US, Saudi Arabia find convergence on fighting terror, boosting GCC, economic expansion

President Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he walks across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, on Friday, before boarding Marine One for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP)
Updated 20 May 2017

US, Saudi Arabia find convergence on fighting terror, boosting GCC, economic expansion

WASHINGTON: As Donald Trump arrives in Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as US president, formal security agreements, a counterterror plan, boosting the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and expanding economic ties are expected to top the agenda of his meetings.
Trump’s arrival comes at a high point in US-Saudi relations, according to analysts, and follows preparatory work and visits to Riyadh this year by US Defense Secretary James Mattis and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo.
Senior Saudi political and economic delegations went to Washington in the last three months, starting with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s meeting with Trump in March; Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir’s meetings with his counterpart Rex Tillerson on different occasions; and a US-Saudi economic summit at the US Chamber of Commerce last month.
Mark Wallace, a former US ambassador and CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran, told Arab News that Trump’s visit is aimed at “improving relations with Saudi Arabia after they were strained because of the Obama administration’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran.”
Wallace described strengthened US-Saudi ties as a “win-win for both countries. Washington is able to receive more support in its effort to combat terrorism, while Riyadh and other countries in the neighborhood are able to more thoroughly defend their territorial integrity.”
Counterterrorism will be high on the list as Trump and King Salman sit down for their first meeting.
Fahad Nazer, an international fellow with the National Council on US Arab Relations, told Arab News: “Trump has consistently said defeating the terrorist group Daesh is his top foreign policy priority, and it seems clear the US considers Saudi Arabia a vital — perhaps indispensable — ally in the fight. Close counterterrorism cooperation has become an anchor of US-Saudi relations, although relations remain multidimensional.”
Wallace anticipated that the visit would lay the ground for formal security arrangements as well.
“There’s a change (from the administration of former President Barack Obama), particularly with increased arms sales,” he said.
Reuters reported that US-Saudi arms sales talks involve the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system.
“A boost for the GCC security structure is also in the discussions,” said Wallace, who spoke of a real “possibility of a more formal security arrangement with Riyadh down the road, potentially designating more GCC members as major non-NATO allies.”
Boosting the GCC is something previous US administrations have attempted, but their efforts were derailed by regional conflicts and other priorities.
Wallace said: “A strong and unified GCC is vital for US interests. Bolstering Gulf states’ deterrence capabilities advances US national security in combating terrorism, and facilitates the GCC’s ability to check Iran’s destabilizing regional activities.” Such planning would also fit with Trump’s burden-sharing strategy, Wallace added.
While Obama’s last visit to Riyadh a year ago was clouded by mistrust and differences over Iran, a more friendly setting is expected for Trump, said Wallace and Nazer.
“Rather than being told to share the region with Iran, as Obama used to argue, this White House seems more committed to holding Tehran accountable for its reckless non-nuclear behavior, namely regional meddling, sponsorship of terrorism and human rights abuses, even at the expense of the nuclear deal.”
Nazer said: “The participation of dozens of countries from across the Arab and Muslim worlds suggests that other political, economic and social challenges confronting both worlds will also be on the table.”
Tillerson touted at a US-Saudi CEO Summit more bilateral economic investment and cooperation because “when US companies invest in the Saudi economy, everyone wins.”
In that context, “the Saudi leadership has made it clear that one of the keys to the success of Vision 2030 is attracting direct foreign investment,” said Nazer.
“American companies have a long and successful record in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi leadership has expressed its strong desire to foster and develop economic ties even further.”
This approach would mean “US companies could invest in the deputy crown prince’s ambitious Vision 2030 economic reform initiative, and Saudis could invest their much-promised $200 billion in the US economy, which could result in job creation at home,” said Wallace.
While in Saudi, Trump is expected to give a speech on Islam, and will participate in the opening of a center intended to fight radical ideology.
Wallace and Nazer agreed that the visit marks renewed US engagement in Middle East politics, with a starkly different tone and approach to that of the Obama administration.

Afghanistan has half a million widows, and the number is increasing, says government

Updated 51 min 35 sec ago

Afghanistan has half a million widows, and the number is increasing, says government

  • Some 15 kilometers southeast of the capital is the “zanabad,” or city of women, built completely by widows
  • Widows are the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan

KABUL: The burden of life has made Masooma look twice her age. Her life story in many ways is similar to those of several hundred thousand other Afghan women who have become widows since the latest conflict began here more than 40 years ago.
She lost her husband in a rocket attack 17 years ago in Kabul and since then has been feeding and raising her five children, doing jobs such as cleaning and laundry.

Looking frail and exhausted, Masooma is now part of the army of Kabul’s municipality and cleans roads in the city where the gap between the rich and poor is widening, thanks to the flow of foreign aid that has largely ended up in the pockets of commanders and those with links either to the government or foreign troops, as Masooma laments.

“I hate to beg and am proud of my job. I'm happy to earn a livelihood in a legitimate way,” Masooma told Arab News, sweeping a road and wearing an orange gown and a tight headscarf.

Like the rest of her female colleagues, she cleans the streets by braving the attacks, the rising heat in summer and extreme cold in winter.

Her eldest child is a young man now and he is a bus conductor, helping her to pay the rent for the house and sharing other responsibilities. 

But her life has been a long struggle in a male-dominated society where women are perceived largely as owned by their father before becoming their husband’s property and widows are often rejected or regarded as burdens.

“You cannot imagine the hardships I have gone through. It is not easy to raise five children without a father, without money and a house,” Masooma said.

Widows are the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan. They suffer violence, expulsion, ostracism and sometimes forced remarriage, often with a brother-in-law, as reported by the UN Mission in Afghanistan in a study in 2014.

Ferooza, another widow, lost her husband 20 years ago during a clash with the Taliban in northern Baghlan province. She moved to Kabul along with her daughter, Habiba. They have similar jobs to Masooma, with no health or life insurance in a country in the middle of war that relies on foreign aid.

“Life is very tough for widows. It is not easy for women to clean the streets day after day, for months and years, but we do not have an alternative. We are content and feel happy that we are working rather than being a burden on others,” Habiba told Arab News with a mild smile.

According to the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled, there are more than 500,000 widows in Afghanistan, most of them war widows. Of these, 70,000 are breadwinners for their families, the ministry said in recent statistics given to the media last week.

Some 15 kilometers southeast of the capital is the “zanabad,” or city of women, built completely by widows. The first women settled on this stony-slope location outside Kabul in the 1990s, hoping to escape the stigma they are forced to endure.

Today it is known as Afghanistan’s "hill of widows," home to a cluster of women who have eked out independence in a society that shuns them.

Ninety percent of them are illiterate, some even taking care of as many as eight children, Hashratullah Ahmadzai, spokesman for the ministry, told Arab News.

“We are in a state of war. The number of women who become widows is increasing. Those who fight on the government side and those on the side of the Taliban and the miltants have wives and mothers too. People on both sides suffer and women on all sides are affected more than anyone in this war,” Ahmadzai said. 

War widows who are registered by the government receive some meagre annual help from the ministry, but that does not meet the need of the victims, he said.

Gul Ghotai, head of the statistics department at the Ministry of Women Affairs, said the government lacks any strategy on creating vocational or short-term jobs for the widows.

“The ministry of women has done nothing on this. The government as a whole has failed to address the widows’ problems because it does not have the capacity. It has not even come up with a plan as to how to tackle the problem,” she told Arab News.