Dubai, Jan 26 (AP/UNB) — A military base deep inside Saudi Arabia appears to be testing and possibly manufacturing ballistic missiles, experts and satellite images suggest, evidence of the type of weapons program it has long criticized its archrival Iran for possessing.
Further raising the stakes for any such program are comments by Saudi Arabia's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who said last year the kingdom wouldn't hesitate to develop nuclear weapons if Iran does. Ballistic missiles can carry nuclear warheads to targets thousands of kilometers (miles) away.
Officials in Riyadh and the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
Having such a program could further strain relations with the U.S., the kingdom's longtime security partner, at a time when ties already are being tested by the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Jeffrey Lewis, a missile expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, said heavy investment in missiles often correlates with an interest in nuclear weapons. "I would be a little worried that we're underestimating the Saudis' ambitions here," said Lewis, who has studied the satellite images.
The images, first reported by The Washington Post, focus on a military base near the town of al-Dawadmi, some 230 kilometers (145 miles) west of Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Jane's Defence Weekly first identified the base in 2013, suggesting its two launch pads appear oriented to target Israel and Iran with ballistic missiles the kingdom previously bought from China.
The November satellite images show what appear to be structures big enough to build and fuel ballistic missiles. An apparent rocket-engine test stand can be seen in a corner of the base — the type on which a rocket is positioned on its side and test-fired in place. Such testing is key for countries attempting to manufacture working missiles, experts say.
Michael Elleman, the senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington, also reviewed the satellite photos and said they appear to show a ballistic missile program.
The question remains where Saudi Arabia gained the technical know-how to build such a facility. Lewis said the Saudi stand closely resembles a design used by China, though it is smaller.
Chinese military support to the kingdom would not come as a surprise. The Chinese have increasingly sold armed drones to Saudi Arabia and other Mideast nations, even as the U.S. blocks sales of its own to allies over proliferation concerns. Beijing also sold Riyadh variants of its Dongfeng ballistic missiles, the only ones the kingdom was previously believed to have in its arsenal.
Asked by The Associated Press on Friday about the base, China's Defense Ministry declined immediately to comment.
"I have never heard of such a thing as China helping Saudi Arabia to build a missile base," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor China are members of the Missile Technology Control Regime, a 30-year-old agreement aimed at limiting the proliferation of rockets capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear bombs.
Saudi Arabia, along with Israel and the United States, have long criticized Iran's ballistic missile program, viewing it as a regional threat.
Iran, whose nuclear program for now remains limited by its 2015 deal with world powers, insists its atomic program is peaceful. But Western powers have long feared it was pursuing nuclear weapons in the guise of a civilian program, allegations denied by Tehran.
Iran has relied on its ballistic missiles as its own air force is largely made up of pre-1979 fighter jets. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has a fleet of modern F-15s, Typhoons and Tornadoes — which raises the question of why the Saudis would choose to develop the missiles.
Elleman, the defense expert, said that while Saudi pilots are skilled, the kingdom still needs American help with logistics.
"Today, they rely heavily on direct American support. There is no absolute guarantee that U.S. forces and supporting functions will aid a Saudi attack on Iranian targets," Elleman told the AP. "Ballistic missiles are a reasonable hedge against those concerns."
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has been targeted by ballistic missiles fired from neighboring Yemen by the Houthi rebels, some of which have reached Riyadh. Researchers, Western nations and U.N. experts say Iran supplied those missiles to the rebels, something Tehran and the rebels deny.
Saudi Arabia is pursuing its own nuclear program, and Prince Mohammed, the 33-year-old son of King Salman who is next in line for the throne, said it would race for an atomic weapon if Iran were to develop one.
"Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible," Prince Mohammed told CBS' "60 Minutes" in an interview aired last March.
A Saudi program would only complicate efforts by the U.S. and its Western allies to limit Iran's ballistic missile program, said STRATFOR, the Austin, Texas-based private intelligence firm.
STRATFOR said that "should Saudi Arabia move into a test-launch phase, the United States will be pressured to take action with sanctions," as it has done with Iran.
Congress has grown increasingly critical of Saudi Arabia since the Oct. 2 assassination of Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, allegedly carried out by members of Prince Mohammed's entourage. The kingdom's yearslong war in Yemen also has angered lawmakers.
If the Saudis produce "medium-range systems inherently capable of carrying nuclear weapons, the response will be much more robust, though likely out of public view," Elleman said. "Congress, on the other hand, may lash out, as this will be seen as another affront to the U.S. and regional stability."
Cairo, Jan 25 (AP/UNB) — Thousands of people were out on the streets Thursday at several locations in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, calling on the country's longtime ruler to step down, according to videos circulating online. Activists said at least two protesters were killed and seven injured.
The demonstrations are the latest in a wave of unrest that began Dec. 19 across most of Sudan, first to protest worsening economic conditions but soon to demand an end to Omar al-Bashir's 29-year, autocratic rule.
Thursday's demonstrations began in more than a dozen of the capital's residential neighborhoods and in at least six cities across the country, with numbers in each protest varying from scores to the low hundreds.
In response, security forces in Khartoum sealed off main roads to keep protesters on side streets and used tear gas to disperse them, said the activists, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
They chanted "Just leave!" — which is fast becoming the uprising's definitive slogan and already is a Twitter hashtag used by activists — and "Freedom, peace and justice. "
Activists late Thursday said at least two protesters were killed and seven injured, including five from gunshot wounds, in clashes with police.
There was no word from authorities on Thursday's casualties, but the government announced that 29 people have been killed so far in the unrest, five more than the last tally it gave.
Al-Bashir, who led a 1989 military rule that toppled a freely elected but ineffective government, has repeatedly said that any change of leadership could only come through the ballot box. Already one of the region's longest serving leaders, he is expected to run for another term in office next year.
Thursday's protests came one day after al-Bashir met in Doha with the ruler of the tiny but energy-rich Gulf nation of Qatar, likely looking for financial support. The Sudanese leader and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani did not speak to the press after their meeting and there was no word in the official Qatari media on what they agreed on to help al-Bashir ride out the ongoing crisis.
Sudan's official news agency said last month that Sheikh Tamim promised in a telephone call with al-Bashir that Qatar will "provide all that is needed" to help Sudan get through its crisis. Qatar at the time only acknowledged the phone call took place.
If Qatar were to help al-Bashir, whose position is becoming increasingly precarious after a month of continuing protests, it would likely in part be to spite Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates who, together with Bahrain, are boycotting the Gulf nation for its alleged support of militant groups and its close ties with non-Arab, mainly Shiite Iran.
Bahrain, another Gulf Arab monarchy, stated its support for al-Bashir in the early days of the unrest. Bahrain's more powerful Gulf allies — the Saudis and the Emiratis — have not followed suit, while Egypt, Sudan's powerful neighbor to the north, has expressed its support for Sudan's stability and security, but made no mention of the 74-year-old Sudanese leader.
Egypt's interest in a stable Sudan is rooted in its aversion to chaos at its doorsteps, much the same way lawlessness in Libya, its neighbor to the west, has been a major irritant to Cairo since a 2011 uprising there metamorphosed into civil war and the North African nation turning into a haven for jihadist groups. Al-Bashir, however, has not been a reliable ally, stoking a largely dormant border dispute, siding with Ethiopia in its dispute with Cairo over sharing the Nile's waters and offering refuge to Islamists wanted in Egypt.
Al-Bashir, in an apparent bid to secure the goodwill of the oil-rich Saudis and Emiratis, has dispatched troops to Yemen to fight on the side of a Saudi-led coalition fighting Shiite, Iran-aligned rebels there. But al-Bashir's flirtations with their rivals — Turkey, Qatar and Iran before that — may have impacted on the financial windfall he expected from Sudan's participation in the Yemen war.
Jerusalem, Jan 23 (AP/UNB) — A decade after discovering natural gas fields off its Mediterranean coast, Israel is starting to feel the geopolitical boost.
Its newfound riches have fostered economic bonds with its neighbors, tightening relations with Arab allies, and built new bridges in a historically hostile region — even without significant progress being made toward peace with the Palestinians.
Last week's inclusion of Israel into the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in Cairo — a consortium aiming to cut infrastructure costs and lower prices — marked the first time Arab countries accepted Israel into such a regional alliance, sparking excitement in the country that its long-held hope of finally also making "economic peace" with Egypt and Jordan was fast approaching.
"I think this is the most significant economic cooperation between Egypt and Israel since the signing of the peace treaty 40 years ago," Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told The Associated Press during his visit. "The discovery of significant gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean has also political value because it brings all of us ... together to cooperate with each other."
The forum, which also includes Cyprus, Greece, Italy and the Palestinian Authority, aims to emerge as a mini-OPEC of sorts and highlights how Israel has been leveraging its newfound gas reserves into a powerful tool to expand its immersion into a region that has increasingly come to see Iran and Turkey, rather than Israel, as their greatest rivals.
With the expected gas boon, Israel plans to wean itself off coal and emerge as an unlikely energy exporter — providing both an economic and political lift.
In the coming months, Israel will begin exporting gas to Egypt as part of a $15 billion deal signed last year to provide 64 billion cubic meters of gas over a 10-year period that will help turn Egypt into a regional energy hub.
The first batches will come from the operational Tamar field and later from the far larger Leviathan field, set to go online later this year. Israel already delivers gas to the Palestinians and to Jordan, with whom Israel's Delek Drilling and its U.S. partner, Noble Energy, signed their first export agreement in 2016 — a $10 billion, 15-year deal to provide 45 billion cubic meters of gas.
"This gives Israel an additional element to its relations with its neighboring countries. When you add an economic facet to the security cooperation it strengthens the bond and gives it stability," said Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and to the European Union, and a senior researcher at Tel Aviv's Institute of National Security Studies.
Still, he said economic interests alone aren't enough to fully integrate Israel into the Middle East. Arab nations without formal peace accords with Israel would need to see at least some progress on the Palestinian front before normalizing relations, he said.
Israel has peace agreements with only two Arab countries — Egypt and Jordan. But warming ties with Israel remain unpopular on much of the Arab street, and the gas exports have sparked sporadic protests in Jordan. The Palestinians, pleased at being invited into the consortium, hope to develop their own gas fields off the coast of Gaza but for now are required by international agreements to acquire their fuel from Israel.
Sameer Abdallah, a former Palestinian economy minister, said they import from Israel "because we have no alternative but once we can change that, of course we will."
The gas appears to have helped Israel grow closer to Arab governments and other Mediterranean countries that share its concern over what they perceive as the rising power of Iran and Turkey in the region.
Just as Noble Energy was discovering the massive gas fields in Israeli and Cypriot waters, Cyprus in 2010 suddenly banned Turkish flotillas seeking to break the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza from using its shores — a stunning about-face after months of turning a blind eye to ships that were creating a diplomatic nightmare for Israel.
Cypriot officials said at the time that Gaza-bound vessels were prohibited from leaving because of "vital national interests."
Relations have since soared. Israel now holds annual trilateral summits with Greece and Cyprus, which have become its geographical conduits to the West. The two also conduct joint military operations with Israel, and just a short flight away, have replaced Turkey as the Israelis' preferred holiday destinations.
The countries recently said they would sign an agreement for a $7 billion project to build a pipeline to carry natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe.
Cyprus Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides has said he believes "hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean can become what the coal and steel was for the European community" — a reference to how in the 1950s, coal and steel brought European countries together economically and politically.
Eran, the former Israeli diplomat, cautioned against investing so heavily in what he called "an economic adventure." Even with the recent discoveries, he said the joint reserves were still not enough to create a strong enough economic lever to challenge global energy providers.
Still, the upside of finally having natural resources of its own has been so appealing that the Israeli government has pushed forward even against stiff domestic opposition from environmental and social welfare activists.
Critics, including prominent opposition lawmakers, say a controversial 2016 agreement over royalties is skewed in favor of the energy tycoons. More recently, local activists have been urging Noble Energy to move its proposed shoreline gas rig farther out to sea for fear of what they call catastrophic consequences of spreading toxic water and air pollution toward their homes.
Noble and the Israeli government say it's an irresponsible scare campaign and have countered with an aggressive ad campaign extolling the virtues of Leviathan, which it has dubbed "the national project."
Baghdad, Jan 21(AP/UNB) — Iraq on Monday mourned the loss of Lamia al-Gailani, a beloved archaeologist who helped rebuild the Baghdad museum after it was looted following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
Al-Gailani, who died in Amman, Jordan, on Friday at the age of 80, was one of Iraq's first women to excavate the country's archaeological heritage.
Relatives, colleagues, and cultural officials on Monday gathered at Baghdad's National Museum, the country's leading museum, to pay their respects before moving her remains to the Qadiriyyah mosque for prayers and later interment.
A devotee of her country's heritage, al-Gailani lent her expertise to restore relics stolen from the museum for its reopening in 2015. She also championed a new antiquities museum for the city of Basra, which opened in 2016.
"She was very keen to communicate on the popular level and make archaeology accessible to ordinary people," said her daughter, Noorah al-Gailani, who curates the Islamic civilizations collection at the Glasgow Museum in Scotland.
"It is a big loss, the passing of Dr. Lamia al-Gailaini, who played a great role in the field of archaeology, even before 2003," said the deputy minister of culture, Qais Hussein Rashid.
The restored collection at the National Museum included hundreds of cylinder seals, the subject of al-Gailani's 1977 dissertation at the University of London. These were engraved surfaces used to print cuneiform impressions and pictographic lore onto documents and surfaces in ancient Mesopotamia, now present-day Iraq.
Still, thousands of artefacts remain missing from the museum's collection, and al-Gailani bore the grief of watching her country's rich heritage suffer unfathomable levels of looting and destruction in the years after Saddam's ouster.
"I wish it was a nightmare and I could wake up," she told the BBC in 2015, when Islamic State militants bulldozed relics at the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud near present-day Mosul.
Born in Baghdad in 1938, al-Gailani studied at the University of Cambridge in Britain before finding work as a curator at the National Museum in 1960. It was her first job in archaeology, her daughter said.
She returned to Britain in 1970 to pursue advanced studies, and she made her home there. Still, she kept returning to her native country, connecting foreign academics with an Iraqi archaeological community that was struggling under the isolation of Saddam Hussein's autocratic rule and the U.N. sanctions against him.
In 1999, she published "The First Arabs," in Arabic, with the Iraqi archaeologist Salim al-Alusi, on the earliest traces of Arab culture in Mesopotamia, in the 6th through 9th centuries.
She would bring copies of the book with her to Baghdad and sell them through a vendor on Mutanabbi Street, the literary heart of the capital, according to her daughter.
After the U.S.-led invasion, al-Gailani continued to travel to Iraq, determined to rescue its heritage even as the country convulsed with war.
At the time of her death, she was working with the Basra Museum to curate a new exhibit set to open in March, said Qahtan al-Abeed, the museum director.
"She hand-picked the cylinder seals to display at the museum," said al-Abeed.
Jerusalem, Jan 21(AP/UNB) — Israeli jets struck a series of Iranian military targets in Syria early on Monday, the military said in a rare departure from its years-long policy of ambiguity regarding activities in neighboring war-torn Syria.
The military said the targets included munition storage facilities, an intelligence site and a military training camp. The strikes were in response to a surface-to-surface rocket that Iranian forces fired toward Israel on Sunday that was intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system over a ski resort in the Golan Heights. That followed a rare Israeli daylight air raid near the Damascus International Airport.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday's strikes lasted for nearly an hour and were the most intense Israeli attacks since May. It said 11 were killed in the strikes. The Russian military said four Syrian troops were among those killed. There were no further details on the casualties or their nationalities.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the Iranian missile attack that prompted the strong Israeli response was "premeditated." Iranian forces in Syria fired the mid-range surface-to-surface missile toward Israel from the Damascus area — a missile that had been smuggled into Syria specifically for that purpose, he said. Conricus declined to further identify the type of missile, but said it hadn't been used in any of the internal fighting of the civil war and had "no business" being in Syria.
Israel only recently acknowledged carrying out hundreds of strikes in Syria in recent years. It previously typically offered only general warnings against allowing Iran to establish a military foothold in Syria and refrained from commenting directly for fear of triggering a reaction and being drawn into the deadly fighting.
Monday's announcement went a step further, reporting the strikes in real time and detailing the targets.
Conricus would not confirm whether the measures marked an official abandonment of the policy of ambiguity, merely saying that it was a "retaliatory strike against active aggression by Iran."
He said Israel had sent warnings to Syria ahead of the attack to refrain from attacking Israeli warplanes, but that Syria ignored those warnings and fired anti-aircraft missiles. He said Israel responded by destroying Syrian anti-aircraft batteries. The Russian military said that the Syrian air defenses shot down over 30 Israeli cruise missiles, a claim that was doubted in Israel.
The military said the Mount Hermon ski site has been closed.
Israel holds Syria responsible for allowing the Iranian forces to use Syrian territory as a base of operations against Israel. "Syria yesterday paid the price for allowing Iran to conduct attacks and to plan attacks from its soil," he said.