After UAE and Bahrain deals, is Saudi Arabia softening its stance on Israel?

By Marwa Rashad and Aziz El Yaakoubi

RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) – When one of Saudi Arabia’s leading clerics called this month for Muslims to avoid “passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm” towards Jews, it was a marked change in tone for someone who has shed tears preaching about Palestine in the past.

The sermon by Abdulrahman al-Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, broadcast on Saudi state television on Sept. 5, came three weeks after the United Arab Emirates agreed a historic deal to normalize relations with Israel and days before the Gulf state of Bahrain, a close Saudi ally, followed suit.

Sudais, who in past sermons prayed for Palestinians to have victory over the “invader and aggressor” Jews, spoke about how the Prophet Mohammad was good to his Jewish neighbor and argued the best way to persuade Jews to convert to Islam was to “treat them well”.

While Saudi Arabia is not expected to follow the example of its Gulf allies any time soon, Sudais’ remarks could be a clue to how the kingdom approaches the sensitive subject of warming to Israel – a once inconceivable prospect. Appointed by the king, he is one of the country’s most influential figures, reflecting the views of its conservative religious establishment as well as the Royal Court.

The dramatic agreements with the UAE and Bahrain were a coup for Israel and U.S. President Donald Trump.  But the big diplomatic prize for an Israel deal would be Saudi Arabia, whose king is the Custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, and rules the world’s largest oil exporter.

Marc Owen Jones, an academic from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, said the UAE and Bahrain’s normalization has allowed Saudi Arabia to test public opinion, but a formal deal with Israel would be a “large task” for the kingdom.

“Giving the Saudis a ‘nudge’ via an influential imam is obviously one step in trying to test the public reaction and to encourage the notion of normalization,” Jones added.

In Washington, a State Department official said the United States was encouraged by warming ties between Israel and Gulf Arab countries, viewed this trend as a positive development and “we are engaging to build on it.”

There was no immediate response to a request by Reuters for comment from the Saudi government’s media office.

Sudais’ plea to shun intense feelings is a far cry from his past when he wept dozens of times while praying for Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque – Islam’s third-holiest site.

The Sept. 5 sermon drew a mixed reaction, with some Saudis defending him as simply communicating the teachings of Islam. Others on Twitter, mostly Saudis abroad and apparently critical of the government, called it “the normalization sermon”.

Ali al-Suliman, one of several Saudis interviewed at one of Riyadh’s malls by Reuters TV, said in reaction to the Bahrain deal that normalization with Israel by other Gulf states or in the wider Middle East was hard to get used to, as “Israel is an occupying nation and drove Palestinians out of their homes”.

MUTUAL FEAR OF IRAN

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de-facto ruler often referred to as MbS, has promised to promote interfaith dialogue as part of his domestic reform. The young prince previously stated that Israelis are entitled to live peacefully on their own land on condition of a peace agreement that assures stability for all sides.

Saudi Arabia and Israel’s mutual fear of Iran may be a key driver for the development of ties.

There have been other signs that Saudi Arabia, one of the most influential countries in the Middle East, is preparing its people to eventually warm to Israel.

A period drama, “Umm Haroun” that aired during Ramadan in April on Saudi-controlled MBC television, a time when viewership typically spikes, centered around the trials of a Jewish midwife.

The fictional series was about a multi-religious community in an unspecified Gulf Arab state in the 1930’s to 1950’s. The show drew criticism from the Palestinian Hamas group, saying it portrayed Jews in a sympathetic light.

At the time, MBC said that the show was the top-rated Gulf drama in Saudi Arabia in Ramadan. The show’s writers, both Bahraini, told Reuters it had no political message.

But experts and diplomats said it was another indication of shifting public discourse on Israel.

Earlier this year, Mohammed al-Aissa, a former Saudi minister and the general secretary of the Muslim World League, visited Auschwitz. In June, he took part in a conference organised by the American Jewish Committee, where he called for a world without “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism”.

“Certainly, MbS is intent on moderating state-sanctioned messages shared by the clerical establishment and part of that will likely work towards justifying any future deal with Israel, which would have seemed unthinkable before,” said Neil Quilliam, associate fellow with Chatham House.

ISOLATED PALESTINIANS

Normalization between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel, which will be signed at the White House on Tuesday, has further isolated the Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has not directly addressed Israel’s deals with the UAE and Bahrain, but said it remains committed to peace on the basis of the long-standing Arab Peace Initiative.

How, or whether, the kingdom would seek to exchange normalization for a deal on those terms remains unclear.

That initiative offers normalized ties in return for a statehood deal with the Palestinians and full Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

However, in another eye-catching gesture of goodwill, the kingdom has allowed Israel-UAE flights to use its airspace. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who has a close relationship with MbS, praised the move last week.

A diplomat in the Gulf said that for Saudi Arabia, the issue is more related to what he called its religious position as the leader of the Muslim world, and that a formal deal with Israel would take time and is unlikely to happen while King Salman is still in power.

“Any normalization by Saudi will open doors for Iran, Qatar and Turkey to call for internationalizing the two holy mosques,” he said, referring to periodic calls by critics of Riyadh to have Mecca and Medina placed under international supervision.

(Additional reporting by Davide Barbuscia, Alexander Cornwell in Dubai and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; editing by Maha El Dahan, Michael Georgy and William Maclean)

Pompeo says Trump administration eager for end to Gulf rift

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed on Monday for a solution to the three-year rift between the Gulf state of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, saying the Trump administration was eager to see it resolved.

Speaking at a State Department meeting with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Pompeo said it was important to concentrate on countering Iranian activity in the Middle East.

“To keep our focus on this work and to close the door to increased Iranian meddling, it’s past time to find a solution to the Gulf rift,” Pompeo said.

“The Trump administration is eager to see this dispute resolved and to reopen Qatar’s air and land borders currently blocked by other Gulf states. I look forward to progress on this issue.”

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade links with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of backing terrorism. Qatar denies the charge and has accused its neighbors of seeking to curtail its sovereignty.

Kuwait and the United States have tried to mediate the rift, which has undermined Washington’s efforts to confront Iran, which is struggling for regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia.

The boycotting nations have set 13 demands for lifting the boycott, including closing Al Jazeera television, shuttering a Turkish military base, reducing ties with Iran and cutting links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The State Department’s top diplomat for the Middle East, David Schenker, said last week there could be some progress within weeks in resolving the rift, citing signs of “flexibility” in negotiations.

With Trump’s facing re-election on Nov. 3, he is eager to show foreign policy successes in the Middle East, and last month the UAE agreed to normalize ties with Israel under a U.S.-brokered deal scheduled to be signed at a White House ceremony on Tuesday. Bahrain joined the UAE in agreeing to normalize relations with Israel on Friday.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Tom Brown)

Bahrain to normalize ties with Israel, Israeli media say

JERUSALEM/DUBAI (Reuters) – The Gulf state of Bahrain is to normalize relations with Israel, the diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s public broadcaster Kan said on Friday, without citing sources.

Another Israeli reporter, Raphael Ahren of the Times of Israel, said U.S. President Donald Trump would on Friday announce that Bahrain was joining its neighbor the United Arab Emirates in formally establishing ties with Israel.

The White House had no immediate comment. Trump will on Tuesday host a White House ceremony solemnizing the Israel-UAE deal, which was announced on Aug. 13.

The Kan reporter, Amichai Stein, said in a tweet that Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa would be in Washington on Monday.

Neither Bahrain’s government communications center nor Bahrain’s embassy in Washington immediately responded to a request for comment.

Last week Bahrain said it would allow flights between Israel and the UAE to use its airspace. This followed a Saudi decision to allow an Israeli commercial airliner to fly over it on the way to the UAE.

Bahrain, a small island state, is a close ally of Saudi Arabia and the site of the U.S. Navy’s regional headquarters. Riyadh in 2011 sent troops to Bahrain to help quell an uprising and, alongside Kuwait and the UAE, in 2018 offered Bahrain a $10 billion economic bailout.

The Trump administration has tried to coax other Sunni Arab countries concerned about Iran to engage with Israel. The most powerful of those, Saudi Arabia, has signaled it is not ready.

Such a move would make Bahrain the fourth Arab country to reach such an agreement with Israel since exchanging embassies with Egypt and Jordan decades ago.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Alex Cornwell and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Angus MacSwan)

Trump to host Israel-United Arab Emirates deal-signing ceremony on Sept 15

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will hold a Sept. 15 signing ceremony for a groundbreaking Middle East agreement normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, a senior White House official said on Tuesday.

As part of the deal, announced at the White House on Aug. 13 following what officials said were 18 months of talks, the Gulf state agreed to normal relations with Israel, while Israel agreed to continue with plans to suspend its annexation of the West Bank.

The senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan would lead the two delegations to the ceremony.

“I am proud to embark next week to Washington, at the invitation of President Trump, to take part in the this historic ceremony at the White House for the foundation of the peace treaty between Israel and the United (Arab) Emirates,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.

Trump and other administration officials have said they expect Saudi Arabia and other countries to follow suit in recognizing Israel.

Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner and other top administration officials accompanied an Israeli delegation last week on the first flight from Israel to the United Arab Emirates to celebrate the agreement.

Iran has dismissed the agreement, which also served to firm up opposition to Tehran, a regional power seen by the UAE, Israel and the United States as the main threat in the Middle East.

The deal falls short of any grand Middle East peace plan to resolve decades of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians despite Trump’s pledge to do so.

The White House hope is that more such deals between Israel and the Gulf states will emerge, prompting the Palestinians to join negotiations.

Trump proposed a peace plan in January that heavily favored the Israelis, but it has not advanced in any significant way.

The Palestinian leadership initially called the accord “betrayal” and a “stab in the back of the Palestinian cause,” but has curbed its criticism, according to a draft resolution ahead of an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Wednesday.

The draft, seen by Reuters, does not include a call to condemn, or act against, the Emirates over the U.S.-brokered deal.

The United Arab Emirates is planning to make its first official visit to Israel on Sept. 22, a source familiar with the provisional itinerary said on Monday.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Franklin Paul and Howard Goller)

Special Report: Trump told Saudi: Cut oil supply or lose U.S. military support – source

By Timothy Gardner, Steve Holland, Dmitry Zhdannikov and Rania El Gamal

WASHINGTON/LONDON/DUBAI (Reuters) – As the United States pressed Saudi Arabia to end its oil price war with Russia, President Donald Trump gave Saudi leaders an ultimatum.

In an April 2 phone call, Trump told Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that unless the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) started cutting oil production, he would be powerless to stop lawmakers from passing legislation to withdraw U.S. troops from the kingdom, four sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The threat to upend a 75-year strategic alliance, which has not been previously reported, was central to the U.S. pressure campaign that led to a landmark global deal to slash oil supply as demand collapsed in the coronavirus pandemic – scoring a diplomatic victory for the White House.

Trump delivered the message to the crown prince 10 days before the announcement of production cuts. The kingdom’s de facto leader was so taken aback by the threat that he ordered his aides out of the room so he could continue the discussion in private, according to a U.S. source who was briefed on the discussion by senior administration officials.

The effort illustrated Trump’s strong desire to protect the U.S. oil industry from a historic price meltdown as governments shut down economies worldwide to fight the virus. It also reflected a telling reversal of Trump’s longstanding criticism of the oil cartel, which he has blasted for raising energy costs for Americans with supply cuts that usually lead to higher gasoline prices. Now, Trump was asking OPEC to slash output.

A senior U.S. official told Reuters that the administration notified Saudi leaders that, without production cuts, “there would be no way to stop the U.S. Congress from imposing restrictions that could lead to a withdrawal of U.S. forces.” The official summed up the argument, made through various diplomatic channels, as telling Saudi leaders: “We are defending your industry while you’re destroying ours.”

Reuters asked Trump about the talks in an interview Wednesday evening at the White House, at which the president addressed a range of topics involving the pandemic. Asked if he told the crown prince that the U.S. might pull forces out of Saudi Arabia, Trump said, “I didn’t have to tell him.”

“I thought he and President Putin, Vladimir Putin, were very reasonable,” Trump said. “They knew they had a problem, and then this happened.”

Asked what he told the Crown Prince Mohammed, Trump said: “They were having a hard time making a deal. And I met telephonically with him, and we were able to reach a deal” for production cuts, Trump said.

Saudi Arabia’s government media office did not respond to a request for comment. A Saudi official who asked not to be named stressed that the agreement represented the will of all countries in the so-called OPEC+ group of oil-producing nations, which includes OPEC plus a coalition led by Russia.

“Saudi Arabia, the United States and Russia have played an important role in the OPEC+ oil cut agreement, but without the cooperation of the 23 countries who took part in the agreement, it would not have happened,” said the Saudi official, who declined to comment on the discussions between U.S. and Saudi leaders.

The week before Trump’s phone call with Crown Prince Mohammed, U.S. Republican Senators Kevin Cramer and Dan Sullivan had introduced legislation to remove all U.S. troops, Patriot missiles and anti-missile defense systems from the kingdom unless Saudi Arabia cut oil output. Support for the measure was gaining momentum amid Congressional anger over the ill-timed Saudi-Russia oil price war. The kingdom had opened up the taps in April, unleashing a flood of crude into the global supply after Russia refused to deepen production cuts in line with an earlier OPEC supply pact.

On April 12, under pressure from Trump, the world’s biggest oil-producing nations outside the United States agreed to the largest production cut ever negotiated. OPEC, Russia and other allied producers slashed production by 9.7 million barrels per day (bpd), or about 10% of global output. Half that volume came from cuts of 2.5 million bpd each by Saudi Arabia and Russia, whose budgets depend on high oil-and-gas revenues.

Despite the agreement to cut a tenth of global production, oil prices continued to fall to historic lows. U.S. oil futures dropped below $0 last week as sellers paid buyers to avoid taking delivery of oil they had no place to store. Brent futures, the global oil benchmark, fell towards $15 per barrel – a level not seen since the 1999 oil price crash – from as high as $70 at the start of the year.

The deal for supply cuts could eventually boost prices, however, as governments worldwide start to open their economies and fuel demand rises with increased travel. Whatever the impact, the negotiations mark an extraordinary display of U.S. influence over global oil output.

Cramer, the Republican senator from North Dakota, told Reuters he spoke to Trump about the legislation to withdraw U.S. military protection from Saudi Arabia on March 30, three days before the president called Crown Prince Mohammed.

Asked whether Trump told Saudi Arabia it could lose U.S. military support, U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette told Reuters the president reserved the right to use every tool to protect U.S. producers, including “our support for their defense needs.”

The strategic partnership dates back to 1945, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Saudi King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud on the USS Quincy, a Navy cruiser. They reached a deal: U.S. military protection in exchange for access to Saudi oil reserves. Today, the United States has about three thousand troops in the country, and the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet protects oil exports from the region.

Saudi Arabia relies on the United States for weapons and protection against regional rivals such as Iran. The kingdom’s vulnerabilities, however, were exposed late last year in an attack by 18 drones and three missiles on key Saudi oil facilities. Washington blamed Iran; Tehran denied it.

THIRTEEN ANGRY SENATORS

Trump initially welcomed lower oil prices, saying cheap gasoline prices were akin to a tax cut for drivers.

That changed after Saudi Arabia announced in mid-March it would pump a record 12.3 million bpd – unleashing the price war with Russia. The explosion of supply came as governments worldwide issued stay-home orders – crushing fuel demand – and made clear that U.S. oil companies would be hit hard in the crude price collapse. Senators from U.S. oil states were infuriated.

On March 16, Cramer was among 13 Republican senators who sent a letter to Crown Prince Mohammed reminding him of Saudi Arabia’s strategic reliance on Washington. The group also urged Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to investigate whether Saudi Arabia and Russia were breaking international trade laws by flooding the U.S. market with oil.

On March 18, the senators – a group that included Sullivan of Alaska and Ted Cruz of Texas – held a rare call with Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Cramer called the conversations “brutal” as each senator detailed the damage to their states’ oil industries.

“She heard it from every senator; there was nobody that held back,” Cramer told Reuters.

The Saudi embassy did not respond to requests for comment.

Cramer said the princess relayed their comments to officials in Saudi Arabia, including the energy minister. The senators told the princess that the kingdom faced rising opposition in the Senate to the Saudi-led coalition that is waging a war in Yemen against Houthi rebels.

Saudi and U.S. officials have said the Houthis are armed by Iran, which Tehran denies. The backing of Senate Republicans over Yemen had proved crucial for Saudi Arabia last year. The Senate upheld Trump vetoes of several measures seeking to end U.S. weapons sales and other military support to Saudi Arabia amid outrage over the Yemen conflict, which has caused more than 100,000 deaths and triggered a humanitarian crisis.

Cramer said he made a phone call to Trump on March 30, about a week after he and Sullivan introduced their bill to pull U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia. The president called Cramer back the same day with Energy Secretary Brouillette, senior economic adviser Larry Kudlow and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on the call, the senator said.

“I said the one person that you don’t have on the call that can be very helpful is Mark Esper,” the defense secretary, Cramer recounted, saying he wanted Esper to address how U.S. military assets in Saudi Arabia might be moved elsewhere in the region to protect U.S. troops.

The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment on whether Esper was involved in discussions of pulling military assets out of Saudi Arabia.

BENDING THE KNEE

Trump’s oil diplomacy came in a whirlwind of calls with Saudi King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed and Russian President Vladimir Putin starting in mid-March. The Kremlin confirmed Putin’s conversation with Trump and said they discussed both oil supply cuts and the coronavirus pandemic.

On the April 2 call with Prince Mohammed, Trump told the Saudi ruler he was going to “cut them off” the next time Congress pushed a proposal to end Washington’s defense of the kingdom, according to the source with knowledge of the call. Trump also publicly threatened in early April to impose tariffs on oil imports from Saudi Arabia and Russia.

After the conversation with the Saudi crown prince, and another the same day with Putin, Trump tweeted that he expected Saudi Arabia and Russia to cut output by about 10 million barrels, which “will be GREAT for the oil & gas industry!”

Riyadh and Moscow later confirmed they had restarted negotiations.

On April 3, Trump hosted a meeting at the White House with senators Cramer, Cruz, and Sullivan, and oil executives from companies including Exxon Mobil Corp, Chevron Corp, Occidental Petroleum Corp and Continental Resources.

During the public portion of the meeting, Cramer told Trump that Washington can use the billions of dollars it spends defending Saudi Arabia on other military priorities “if our friends are going to treat us this way.”

The prospect of losing U.S. military protection made the royal family “bend at the knees” and bow to Trump’s demands, a Middle Eastern diplomat told Reuters.

After prolonged and fractious negotiations, top producers pledged their record output cut of 9.7 million bpd in May and June, with the understanding that economic forces would lead to about 10 million bpd in further cuts in production from other countries, including the United States and Canada.

Trump hailed the deal and cast himself as its broker. “Having been involved in the negotiations, to put it mildly, the number that OPEC+ is looking to cut is 20 Million Barrels a day…” he tweeted shortly after the deal.

Riyadh also took credit. Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz told Reuters at the time that the crown prince had been “instrumental in formulating this deal.”

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Steve Holland in Washington, Dmitry Zhdannikov in London and Rania El Gamal in Dubai; additional reporting by Alexandra Alper and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, and Marwa Rashad in Riyadh; writing by Michael Georgy; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Brian Thevenot)

Saudi Arabia floods markets with $25 oil as Russia fight escalates

By Olga Yagova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia is flooding markets with oil at prices as low as $25 per barrel, specifically targeting big refiners of Russian oil in Europe and Asia, in an escalation of its fight with Moscow for market share, five trading sources said on Friday.

The sources, from oil majors and refiners which process crude in Europe, said Saudi state oil company Aramco told them it would supply all requested additional volumes in April.

Sources previously told Reuters Saudi Arabia is also seeking to replace Russian oil with Chinese and Indian buyers, although not all refiners received volumes they had asked for.

Tanker rates soared as Saudi Arabia provisionally chartered around 31 supertankers to take extra oil, including to the United States, where Russian oil is usually less in demand.

Oil prices have halved since the start of the year because demand has been hit by the coronavirus outbreak and after Russia and OPEC failed to reach a new deal on supply cuts.

Moscow refused to support new deeper cuts, saying the impact from the virus could be much worse than thought, and Riyadh retaliated by opening its taps and pledging to pump record volumes on to the market.

Russia has so far said it is not planning to come back to the negotiating table despite feeling the pressure from the extraordinary Saudi moves.

Energy Minister Alexander Novak said on Friday Russia saw no grounds so far for returning to discussions with its OPEC+ partners and can increase its oil production by a modest 200,000 barrels per day in April.

By contrast, Saudi Arabia has pledged to raise output by 2.6 million bpd in April, including from stocks. Fellow Gulf producers like the United Arab Emirates has had to join in the battle for market share and has also announced production increases.

Saudi Arabia has made a deep cut to its official selling prices for oil. Arab Light and Arab Medium barrels were offered at selling price of $25-28 per barrel on CIF Rotterdam basis, traders said.

On Friday, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) also offered steep discounts for its Murban crude for April, announcing forward prices for the first time in its history. It previously set prices retroactively.

Russia’s main blend Urals has been offered slightly higher than $30 per barrel on CIF Rotterdam basis, according to Refinitiv Eikon data.

“We are happy with our allocation. The requests for April were confirmed. I look forward to May if prices remain that attractive”, a trader with a European oil company involved in the talks told Reuters.

European oil refiners including Total, BP, Eni and SOCAR have all had allocations for additional Saudi crude oil supplies in April confirmed, the sources said.

Saudi Aramco declined to comment. Total, BP, Eni and SOCAR did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

On Thursday, sources told Reuters Saudi Arabia started focusing on boosting supplies to traditional buyers of Urals as it is trying to replace Russian oil in refiners’ feedstock around the world, from Europe to India.

Brent crude prices were on track for their biggest weekly fall since the 2008 financial crisis on Friday as investors fretted over the impact of the virus on demand and the Russian-Saudi price war. [O/R]

(Reporting by Olga Yagova; Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul, Rania El Gamal in Dubai and Devika Krishna Kumar in New York; Editing by Dmitry Zhdannikov/Jan Harvey/David Evans/Jane Merriman)

Saudi princes’ detentions sent a message: don’t block my path to the throne

DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince meant to send a strong message to critics within the royal family by detaining senior princes this weekend: Don’t you dare oppose my succession to the throne.

The main target in the crackdown, sources said, is King Salman’s brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, one of only three members of the Allegiance Council, the royal body that endorses the line of succession, to oppose Mohammed bin Salman becoming crown prince in 2017 in a palace coup.

Four sources with royal connections said the move aimed to ensure compliance within the ruling Al Saud family, in which there have been rumblings of discontent, ahead of an eventual succession upon the king’s death or abdication.

One of the sources described the detentions as a preemptive effort to ensure Prince Mohammed’s “ascent will be rubber stamped by the Allegiance Council when the time comes”.

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, the interior minister, arrives at the 34rd session of the Council of Arab Interior Ministers in Tunis,Tunisia April 5, 2017. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Ahmed, 78, was detained on Friday along with Mohammed bin Nayef, who was crown prince until he was ousted in 2017 and replaced by Mohammed bin Salman. Ahmed’s son Nayef and Mohammed’s brother Nawaf were also detained, said two other sources with royal connections.

The princes have been held at royal villas in the capital Riyadh and some were allowed to contact their families, those sources said.

Crown Prince Mohammed, who has moved ruthlessly to tighten his grip on power, feared disaffected princes might rally around Ahmed and Mohammed bin Nayef as potential alternatives to take the throne, said two of the sources with royal connections, and a senior foreign diplomat.

“This is a preparation for transferring power,” said one of those sources. “It is a clear message to the family that no one can say ‘No’ or dare challenge him.”

Saudi authorities have not confirmed or commented on the detentions, which have not been covered by Saudi media. The media ministry has not responded to detailed requests for comment.

If Mohammed bin Salman, 34, succeeds his father, it will be Saudi Arabia’s first generational transfer of power since the death of state founder Abdulaziz Ibn Saud in 1953, who was followed by six of his sons in succession.

The Allegiance Council, made up of one member from each house of 34 sons of Abdulaziz, is designed to ensure that the hundreds of princes that make up the royal family’s next generation unite behind the new king.

The senior foreign diplomat said the detentions were another blow to the country’s image abroad just as it appeared to be recovering from the furor over the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and criticism of the Yemen war.

Crown Prince Mohammed previously detained senior royals and prominent Saudi businessmen in 2017 at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, unnerving investors at home and abroad. More recently, it seemed those days of unpredictability had been put to rest as Riyadh assumed this year’s presidency of the Group of 20 major economies.

ROYAL DISCONTENT

When sources initially described the latest detentions in recent days, several of them said the detained princes had been accused of plotting a coup to thwart Mohammed’s accession. However, some of those sources, and others who later spoke about the detentions, have since offered milder justifications, describing the arrests as a response to an accumulation of misbehavior rather than a plot against the crown prince.

Two sources used the same phrase, saying the princes were being warned with a “twist of the ear” to stop criticizing the crown prince.

While hosting traditional gatherings known as majlis, Prince Ahmed had raised questions about the crown prince’s stance on several issues, including a U.S. plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of the sources said.

There was no way to contact Ahmed or the other princes to comment on the allegations. Sources said he returned from a trip abroad the night before he was detained.

Ahmed on Saturday asked his family to deliver his bisht, a traditional coat worn at formal occasions, suggesting he might soon make a public appearance, said two sources including one with royal connections.

Saudi insiders and Western diplomats say the family is unlikely to oppose the crown prince while the king is alive, and the monarch would not turn against his favorite son, to whom he has delegated most responsibilities of rule.

The recent detentions sparked speculation about the health of 84-year-old King Salman, but sources have said he remains mentally and physically sound. State TV on Sunday aired a clip of him accepting oaths of office from two new Saudi ambassadors.

Mohammed bin Nayef’s brother Saud and Saud’s son, Interior Minister Prince Abdulaziz, who were both rumored to have been among those detained, also appeared conducting official business in photographs published by state media on Sunday.

Royals seeking to change the line of succession have viewed Prince Ahmed as a possible choice who would have support of family members, the security forces and some Western powers, sources have said.

The other two members of the Allegiance Council who opposed Mohammed bin Salman becoming crown prince in 2017 are younger and less prominent than Ahmed. One of them lives abroad.

“Disgruntlement was gathering around him (Prince Ahmed) and he was letting it happen,” said the fourth source with royal connections.

Critics have questioned the crown prince’s ability to lead after the 2018 murder of Khashoggi by Saudi agents and an attack last year on a Saudi oil facility, the sources said.

Some royals became disaffected after Prince Mohammed reigned in traditional largesse for many family members, heavily restricted their movements and replaced their security details with guards who report to him.

Mohammed bin Nayef’s movements have been heavily controlled and monitored since 2017.

Ahmed has kept a low profile since returning to Riyadh in October 2018 after 2-1/2 months abroad, when he appeared to criticize the Saudi leadership while responding to protesters outside a London residence chanting for the Al Saud’s downfall. Saudi watchers say there is no evidence he wants the throne.

The second source with royal connections said the crown prince may have wanted to clear his path before the U.S. presidential election, fearing that a loss by Donald Trump could affect his standing.

The foreign diplomat said he may have moved against his uncle and cousin out of an abundance of caution, fearing that “the Americans might one day turn to them”.

(Editing by Peter Graff)

Saudi sentences five to death, three to jail over Khashoggi murder

Saudi sentences five to death, three to jail over Khashoggi murder
By Marwa Rashad

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia on Monday sentenced five people to death and three more to jail over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year and said the killing was not premeditated, a verdict criticized by a U.N. investigator as a “mockery” of justice.

The court dismissed charges against the remaining three of the 11 people that had been on trial, finding them not guilty, Saudi Deputy Public Prosecutor and spokesman Shalaan al-Shalaan said. None of the defendants’ names was immediately released.

“The investigation showed that the killing was not premeditated … The decision was taken at the spur of the moment,” Shalaan said, a position contradicting the findings of a United Nations-led investigation.

Khashoggi was a U.S. resident and critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. He was last seen at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, where he had gone to obtain documents for his impending wedding. His body was reportedly dismembered and removed from the building, and his remains have not been found.

Eleven Saudi suspects were put on trial over his death in secretive proceedings in the capital Riyadh.

Khashoggi’s murder caused a global uproar, tarnishing the crown prince’s image. The CIA and some Western governments have said they believe Prince Mohammed, also known as MbS, ordered the killing.

Saudi officials say he had no role, though in September Prince Mohammed for the first time indicated some personal accountability for the murder, saying “it happened under my watch”.

Agnes Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur for extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions, on Monday lambasted the trial verdict as a “mockery” of justice.

“The hit-men are guilty, sentenced to death. The masterminds not only walk free, they have barely been touched by the investigation and the trial,” she said on Twitter.

The U.N.-led inquiry reported in February that the evidence pointed to “a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated” by Saudi officials.

TWO SENIOR FIGURES FREED AFTER PROBE

Last November the Saudi prosecutor said that Saud al-Qahtani, a former high-profile Saudi royal adviser, had discussed Khashoggi’s activities before he entered the Saudi consulate with the team which went on to kill him.

The prosecutor had said Qahtani acted in coordination with deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Asiri, who he said had ordered Khashoggi’s repatriation from Turkey and that the lead negotiator on the ground then decided to kill him.

Both men were dismissed from their positions but while Asiri was tried, Qahtani was not.

On Monday Shalaan said Asiri has been tried and released due to insufficient evidence, and Qahtani had been investigated but was not charged and had been released.

Shalaan also said the Saudi consul-general to Turkey at the time, Mohammed al-Otaibi, had been freed after Turkish witnesses said Otaibi had been with them on the day of the crime. Two weeks ago, the United States barred Otaibi from entering the country.

Sources familiar with the matter told Reuters last year that Maher Mutreb, the lead negotiator, and Salah al-Tubaigy, a forensic expert specializing in autopsies, were also on trial for the murder and could face the death penalty.

On Monday Shalaan said that when the Saudi team that entered the consulate saw that it would not be possible to transfer Khashoggi to a safe place to continue negotiating, they decided to kill him.

“It was agreed, in consultation between the head of the negotiating team and the culprits, to kill Jamal Khashoggi inside the consulate,” Shalaan said in response to questions from journalists.

31 PEOPLE INVESTIGATED

Turkey said on Monday the trial outcome was far from serving justice and repeated its call for better Saudi judicial cooperation.

“The fact that important issues like the location of the late Khashoggi’s body, the identification of the instigators and, if there are any, the local co-operators, are still in the dark is a fundamental shortcoming to justice being served and accountability,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said.

Callamard, the U.N. rapporteur, criticized the trial for having been held behind closed doors, saying that the conditions in international law for doing so had not been met.

Human rights group Amnesty International also criticized the closed trial, branding the verdict a “whitewash”.

“The verdict fails to address the Saudi authorities’ involvement in this devastating crime or clarify the location of Jamal Khashoggi’s remains,” Amnesty said in a statement.

In the murder investigation, 21 people were arrested and 10 called in for questioning without arrest, according to Shalaan.

Riyadh’s criminal court pronounced the death penalty on five defendants “for committing and directly participating in the murder of the victim”. The three sentenced to prison were given various sentences totaling 24 years “for their role in covering up this crime and violating the law”.

Shalaan added the investigations proved there was no “prior enmity” between those convicted and Khashoggi.

The verdicts can still be appealed.

(Reporting by Marwa Rashed in Riyadh; Additional reporting by Nafisa Eltahir and Maha El Dahan in Dubai; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Special report: ‘Time to take out our swords’ – Inside Iran’s plot to attack Saudi Arabia

By Reuters staff

(Reuters) – Four months before a swarm of drones and missiles crippled the world’s biggest oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia, Iranian security officials gathered at a heavily fortified compound in Tehran.

The group included the top echelons of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite branch of the Iranian military whose portfolio includes missile development and covert operations.

The main topic that day in May: How to punish the United States for pulling out of a landmark nuclear treaty and re-imposing economic sanctions on Iran, moves that have hit the Islamic Republic hard.

With Major General Hossein Salami, leader of the Revolutionary Guards, looking on, a senior commander took the floor.

“It is time to take out our swords and teach them a lesson,” the commander said, according to four people familiar with the meeting.

Hard-liners in the meeting talked of attacking high-value targets, including American military bases.

Yet, what ultimately emerged was a plan that stopped short of direct confrontation that could trigger a devastating U.S. response. Iran opted instead to target oil installations of America’s ally, Saudi Arabia, a proposal discussed by top Iranian military officials in that May meeting and at least four that followed.

This account, described to Reuters by three officials familiar with the meetings and a fourth close to Iran’s decision making, is the first to describe the role of Iran’s leaders in plotting the Sept. 14 attack on Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-controlled oil company.

These people said Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved the operation, but with strict conditions: Iranian forces must avoid hitting any civilians or Americans.

Reuters was unable to confirm their version of events with Iran’s leadership. A Revolutionary Guards spokesman declined to comment. Tehran has steadfastly denied involvement.

Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for the Iranian Mission to the United Nations in New York, rejected the version of events the four people described to Reuters. He said Iran played no part in the strikes, that no meetings of senior security officials took place to discuss such an operation, and that Khamenei did not authorize any attack.

“No, no, no, no, no, and no,” Miryousefi said to detailed questions from Reuters on the alleged gatherings and Khamenei’s purported role.

The Saudi government communications office did not respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Pentagon declined to comment. A senior Trump administration official did not directly comment on Reuters’ findings but said Tehran’s “behavior and its decades-long history of destructive attacks and support for terrorism are why Iran’s economy is in shambles.”

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, at the center of a civil war against Saudi-backed forces, claimed responsibility for the assault on Saudi oil facilities. That declaration was rebuffed by U.S. and Saudi officials, who said the sophistication of the offensive pointed to Iran.

Saudi Arabia was a strategic target.

The kingdom is Iran’s principal regional rival and a petroleum giant whose production is crucial to the world economy. It is an important U.S. security partner. But its war on Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians, and the brutal murder of Washington-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents last year, have strained its relations with U.S. lawmakers. There was no groundswell of support in Congress for military intervention to aid the Saudis after the attack.

The 17-minute strike on two Aramco installations by 18 drones and three low-flying missiles revealed the vulnerability of the Saudi oil company, despite billions spent by the kingdom on security. Fires erupted at the company’s Khurais oil installation and at the Abqaiq oil processing facility, the world’s largest.

The attack temporarily halved Saudi Arabia’s oil production and knocked out 5% of the world’s oil supply. Global crude prices spiked.

The assault prompted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to accuse Iran of an “act of war.” In the aftermath, Tehran was hit with additional U.S. sanctions. The United States also launched cyber attacks against Iran, U.S. officials told Reuters.

SCOURING TARGETS

The plan by Iranian military leaders to strike Saudi oil installations developed over several months, according to the official close to Iran’s decision making.

“Details were discussed thoroughly in at least five meetings and the final go ahead was given” by early September, the official said.

All of those meetings took place at a secure location inside the southern Tehran compound, three of the officials told Reuters. They said Khamenei, the supreme leader, attended one of the gatherings at his residence, which is also inside that complex.

Other attendees at some of those meetings included Khamenei’s top military advisor, Yahya Rahim-Safavi, and a deputy of Qasem Soleimani, who heads the Revolutionary Guards’ foreign military and clandestine operations, the three officials said. Rahim-Safavi could not be reached for comment.

Among the possible targets initially discussed were a seaport in Saudi Arabia, an airport and U.S. military bases, the official close to Iran’s decision making said. The person would not provide additional details.

Those ideas were ultimately dismissed over concerns about mass casualties that could provoke fierce retaliation by the United States and embolden Israel, potentially pushing the region into war, the four people said.

The official close to Iran’s decision making said the group settled on the plan to attack Saudi Arabia’s oil installations because it could grab big headlines, inflict economic pain on an adversary and still deliver a strong message to Washington.

“Agreement on Aramco was almost reached unanimously,” the official said. “The idea was to display Iran’s deep access and military capabilities.”

The attack was the worst on Middle East oil facilities since Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi strongman, torched Kuwait’s oil fields during the 1991 Gulf crisis.

U.S. Senator Martha McSally, an Air Force combat veteran and Republican lawmaker who was briefed by U.S. and Saudi officials, and who visited Aramco’s Abqaiq facility days after the attack, said the perpetrators knew precisely where to strike to create as much damage as possible.

“It showed somebody who had a sophisticated understanding of facility operations like theirs, instead of just hitting things off of satellite photos,” she told Reuters. The drones and missiles, she added, “came from Iranian soil, from an Iranian base.”

A Middle East source, who was briefed by a country investigating the attack, said the launch site was the Ahvaz air base in southwest Iran. That account matched those of three U.S. officials and two other people who spoke to Reuters: a Western intelligence official and a Western source based in the Middle East.

Rather than fly directly from Iran to Saudi Arabia over the Gulf, the missiles and drones took different, circuitous paths to the oil installations, part of Iran’s effort to mask its involvement, the people said.

Some of the craft flew over Iraq and Kuwait before landing in Saudi Arabia, according to the Western intelligence source, who said that trajectory provided Iran with plausible deniability.

“That wouldn’t have been the case if missiles and drones had been seen or heard flying into Saudi Arabia over the Gulf from a south flight path” from Iran, the person said.

Revolutionary Guards commanders briefed the supreme leader on the successful operation hours after the attack, according to the official close to the country’s decision making.

Images of fires raging at the Saudi facilities were broadcast worldwide. The country’s stock market swooned. Global oil prices initially surged 20%. Officials at Saudi Aramco gathered in what was referred to internally as the “emergency management room” at the company’s headquarters.

One of the officials who spoke with Reuters said Tehran was delighted with the outcome of the operation: Iran had landed a painful blow on Saudi Arabia and thumbed its nose at the United States.

SIZING UP TRUMP

The Revolutionary Guards and other branches of the Iranian military all ultimately report to Khamenei. The supreme leader has been defiant in response to Trump’s abandonment last year of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly called the Iran nuclear deal.

That 2015 accord with five permanent members of the U.S. Security Council – the United States, Russia, France, China and the United Kingdom – as well as Germany, removed billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran’s curbing its nuclear program.

Trump’s demand for a better deal has seen Iran launch a two-pronged strategy to win relief from sweeping sanctions reimposed by the United States, penalties that have crippled its oil exports and all but shut it out of the international banking system.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has signaled a willingness to meet with American officials on condition that all sanctions be lifted. Simultaneously, Iran is flaunting its military and technical prowess.

In recent months, Iran has shot down a U.S. surveillance drone and seized a British oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow channel through which about a fifth of the world’s oil moves. And it has announced it has amassed stockpiles of enriched uranium in violation of the U.N agreement, part of its vow to restart its nuclear weapons program.

The Aramco attacks were an escalation that came as Trump had been pursuing his long-stated goal of extricating American forces from the Middle East. Just days after announcing an abrupt pullout of U.S. troops in northern Syria, the Trump administration on Oct. 11 said it would send fighter jets, missile-defense weaponry and 2,800 more troops to Saudi Arabia to bolster the kingdom’s defenses.

“Do not strike another sovereign state, do not threaten American interests, American forces, or we will respond,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned Tehran during a press briefing.

Still, Iran appears to have calculated that the Trump administration would not risk an all-out assault that could destabilize the region in the service of protecting Saudi oil, said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit working to end global conflict.

In Iran, “hard-liners have come to believe that Trump is a Twitter tiger,” Vaez said. “As such there is little diplomatic or military cost associated with pushing back.”

The senior Trump administration official disputed the suggestion that Iran’s operation has strengthened its hand in working out a deal for sanctions relief from the United States.

“Iran knows exactly what it needs to do to see sanctions lifted,” the official said.

The administration has said Iran must end support for terrorist groups in the Middle East and submit to tougher terms that would permanently snuff its nuclear ambitions. Iran has said it has no ties to terrorist groups.

Whether Tehran accedes to U.S. demands remains to be seen.

In one of the final meetings held ahead of the Saudi oil attack, another Revolutionary Guards commander was already looking ahead, according to the official close to Iran’s decision making who was briefed on that gathering.

“Rest assured Allah almighty will be with us,” the commander told senior security officials. “Start planning for the next one.”

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and six other countries imposed sanctions on Wednesday on 25 corporations, banks and people linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.

The targets were announced by the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) nations – which also include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was on a Middle East trip to finalize details of an economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

All 25 targets were previously sanctioned by the United States.

“The TFTC’s action coincides with my trip to the Middle East, where I am meeting with my counterparts across the region to bolster the fight against terrorist financing,” Mnuchin said in the Treasury statement.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Mnuchin said the United States would increase economic pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, making the pledge during a Middle East trip that includes visits to U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Sanctions reimposed on Tehran by President Donald Trump after he withdrew the United States from world powers’ 2015 nuclear pact with Tehran have dried up Iranian oil revenues and cut Iranian banks’ ties to the financial world.

Twenty-one of the targets announced Wednesday comprised a vast network of businesses providing financial support to the Basij Resistance Force, the Treasury said.

It said shell companies and other measures were used to mask Basij ownership and control over multibillion-dollar business interests in Iran’s automotive, mining, metals, and banking industries, many of which have operate across the Middle East and Europe.

The four individuals targeted were Hezbollah-affiliated and help coordinate the group’s operations in Iraq, it said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)