Saudi state media reported that Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince and a delegation of ministers arrived in neighbouring Qatar on Sunday morning to attend the opening ceremony of the World Cup.
Mohammed bin Salman was accompanied by the kingdom’s energy, interior, foreign, commerce and investment ministers as well as senior officials including his national security adviser and head of the National Guard, the official Saudi Press Agency said.
Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s 37-year-old de facto ruler, orchestrated a regional blockade of Qatar beginning in June 2017, the same month he became first in line to the throne.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Doha over allegations it supported extremists and was too close to arch-rival Iran — allegations Doha denied.
The quartet agreed to lift the restrictions at a Gulf Cooperation Council summit in January 2021 in the Saudi city of Al-Ula.
Prince Mohammed travelled to Qatar in December of last year and, along with its emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, visited Lusail Stadium, which will be the venue for the final of this year’s World Cup.
It was not immediately clear how long Prince Mohammed, who recently completed a multi-country tour of Asia, intended to stay in Qatar.
The Saudi Green Falcons are scheduled to play their first match against Argentina on Tuesday.
The 34-year-old had initially been given a six-year sentence in June, including three years that were suspended and a travel ban of the same length, before the appeals court toughened the sentence this month.
Her latest sentence can be appealed within 30 days at the kingdom’s supreme court, according to the court documents.
London-based rights group ALQST denounced the ruling, describing it as the “Saudi authorities’ longest prison sentence ever for a peaceful activist”.
“This appalling sentence makes a mockery of the Saudi authorities’ claims of reform for women and of the legal system,” said Lina al-Hathloul, ALQST’s head of communications.
A close friend of Shehab who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity said she “did not believe her activity on Twitter would cause her any problems until she was surprised by her arrest”.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, has been credited with introducing various reforms in favour of women, such as lifting the ban on driving and the requirement to wear a headscarf.
But such reforms have been accompanied by a crackdown on women’s rights activists, part of a broader campaign against dissent.
The OPEC+ group of oil exporters meets Wednesday to discuss another output increase, weeks after US President Joe Biden sought to persuade Saudi Arabia to boost production during a controversial visit to the country.
The White House has been pressing the oil cartel to step up production to tame prices that have surged since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February.
But the group, which is led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, has stuck to modest increases so far.
The 13-member Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, along with 10 allies that include Russia, had slashed production at the height of the Covid pandemic in 2020 after a plunge in demand caused prices to sink.
The group began to raise production last year, agreeing to add 400,000 barrels per day to the market. It backed an increase of nearly 650,000 barrels per day in June, still not enough to spark a big drop in oil prices.
The alliance’s output is back to pre-virus levels, but just on paper as a few members have struggled to meet their quotas.
All eyes will be on whether OPEC+ sticks to the same output policy or steps it up.
Biden travelled to Saudi Arabia in mid-July to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite his promise to make the kingdom a “pariah” in the wake of the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Part of the reason for the controversial trip was to convince Riyadh to continue loosening the production taps to stabilise the market and curb rampant inflation.
After his meetings with Saudi leaders in mid-July, Biden said he was “doing all I can” to increase the oil supply but added that concrete results would not be seen “for another couple weeks” — and it was unclear what those might be.
Wednesday’s meeting will reveal whether his efforts were successful.
“The US administration appears to be anticipating some good news but it’s hard to know whether that’s based on assurances during Biden’s trip or not,” Craig Erlam, analyst at OANDA trading platform, told AFP.
Stephen Innes, managing partner at SPI Asset Management, said it “wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Saudis announce something that Biden could tout as a win to voters at home.”
According to the London-based research institute Energy Aspects, OPEC+ could adjust its current agreement in order to keep raising crude production volumes.
However, analysts warn against expecting any drastic increases.
OPEC+ has to take into account the fact that the interests of Russia — a key player in the alliance — are diametrically opposed to those of Washington.
“Saudi Arabia has to walk a fine line,” said Tamas Varga, analyst at PVM Energy.
Any decision on Wednesday will have to be unanimous, which may lead to a longer meeting than normal.
“Any new OPEC+ deal aimed at further ramping up supplies is likely to be met with market scepticism, considering the supply constraints already evident within the alliance,” said Han Tan, chief market analyst at Exinity.
The group will decide output policy under a new secretary general, Kuwait’s Haitham Al-Ghais, who took office on Monday following the death of Nigeria’s Mohammed Barkindo last month.
“I look forward to working with all our Member Countries and our many partners around the world to ensure a sustainable and inclusive energy future which leaves no one behind,” Al-Ghais said in a statement.
The Saudi Media Group bid to buy Chelsea has failed to make the final shortlist, according to British media reports on Thursday.
The Saudi consortium were one of a host of bidders attempting to buy the troubled Premier League club from Russia owner Roman Abramovich.
The Raine Group, handling the sale after Abramovich’s assets were frozen by the British Government following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has started informing prospective buyers of the status on their offers.
The Saudis, whose consortium was fronted by Blues fan Mohamed Al Khereiji, are reportedly the first to be told their bid for the Chelsea has been rejected.
Most of the previously announced strikes were in Abdiya about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Marib — the internationally recognised government’s last bastion in oil-rich northern Yemen.
“Operations targeted 11 military vehicles and killed more than 82 terrorist elements” in the past 24 hours in the districts of Al-Jawba and Al-Kassara, the coalition fighting in Yemen said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.
Al-Jawba lies about 50 kilometres south of the city and Al-Kassara is about 30 kilometres northwest.
According to a government military official on Wednesday, the Huthis have made “small advances” in Al-Jawba amid clashes with loyalist troops.
The Huthis began a major push to seize Marib in February and have renewed their offensive since September after a lull.
The Yemeni civil war began in 2014 when the Huthis seized the capital Sanaa, 120 kilometres (75 miles) west of Marib, prompting Saudi-led forces to intervene to prop up the government the following year.
Tens of thousands of people have died and millions have been displaced in what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The seven years of conflict have killed or injured at least 10,000 children, the United Nations children’s fund, UNICEF, said on Tuesday after a mission to the country.
The Saudi-led takeover of Newcastle United has been approved, the Premier League announced on Thursday.
“The Premier League, Newcastle United Football Club and St James Holdings Limited have today settled the dispute over the takeover of the club by the consortium of PIF, PCP Capital Partners and RB Sports & Media,” the Premier League said in a statement.
“Following the completion of the Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ Test, the club has been sold to the consortium with immediate effect.”
The deal went ahead despite warnings from Amnesty International that it represents “sportswashing” of the Gulf kingdom’s human rights record.
It brings to an end Newcastle’s 14 years of ownership under Mike Ashley.
Public Investment Fund (PIF) governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan said: “We are extremely proud to become the new owners of Newcastle United, one of the most famous clubs in English football.
“We thank the Newcastle fans for their tremendously loyal support over the years and we are excited to work together with them.”
Amanda Staveley, chief executive officer of PCP Capital Partners, said: “This is a long-term investment. We are excited about the future prospects for Newcastle United.”
Saudi Arabia warned on Tuesday that citizens visiting destinations on its list of countries blacklisted due to COVID-19 will face three-year travel bans following their return.
Those found to have travelled to restricted countries would face “hefty penalties… as well as being prevented from travelling abroad for a period of three years”, the Interior Ministry said on Twitter.
“Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the spread of new variants, the ministry warns against travelling to countries on its (restricted) list, whether directly or indirectly via other countries.”
According to the kingdom’s state airline Saudia, citizens are barred from travelling to 16 countries, including the neighbouring United Arab Emirates.
In its latest update to travel restrictions earlier this month, Riyadh said it had suspended flights to the UAE, Ethiopia and Vietnam to protect against a coronavirus variant.
The move comes after the oil-rich kingdom permitted fully immunised citizens to travel abroad, after a ban on foreign trips that lasted more than a year.
The UAE, and especially the emirate of Dubai, is a key leisure destination for Saudis.
The decision was taken due to “the spread of a new mutated strain of the (Covid-19) virus”, the interior ministry said at the time, without explicitly mentioning the increasingly widespread Delta variant.
The variant, first detected in India and now present in dozens of countries around the world, is the most contagious of any Covid-19 strain yet identified.
The UAE announced in June it had recorded cases of the Delta variant.
Saudi Arabia meanwhile put major limits on the annual hajj pilgrimage in an effort to combat infections.
It has officially recorded more than 520,000 cases of coronavirus, including 8,189 deaths.
A senior Saudi official said on Thursday he rejected claims that he issued a death threat against UN investigator Agnes Callamard following her probe into journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 murder.
At a meeting with UN officials in Geneva in January 2020, a senior Saudi official threatened twice to have Callamard “taken care of” if she was not restrained by the United Nations, the Guardian newspaper reported this week.
Without naming the Saudi official, Callamard — the UN’s special rapporteur on the extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions — told the British newspaper that the comment was perceived by her Geneva-based colleagues as a “death threat”.
Awwad Alawwad, the head of Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission, on Thursday said Callamard and UN officials believed he had made the threat.
“I reject this suggestion in the strongest terms,” Alawwad, who is the kingdom’s former media minister, wrote on Twitter.
“While I cannot recall the exact conversations, I never would have desired or threatened any harm upon an UN-appointed individual, or anyone for that matter.
“I am disheartened that anything I have said could be interpreted as a threat.”
There was no immediate comment from Callamard or the UN.
Khashoggi, a Saudi insider-turned-critic who wrote for The Washington Post, was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The gruesome murder by Saudi agents tarnished the reputation of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and plunged the kingdom into its biggest diplomatic crisis in years.
Callamard’s report, published in June 2019, concluded that there was “credible evidence” that top Saudi officials, including Prince Mohammed, were liable for the killing.
Late last month, Washington released a long-delayed intelligence report that accused Prince Mohammed of approving Khashoggi’s murder. The report drew a rebuke from Riyadh, which strongly rejected the assessment.
But Washington stopped short of sanctioning the crown prince.
Callamard called US inaction against Prince Mohammed “extremely worrisome”.
“It is extremely, in my view, problematic if not dangerous to acknowledge someone’s culpability and then to tell that someone that we won’t do anything,” Callamard said.
Iraq and Saudi Arabia on Wednesday reopened their land border for the first time in 30 years, with closer trade ties between the two countries irking allies of Riyadh’s rival, Tehran.
Top officials including Iraq’s interior minister and the head of its border commission travelled from Baghdad to formally open the Arar crossing.
They met up with a delegation who had joined them from Riyadh, all in masks, and cut a red ribbon at the border crossing as a line of cargo trucks waited behind them.
Arar will be open to both goods and people for the first time since Riyadh cut off its diplomatic relationship with Baghdad in 1990, following Iraqi ex-dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
Ties have remained rocky ever since, but current Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi has a close personal relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Kadhemi was to travel to Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as prime minister in May, but the visit was cancelled at the last minute when Saudi King Salman was hospitalised.
He has yet to make the trip, although Iraqi ministers have visited Riyadh to meet with their counterparts and a top-level Saudi delegation travelled to Baghdad last week.
Baghdad sees Arar as a potential alternative to its crossings with eastern neighbour Iran, through which Iraq brings in a large share of its imports.
The two Arab states are also exploring the reopening of a second border point at Al-Jumayma, along Iraq’s southern border with the Saudi kingdom.
– ‘Let them invest’ –
But pro-Iran factions in Iraq, which call themselves the “Islamic Resistance,” have stood firmly against closer ties with Saudi Arabia.
Ahead of Arar’s opening, one such group identifying itself as Ashab al-Kahf published a statement announcing its “rejection of the Saudi project in Iraq”.
“The intelligence cadres of the Islamic Resistance are following all the details of the Saudi enemy’s activities on the Iraqi border,” it warned.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday evening, Kadhemi fired back against those describing the rapprochement as Saudi “colonialism”.
“This is a lie. It’s shameful,” he said.
“Let them invest. Welcome to Iraq,” Kadhemi added, saying Saudi investment could bring in a flood of new jobs to Iraq where more than one-third of youth are unemployed.
The closer ties have been a long time coming.
They did not improve much after Saddam’s toppling in the 2003 US-led invasion, as Riyadh looked at the new Shiite-dominated political class with suspicion due to their ties to Iran.
A thaw began in 2017 when then Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir travelled to Baghdad — the first such visit in decades — followed by a Riyadh trip by Iraqi premier Haider al-Abadi.
The first commercial flights resumed between the two countries and officials began discussing Arar, with high-profile US diplomat Brett McGurk even visiting the crossing in 2017 to support its reopening.
But those plans were repeatedly delayed, with Arar only opened on rare occasions to allow through Iraqi religious pilgrims on their way to Mecca for the hajj.
– More in the works? –
Iraq is the second-largest producer in the OPEC oil cartel, outranked only by Saudi Arabia.
Its oil, gas and electricity infrastructure is severely outdated and inefficient but low oil prices this year have stymied efforts to revamp it.
Baghdad is also notoriously slow to activate external investment, with international firms and foreign countries complaining that rampant corruption hamstrings more investment.
Kadhemi’s government has sought to fast-track foreign investment including Saudi support for energy and agriculture.
On his trip to Washington this summer, he agreed to a half-dozen projects that would use Saudi funding to finance US energy firms.
Last year, Iraq signed a deal to plug into the Gulf Cooperation Council’s power grid and add up to 500 MW of electricity to its dilapidated electricity sector.
Those deals too have been criticised by pro-Iran factions in Iraq.
A Saudi fighter jet crashed in conflict-torn Yemen, the Riyadh-led military coalition supporting the government announced Saturday, as the Iran-backed Huthi rebels said they downed the plane.
The Tornado aircraft came down on Friday in northern Al-Jawf province during an operation to assist Yemeni government forces, the coalition said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.
It did not specify the fate of the crew or the cause of the crash.
The Huthis’ Al-Masirah television said the jet was downed by the rebels using an “advanced surface-to-air missile”.
The insurgents reported multiple coalition air strikes on Saturday in the Huthi-controlled area where the plane went down as local residents gathered near the wreckage, according to Al-Masirah.
The bombing raids left “dozens” of people dead or wounded, Al-Masirah added, a claim that could not be immediately verified by local aid workers.
The coalition intervened against the Huthis in 2015, first with air and naval forces and later with ground forces as well.
The fighting has killed tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians, and sparked what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The coalition has been widely criticised for the high civilian death toll from its bombing campaign, which has prompted some Western governments to cut arms deliveries to the countries taking part.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have purchased billions of dollars’ worth of weapons from the United States, France and Britain.
On Wednesday, the coalition said it would put on trial military personnel suspected of being behind deadly air strikes on Yemeni civilians.
The cases being investigated include a 2018 air strike on a school bus in the northern region of Dahyan that killed at least 40 children, Saudi-based Arab News said.
A Saudi criminal court sentenced a Yemeni man to death Sunday for a knife attack on a Spanish theatre group performing in Riyadh last month, state television said.
The court also sentenced an accomplice to 12 years and six months in jail for the November 11 attack which Riyadh has linked to militant group Al-Qaeda, and which Madrid said left four performers wounded.
“The criminal court issues a preliminary ruling handing the death sentence to the perpetrator of the terrorist attack… in Riyadh,” the official Al-Ekhbariya television reported.
The assailant, identified by Saudi police as a 33-year-old Yemeni, went on a stabbing spree during a live musical in the capital’s King Abdullah Park, one of the venues hosting the two-month “Riyadh Season” entertainment festival.
Last week, Al-Ekhbariya said the attacker took orders from an Al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, but so far there has been no claim of responsibility from the group.
Al-Ekhbariya did not offer any details on his alleged accomplice.
Saudi Arabia is leading a military coalition supporting the Yemeni government against the Iran-backed Huthi rebels and has also been involved in the fight against Al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is active in Yemen, is considered by the United States as the radical group’s most dangerous branch.
Observers also point at burbling resentment among arch-conservatives in the kingdom over the multi-billion dollar entertainment push.
The Riyadh Season festival is part of a broad government push to open up the kingdom to tourists and diversify its economy away from oil.
De facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pursued sweeping social reforms that mark the biggest cultural shakeup in the kingdom’s modern history, allowing mixed-gender concerts and the reopening of cinemas.
Although the reforms are wildly popular among Saudi Arabia’s mainly young population, they risk angering religious hardliners in the deeply conservative nation.