INTERVIEW: Veteran US diplomat Dennis Ross on significance of Biden’s Saudi visit and what it can achieve

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Updated 15 July 2022

INTERVIEW: Veteran US diplomat Dennis Ross on significance of Biden’s Saudi visit and what it can achieve

INTERVIEW: Veteran US diplomat Dennis Ross on significance of Biden’s Saudi visit and what it can achieve
  • The former peace negotiator said that the rhetoric employed by presidential candidates while they are campaigning is often adjusted when they take office
  • He said he hopes the US president’s visit ‘will shine a spotlight on the changes that are taking place within Saudi Arabia’ which ‘may be creating a model in the region’

CHICAGO: Ambassador Dennis Ross, who served as point man for peace under US President Bill Clinton, told Arab News on Wednesday that President Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia can not only help address America’s economic challenges but also strengthen the groundwork for peace between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Ross, the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who also served under presidents George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama, said that what presidential candidates say while they are campaigning and what they actually do once they take office are reflective of their needs at the time, and that Biden’s past criticism of Saudi Arabia is now overshadowed by the importance of the Kingdom to American needs.

“Every American president, when he runs in a campaign, tends to make statements that seem to respond to the needs of the moment,” Ross said during an exclusive interview.

“There were plenty of presidents I worked for that were mindful of what they said in campaigns and then they faced the reality of decisions and choices they had to make. What you say in a campaign may at times limit what you can do.

“But ultimately presidents make hard decisions, they face dilemmas. He made a decision to go to Saudi Arabia because he understood this is something that is important to the United States right now. And I would say not just right now. I would say we are in a competition with Russia and China over what the shape of the international system is going to look like. What are the rules of the game? What’s going to shape the norms. If Russia and China are the ones defining that then you will see spheres of influence where big nations can dictate to little nations what they can do.”

He continued: “The trip to Saudi Arabia is important because the Saudis need to be part of this broader coalition. They need to be part of an American partnership as we try to transition away from fossil fuels. It is going to take a couple decades.

“If we don’t want to see lurches where suddenly the price of oil and gasoline goes up dramatically, we need to have a set of understandings with the Saudis. This is important to us and I think he realizes this and that is why he is making the trip.”

Ross said that Biden’s visit could result in benefits not only for the US but for Middle East peace and for the Palestinians.

“I think it is going to achieve several things,” he said. “It is going to re-establish the US Saudi relationship and, really, a relationship and partnership. It’s important to re-establish that. I think there were tensions on both sides; it wasn’t just on one side, it was on both sides.

“But I think the relationship will be put back on a solid footing and that’s critical. I think we are going to see agreements emerge on 5G and telecommunications. I think we are going to see agreements emerge on the future of Green Energy. This is very much in America’s interests but it is also very much in Saudi interests.

“I think we will see agreements in the security and defense area. I think we will see a much more integrated approach to security in the region. From a Saudi standpoint, that has a benefit of embedding the US more in the region. The more you see greater integration of air early warning, missile defense … the more the US is embedded under the umbrella of Central Command.”

He added that the more integration there is among countries in the region in terms of security and defense, and not only with the US, the more the burden can be shared.

“So, our role, which is going to be more embedded in the region, is also more sustainable as a result,” said Ross. “This is a relationship that meets the needs of both sides and I think we are going to see that emerge from this trip.”

He praised the recent changes and developments in the Kingdom ushered in by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“Saudi Arabia is transforming itself in a way that addresses the needs not just of Saudi Arabia but it may be creating a model in the region, at least for the Arabs that have never had a successful model of development. That is hugely in our interests,” Ross said.

“The reason we have seen so much turmoil and conflict is precisely because extremists on both ends, whether they were radical nationalists or radical Islamists, they said, ‘We have the answer for the failure of these states to advance.’ And they didn’t, by definition. And here is a new model, at least for a larger state.”

He said that some regional states with smaller populations have embarked on a process of transformation but added: “Here you have a larger Arab state that is undertaking a fundamental approach to modernization. And if it succeeds in that, it sends a message to the rest of the region that there is a different way. There has been a promotion of religious tolerance.”

Ross highlighted the recent choice of Mohammed Al-Issa, a religious moderate, to deliver the sermon for Eid Al-Adha as an important example of the ways in which Saudi Arabia is changing its dynamics to improve the world.

“We had Mohammed Al-Issa give the sermon for Eid,” he said. “Here is someone who made a trip to Auschwitz and who is emphasizing ... respect for other faiths and promoting interreligious dialogues. Some clearly attacked him because of what he represents and what he stands for, and he was the one asked by the crown prince to give the sermon.

“It speaks volumes about the changes taking that are taking place in Saudi Arabia. I hope this visit — and some of what is likely to emerge from the visit in terms of agreements in the high-tech area, in the area of renewable energy — I hope some of this will shine a spotlight on the changes that are taking place within Saudi Arabia that have received far less attention than they should have.”

Saudi Arabia has initiated a wide range of social developments and changes which, Ross said, take time to fully realize but can help to undermine the extremist messages that fuel violence throughout the world.

The transformation of any society, culturally, politically or socially, is not like flipping a light switch and suddenly everything changes, he added.

“It has to be a process,” Ross said. “You are dealing with human endeavors. You have generational change taking place and it takes time to create different kinds of habits and different kinds of norms. But what we are seeing is transformation that is pretty remarkable in terms of the speed.

“I have been coming to Saudi Arabia since 1991. I wrote an article in the Washington Post when I went there in 2016, and I said this is a different country than I have been coming to. It is because of what you see outwardly.

“It is completely different in the sense that I am struck by the fact that there is a place in Riyadh called UWalk. And when you walk down that promenade, you see large numbers of Saudis walking and … you are going to cafes and restaurants and women will be the maitre d’s and they will be servers. There is a complete mixing of men and women.”

Ross said he was impressed by the reality of the changes he saw in Saudi society.

“I saw two women — I call this, kind of, the new emblem of the new Saudi Arabia — I saw two women walking, arm-in-arm,” he said. “One woman was completely covered, veiled. The only thing you saw were her eyes. (She was) walking arm-in-arm with a woman completely Westernized: No head covering, no scarf, her hair actually dyed so it stood out. Why was that significant? Because it showed that they were comfortable with each other. For me that is an extraordinary statement.

“So, yes, I see a very different Saudi Arabia. Every country has its worst (aspects) … and yes, there are issues and we should raise them. But a relationship is a two-way street and this visit of President Biden is an opportunity to put the relationship back on the right footing and realize that we have common stakes with each other.

“This is a relationship that reflects the needs and interests of both sides and I am confident the results of this trip (will be that) we are going to be able to pursue those needs and interests much more effectively now.”

Ross, who played a critical role in President Clinton’s efforts to broker peace between the Palestinians and Israelis in the 1990s, said that those two societies are more skeptical of peace efforts today. The normalization of relations between the Arab world and Israel, he argued, can help to break the stalemate that is keeping Palestinians and Israelis locked in a cycle of violence and conflict.

 

 

“Even if you had a left-wing Israeli government, you don’t have any capability on the Palestinian side to negotiate an outcome,” he said. “First thing that has to be done is to restore belief in the sense of possibility. There is a lot that can be done from the ground up.

“Here is where Arab outreach to Israel becomes a very useful element in terms of changing the equation. We have a complete stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians but we have a new element in the equation, which is the Abraham Accords on one hand; the normalization process.

“Arab states see not just the security benefits of the relationship with Israel but they are looking at a need for water security, food security, health security, cyber security. Israeli is cutting edge in all of these technologies, it is a world leader in all of these technologies. Arab States, Arab leaders, are not going to deny themselves what is in their interests, because they perceive the Palestinian leadership not being able to move.”

Ross argued that normalization agreements provides Arab countries with leverage they can use to encourage a move toward a final peace accord for the Palestinians.

“Arab state outreach to Israel can also be used to get Israelis to move towards the Palestinians,” he said. “When the Emirates made a decision to fully normalize, they came to the Trump administration and said, ‘We will fully normalize but the price is Israel does not annex the territory allotted to it under the Trump peace plan.’ So they created a reverse linkage.

“The Palestinians have wanted no normalization until after the end of occupation but Arab states are not prepared to deny themselves what is in their interests. But they can use their relationship to say OK, we will make this move but we want to see you take the following step.

“In the case of the UAE they did something that prevented annexation. They prevented a negative. But the Arab states can actually ask for a positive, saying OK, we are taking this step toward you, here is what we would like to see you do toward the Palestinians. That is a way to break the stalemate.”

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US charges ex-Army major and his wife over alleged plot to leak military health data to Russia

US charges ex-Army major and his wife over alleged plot to leak military health data to Russia
Updated 57 min 42 sec ago

US charges ex-Army major and his wife over alleged plot to leak military health data to Russia

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WASHINGTON: A former US Army major and his anesthesiologist wife have been criminally charged for allegedly plotting to leak highly sensitive health care data about military patients to Russia, the Justice Department revealed on Thursday.
Jamie Lee Henry, the former major who was also a doctor at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and his wife, Dr. Anna Gabrielian, were charged in an unsealed indictment in a federal court in Maryland with conspiracy and the wrongful disclosure of individually identifiable health information.
The indictment alleges that the plot started after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.
Prosecutors said the pair wanted to try to help the Russian government by providing them with data to help the Putin regime “gain insights into the medical conditions of individuals associated with the US government and military.”
The two met with someone whom they believed was a Russian official, but in fact was actually an FBI undercover agent, the indictment says.


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  • Putin has regularly made nostalgic speeches about the USSR and served in the Soviet security services (KGB)

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that conflicts in countries of the former USSR, including Ukraine, are the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
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Putin pointed fingers at the West, saying it was “working on scenarios to fuel new conflicts” in the post-Soviet space.
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Putin, who turns 70 next week, has regularly made nostalgic speeches about the USSR and served in the Soviet security services (KGB).
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In Pakistan’s northwest, rise in extortion demands signals advance of Taliban

In Pakistan’s northwest, rise in extortion demands signals advance of Taliban
Updated 29 September 2022

In Pakistan’s northwest, rise in extortion demands signals advance of Taliban

In Pakistan’s northwest, rise in extortion demands signals advance of Taliban
  • Arab News interviewed traders who had received extortion demands in recent months
  • Most of them said the callers identified themselves as militants belonging to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan

PESHAWAR: Soon after a grenade struck his house in Peshawar city three months ago, Ihsan Khan, a well-known trader in the capital of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, received a phone call.

“Next time, the entire home will be blown up if you don’t pay Rs300 million ($1.2 million),” the voice on the other end said.

The menacing call was taken seriously in a northern pocket of the country where the Pakistani Taliban, or the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, have carried out some of the deadliest attacks in Pakistan in past years and where officials as well as local residents widely say the militants are attempting to regain a foothold.

Over the next few days, Khan held a series of phone negotiations with the caller and finally brought the demand down through the help of intermediaries, subsequently paying a smaller sum.

Last week, Arab News interviewed at least seven traders, transporters and businesspeople who had received demands for protection money in recent months. Six said the callers had identified themselves as militants belonging to the TTP. It was unclear how many paid up.

The increasing demands for cash have stirred fears of the comeback of insurgents to the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province amid a stalled peace deal with Islamabad and drawn-out negotiations that began last year.

On Sept. 20, the TTP said it was not linked to the extortion demands and issued a statement calling on the public not to pay up.

“If anyone asks you…in the name of the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), please contact us so we can unmask them,” the statement said, offering a contact number.

In comments to Arab News, Abu Yasir, the head of the TTP’s grievance commission, said the group had a “clear-cut and strong stance” against extortion.

“We have neither allowed nor will we allow anyone to do so,” Yasir said. “We have stopped many. And in some cases, members of the Tehreek have also done it on an individual basis, but we have stopped them…We have stopped our colleagues and asked others as well when a complaint has been lodged with us.”

‘TIP OF THE ICEBERG’

Attacks and threats of violence have been a part of life in northern Pakistan since at least 2010, including the attempted assassination of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai in 2012 and an attack on an army-run school in 2014 in which at least 134 children were killed.

Though thousands of Pakistanis have been killed in militant violence in the last two decades, attacks declined in the last few years after a series of military operations that pushed most TTP insurgents in Pakistan’s northwest to find shelter in neighboring Afghanistan.

But many analysts and officials warn militants are attempting to return and are busily conducting kidnappings and extortion to stockpile cash for the fight ahead if peace talks with Islamabad fail. Their reach and their ability to carry out attacks were chillingly demonstrated earlier this month when eight people were killed in a roadside bombing that targeted an anti-Taliban village elder’s vehicle in Swat Valley, in what was the first major bombing in the area in over a decade. 

Taliban militants this month also kidnapped 10 employees of a telecom company and demanded Rs100 million for their release, according to a police report filed with the local counterterrorism department.

Concerns of a TTP resurgence have grown since August 2021, when the Afghan Taliban took over Kabul following the departure of US and other foreign forces. Pakistani officials have since variously spoken of fears of fighters from the Pakistani Taliban group, which is separate but affiliated with the Afghan Taliban, crossing over from Afghanistan and launching lethal attacks on its territory.

The Afghan Taliban have reassured their neighbor they will not allow their territory to be used by anyone planning attacks on Pakistan or any other country. Still, the TTP has managed to step up attacks in recent months, and both police and government officials as well as locals report that hundreds of insurgents have returned — as have demands for extortion.

Mohammed Ali Saif, a spokesperson for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, said anonymous calls demanding protection money were being made both from Afghanistan and within Pakistan.  

“Different people have received calls for extortion, some have registered FIRs [police reports] and others have not,” Saif told Arab News, saying the Counter-Terrorism Department and police took immediate action whenever such cases were reported.  

Not all calls, he said, were from TTP militants.

“Some calls are also made by criminals and extortionists,” the spokesperson said.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Inspector General of Police Moazzam Jah Ansari, CTD chief Javed Iqbal Wazir, and spokespersons for the Pakistani Foreign Affairs Ministry and army and Afghanistan’s Information Ministry did not respond to phone calls and text messages seeking comment.

But a Peshawar-based senior police official with direct knowledge of the issue, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the provincial police department had been registering at least four extortion cases a day in the city since July.

“This is just the tip of an iceberg,” he said. “Previously, traders, transporters and businessmen used to be the targets. Now, members of national and provincial assemblies as well as government officials are also asked to pay protection money…The situation is very bad and it’s deteriorating with each passing day.”  

Another police official based in Swat Valley said: “Well-off people, including lawmakers, receive phone calls on a regular basis. Few report it and a majority of them pay the money.”

Since the start of August, Swat police have registered four cases of extortion, naming the TTP as suspects in their reports. In one such case, the Swat official said, militants were paid Rs25 million as protection money by a provincial lawmaker.  

“Militants asked the lawmaker to remove CCTV cameras from his home before they arrived to collect the money at midnight,” the official said. “The lawmaker opted not to report the incident.”  

‘PREDICTABLE PHENOMENON’

Malik Imran Ishaq, president of the Industrialists’ Association Peshawar, said militancy and extortion had caused “severe damage” to the business fraternity in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.  

In Peshawar, extortionists targeted wealthy families, he said, with residents regularly finding small bombs outside their homes or businesses.

“Many of our association’s members have received extortion calls and many of them have been hit, targeted by rocket launchers and hand grenades,” the industrialist said.

Police had increased patrolling in the Hayatabad industrial estate area of the city, but it had not resolved the issue, Ishaq said.

“I am clueless about how this issue will be resolved,” he said, lamenting that businesses worth billions of rupees in the Hayatabad industrial estate were on the verge of closure.

“Twenty-eight of our members have shut their industrial units in Peshawar and moved to Punjab to set up factories there,” Ishaq said, blaming the move on a resurgence of militancy and a rise in Taliban demands for cash.

“There has been an evident surge during the last year, particularly the last couple of months.”  

The crime wave means the government and military could face a well-armed insurgency if the TTP is able to fully return to the country’s northern belt, experts warn.

Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based militancy expert, said an increase in demands for protection money was a telltale sign that the militants were making serious attempts to regain control in Pakistan’s northwest.

“Militants require financial support for their operations,” he said, “and in this context, the rise of extortion incidents in these areas is a predictable phenomenon.”

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Updated 29 September 2022

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  • Kevin Schumacher of Women for Afghan Women said of all the people in Afghanistan, women are suffering the most and face the greatest threats
  • ‘The majority of Afghan men, especially those empowered by the Taliban, are not interested in women’s rights,’ he added

Women in Afghanistan are in a dire situation as a result of the US withdrawal from the country last year, an official from leading international aid and advocacy group Women for Afghan Women said on Wednesday.

Of all the people in Afghanistan, it is women who are suffering the most and face the greatest threats, according to Kevin Schumacher, the organization’s deputy executive director.

US President Joe Biden ordered what turned out to be an abrupt withdrawal of American troops from the country in August 2021. Their departure left the way clear for the Taliban — a fanatical religious group that 20 years earlier had provided sanctuary for Al-Qaeda terrorists, including leader Osama bin Laden — to regain control of the country.

Schumacher said the US withdrawal has resulted in a massive reduction in international financial support for the country, the repercussions of which have included increases in levels of illiteracy and poverty, especially among women, who are bottom of the Taliban’s list of priorities.

“I would like us to think about what happened over the past 13 months in Afghanistan,” he said during an appearance on the Ray Hanania Radio Show. “We had a dramatic regime change in that country, as a result of which the international community decided to withdraw.

“All of a sudden, billions of dollars in aid and humanitarian assistance stopped and the international community decided to disengage with that country.

“Now you have hundreds of thousands of professionals, men and women, who used to work with international organizations or they were working in domestic circles but their business was funded directly or indirectly by the international community.

“All of these people, all of a sudden, find themselves in a situation where there is no money coming to the country anymore, there is a government in Kabul that is not recognized internationally, and people really have no idea what tomorrow will bring to them. Many countries decided not to have any diplomatic or business transactions with Afghanistan because so much is uncertain on the ground.”

The US withdrawal has caused financial crisis in Afghanistan, the effects of which have been particularly bad for women, Schumacher said. Prior to the US withdrawal, half of the country’s budget, $6 billion a year, came from international aid and this has been lost, he added, which has caused the support infrastructure women relied on to collapse.

“All of that has translated into a very chaotic financial situation in Afghanistan," Schumacher said. “A lot of people lost their jobs. A lot of people basically were on the verge of poverty to begin with.

“Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in Asia. If you look at UN statistics, average Afghans live on under $1,200 a year — and that is on a good day. All of a sudden you have billions of dollars of aid money that is no longer available.”

The situation in the country is now so bad, he added, it is almost impossible to gauge the extent of the Taliban’s oppression of women.

“The problem is no one wants to hear it; nobody follows up on that,” Schumacher said. “The majority of Afghan men, especially those empowered by the Taliban, are not interested in women’s rights.

“And the Taliban administration in general does not seem to care much about women’s rights, even despite the fact that the Taliban’s top leadership seems to be sensitive to this issue.

“So, you have a reality in which a lot of these women are forced into marriage out of poverty or are being sold into marriage or are being sold into hard labor.”

The Taliban administration is only interested in enforcing its strict interpretation of Shariah, without considering the needs of Afghan women, he added. Although the group claims it does not support forced marriages, the social structures that monitored the situation and provided support for women have collapsed.

“In theory, the Taliban insist that they are supportive of woman’s right to choose their husband,” Schumacher said. “But in reality there is no legal mechanism to advocate for women.

“If a woman is victimized by her own family or is forced into marriage, she has no place to go. There is no mediation system. There is no legal system. There is no shelter. Nothing exists because the Taliban authority forced us to shut down all those systems.”

Even before the Taliban came to power, Schumacher said, the UN reported that “70 percent of Afghan women had no access to education and were illiterate.” Now, with women being stripped of their rights completely by the Taliban regime, their future prospects have become even more grim, especially in the realm of education.

The high levels of illiteracy have created massive poverty among many Afghan women, he added, including the widows of men who fought in the various wars of the past 45 years, all the way back to the Soviet invasion in 1979. With no access to education, Schumacher said, they are unable to develop the skills and knowledge to support their families.

The Ray Hanania Radio Show is broadcast on the US Arab Radio Network in Detroit, Washington DC and Chicago and sponsored by Arab News. You can listen to the entire interview by visiting the Ray Hanania Radio Show website at www.ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.