Middle East update: May 5-6 2018


The Iraqi air force conducted another round of airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria over the weekend. The Iraqis claim that the positions they hit were used by the group’s leaders, though of course that doesn’t mean any of them were killed. A cynic might argue that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has political reasons to remind Iraqi voters of his successes against ISIS, but…well, actually, he does.


Despite Saudi efforts at mediation, tensions apparently remain high between the Yemeni government and the United Arab Emirates over the UAE’s decision to occupy the Yemeni island of Socotra. The Emiratis, who may have leased the island in 2016 though that’s not much more than a rumor, view the strategically-located island as either too big a prize or too vulnerable to nefarious Iranian interference to allow it to remain under Yemeni control. The island’s governor has participated in the southern Yemeni secessionist movement, which has Emirati support. The Socotran people nevertheless don’t seem to appreciate the UAE presence on their island. They’ve reportedly been protesting against it since last year, when the Emiratis attempted to interfere with the island’s qat supply.


Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is pinning much of his hopes for Iraq’s May 12 election on his list’s performance in Nineveh province and its capital, Mosul. It looks like he’s going to carry the province, which is an important achievement for a Shiʿa leader in a predominantly Sunni province–and one that might be a positive sign for Iraqi unity:

For the first time since Iraq began electing a legislature in 2006, a Shiite politician is headlining an electoral ticket in Mosul. Abadi’s list is named “Nasr,” or “Victory,” a reference in part to his role in ending the city’s Islamic State trauma by orchestrating the military campaign that liberated the city last year.


Mosul may now be the ultimate proving ground for Abadi’s message of nationalism over sect.


“Abadi is a symbol of shedding sectarianism,” said Rana al-Naemi, 44, an English teacher from Mosul running on the prime minister’s list. “The people of Iraq are ready for this.” Alluding to the traditional colors worn by Sunni and Shiite clerics, she added, “Sectarianism is what destroyed us — whether it was a white turban or a black turban.”


Sunday’s Lebanese parliamentary election was marked by far lower turnout than expected–estimates put it at around 47 percent. Early indications are that Hezbollah was the election’s big winner–it and its coalition partners in the March 8 alliance look like they will come away with a combined 67 seats, a majority in Lebanon’s 128 seat parliament–though interestingly the anti-Hezbollah Christian party Lebanese Forces also did quite well, almost doubling its number of seats from 8 to 15. Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement lost seats but still looks to be parliament’s largest Sunni party. Since Lebanon’s prime minister must be Sunni by law, that should give Hariri the job–which means his political alliance of convenience with Lebanese President Michel Aoun is likely to hold firm.


Israeli forces killed two Palestinians who allegedly attempted to cross the Gaza border into Israel on Sunday. On Saturday, six Palestinians–possibly Hamas members–were killed in an as-yet unexplained explosion in Gaza. Hamas blamed Israel for the explosion but the Israelis have denied any involvement.


Human Rights Watch is demanding information on the whereabouts of Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed, daughter of Dubai Emir Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Latifa, unhappy with her restrictive lifestyle, reportedly tried to flee the UAE in early March but was “intercepted” and returned home. There’s been no sign of her since.


Oman’s ability to keep itself out of regional conflicts and remain on reasonably good terms with its neighbors is part of the reason it finds itself in the news far less often than the rest of the Gulf countries. But Saudi Arabia and the UAE are increasingly tightening the screws on Muscat to try to get it to fall in line:

As regional tensions have escalated, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have increased the political pressure on Oman to fall into line. King Salman’s decision in December 2016 to skip Oman during his tour of the GCC countries demonstrated Saudi discontent. But with the exception of this episode, Oman’s two neighbours have been careful to keep their grievances and diplomatic pressures private. But on my recent visit to Oman, the talk was all about Saudi/UAE economic pressure, including delayed deals and increased bureaucratic burdens placed on trade and border crossing between the UAE and Oman.


Oman is very vulnerable economically. Oil generates about 80% of government revenues, which means fluctuating oil prices have often created hardships for the economy. Youth unemployment has recently soared to 49 per cent and the budget deficit to 21 per cent of GDP. The Sultan has used his popularity to maintain stability, but he is old and the succession is uncertain.


Saudi and Emirati political and economic pressures have been coupled with an increased Emirati presence in Yemen, near the Omani border and in the southern Yemeni ports. The Emiratis are also investing in Oman’s north Batinah coast and Musandam peninsula, in what is seen by Oman as a further move to strategically encircle it and increase its economic dependence.

The Omanis, who brokered the initial US-Iran talks that eventually led to the Iran nuclear deal, have a great deal to lose if/when Donald Trump scraps that deal. Their good relations with Iran are going to be much less useful to them if Iran finds itself back under US sanctions.


Speaking of the nuclear deal, with its May 12 sanctions waiver deadline rapidly approaching, everybody seems to be making their closing arguments to Trump either for or against keeping the deal in place:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel repeated his call for the agreement to be “fully fixed or fully nixed,” arguing that while it may have delayed the acquisition of Iran’s first bomb, it paves the way for the country to build an entire nuclear arsenal soon after the deal expires.


In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani, whose negotiating team reached the nuclear accord with six world powers in 2015, said the Trump administration would come to rue any decision to renounce the agreement.


“If America leaves the nuclear deal, this will entail historic regret for it,” Mr. Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on state television. He warned in veiled terms that Iran could consider restarting its now largely mothballed nuclear energy program, which is under inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The only person in high political office in the West who may be dumber than Trump, UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, is visiting Washington to pitch the deal’s merits to US Vice President Mike Pence. He also took his case to the editorial page of the New York Times, which we all know is a fantastic way to get Trump’s attention. Texas Republican Congressman Mac Thornberry, Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said on Fox News on Sunday that he believes Trump should not abandon the deal, an interesting if probably meaningless development. Rudy Giuliani, who is still a thing for some reason, told the MEK-organized Iran Freedom Convention that he’s pretty sure Trump is going to tear the deal up.

Last year, Donald Trump apparently hired a private Israeli private intelligence firm called Black Cube to collect dirt on Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl, two Obama administration officials who helped negotiate the nuclear deal. Others in the Obama administration may have been targeted as well. Said dirt–maybe they were getting paid by Tehran, I guess, or were closet Shiʿa or something–would have been used to undermine the nuclear deal, so apparently they didn’t find anything. It’s like Richard Nixon’s ratfucking operation being run by a bunch of people who all exhibit signs of late-stage Mad Cow Disease. Obviously it’s beyond the pale, but it’s also exactly what you’d expect from the Trump administration.

Meanwhile, the Israelis say they’re preparing for some kind of Iranian retaliation for their April 9 airstrikes on Syria’s T4 airbase. Seven Iranians were killed in that strike. The Israelis say they’re anticipating a limited missile strike against military targets in northern Israel. I guess we’ll see.

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One thought on “Middle East update: May 5-6 2018

  1. Great job, I heard you on the most recent episode of Chapo Trap House, I’ve been some of my own research and I’ve trying to warn people around me, (Iran, Israel, Saudi, Yemen, Syria) as best I can, I majoring in Arabic in my college but I unfortunately can’t help you economically at this moment.

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