Biden defends decision on Saudi sanctions

Yemen crisis deepens

American President Joe Biden has defended his decision not to sanction Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying there are no historical precedents of the United States punishing the leaders of its allies.

Biden’s claim came during a television interview that aired Wednesday on ABC News where he was asked why the crown prince was exempted from the sanctions announced by his administration after the release of an intelligence summary that concluded that the heir to the throne authorised the operation that killed Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How about Mohammad --

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: -- it's not free.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: -- bin Salman? You said during the campaign that you would personally punish the Saudi leaders if they were found to be responsible for this death of Khashoggi. They were found to be responsible. Mohammad bin Salman -- Salman was found to be responsible. He was found to have acknol -- authorized it. Yet, you didn't personally sanction him.



PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Three things. One, I'm the guy that released the report. That report had been done for a while. It wasn't released. I insisted it be released, number one. Number two, when I spoke to the king, I made it clear to the king -- the king, his father, that things were gonna change. And I insisted on several things. Number one, we held accountable all the people in that organization --

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But not the crown prince?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Not the crown prince because we have never, that I'm aware of, when we have an alliance with a country, gone to the acting head of state and punished that person. And -- and -- ostracized him. But here's the deal. We said, number one, end the war in Yemen. End the starvation there.

Number two -- and I went down the list of the things we expected the Saudis to do. And they're in the process of doing those things. And if they don't, we're gonna -- it's a changed relationship. It's a changed relationship we have with Saudi Arabia. There's no blank check.

Biden did not elaborate on his “list of things” that he demanded from Saudi Arabia, but the issue he raised as “number one” was ending the war in Yemen. Latest reports coming from the country suggest that achieving this goal remains far fetched, with UN Envoy Martin Griffiths telling the Security Council earlier this week that fighting is intensifying as the country is speeding towards a massive famine.

“We are also seeing other fronts in Yemen opening, including with military escalations in Hajjah and Taiz and Hudaydah. The war is back in full force,” he told the council on Tuesday.

US special envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking said Friday that a “sound plan” for a ceasefire had been before the Houthi leadership for “a number of days” as the Iran-backed group has escalated their attacks and dozens of protesters stormed a presidential palace in the southern port city of Aden while Yemen’s Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik and other members of the internationally recognised government were holed up inside the building.

“The death and violence must stop,” US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the council. “We call on the Houthis to accept an immediate, comprehensive, nationwide ceasefire and to cease all attacks. In the meantime, we will continue to hold Houthi leadership to account.”

The Houthis are now pushing to capture the central Marib province to try to complete their control over the northern half of Yemen amid growing fears that the battle would further deteriorate the humanitarian situation in the country.

“Yemen is approaching the point of no return. If we make the wrong choice now, Yemen will experience the worst famine the world has seen in decades,” David Gressly, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, said. “What the international donor community chooses to do next is vitally important. It is a choice between fully funding the humanitarian operation or doing nothing and watching the country fall deeper into famine.” 

The latest warning from the UN came as Human Rights Watch reported that more than 40 African migrants burned to death in an overcrowded detention centre in Sana’a earlier this month after Houthi security forces launched unidentified projectiles into a hangar-like building in the capital.

“The Houthis’ reckless use of weapons that led to scores of Ethiopian migrants burning to death is a horrific reminder of the dangers migrants face in war-torn Yemen,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Houthi authorities need to hold those responsible to account and stop holding migrants in abysmal detention facilities where their lives and well-being are at risk.”

The Saudi-led coalition said Tuesday that it had facilitated the evacuation by air of 160 African immigrants from Yemen under the supervision of the UN.

Saudi FDA says no blood clots from AZ vaccine

The Saudi Food and Drug Authority said this week that it has not received any reports of blood clots or thrombosis as a result of taking the coronavirus vaccines after several countries in Europe suspended the use of the AstraZeneca jab.

The authority added that “it is continuously following up the safety of COVID-19 vaccines in the kingdom, through monitoring and studying the side-effects, scientific evidence and relevant data, locally as well as internationally, in coordination with regulatory and health bodies.”

Saudi officials swiftly moved to reassure the public about the vaccines’ safety as they sought to fight rumours and misinformation that might deter people from taking the jab.

“What are we looking for in the vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca: Maximum protection; minimum side effects; reaching the ‘immune’ status in [contact tracing app] Tawakkalna,” Abdullah Assiri, undersecretary for public health, said Thursday on Twitter. “There is no difference between them in all the above. We would only accept the best for you.”

Saudi Arabia is accelerating its vaccination campaign which was launched last December but has been hampered by delays due to constrained supply. The Ministry of Health announced Wednesday that Riyadh’s largest vaccination facility at the city’s exhibition centre is now operating around the clock in response to high demand.

Latest data show that 2.7m doses of the coronavirus vaccines have been administered at more than 500 centres nationwide, with the daily rate of vaccinations standing at around 125,000 doses over most of the week. The health ministry on Thursday reported 381 new cases and six deaths of the virus, bringing the total to 383,880 cases and 6,591 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic last March.

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs also announced Thursday that it temporarily closed five mosques in five regions after five cases were detected among worshippers. This brings the total number of mosques temporarily shut in the past 39 days to 311 mosques, 249 of which were reopened after undergoing deep cleaning and disinfection to protect the faithful.

Oman blocks Clubhouse

Just a quick follow-up on my dispatch about Clubhouse: Oman has decided to block the voice chat app over a “lack of proper authorisation”. The Omani Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said: “Similar communication applications must obtain a permit from the authority”. Oman’s decision could be related to a blanket policy covering all VoIP apps, but Reuters reported that activists described the move as a further erosion of freedom of expression in the country.

When I wrote about the audio social network earlier this month, I made the point that Saudi Arabia is unlikely to block the app as they have historically preferred to engage tech platforms rather than cutting access to them. But the wave of Saudi users who arrived in February appear to have retreated amid uncertainty about surveillance and as the country relaxed coronavirus restrictions on indoor dining and other activities.

Kuwaitis seem to be the most active users of Clubhouse in the Gulf so far (one room discussing local politics hit 8,000 users last week). That, however, did not stop calls for blocking the app: a newspaper columnist filed complaints with the telecoms regulator to block Clubhouse and Tiktok for allegedly violating rules and to protect children from inappropriate content, respectively.