Category Archives: Middle East – Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia to set new Huthis strike as US set to lift embargo.

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The State Department condemned Wednesday’s strike on the airport but Blinken said the terror designation of the Huthi movement would still be lifted as planned next Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia said it foiled a Huthi drone attack on a southern airport Saturday just days before the new US administration is to stop designating the Yemeni rebels as a “terror” group.

Saudi air defences “intercepted and destroyed a drone rigged with explosives which had been launched by the Huthis against Abha airport,” the Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebels said in a statement quoted by state television.

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Abha airport was already targeted by the rebels on Wednesday when a drone strike left a civilian aircraft ablaze.

Forces loyal to Yemen’s Saudi-backed government get into position during clashes with Huthi rebel fighters in al-Jadaan area about 50 kilometres northwest of Marib in central Yemen on February 11, 2021. – Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthis rebels have resumed an offensive to seize strategic oil-rich Marib, the government’s last northern stronghold, the loss of which would be disastrous for the beleaguered leadership. (Photo by – / AFP)

The Huthis say that the airport, little more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the border, is a legitimate target as it has been used as a base for the coalition’s widely condemned bombing campaign in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and its allies say that Huthi attacks on the airport amount to “war crimes” as the airport is heavily used by Saudis enjoying the milder climate of the mountains around Abha.

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Wednesday’s drone attack came hot on the heels of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s announcement that he would lift the terror designation of the Huthis imposed by his predecessor Mike Pompeo.

The designation had been widely criticised by aid organisations, who warned it would hamper their efforts to alleviate what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Despite nearly six years of Saudi-led military intervention, the Huthis remain in control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa and much of the north, and aid groups say they have little choice but to work with them.

The State Department condemned Wednesday’s strike on the airport but Blinken said the terror designation of the Huthi movement would still be lifted as planned next Tuesday.

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He said sanctions on individual Huthi leaders would remain in place.

“The United States remains clear-eyed about Ansarullah’s malign actions and aggression,” Blinken said, referring to the Huthi movement by its formal name.

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#Newsworthy

Yemen: Al-Qaeda’s leader upon UN arrest lies appear in video.

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AQAP claimed responsibility for the 2019 mass shooting at a US naval base in Florida, in which a Saudi air force officer killed three American sailors.

The leader of Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen appears to be still at large despite a United Nations report which claimed he had been under arrest for months, the SITE Intelligence Group and two local tribal leaders said Thursday after he was seen in a video released by the jihadist group.

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Khalid Batarfi, who has been the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for about a year, talks about the storming of the US Congress last month in the video, which came out Wednesday.

The video, which opens with footage of the January 6 assault by Donald Trump supporters, belies reports that Batarfi was under arrest, said SITE, which monitors extremist organisations.

In the 20-minute video titled “America and the Painful Seizure”, Batarfi says “storming the Congress is only the tip of the iceberg of what will come to them, God willing”.

A report filed to the UN Security Council last week claimed Batarfi was arrested and his deputy, Saad Atef al-Awlaqi, killed during an “operation in Ghayda City, Al-Mahrah governorate, in October”.

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Two local tribal leaders in the Al-Bayda governorate in central Yemen, where AQAP is active, told AFP there was a high probability the person arrested was not Batarfi but another member of the jihadist group.

“Most probably, he wasn’t arrested, and the one who was arrested was another senior leader in the group,” one of the tribal leaders said.

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The UN report, which summarised global potential jihadist threats, did not disclose his whereabouts or reveal any further details of the October operation.

‘Global terrorist’
AQAP revealed it had appointed Batarfi, believed to be in his early 40s, as its leader in February 2020 following the death of his predecessor Qassim al-Rimi in a US air strike in Yemen.

(FILES) In this file image grab taken on June 16, 2015 from a video released by Al-Malahem Media, the media arm of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), shows Khalid Omar Batarfi (also known as Abu Meqdad al-Kindi) a spokesman for AQAP announcing in a video posted online, the death of its leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi, number two in the global jihadist organisation, in a US drone strike. – The leader of Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate has been under arrest for several months, according to a United Nations report released on February 4, 2021, in what will be seen as a huge breakthrough in the fight against the global jihadist threat. The document said Khalid Batarfi, was arrested and his deputy, Saad Atef al-Awlaqi, died during an “operation in Ghayda City, in Yemen’s al-Mahrah Governorate, in October.” (Photo by – / AL-MALAHEM MEDIA / AFP)

Batarfi, who was designated a global terrorist by the US State Department in 2018, has appeared in numerous AQAP videos over recent years, according to SITE, and appeared to have been Rimi’s deputy and group spokesman.

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Washington considers AQAP to be the worldwide jihadist network’s most dangerous branch, and has waged a long-running drone war against the leaders of the group.

AQAP claimed responsibility for the 2019 mass shooting at a US naval base in Florida, in which a Saudi air force officer killed three American sailors.

The Sunni extremist group thrived in the chaos of years of civil war between Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and Iran-backed Huthi rebels.

AQAP has carried out operations against both the Huthis and government forces as well as sporadic attacks abroad, including on the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo in 2015.

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Analysts say its abilities on the ground have dwindled, although it still inspires attacks carried out by “lone wolf” jihadists or former operatives.

Yemen has been wracked by conflict since 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition intervened after the Huthis seized control of the capital Sanaa.

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#Newsworthy

Saudi Arabia intercepts armed drone, says it’s from Yemen.

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The Saudi-led military coalition “intercepted and destroyed an armed drone,” said spokesman Turki al-Maliki in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

Saudi Arabia intercepted an armed drone launched towards the kingdom by Yemen’s Huthis, state media said Sunday, a day after the US moved to delist the rebels as a terrorist group.

The Saudi-led military coalition “intercepted and destroyed an armed drone,” said spokesman Turki al-Maliki in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

“It was launched systematically and deliberately by the terrorist Huthi militia to target civilians and civilian objects in the south of the region.”

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The incident was not immediately claimed by the Iran-backed Huthis.

The US State Department on Friday said it had formally notified Congress of its intention to revoke a terrorist designation against the rebels, which had been announced at the end of the administration of former president Donald Trump.

The delisting move came a day after US President Joe Biden announced an end to US support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen.

Humanitarian groups were deeply opposed to the designation, saying it jeopardised their operations in a country where the majority of people rely on aid, and that they have no choice but to deal with the Huthis, who control much of the north.

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Saudi Arabia, which entered the Yemen conflict in 2015 to bolster the internationally recognised government, has repeatedly been targeted with cross-border attacks.

Last month, it said it had intercepted and destroyed a “hostile air target” heading towards the capital Riyadh.

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#Newsworthy

COVID-19: Saudi Arabia warns after infections rise

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Saudi Arabia has reported more than 368,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 6,400 deaths, the highest among Gulf Arab states.

Saudi Arabia’s health minister warned Sunday that new coronavirus restrictions could be imposed amid an uptick in infections, as the kingdom slows the rollout of vaccines due to supply delays.

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“We have seen in recent days a noticeable and continuous rise in coronavirus infections,” Tawfiq al-Rabiah said in a video message, blaming “gatherings and lax enforcement of preventative measures”.

“The lack of compliance will undoubtedly force us to introduce measures to protect society,” he added, without elaborating.

Health workers perform nose swab tests during a drive through coronavirus test campaign held in Diriyah hospital in the Saudi capital Riyadh on May 7, 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP.

But the kingdom has also reported a high rate of recoveries, while daily infections dipped below 100 in early January from a peak of nearly 5,000 last June.

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However, new daily infections have been steadily climbing in recent weeks, with 261 cases reported by the health ministry on Sunday.

Saudi Arabia launched its coronavirus vaccination campaign on December 17 after receiving the first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The health ministry said the programme would roll out in three phases, starting with people over 65 and those with chronic ailments or at high risk of infection.

But earlier this month the ministry said it was forced to slow the rollout due to a delay in vaccine deliveries.

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Saudi Arabia had said it would end travel restrictions for its citizens and reopen its borders on March 31.

But on Friday the interior ministry said it had pushed back the date to May 17 due to vaccine delays, in a bid to avoid a second coronavirus wave.

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#NobleSport

Just in: Saudi Arabia ease restrictions on foreign workers

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Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia say they are often vulnerable to extortion from their sponsors, who can demand a portion of their salaries in order to continue working legally after many arrive heavily indebted from their home countries.

Saudi Arabia said Wednesday it will ease key restrictions on millions of foreign workers, under reforms to its labour policy that is blamed for widespread abuses and exploitation.

Human rights groups have repeatedly called on the kingdom to abolish its “kafala” sponsorship system, branded by critics as a modern form of slavery that binds workers to their Saudi employers.

The Saudi human resources and social development ministry said that from March 14, expatriates will no longer need their employers’ authorisation to change jobs, travel or leave Saudi Arabia, which is home to some 10 million foreigners.

“This initiative will improve and increase the efficiency of the work environment,” the ministry said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

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The reforms, if fully implemented, could have a big impact on the Saudi labour market and the lives of blue-collar foreign workers who lack effective recourse against overcrowded housing and exploitative employers.

Sattam Alharbi, a deputy minister at the ministry, said the changes will abolish “runaway” reports against foreign workers who do not report for duty, which effectively makes criminals at risk of being jailed and deported.

“These changes are not small changes — it’s huge,” Alharbi told Bloomberg News in an interview on Wednesday.

“We aim to achieve more inclusion for Saudis, attract talent, improve the working conditions, make Saudi Arabia’s labour market more dynamic and productive.”

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However, he said the new regulations will not apply to the country’s 3.7 million domestic workers, a highly vulnerable category of employees who are governed by separate regulations which he said are also under review.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) only last week said the kingdom had one of the most restrictive kafala systems in the Gulf, which it said facilitates “abuse and exploitation including forced labour, trafficking, and slavery-like conditions”.

“Saudi Arabia’s wealth and economy has been built on the backs of millions of migrant workers and it is time for deep-rooted change to accord them the legal protection and guarantees for their rights that they deserve,” it said.

– Vulnerable to exploitation -The kafala system persists even after Saudi media reported in February that the government would “soon” abolish it.

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Rothna Begum, a senior researcher at HRW, said the announced reforms are significant but fall short of completely dismantling the system, with employers still able to cancel workers’ residency at any time.

“This can mean that workers can still face abuse and exploitation as employers hold this power over them,” she told AFP.

After the disruption that came with the coronavirus pandemic, campaigners say potentially hundreds of thousands of “illegal” workers — many of whom have become undocumented through no fault of their own — remain stranded in Saudi Arabia.

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Activists have asked the kingdom to offer an amnesty to migrant workers who are trapped by their debts and not allowed to work to pay them off — a predicament that risks fuelling the pandemic.

“The Saudi authorities need to fully abolish the kafala system to ensure that all migrant workers are able to enter, reside and leave the country without being dependent on a single employer or sponsor,” Begum said.

Neighbouring Qatar is also scrapping key aspects of its labour rules, including the requirement for some workers to obtain their employer’s permission to change jobs and exit permits to leave the country.

It has passed a series of reforms since being selected to host the 2022 World Cup, setting in motion a vast construction programme employing foreign workers that has come under constant fire.


#Newsworthy…

News+: Saudi Arabia resume prayers at Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

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Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia resumed allowing citizens and residents to perform the Umrah at Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, after a seven-month pause due to coronavirus concerns.

Saudi Arabia is allowing its citizens and residents inside the kingdom to perform daily prayers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, for the first time in seven months.

Sunday also marked the start of the second phase of the gradual return of citizens and residents to performing the Umrah – an Islamic pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina undertaken any time of the year – expanding the capacity to 75 percent.

Earlier this month. Saudi Arabia allowed citizens and residents to perform the Umrah pilgrimage after a seven-month pause [File: Handout via AP]

With the start of phase one on October 4, Saudi Arabia had allowed 6,000 citizens and residents of the kingdom to perform Umrah daily, representing 30 percent of a revised maximum capacity of 20,000 pilgrims allowed into the Grand Mosque every day under new precautionary health measures.

Citizens and residents will be allowed to perform daily prayers at the Grand Mosque for the first time in seven months.

Starting November 1, the kingdom will allow visitors from specific countries deemed safe to perform Umrah at 100 percent of the revised capacity, which would remain in place until the danger posed by the coronavirus had passed, Saudi news agency SPA reported last month.


#Newsworthy

Khashoggi killing: Saudi Arabia sentenced 8.

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Saudi media report defendants handed between seven and 20 years in prison over the journalist’s murder in Istanbul.

Saudi Arabia sentenced eight people charged in the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, halting the death sentence for five of the men.

A court handed 20-year sentences to five people charged in the murder case, and three others were sentenced to between seven to 10 years, state media reported on Monday. The eight convicted were not identified.

“Five of the convicts were given 20 years in prison and another three were jailed for 7-10 years,” the official Saudi Press Agency said, citing the public prosecution service.

The final court verdict comes after Khashoggi’s sons said in May they had “pardoned” the killers – meaning they would not receive death sentences – and the verdicts confirmed the five previously condemned men would not be executed.

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Khashoggi went missing on October 2, 2018, while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish authorities later revealed he was murdered inside the consulate by a Saudi hit squad.

Khashoggi’s body, believed to have been dismembered, has not been found.

Khalil Jahshan, from the Arab Center in Washington, DC, noted the prosecutor’s office said the announcement was final and “closes the case forever”.

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“Most importantly, where is the body of Jamal Khashoggi? With these sentences, I assume they have found out what happened to his body,” Jahshan, a family friend, told Noble Reporters Media‘s known Media.

“The whole verdict seems to me to have been manipulated. According to legal practice in Saudi Arabia, the family has a right to commute any sentence, and the family has issued such a declaration – most probably under duress. I don’t think it was done freely, knowing the family.”

‘Credible evidence’
A 59-year-old Washington Post columnist, Khashoggi wrote critically of the Saudi government.

Questions remain over Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) role in ordering the killing, with several western intelligence agencies alluding he had knowledge of the operation beforehand.

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The Saudi government called the assassination a “rogue operation” after repeatedly denying any involvement for weeks.

Agnes Callamard – the United Nations’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions – also found “credible evidence” that Prince Mohammedand other senior Saudi officials were liable for the killing in an investigative report published in June 2019.

Istanbul prosecutor indicts Saudi suspects for Khashoggi killing

Turkey trial
The assassination of Khashoggi – a US resident – prompted a worldwide backlash against Saudi Arabia and caused lasting damage to MBS’s image in the international arena.

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Ankara’s ties with Riyadh came under intense strain after the journalist’s killing as he was an acquaintance of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In March, Turkish prosecutors indicted 20 Saudi nationals over Khashoggi’s murder, including two former senior aides to Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

According to the indictment, Saudi Arabia’s former deputy intelligence chief Ahmed al-Assiri is accused of establishing a hit team and planning the murder.

Saud al-Qahtani, a former royal court and media adviser, is accused of instigating and leading the operation by giving orders to the hit team. Other suspects are mainly Saudi military and intelligence officers who allegedly took part.


#Newsworthy…

We want fair solution for Palestinians – Saudi Arabia tells United States

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King Salman spoke to Donald Trump on phone following UAE’s decision to normalise ties with Israel in US-brokered deal.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz told United States President Donald Trump that the Gulf country wanted to see a fair and permanent solution for the Palestinians, which was the starting point for its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, the kingdom’s state news agency reported on Monday.

The two men spoke by phone following a US-brokered accord last month under which the United Arab Emirates agreed to become the third Arab state after Egypt and Jordan to normalise ties with Israel.

King Salman told Trump that he appreciated US efforts to support peace and that Saudi Arabia wanted to see a fair and permanent solution to the Palestinian issue based on its Arab Peace Initiative.

Under the proposal, Arab nations have offered Israel normalised ties in return for a statehood deal with the Palestinians and full Israeli withdrawal from territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz spoke to United State President Donald Trump on the phone, state media reported [File: Bandar Al-Jaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via [AFP Photo]

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and site of its holiest shrines, does not recognise Israel.

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A history of Arab-Israeli normalisation
However, this month the kingdom said it would allow flights between UAE and Israel, including by Israeli aircraft, to use its airspace.

During the call, Trump told King Salman that he welcomed that decision, and that the two also discussed regional security, a White House spokesman said.

Palestinian issue
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is also a White House adviser, has said he hopes another Arab country normalises ties with within months.

No other Arab state has said so far it is considering following the UAE. Egypt and Jordan normalised ties decades ago.

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King Salman’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Kushner discussed the need for the Palestinians and the Israelis to resume negotiations and reach a lasting peace after Kushner visited the UAE last month.

The UAE-Israel deal was met by overwhelming opposition among Palestinians who have condemned the move as a “stab in the back”.

On Sunday, leaders of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and the Palestinian Hamas group met to discuss the US push for diplomatic normalisation, the movement said.

Hamas chief Ismail Haniya and Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Iran-backed Shia Hezbollah movement, stressed the “stability” of the “axis of resistance” against Israel


#Newsworthy…

King Salman of Saudi Arabia sacks Yemen forces commander.

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Royal decree refers Prince Fahd, his son and four military officers to the anti-graft watchdog for investigation.


Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has sacked two royals over corruption allegations and referred them to the anti-graft watchdog for an investigation, according to state media.

In a royal decree issued early on Tuesday, King Salman removed Prince Fahd bin Turki bin Abdulaziz Al Saud as commander of joint forces in the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, and relieved his son Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahd of his post as deputy governor of al-Jouf region.

The decision was based on a missive from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to Nazaha, the anti-corruption committee, to investigate “suspicious financial transactions at the defence ministry”.

Four other military officers were also placed under investigation.

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The announcement marks the latest government crackdown on what officials say is endemic corruption in the kingdom.

MBS, after becoming heir to the throne in 2017 in a palace coup, launched an anti-corruption campaign that saw scores of royals, ministers and businessmen detained in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel.

Most were released after reaching undisclosed settlements with the state.

While the crown prince has made fighting corruption a pillar of his reforms, critics say he is moving to sideline rivals to his eventual succession to the throne, take control of the country’s security apparatus and crack down on dissent.

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Authorities wound down the Ritz campaign after 15 months but said the government would continue to go after graft by state employees.

Lieutenant General Fahd bin Turki bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, centre right, was the commander of the Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen [File: Fayez Nureldine/AFP]

In March, authorities arrested nearly 300 government officials, including military and security officers, on charges involving bribery and exploiting public office. Human Rights Watch voiced alarm over the arrests, warning of possible “unfair legal proceedings” in an opaque judicial system.

The crackdown coincided with the arrest of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a brother of King Salman, and the monarch’s nephew Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was previously crown prince.

Family members of Saad al-Jabri, a former top intelligence agent and aide to bin Nayef, have also been swept up in the campaign. Al-Jabri, who lives in exile in Canada, recently filed a lawsuit in the United States accusing MBS of sending a hit squad in 2018 to assassinate him.

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Prince Fahd, the royal sacked on Tuesday, was commander of the Royal Saudi Ground Forces, paratroopers units and special forces before he became commander of joint forces in the coalition, according to Saudi daily Arab News.

His father was a former deputy minister of defence.

The king’s decree said the crown prince designated Lieutenant General Mutlaq bin Salim bin Mutlaq al-Azima to replace Prince Fahd.

The coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement that ousted the Saudi-backed government from power in Sanaa. The conflict, seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been in military stalemate for years.


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