Saudi Arabia implements end to travel restrictions for Saudi women: agency

A Saudi woman walks with her luggage as she arrives at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, August 5, 2019. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has begun allowing adult women to travel without permission and to exercise more control over family matters, state news agency SPA reported on Tuesday, following a flurry of royal decrees approving the changes.

Riyadh has long faced international criticism over the status of Saudi women. Rights groups say women are often treated as second-class citizens under rules requiring them to get the consent of a male guardian for important decisions throughout their entire lives, regardless of age.

The authorities have steadily chipped away at those restrictions in recent years, including ending a ban on women driving cars last year. A series of royal decrees published earlier this month further eroded that system as the kingdom comes under increased scrutiny over its human rights record.

The regulatory changes stipulated that a Saudi passport should be issued to any citizen who applies for it and that any person above the age of 21 does not need permission to travel.

They also granted women for the first time the right to register childbirth, marriage or divorce and to be issued official family documents and be eligible as a guardian to children who are minors.

“The passports and civil status departments and their branches in all regions of the kingdom have started to implement the amendments stipulated in the royal decree,” the SPA report said, citing an interior ministry source.

A Saudi newspaper reported that more than 1,000 women in the country’s Eastern Province had left Saudi Arabia on Monday without their guardian’s permission, in what appeared to be an early implementation of the new rules.

(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Muslim pilgrims descend on Mecca for haj, Saudis warn against politics

Muslims pray at the Grand Mosque during the annual Haj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia August 6, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Ahmad Elhamy

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of white-clad pilgrims, many gripping umbrellas to ward off Saudi Arabia’s blistering summer sun, descended on Mecca this week ahead of the annual haj.

Saudi officials asked Muslims to focus on rituals of worship, warning against politicizing the rite as wars rage on in the region and at a time of heightened tensions between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Muslim adversary Iran.

“Haj…is not a place for political conflicts or to raise sectarian slogans that divide Muslims,” Abdulrahman al-Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, told reporters.

Mecca Governor Prince Khalid al-Faisal asked worshippers earlier this week to “leave all other matters in your countries to discuss when you are back”.

Saudi Arabia stakes its reputation on its guardianship of Islam’s holiest sites and organizing a peaceful haj, which has been marred in the past by deadly stampedes, fires and riots.

Authorities said more than 1.8 million pilgrims had so far arrived in the kingdom for the world’s largest annual Muslim gathering, which retraces the route the Prophet Mohammad took 14 centuries ago.

Outside the Grand Mosque, the world’s largest, temperatures topped 40 degrees Celsius as industrial fans sprayed water.

“All of this is for the sake of the haj,” 43-year-old Fatima Sayed from Giza, Egypt, said of the searing heat. “We applied twice before but God didn’t permit it, and, thank God, it was a very big surprise that He ordained it for me this year.”

Every able-bodied Muslim who has the means should perform the haj at least once in their lifetime under a quota system.

Saudi Arabia has made use of technology to manage the flow of millions at the same place at the same time. This includes electronic identification bracelets, connected to GPS, that were introduced after a 2015 crush killed hundreds of people.

A new highspeed railway linking Mecca and Medina, Islam’s second most sacred site, is being used during the haj season for the first time after its inauguration last September.

The pilgrimage is the backbone of a plan to expand tourism under a drive to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil. The haj and the umrah, the year-round lesser pilgrimage, generate billions of dollars in revenues from worshippers’ lodging, transport, fees and gifts.

Amjad Khan, a pharmacist from Manchester in Britain, said the new measures made the pilgrimage a smoother experience.

“Here in the company of our brothers from all over the world, it’s a very good feeling,” Khan, 36, said.

(Reporting by Ahmad Elhamy; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Saudi Arabia and Russia among 37 states backing China’s Xinjiang policy

FILE PHOTO: People hold signs protesting China's treatment of the Uighur people, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia, Russia and 35 other states have written to the United Nations supporting China’s policies in its western region of Xinjiang, according to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters on Friday, in contrast to strong Western criticism.

China has been accused of detaining a million Muslims and persecuting ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, and 22 ambassadors signed a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council this week criticizing its policies.

But the letter supporting China commended what it called China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.

“Faced with the grave challenge of terrorism and extremism, China has undertaken a series of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang, including setting up vocational education and training centers,” the letter said.

The letter said security had returned to Xinjiang and the fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic groups there had been safeguarded. It added there had been no terrorist attack there for three years and people enjoyed a stronger sense of happiness, fulfillment and security.

As well as Saudi Arabia and Russia, the letter was signed by ambassadors from many African countries, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Belarus, Myanmar, the Philippines, Syria, Pakistan, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Beijing has denied any human rights violations in the region and Chinese Ambassador Xu Chen, speaking at the close of the Council’s three-week session on Friday, said China highly appreciated the support it had received from the signatories.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Frances Kerry)

U.S. seeks funds for Middle East peace plan but details are vague and Palestinians unhappy

Palestinians burn a picture of U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and representations of Israeli flags during a protest against Bahrain's workshop for U.S. Middle East peace plan, in Gaza City, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Matt Spetalnick

MANAMA (Reuters) – The Trump administration prepared to launch its $50 billion economic formula for Israeli-Palestinian peace in Bahrain on Tuesday but the Palestinian leadership reiterated its disdain for the plan and Saudi Arabia, envisaged as one of its main bank-rollers, also indicated some reservations.

Bahraini armoured vehicle takes up position on bridge leading to Manama’s Four Seasons hotel for first day of U.S.-hosted “Peace to Prosperity” conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

Bahraini armoured vehicle takes up position on bridge leading to Manama’s Four Seasons hotel for first day of U.S.-hosted “Peace to Prosperity” conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

The two-day international meeting, led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, has been billed as the first part of Washington’s broader political blueprint to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the political details of the plan, which has been almost two years in the making, remain a secret. Neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments will attend the curtain-raising event in Manama, which Lebanon and Iraq are staying away from.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was scathing about its prospects of success.

“Money is important. The economy is important. But politics are more important. The political solution is more important.”

Washington will be hoping that attendees in Manama such as wealthy Gulf states will show a concrete interest in the plan, which expects donor nations and investors to contribute $50 billion to Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia – a close U.S. ally which shares a common foe with Israel in Iran – voiced support on Tuesday for “international efforts aimed at improving prosperity, investment and economic growth in the region”.

But Riyadh reiterated that any peace deal should be based on the Saudi-led Arab peace initiative that has been the Arab consensus on the necessary elements for a deal since 2002.

That plan calls for a Palestinian state drawn along borders which predate Israel’s capture of territory in the 1967 Middle East war, as well as a capital in East Jerusalem and refugees’ right of return – points rejected by Israel.

Kushner said the plan would not adhere to the Arab initiative. “It will be somewhere between the Arab Peace Initiative and between the Israeli position,” he told Al Jazeera TV in an interview to air on Tuesday.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Kushner is “committed to the initiatives of Israel’s colonial settlement councils.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, said Israel was open to the plan. “We’ll hear the American proposition, hear it fairly and with openness,” he said on Sunday.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrive at Manama's Four Seasons hotel, the venue for the U.S.-hosted "Peace to Prosperity" conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrive at Manama’s Four Seasons hotel, the venue for the U.S.-hosted “Peace to Prosperity” conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

Expectations for success are low. The Trump team concedes the economic plan – billed “Peace to Prosperity” – will be implemented only if a political solution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts is reached.

Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab states to have reached peace with Israel, are sending deputy finance ministers. Kushner’s plan has hit a political nerve in Jordan, home to millions of citizens of Palestinian refugee origin.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates want to move on from a Palestinian conflict they believe has held back the Arab world. Other Gulf states such as Kuwait, Qatar and Oman have not said who they are sending to the conference.

“If there is a one percent chance we do something good here, we should get together and try,” billionaire Mohamed Alabbar, one of Dubai’s most prominent businessmen, said after arriving at the venue in Manama and embracing two American rabbis.

POLITICAL PLAN?

It is not clear whether the Trump team plans to abandon the “two-state solution,” which involves creation of an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.

The United Nations and most nations back the two-state solution and it has underpinned every peace plan for decades.

But Trump’s team has consistently refused to commit to it, keeping the political stage of the plan a secret.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the pursuit of “peace efforts to realize the vision of two States, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security”.

Any such solution would have to settle long-standing issues such as the status of Jerusalem, mutually agreed borders, satisfying Israel’s security concerns and Palestinian demands for statehood, and the fate of Israel’s settlements and military presence in territory in Palestinians want to build that state.

In Gaza, businesses closed doors in a general strike called by the ruling Islamist Hamas group and other factions.

In the West Bank on the outskirts of Ramallah, where a small crowd of protesters was dispersed by Israeli troops firing tear gas, Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti said: “There can be no economic solution as a substitute for our freedom.”

The workshop is being held in Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, at a time of heightened tension between Tehran and Washington and its Gulf allies. Trump on Monday imposed sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader and other officials after Iran downed an U.S. drone last week.

Palestinian leaders have boycotted the conference, and are refusing to engage with the White House – accusing it of pro-Israel bias. Breaking with international convention, Trump in 2017 recognized disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a move that infuriated the Palestinians and other Arabs.

Seven Palestinian businessmen gathered in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel, the conference venue. They estimated that 15 to 20 Palestinian business representatives would be present.

“The politicians will not bring us anywhere,” said conference attendee Shlomi Fogel, an Israeli entrepreneur. “We, the business people, should be able to show them there might be another way.”

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Stephen Farrell; Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Rami Ayyub in Ramallah; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Trump imposes new U.S. sanctions on Iran, including supreme leader

U.S. President Donald Trump displays an executive order imposing fresh sanctions on Iran in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Steve Holland and Stephen Kalin

WASHINGTON/RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump imposed new U.S. sanctions on Iran on Monday following Tehran’s downing of an unmanned American drone and said the measures would target Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Trump told reporters he was signing an executive order for the sanctions amid tensions between the United States and Iran that have grown since May, when Washington ordered all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil.

Trump also said the sanctions would have been imposed regardless of the incident over the drone. He said the supreme leaders was ultimately responsible for what Trump called “the hostile conduct of the regime.”

“Sanctions imposed through the executive order … will deny the Supreme Leader and the Supreme Leader’s office, and those closely affiliated with him and the office, access to key financial resources and support,” Trump said.

The Trump administration wants to force Tehran to open talks on its nuclear and missile programs and its activities in the region.

Iran said on Monday U.S. cyber attacks on its military had failed, as Washington sought to rally support in the Middle East and Europe for a hardline stance that has brought it to the verge of conflict with its longtime foe.

Washington has blamed Tehran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf in recent weeks, which Iran denies. On Monday, the United States said it was building a coalition with allies to protect Gulf shipping lanes.

A coalition of nations would provide both material and financial contributions to the program, a senior U.S. State Department official said, without identifying the countries.

“It’s about proactive deterrence, because the Iranians just want to go out and do what they want to do and say hey we didn’t do it. We know what they’ve done,” the official told reporters, adding that the deterrents would include cameras, binoculars and ships.

The United States accuses Iran of encouraging allies in Yemen to attack Saudi targets.

In a joint statement on Monday, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Britain expressed concern over Middle East tensions and the dangers posed by Iranian “destabilizing activity” to peace and security in Yemen and the region.

The confrontation between Iran and the United States heated up last Thursday when Iran shot down an American drone, saying it had flown over its air space.

Washington, which said the drone was in international skies, then appeared to come close to attacking Iranian military targets, with Trump saying that he aborted a retaliatory air strike 10 minutes before it was to go ahead.

Trump said he decided the strike, to punish Iran for shooting down the drone, would have killed too many people.

U.S. media have reported that Washington launched cyber attacks last week even as Trump called off his air strike. The Washington Post said on Saturday that the cyber strikes, which had been planned previously, had disabled Iranian rocket launch systems. U.S. officials have declined to comment.

FEARS OF WAR

Iran dismissed the cyber attacks as a failure.

“They try hard, but have not carried out a successful attack,” Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s minister for information and communications technology, said on Twitter.

“Media asked if the claimed cyber attacks against Iran are true,” he said. “Last year we neutralized 33 million attacks with the (national) firewall.”

Allies of the United States have been calling for steps to defuse the crisis, saying they fear a small mistake by either side could trigger war.

“We are very concerned. We don’t think either side wants a war, but we are very concerned that we could get into an accidental war and we are doing everything we can to ratchet things down,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jetted to the Middle East to discuss Iran with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two Gulf Arab allies that favor a hard line. Pompeo met King Salman as well as the king’s son, de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The U.S. special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, visited Oman and was headed to Europe to explain U.S. policy to allies. He told European reporters on a phone call ahead of his arrival that Trump was willing to sit down with Iran, but that Iran must do a deal before sanctions could be lifted.

CONCESSIONS

U.S.-Iran relations have deteriorated over the past year since the United States abandoned a 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions.

U.S. allies in Europe and Asia view Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal as a mistake that strengthens hardliners in Iran and weakens the pragmatic faction of President Hassan Rouhani.

France, Britain and Germany have sent an official diplomatic warning to Iran if Tehran reduces its compliance with the accord, two European diplomats said on Monday.

It was not immediately clear what consequences Iran might face for non-compliance.

Washington argues that the agreement known as the JCPOA, negotiated under Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, did not go far enough, and new sanctions are needed to force Iran back to the table to make more concessions.

Both sides have suggested they are willing to hold talks while demanding the other side move first. In the latest comment from Tehran, an adviser to Rouhani repeated a longstanding demand that Washington lift sanctions before any talks.

But the adviser, Hesameddin Ashena, also tweeted a rare suggestion that Iran could be willing to discuss new concessions, if Washington were willing to put new incentives on the table that go beyond those in the deal.

“If they want something beyond the JCPOA, they should offer something beyond the JCPOA; with international guarantees.”

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Stephen Kalin in Jeddah; Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Peter Graff and Grant McCool; Editing by Jon Boyle and Howard Goller)

Has ‘the sacrificial lamb’ arrived?: U.N. cites new recordings in Khashoggi murder

FILE PHOTO: Participants take photos next to a picture of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the Misk Global Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo

RIYADH (Reuters) – Moments before Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered last October, two of his suspected murderers laying in wait at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate fretted about the task at hand, according to a U.N. report published on Wednesday.

Will it “be possible to put the trunk in a bag?” asked Maher Mutreb, a Saudi intelligence officer who worked for a senior advisor to Saudi crown prince, according to a report from the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions.

“No. Too heavy,” responded Salah al-Tubaigy, a forensic doctor from the Interior Ministry who would dismember and dispose of the body. He expressed hope his task would “be easy”.

Tubaiqy continued: “Joints will be separated. It is not a problem. The body is heavy. First time I cut on the ground. If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished. We will wrap each of them.”

Mutreb and 10 others are now standing trial in closed hearings in Saudi Arabia for their role in the crime.

Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, rejected the investigator’s report as “nothing new”.

He added in a tweet: “The report of the rapporteur in the human rights council contains clear contradictions and baseless allegations which challenge its credibility.”

The report, which calls for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other senior Saudi officials to be investigated over their liability for Khashoggi’s death, relies on recordings and forensic work conducted by Turkish investigators and information from the trials of the suspects in Saudi Arabia.

Khashoggi, a critic of the prince and a Washington Post columnist, was last seen at the consulate where he was to receive papers ahead of his wedding.

TEXT MESSAGE

The report concludes that his murder was deliberate and premeditated. The CIA and some Western countries believe the crown prince ordered the killing, which Saudi officials deny.

Media reports have published the contents of some recordings obtained from inside the consulate, but the U.N. report discloses chilling new details.

At the end of the exchange with Tobaigy, Mutreb asks if “the sacrificial lamb” has arrived. At no point is Khashoggi’s name mentioned, but two minutes later he enters the building.

Khashoggi is ushered to the consul general’s office on the second floor where he meets Mutreb, whom he knew from when they worked together at the Saudi Embassy in London years earlier.

Mutreb tells Khashoggi to send his son a mobile text message.

“What should I say? See you soon? I can’t say kidnapping,” Khashoggi responds.

“Cut it short,” comes the reply. “Take off your jacket.”

“How could this happen in an embassy?” Khashoggi says. “I will not write anything.”

“Type it, Mr. Jamal. Hurry up. Help us so that we can help you because at the end we will take you back to Saudi Arabia and if you don’t help us you know what will happen at the end; let this issue find a good end,” Mutreb says.

The report says the rest of the recordings contain sounds of movement, heavy panting and plastic sheets being wrapped, which Turkish intelligence concluded came after Khashoggi’s death as Saudi officials dismembered his body.

(Reporting By Stephen Kalin, Editing by William Maclean)

Tanker attacks in Gulf of Oman fuel security, oil supply fears

An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. ISNA/Handout via REUTERS

By Lisa Barrington and Rania El Gamal

DUBAI (Reuters) – Attacks on two oil tankers on Thursday in the Gulf of Oman left one ablaze and both adrift, shipping firms said, driving oil prices up 4% over worries about Middle East supplies.

The Front Altair was on fire in waters between Gulf Arab states and Iran after an explosion that a source blamed on a magnetic mine. The crew of the Norwegian vessel were picked up by a vessel in the area and passed to an Iranian rescue boat.

A second Japanese-owned tanker was abandoned after being hit by a suspected torpedo, the firm that chartered the ship said. The crew were also picked up.

The attacks were the second in a month near the Strait of Hormuz, a major strategic waterway for world oil supplies.

The United States and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for last month’s attacks using limpet mines on four tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a charge Tehran denies.

There were no immediate statements apportioning blame after Thursday’s incidents.

“We need to remember that some 30% of the world’s (seaborne) crude oil passes through the straits. If the waters are becoming unsafe, the supply to the entire Western world could be at risk,” said Paolo Amico, chairman of INTERTANKO tanker association.

Tensions have risen since President Donald Trump, who has demanded Tehran curb its military programs and influence in the Middle East, pulled the United States out of a deal between Iran and global powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Thursday’s attacks came as Shinzo Abe – prime minister of U.S. ally Japan, a big importer of Iranian oil until Washington ratcheted up sanctions – was visiting Tehran with a message from Trump. Abe urged all sides not to let tensions escalate.

The Bahrain-based U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet said it was assisting the two tankers on Thursday after receiving distress calls. Britain said it was “deeply concerned” about Thursday’s reported explosions and was working with partners on the issue.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described Thursday’s incidents as “suspicious” on Twitter, noting they occurred during Abe’s Tehran visit. The minister called for regional dialogue.

Oman and the United Arab Emirates, which both have coastlines along the Gulf of Oman, did not immediately issue any public comment.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both majority Sunni Muslim nations with a long-running rivalry with predominantly Shi’ite Iran, have previously said attacks on oil assets in the Gulf pose a risk to global oil supplies and regional security.

An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. ISNA/Handout via REUTERS

An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, June 13, 2019. ISNA/Handout via REUTERS

EXPLOSION

Bernhard Schulte Ship management said the Kokuka Courageous was damaged in a “suspected attack” that breached the hull above the waterline while transporting methanol from Saudi Arabia to Singapore.

It said the ship was afloat and the crew safe with one minor injury reported.

A shipping broker said the blast that struck the Kokuka Courageous might have been caused by a magnetic mine. “Kokuka Courageous is adrift without any crew on board,” the source said.

Japan’s Kokuka Sangyo, owner of the Kokuka Courageous, said its ship was hit twice over a three-hour period.

Taiwan’s state oil refiner CPC said the Front Altair, owned by Norway’s Frontline, was “suspected of being hit by a torpedo” around 0400 GMT carrying a Taiwan-bound cargo of 75,000 tonnes of petrochemical feedstock naphtha, which Refinitiv Eikon data showed had been picked up from Ruwais in the UAE.

Frontline said its vessel was on fire but afloat, denying a report by the Iranian news agency IRNA that the vessel had sunk.

Front Altair’s 23-member crew abandoned ship after the blast and were picked up by the nearby Hyundai Dubai vessel. The crew was then passed to an Iranian rescue boat, Hyundai Merchant Marine said in a statement.

Iranian search and rescue teams picked up 44 sailors from the two damaged tankers and took them to the Iranian port of Jask, Iran’s IRNA reported.

Thursday’s attacks came a day after Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis fired a missile on an airport in Saudi Arabia, injuring 26 people. The Houthis also claimed an armed drone strike last month on Saudi oil pumping stations.

Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei told Abe during his visit to Iran that Tehran would not repeat its “bitter experience” of negotiating with the United States, state media reported.

“I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in future,” the Iranian leader said.

(Reporting by Koustav Samanta and Jessica Jaganathan in Singapore, Liang-Sa Loh and Yimou Lee in Taipei, Terje Solsvik in Oslo, Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai, Hyunjoo Jin in Seoul and Jonathan Saul in London; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Jon Boyle and Alison Williams)

Trump, Saudi Arabia warn Iran against Middle East conflict

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir speaks during a news conference with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (not pictured) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

By Marwa Rashad and Stephen Kalin

RIYADH (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump issued a new threat to Tehran on Sunday, tweeting that a conflict would be the “official end” of Iran, as Saudi Arabia warned it stood ready to respond with “all strength” and said it was up to Iran to avoid war.

The heightened rhetoric follows last week’s attacks on Saudi oil assets and the firing of a rocket on Sunday into Baghdad’s heavily fortified “Green Zone” that exploded near the U.S. embassy.

“If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” Trump said in a tweet without elaborating.

A U.S. State Department official said the rocket attack in Baghdad did not hit a U.S.-inhabited facility and produced no casualties nor any significant damage. No claims of responsibility had been made, but the United States was taking the incident “very seriously.”

FILE PHOTO: A damaged Andrea Victory ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A damaged Andrea Victory ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

“We have made clear over the past two weeks and again underscore that attacks on U.S. personnel and facilities will not be tolerated and will be responded to in a decisive manner,” the official said in an emailed statement. “We will hold Iran responsible if any such attacks are conducted by its proxy militia forces or elements of such forces, and will respond to Iran accordingly.”

Riyadh, which emphasized that it does not want a war, has accused Tehran of ordering Tuesday’s drone strikes on two oil pumping stations in the kingdom, claimed by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group. Two days earlier, four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

In response, countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) began “enhanced security patrols” in the international waters of the Arabian Gulf area on Saturday, the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet said on Sunday.

Iran has denied involvement in either incident, which come as Washington and the Islamic Republic spar over sanctions and the U.S. military presence in the region, raising concerns about a potential U.S.-Iran conflict.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not want a war in the region nor does it seek that,” Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference on Sunday.

“It will do what it can to prevent this war and at the same time it reaffirms that in the event the other side chooses war, the kingdom will respond with all force and determination, and it will defend itself and its interests.”

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Sunday invited Gulf and Arab leaders to convene emergency summits in Mecca on May 30 to discuss implications of the attacks.

“The current critical circumstances entail a unified Arab and Gulf stance toward the besetting challenges and risks,” the UAE foreign ministry said in a statement.

The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet said in its statement about increased maritime patrols that GCC countries were “specifically increasing communication and coordination with each other in support of regional naval cooperation and maritime security operations in the Arabian Gulf,” with navies and coast guards working with the U.S. Navy.

Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim ally the UAE has not blamed anyone for the tanker sabotage operation, pending an investigation. No-one has claimed responsibility, but two U.S. government sources said last week that U.S. officials believed Iran had encouraged the Houthi group or Iraq-based Shi’ite militias to carry it out.

The drone strike on oil pumping stations, which Riyadh said did not disrupt output or exports, was claimed by the Houthis, who have been battling a Saudi-led military coalition in a war in Yemen since 2015.

FILE PHOTO: A damaged ANDREA VICTORY ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A damaged ANDREA VICTORY ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar/File Photo

The Houthi-controled SABA news agency said on Sunday, citing a military source from the group, that targeting Aramco’s installations last week was the beginning of coming military operations against 300 vital military targets.

Targets include vital military headquarters and facilities in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, as well as their bases in Yemen, the source told SABA.

The head of the Houthis’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, derided Riyadh’s call to convene Arab summits, saying in a Twitter post that they “only know how to support war and destruction”.

A Norwegian insurers’ report seen by Reuters said Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were “highly likely” to have facilitated the attack on vessels near the UAE’s Fujairah emirate, a main bunkering hub lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz.

SAUDI PRINCE CALLS POMPEO

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has dismissed the possibility of war erupting, saying Tehran did not want conflict and no country had the “illusion it can confront Iran”. This stance was echoed by the head of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards on Sunday.

“We are not pursuing war but we are also not afraid of war,” Major General Hossein Salami was cited as saying by the semi-official news agency Tasnim.

Washington has tightened economic sanctions against Iran, trying to cut Tehran’s oil exports to zero, and beefed up the U.S. military presence in the Gulf in response to what it said were Iranian threats to United States troops and interests.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed regional developments, including efforts to strengthen security and stability, in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Saudi Media Ministry tweeted on Sunday.

“We want peace and stability in the region but we will not sit on our hands in light of the continuing Iranian attack,” Jubeir said. “The ball is in Iran’s court and it is up to Iran to determine what its fate will be.”

He said the crew of an Iranian oil tanker that had been towed to Saudi Arabia early this month after a request for help due to engine trouble were still in the kingdom receiving the “necessary care”. The crew are 24 Iranians and two Bangladeshis.

Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran are arch-adversaries in the Middle East, backing opposite sides in several regional wars. In a sign of the heightened tension, Exxon Mobil evacuated foreign staff from an oilfield in neighboring Iraq.

Bahrain on Saturday warned its citizens against travel to Iraq and Iran and asked those already there to return. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has issued an advisory to U.S. commercial airliners flying over the waters of the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to exercise caution.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Dubai, Nandita Bose in Washington, Ali Abdelaty in Cairo, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva; Writing by Stephen Kalin, Ghaida Ghantous and David Lawder; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Mark Potter, Chris Reese and Sandra Maler)

Saudi Arabia says oil facilities outside Riyadh attacked

A technical staff is seen at the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar

By Stephen Kalin and Rania El Gamal

RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia said armed drones had struck two oil pumping stations in the kingdom on Tuesday in what it called a “cowardly” act of terrorism two days after Saudi oil tankers were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

The energy minister of the world’s largest oil exporter said the attack caused a fire, now contained, and minor damage at one pump station, but did not disrupt oil production or exports of crude and petroleum products.

Oil prices spiked on news of the attack on the stations, more than 200 miles (320 km) west of the capital Riyadh. Brent crude futures rose 1.38% to trade at $71.20 by 1114 GMT.

Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih, in comments run by state media, said the drone attack and Sunday’s sabotage of four vessels, including two Saudi tankers, off Fujairah emirate, a major bunkering hub, threatened global oil supplies.

“These attacks prove again that it is important for us to face terrorist entities, including the Houthi militias in Yemen that are backed by Iran,” Falih said in an English-language statement issued by his ministry.

Houthi-run Masirah TV earlier said the group had launched drone attacks on “vital” Saudi installations in response to “continued aggression and blockade” on Yemen.

A Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthis for four years in Yemen to try to restore the internationally recognized government, in a conflict widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Houthis have repeatedly launched drone and missile attacks on Saudi cities, but two Saudi sources told Reuters this was the first time an Aramco facility was hit by drones.

State-run Aramco said it had temporarily shut down the East-West pipeline, known as Petroline, to evaluate its condition. The pipeline mainly transports crude from the kingdom’s eastern fields to Yanbu port, which lies north of Bab al-Mandeb.

The attacks occur amid a war of words between Washington and Tehran over sanctions and U.S. military presence in the region.

The Saudi stock index, which suffered two days of heavy losses, opened 1.5% higher but was trading down 0.3% at 1200 GMT. A Saudi-based banker told Reuters that state funds were supporting local stocks to limit the downside.

IRAN IN FOCUS

The UAE has not revealed details about the nature of the attack on ships near Fujairah port, which lies just outside the Strait of Hormuz, or blamed any party or country.

Iran was a prime suspect in the sabotage on Sunday although Washington had no conclusive proof, a U.S. official familiar with American intelligence said on Monday.

Iran has denied involvement and described the attack on the four commercial vessels as “worrisome and dreadful”. It has called for an investigation.

The U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia said Washington should take what he called “reasonable responses short of war” after it had determined who was behind the attacks near Fujairah.

“We need to do a thorough investigation to understand what happened, why it happened, and then come up with reasonable responses short of war,” Ambassador John Abizaid told reporters in the Saudi capital Riyadh in remarks published on Tuesday.

“It’s not in (Iran’s) interest, it’s not in our interest, it’s not in Saudi Arabia’s interest to have a conflict.”

The U.S. embassy in the UAE advised its citizens to maintain a high level of vigilance on heightened tensions in the region.

Washington has increased sanctions on Tehran, saying it wants to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero, after quitting the 2015 nuclear pact between Iran and global powers last year.

The U.S. Maritime Administration said last week that Iran could target U.S. commercial ships including oil tankers sailing through Middle East waterways. Tehran has called the U.S. military presence “a target” rather than a threat.

A fifth of global oil consumption passes through the Strait of Hormuz from Middle East crude producers to markets in Asia, Europe, North America and beyond. The narrow waterway separates Iran from the Arabian Peninsula.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards threatened last month to close the chokepoint if Tehran was barred from using it.

U.S. President Donald Trump wants to force Tehran to agree a broader arms control accord and has sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Gulf in a show of force against what U.S. officials have said are threats to U.S. troops in the region.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Cornwell, Asma Alsharif, Aziz El Yaakoubi and Davide Barbuscia in Dubai; Writing by Stephen Kalin and Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Iranian lawmaker blames ‘Israeli mischief’ for tanker attacks off UAE coast

FILE PHOTO: A damaged ANDREA VICTORY ship is seen off the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar

GENEVA (Reuters) – The tanker attacks off the coast of the United Arab Emirates were “Israeli mischief,” an Iranian parliamentary spokesman said on Tuesday, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

“The events that took place in the Emirates were Israeli mischief,” Behrouz Nemati said, without providing any details on what role Israel may have played in the attacks.

Saudi Arabia said on Monday that two of its oil tankers were among those attacked off the coast of the Emirates and described it as an attempt to undermine the security of crude supplies amid tensions between the United States and Iran.

The UAE said on Sunday that four commercial vessels were sabotaged near Fujairah emirate, one of the world’s largest bunkering hubs lying just outside the Strait of Hormuz. It did not describe the nature of the attack or say who was behind it.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh, editing by Louise Heavens)