Operation imprecision

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. If you are not a subscriber, please use the button below to subscribe. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed

Solid and fluid

When the United Arab Emirates pulled most of its forces from Yemen last month, Abu Dhabi insisted that the move was coordinated with coalition leader Saudi Arabia as part of the plan to implement the Stockholm Agreement brokered by the United Nations earlier this year:

The UAE is redeploying its forces in Hodeidah, Yemen with the agreement of Saudi Arabia, its Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said Friday.

The redeployment is the outcome of extensive dialogue with the Arab coalition, and the country has agreed on a strategy for the next phase in Yemen with Saudi Arabia, Gargash said.

He added that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are determined to avoid confrontation with Iran, and that the relationship between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is “solid and lasting.”

The chaos that has ensued in Aden following the Emirati withdrawal not only brought that coordination into question but also appeared to reveal cracks in the KSA-UAE alliance that was seemingly impenetrable since the coalition launched its military campaign in Yemen back in 2015.

Yemen’s government led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi accused the UAE of supporting separatists and demanded its expulsion explosion from the coalition while Saudi and Emirati pundits exchanged harsh accusations and criticism on Twitter as tensions rose in Southern Yemen between groups backed by the two sides.

This has prompted Saudi Arabia and UAE to come out with a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to Yemen and “denouncing the smear campaign against the UAE over the recent events”:

The governments of both countries express their rejection and condemnation of the accusations and defamation campaigns targeting the UAE due to those events; reminding everyone of the sacrifices made by the Coalition Forces in Yemen, motivated by sincere fraternal and neighbourly ties, the preservation of security in the region, and the prosperity of its people and their common destiny.

While the heated Twitter exchanges relatively cooled down, the situation on the ground remains fluid after the Yemeni government on Thursday accused the UAE of killing dozens of its troops in airstrikes. The UAE said in a statement that its “precision air operations” were in response to “armed groups affiliated with terrorist militias targeting coalition forces at Aden Airport.”

Reuters reported that the Saudi king took the unusual step of expressing “extreme irritation” with the UAE at his palace in Mecca earlier this month, but the Emiratis have their reasons for attempting to put some distance between them and their larger neighbour. They have invested a lot of time and money to build their reputation in Washington as a reliable ally, and they realised that their closeness to the kingdom was damaging that image, particularly after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

Former Saudi ambassador to the US Prince Khalid bin Salman, currently deputy defence minister, was back in Washington this week for talks as the Wall Street Journal reported that the the Trump administration is preparing to open direct talks with the Iran-backed Houthis and pushing the kingdom to take part in secret negotiations in Oman.

Peaks and roller coasters

Despite the situation on the Yemen border, Saudi Arabia has continued to push its programme to promote local entertainment and tourism, including a festival at the southwestern region of Assir even as Houthis continued to target Abha airport with drone attacks that have become almost a daily occurrence

Al-Soudah Season, named after a peak of 3000m above sea level, has taken place during the month of August to take benefit of the nice summer weather there compared with other parts of the kingdom, and featured music concerts by famous Arab singers, open-air cinema and extreme sports events. 

American amusement park operator Six Flags announced that it would build 12 roller coasters and 6 themed areas covering 79 acres of land as part of the Qiddiya entertainment project outside the capital Riyadh. The park is expected to generate 800 full-time jobs when it opens in early 2023, officials said.

Next month should be relatively quiet except for celebrations around Saudi National Day on September 23, but in the meantime we have seen the government’s decision to allow women to travel without permission from their male guardian coming into effect, with local media reporting that thousands of women are taking advantage of the latest change in rules.

However, there have been complaints in the early days that the e-government system still did not allow women to obtain passports online despite the change in law. A spokesman said women must visit passport offices until the system is updated to reflect the recent amendments.

Giving women the freedom to travel will have a positive impact on the lives of many women, even if the change could lead to tension in some families. International human rights groups welcomed the implementation but urged the kingdom to follow it up by releasing detained women’s rights activists:

If Saudi Arabia wants to show the world it is truly serious about improving the rights of women, the authorities must drop all charges against the defenders of women’s rights who have been crucial in pushing for these kinds of reforms through their activism. They must immediately and unconditionally release all those who are in detention for fighting for these most basic of rights.

The family of Loujain al-Hathloul said she has rejected a proposal to be released from prison in exchange for recording a video statement denying reports she was tortured in custody.

“Our initial agreement with the State Security was that she will sign the document in which she will deny she had been tortured. And that’s why we remained silent in the past few weeks,” her brother Walid said on Twitter. “Asking to appear on a video and to deny the torture doesn’t sound like a realistic demand.”

In other news

Saudi officials continue to insist that the Aramco IPO remains on track and have recently invited more than 20 advisory firms from the US, Europe and Asia to the company’s headquarters in Dhahran to pitch for roles in the listing as former Trump administration official Dina Powel helped Goldman Sachs to claw its way back into contention. According to WSJ, the oil giant plans to split the IPO into two phases: a local listing later this year followed by an international one next year with Tokyo emerging as the front-runner.

That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.