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Saudi princes under arrest accused of money laundering, bribery and extortion

- prince mohammed bin salman - Saudi princes under arrest accused of money laundering, bribery and extortion


Saudi Arabia’s future king has tightened his grip on power through an anti-corruption purge by arresting royals, ministers and investors including billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal who is one of the kingdom’s most prominent businessmen.

Prince Alwaleed, a nephew of the king and owner of investment firm Kingdom Holding, invests in firms such as Citigroup and Twitter. He was among 11 princes, four ministers and tens of former ministers detained, three senior officials told Reuters on Sunday.

The purge against the kingdom’s political and business elite also targeted the head of the National Guard, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who was detained and replaced as minister of the powerful National Guard by Prince Khaled bin Ayyaf.

The allegations against Prince Alwaleed include money laundering, bribery and extorting officials, one official told Reuters, while Prince Miteb is accused of embezzlement, hiring ghost employees and awarding contracts to his own companies including a $10 billion deal for walkie talkies and bulletproof military gear worth billions of Saudi riyals.

The allegations could not be independently verified and members of the families of those detained could not be reached.

News of the purge came soon after King Salman decreed late on Saturday the creation of an anti-corruption committee chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his 32-year-old favourite son who has amassed power since rising from obscurity three years ago.

The new body was given broad powers to investigate cases, issue arrest warrants and travel restrictions, and seize assets.

“The homeland will not exist unless corruption is uprooted and the corrupt are held accountable,” the royal decree said.

Analysts said the arrests were another pre-emptive measure by the crown prince to remove powerful figures as he exerts control over the world’s leading oil exporter.

The roundup recalls the palace coup in June through which he ousted his elder cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as heir to the throne and interior minister.

MbS, as he is known, was expected to follow at least by removing Prince Miteb from leadership of the National Guard, a pivotal power base rooted in the kingdom’s tribes.

Over the past year, MbS has become the ultimate decision-maker for the kingdom’s military, foreign, economic and social policies, causing resentment among parts of the Al Saud dynasty frustrated by his meteoric rise.

Saudi Arabia’s stock index was dragged down briefly but recovered to close higher as some investors bet the crackdown could bolster reforms in the long run.

The royal decree said the arrests were in response to “exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money.”

The line between public funds and royal money is not always clear in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy ruled by an Islamic system in which most law is not systematically codified and no elected parliament exists.

​WikiLeaks cables have detailed the huge monthly stipends that every Saudi royal receives as well as various money-making schemes some have used to finance lavish lifestyles.

Analysts said the purge aimed to go beyond corruption and aimed to remove potential opposition to Prince Mohammed’s ambitious reform agenda, which is widely popular with Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning youth population but faces resistance from some of the old guard more comfortable with the kingdom’s traditions of incremental change and rule by consensus.

In September, the king announced that a ban on women driving would be lifted, while Prince Mohammed is trying to break decades of conservative tradition by promoting public entertainment and visits by foreign tourists.

The crown prince has also slashed state spending in some areas and plans a big sale of state assets, including floating part of state oil giant Saudi Aramco on international markets.

Prince Mohammed has also led Saudi Arabia into a two-year-old war in Yemen, where the government says it is fighting Iran-aligned militants, and a row with neighbouring Qatar, which it accuses of backing terrorists, a charge Doha denies. Detractors of the crown prince say both moves are dangerous adventurism.

The most recent crackdown breaks with the tradition of consensus within the ruling family, wrote James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“Prince Mohammed, rather than forging alliances, is extending his iron grip to the ruling family, the military, and the National Guard to counter what appears to be more widespread opposition within the family as well as the military to his reforms and the Yemen war,” he said.

Scholar Joseph Kechichian said the interests of the Al Saud dynasty, however, would remain protected.

“Both King Salman and heir apparent Mohammed bin Salman are fully committed to them. What they wish to instil, and seem determined to execute, is to modernise the ruling establishment, not just for the 2030 horizon but beyond it too,” he said.

Many ordinary Saudis praised the crackdown as long-awaited.

A Saudi official said former Riyadh Governor Prince Turki bin Abdullah was detained on accusations of corruption in the Riyadh Metro project and taking advantage of his influence to award contracts to his own companies.

Former Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, a board member of national oil giant Saudi Aramco, was also detained, accused of embezzlement related to the expansion of Mecca’s Grand Mosque and taking advantage of his position and inside information to purchase lands, the official added.

Other detainees include ousted Economy Minister Adel Fakieh, who once played a major role in drafting MbS’ reforms, and Khalid al-Tuwaijiri, who headed the Royal Court under the late King Abdullah.

People on Twitter applauded the arrests of certain ministers, with some comparing them to “the night of the long knives”, a violent purge of political leaders in Nazi Germany in 1934.

Bakr bin Laden, chairman of the big Saudi Binladin construction group, and Alwaleed al-Ibrahim, owner of the MBC television network, were also detained.

At least some of the detainees were held at the opulent Ritz-Carlton hotel in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh, said sources in contact with the government and guests whose plans had been disrupted.

The hotel’s exterior gate was shuttered on Sunday morning and guards turned away a Reuters reporter, saying it had been closed for security reasons, although private cars and ambulances were seen entering through a rear entrance.

The hotel and an adjacent facility were the site of an international conference promoting Saudi Arabia as an investment destination just 10 days ago attended by at least one of those now being held for questioning.

The detentions follow a crackdown in September on political opponents of Saudi Arabia’s rulers that saw some 30 clerics, intellectuals and activists detained.

Prince Alwaleed, a flamboyant character, has sometimes used his prominence as an investor to aim barbs at the kingdom’s rulers.

In December 2015, he called then-US presidential candidate Donald Trump a “disgrace to all America” and demanded on Twitter that he withdraw from the election.

Trump responded by tweeting: “Dopey Prince @Alwaleed_Talal wants to control our US politicians with daddy’s money. Can’t do it when I get elected.”

His father, Prince Talal, is considered one of the most vocal supporters of reform in the Al Saud family, having pressed for a constitutional monarchy decades ago.

Reuters

Independent

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Middle East

Manbij becomes key as US looks to rein in Turkey’s Syrian offensive

- 1516747391 tirkey syria tank - Manbij becomes key as US looks to rein in Turkey’s Syrian offensive


The US is trying to prevent the fighting in Afrin between Turkish forces and Syrian Kurds spreading east into the main Kurdish enclave in Syria where US troops are based. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to drive the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters not just from Afrin, but from Manbij, a strategic town west of the Euphrates.

“Terrorists in Manbij are constantly firing provocation shots,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. “If the US does not stop this, we will stop it.”

Some 6,000 Turkish troops backed by 10,000 Free Syrian Army fighters controlled by Turkey are seeking to fight their way into the isolated Kurdish canton of Afrin in northern Syria. Their progress has so far been slow, with thick cloud hindering air strikes in the hilly terrain. The YPG and Turkish-led forces have been fighting for the Bursaya Hill, with the summit, which overlooks the eastern side of Afrin town, changing hands several times.

The US has so far given muted support to its Kurdish allies in Syria, who provided the ground troops for the successful campaign against Isis. The US has supported the YPG during the war against Isis with massive air power, military equipment and some 2,000 specialised US troops.

The US is hoping to keep the present fighting confined to Afrin, which is separate from the bulk of Kurdish territory. There have never been any US military forces in this enclave, though there were Russian observers that have now been withdrawn. But if Turkey attacks Manbij then the US will have to decide if it is going to be seen as betraying its Kurdish ally or risk a military confrontation with its Nato partner Turkey.  

The Kurdish authorities in north-east Syria are calling for a mass mobilisation in defence of Afrin. But they already have large numbers of experienced combat troops previously fighting Isis that they can deploy if they wish. “The Turkish state has been trying to enter north Syria for days, but it will not be able to,” said Siyamund Walat, a YPG general. “We have forces in Afrin, thousands… they are protecting the border and the people. If necessary all the soldiers will go to Afrin.”

It may be in the interests of the Syrian Kurds to prolong the fighting in Afrin so international diplomatic pressure increases on Turkey to end Operation Olive Branch, as it calls its campaign. On the other hand, Afrin is cut off from the rest of the Kurdish-held area and the one supply road to the south is held by the Syrian Army. Syrian soldiers have been refusing to allow refugees from Afrin through their checkpoints to reach Kurdish areas in Aleppo city 25 miles away.

Explosions as Turkey confirms airstrikes on Afrin, Syria

The Turkish campaign only became possible when Russia agreed not to oppose it and, above all, allowed Turkish jets to operate in Syrian airspace. This is under Russian control west of the Euphrates. The long-contemplated Turkish assault was finally provoked by the US announcement last week that its forces would be staying in Syrian Kurdish territory for the foreseeable future. This de facto guarantee of the Kurdish statelet, directed against the Syrian government and Iran by the US, radically changed the strategic balance in Syria. The US had assured the Turks since the end of 2014 that its military cooperation with the YPG was purely tactical, directed against Isis and would end when Isis was defeated.

Mr Erdogan is taking advantage of a wave of patriotic support in Turkey for the Afrin operation to arrest dozens of politicians, journalists and activists who are accused of criticising the offensive. Many of those arrested, often for critical media posts, belong to the pro-Kurdish HDP party. “Journalists are having their doors rammed down without anybody knocking,” said HDP spokesman Ayhan Bilgen. “People are [becoming] afraid of keyboards, pens, words and writing”

Independent

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Middle East

Syrian Kurds Refuse to Participate in Sochi Talks

- acdbaa5482f0c834200ff60cc8e9a0ad L - Syrian Kurds Refuse to Participate in Sochi Talks


ERBIL — Syrian Kurds will under no circumstances attend the Syrian National dialogue Congress in Sochi, said Aldar Khalil, the co-chairperson of the Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM).

Khalil said in an interview with Reuters that on one hand Russia consented Turkey’s attack on Afrin and on the other hand also invited the Syrian Kurds to participate in Sochi. 

“It is  contradictory,” he said, arguing that in such a situation, taking part in a Russian-brokered talk is of no significance.

He pointed out that the Kurdish participation in the congress is a weak possibility.

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Middle East

Israeli pilots say they would refuse to fly deported asylum seekers back to Africa: ‘I will not be a partner to this barbarity’

- 1514968731 israel african migrants - Israeli pilots say they would refuse to fly deported asylum seekers back to Africa: ‘I will not be a partner to this barbarity’


Three Israeli pilots have spoken out against the forced deportations of asylum seekers back to Africa, saying they would refuse to take control of planes involved the practice.

“There is no way that I, as an air crew member, will take part in flying refugees/asylum seekers on their way to a destination whose chances of survival after reaching it… are close to zero,” wrote pilot Shaul Betzer in a Facebook post and later on Twitter.

“Not much courage is required for such a mission, but I will not be able to do what is required of me in such a mission. As a pilot and as a human being.”

Pilot Iddo Elad posted a statement on his Facebook page a few hours later, declaring: “I will not be a partner to this barbarity.”

Both Facebook posts have been shared hundreds of times and attracted many comments, most of which support the men’s stance.

The public refusals come three weeks after the Israeli government ordered thousands of African refugees and migrants to leave the country within three months or face prison.

Thousands of Africans – many from Eritrea and Sudan – crossed from Egypt into Israel before it erected a fence along the border in 2013.

Many have fled conflict and persecution, but Israel’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu has called them “infiltrators” and said they are mostly economic migrants whose numbers threaten the nation’s Jewish character.

According to Israeli charity Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an average of just 0.15 per cent of people who file asylum claims in Israel are ultimately recognised as refugees.

Under the new proposals, “infiltrators” will be offered $3,500 (£2,500) and a plane ticket to their home country or “a third country” – likely to be Rwanda or Uganda.

Israeli media has reported that some asylum seekers have faced torture or human trafficking after being sent to Rwanda and Uganda by the Israeli government.

Yoel Piterbarg, a former combat helicopter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, was the first of the three men to speak out.

“The state of Israel is populated mainly by Jews who, in the near and distant past, were refugees in countries around the world,” he wrote on Facebook.

“Most went through the Holocaust, many were forcefully expelled from their countries, and many others emigrated out of a desire to improve their lives in better countries that agreed to accept them.”

He continued: “Out of all people we, the Jews, must be attentive, empathetic, moral, and leaders of public opinion in the world in how we treat the migration of refugees, who have suffered and continue to suffer in their countries of origin.”

Mr Piterbarg has spoken out on human rights issues before in his role as a pilot.

In 2003, he was one of 27 Israeli air force pilots who refused to take part in further operations inside the Palestinian territories, describing the military’s actions in the occupied areas as “illegal and immoral”.

The statements published by the three men regarding the deportation of migrants are largely symbolic as El Al – the airline all three men are understood to work for – does not currently operate any routes to the countries in question.

“El Al does not fly any immigrants to Africa,” a spokesperson for El Al told The Independent.

“El Al has absolutely nothing at all to do with these flights. El Al pilots won’t be flying these immigrants.”

The airline does however have a code share agreement with Ethiopian Airlines, allowing passengers to book flights via El Al’s website from Tel Aviv to destinations across sub-Saharan Africa with a stop-off in Addis Ababa.

According to the spokesperson, no El Al crew are involved on any of those flights.

A petition calling on the Israel Airline Pilots Association and ground services staff at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to refuse to participate in the deportation of migrants and refugees has gathered more than 8,000 signatures.

The petition was partly inspired by news from Germany, where pilots stopped 222 deportations of asylum seekers between January and September last year.



Independent

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