Iran. The Saudis would like others to fight that war, and the others are reluctant,” said Dorsey, from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Markets Nervous

Instead, the kingdom focused on restoring production at the plants, as the Saudi bourse slumped three percent as the week’s trading began on Sunday morning.

Saturday’s explosions set off fires that engulfed the Abqaiq plant, the world’s largest oil processing facility, and nearby Khurais, which hosts a massive oil field.

Saudi’s energy infrastructure has been hit by the Huthis many times before, but this strike is of a different order, abruptly halting 5.7 million barrels per day (bpd) or about six percent of the world’s oil supply.

The full extent of the damage was not clear, nor the type of weapons used, and reporters were kept away from the plants amid beefed-up security.

Saudi interior ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki told AFP there were no casualties in the attacks.

Read Also: Yemeni Rebels Claim Drone Strikes On Saudi Oil Plants

Aramco has said it will dip into its stocks to offset the disruption, but the incident could batter investor confidence as its stock market debut looms.

The government hopes to raise up to $100 billion based on a $2 trillion valuation of the company in what would be the world’s largest IPO, but the listing has been repeatedly delayed due to low oil prices, among other factors.

As markets closely watch Saudi’s ability to get its industry back on track, Aramco CEO Amin Nasser said Saturday that “work is underway” to restore full production.

And newly appointed Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said part of the drop would be offset by drawing on vast storage facilities designed to be tapped in times of crisis.

Riyadh, the world’s top crude exporter, has built five giant underground storage facilities across the country that can hold tens of millions of barrels of various refined petroleum products.

Loggerheads

Following a phone call between US President Donald Trump and Prince Mohammed, the White House condemned the attacks on “infrastructure vital to the global economy”.

Tehran and Washington have been at loggerheads since May last year, when Trump pulled the US out of a 2015 deal that promised Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

Washington’s response throws into doubt reported efforts by Trump to arrange a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming United Nations assembly.

The UN’s Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths said he was “extremely concerned” over the latest attacks, which also drew swift condemnation from Riyadh’s Gulf allies, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia has spent billions on military hardware but recent events have underscored its infrastructure’s vulnerability to attack.

While the kingdom’s oil wells, scattered over a vast area, may be tough to hit, its various oil processing facilities are much more exposed.

In recent months, the Huthis have staged repeated cross-border missile and drone attacks targeting Saudi air bases and other facilities in what they say is retaliation for the Riyadh-led bombing campaign on rebel-held areas in Yemen.

Iran Refutes US Accusations Over Saudi Attacks

 

Iran on Sunday dismissed US accusations it was behind drone attacks on Saudi oil installations, suggesting the United States was seeking a pretext to retaliate against the Islamic republic.

“Such fruitless and blind accusations and remarks are incomprehensible and meaningless,” foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi was quoted as saying in a statement.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned Iran after Saturday’s attacks, which knocked out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production.

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Shiite Huthi rebels claimed responsibility for the drone strikes, but Pompeo said “there is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen”.

“The United States will work with our partners and allies to ensure that energy markets remain well supplied and Iran is held accountable for its aggression,” the top US diplomat tweeted.

Read Also: Trump Condemns Drone Attacks In Call With Saudi Crown Prince

Mousavi said the US allegations over the pre-dawn strikes on Abqaiq and Khurais in Eastern Province were meant to justify actions against Iran.

“Such remarks… are more like plotting by intelligence and secret organisations to damage the reputation of a country and create a framework for future actions,” he said.

Tehran and Washington have been at loggerheads since May last year when President Donald Trump pulled out of a 2015 deal that promised Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

‘Maximum lying’

Since the withdrawal, the United States has slapped crippling sanctions on Iran as part of a campaign of “maximum pressure” and the Islamic republic has responded by reducing its commitments to the nuclear accord.

“The Americans have taken the policy of ‘maximum pressure’ which has apparently turned into ‘maximum lying’ due to their failures,” said Mousavi.

The arch-foes were on the cusp of confrontation in June when Iran downed a US drone and Trump ordered retaliatory strikes before cancelling them at the last minute.

In remarks published Sunday, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ aerospace arm said Iran’s missiles could hit US bases and ships within a range of 2,000 kilometres (about 1,240 miles).

“Neither us nor the Americans want a war,” Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh said, quoted by Tasnim news agency, which is considered close to the Guards.

“Of course, some forces facing each other in the field could do something, by which a war could start,” the commander said.

“We have always prepared ourselves for a full-fledged war… everyone should know that all American bases and their vessels in a 2,000-kilometre range can be targeted by our missiles,” he added.

OPEC Kingpin Saudi Arabia Replaces Energy Minister

 

 

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman named his son as energy minister after veteran official Khalid al-Falih was sacked, state media said Sunday, in a major shakeup as the OPEC kingpin reels from low oil prices.

The appointment of Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, half brother to de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, comes as Saudi Arabia prepares for a much-anticipated stock listing of state-owned oil giant Aramco.

“Khalid al-Falih has been removed from his position,” the official Saudi Press Agency said, citing a royal decree.

“His royal highness Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman is appointed minister of energy.”

The kingdom also replaced the deputy energy minister, SPA added.

Since his appointment as oil minister in 2016, Falih has been the face of Saudi energy policy but the veteran technocrat had seen his portfolio shrink in recent weeks.

His ouster comes just days after he was removed as chairman of Aramco as the company prepares for a much-touted initial public offering (IPO).

He was replaced in that post by Yasir al-Rumayyan, governor of the kingdom’s vast Public Investment Fund.

Falih’s powers were diminished last month when the world’s top oil exporter announced the creation of a new ministry of industry and mineral resources, separating it from his energy ministry.

It was widely speculated there was dissatisfaction with Falih within the top levels of government over the low price of oil ahead of the Aramco IPO — even as the kingdom has continued to cut output to balance global demand.

‘Wealth of experience’

OPEC and its allies are scheduled to meet in Abu Dhabi on September 12 to review their strategy on limiting production to tackle a global supply glut and shore up prices.

It was unclear whether there would be a change in Saudi policy under Prince Abdulaziz, who joined the oil ministry in the 1980s and has served in a variety of senior positions.

“Prince Abdulaziz has been in the oil ministry for decades… He joined the oil ministry in the late 1980s and worked closely with the three previous oil ministers,” said Ali Shihabi, founder of the now-shuttered pro-Saudi think-tank Arabia Foundation.

“(He) has attended virtually every OPEC meeting since then so brings a wealth of institutional experience.”

His appointment further concentrates power within the family of King Salman. His other son Prince Mohammed controls all the major levers of power and is heir to the Arab world’s most powerful throne.

And his younger son, Prince Khalid bin Salman, serves as deputy defence minister.

Aramco is stepping up efforts to float around five percent of the company, in what could potentially be the world’s biggest stock sale.

It aims to raise up to $100 billion based on a $2 trillion valuation of the company, but amid low oil prices investors have debated whether Aramco is really worth that much.

Failure to reach a $2 trillion valuation as desired by Saudi rulers is widely considered the reason the IPO, earlier scheduled for 2018, has been delayed.

The planned IPO forms the cornerstone of a reform programme envisaged by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to wean the Saudi economy off its reliance on oil.

Saudi Aramco has not announced where the listing will be held, but London, New York and Hong Kong have all vied for a slice of the much-touted IPO.

The oil giant is considering a two-stage IPO, with a domestic debut and a subsequent international listing possibly in Tokyo, the Wall Street Journal reported last month.

Saudi Arabia Eases Travel Restrictions On Women

Medina, Qatif, Saudi Arabia

 

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday began implementing a landmark reform allowing women over the age of 21 to receive passports and travel abroad without permission from a male “guardian”, authorities said.

The reform, announced earlier this month, weakens the restrictive guardianship system that has long been a symbol of repression against women.

“The passport department has started receiving applications for women aged 21 and above to issue or renew passports and to travel outside the kingdom without permission,” the department said on Twitter.

Women in the kingdom have long required permission from their male “guardians” — husband, father and other male relatives — for these tasks, a restriction that drew international censure.

The reform comes after high-profile attempts by women to escape alleged guardianship abuse despite a string of reforms by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including a landmark decree last year that overturned the world’s only ban on women drivers.

In other changes unveiled earlier this month, Saudi women were also granted the right to officially register childbirth, marriage or divorce and to be recognised as a guardian to children who are minors –- same as men.

The reforms were widely celebrated in the kingdom, but they also drew backlash from arch-conservatives, many of whom shared old video sermons on social media by Saudi clerics advocating guardianship laws.

Some also denounced the change as “unIslamic” in a society that traditionally sees men as protectors of women.

The reform comes as the OPEC petroleum producer reels from low oil prices and seeks to boost employment opportunities for women –- currently facing chronic joblessness.

AFP

Jailed Saudi Activist Told To Deny Torture In Release ‘Deal’

Medina, Qatif, Saudi Arabia

 

Saudi authorities have offered to release jailed activist Loujain al-Hathloul in exchange for her video testimony denying that she had been tortured and sexually harassed in prison, her family claimed Tuesday.

“Saudi state security has visited my sister in prison recently. They have asked her to… appear on video to deny the torture and harassment,” her brother Walid al-Hathloul, who is based in Canada, said on Twitter.

“That was part of a deal to release her.”

There was no immediate reaction from Saudi authorities and the kingdom’s media ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Hathloul, who recently marked her 30th birthday in jail, is among around a dozen prominent women activists who are currently facing trial after being detained last year in a sweeping crackdown on dissent.

She was among a few detainees who accused interrogators of subjecting them to torture — including electric shocks, flogging and groping in detention — a charge vigorously denied by the government.

Hathloul also accused former royal court media advisor Saud al-Qahtani of threatening to rape and kill her, according to her family.

Her brother said she had initially agreed to sign a document denying that she had been tortured, as a precondition for her release.

He added that her family had intended to keep the deal secret.

But state security officials recently visited her again in prison to demand a video testimony.

“Asking to appear on a video and to deny the torture doesn’t sound like a realistic demand,” Walid tweeted.

Her sister Lina al-Hathloul separately said her sibling was under pressure to deny the torture claim.

“(I don’t know) what I’m risking by writing this. Maybe it will harm my sister. But I can’t keep it to myself,” Lina wrote on Twitter.

“Loujain has been proposed a deal: deny the torture and she’ll be free.

“Whatever happens I am certifying it (one) more time: Loujain has been brutally tortured and sexually harassed.”

Hathloul’s siblings have previously complained they were pressured by people close to the Saudi state to stay silent over her treatment in detention.

Riyadh has faced pressure from Western governments to release women activists, most of whom were jailed last summer just before the historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female motorists.

Many were branded as traitors by local media and are standing trial over charges that include contact with foreign media, diplomats and human rights groups.

Their trial has cast a spotlight on the human rights record of the kingdom, which has also faced intense global criticism over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate last year.

AFP

More Than Two Million Muslims On Hajj Pilgrimage

Muslim pilgrims perform the “Tawaf al-Ifada”, a mandatory circumambulation around the Kaaba (the Cube), Islam’s holiest shrine, at the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca on August 11, 2019, following their descent from Mount Arafat.
FETHI BELAID / AFP

 

More than two million Muslims are participating in the annual hajj under sweltering conditions, as the Saudi hosts sought to deter politicisation of the pilgrimage against a backdrop of simmering Gulf tensions.

The hajj, one of the world’s largest annual religious gatherings, is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives.

It consists of a series of religious rites which are completed over five days in Islam’s holiest city and its surroundings in western Saudi Arabia. The annual hajj began on Friday.

“All of the arms of the state have been deployed (and) we are proud to serve as ‘God’s hosts’,” said security forces spokesman Bassam Attia.

“We feel cleansed by achieving this pillar of Islam and meeting people from across the world. It’s marvellous,” said Mohamed Jaafar, a 40-year-old Egyptian pilgrim.

‘A golden opportunity’

“It’s an indescribable feeling. You have to live it to understand it,” said an Algerian in his fifties completing the pilgrimage for the first time.

“It’s a golden opportunity and moment,” said his female companion.

Built in a desert valley, Mecca is home to the Kaaba, a cube structure that is the focal point of Islam and draped in a gold-embroidered black cloth.

Muslims around the world pray towards the Kaaba, which is located in the Grand Mosque, and pilgrims walk around it seven times.

Earlier on Friday, worshippers took part in Friday prayers at the mosque.

Pilgrims from around the world then headed on foot or on buses to Mina, a rugged district of Mecca at the base of Mount Arafat, where the faithful will spend Friday night.

A total of “350,000 air-conditioned tents have been pitched” in Mina, a Saudi official said.

Cooling mist sprays were deployed across the area as temperatures exceeded 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

Mobile clinics and ambulances were on standby along the route, while Saudi Red Crescent helicopters monitored the pilgrims’ progress from the sky.

“The whole world is here… being here in Mecca is the best feeling,” beamed Mohamed Barry, a pilgrim from Britain.

Saudi officials said that 2.26 million pilgrims had arrived in Mina by late Friday, of which 1.86 million were from abroad, the state-run SPA news agency reported.

On Saturday worshippers will climb Mount Arafat, also known as the “Mount of Mercy”, for hours of prayers and Koran recitals.

After descending, they will gather pebbles and perform the symbolic “stoning of the devil”.

That marks the beginning of Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice, marked on Sunday.

Pilgrims then return to the Grand Mosque to perform a final “tawaf” or walk around the Kaaba.

‘Politicising the hajj’

This year’s hajj takes place to a backdrop of Gulf tensions following a series of attacks on tankers, the downing of drones and the seizure of ships.

Riyadh blames regional foe Tehran for the attacks on commercial shipping, accusations Iran vehemently denies.

Despite the absence of diplomatic ties between the two countries, some 88,550 Iranian pilgrims are due to take part in the hajj this year according to Iran’s Tasnim news agency.

As in previous years, Saudi authorities have been at pains to stress that the hajj is a religious event and have sought to prevent its politicisation.

Riyadh insisted its two-year embargo on Doha — which includes restrictions on Qataris travelling to the kingdom — would not affect the pilgrimage.

But hajj official Hassan Qadi acknowledged “very few Qataris have come to Mecca for the pilgrimage”.

Saudi Arabia’s hajj ministry accused Qatar of “politicising the hajj and creating obstacles for Qatari pilgrims,” the official Saudi Press Agency reported.

The scale of the pilgrimage presents vast security and logistical challenges, with tens of thousands of safety officers deployed.

Riyadh faced strong criticism in 2015 when some 2,300 worshippers were killed in the worst stampede in the gathering’s history.

Saudi Arabia Finally Allows Women To Travel Without ‘Male Guardian Approval’

In this file photo taken on June 13, 2019, shows Saudi women arriving at Abha airport in the popular mountain resort of the same name in the southwest of Saudi Arabia. PHOTO: FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP

 

Saudi Arabia will allow women to travel abroad without approval from a male “guardian”, the government said on Thursday, ending a restriction that drew international censure and prompted extreme attempts to flee the kingdom.

The landmark reform erodes the longstanding guardianship system that renders adult women as legal minors and allows their “guardians” — husband, father and other male relatives — to exercise arbitrary authority over them.

The decision, following years of campaigning by activists, comes after high-profile attempts by women to escape their guardians despite a string of reforms including a historic decree last year that overturned the world’s only ban on female motorists.

“A passport will be granted to any Saudi national who submits an application,” said a government ruling published in the official gazette Umm al-Qura.

The regulation effectively allows women over the age of 21 to obtain passports and leave the country without their guardian’s permission, the pro-government Okaz newspaper and other local media reported, citing senior authorities.

Women in the kingdom have long required permission from their male “guardians” to marry, renew their passports or exit the country.

The reform grants women greater autonomy and mobility, the pro-government Saudi Gazette newspaper said, hailing the decision as “one giant leap for Saudi women.”

The decision was met with jubilation on social media, with the hashtag “No guardianship over women travel” gaining traction and many posting humorous memes of women fleeing with suitcases and being chased by men.

“Some women’s dreams were aborted due to inability to leave the country for whatever reason… to study abroad, a work opportunity, or even flee if so desired,” Saudi businesswoman Muna Abu Sulayman said on Twitter.

“This change means women are in a way in full control of their legal destiny.”

The changes announced Thursday also grant Saudi women what has long been a male entitlement — the right to officially register childbirth, marriage or divorce and to be recognised as a guardian to children who are minors.

Crackdown and reform

The reform comes as Saudi Arabia faces heightened international scrutiny over its human rights record, including an ongoing trial of women activists who have long demanded that the guardianship system be dismantled.

That includes Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent rights activist who marked her 30th birthday this week in a Saudi prison, campaigners said.

Alongside a sweeping crackdown on dissent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the kingdom’s de facto ruler — spearheads a wide-ranging liberalisation drive that is aimed at transforming the conservative petrostate, long criticised for its treatment of women.

His reforms include the much-celebrated decision allowing women to drive in June last year, allowing women to attend soccer games alongside men and take on jobs that once fell outside the narrow confines of traditional gender roles.

But while transforming the lives of many women, critics said the reforms will be cosmetic for many others until the kingdom abolishes the “guardianship” system.

Some have undertaken perilous attempts to escape overseas despite the reforms.

They include 18-year-old Rahaf al-Qunun, whose live-tweeted asylum plea from a Bangkok hotel in January after she fled her Saudi family drew global attention.

Later, two Saudi sisters who sought sanctuary in Hong Kong from what they called family abuse were allowed passage to a third country that was not named for their safety.

And subsequently, two other Saudi sisters fled to Georgia.

The latest reform, which weakens but does not completely dismantle the guardianship system, could lead to family clashes in the deeply patriarchal society, observers warn.

Saudi officials have expressed commitment to fighting guardianship abuse, but have warned the system can only be dismantled piecemeal to prevent a backlash from arch-conservatives.

In a one-off case last year, a Saudi court ruled in favour of a 24-year-old woman who challenged her father’s decision to not let her have a passport. But until Thursday’s ruling, she would have still required his permission to travel.

AFP

Saudi King Salman’s Brother Dies At 96

File photo: King Salman of Saudi Arabia

 

Saudi Arabia was gearing up Monday for the funeral of King Salman’s elder brother, the royal court said, after he died at the age of 96.

“His Royal Highness Prince Bandar bin Abdulaziz al-Saud passed away,” the royal court said Sunday in a brief statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

“A funeral prayer will be performed for his soul… on Monday… at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.”

The prince was the eldest surviving son of Saudi Arabia’s founding monarch, King Abdulaziz.

The royal court did not elaborate on the cause of his death, but some local media said he had been ill for several years.

He was not said to be a politically active member of the royal Al-Saud family which counts thousands of members, only a handful of whom wield direct influence over the kingdom.

His sons, however, hold key government positions. Prince Faisal bin Bandar is the governor of Riyadh while Prince Abdullah bin Bandar is the head of the Saudi National Guard.

His death comes as King Salman’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — who sidelined his cousin as heir to the throne — consolidates his grip on power.

Cancellation Of Nicki Minaj’s Saudi Concert Stirs Online Outcry

Nicki Minaj

 

The cancellation of a concert by rapper Nicki Minaj in Saudi Arabia triggered a fresh social media storm on Wednesday, with many fans in the ultra-conservative kingdom voicing disappointment and demanding ticket refunds.

The American star on Tuesday said she pulled out of the July 18 concert in a show of support for women’s and gay rights in Saudi Arabia.

The announcement of her performance in the western city of Jeddah had prompted an online backlash from arch-conservatives as the kingdom pursues a contentious liberalisation drive that has loosened decades-old restrictions on entertainment.

“So sad, I was preparing to do a Michael Jackson dance at the party,” one Twitter user wrote as some fans angrily demanded refunds from organisers.

Organisers of the Jeddah Season cultural festival had said thousands of tickets were sold for the concert that includes performances by British musician Liam Payne and American DJ Steve Aoki.

The singer also faced a torrent of abuse for supporting gay rights in the Islamic kingdom, with one person writing on Twitter: “Cancellation of the party is good news. Praise be to Allah.”

Homosexuality is forbidden in Islam.

Minaj is well-known for her provocative, profanity-laced lyrics and skin-baring music videos.

The singer insisted on Twitter that she did not want to perform in a country where “women have no rights”, but added that her decision was not intended to “disrespect” the Saudi government.

Citing unnamed sources, a few Saudi media outlets including the pro-government Okaz newspaper insisted that it was the kingdom that canceled the concert as it went against local “customs and values”.

Saudi entertainment authorities and the media ministry did not respond to AFP’s requests for comment.

The kingdom has faced intense international scrutiny over its human rights record since last year’s killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul and the ongoing trial of women activists.

Saudi Arabia is boosting entertainment that allows citizens to have fun, in what some see as an attempt to blunt public frustration over an economic downturn and high youth unemployment.

The country’s General Entertainment Authority said it plans to pump $64 billion into the sector in the coming decade.

The reform also stems partly from an economic motive to boost domestic spending on entertainment as the kingdom has reeled from low oil prices.

Saudis currently splurge billions of dollars annually to see films and visit amusement parks in neighbouring tourist hubs like Dubai and Bahrain.

But such acts have fuelled controversy in a country still steeped in conservatism.

AFP

Sister Of Saudi Crown Prince Faces Trial Over Assault Allegations

This file photo shows Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) gestures during a meeting. PHOTO: Dan Kitwood / POOL / AFP

 

A sister of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia went on trial Tuesday in a French court over the alleged beating of a workman who was carrying out repairs in her ultra-luxury Paris apartment. 

Hassa bint Salman is a daughter of King Salman and a sister of powerful crown prince Mohammed bin Salman who is known by his initial “MBS” and is seen by many analysts as the de-facto leader of the kingdom.

She stands accused of ordering her bodyguard Rani Saidi, who is also charged, to beat up the workman Ashraf Eid after he was seen taking a photo inside her home in September 2016.

Eid, who worked in the luxury apartment block, had been called in to repair a damaged basin and told investigators he needed the pictures taken with his phone to carry out the work.

The princess, who denies the allegations and was not present in court, allegedly suspected Eid of planning to sell the photo of her apartment on the Avenue Foch, long a favourite destination for foreign millionaires in western Paris.

Eid, who was also not present in court, has said he was tied up and ordered to kiss the feet of the princess, who is thought to be in her 40s and is lionised in the Saudi in state-run media for charity work and women’s rights campaigning.

He claimed he was then beaten up and had his tools confiscated during an ordeal that lasted several hours.

In an account given to the Le Point news magazine in France, the workman reported that the princess shouted “‘Kill him, the dog, he doesn’t deserve to live.”

‘Didn’t know his intentions’

The bodyguard Saidi, who accompanies the princess on her travels in Europe and the United States, was the only one of the three main protagonists present for the first hearing, surrounded by his family.

“When I heard the princess cry for help, I came and saw them gripping the phone,” he told the court, referring to the princess and the workman.

“I grabbed him and overpowered him: I did not know his intentions,” he said. “In 12 years of work, we had stories like that. Arabs want photos and the princess is someone very important for them.”

She has been charged with complicity in armed violence, complicity in holding someone against their will, and theft.

Saidi has been charged with armed violence, theft, issuing death threats and holding someone against their will.

The princess is subject to an arrest warrant issued in France in December 2017.

‘One against the other’

The lawyer for Saidi, Yassine Bouzrou, questioned the workman’s version of events.

“My client contests that there was any act of violence and any act of kidnapping,” he told reporters outside the court. “It is the word of one against the word of the other.”

He said there are elements in the case that “contradict the plaintiff’s version” and called for the acquittal of his client.

The workman’s lawyer Georges Karouni said he would prefer comment at the end of the hearing. The Saudi princess’ lawyer Emmanuel Moyne made no comment.

The bodyguard has lodged a separate case for defamation against the workman.

Prince Mohammed sparked hopes of major social and economic reform when he was elevated to crown prince in 2017.

But his reputation was badly damaged by the murder of dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul last year and he is also seen as the driving force in Saudi’s military intervention in Yemen.

Agnes Callamard, a UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, reported “credible evidence” last month that linked the prince to the killing of Khashoggi, who was strangled and dismembered inside the consulate.

AFP

Nicki Minaj Cancels Saudi Concert Over Women’s Rights Concerns

 

Nicki Minaj has cancelled a performance in Saudi Arabia in a show of support for women’s and gay rights in the ultra-conservative kingdom, the US rapper said Tuesday.

Minaj’s scheduled appearance in the western city of Jeddah next week as part of a cultural festival had triggered a social media backlash over human rights in the country.

“After careful reflection, I have decided to no longer move forward with my scheduled concert at Jeddah World Fest,” Minaj said in a statement sent to AFP by her publicist.

“While I want nothing more than to bring my show to fans in Saudi Arabia, after better educating myself on the issues, I believe it is important for me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression.”

Minaj, known for her profanity-laced lyrics and raunchy music videos, was due to perform as the headline act of the festival — to be televised globally on MTV — as the kingdom loosens its decades-old restrictions on entertainment

Others scheduled to perform include British musician Liam Payne and American DJ Steve Aoki.

The New York-based Human Rights Foundation on Friday wrote Minaj an open letter urging her to withdraw from the festival, calling on her to “refuse the regime’s money” and use her global influence to demand the release of jailed Saudi women activists.

Amnesty International have described the Saudi human rights record as “abysmal,” adding that the nation is in the “grip of a sweeping crackdown against critics of the government.”

The festival in Saudi Arabia, which forbids alcohol and has a strict social code, comes as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pursues a sweeping liberalization drive that has led to new cinemas, concerts and sporting extravaganzas.

The reform is seen by some as an attempt to blunt public frustration over an economic downturn and high youth unemployment.

Saudi Arabia is also moving to boost domestic spending on entertainment and tourism, as the kingdom has reeled from low oil prices.

While Saudi Arabia is yet to offer tourist visas, the country has fast-tracked electronic permits for international visitors to attend such festivals to further boost revenue.