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MBS’ Mixed Reception at the G20
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) continued his tour of Arab countries after attending the G20 summit in Argentina last week in an effort to restore his international reputation amid condemnation for his suspected role in ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October. After a brief stop in Mauritania, MBS arrived in Algeria on Sunday for two days of meetings that will focus on “Algerian-Saudi investments and trade relations, especially in the oil and petrochemical sectors,” Reuters reports. Algeria maintains comfortable relations with many of the Middle East’s feuding players, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and Turkey.
The visit to Algiers follows stops in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia on the way to Buenos Aires; though MBS has tried to polish his image with shows of regional support, he was greeted by crowds of protesters in Tunis. MBS’ reception at the G20 was also mixed: He shared a jovial handshake with Russian Vladimir Putin, which appeared so obviously contrived that even Saturday Night Live joked that it seemed planned, and held meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and British Prime Minister Theresa May. But there was also a perceptible chill in MBS’ interactions with many leaders. In audio captured of MBS speaking with French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the meeting, the crown prince can be heard trying to reassure Macron while Macron tells him that he is worried and that the young royal doesn’t listen to the concerns of foreign leaders. “The Khashoggi case is serious, and I think the truth needs to be sought. I want investigations in Turkey and Saudi Arabia to continue to clarify the situation to the family and the international community,” Macron told press at the summit. May also raised Khashoggi’s death in her meeting with MBS, and Trump, despite his ardent defense of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, only “exchanged pleasantries” with the crown prince but did not sit down with him for a meeting.
Saudi media portrayed the crown prince’s showing at the G20 as a glowing success. Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh published a full-page spread with seven pictures of the crown prince and headlines touting his appearance as an embodiment of “the kingdom’s prestigious global position” and claiming it had frustrated “hostile media campaigns.”
Trump issued a statement last month defending his decision to maintain status-quo relations with the Saudis. “Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event—maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” the Nov. 20 statement said. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a similar defense (with fewer exclamation points) in the Wall Street Journal last week, in which he dismissed condemnations of Khashoggi’s murder as “Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on.” But the CIA is increasingly confident in its assessment that MBS was aware of the operation to kill Khashoggi. According to leaked intelligence, the crown prince reportedly exchanged nearly a dozen text messages with Saud al-Qahtani, a close advisor who is believed to have run the operation, around the time that Khashoggi arrived at the consulate. Previous reports based on intelligence obtained by Turkey has claimed the Qahtani even teleconferenced into the consulate to insult Khashoggi before instructing the hit squad to “bring [him] the head of the dog.”
CIA Director Gina Haspel is expected to brief senators on the Agency’s assessment of Khashoggi’s death on Tuesday. Legislators had requested that she testify alongside Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis last week, but she did not attend the hearing. Administration officials denied blocking her from testifying. According to reporting by the New York Times, Haspel was infuriated over the weekend by the leaks regarding MBS’ text exchanges with Qahtani.
Yemen Peace Talks Set to Begin This Week
More than two years after the last negotiations broke off, delegates from the parties to Yemen’s bloody civil war are expected to convene this week for talks in Sweden. On Monday, the Saudi-led coalition granted a confidence-building measure requested by the Houthis and allowed a plane carrying wounded Houthi fighters to fly from Sanaa to Oman, where they will receive medical treatment. Also on Monday, U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths arrived in Sanaa to escort Houthi delegates to Sweden and guarantee their safety. A previous round of talks scheduled for this past September fell through after the Houthis refused to participate because they were concerned they would not be allowed to return to Yemen.
The United Nations is hoping to formalize a ceasefire in Hodeidah, where pro-government forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have advanced on Houthi fighters in the city. Griffiths has also said that he is optimistic about reaching an arrangement in which the Houthis would hand over control of the strategic city’s port, which is a vital lifeline for humanitarian aid entering the country.
The Trump administration is continuing to support the Saudi intervention—as noted in the Ticker last week, it is currently holding up a U.N. Security Council resolution that would voice support for a ceasefire in milder terms than even some of the administration’s own statements. But the U.S. Senate is throwing its weight behind a measure that uses the War Powers Act to call for the United States to wind down its support to the Saudi intervention. Last Wednesday, a preliminary vote passed with 63 votes—picking up 19 Republican supporters since a similar measure was last presented in March. Lawfare’s Scott Anderson notes that the shift has come partly from the continuation of the bloody stalemate in Yemen, but also as a result of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The bill will now come to the Senate floor for a vote this week, but could be held up by the House, which recently shut down a similar proposal. “For this reason, companion legislation in the House may have to wait until January, when the House’s newly-minted Democratic leadership will take control,” Anderson writes, though at that point, the balance of support in the Senate may have swung back against the bill. And even if it passes, the wording of the legislation could allow the Trump administration wiggle room to continue to provide some support to the Saudi coalition.
Qatar Announces Plans to Leave OPEC
The government of Qatar announced on Monday that it plans to leave OPEC, the international oil cartel led by the largest oil-producing states. Qatari Energy Minister Saad Sherida al-Kaabi stressed that the decision was being made so that Qatar could focus on its more lucrative natural gas industry, not regional politics, but complained that OPEC is “managed by a country.” Though he did not directly identify which country he meant, Qatar’s decision comes after Saudi Arabia and Russia said over the weekend that they would extend their plans to trim production into next year in an effort to raise oil prices.
Qatar helped broker an agreement to cut production and raise prices in 2016, but since then it has had a falling out with Saudi Arabia, which in mid-2017 began an international campaign to isolate Qatar and coerce it to shift its foreign policy to be more in line with Riyadh’s. Saudi Arabia has continued to try to manage oil markets, driven by the contradictory goals of maintaining high prices to fund its economic reform plans while also keeping prices low to prevent Iran from benefiting from lifted oil sanctions after the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. With the Trump administration reimposing oil sanctions on Iran and Tehran’s market share again decreasing, Riyadh is now more willing to push oil prices back up. That may frustrate Trump, who on Twitter has encouraged the Saudis to drive prices lower.
Qatar is not a large oil producer—its 600,000 barrels per day account for just 2 percent of OPEC’s daily output. Qatar is the largest producer of liquified natural gas in the world, and plans to expand production dramatically; it is trying to establish itself as the Saudi Arabia of the LNG industry, even hosting the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, which aspires to be a comparable cartel. Oil analysts told the New York Times and the Financial Times that Doha’s withdrawal will not be politically significant on its own, but signals a frustration with Saudi and Russian influence in the organization that is shared by other member states.
Kaabi said that the withdrawal from OPEC will take effect in January and that a Qatari delegation will still attend meetings in Vienna this week.
Israeli Police Recommend Netanyahu’s Indictment in Third Corruption Case
After barely staving off early elections last month after Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned to protest the reestablishment of a ceasefire with Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose coalition remains in power with a narrow one-seat margin, now faces new legal problems. Israeli police recommended on Sunday that the prime minister be indicted on charges of bribery and fraud. Police have now concluded four corruption investigations that have dogged Netanyahu for more than a year, and recommended indictments in three of them. The latest charges stem from an incident in which Netanyahu is alleged to have given preferential treatment to Bezeq, the largest telecom company in Israel, in exchange for favorable news coverage from its subsidiary, Walla! News.
In a speech in Tel Aviv at a Hanukkah celebration, Netanyahu dismissed the latest police report as a “witch hunt” and told supporters that investigators had come to a politically predetermined decision. “A year ago, before even opening the investigations … they decided what the outcome would be and leaked their conclusions,” he said.
It is now up to Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who was appointed by Netanyahu, to decide whether or not the charges should proceed. “I am a professional, not a politician, and I don’t intend to be thinking [in terms of] ‘yes elections, no elections’,” Mandelbilt said Monday. Some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners have said they will drop out of his government if he is indicted and does not step down. The prime minister has said he would try to remain in office while defending himself in court if necessary, but that will be more difficult with just one seat standing between him and snap elections. In a review of the unresolved legal questions around the indictment of a sitting Israeli prime minister, Elena Chachko wrote for Lawfare in March that Netanyahu clearly could be indicted, but that the law is ambiguous about whether or not he would be compelled to withdraw from office; that decision may fall to the Knesset. In any case, it is likely to be a long, drawn-out political fight.
On Tuesday morning, Netanyahu announced that the Israeli military had launched a new operation, Northern Shield, to destroy tunnels from Lebanon into Israel. "I don't want to talk about the number [of tunnels], those details will stay classified," an IDF spokesperson said on Tuesday. "It suffices to say that it is a small number. Work has started near Metullah, and in the coming days the operation will expand to other sections of the homefront." Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is expected to address the Israeli operation in a speech on Tuesday, but no clashes have been reported and U.N. peacekeepers have increased patrols along the border.