West Asia Roundup: September 2023
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

India hosted the G20 Summit on September 8-9. Leaders of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman and Egypt participated of which UAE, Oman and Egypt were special invitees while Crown Prince and Prime Minister represented Saudi Arabia as a G20 member. Saudi Crown Prince was also on a state visit after the Summit which indicated the special attention India accorded to his visit. Several MoUs and agreements were signed. However, one of the most important initiatives was a multilateral multimodal connectivity corridor between India, Middle East and Europe (IMEEC) which was said to be the game changer as it also was seen as a precursor to normalization of ties between Riyadh and Tel Aviv both of which would play an important role in this. (However, 5th Israel Hamas war starting with Hamas terror attacks on October 7 has undermined it in the short run).

President Assad’s visit to China raised some expectations of more investments and aid but not much was announced as they elevated the relationship to strategic partnership.

Worst Libyan floods killing thousands of Libyans due to mostly man made disaster and bursting of the dam in Eastern Libya created tremendous public outrage and furore expressing disgust with both Tripoli and Benghazi governments.

Back door discussions between US and Iran led to release of five US prisoners in Iranian jails in return for unfreezing of $ 6bn oil revenue via South Korea and Qatar.

Two Israeli Ministers visited Saudi Arabia to attend international conferences and statement by the two leaders was perceived as the beginning of rapprochement between the two however this has now been overtaken by Israel-Hamas war.

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Mohammad Bin Salman’s State Visit to India

Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammad Bin Salman began his state visit to India after participation in the G20 summit between 9 and 11 September. The Crown Prince met with President Draupadi Murmu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Saudi Arabia congratulated India for the successful presidency of the G20 summit. The Crown Prince and Prime Minister Modi talked about deepening the strategic relations and shared their views on regional and international issues. Both leaders co-chaired the first meeting of the India-Saudi Strategic Partnership Council that was set up following agreement in October 2019. Both states signed MoUs in the fields of energy, communication and IT, anti-corruption bodies, archives, bilateral investment, banking, seawater desalination etc.

During the G20 summit, a multinational rail and shipping project linking India with West Asia and Europe was announced connecting India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, Israel and the European Union (EU) to boost trade, deliver energy resources and improve digital connectivity.

Libya Floods

On 10 September, Storm Daniel swept across eastern Libya causing large scale devastation. Reportedly, more than 6000 people were killed by the storm. The flood caused bursting of dams particularly Al Bayda; Al Marj and Derna. It led to major damage to critical infrastructure, including bridges, roads and electricity grids. The country split between two rival governments lack basic infrastructure in terms of public services, social protection and educational services. Reportedly, the two rival governments were coordinating relief efforts for flood victims.

Morocco Earthquake

On 8 September, a powerful earthquake with magnitude of 6.8 and epicenter in the Atlas Mountains led to widespread destruction in Morocco. The tremors were felt in Rabat, Casablanca, Agadir and Essaouira. Reportedly, the total loss of lives was more than 2900. The Interior Ministry has noted that the highest death toll occurred in Al Haouz province followed by Taroudant province. King Mohammed VI declared three days of national mourning and ordered shelter, food and other help for survivors. Morocco received humanitarian aid from the UK, Spain, Qatar, the UAE and Israel. Notably, Algeria has also opened its airspace for flights carrying humanitarian aid to Morocco.

Fire Kills Hundreds in Nineveh Province

On 26 September, around 113 people were killed and more than 150 were injured in a fire during a wedding celebration in Iraq’s Nineveh province. The fire caused by the celebratory fireworks inside a wedding hall in Hamdaniya district spread quickly and led to mass deaths. The use of flammable material used in the construction of the event hall led to swift spread of the fire. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani visited the site and ordered an investigation. Most attendees in the wedding belonged to Ninevah’s Christian minority. 14 individuals were arrested in relations to the incident.

Prisoner Swap between the US and Iran

Qatar mediated a high profile prisoner exchange between Iran and the US leading to release of five American prisoners and five Iranian prisoners on 18 September. The American detainees were brought to Doha from Tehran. They later departed on a US bound flight. The five Iranian prisoners received clemency from Joe Biden. The US also released US$ 6 billion in Iranian assets which were frozen in South Korea. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi called the release of five US detainees as “purely a humanitarian action”. Joe Biden thanked US’ allies from securing their release and warned US citizens to avoid travelling to Iran and said that Washington DC could not guarantee their freedom in case of detention. Joe Biden administration’s prison swap deal has been criticized by Republican Party politicians and some Democratic Party members arguing that the agreement could lead to further detentions.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has successfully placed a third imaging satellite, Noor into orbit on 27 September. The Noor-3 was reportedly placed in the orbit 450km above sea level and was taken to space using a Qased carrier developed by the IRGC.

Bashir Al Assad’s Visit to China

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hangzhou on 22 September, on the sidelines of the Asian Games. Both leaders announced the formation of a strategic partnership. Xi Jinping stated that China supports Syria’s opposition to foreign interference and unilateral bullying. China also assured support for Syria’s reconstruction and called for strengthening cooperation through the Belt and Road Initiative; increasing the import of quality agricultural products and engaging Syria to implement the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative. Assad appreciated China’s successful path of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Saudi Foreign Minister’s Visit to Qatar

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani welcomed the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud on 26 September. According to Qatar’s Amiri Diwan, both leaders discussed about the fraternal relations and talked about prospects in promoting and advancing bilateral relations regional and international issues of common concern. Qatari Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani also participated in the deliberations. Saudi Arabia and its allies imposed sanctions on Qatar in 2017. The relations normalized in 2021 that has increased the frequency of bilateral visits. The Qatari Emir visited Saudi Arabia in November 2022.

Sudanese Army Chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan met with Qatari Emir

Sudanese army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan met with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim on 7 September. It was Al-Burhan’s third visit after Egypt and South Sudan. Al-Burhan and the Sudanese Army have been fighting for political control since April 2023. Al-Burhan through his visits is trying to secure regional support against the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and gain legitimacy for his rule. Al-Burhan during the meeting with the Sheikh Tamim discussed about the latest developments and challenges facing Sudan. The Qatari Emir emphasised the call for broad peace negotiations between all of Sudan’s political forces and lasting end to the fighting. During Al-Burhan’s visit to Qatar, the focus was more on political and diplomatic issues as compared to security and military situation.

On 6 September, Sudanese Army killed 32 civilians in artillery attacks in the Ombada neighborhood in western Omdurman. Al-Burhan on the same day issued a constitutional decree ordering the dissolution of the RSF. On 10 September, Sudanese army carrying out a drone attack killed at least 40 people including activists and medical workers in Khartoum’s Mayo neighborhood. Moreover, around 70 others were injured in the drone attack conducted by the army.

Khalifa Haftar’s Visit to Russia

Libya’s renegade General Khalifa Haftar who dominates eastern Libya visited Moscow and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov on 28 September. Haftar has developed close relations with Moscow and his military force relies heavily on the support of the Wagner Group. The Libyan leader discussed about the situation in Libya and the region as a whole. Haftar met with Putin earlier in 2019. Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov has been visiting eastern Libya in recent years. He in fact visited the oil rich Arab state after the flash flood in Derna earlier in the month.

The Central Banks of the UAE and Egypt Agree to Currency Swap Deal

The central banks of the UAE and Egypt on 28 September agreed to currency exchange deal to support the struggling Egyptian economy. The agreement would allow the two Central Banks to exchange up to five billion Emirati dirhams and 42 billion Egyptian pounds or around US$ 1.36 billion. The Egyptian pound has lost more than 50 percent of its value against the dollar in the last 18 months. Egypt has been facing a shortage of foreign currency. Notably in August 2023, Egypt’s annual inflation rate stood at 39.7 percent. Reportedly, Egypt has received more than US$ 100 billion through Central Bank deposits, fuel aid and other support from the Gulf States.

Bahraini Soldiers Killed in Houthi Drone Attack

Yemen’s Houthi fighters carried out drone attack on 26 September killing three Bahraini soldiers on Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen. Houthis did not immediately acknowledge carrying out the attack. The timing of the strike is odd since Houthis are currently negotiating with the Saudi led coalition to reach a peace agreement. The Saudi Arabian-led coalition warned Houthi fighters that “such repeated hostile and provocative actions are not consistent with the positive efforts being made to end the crisis and reach a comprehensive political solution”. The coalition also asserted that it has right to respond at the appropriate time and place.

First Saudi Ambassador to Palestine takes Office

Palestinian Authority (PA) welcomed the appointment of the first Saudi Ambassador to Palestine, Nayef al-Sudairi on 26 September. Al-Sudairi presented his credentials to PA President Mahmoud Abbas as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz to the State of Palestine, and Consul General of the Kingdom in Jerusalem. Al-Sudairi and his delegation entered West Bank through the Karama Crossing from Jordan on a two day official visit. Palestinian Foreign Affairs Ministry called the visit as “a historic milestone for developing fraternal relations between the two sister countries”. Earlier in August, Al-Sudairi, who is Saudi Arabia’s current ambassador to Jordan, was appointed as non-resident envoy to Palestine. Israel rejected the idea of establishing a Saudi consulate in Jerusalem, with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen saying Al-Sudairi could meet PA representatives in Jerusalem but would have no fixed presence.

US Allows Visa Free Travel for Israelis

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas, in consultation with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on 27 September announced the designation of Israel into the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Therefore, by 30 November, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) will be updated to allow citizens and nationals of Israel to apply to travel to the United States for tourism or business purposes for up to 90 days without first obtaining a U.S. visa. The US said the step would further strengthen the security, economic and people to people ties with Israel. The Jewish state will also allow all US citizens to request entry to Israel for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. The Arab Americans have criticized the US decision due to Israel’s history of discrimination against Americans of Arab and Palestinian descent that frequently face detention, interrogation and rejection of entry.

Israeli Minister’s Visit to Saudi Arabia

Israeli Tourism Minister Haim Katz convened a two day visit to Riyadh in the last week of September to participate in UN World Tourism Organization event. The unprecedented visit has occurred in the backdrop of the US’ efforts towards normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. In recent months, Israel has sent delegations to partake in sports and other events. A nine member Israeli delegation visited Israel on 11 September to participate in the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting. Katz called, “Tourism is a bridge between nations” and emphasised that cooperation in tourism could lead to economic progress.

Israel and Germany Sign Defence Deal

Germany on 28 September signed a US$ 3.5 billion deal with Israel to procure Arrow 3 hypersonic missile system. The missile will likely become a key part of Europe’s defence against air attack. The long-range Arrow 3 system, designed to shoot down missiles above the Earth’s atmosphere is capable of offering a protective cover for neighbouring EU states. The system was developed and produced by Israel and the US. Israel entered the deal with Germany after securing consent from Washington DC. German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius signed the deal in the presence of Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant. The sale is the biggest ever deal for Israel’s military industry. In light of Russia-Ukraine war, Germany is seeking to strengthen NATO’s air defences in Europe. Yoav Gallant called the arms deal signing as a “moving event for every Jew” and noted that “only 80 years since the end of the second world war yet Israel and Germany join hands today in building a safer future”.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 8 September. The Ukrainian President during the meeting mentioned about the importance of Israel’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Both leaders talked about the possible paths of Israeli support for Ukraine as well as the continuation of Israeli assistance to Ukraine; safety of Ukrainian refugees in Israel and advancement of development assistance of civilian air defence systems. Netanyahu requested Zelenskyy to ensure the safety of Hasidic Jews reaching Ukraine in late September for an annual pilgrimage.

Israel-Palestine Conflict

On 1 September, one Palestinian man, Abdul Rahim Fayez Ghannam was killed in Aqaba, north of Tubas during a raid in the occupied West Bank. The killing led to violent confrontation between Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and Palestinians. On 9 September, 16 year old Milad al-Raee was shot down by an Israeli soldier in a military watchtower in Al-Arroub camp in Hebron. On 19 September IDF killed five Palestinians during raid in Jenin and Jericho and killed one more in Gaza Strip. IDF claimed that “rioters” gathered next to the fence separating Gaza and Israel. On 21 September, Israeli Special Forces hounded and killed a 15 year old Palestinian Rafat Omar Ahmad Khamayseh who saw them sneaking into Jenin refugee camp during a military raid. On 22 September, a Palestinian, Abdullah Abu Hasan belonging to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) was killed in Kafr Dan town. On 24 September, two Palestinians were killed in an Israeli military raid on Nour Shams refugee camp in Tulkarem city in occupied West Bank. On 27 September, five members of an Israeli Arab family including two women were killed in Basmut Tabun town, northwest of Nazareth by unidentified gunmen. A masked gunman killed another Israeli Arab citizen in Haifa on the same day. Israeli forces on 30 September killed a Palestinian, Muhammad Rumaneh in Ramallah leading to huge strike in parts of the occupied territory. IDF stated that Rumaneh, a Hamas member and another man threw Molotov cocktail at an army post near Ramallah.

Israel on 8 September announced that it will re-open the main commercial crossing i.e. Karem Abu Salem to Gaza after it was closed earlier that week claiming the IDF found explosives headed out of the blockaded territory. Israel assured that after necessary adjustments and investigation, the crossing was safe to reopen. The General Federation of Palestinian Industries called the decision to shut the crossing as “collective punishment”. The closure led to two weeks of demonstrations by Palestinian workers. Eventually, Qatar carried out successful mediation involving Egypt, Israel and Hamas to reopen crossing points to the besieged territory. Qatar’s envoy to Gaza, Mohammad al-Emadi noted that “the situation in the Gaza Strip is dire and another conflict will only exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.” Qatar has worked and succeeded in de-escalating the situation in the Gaza Strip by mediating an understanding to reopen the Erez crossing for Palestinian workers. According to the Qatari envoy, “Qatar will spare no efforts in supporting the Palestinian people through diplomacy and developmental initiatives until they achieve their aspirations for statehood and prosperity”. Israeli forces on 22 September carried out air attacks on Gaza Strip in response to confrontation with Palestinian protestors approaching the separation fence. IDF claimed that drones targeted two posts belonging to Hamas. Hamas reported that two individuals were injured.

Lebanese Army has reported that it fired tear gas at Israeli troops over the border on 23 September in response to smoke bombs and violation of the withdrawal line by IDF. Israel blamed Lebanon for starting the confrontation in Shebaa Farms and Kfar Chouba Hills.

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