US, UK hold drone drill in Arabian Gulf after Iran seizures

US, UK hold drone drill in Arabian Gulf after Iran seizures
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A US Navy Saildrone Explorer unmanned sea drone, shown in this photo taken in the Gulf of Aqaba on Feb. 9, 2022, was similar to that the Iranian navy seized in the Arabian Gulf. (AP)
US, UK hold drone drill in Arabian Gulf after Iran seizures
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A US Navy Saildrone Explorer unmanned sea drone, shown in this photo taken in the Gulf of Aqaba on Feb. 9, 2022, was similar to that the Iranian navy seized in the Arabian Gulf. (AP)
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Updated 08 October 2022

US, UK hold drone drill in Arabian Gulf after Iran seizures

US, UK hold drone drill in Arabian Gulf after Iran seizures
  • Drill involved two American and two British warships in the Arabian Gulf, as well as three Saildrone Explorer
  • Iran, which long has equated America’s presence in the region to it patrolling the Gulf of Mexico, views the drones with suspicion

DUBAI: The US Navy held a joint drone drill with the United Kingdom on Friday in the Arabian Gulf, testing the same unmanned surveillance ships that Iran twice has seized in recent months in the Middle East.
The exercise comes as the US Navy separately told commercial shippers in the wider Mideast that it would continue using drones in the region and warned against interfering with their operations.
The drone drill — and the American pledge to keep sailing them — also comes as tensions between the US and Iran on the seas remain high amid stalled negotiations over its tattered nuclear deal with world powers and as protests sweep the Islamic Republic.
Friday’s drill involved two American and two British warships in the Arabian Gulf, as well as three Saildrone Explorers, said Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins, a spokesman for the Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet.
The drones searched for a target on the seas, then sent the still images its cameras captured back to both the warships and the 5th Fleet’s command center in the island kingdom of Bahrain. There, an artificial intelligence system worked through the photos.
The 5th Fleet launched its unmanned Task Force 59 last year. Drones used by the Navy include ultra-endurance aerial surveillance drones, surface ships like the Sea Hawk and the Sea Hunter and smaller underwater drones that resemble torpedoes.
But of particular interest for the Navy has been the Saildrone Explorer, a commercially available drone that can stay at sea for long periods of time. That’s crucial for a region that has some 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) of coastline from the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea to the Gulf of Oman, the Strait of Hormuz and into the Arabian Gulf.
It’s a vast territory that stretches the reach of the Navy and its allies and has seen a series of attacks amid the atomic accord’s collapse. It also remains crucial to global shipping and energy supplies, as a fifth of all oil traded passes through the Strait of Hormuz.
“No matter what forces you have, you can’t cover all that,” Hawkins told The Associated Press. “You have to do that in a partnered way and an innovative way.”
But Iran, which long has equated America’s presence in the region to it patrolling the Gulf of Mexico, views the drones with suspicion. In August and September, Iranian regular and paramilitary forces seized Saildrones in both the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea, alleging without providing evidence that the drones posed a danger to nearby ships.
Iran ultimately released the drones after the US Navy arrived to the sites. Cameras on the Saildrones involved in the Red Sea incident went missing.
Iranian state-run media did not acknowledge the drill Friday. Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Recent events notwithstanding, we have been operating these systems safely, responsibly and in accordance with international law and will continue to do so,” Hawkins said.
The Navy underscored its plan to keep operating the drones in notices sent to shippers and sailors in the region beginning Thursday. It said that the drones would continue to broadcast their location via their Automatic Identification System trackers.
Ships are supposed to keep their AIS trackers on, but Iranian vessels routinely turn theirs off to mask their movements as Tehran faces international sanctions over its nuclear program and human rights abuses.
“US Navy (drones) are US government property and will lawfully operate in international waters and through straits in accordance with internationally recognized rights and freedoms,” the Navy said in the notice. “Any interference with US Navy (drones) will be considered a violation of the norms of international maritime law.”
 


Blinken meets Egypt’s El-Sisi in first leg of Mideast tour

Blinken meets Egypt’s El-Sisi in first leg of Mideast tour
Updated 17 sec ago

Blinken meets Egypt’s El-Sisi in first leg of Mideast tour

Blinken meets Egypt’s El-Sisi in first leg of Mideast tour

CAIRO: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi on Monday during a three-day visit to the Middle East that comes during a flare-up of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
In Cairo, Blinken is meeting El-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, and is expected to address regional issues including attempts to relaunch a political transition in Sudan and the deadlock between rival factions in Libya.
Blinken heads later on Monday to Jerusalem, where he will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amid concern at home and abroad over the policies of Netanyahu’s new right-wing government.
Blinken will also travel to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.


Seven dead in strikes on arms convoy in Syria: monitor

Seven dead in strikes on arms convoy in Syria: monitor
Updated 25 min 41 sec ago

Seven dead in strikes on arms convoy in Syria: monitor

Seven dead in strikes on arms convoy in Syria: monitor
  • The strikes destroyed a convoy of six refrigerated trucks transporting Iranian weapons in the Albu Kamal border region
  • No country claimed the strikes, but Israel has carried out hundreds of air and missile strikes against Iran-backed and government forces in Syria

BEIRUT: Seven people have been killed after air strikes destroyed a convoy of trucks carrying arms into eastern Syria from Iraq, a war monitor said Monday.
The seven were “truck drivers and their assistants, all of them non-Syrians,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that they were “killed as a result of unidentified aircraft targeting a convoy of Iran-backed groups, last night.”
The strikes destroyed a convoy of six refrigerated trucks transporting Iranian weapons in the Albu Kamal border region, the Observatory, which has a wide network of sources inside Syria, had said Sunday.
No country claimed the strikes, but Israel has carried out hundreds of air and missile strikes against Iran-backed and government forces in Syria, where the US military is also active.
“The trucks were transporting Iranian weapons,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman had told AFP Sunday.
Tehran provides military support to its ally Damascus in Syria’s civil war, including through armed factions.
The strikes hit a convoy of trucks, but also the headquarters of Iran-backed groups in the area, activist Omar Abu Layla, who heads the Deir Ezzor 24 media outlet, told AFP Monday.
“There was heavy damage in the area that was struck,” he said.
A pro-Syrian government radio station had reported Sunday that “unidentified war planes targeted, in a number of raids, six refrigerated trucks,” without providing further details.
The Observatory said at least two similar convoys had entered Syria from Iraq this week, offloading their cargo to pro-Iran groups in the eastern town of Al-Mayadeen.
Pro-Iran militias, including Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah group, have a major presence around the Iraq-Syria border, and are heavily deployed south and west of the Euphrates in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province.
Both Albu Kamal and Al-Mayadeen are in Deir Ezzor, and Albu Kamal has seen similar strikes in the past.
The Observatory said in November that a strike in the area hit a pro-Iran militia convoy of “fuel tankers and trucks loaded with weapons,” killing at least 14, though an Iraqi border guard official said there were no casualties.
In December, Israel’s military chief Aviv Kohavi said his country had launched the raid, adding that the convoy was carrying weapons bound for Lebanon where Hezbollah has an influential role.
A US-led coalition fighting the remnants of the Daesh group in Iraq and Syria has carried out strikes on pro-Iran fighters in Syria in the past.
Israel has also acknowledged carrying out hundreds of air and missile strikes in the country since civil war broke out in 2011.


Egypt condemns all operations that target civilians

Egypt condemns all operations that target civilians
Updated 30 January 2023

Egypt condemns all operations that target civilians

Egypt condemns all operations that target civilians
  • Foreign Ministry warns of dangers of escalation after East Jerusalem attack
  • Egypt called on both sides to exercise maximum restraint and to cease attacks and provocative actions

CAIRO: Egypt has condemned the attack that claimed the lives of seven Israelis in a shooting incident that targeted worshippers at a synagogue in East Jerusalem.

The country expressed its total rejection and strong condemnation of Friday’s attack in a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was critical of all operations that target civilians.

The country offered its sincere condolences to the families of the victims, and wished a speedy recovery for the injured.

It also warned of the dangers of the ongoing escalation between the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

Egypt called on both sides to exercise maximum restraint and to cease attacks and provocative actions to avoid slipping into a vicious cycle of violence that would worsen the political and humanitarian situation and undermine efforts and all chances of reviving the peace process.

These developments followed an Israeli army attack on the West Bank which left 10 Palestinians dead.


GCC can be a ‘latter-day Venice,’ says former UK government adviser

GCC can be a ‘latter-day Venice,’ says former UK government adviser
Updated 30 January 2023

GCC can be a ‘latter-day Venice,’ says former UK government adviser

GCC can be a ‘latter-day Venice,’ says former UK government adviser
  • European trade policy expert Paul McGrade explains why now is the time for a GCC-UK free trade agreement
  • Domestic politics rules out UK-US FTA while India wrestles with divisions over protectionism and politics, he asserts
  • McGrade says British public feel Brexit was a mistake, bringing costs and “very, very few benefits”

DUBAI: The GCC bloc, with its strategic location and fast-growing economies, can be a latter-day Venice, balancing between East and West, according to Paul McGrade, a former UK government adviser and an expert on UK and European trade policy, who was speaking as the GCC and the UK prepare to launch the third round of their free trade talks.

He predicts that the UK’s attempts to forge free-trade agreements with the US and India will meet with failure, in contrast with an FTA deal with the GCC, which could work despite the two sides’ policy differences over China and Russia.

He also asserts, citing opinion surveys, that the British public now feel that “Brexit was a mistake and has brought costs and very, very few benefits.”

McGrade made the comments during an appearance on “Frankly Speaking,” the Arab News current affairs talk show that dives deep into regional headlines by speaking with leading policymakers and business leaders.

He discussed what a GCC-UK trade deal would entail, whether an agreement could materialize before the end of this year and, given the political upheaval of the last 12 months, whether GCC leaders could really trust the British government’s trade promises.

 

 

“The GCC region will still have strong links with China. Energy needs there are huge and growing. (But I hope) the region will continue to have strong links with the West,” he said.

“There’s a difficult balancing act that’s going to get harder in the decades ahead. But the region is very strongly placed and, you (can) already see with the UK, and Europe more broadly, a stronger recognition that this is a strategic partnership, or a set of strategic partnerships, that they can’t afford to ignore.”

Last month, the UK government said it was committed to signing a significant trade deal with the GCC. However, given the political roller-coaster ride that the UK went on in 2022 and the fact that it is no longer the manufacturing giant of the last century, many wonder why GCC countries should still be interested and whether they can trust that the UK will deliver.

“It’s a fair question after six years really of instability in the UK, a country that always prided itself and partly sold itself on its political stability and its business-friendly regulation. It has been a bit of a roller-coaster, but I think that the high tide of Brexit disruption has passed,” McGrade said.

 

 

He said although the Tory government and the main opposition Labour Party claim they are committed to making Brexit work, what they really mean is sound public finances, a more stable regulatory relationship with Europe, a more predictable one where essentially the UK will broadly follow what the EU is doing in big areas like net-zero.

“This gives investors some confidence,” he told Katie Jensen, the host of “Frankly Speaking.”

“The UK is not going to be towing itself off into mid-Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean. It’s going to be geographically, obviously and in regulatory terms, very firmly anchored in the European neighborhood. That gives a bit of confidence and a bit of stability going forward. And the UK needs investment, which has dropped off sharply since the 2016 vote.”

Paul McGrade, a former UK government adviser and an expert on UK and European trade policy, on Frankly Speaking, hosted by Katie Jensen. (AN photo)

As the West decouples from China, experts say it will need strong relationships with the Gulf states. McGrade believes the war in Ukraine has refocused minds on the importance of the strategic partnership with the Gulf countries. “Not just through the trade deal, which could help in some areas, but it’s a broader picture,” he said.

“There’s a huge opportunity here for Gulf states and their investors to kind of reshape this relationship in the sectors that they might want to draw into their own economies in terms of building sustainable, high-skilled models for the future.”

The Conservative government in the post-Brexit era had promised that Britain would be able to make trade deals all over the world. However, they missed their targets last year. The UK has only signed trade agreements with about 60 percent of their global trade partners and talks with the US and India have stalled.

“Some of those (trade) talks have stalled, but some of them probably weren’t very realistic anyway,” McGrade said. “The domestic politics on both sides of the Atlantic probably ruled out the kind of deep trade deal with the US that some Brexiteers said they wanted.”

As for India, he said the country does not “really have a modern ambitious free trade deal with (any entity). It is an economy that is wrestling with its own internal divisions over degrees of protecting its domestic industry. And there are politics at play on things like visas.”

He continued: “It’s a different picture when you look at the Arab world and especially the GCC, because there’s a very strong historic relationship. There are obviously difficult issues in any trade deal about market access, but the relationship is probably more positive and the politics less difficult around the content of that trade deal.”

 

 

Elaborating on the potential for cross-border investments, McGrade said: “A lot of the UK’s economic sectors are in a weak position. (But) some of the fundamentals are pretty strong in areas like health tech, digital health. We have got Arab Health Week, of course, and creative industries, net-zero technology, the traditional strengths and areas like banking, other professional services.

“These are sectors that matter to Gulf economies and may matter increasingly, as we look to kind of building a sustainable net-, post-net-zero economy. So, there’s a lot on offer in the UK and probably some of it is underpriced because of the economic hit that the country has taken over the last few years. This probably is a very good time to invest, whether or not we have a trade deal quickly. But this trade deal potentially is an easier one to do than, say, US or India in political terms.”

The Gulf states are strong strategically but the relationship with the UK will need to be two-way, experts say, with British innovation holding the promise of helping the former to become high-skilled, high-tech economies.

McGrade, for one, is confident that as the UK seeks to diversify its trade and investment relationships, the Gulf states would be important in providing access to new markets, energy sources and other areas.

“(They are) going to be vital, (when) you see a Europe cutting itself off from traditional Russian supplies of oil and gas, and is also recalibrating the relationship with China,” he said. “The US talks openly about decoupling from Chinese supply chains. The UK talks a similar kind of language. The UK is probably a bit closer to the US than some of the big European powers on this.

Paul McGrade, a former UK government adviser and an expert on UK and European trade policy, on Frankly Speaking, hosted by Katie Jensen.

“If that’s the kind of world that we’re going to, then the Gulf states become more important than ever, not just for energy, but for the markets that they represent, the investment and the partnerships that they’re looking to build.”

“Look at the scale of the ambition in the Gulf, not just for sort of investment for return, but for the huge long-term sustainability project that (Gulf) governments, sovereign wealth funds and other investors are aiming for. There’s a huge opportunity for genuine partnerships where some of those innovative technologies that the UK still excels at could be a part of building up that sustainable skills base in Gulf economies.”

The UK estimates that an FTA with the GCC would add about £1.6 billion ($1.98 billion) to its economy. So, where does McGrade see the most gains for countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE?

“A trade deal is nice to have, but it’s not essential. These are already quite open economies in global terms. They already have strong trading relationships with the UK. A trade deal could help reduce some of the barriers, but it’s not the biggest game in town,” he said.

“The broader picture is looking at the sectors where UK innovation in particular can help achieve the long-term strategic aims of countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. If you look at some of the real strengths, in medical technology, health technology, digital health, we have a lot of innovation in the UK market, which is often underpinned by the fact that you have this almost unique data set because you have a huge national health service covering sort of 60 million people.”

McGrade believes the creative sector is another big source of the UK’s global strength, which can be important for areas like tourism and culture, in which some Gulf states have made a big investment. “There are areas like education that are traditional strengths and where there’s already a presence in the region from the UK,” he said.

“The professional services, banking and financial services is an obvious one. But we increasingly see legal and accounting services as well as sort of management consultancy establishing and growing their presences in the region.”

He next turned to what he called another big area, “which is the technology around net-zero, getting to net-zero, but helping make that sustainable and build economies that will be fast growing and rich, and high skilled beyond the dependence on hydrocarbons.”

Katie Jensen. (AN photo)

“There’s a lot there. Sovereign wealth funds in the region are already investing in some of these sectors. In some cases, what they’re looking for in a partnership is to bring some of those skills back home to the region so that they can be used to help build up the domestic high skills and high tech that will be needed (in the) longer term into the century to keep high-growing rich economies in the Gulf region.”

But what happens if the UK fails to sign a specific deal with the GCC as a whole? Does it then have the option to look at single individual trade deals with, say, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar?

McGrade says this has been happening in fact. “It’s been signing individual agreements across some sectors with some of the GCC members. That would continue,” he said.

“Whatever the governments do, those economic fundamentals ought to be attractive to Gulf investors, whether that’s at the state, kind of sovereign wealth fund level or kind of business level, because some of those strengths of the UK economy, innovation across several sectors, can really be part of the answer to what Gulf economies need to do and know they need to do to build sustainable, high-skilled, post-net-zero economies for the 21st century.”

As for the GCC countries’ less hawkish approach to Russia, McGrade does not see that as a hindrance to talks with the UK. “For two reasons,” he said. “There is a greater recognition of the strategic importance of the Gulf region, for the UK and for the West generally because of the war in Russia. Because of what that means for energy prices and long-term energy needs.

“The other point is that if the West is going to decouple from China, then it needs the Gulf. The Gulf states are well placed. They are in a strong position economically.”

 

 

To be sure, McGrade said, “the UK and Western governments generally always wrestle with some public opinion and campaigning groups at home on some of the values agenda. They always worry about if that can be squared off with the needs of the strategic relationship with the Gulf. That will continue to be an issue.”

Alluding to technical and political barriers to reaching a trade deal, he acknowledged that the two sides have different opinions on certain issues but said: “They are not showstoppers. The deal is doable. It’s probably more about political will in London. It would be a failure of political will if that deal isn’t done.”

McGrade was forthright about his opinions on British voters’ decision to leave the EU three years ago. “Pretty consistent polling over time suggests that an ever-growing number of the British public feel that Brexit was a mistake and has brought costs and very, very few benefits,” he said.

 

 

Nevertheless, he said, both the Conservative and Labour parties have concluded that they cannot revisit the trade deal in a fundamental way. “There is a review of the trade deal at the five-year point, which comes in 2025,” he said. “If Labour wins the election, they will want to improve the terms of the trade deal without changing its fundamental character.”

Quizzed about his personal opinion on Brexit’s costs — a weakened pound, higher inflation, trade and investment disruption, political uncertainty, loss of access to the EU single market — McGrade said it was clear that the downsides were huge and not just economic.

“The hit to Britain’s reputation for political stability, which is sort of the core of its soft power, has been in some ways even worse than the economic hit from loss of market access,” he said.

 


Tunisians elect weakened parliament on 11% turnout

Tunisians elect weakened parliament on 11% turnout
Updated 29 January 2023

Tunisians elect weakened parliament on 11% turnout

Tunisians elect weakened parliament on 11% turnout
  • Economic decline in Tunisia has left many disillusioned with politics and angry with their leaders
  • About 887,000 voters cast ballots from a total electorate of 7.8 million

TUNIS: Tunisia announced that a mere 11 percent of the electorate had voted on Sunday in parliamentary runoffs, with critics of President Kais Saied saying the empty polling stations were evidence of public disdain for his agenda and seizure of powers.
The head of the electoral commission, over which Saied assumed ultimate authority last year, gave a provisional turnout of 11.3 percent for Sunday’s runoff votes.
During December’s first round, the official turnout was only slightly lower, at 11.2 percent.
“Today Tunisians issued a final verdict rejecting Kais Saied’s process and elections,” Nejib Chebbi, head of the main opposition coalition, the Salvation Front, told a news conference.
Economic decline in Tunisia, where some basic goods have disappeared from shelves and the government has cut subsidies as it seeks a foreign bailout to avert bankruptcy, has left many disillusioned with politics and angry with their leaders.
“We don’t want elections. We want milk and sugar and cooking oil,” said Hasna, a woman shopping in the Ettadamon district of Tunis on Sunday.
The newly configured parliament has had its role shrunk as part of a political system Saied introduced last year after a power grab in 2021 that grants the presidency nearly absolute power.
About 887,000 voters cast ballots from a total electorate of 7.8 million, the electoral commission said. Final results were not expected on Sunday. The main parties boycotted the vote and most seats are expected to go to independents.
“I’m not interested in elections that do not concern me,” said Nejib Sahli, 40, passing a polling station in the Hay Ettahrir district of Tunis.
Independent observers, including the local Mourakiboun group, have questioned official turnout figures, accusing authorities in many districts of withholding data they rely on to monitor the election’s integrity.
The commission denied this and said polling station officials had been too busy to cooperate with monitors.
Opposition groups have accused Saied of a coup for shutting down the previous parliament in 2021, and say he has trashed the democracy built after Tunisia’s 2011 revolution — which triggered the “Arab Spring.”
Saied has said his actions were both legal and necessary to save Tunisia from years of corruption and economic decline at the hands of a self-interested political elite.
Though his new constitution passed in a referendum last year, only 30 percent of voters took part.
Opposition activist Chaima Issa, who has led protests against Saied and faces a military court on charges of insulting the president, described the poll as a “ghost election.”
At one polling station in the Ettadamon district of Tunis, no voters attended during the 20 minutes a Reuters journalist spent there.
At another Ettadamon polling station, one voter who gave his name as Ridha said he was supporting Saied: “He is a clean man fighting a corrupt system.”
In a cafe in Ettahrir, another district of the capital, only one of seven men sitting drinking coffee said he might vote.
Another man in the cafe, who gave his name only as Imad, said he did not believe his vote mattered after Saied’s political changes.
“The president alone is deciding everything,” he said. “He does not care about anybody and we do not care about him and his elections.”
Many Tunisians appeared initially to welcome Saied’s seizure of powers in 2021 after years of weak governing coalitions that seemed unable to revive a moribund economy, improve public services or reduce stark inequalities.
But Saied has voiced no clear economic agenda except to rail against corruption and unnamed speculators, whom he has blamed for rising prices.
On Friday, Moody’s credit ratings agency downgraded Tunisia’s debt, saying it would likely default on sovereign loans.