West Asia and North Africa Roundup: April 2022


The region continued to face the pressures of the Russia -Ukraine conflict while trying to help in alleviating the situation. While acting as an interlocutor between Moscow and Kiev, Turkey ( which had refused to be part of sanctions against Moscow) blocked entry of Russian Naval ships through the Black sea in consultation with Russia. Israel too remained engaged with both sides. Not much has been achieved but the sides have been talking online. Egypt and several countries in West Asia continued to face impact of higher food and fuel prices. India and Egypt explored possibility of supplies of Indian wheat.

During the Ramadan month as expected the situation in Jerusalem and at the third holiest mosque the ‘Al Aqsa’ continued to remain tense and could have nearly provoked a war between Israel and Hamas yet again. However, volley of rockets from Gaza and aerial strikes by IDF went on. All major countries urged restraint as the Arab countries including OIC and Arab League as well as the Custodian King Abdullah of Jordan condemned the Israeli excesses at Al Aqsa, while urging early resolution of the Israel-Palestine issue. PM Naftali Bennet, whose parliamentary majority, is hanging in the balance, could ill afford to lose his Arab allies the ‘Raam Party’. Hence, much to consternation of some fundamental Jewish organisations he enforced a ban on the entry of non-Muslims to the Mosque during the Ramadan period. But the problem continued even if receded somewhat.

Winds of rapprochement in the region continued with President Erdogan of Turkey visiting Saudi Arabia where he met his host King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Greater focus was laid on enhancing trade and economic ties which he termed as going to rise to ‘distinguished levels’. Erdogan noted that views were exchanged regarding regional and international issues. Joint steps to develop relations in the next stage were also discussed. He pointed out that the Saudi and Turkish officials discussed means of cooperation in the defence industries, increasing investment and trade, restoring momentum in trade between their countries, removing customs obstacles, and encouraging investments and projects that can be undertaken by Turkish contractors. “We agreed with Saudi Arabia to reactivate the great economic potential through events that bring together investors of the two countries,” President Erdogan emphasised in an interview.

New Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif led a delegation to Saudi Arabia to renew the ties that had taken a hit during his predecessor’s time. He also sought and was promised financial assistance and lines of credit for oil imports as well as assurances of higher investments in the beleaguered economy of Pakistan. On his way back Sharif also visited UAE and met the Crown Prince and other senior officials who also assured of assistance. This was an effort to reset the ties since Sharif has longstanding ties especially with Riyadh.
On April 12, India and France had first ever foreign office consultations on WANA region. The two sides had wide ranging discussions on respective priorities, areas of mutual interest and exchanged views on major issues including the political, security, economic, and trade dimensions of the West Asia and North Africa region.
On March 28-29, 5th India- Bahrain foreign office consultations were held at the Vice Minister level. Apart from consultations with Secretary Dr Ausaf Sayeed , Dr. Shaikh Abdulla bin Ahmed Al Khalifa Undersecretary (Political Affairs), Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also met Deputy NSA, Shri Vikram Misri and called on MOS for External Affairs, Shri V. Muraleedharan. They reviewed bilateral, regional and global situation.

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Naftali Bennet’s Ruling Coalition Loses Majority in Israel

In Israel, Prime Minister Naftali Bennet’s 61 member ruling coalition is facing challenge after Member of Knesset (MK) from Yamina party, Idit Silman left the bloc. Silman in her resignation letter mentioned that her key values are inconsistent with current reality and urged to try and form a ‘nationalist, Jewish, Zionist’ government. Notably, the current ruling coalition is comprised of ideologically diverse political groups who are committed to block Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power. Silman’s resignation does not necessarily imply the fall of the ruling coalition since Netanyahu’s Likud party along with its ideological allies do not have the necessary support of at least 61MKs. It however, raises the possibility of Netanyahu’s return to office in case the ruling coalition is further weakened in the near future.

Israeli Raids in Al-Aqsa Mosque

Israeli security forces in deliberate effort to instigate tensions have been conducting near daily raids inside the Al Aqsa Mosque compound attacking Muslim worshippers. Israel is attempting to change the status quo by regularly interfering inside the mosque compound and ensuring passage to orthodox Jewish worshippers. According to the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, around 3,700 Jewish religious nationalists entered the compound to mark the festival of Passover. There is fear among the Palestinians that Israel is seeking to divide the compound and create a space for Jewish worshippers. Israeli government has however denied its intention to divide the compound.

On 29 April, clashes between Israeli forces and worshippers led to 42 injuries. Israel has blamed “rioters” for throwing stones, fireworks and inciting the mob. Al Jazeera has reported that in the last two weeks of April, around 300 Palestinians were injured by the Israeli forces. Israeli raids on the mosque compound and attacks on worshippers have angered Arabs citizens and there were number of protests in Nazareth and Umm-Al-Fahm. Arab League has urged Israel to refrain from taking provocative actions in Al Aqsa compound.

The Al-Aqsa Matryrs’ Brigade claimed responsibility for killing one Jewish guard on 30 April in a West Bank settlement. The militant group claimed that the attack was in response to Israeli raids in Al Aqsa mosque compound. Israeli action in Al Aqsa mosque invited retaliation from militant groups in Gaza that fired rockets into southern Israel. Israel in response conducted strikes on a weapons manufacturing site belonging to Hamas.

Iranians Mark Quds Day

A large number of Iranians came to the streets in Tehran and other major cities to participate in the annual Quds Day. Al-Quds is the Arabic name for Palestine. The Palestinian solidarity day or Quds day was established by first Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It is held every year in Iran on the last Friday of the month of Ramadan. President Ebrahim Raisi called the movement as symbol of the unity of the Islamic Ummah that will lead to the ‘destruction of the Zionist regime’ and Quds will be liberated. The Commander in Chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp. (IRGC), Hossein Salami warned Israel that it would face painful and direct response in case of escalation. The Quds day events were stalled for two years due the COVID-19 pandemic. President Raisi earlier on 16 April warned Israel against making even the “smallest movement” against Iran. Raisi made the comments on the occasion of National Army Day.

IS Attack in Syria

Islamic State (IS) fighters on 28 April killed seven and injured four people at Ramadan gathering in Deir Az Zor province. The Iftar dinner gathering was hosted by the US backed Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) leader Nouri Hamish. The frequency of attacks in northeast Syria has increased after the killing of IS leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi in early February 2022. There were reportedly at least 23 attacks in 11 days by IS in April. SDF officials have reported that IS sleeper cells have become highly mobilised in the recent months.

Israel has continued its air raids on Iranian and Hezbollah targets including warehouses, research centres for upgrading missiles and drones located within Syrian territory. On 9 April, Israeli aircrafts attacked in Masyaf city in western Hama province. On 15 April, Israel fired number of missiles towards Syrian military positions near Damascus leading to some material damage. Syrian media reported that some of the missiles were shot down by government air defences. On 27 April, Israel again carried air raids near Damascus killing nine combatants including five Syrian soldiers.

Saudi Arabia-Houthi Truce in Yemen

The UN on 1 April succeeded in brokering a peace deal between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis during the holy month of Ramadan. Houthis in the last few months have improved their strike capability and attacked several Saudi as well as Emirati assets. The latest truce and cessation of hostilities have occurred since the peace talks in 2016. The UN Special Envoy, Hans Grunberg mentioned that the two month truce could be extended if both parties agree. According to the 1 April truce, both sides have accepted to cease all offensive military, air, ground and maritime operations inside Yemen and across its borders. They also agreed to allow fuel ships to enter Hodeidah port and commercial flights to operate in Sanaa airport. The UN and the US are seeking to revive political negotiations, create an atmosphere of permanent ceasefire and improve the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.

The exiled President of Yemen, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi has resigned and transferred his powers to a new Presidential Council that has been assigned to carry out negotiations with the Houthis to reach permanent ceasefire. Hadi also removed Vice President Al Mohsen Al-Ahmar and delegated his powers to the Presidential Council. The said council chaired by Rashad Al-Alimi consists of eight members including Aydarous al-Zubaidi, the head of the Southern Transitional Council (STC); Sheikh Sultan Al-Aradh, the governor of Marib province and Faraj al-Bahsani, the governor of Hadramout province. The power shake-up has occurred after consent from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Consequently, after the power transfer, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have announced support worth US$ 2 billion and US$ 1 billion respectively to restore Yemen’s economy.

Oman Secures 14 Foreign Nationals from Yemen including 7 Indians

Oman on 24 April managed to secure the release of 14 foreign nationals that were held by Houthis in Sanaa. The 14 people included seven Indians; one Filipino; one Indonesian; one Ethiopian; one Myanmar national and three British nationals. Oman managed to facilitate the release after the two month truce between Saudi led coalition and Houthis. Saudi Arabia on Oman’s request provided the necessary permits allowing these foreigners to transfer to Muscat.

Saudi Arabia-Turkey Relations

On 7 April, A Turkish court has ruled to suspend the trial in absentia of 26 Saudi nationals accused of killing Jamal Khashoggi. The court also decided to transfer the case to Saudi Arabia. The decision has been condemned by human rights groups that fear that Saudi government would deliberately cover up the killing and the legal trial will be unfair. Khashoggi’s fiancé, Hatice Cengiz has said that she would appeal the decision.
Crucially, on 28 April, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman indicating willingness by both leaders to overcome the cold relationship that soured about the death of Jamal Khashoggi. Both states agreed to improve relations and nurture firm ties in all fields.

Economic Situation in Lebanon

Saudi Arabia on 6 April announced its decision to resend ambassador to Lebanon. The relationship between both states were at all-time low due to then-Information Minister George Kordahi ’s criticism of Saudi military intervention in Yemen. Lebanese politicians are highly sceptical over Saudi intervention in domestic politics including forced resignation of then Prime Minister Saad Harari. Saudi Arabia is particularly worried about the dominant role of Hezbollah, backed by Iran in Lebanese politics. Saudi Arabia after the Information Minister’s comment recalled its ambassador and placed bans of import of Lebanese goods further straining the economy. After Saudi Arabia reinstated its ambassador, Kuwait also decided to follow course and return its ambassador to Beirut.
Saudi Arabia along with France also agreed to provide US$ 32 million to carry out series of humanitarian projects in Lebanon that could help in reviving the Lebanese economy. The agreement was made between the French Development Agency and the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre to aid in economic stability and development.
The Lebanese government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have reached a staff level agreement on economic reform plan on 7 April. It would allow Lebanon to take loans worth US$ 3 billion required for restoring the economy. The IMF is pushing the government to initiate a multi-pronged reform programme that could lead to sustainable growth, private sector activity and job creation.

Algeria-Italy Gas Deal

Italy signed agreement with Algeria to boost energy ties. The deal was carried out between Eni and Sonatrach. It could help Algeria to expand its gas exports potential to not only Italy but also other European states. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune hoped that after the deal with Italy, other states would follow course. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi called the agreement as significant step to reduce his country’s dependence on Russian gas. Italy in 2021 bought 29 billion cubic metres (BCM) from Russia that contributes to 40 percent of total gas imports. Besides Algeria, Italy is seeking for alternate sources from Qatar, Azerbaijan, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).