The Week of January 9, 2017

Reuters reports that former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani died on Sunday at the age of 82. He had been described as “a pillar of the Islamic revolution”. His pragmatic policies – economic liberalization, better relations with the West and empowering elected bodies – appealed to many Iranians but were despised by hardliners. Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University, said his death could not have come at a worse time, as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office. “With what is happening in the U.S. and the possible instability that is going to come in U.S. policy you needed a voice of reason and pragmatism that had some heft to it. He was that voice. Losing that voice is going to make it more likely that any mishap or miscalculation by the Trump team will beget a more unreasonable, more radical, more potentially destructive response by the Iranian regime.” 

12 people have been taken to court in Jordan over online abuse of Istanbul attack victims.  A judicial source told the agency that offences against the victims include, libel, insult and slander to Jordanian victims and families of the terror attack. Two Jordanians and a number of other Arab nationals were killed in the attacks; several victims were maligned for visiting a western-style establishment where drinking and socializing between men and women occurred. 

Sidi Ifni in Morcco is an arid area with annual precipitation of less that 130 mm. What it does have, however, is an average of 143 days of fog each year, which is caused by a unique microclimate. Warm air driven by ocean currents makes landfall on Morocco’s Atlantic coast around the town of Sidi Ifni; as the humid air rises, it hits the natural barrier of Morocco’s Anti-Atlas mountains, which start just 35km east from the coast and rise to more than 2,500m. From there, the air turns into blankets of thick fog, particularly between December and June. For years, the community saw this as a bad thing: they believed the fog prevented rainfall, turned fields to mud and made people ill. Over the past 10 years, vast mesh nets have been erected to capture the moisture at an altitude of 1,225m in what is now the largest fog-harvesting project in the world. Roughly 6,300 litres of water can be harvested daily. The benefits have been significant, particularly on rural girls and women who previously were burdened with time-consuming task of fetching water from area wells. This population can now seek education and additional sources of income.

Coptic Christians in Egypt observed a sober Coptic Christmas on January 7th in the wake of a devastating attack on a major church in December that killed over two dozen people, including a 10-year-old girl. The attack was claimed by Islamic State. Egypt’s Christians make up 10 percent of the country’s 94 million people and are the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Under the Coptic calendar, the birth of Jesus Christ falls on Jan. 7, when Christmas is also celebrated in Eastern Orthodox nations such as Russia. Usually the most festive religious holiday for the community, the occasion was used by many to mourn the recent losses and maintain bedside vigils for those still in critical condition.

Israel has vowed to cut $6 million from UN dues in protest over the resent resolution condemning the country’s continued construction of settlements on occupied land. Israel’s UN mission said the amount represented the portion of Israel’s contribution to the UN’s regular budget totaling more than $40m allocated “to anti-Israel bodies”. It named the UN agency for Palestinian refugees known as UNRWA, the Division for Palestinian Rights, the committee investigating Israeli practices affecting Palestinian human rights, and information programs on “the Question of Palestine”. Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, claimed, ““It is unreasonable for Israel to fund bodies that operate against us at the UN.”

2016

The Week of December 12th, 2016

U.S. president-elect Donald Trump considers moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem a “very big priority,” said senior advisor Kellyanne Conway in a radio interview on Monday. According to a report in Israel’s Channel 2 news, the president-elect is looking into where to place the new US embassy, considering in the Diplomat Hotel in the center of the city as a possible site. “It’s something that our friend in Israel, a great friend in the Middle East, Israel would appreciate. And it’s something that a lot of Jewish Americans also have expressed their preference for that,” Conway said. Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem would reverse decades of U.S. foreign policy.

On Sunday, Pakistani politician Imran Khan stated he would no longer allow anyone to hunt houbara bustards, a migratory species of bird. This defies the country’s longstanding policy of giving hunting licenses to regional allies, as Arab sheikhs will no longer be allowed to access the swaths of habitat used by the houbara bustards. In recent years, there has been growing public and judicial criticism over the special dispensation given to rich and powerful Arabs to hunt the birds. More than 30 permits were issued in 2014 to visitors including presidents, ambassadors and ministers, but last year, the Pakistani supreme court ruled that no more hunting licenses would be issued, banning even the most rich and powerful allies from obtaining them.

Malnutrition among Yemen’s children is increasing at an alarming rate, with nearly 2.2 million in need of urgent care, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said on Monday. There are millions on the brink of famine, and the number of people suffering from malnutrition has seen a drastic increase of almost 200 percent in the last two years. In Yemen, one child dies every ten minutes due to malnutrition, diarrhea, or respiratory tract infections, UNICEF reported. On Monday, UNICEF acting representative Meritxell Relano called for assistance, saying: “we call on parties to the conflict to give us unhindered access to children in need across the country so we are able to deliver nutrition supplies, treat malnourished children and support Yemen’s health services.”

A Christian church was bombed in Cairo on 11 December, killing at least 25 worshipers. Police have already arrested four accomplices to the suicide bomber who detonated a vest inside the church, and are searching for two more. President Sisi is now scrambling to reassure Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority of their safety and protection–the Copts are among Sisi’s staunchest supporters.

Qatar is coming under increasing fire for its treatment of migrant laborers. Although the Gulf nation passed new labor laws, many human rights groups say the provisions will not remedy the slave-like conditions under which the men work. The Qatari government released a statement denouncing a report by Amnesty International, saying the new laws are “fit for purpose.”

Gunmen in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar opened fire on a van carrying female airport employees on Saturday morning, killing five women and their male driver, officials said. The Afghan government has been struggling to expand opportunities for women in the work force, but that effort has been hampered by strict conservative customs about the role of women in society and security threats posed by the conflict with the Taliban.

The Week of December 5th, 2016

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) held their 37th summit on Wednesday. Discussing a number of the region’s most pressing issues, the GCC member states released multiple statements throughout the summit. On Iran, the leaders expressed rejection of Iranian interference in the internal affairs of the GCC countries and the region, stating that “Iran must change its policy of harboring the terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, supporting terrorist militias and triggering sectarian strife in the region.” Additionally, the Council called on the U.N. Security Council to make an urgent intervention in Syria and supported efforts exerted by those attempting to find a political solution to the crisis. Furthermore, they condemned the recent U.S. Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act and called on Washington to rethink this legislation. The concluding statement from the summit affirmed the Council’s support of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

During a speech on Tuesday, German chancellor Angela Merkel called for a national ban on full-face veils. “The full veil is not appropriate here, it should be forbidden wherever that is legally possible. It does not belong to us,” she said at the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) gathering. Germany is not the only country to call for a ban on full-face veils, but other countries around the world, including France, Belgium and Switzerland, have proposed, partial, local or national bans on such Islamic dress in public places. While the laws have been criticized by religious freedom advocates, supporters see the Islamic veil as demeaning to women and inconsistent with secularism.

Last week, an Israeli biomedical company announced that it had successfully transplanted artificially grown human bone into a group of patients suffering from bone loss. “For the first time anywhere in the world, a quick, and effective and safe bone rehabilitation using a single injection of a living, growing graft transplanted inside a human bone has been completed successfully,” the company said. This breakthrough is important, because injectable bone grafts could significantly change the way doctors relate to orthopedic problems and bone repairs.

On Friday, young Iraqi women cycled around Baghdad city in defiance of traditional gender roles. Although there is not a ban on women bicycling in public spaces, women typically do not do so because their society frowns upon it. The woman heading the group of cyclists, Marina Jaber, has been documenting the varied reactions on Instagram–some smiled at her as she passes, and others glared. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, 15 women, mainly teenagers, are among 50 members of Kabul’s first freestyle cycling club. Cyclists gather three times a week at a concrete playground in the capital, using metal tables, wooden crates and boxes to perfect stunts they have seen performed on YouTube, Facebook and other social media. For members, male and female, the club offers a much-needed escape from violence, which has worsened over the past year due to a resurgent Taliban.

A Lebanese chef named Barbara Abdeni Massaad decided to create a soup cookbook for Syrian refugees living in Lebanon after seeing the plight of the many refugees living in camps across the country. She created a book full of traditional Middle Eastern recipes with contributions form international food luminaries like Anthony Bourdain. Barbara also hands out soup to refugees each weekend; the author is a refugee herself, and lived in the United States for eight years when escaping the Lebanese Civil War. The profits from the cookbook have reached $300,000, and Massaad plans to donate all of the money to the refugee effort. Massaad says she is working so hard to help the refugees because “they have the same basic needs. They need food, they need shelter, they need dignity, they need love, they just want a sense of being, they want to build the future for their children.”

The Week of November 28th, 2016

Fatah re-elected Mahmoud Abbas as the leader of the party at the first session of congress in seven years. The vote was a formality, as Abbas ran unopposed. At 81 years old, Abbas is still vital to Palestinian politics. The Fatah party is at a difficult point as of late, with the looming Trump administration policies poised to be much more Israel-friendly and peace negotiations at a standstill. Reform is on Abbas’ agenda, as he hopes to make progress despite the current political climate.

After the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia that overthrew President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, foreign investment in the Middle Eastern nation has plummeted. To combat this, an event was held in Tunis called Tunisia 2020. It invited representatives from other countries and international organizations to come invest in Tunisia or offer aid packages to stimulate the depleted economy. Billions of dollars will soon enter the Tunisian economy thanks to loans and investments from Qatar, the European Investment Bank, Kuwait, and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development.

A young woman born in a refugee camp in Kenya, who now lives in Minnesota, made history by competing in the Miss Minnesota pageant in a burkini. Halima Aden decided the pageant would be a great way to showcase her Somali heritage and Muslim faith, and she received a lot of encouragement from family, friends, and other young Muslims whom she had never met. She tried to dispel any negative misconceptions about Islam by competing in the pageant, and although she thought this would be her only pageant, she received so much positive feedback that she is open to competing in another.

Last Thursday, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities announced its discovery of the remains of a 5,000-year-old city near Abydos, Egypt. An ancient cemetery and several houses have been unearthed at the site, and inside the houses, archeologists have discovered pottery and stone tools used during that time period. While the size of the city is still unclear, the Ministry stated that the city dates back to the early dynastic period when the first pharaohs ruled over Egypt. As the site continues to be excavated, this discovery could provide better insight into what life was like in Egypt 5,000 years ago.

In an interview with Gulf News last week, NASA announced its intentions to collaborate with the UAE Space Agency, undertaking a project that will add communication capability to the UAE’s Mars probe Hope. In an interview to Gulf News during her visit to the UAE last week, Dr Gale Allen said the development is part of a recently signed “umbrella agreement” for collaboration between the two agencies. The UAE is the first in the region to undertake a mission to Mars. The UAE Space Agency is also working on the development of an astronomical camera network that would monitor debris in space which could benefit space agencies around the world.

In Morocco’s Fez, world’s oldest library holds gems. The Qarawiyyin library, built in 9th century, is home to priceless treatises in Islamic studies, astronomy and medicine. Years of delicate restoration are close to being finished. “All that’s left to be done are a few finishing touches and the electricity,” says Boubker Jouane, the library’s deputy director. “A house of science and wisdom,” according to its founder Fatima Al-Fihri, the Qarawiyyin library was one of the Arab world’s largest centers of learning. Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Al-Qayrawan in Tunisia, established the library, the university that originally housed it and a mosque in 859 CE. The collection is particularly valuable during a time when extremists have increasingly targeted early relics of Islam. Islamic State burned thousands of rare manuscripts last year at the Mosul library in Iraq, and in 2013 Islamists torched countless early writings from the Islamic world and Greece in Mali’s Timbuktu.

The Week of November 14th, 2016

On Monday and Tuesday, Iran shut schools after its cities were hit by choking levels of air pollution. A blanket of brown-white smog descended on the capital Tehran, forcing many of its 14 million residents to retreat indoors or don face masks in the street. The pollution in Tehran hit 156 on the Air Quality Index of deadly airborne particles, over the 150 considered “unhealthy” for the general public. Every year, Tehran suffers some of the worst pollution in the world when cool autumn temperatures cause an effect known as “temperature inversion”. The phenomenon creates a layer of warm air above the city that traps pollution from some 10 million cars and motorbikes.

A class of around 200 female nursing students will soon graduate from their programs in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, an amazing feat in a country where most girls have not completed elementary school. These students will return to their poor villages in the countryside to combat the high maternal mortality rate that plagues the country–a lack of female health workers in poor areas means that women do not get adequate care when giving birth. The program is run by the United Nations Development Program and the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, and is the first of its kind.

Egypt-Israel relations are at their highest point in history according to analysts. Under Sisi, the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was reopened, and Egypt and Israel cooperate militarily. There are several reasons for this out-of-character alliance–the two states have the same enemies, the Sinai insurgency and Hamas, and they both have the same economic opportunities in the form of large gas reserves. The relationship is so good that, reportedly, Egypt has allowed Israel to carry out drone strikes in the Sinai Peninsula. The relations will have broader impacts for the region. There is talk of an unofficial alliance between all of the United States’ backed countries, who are pitted against Syria, Iran, ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas. One analyst said this alliance could make regional divisions even worse.

The United Arab Emirates has issued a new law giving federal government employees three months of paid maternity leave.  Most government employees around the country typically have 60 days of paid maternity leave under current laws. According to Article 53 of the amended Law 11, reports Khaleej Times, women will also be granted two hours a day to breastfeed their newborns until they’re four months old. One of the hopeful outcomes is that such measures will encourage woman to stay in the workforce after having children.

The Egyptian Court of Cassation overturned Mohamed Morsi’s life sentence on November 22, and instead ordered a retrial for the deposed head of state, who last week also had a death sentence overturned. Morsi has been charged with several offences, including escaping prison in 2011, and sharing state secrets with foreign powers, but his lawyer said “the trial … failed to come up with any evidence to substantiate the charges.” The trials were heavily criticized by human rights groups who said they were unfair. Now, Morsi remains in jail on a separate espionage conviction and awaits his new trial.

The Week of November 7th, 2016

Egypt says Saudi Arabia has halted fuel shipments indefinitely in a sign of lingering tensions following a conflict regarding differences over the Syrian conflict and over Egypt’s unwillingness to send ground troops to join a Saudi-led coalition fighting rebels in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has provided Egypt with billions of dollars in aid and credit since Sisi overthrew Morsi in 2013, but Egypt announced in October that it had invited tenders to meet its refined oil products needs after Aramco halted the delivery of 700,000 tons. “In November we’re buying from the world market,” said an Egyptian ministry official, adding they have not been informed when Aramco would resume shipments. Economic turmoil is hurting Egyptians. Cairo floated its currency last week and cut fuel subsidies, leading to across-the-board price hikes in the Arab world’s most populous country.

Rabat urges nations that ratified Paris agreement to commit amid threat of Donald Trump winning the United States presidential vote. Morocco’s foreign minister said on the eve of United Nations talks in Marrakesh said there is “no turning back” from a global accord to combat climate change. Earlier this year, Morocco opened Noor 1, a solar power plant in the Sahara so enormous it can be seen from space. And that’s just the plant’s first section—by the time parts two and three of the $9 billion project are finished in 2018, it will likely be the biggest solar plant in the world, providing energy for at least a million people with a 580 megawatt capacity. It’s all part of a push to generate 52% of its energy from renewables by 2030. Morocco’s renewable energy drive is spurred by the unsustainably high proportion of energy it imports from abroad. In 2013, that figure was at 90%, according to the World Bank.

As the CEO of Kurdistan’s very first airline, Zagrosjet, Moffak Hamad is dedicated to investing every minute of his workdays into making this project a symbol of success. However, he finds himself spending most of his time caught up in the political punchup between Erbil and Baghdad. With that in mind, Hamad continues working hard to boost Zagrosjet to the next level by cooperating with flagship airlines to fly to regions that require high standards of safety regulations, such as the European Union. He has more than just his own company’s best interests in mind. With Zagrosjet, the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region is attempting to take greater control over its own airspace. The Iraqi Kurdistan region is not fully independent, and must get Baghdad’s authorization before every take-off and landing, which can damage Zagrosjet’s credibility. But in spite of the difficulty in establishing a successful airline in such a tense geopolitical region, seated at his desk at Zagrosjet headquarters, with his left hand steady by the phone, Hamad seems battle-hardened and determined to steer Kurdistan’s first airline towards a prosperous future.

The number of suspected cholera cases in Yemen has skyrocketed to 1,410 within three weeks of an outbreak being declared, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Eighteen months of war between Houthi rebels and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition backing the Yemeni government has destroyed the majority of health facilities and clean water supplies in the country.Yemen’s health ministry announced the outbreak in early October, when WHO officials said there were 24 suspected cases and the disease was not spreading. On Friday, though, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told a news conference that, as of Thursday, there were 1,410 suspected cholera cases in 10 out of Yemen’s 23 governorates. The conflict has destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, killed more than 10,000 people and displaced millions. Cholera is only one of several risks to civilians in the war-battered country, but a rapid advance of the disease would add a new dimension to an unfolding humanitarian disaster.

A Taliban suicide bomber dressed as a laborer blew himself up at the NATO air base at Bagram north of the Afghan capital Kabul on Saturday, killing four Americans and wounding at least 17 people in one of the bloodiest attacks against U.S. forces since President Barack Obama took office. The American included 2 military service members and two contractors.

And, in the wake of the surprise election upset of Donald Trump over Washington veteran, Hillary Clinton, the leaders of the Middle East had mixed reactions to the news, with notable jubilation among some. Egyptian strongman, President el-Sisi, was eager to share that he was the first to reach the president-elect on the phone with his congratulations, while far-right Israelis heralded the hopeful arrival of much more sympathetic treatment, including the demise of a possible Palestinian state.

The Week of October 31, 2016

Moroccan fish vendor Mouhcine Fikri was crushed to death by a garbage truck after officers confiscated his illegally-caught fish in the northern city of Al Hoceima on Sunday. This event has sparked mass protests against corruption and police violence all over the country. Protesters shouted “Criminals, assassins, terrorists!” and “We are all Mouhcine!” in massive crowds as far south as Marrakesh in outrage over Fikri’s death and other injustices. Although the tragedy is being likened to the 2010 self-immolation of Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi and the following outcry, a human rights activist from the area around Al Hoceima says the protesters are seeking justice for Fikri’s family, not a “destabilization of Morocco.”

About a decade ago, one of the hallmarks of the United States intervention in Afghanistan was the creation of over 10,000 miles of roads through much of the country. Currently, however, the roads are in a state of irreparable damage in what is seen as one of the tangible symbols of the failure of US efforts. For years, US officials stuck to the claim that the highway would bring economic prosperity and modernization to the impoverished country, even as they were becoming too dangerous to traverse. Travelling along the roads now means dodging craters from roadside bombs and stopping at militant checkpoints.

As companies struggle to keep pace with a rapid slide in the black market value of the Egyptian pound, business is grinding to a near-halt in Egypt. Since the 2011 revolution, the pound has been falling on the black market. The uprisings drove away tourists and foreign investors, vital sources of hard currency in an economy that relies on imports of everything from food to luxury cars. The problem continues to get worse, as black market traders were buying dollars at 17.5-17.85 pounds on Monday and selling them to importers at 18-18.2, representing a two-pound slide in a single week and five-pound slide on the month. The pound is now worth half as much on the black market as it is in the banks. Additionally, foreign reserves have dwindled from $36 billion before 2011 to about $19.6 billion in September, despite Egypt receiving tens of billions of dollars in aid from Gulf Arab allies. Government officials have repeatedly assured Egyptians that the state and army would step in to ensure that basic goods are in ample supply and that prices would be kept in check. But past approaches to the economic problems in the question have the population wondering whether the government has the political will to forge ahead with reforms.

Lebanon’s parliament ended a more than two-year deadlock around its presidential vacancy Monday, electing as president a former general supported by Hezbollah in a move that gives the powerful Iranian-backed militia even wider clout in Lebanese affairs. Michel Aoun, 81, secured the Lebanese presidency by winning the support of 83 members of Parliament, well above the absolute majority of 65 needed to win, according to a tally of votes read out in a televised broadcast from parliament on Monday.

The country had been without a head of state for 29 months after Michel Suleiman stepped down as president at the end of his term in May 2014. Since then, 45 sessions to elect a new leader have failed due to a lack of consensus. Aoun will be Lebanon’s 13th president since the country gained independence from France in 1943, and he will reside in the presidential palace in the southeastern Beirut suburb of Baabda.

On Thursday, an opinion poll revealed that almost half the population of the Middle East and North Africa would abstain from voting in next week’s U.S. presidential election if given the right. According to the survey carried out by Saudi daily Arab News and British pollster YouGov, 47 percent would abstain, and among those who said they would vote, 44 percent said they would opt for Clinton, while only nine percent would choose Trump. “There is little enthusiasm for either candidate but 78 percent believe Clinton would be better for the Arab world if elected as president versus 22 percent for Trump,” said YouGov’s chief Stephan Shakespeare.

The Week of October 24, 2016

Poverty is hitting hard in Egypt, as reports show much of the population is unable to afford basic necessities and is struggling to make ends meet. While official findings of Egyptians living under the poverty line is at 28 percent, the figure is as high as 60 percent in Upper Egypt, and seems to be on the rise. Soliman Bakar, a father of three and a government employee in Egypt, notes, “…no matter where you turn you’re faced with more and more difficulties. The price of gas, electricity, water, petrol, everything went up suddenly. Now that food went up, the pound took a hit too…Medicine has quadrupled in price – that’s if you can even find it.” In 2011, as thousands of Egyptians took to the streets demanding that Mubarak step down, the people had three demands: “bread, freedom and social justice.” Five years later, freedom and social justice are eroding quickly, and the cost of basic necessities is growing beyond reach for many. As faith in the government dwindles, unrest in the street is becoming more and more pronounced, and there have recently been calls for a “Revolution of the Poor” to take place on 11 November.

As fighting in Iraq continues, the release of toxic fumes from a burning sulphur plant near Mosul last Saturday has left at least two Iraqi civilians dead and nearly 1,000 in need of treatment for various breathing problems. Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Erbil, said there was confusion over who was responsible for the blaze at the plant. “Nobody really knows what is going on, whether it was a coalition air strike, Iraqi armour, or ISIL suicide bombing,” he said. Most patients have been given oxygen and told to stay away from neighborhoods with high sulphur concentration, but fighting continues in the area.

Filmlab, a Palestinian film organization has launched a new cinema award in an attempt to stimulate the Palestinian filmmaking industry and promote cinema culture in the territories. The local nonprofit is backed by European partners and hopes the “Sunbird Prize” will grow to become the Palestinian version of the Oscars. “Most of the cinema houses in the Palestinian territories have been closed for either political or economic reasons,” said Hanna Atallah, Filmlab’s artistic director. “We are trying to bring the movies to people in cultural centers for free to enable them to see them and slowly get back to cinema culture.” Reflecting the immediate concerns of Palestinians, both of this year’s winners, “Izriqaq (Blued)” and “Ambulance,” dealt with Palestine’s conflict with Israel.

On October 20, 2016, thousands of women packed the street in front of Israeli Prime Minister Binjamin Netanyahu’s home in Jerusalem. These activists from the ‘Women Wage Peace’ organization marched at the Qasr al-Yahud baptism site by the Jordan river near the West Bank, calling for a return to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

Women Wage Peace was founded during the 2014 war between Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip. It describes itself as a “broad-based grass roots movement with a core of nearly 10,000 Israelis and 23,000 supporters worldwide…it is a uniquely nonpartisan movement that promotes public support for a diplomatic agreement.” Many of the Arab women attending the rally said they had come to show their support for peace.

The Week of October 17, 2016

U.S.-backed Iraqi forces fought their way into two villages near Mosul on Monday as the offensive to retake the extremist-held city entered its second week, but they faced questions over a suspected airstrike that hit a mosque, killing 13 people. When the city is liberated, as many as 5,000 ISIS militants will be driven out of the stronghold. This could pose a serious threat to the European Union, officials warn, because the fighters may return to Europe and carry out attacks once Mosul falls. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian says the liberation could take weeks or months. Mosul has been crucial in the saga of the Islamic State: it is there that the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria in June 2014.

With thousands of people fleeing the turmoil in Aleppo, resident Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel noticed a sharp increase in the homeless cat population in the city. In response, Aljaleel, who has always loved cats, built a small garden for the animals. Aleppo’s newest cat sanctuary started small — an area outside of Aljaleel’s house where the hungry animals could come to find food. Now, around one hundred cats sleep in the house every night. Additionally, as many schools across the city are closing, Aljaleel decided to address this problem by adding a playground to the cat sanctuary in an effort to offer children the opportunity to play and escape the everyday hardships of life in Aleppo.

Food shortages in East Aleppo are worsening after the U.S.-Russian ceasefire fell through. Besieged residents are subsisting mostly on leftover aid, but the supply is quickly dwindling. A farmer named Salim Atrache and his “Red Team” are working hard to distribute their crop for the lowest price possible to Aleppo residents. Atrache grows upwards of ten different crops on his 37-hectare (90-acre) plot of land on the outskirts of Eastern Aleppo, and has already harvested eggplants and parsley. This development could be the start of a larger urban agriculture movement as the prospects of more aid getting into Aleppo is slim.

The Week of October 10, 2016

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the country is searching for ways to involve the International Criminal Court in an investigation into Russia’s and Syria’s bombings of Aleppo which the French allege are war crimes. Since the negotiations for a ceasefire halted in September, Russian and Syrian forces have barraged the besieged Syrian city with indiscriminate bombs. The prospects of the ICC having jurisdiction over the case are slim: one of the the only ways they would be able to take the case is if an alleged criminal had the citizenship of an ICC member, and the complaining country must also be an ICC member for a case to move forward to prosecution.

Afghanistan, a country with over 1.2 million internal refugees, is facing another wave of displaced citizens after the northern city of Kunduz fell to the Taliban. As many as 10,000 Kunduz residents have fled to Kabul and surrounding towns, placing a massive burden on the already impoverished families who have offered to house them. The Afghan Red Crescent Society has identified the primary needs of these host families as food and clothing. One Kunduz resident told Reuters “if the government does not act swiftly to clear up Kunduz from the Taliban … winter and cold weather will kill a lot more Kunduzi people than the Taliban.”

Jordanians participated in a protest last week to make clear their disagreement with a recent gas deal with Noble Energy, an American company with a large stake in the Israeli Leviathan gas field. Residents of several Jordanian cities, including Amman and Mafraq, turned off their lights and marched in the streets with candles to raise awareness. Jordanians reject the deal on the basis that it would “normalize relations with a Zionist entity” and make them “dependent on Israel.”

Israel cut ties with the United Nations cultural branch, UNESCO, after they passed a stinging resolution on Israel’s actions at al-Aqsa Mosque compound. UNESCO referred to Israel as an “occupying power,” and condemned police aggression and restriction of Muslim access to the holy site. Israel claims the report ignores the fact that Israelis have a strong connection to the site, too. The United States was one of six states to vote against the resolution, saying  it was “strongly opposed.” The al-Aqsa compound is the third-holiest site in Islam, and has been under Israeli control since they annexed East Jerusalem in 1967.

The Week of October 3, 2016

On October 4th, the Palestinian government made the decision to postpone municipal elections for up to four months. Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said in a statement that the decision came “in consultation with President Mahmoud Abbas.” The high court decided that only the West Bank would be able to participate in the elections, leaving out the almost 2 million residents in the Gaza Strip. Elections have not been held at the same time in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 2006, after the Hamas victory nearly caused a civil war in Gaza. Hamas dismissed the decision as “political,” and asserted that this further divided the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The United States announced on 3 October that it has abandoned diplomatic talks to negotiate a political end to the civil war in Syria. The statement, which came after repeated warnings from the State Department, was met with Russia’s withdrawal from a nuclear agreement to dispose of plutonium. The latter was a political move that further signaled the abysmal state of US-Russian relations. After the ceasefire agreement, put into effect on 9 September, fell apart, the United States fiercely condemned Russia’s repeated bombings of Aleppo. Suspension of the talks means there is no international strategy to stop the violence in the besieged city.

On 5 October, an all-women crew en route to the Gaza Strip was stopped in international waters by the Israeli Navy. The yacht set sail from Barcelona on 14 September with the goal of reaching the Gaza Strip to break the years-long blockade on the territory. Israeli officers boarded and searched the ship about 100 nautical miles from the shore of Gaza before being redirected to Ashdod, an Israeli port. Israeli officials say the joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade is necessary to prevent the smuggling of weapons into the occupied territory. The crew knew the likelihood of reaching Gaza was almost nonexistent; they attempted to do so in order to raise international attention to the issue.

Two years after graduating from Water Smart Homes’ plumbing training course, a group of women are planning to open an all-female plumbing business in Amman, Jordan. Thirty women have graduated from the training course, and some of the graduates are expected to be hired by the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, which announced last month its plans to open a center to train women on in-house plumbing in an attempt to increase the number of women pursuing plumbing careers, an industry that is traditionally male-dominated in Jordan.

On October 7th, Morocco held legislative elections which was led by the country’s incumbent, moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party. It will look to form a new coalition government as strong gains were made by its main rival which,could impede an economic agenda opposed in parts by largely rural voters. The Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) hopes to reverse economic reforms enacted by the PJD, which have included government hire freezes and pension cuts that have failed to ameliorate Morocco’s high unemployment rate. The division between the two parties is chiefly one between the countryside and the cities; the growing power of the PAM, seen as close to the monarchy, will limit the substance, amount and pace of reforms the Islamists can move forward without compromise.

On October 8th, the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen since March 2015 has been sharply criticized by the UN, the US, and others for striking a funeral gathering in Sana’a that killed over 150 civilians and government officials. The Arab coalition initially denied any role in the funeral attack, attributing the carnage to “score-settlement” between Houthis and Yemeni allies but has since reversed course, vowing to investigate the incident and allow the involvement of the 14-nation group known as the Joint Incidents Assessment Team. The military coalition is seeking to restore President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government but its indiscriminate targeting of civilian-heavy areas, as well as hospitals and schools, has earned it widespread censure. The United States intends to conduct “an immediate review” of its support for the Saudi-led coalition, with possible adjustments “to better align with U.S. principles, values and interests,” according to a statement from Ned Price, the National Security Council spokesman.

The Week of September 26, 2016

Shimon Peres, former Israeli statesman and peace advocate, died on Wednesday. Peres is widely known for his pragmatic efforts during the Oslo Peace accords, for which he earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. Peres suffered a stroke earlier in the month and seemed to be recovering, but quickly deteriorated Tuesday. Many world leaders attended his funeral on 30 September, including President Obama, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry. Bill Clinton gave a eulogy highlighting Peres’ historic attempts to broker peace in the Middle East, saying Peres “started off life as Israel’s brightest student, became its best teacher, and ended up its biggest dreamer.”

A criminal court hearing was scheduled for a Jordanian writer after posting an inflammatory comic online that insulted Islam. Before entering the courthouse for his hearing, however, an angry ultra-conservative shot him dead. Nahed Hattar, a well-known and controversial author from a Christian family, took down the comic from his Facebook page as soon as the backlash began, but many were furious at the provocative image which mocked the religiosity of ISIS fighters. A spokesperson for the Jordanian government responded to the incident, saying “the government will respond with an iron fist to anyone who uses this as an opportunity to spread hate speech in society.” Jordan struggles to maintain the delicate balance between jihadis, Palestinians, refugees, and several tribes that all populate the small Middle Eastern country sandwiched in the middle of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Syrian civil war.

Congress overturned President Obama’s veto on a bill allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi Arabian government in US courts. Critics of the bill warn it compromises the long-standing precedent of sovereign immunity; the bill allows courts to sue foreign governments for their involvement in “acts of terrorism,” but because that term is so loosely defined, it could be used to prosecute the US for acts like drone strikes in Yemen. However, the bill’s supporters say these kinds of unintended consequences may never come to fruition. Terry Strada, a key player in the bill’s proposal, says as long as the US “[isn’t] funding terrorist organizations and killing people, [there is] nothing to worry about.”

The International Criminal Court prosecuted its first case of war crimes for the destruction of cultural heritage sites. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a jihadist from Mali, was sentenced to nine years in prison after pleading guilty to destroying Muslim shrines in Timbuktu. The centuries-old structures have since been rebuilt with money from foreign donors. International law is conforming to the belief that destroying a group’s history as an act of war should be prosecuted as a crime against humanity or a war crime.

The Week of September 19, 2016

Fifteen of the Arab world’s top chefs competed on the Arabic-language equivalent of “Top Chef” earlier this week, showcasing their talent and highlighting the region’s diverse cuisine. Competitors from all over the MENA region create innovative plates based off traditional dishes. Bobby Chinn, a TV personality, chef, and judge on the show, said that the highly-anticipated competition was sure to live up to viewer’s expectations. This is the second season of Top Chef Middle East; the first premiered in April of 2011.

The United States allowed two of its airline giants, Boeing and Airbus, to begin selling planes to Iran. This is good news for both companies and for Iran, which until now has been unable to purchase aircrafts from the West. Iran is enjoying the economic boom that came from the removal of sanctions from the US government as a result of the nuclear deal reached last year, and has shifted to a more internationally focused foreign policy plan. The purchase of just under 200 planes will help make air travel safer for Iranians, who have been forced to fly in aging and under-maintained planes. Some members of the US Congress oppose this deal and cite examples of Iranian commercial aircrafts being used to transport soldiers and guns into Syria as a reason the deal should not have been reached.

Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor for his role in hit TV series “Mr. Robot.” Malek beat out Kevin Spacey among other notable names. The second season of “Mr. Robot” is currently airing and the critically acclaimed series has been a springboard for Malek’s career. “I am honored to be recognized with such a distinguished and accomplished group of actors,” Malek said tonight. “I’m honored to stand here and represent my family… I’m honored to work with a pure visionary in (Mr. Robot creator) Sam Esmail.”

Despite a low turnout, women and Islamists made gains in Jordan’s parliamentary elections. Women increased their political representation by taking 20 out of the 130 seats of parliament. Jordan reduced the ranks of parliament this election to 130 from 150 previously, of which only 18 had been women. Tuesday’s vote featured 252 female candidates, the highest number in Jordan’s history, with 15 seats reserved for women. Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood also gained a foothold in parliament after ending a decade-long boycott and returning to the fray. As Jordan’s largest organized political grouping, the Islamic group had shunned previous elections in protest at a system that skews representation toward thinly populated rural areas dominated by tribal politics, rather than the cities, where the Brotherhood is stronger. Although Jordan has no ruling party, its government, appointed by King Abdullah, has for years faced little or no opposition from a parliament dominated by pro-government tribal leaders, businessmen and ex-security officials, often elected on promises to address local rather than national concerns. The national turnout for this election was low, at a mere 37 percent, and analysts agree that it would have been even lower if the Islamists had not taken part.

On Wednesday, President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met for what is likely to be their last time as leaders of Israel and the United States. For all the bitterness that has characterized their relationship, over issues from the Iran nuclear deal to the peace process, Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu were able to end things on a harmonious note after signing a 10-year $38 billion U.S.-Israeli aid deal. Both held it up as proof of the enduring, unbreakable bond between the two countries. Obama said the aid package would give Israel the ability to defend itself at a perilous time in the Middle East. Mr. Netanyahu said the security and intelligence cooperation between Israel and the United States was broader and deeper than most people understood, and he thanked Mr. Obama for his role in furthering that. Military cooperation has been a lone, steady bright spot in this otherwise rocky relationship.

The Week of September 12, 2016

Former Israeli President Shimon Peres suffered a stroke on 14 September. The 93-year-old politician is in intensive care near Tel Aviv, and his family reports he is responsive and awake. Peres is a key player in Israeli politics: he twice served as prime minister, and was elected president from 2007-2014. In 1994, Peres, along with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, won the Nobel Peace Prize for the reaching of the Oslo Accords. Peres has been hospitalized several times recently, most notably in January of this year for a minor heart attack.

State Department Spokesman Mark Toner acknowledges the ceasefire agreement reached by Russia and the US on Mondayhas not been perfect, but officials are remaining “optimistic” that it will bring much-needed humanitarian aid to besieged areas. The ceasefire represents a diplomatic achievement for the U.S. and Russia, who have never before negotiated a ceasefire on the grounds of providing humanitarian assistance. The ceasefire renews every 48 hours for 7 days so long as there are no major violations; after the initial week, Russian and US forces will coordinate a united attack on Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as al Nusra Front.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) made clear its concern over the U.S. Congress passing a bill that would allow the families of victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center to sue the Saudi government. Saudi Arabia is the most influential member of the GCC. The statement released by the organization stated its “profound worry” over the implications of the bill, saying it violates Saudi Arabia’s “sovereign immunity.” If the bill were passed into law, 9/11 survivors and victims’ families would be able to take up cases against the Saudi government in U.S. courts. If the Saudi government were to be linked to the attacks, the victims would be entitled to monetary compensation. President Obama has expressed his disapproval of the bill, and the White House has hinted it will veto the legislation.

President Obama signed a memorandum of understanding on 14 September that will provide Israel with “the single largest pledge of military assistance to any country in US history.” The memorandum pledges $38 billion in military aid to Israel over the span of 10 years, including $5 billion in missile defense funds. This agreement differs slightly from previous pledges to Israel in that more of the aid money must be spent on U.S. companies. Israel can’t use any of the U.S.-pledged money on fuel, meaning that more of the money will be spent on defense manufacturers in the U.S. Israel Defense Forces are skeptical of this pledge because of its implications for defense contractors within Israel. More money spent in the United States means less for Israel, and Israeli Defense officials worry about quality control and what is sure to be a big hit to the Israeli contractors.

The Week of September 5, 2016

Jordan kicked off its first-ever design week festival in Amman on 1 September. With nearly 100 participating workshops, exhibitions, speeches, and food showcases all over the city, the festival highlights the rapid urbanization and modernization Jordan has seen in recent years. One exhibition, made entirely of stacks of ripe watermelons that are a hallmark of a Jordanian summer, made a topographic map of the hills of Amman. Jordan is home to a tight-knit design community, brought together by the changing landscape of the Middle East. The designers hope to draw attention to the merging of a rich cultural history and modern daily life with pieces like a “heritage collection” jewelry exhibit.

Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage required of all able-bodied Muslims in their lifetime, began on the 9th of September. Problems have plagued this annual event in the past, including the deaths of over 2,100 pilgrims last year due to stampedes. The casualties surrounding hajj increased tensions between the already hostile countries of Iran and Saudi Arabia. This year, on September 5th, Ayatollah Khamenei released a statement alleging the Saudi government intentionally kills pilgrims. Saudi Arabia responded by saying that the leaders of Iran are “not Muslims.” The feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia stems from both countries’ claims that they practice the purest form of Islam–Saudi is a proponent for the conservative branch of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism, and Iran bases its leadership and laws around Shia Islam.

Obama nominated the country’s first Muslim-American federal judge on Wednesday. In a statement, he said that Abid Riaz Qureshi will “serve the American people with integrity and a steadfast commitment to justice.” Qureshi earned his degree from Harvard Law in 1997 and has since gone on to serve as the global chairman of the Pro Bono committee of Latham & Watkins LLP. Since 2015, he has served on the District of Columbia Bar Association’s legal ethics committee. An organization called Muslim Advocates hails Mr. Qureshi’s historic nomination, saying that his “profound commitment to the rule of law makes him an exceptional nominee.”

Relations between Rabat (Morocco) and Stockholm (Sweden) have been strained since 2015, when Sweden was considering the possibility of recognizing the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic declared by the pro-independence Polisario Front. After this, in September 2015, Morocco blocked a grand opening of the kingdom’s first IKEA store, saying it lacked a “conformity permit”, but local media later confirmed that the move was in retaliation for Stockholm’s position on the disputed territory. Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallström held talks with her Moroccan counterpart in Rabat this past Wednesday as a sign of eased tension after a year-long quarrel over the Western Sahara. These talks forecast a brighter future for Rabat-Stockholm relations.

Finally, in more art and design news, satellite TV giant, MBC will launch its latest reality show, “Project Runway Middle East”, on September 17th. The show consists of 15 contestants from across the Arab world competing with each other to create the best clothes. The catch? They are restricted in time, materials and theme. Their designs are judged by a panel consisting of two renowned Arab designers, as well as a third celebrity judge that will rotate weekly, with one or more designers being eliminated each week. Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab remarked at a recent party celebrating the launch, “Back in the day there were no classes or fashion schools in the region, and so with this program, I am keen to teach and open the doors for future generations in order for them not to experience the difficulties and challenges that I had.”

The Week of September 5, 2016

Jordan kicked off its first-ever design week festival in Amman on 1 September. With nearly 100 participating workshops, exhibitions, speeches, and food showcases all over the city, the festival highlights the rapid urbanization and modernization Jordan has seen in recent years. One exhibition, made entirely of stacks of ripe watermelons that are a hallmark of a Jordanian summer, made a topographic map of the hills of Amman. Jordan is home to a tight-knit design community, brought together by the changing landscape of the Middle East. The designers hope to draw attention to the merging of a rich cultural history and modern daily life with pieces like a “heritage collection” jewelry exhibit.

Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage required of all able-bodied Muslims in their lifetime, began on the 9th of September. Problems have plagued this annual event in the past, including the deaths of over 2,100 pilgrims last year due to stampedes. The casualties surrounding hajj increased tensions between the already hostile countries of Iran and Saudi Arabia. This year, on September 5th, Ayatollah Khamenei released a statement alleging the Saudi government intentionally kills pilgrims. Saudi Arabia responded by saying that the leaders of Iran are “not Muslims.” The feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia stems from both countries’ claims that they practice the purest form of Islam–Saudi is a proponent for the conservative branch of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism, and Iran bases its leadership and laws around Shia Islam.

Obama nominated the country’s first Muslim-American federal judge on Wednesday. In a statement, he said that Abid Riaz Qureshi will “serve the American people with integrity and a steadfast commitment to justice.” Qureshi earned his degree from Harvard Law in 1997 and has since gone on to serve as the global chairman of the Pro Bono committee of Latham & Watkins LLP. Since 2015, he has served on the District of Columbia Bar Association’s legal ethics committee. An organization called Muslim Advocates hails Mr. Qureshi’s historic nomination, saying that his “profound commitment to the rule of law makes him an exceptional nominee.”

Relations between Rabat (Morocco) and Stockholm (Sweden) have been strained since 2015, when Sweden was considering the possibility of recognizing the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic declared by the pro-independence Polisario Front. After this, in September 2015, Morocco blocked a grand opening of the kingdom’s first IKEA store, saying it lacked a “conformity permit”, but local media later confirmed that the move was in retaliation for Stockholm’s position on the disputed territory. Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallström held talks with her Moroccan counterpart in Rabat this past Wednesday as a sign of eased tension after a year-long quarrel over the Western Sahara. These talks forecast a brighter future for Rabat-Stockholm relations.

Finally, in more art and design news, satellite TV giant, MBC will launch its latest reality show, “Project Runway Middle East”, on September 17th. The show consists of 15 contestants from across the Arab world competing with each other to create the best clothes. The catch? They are restricted in time, materials and theme. Their designs are judged by a panel consisting of two renowned Arab designers, as well as a third celebrity judge that will rotate weekly, with one or more designers being eliminated each week. Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab remarked at a recent party celebrating the launch, “Back in the day there were no classes or fashion schools in the region, and so with this program, I am keen to teach and open the doors for future generations in order for them not to experience the difficulties and challenges that I had.”

The Week of August 29, 2016

A Russian airstrike killed prominent ISIS leader Abu Muhammad al-Adnani in the Syrian province of Aleppo on August 30. Adnani, who had a $5 million bounty on his head, was known for recruiting ISIS members and coordinating attacks all over the world. His death comes in a long line of defeats for the Islamic State, and represents a huge loss for ISIS’ propaganda and attack-planning branches. Now, self-declared leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the only well-known leader alive, and many experts say this could mean ISIS’ demise.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan issued a statement on September 1 banning all non-state media coverage of the royal family. Jordan, ranking in the bottom quarter of countries on the press freedom index, has recently been criticized for its curtails on the press’ commentary on controversial topics, namely the detainment of a Muslim scholar charged with “putting the security of the kingdom at risk.”

Women in Saudi Arabia are campaigning to end male guardianship, a system by which women have to obtain permission from their male relatives in order to travel, work, or make any other major decisions. A twitter hashtag in both Arabic and English, as well as support from Human Rights Watch, has helped the campaign go viral. Saudi women have used social media in the past to gain publicity for their movements, and they have had success: in the December 2015 elections, women were allowed to vote and run for positions for the first time.

The Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza are arresting, abusing, and criminally charging journalists and activists who express peaceful criticism of the authorities. Human Rights Watch documented five cases in which security forces arrested or questioned journalists and political activists. While representatives of the Hamas government in Gaza denied the allegations of physical abuse and told Human Rights Watch that security forces do not arrest people based on their opinions, but rather only if they break laws against defamation or incitement to violence, four of those arrested say that security forces physically abused or tortured those who criticized authorities. Directly violating obligations that Palestine recently assumed in ratifying international treaties protecting free speech, there were 192 documented incidents in 2015 in which Palestinian authorities infringed on journalists’ right to free expression through summoning and interrogation, arrests, physical assault, detention, and, in Gaza, forbidding journalists from reporting on certain issues or stories.

Iran has announced the completion of the first phase of its plan to operate a “national internet”. The state news agency IRNA said the initiative would offer “high quality, high speed” connections at “low costs”. The government says the goal is to create an isolated domestic intranet to promote Islamic content and raise digital awareness among the public. The first phase of the rollout involves providing access to e-government services and domestic web pages, while a second phase, due in February 2017, will add domestic video content, and a third phase, due in March 2017, will introduce further services and provide support for companies involved in international trade. While British human rights campaign group Article 19 warns that the National Internet Project may pave the way for further isolation as well as surveillance and information retention, local reports state that users’ privacy will be respected.

Yemen’s past is being erased one air strike at a time, as the country’s vibrant heritage and centuries-old architecture are among the victims of the Yemeni Civil War. Saudi bombers have not merely targeted civilians, but have struck time and again at the country’s thrilling architectural heritage, inflicting untold destruction. The trail of destruction encompasses ancient cities, museums, mosques, palaces and ancient archaeological strikes. The Saudi-led coalition seems to be targeting Yemeni heritage, and the loss to the world of parts of Yemen’s priceless architectural heritage are just one part of the developing calamity facing this tragic, but beautiful, country.

The Week of August 22, 2016

The prestigious American University of Afghanistan in Kabul was attacked by militants who bombed and stormed the campus on August 25th, leaving 16 people dead and 53 wounded. The attack on the country’s most modern university, established and run by Americans, is bound to cast doubt on its future viability here, especially coming so soon after the kidnapping of two foreign professors on August 7th, which prompted the school to cease operating for several days.

The ongoing conflicts in the Middle East have led to marked decreases in life expectancy in several Arab countries. Most dramatically affected is Syria, where the average life expectancy for men dropped from 75 to 69 between 2010 and 2013; for Syrian women, that figure went from 80 to 75 in the same period. The upheaval of the Arab Spring era resulted in political instability, damaged infrastructure, massive migration, and disruptions to essential services and supplies. Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt — all sites of regime change or collapse — also lost around three months in life expectancy.

Swimwear has become an international topic of debate as authorities in several French cities have instituted bans on full-body bathing suits worn by Muslim women observing certain Islamic codes of modesty. Women wearing the outfit, sometimes referred to as a “burkini” (a reference to the Afghan burqa), have been fined for violating the French tradition of secularism. After international outcry, France’s top court made a ruling suspending the ban, which many mayors have pledged to ignore arguing that Muslims should adopt the French way of life. Critics claim the ban is a form of oppression against women’s freedoms of choice.

The last 15 residents of a privately owned zoo in Gaza, Palestine, have been relocated to sanctuaries in Jordan and South Africa by an international rescue group. The menagerie, which included a tiger, several monkeys, and a pelican, was originally home to about 200 animals but economic hardship and ongoing battles between Israeli Defense Forces and Palestinian militias had left the zoo in deplorable conditions. The proprietor had stuffed 15 of the animals that died, including a lion and a chimpanzee, and put them on display in what Gaza residents called the “Jungle of the South”.

The Week of August 15, 2016

Citing risks to national security, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has rejected calls by aid agencies to restore access to a border area where tens of thousands of Syrians are stranded. Earlier this month Jordan allowed a delivery of desperately needed food and hygiene supplies after an appeal by the United Nations. Jordan declared the area around the Rukban border crossing a “closed military zone” in June, after a suicide bombing claimed by ISIS killed seven soldiers near a makeshift desert camp where more than 100,000 Syrians are stuck. In comments published by the semi-governmental Addustour newspaper on Monday, the king cited fears of “extremist elements” among those stranded, many of whom come from areas controlled by IS.

On August 15th, 15 prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention center were sent to the United Arab Emirates in the single largest release of detainees during the Obama administration. The transfer of 12 Yemeni nationals and three Afghans to the UAE comes amid a renewed push to whittle down the number of detainees held at the U.S. prison in Cuba that President Barack Obama aims to close.

Partial remains of the Middle East’s oldest human were found in Saudi Arabia. The middle section of a middle finger was found in the Tayma governorate in the Tabuk region of Saudi Arabia’s northeast. Scientists have put the age of the bone at 90,000 years old.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI delivered a historic televised speech that included an unequivocal condemnation of terrorism committed in the name of Islam movements on Sunday, August 22nd. On the occasion of the 63rd anniversary of Morocco’s independence, he spoke specifically to the Moroccan diaspora, members of which have been found responsible for attacks in Europe and elsewhere, demanding they reject Islamist extremism. The moderate monarch rejected links between terrorist attacks and legitimate Islam: “Naturally, I strongly condemn the killing of innocent people. Killing a priest is forbidden by religion; murdering him inside a church is unforgivable madness, for he is a human being and a religious man – even if he is not a Muslim. Islam commands us to take good care of the people of the Book [Jews and Christians]. Those who engage in terrorism, in the name of Islam, are not Muslims. Their only link to Islam is the pretexts they use to justify their crimes and their folly.”

The Week of August 8, 2016

Athletes from the Middle East were in the spotlight at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio this week, garnering both applause and consternation. Female Arab athletes made history when Tunisian fencer, Ines Boubakri, right, became the first African woman to medal in fencing, while Egyptian Sara Ahmed became the first Arab woman to win a medal in weightlifting, and the first Egyptian woman, ever, to reach the winners’ podium. Boubakri dedicated her bronze medal to “the Tunisian woman, the Arab woman … who has her place in society”. On the other hand, historic grievances were reignited when the Israeli and Lebanese Olympics teams became involved in an unfortunate incident about access to a bus to the opening ceremony. Both sides acknowledged that Israeli athletes were blocked by the head of the Lebanese delegation from boarding a bus packed with the Lebanon team on Friday but they are at odds over the reasons for his actions. It is a decade since Israel was embroiled in a month-long war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon that killed about 1,200 Lebanese, including hundreds of civilians, and about 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers. The border between the two countries has been largely quiet since then but an adversarial relationship persists.

As battles wage on between Syrian military forces and rebel groups for control of the northern city of Aleppo, routes used to deliver food and aid supplies have been cut off, leaving residents without resources, vulnerable to attack, and completely inaccessible. The city was without running water for several days, a situation only compounded by consecutive days of sweltering heat with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The eastern, rebel-held part of the city, with 275,000 residents, has faced particularly extreme hardship. Positive news came from the city of Manbij, northeast of Aleppo, however, which was liberated after two years of Islamic State control by rebel forces on August 12th. According to photos taken by Reuters journalist Rodi Said, residents reacted emotionally to their liberation: men cut off their beards and one woman was photographed as she smoked a cigarette. Both activities had been prohibited under Islamic State rule.

The Saudi Arabian-led campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen received international condemnation after airstrikes hit two schools in the north of the country Saturday killing at least 14 children. Saudi Arabia claimed it was targeting militia training camps and that Houthi recruitment of kids in the conflict was to blame for the fatalities. Victims ranged from 6 years of age. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon condemned the attack Monday and called for a swift investigation. Children have made up a disproportionate number of fatalities in the controversial campaign that began in March 2015.

Reports concerning the discovery of the skeleton of a 7,500-year-old man found almost intact in Iran have been translated. A team dispatched by the National Institute for Conservation and Restoration of Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization has been working on the recovery of the skeleton which was located 6 meters before the surface of the earth, and its subsequent transfer to a museum for further research and fortification, after which it will be on display to the public. The man was found buried squatting and probably facing the sun, with a turtle shell and a heater; according to excavators, the heater was supplied because people at the time believed that life continues after death.

Egyptian Christians and their supporters staged a rare protest in Cairo on August 13, demanding greater rights and protection. Interfaith disputes are common in the countryside. Most often they arise over mixed-faith love affairs or the building of churches. Many confrontations result in violence perpetrated against Christians or their property, and are resolved by extra-judicial councils of local elders that favor the Muslim side. Lawmakers say that parliament is currently drafting a new law to criminalize actions that undermine national unity such as religious-based discrimination and violence, as well as a law that eases regulations over the construction of churches, which are severely restricted.

Photos of French-born Algerian popular Rai singer, Cheb Faudel, bowing to a portrait of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI at a festival on August 6th have allegedly stirred controversy in Algeria. During a press conference, prior to his performance, Faudel had expressed his pride in being a Moroccan citizen holding up his Moroccan ID card to show the audience that he now has Moroccan nationality. He had also praised the monarch, saying “Our King Mohammed VI, May God bless him and prolong his life – he granted me many things – he is the King of Africa.” Algeria and Morocco have been at odds for decades offer the territory of the Western Sahara, to which Morocco has laid claim. The countries’ borders have been closed since 1994.

The Week of July 25, 2016

Thousands of Indian nationals are stranded in Saudi Arabia after losing their blue collar jobs due to decreases in oil prices and cuts in development projects. Construction firms in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which employ a large number of cheap foreign laborers, have been badly affected as governments cut back spending on infrastructure projects. Lacking funds and necessary exit visas, the migrant workers have been dependent upon fellow compatriots and embassies or consulates in Saudi Arabia for food.

A 23-year-old student activist in Tunisia and founding member of a movement called Manich Msamah (“I will not forgive” in Arabic) has been plastering “wanted” posters in public places across the country in response to a bill being debated and voted on in parliament. If adopted, the bill would grant amnesty to corrupt businessmen and public officials under investigation for acts related to financial corruption and misuse of public funds, in exchange for repayment of the embezzled money. The posters feature members of the regime of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who led the country for 23 years before fleeing it in 2011. Ben Ali was the first leader ousted in what became known as the Arab Spring uprisings. Sana Shili says the bill betrays the ideals of the revolution while the president and supporters of the bill say it would allow for the recovery of lost state assets that could be reinvested in the economy.

The Week of July 18, 2016

UNESCO has named Iraqi marshlands once ravaged by dictator Saddam Hussein as a world heritage site, a bright spot for a country where jihadists have repeatedly sought to wipe out history. Iraq has been seeking world heritage status for the marshes since 2003, and its government hailed the move. The marshlands once stretched across some 7,700 square miles, but they were devastated after Saddam ordered them drained in the 1990s to stop them being used as hideouts by Shia guerrillas opposed to his regime.

Morocco has sent a representative to the African Union (a supranational organization that facilitates intercontinental unity) in order to petition for membership. Morocco left the Union 32 years ago after the African Union recognized the Western Sahara as an independent state, making Morocco the only African country not to take part in the African Union. Morocco has stated that it wants to join the African Union “without any preconditions,” though the African Union has reiterated that it is firm in its commitment to Western Sahara’s sovereignty. This moves comes in the same week that Morocco allowed UN Peacekeepers to return to the Western Sahara.

The Week of July 11, 2016

Turkish President Erdogan’s government survived a botched coup attempt last June 15. In what was a confusing unfolding of events, a faction within the army attempted to overthrow the government in Ankara. They took control of state media; bombed the parliament with tanks, helicopters and jets; bombed the police headquarters; and took the head of the army hostage. In response, Erdogan addressed his supporters via Facetime on CNN Turk, calling on them to flood the streets in resistance to the coup. Tens of thousands protested against the coup, halting the coup’s momentum and allowing Erdogan to return to Ankara. 290 people were killed in the coup attempt. Nearly 20,000 members of the police, civil service, judiciary and army have been detained or suspended since Friday for alleged complicity in the coup, prompting international and domestic concern over opportunism from Erdogan to consolidate power further. Besides targeting soldiers and judges, Erdogan has accused former ally Fethullah Gulen of masterminding the coup. Gulen has lived in Pennsylvania for the past 15 years in self-imposed exile and firmly denies any involvement. The U.S. is investigating any ties Gulen might have had with the attempted coup in response to a Turkish extradition request of Gulen.

Lebanon’s parliament failed to elect a president last week, marking the 42nd time it has done so since President Sleiman ended his term in May 2014. While the Lebanese parliament is directly elected, the president is chosen by the parliament. However, in order to hold a vote, 2/3 of members must be present. Only 37 of the 128 members showed up for this vote. Much of the gridlock has been attributed to what could be described as a confrontation between pro-Saudi and pro-Hezbollah leadership, as well as the complex confessional system that attempts to balance the competing religious interests. The president of Lebanon must be a Maronite Christian. As it stands, the two most likely candidates are Michel Aoun and Sleiman Frangieh, both of whom are pro-Hezbollah.

A Russian airstrike hit the northeastern border of Jordan, falling directly on a Syrian refugee camp and killing 12 and injuring many more. The strike’s proximity to the Jordanian border was a first, and does fall outside the scope of Russia’s commitment to aiding the regime in “fighting terrorism,” but fits with the pattern of Russian targeting of any Syrian opposition. The amount of refugees clustered on Jordan’s border closed after an ISIS suicide bombing last month.

The Week of July 4

On July 4ththree suicide bombings rocked Saudi Arabia. The bombings occurred in Medina near the Prophet’s Mosque (one of the holiest sites in Islam), the Northern city of Qatif, and near a U.S. Consulate in Jeddah. The only casualties were in Medina where four security guards were killed approaching the bomber. Seven other security personnel were injured in the bombings, but none of the attacks were considered successful. The attacks are suspected to have been coordinated by ISIS, though no group has officially claimed responsibility.

Several mosques across London were sent envelopes full of “suspicious white powder,” drawings of crossed out mosques and profanity. The mosques were immediately closed for the day and security services examined the powder, which later turned out to just be chalk. Some security officials suspect that this incident was used as a dry run for a real attack and called for wariness. Islamophobia is on the rise in Britain, as anti-Muslim hate crimes rose over 326 percent in 2015.

Jordan has agreed to increase the number of work permits to Syrian refugees in Jordan in exchange for an influx of international aid. As it stands, most Syrians are unable to work in Jordan because of its restrictive work-permit system. This has led to difficulties within refugee communities as they struggle to make ends meet, pushing many to the unregulated informal sector. As a solution, Jordan has pledged up to 50,000 work permits to the refugees. Many Jordanians are concerned that Syrian refugees would either push down wages or increase competition for already scarce jobs. Government officials responded by insisting that Syrian refugees would not be paid below the monthly minimum wage and pointed out that most Syrians would take jobs in sectors that Jordanians typically don’t (like construction). The prospect of huge infusions of cash could do much for Jordan’s flagging economy.

World-renowned Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, died on July 5th at age 76 in Paris. He had produced over 40 films and had won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Palme D’Or, for his movie Taste of Cherry, which follows a man trying to find someone to bury him after his planned suicide. His filmography was not only recognized in Iran, but across the world, with Martin Scorsese saying he was: “A very special human being: quiet, elegant, modest, articulate, and quite observant. (…) truly one of our great artists.”

The Week of June 27, 2016:

The worst terror attack since 2007 struck Baghdad last week. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, which left over 200 dead and 225 wounded. The suicide bomb’s blast was massive, gutting a mall and engulfing the entire area in flames. The bombing comes right at the end of Eid, the end of the holy month of Ramadan, which only seemed to have strengthened ISIS’ resolve to commit violent acts. Many in Iraq have called for Prime Minister Abadi’s resignation in the wake of the attack.

Israel and Turkey repaired relations in a mutual agreement finalized on June 27th, after a six year diplomatic freeze following the 2010 Gaza Flotilla raid. The Flotilla raid was an incident in which Turkish activists attempted to breach the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip in order to bring aid and food to the population there. Israeli commandoes boarded the ships and in the ensuing violence ten Turkish activists were killed. Israel has apologized for the incident and payed Turkey $20 million in compensation. Restored relations between Israel and Turkey could be a bigger part of a larger charm offensive that Turkey is embarking on as Erdogan’s authoritarianism and actions in Syria isolate Turkey.

Turkey suffered bombings Wednesday at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, leaving 45 people and hundreds dead. ISIS was behind the attacks and has since followed the Istanbul bombings with attacks in Bangladesh, Baghdad, and Saudi Arabia as part of a run up to Eid al-Fitr (the festivities signaling the end of Ramadan). Turkey has arrested 17 suspects since and have identified the three suicide bombers responsible as from Central Asia and the Northern Caucasus region of Russia. This attack comes amidst a worsening security relationship in Turkey, badly impacting its tourism sector and providing fuel for President Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism.

The world’s oldest library reopened after being closed for repairs since 2012. The library is located in Fez, Morocco, as part of a university and was founded in the 9th century by a woman named Fatima El-Fihriya. Originally a mosque, the site grew into a center for learning over the years, eventually turning into al-Qarawiyyin University. Today the library still houses ancient texts dating back to the 7th century, ranging from subjects like law to astronomy. True to its roots, the library repairs were done by a female architect, Aziza Chaouni.

Morocco has banned the use, import, creation and distribution of plastic bags within the country, in a move to clean up the country’s natural landscape. Morocco is the world’s second largest consumer of plastic bags and has long-faced environmental pollution because of the resulting waste. Though the ban is officially on the books, many local groups say that consumer habits will make implementation slow-going. This ban takes place in the context of a larger effort to go green, which has included the creation of the world’s largest solar power farm in the world earlier this year.

The Week of June 20, 2016: 

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for car bomb attacks that killed seven members of the Jordanian security forces and wounded 13 others on June 21st at a border crossing that contains two sprawling refugee camps currently hosting 65,000 Syrian migrants. Following the attacks Jordan sealed its last entry point for Syrian refugees as the pro-Western kingdom’s faces growing vulnerability from the conflict next door.

In a rare display of rebellion against the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, a Cairo court voted to annul his decision to transfer sovereignty of two islands to Saudi Arabia. In April, Sisi previously awarded the two islands to Saudi Arabia in a highly controversial deal during a visit to Egypt by King Salman, which also coincided with the signing of oil deals and development packages from the Gulf kingdom. Sisi’s announcement of the deal led to widespread protests and subsequent arrests and prison sentences.

Opponents call new legislation “dangerous” and “anti-Arab”, citing attack on civil liberties due to increase in the range of punishable offences to include sympathizing with, encouraging and failing to prevent terrorism. According to legal experts, it gives Israeli police sweeping new powers to arrest suspects and deny them access to lawyers. Courts will be required to hand out long jail sentences. The law will be applied in Israel and occupied Jerusalem.

In Algeria, the government blocked access to Twitter and Facebook after allegations that students’ baccalaureate test questions were leaked to the popular social media platforms. More than 550,000 Algerian students will have to retake their exams, according to news reports.

Bahrain has stripped its most prominent Shia cleric, Isa Qassim, of citizenship this week, following last week’s disbanding of the opposition Wefaq party. Wefaq was banned for “undermining the national security of the country.” Bahrain asserts that Qassim was calling for allegiance to the clergy and the establishment of a theocracy. Though Bahrain is Sunni ruled, its population is majority Shia, a reality that has led to ongoing political tension and that was a primary impetus for the 2011 Arab Spring protest movement.

On June 26, it was reported that CIA supplied arms had been stolen en masse by Jordanian intelligence operatives and sold on the black market. This came after a shooting of five in Amman, two of which were Americans, was discovered to have been done with American supplied arms. The weapons were supplied by the CIA and were to be funneled through Jordan to U.S.-backed Syrian opposition forces, like the Syrian Democratic Forces. Not to be mistaken with the disastrous Pentagon-run training program of Syrians meant to fight ISIS, the CIA program has trained thousands to fight against Assad forces (though the exact details of the program are classified).

The Week of June 13, 2016: 

Last week, a State Department memo signed by 51 officials calling for “judicious use of standoff and air weapons” against the Assad Regime became public. The criticism of the Obama administration’s policy on Syria echoed with Democrats and Republicans alike and reflected a greater frustration with U.S. inaction in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry, who in the past has advocated for military action in Syria, reacted quite stoically saying, “it’s [the memo] is an important statement,” perhaps signaling his private approval of the memo’s message.

The answers to Egypt’s national public exams leaked on Facebook this week, well before the testing date. The test is taken by 570,000 students in Egypt to determine placement into national universities. The leak drew widespread criticism of the Egyptian government and the perceived corruption of the Sisi regime. As one well-publicized Facebook said, “The regime can’t protect a couple of papers. Excuse me, but how are they supposed to protect a country?” The government has arrested an 18-year-old for the leak, but many are doubtful that he is the true perpetrator. 

Israel approved twenty million dollars in new funding for settlements in the West Bank, reportedly to construct hotels and boost tourism to the areas. This funding adds to already-existing funding for the settlements and is illustrative of the far-right orientation of Israel’s government. Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law and draw much criticism of Israel by the rest of the world. For its part, the Obama administration calls settlement construction, illegitimate.” 

Testing is beginning on the flight recorder of EgyptAir MS804, the flight that crashed in the Mediterranean in May. Though officials still don’t know the cause of the crash, many Egyptian officials have publicly stated their suspicions of it being a terror attack. Testing may take several weeks to complete. 

The Week of May 30, 2016: 

Diplomats and international monitors have begun to worry that Israel’s settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is becoming irreversible. Foreign ministers from 20 countries meet in Paris this week to discuss the revival of Middle East peace efforts. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel voiced support for the Saudi peace plan that would grant Israel recognition if they withdrew their settlements, but many fear that even if this agreement were reached, the settlements have stretched too far for too long to be drawn back now.

A combination of Sunni police forces, Iran-backed Shiite militias and U.S.-allied Iraqi army forces are closing in on the city of Fallujah, which has been under the control of ISIS for two years now. A true offensive has yet to launch, while the different forces weigh how to extricate the 50,000 Iraqi civilians trapped in the city. In the meantime, ISIS attacks the Iraqi forces daily with snipers, booby-trapped houses, and road-side bombs.

As food prices skyrocket in Damascus before the holy month of Ramadan, Syrians have flocked to social media to express their outrage. A video clip of peaceful scenes at a food market in Syria’s capital went viral after users zoomed in on the food prices and saw that some items were five times more expensive than last year. Under a picture of the price of lemons, one user commented, “A kilo of lemons for 1000 Syrian pounds? Did you pick them from the White House garden?” Meanwhile, Syrians in other parts of the country face starvation because of government-backed sieges.

The Palestinian National Museum opened this month in Ramallah, the culmination of almost two decades in planning. The museum is exquisitely built- however, it does have one key element missing: exhibits. The museum itself is empty; the planned exhibit on Palestine’s refugee history stalled when the museum director resigned last month. Museum officials argue that Israel’s border controls made museum construction and imports difficult. Regardless of the cause, the empty museum seems to provide an apt analogy for the people without a state.

The Week of May 23, 2016: 

MasarUP, The Arab Entrepreneurship Company, held its founding meeting in Haifa, Israel on Sunday. The company’s goal is to promote start-ups amongst the Arab population in Israel. MasarUP will help facilitate start-ups through networking and consultation. A study by New Wave Research showed that, among the 500 Arabs surveyed, only 20% know someone who works in high-tech or entrepreneurship.

An EgyptAir jet plane was downed over the Mediterranean Sea on its way from Paris to Cairo. All 66 people on board were killed. A French naval vessel is currently exploring the crash site to see if any information can be gleaned from the black boxes of the downed airline. Although no evidence of foul play has arisen, Egyptian officials cited terrorism as a possible cause.

Dystopian fiction has become the latest subject matter for Middle Eastern writers trying to cope with and frame the aftermath of the failed Arab Spring revolutions. Authors in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere are writing novels centered around an apocalyptic post-revolutionary society that has to deal with the crushing forces of authoritarianism. This is a dramatic shift away from poetry, which has long been the region’s most popular literary medium.

The Week of May 16, 2016: 

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie Pitt warned on BBC News World on the Move Day that the current refugee system is breaking down. She specifically highlighted Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan as countries at the center of the refugee crisis that need greater international aid. Other speakers at BBC News World on the Move Day will address forced migration and the effect it is having on the global community. 

The Turkish army and U.S.-led coalition forces attacked Islamic State fighters in northern Syria on Sunday using artillery strikes. Twenty-seven militants were killed and seven were detained, including an ISIS executioner. 

Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. and other world powers are willing to provide arms to the UN-backed Libyan unity government to fight against the Islamic State. ISIS has established a stronghold on the northern coast of Libya, and Western powers fear that ISIS will continue to expand its territorial gains if left unchallenged. 

The Week of May 9, 2016:  

Gaza held its second annual Red Carpet Human Rights Film Festival over the weekend. It featured “The Idol”, a film about the Arab Idol winner who was forbidden from entering the contest by Hamas because his music was un-Islamic. Perhaps ironically, Hamas forces forbade the winner, Mohammed Assaf, from attending the festival, ordered that the lights be kept on to avoid any “hanky-panky” in the seats, and edited the films to remove any profanity or kissing.

A solar panel project in the West Bank is the first of its kind to be financed by a group consisting of both Jews and Muslims in the United States, and to have Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews on its technical team. The solar panels provide farmers in the area with a reliable and affordable source of energy. A caveat for the project was that the community and donor organizations be free of any connection to the Israeli settlements scattered across the West Bank.

The Afghan government is expected to finalize a peace deal with notorious militant insurgent group Hezb-i-Islami within days, according to a representative of the group whose leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is designated a global terrorist by the United States. The deal is largely symbolic as the group has been inactive for years but Afghan officials have said a peace agreement with Hezb-i-Islami could encourage Taliban fighters to come to the negotiating table as well.

The Week of May 2, 2016:  

An American serviceman was killed on Tuesday in Iraq in an attack by the Islamic State. The attack occurred only two or three miles from Mosul; the front line between Iraqi forces and ISIS. This symbolizes how U.S. forces have grown, not only in size, but in proximity to the fighting in the last two years. What started out as a contingency of 275 “advisers” has increased to 4,087 military personnel on the ground.

Hundreds of protesters stormed the Parliament building in Baghdad in the restricted-access Green Zone on Saturday, but quickly dispersed on Sunday. This protest by loyalists of the popular Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was seen largely as political theater. The ease with which the protesters broke into the building, the lack of property damage and violence, and the speed with which they vacated indicate that the protest was probably condoned by the Iraqi government.

New York Times journalist Declan Walsh is providing exclusive on-the-ground reporting in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Although Damascus has been spared the worst of the violence, he describes a city whose residents have been touched in every way by the six-year-long civil war.

The U.N. envoy for Syria met on Tuesday with Russia’s foreign minister to discuss restoring the cease-fire that was brokered in February. This cease-fire has largely collapsed after government air raids on a hospital and health clinics in Aleppo last week. The United States hopes that Russia will play a crucial role in pressuring the Assad regime to de-escalate the violence. 

After a photo went viral of a five-year-old Afghan boy playing soccer in an improvised Lionel Messi jersey made from a plastic bag, the international star sent Murtaza Ahmadi a signed jersey bringing his family unwanted attention. The family began receiving threats from local gangs and tribes who believed they might have made lots of cash amid the boy’s international popularity. As a result, the family has been forced to flee to neighboring Pakistan. In this region of central Afghanistan, security is fragile and kidnappings are common.

Ali al-Naimi, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister for the past two decades, was ousted last week in a move by King Salman to modernize the Saudi economy and cut dependence on oil. Saudi Arabia’s reliance on oil has become fraught with uncertainty as global oil prices plummeted in recent months. The appointment of a new oil minister, Khalid al Falih, is intended as a step towards diversifying the economy and transforming the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco into an industrial conglomerate.

The Week of April 25, 2016: 

The United States plans to send 250 more military and Special Forces operatives to Syria, raising the total number of U.S. military personnel there to 300. President Obama stated that they would not be leading the fight, but would provide training and assistance to local forces to further push back the Islamic State.

An agreement between the European Union and Turkey has majorly restricted the migration of Syrian refugees into Europe. Now, Syrians who find themselves unable to move beyond southern Turkey face increased hardships such as poverty, detentions and deportations. In exchange for restricting the passage of refugees to Greece, Turkey receives billions of dollars and incentives, including renewed talks of joining the EU and relaxed visa requirements for its citizens traveling to Europe.

Women’s sports programs in Afghanistan have all but collapsed, due to corruption and a withdrawal of funding from Western donors. The American government is one of the main sponsors of women’s sports in Afghanistan, and they have recently cut large swaths of funding. Corruption charges are also commonplace as conservative Afghans rebel against the idea of women playing sports in general.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia announced an economic plan for the kingdom on Monday that aspires to reduce its dependence on oil, stimulate the private sector and reduce government subsidies. This plan comes as a reaction to falling global oil prices and a youthful Saudi population that will add pressure to the job market in the coming years.

Twenty-eight previously classified pages of the 9/11 intelligence report could be declassified in June. This comes amidst speculation that Saudi Arabia backed the men who hijacked the airplanes that flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Seventeen women were elected to parliament in Iran’s run-off elections on Friday. This is the largest number of women to serve in parliament since the 1979 revolution. Only 16 hardline clerics were elected, which means the new parliament will include more women than religious leaders.

The Week of April 18, 2016: 

Radio Alwan, broadcasting in secret from Istanbul, has created a radio soap-opera meant to reach listeners in war-torn Syria. It’s a love story between a man and a widow who lost her son to ISIS gunmen. Meant to relay deeper messages about love, loss and the destruction of one’s homeland, the radio broadcasts in secret since it portrays unfiltered messages and news about the Syrian conflict.

The new U.N.-backed Prime Minister of Libya, Fayez Seraj, has begun moving his unity government into Tripoli in the hopes of restoring peace and security to a country in chaos. Both Western allies and the Libyan people are eager to put an end to the violence that has engulphed Libya since Muammar Gaddafi was removed from power during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the United States would send 200 more troops to Iraq to assist Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIS. The new U.S. troops will consist of advisers, trainers, aviation support crew, and security forces, who will hope to build on recent successes by the Iraqi Army in winning back ISIS-controlled territory.

Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif plans to sign an ambitious commitment to cut carbon emissions at the UN climate meeting in New York on Friday. Many Iranians view this move with skepticism as Iran attempts to boost its economy following the relief of sanctions due to the nuclear deal. The fossil fuel industry is a large money-making sector of the Iranian economy, and cutting carbon emissions could depress this sector, further harming the economy.

Monday’s peace talks, supposed to end the Yemeni civil war, failed before they could begin today, when the delegates for the Houthi rebels refused to attend. The UN special envoy for the conflict, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, said the talks were merely “delayed” and scolded the Houthis for failing to show up. Meanwhile, both the Houthis and the ousted Yemeni government reported infractions on the truce, mostly airstrikes in the eastern provinces, and massive secessionist rallies in the southern city of Aden took place.

The Week of April 11, 2016: 

During Thursday’s Democratic debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Senator Sanders championed the Palestinian cause by saying that they deserve peace and respect, and that “there comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time.” This was a departure from typical campaign-trail speech which tends to laud the United States’ unrelenting support for Israel and its policies.

In response to the recently resumed talks in Geneva over the future of Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Israel will never relinquish the occupied Golan Heights territory to Syria. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war, although this move has never been sanctioned by the international community. This is an attempt by Netanyahu to lay the groundwork for Israeli policy concerning the future of a Syrian state that has been wracked with civil war for five years.

President Obama travels to Saudi Arabia this week during a time of rising tensions between the two long-time strategic allies. Disagreement over the Iran nuclear deal, the civil war in Yemen, and the fight against ISIS culminated in a scathing interview given by Obama to the Atlantic, in which he described the Saudi allies as “free riders”. It remains to be seen whether this meeting with smooth over tensions or further exacerbate them.

The Week of March 28, 2016: 

Saudi Arabia and Yemen have swapped prisoners as a gesture of good faith by both Iran-backed Houthi rebels and Saudi forces seek an eventual conclusion to the crippling, year-long civil war. The New York Times writes, “The main combatants have agreed to a cease-fire starting April 10, and the United Nations plans to revive peace talks a week later. Saudi Arabia is said to be looking for a way out of the war, but whether Saudi leaders and the Houthis can agree on a political solution remains a big question.” The conflict has resulted in over 6,000 deaths.

Greece braces for turmoil as the agreement to return its migrants to Turkey goes into effect beginning April 4, 2016. Some 750 people are to be sent back to Turkey in the initial transfer, but Greek official says majority of EU personnel to oversee operation have not arrived. The highly contested agreement allows Greece, overwhelmed by the refugee crisis, to deport migrants who are denied asylum status back to Turkey; in exchange, for each migrant it absorbs, the EU countries will absorb one of Turkey’s. The United Nations opposes the deal.

A Turkish news agency run entirely by women prioritizes gender equality and press freedom in an embattled region where neither is guaranteed. The Jin News Agency (JINHA) is completely staffed by women, offering news coverage of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria in English, Turkish, and Kurdish languages (“Jin” means “woman” in Kurdish). The agency highlights women’s voices and focuses on the particular effects of conflict and events on women.  

A suicide attack in Lahore, Pakistan killed 69 people and wounded 341 on Sunday. A faction of the Pakistani Taliban claimed credit for the attack, saying that it was targeted against Pakistani Christians who were celebrating Easter in the park, although the majority of people killed were Muslims.

On Thursday, April 1, renowned architect Zaha Hadid passed away at the age of 65. The Iraqi-born, British designer is recognized for her application of hypermodernism, using sweeping and dynamic lines, as exemplified by the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre in Baku, Azerbaijan (photo). Foreign Policy said of Hadid, “Her lavish futurism afforded the Middle East an image of itself wholly divorced from its problematic past and present, while the deep pockets of the area’s builders gave Hadid the lifting power to realize her outsized ambitions. She became, for good and ill, a one-woman cultural conduit, an ambassador of contemporary architecture to the region.”

After Syrian forces reclaimed Palmyra from the Islamic State last week, a mass grave was discovered containing the bodies of 42 civilians and soldiers executed by the IS.  IS is believed to be responsible for the murder of at least 400 people in Palmyra in May 2015. The ancient Syrian city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been devastated by the extremist network.

The Week of March 21, 2016: 

Yemenite Jews, a dwindling minority in the troubled country, have been accepting offers of resettlement and citizenship in Israel. The departure of the Arabic-speaking Jewish community, due to conflict as well as increasing isolation, will leave a gap in Yemen’s cultural landscape. The diplomatic arrangements were made secretly to avoid fueling sectarian tensions. CNN reports, “Yemen’s Jewish population dates back some 2,300 years, according to some estimates, with most Yemenite Jews living in Sana’a, the ancient capital of Yemen. For centuries, Jews in Yemen lived amongst a Muslim population, maintaining a devout lifestyle. Most of Yemen’s Jewish population fled after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. In Operation Magic Carpet, Israel airlifted about 50,000 Yemenite Jews from Aden to Israel once the Imam of Yemen allowed Jews to leave.” There are approximately 50 Jews left in Yemen. 

A refugee camp in Jordan, housing over 80,000 Syrian refugees, has become a technological hotbed. Faced with sordid living conditions, some of the camp’s inhabitants have been working on various technological inventions to make day-to-day life easier. One man constructed an electric bicycle to help the disabled travel on their own. A start-up in Amman, Jordan recruited refugees to work on a 3D printing project which makes affordable prosthetic limbs for refugees who have suffered amputations as a result of the war in Syria.

The fall in global oil prices has forced oil-rich Kuwait to reevaluate its lavish spending and luxurious way of life that its citizens are accustomed to. Oil revenues in the past allowed the Kuwaiti government to provide its citizens with interest-free housing loans, free education and healthcare, and food and fuel subsidies. Now Kuwait and the other Gulf countries are forced to confront a reality where these benefits are no longer sustainable.

Terrorist attacks in Brussels killed dozens on Tuesday, with two explosions in the main international airport and another in a subway station. These attacks come on the heels of the terrorist attacks in Paris, which raised fears that other areas of Europe would be targeted by ISIS and other radical groups. The city is in the highest state of emergency as all transit and mobility are shut down until the terror threat passes.

President Netanyahu of Israel addressed AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group in the U.S., on Tuesday and urged the United States to reject any U.N. Security Council move to back the Palestinian plea for statehood. After many stymied attempts to coordinate a two state solution between the Palestinian government and Israel, Palestine has turned to the U.N. to seek recognition. Vice President Biden responded harshly, saying that Israel’s continuation of settlement building on Palestinian territory harmed efforts towards a resolution.

The Middle East news channel Al Jazeera announced that it would be cutting 500 jobs worldwide and that most of the layoffs would be in Qatar, where the news network is based. This follows a similar trend to the worldwide media industry, which is also curbing its workforce in the face of a changing media landscape.

The Syrian army recaptured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra from ISIS, which had occupied the city for almost a year. This was an important strategic victory for the Syrian army, who has steadily recaptured territory seized by ISIS. It was also a victory for President Bashar Al Assad, who has continually said that he stands as the bulwark against ISIS and the greater Middle East. The photo at left shows the ruins in prior to their destruction by ISIS.

The Week of March 14, 2016: 

The U.N. condemned Saudi-led airstrikes against civilian inhabited areas in Yemen, including a recent attack on a public marketplace that killed 106 people, including 24 children. The Saudis are backing the current government against the Houthi rebel fighters who are loyal to the former Yemeni government. Saudi Arabia claims that the Houthis are backed by Iran – making the situation in Yemen another Saudi-Iranian power struggle in the region.

A U.S. Marine was killed on Saturday in an ISIS attack on a U.S. base in northern Iraq. This is the second death of an American service personnel in combat since the U.S. first attacked ISIS in 2014.

Amidst the turmoil and violence in Syria, one lone children’s magazine, Zayton and Zaytonah, is still being printed and distributed. The magazine was created by artist Diala Brisly, who had to flee Syria for Beirut in 2013. The goal of the magazine, she says, is to remind children what it’s like to be a human being, and to discourage them from becoming militant fighters.

The Middle East launched a new comedy program, “Saturday Night Live” in Arabic, inspired by the U.S. comedy late night show last month. Based out of Cairo, it features comedy sketches on a variety of topics – but notably lacking are any sketches dealing with politics, sex or religion. Satirizing the current president of Egypt or hinting at religious tensions in a region under siege by ISIS would lead to the show’s shutdown and potential jail sentences.

The Week of March 7, 2016: 

In the latest refugee crisis development, Turkey offered to take in even more Syrian refugees in exchange for “more money, accelerated membership talks and faster visa-free travel for its citizens” from the European Union. This would create an option for refugees who are denied asylum in Europe to return to Turkey.

Recent reports have revealed the intense indoctrination tactics that the Islamic State uses on children, to ensure a second generation of Islamic State fighters. The report says that traditional rehabilitation strategy for child soldiers will not be sufficient for children who return from or escape ISIS. From an early age they are desensitized to violence and indoctrinated with the strictest Islamist ideals.

Islamic militants stormed a town in Eastern Tunisia near the Libyan border on Monday. The militants attacked a Tunisian military base and several police posts. ISIS has recently set up camp in Libya, and this attack creates fear that the Islamic State’s expansion could be moving into Tunisia.

The Week of Feb 29, 2016: 

The Turkish government seized control of Turkey’s most popular newspaper, Zaman, on Friday. This is the latest example of an increasingly unstable Turkey, as it fights off Kurdish separatists, attempts to contain the war in Syria on its border and struggles under the increasingly strict impositions of its Islamic President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Iranian officials extended an invitation to Boeing to discuss a business deal to improve Iran’s commercial aircraft fleet. This would be the biggest business arrangement with a U.S. company after more than three decades of estrangement. This reconnecting of economic ties is one of the first inroads after the historic nuclear deal between Iran and the U.S. took effect in January.

Political rivalries are stalling an imminent attack on Mosul by Iraqi security forces determined to win the city back from the Islamic State. The security forces are comprised of many groups including U.S. forces, Iran-backed militias and Kurdish fighters, who all have their own objectives when it comes to Mosul. Unless these objectives can be reconciled, the offensive against Mosul may take much longer than expected.

The Week of Feb 22, 2016: 

Iran is in the midst of parliamentary elections, set to conclude on February 26th. In an unprecedented shift, election interest has turned to environmental conservation. The general public has shown a keen interest in candidates who address issues like dwindling water supplies and deteriorating air quality. Image at left: An Iranian woman walks past electoral posters for upcoming parliamentary elections, Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images.

The international import of weapons to the Middle East has risen dramatically in the last five years, with Saudi Arabia at the forefront with a 275% weapons import increase. These weapons are largely being supplied by the U.S. and Europe. Weapons imports spiked dramatically before the Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen began last year.

A women’s bicycling club, which started in December in Gaza, has received considerable backlash from conservative Muslims in recent days. The club was formed by Palestinian women to protest against the nearly decade-long rule of the Islamic Hamas movement. In Gaza, women are forbidden from playing sports in general, so the sight of women bicycling has incited jeers, taunts and harassment from Gaza residents.

A ceasefire was negotiated this week between the Syrian government and certain Syrian opposition groups. Moderated by the United States and Russia, these talks have yielded little in terms of actual progress, and hopes remain low for the impending ceasefire as ISIS continues to make territorial gains in Aleppo, Syria.

The Week of Feb 15, 2016:   

Young Saudis now fear for their employment and financial security as the Saudi economy, previously propped up by high oil prices, takes a hit. Oil prices in Saudi Arabia have dropped to $30 a barrel from their previous price of $100 a barrel in 2014. Riyadh has hosted three job fairs in the last two weeks, where nervous Saudis queue up to interview for jobs, something their parents never faced due to generous government subsidies and ubiquitous job opportunities that now seem endangered.

It was revealed this week that the U.S. had a cyberattack plan in place in case Iran’s nuclear program ever incited a military confrontation between the two countries. The plan was devised to disable Iran’s air defenses, communications systems and crucial parts of its power grid, but was shelved after a nuclear agreement was reached with Iran in July.

The first of several international aid convoys reached a besieged Syrian town this week. This is part of an effort by world powers to provide much-needed aid to parts of Syria that have been completely isolated by war and terrorist efforts. The aid relief is being sent to towns that lack basic survival supplies such as the diesel needed to turn on the water pumps that supply drinking water.

Muhammad Heikal, Egypt’s most renowned journalist died at the age of 92 this week. Heikal was a prominent journalist during Egypt’s Nasser era, and a staunch proponent of his pan-Arabism ideals. He was jailed briefly during Anwar Sadat’s reign due to his opposition of Sadat’s peace overtures with Israel. The Washington Post described him as “the voice of Egypt”.

The Iraqi government orchestrated the release of three U.S. prisoners that were captured and held hostage last month by Shiite militiamen. This kidnapping is part of an increase in Iran-backed Shi’a uprisings from Iraqis that are beyond the control of the central government.

The U.S. authorized air strikes in Libya on Friday to attack an ISIS training camp, highlighting growing concerns that Libya is becoming the new ISIS stronghold. As the war in Syria worsens, ISIS has urged many of its affiliates to travel to Libya to create a more unified home base. The United States wants to thwart this with strategic airstrikes and by strengthening the fledgling unity government in Libya.

The Week of Feb 8, 2016:  

kindergarten in Jaffa, Israel is pushing for equal education by promoting their school that integrates Christian, Jewish and Muslim children. The kindergarten opened three years ago with only 38 students and has now expanded to include 140 students of various religious backgrounds.

NATO will deploy ships to begin monitoring the waterways of the Aegean Sea, in a bid to stem human trafficking of migrants from Turkey to Greece.  NATO will also be providing intelligence to the European Union which has taken the lead in mitigating the refugee crisis. The New York Times reports: The operation puts the military alliance in the position of conducting what amounts to a law enforcement operation in the middle of a humanitarian and diplomatic crisis.

The body of Italian student Giulio Regeni was found on the outskirts of Cairo last week, prompting outrage from the Italian community and accusations that he was killed and tortured at the hands of Egyptian police. Regeni disappeared on January 25th, when Cairo was teeming with police officers to suppress any protests to commemorate the 2011 Arab spring uprising. During this time, dozens of dissidents were questioned and detained, leading many in the international community to suspect Egyptian security services of orchestrating Regeni’s murder.

ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack on a police officer’s club in the Syrian capital of Damascus. This was the first attack in Damascus, which has been relatively peaceful throughout the course of the Syrian civil war, to be claimed by the Islamic state.

The United Arab Emirates created a minister of state for happiness, and a minister of state for tolerance, as part of a major government shake-up. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum voiced that the people of the UAE “want a young and flexible government that will fulfill our youth’s aspirations and achieve our people’s ambitions.”

As economic conditions continue to worsen in the Gaza Strip, many young Palestinians are turning to crowd-funding websites to meet their financial needs. More than 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza graduate from universities each year, and many of these students have financed their tuition through crowd-sourcing websites, where they present their stories to the world in the hope that people see them and donate to help them reach their goal.

A gym in Jordan called SheFighter, which was created in 2012 to provide specialized self-defense classes and martial arts training for women, is continuing to expand its reach to Jordanian women. The gym was commended in a speech by President Obama last year. 

The Week of Feb 1, 2016:  

Iraq hosted the Baghdad International Marathon, the first international race in living memory. Two-thousand participants, including 32 runners from Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, came to represent their countries and partake in this historic event. For many Iraqis, this was a revitalization of Baghdad in the 1970s and 80s, when organized competitions were common, and Iraq was not yet a war torn country.A popular Egyptian cartoonist was arrested for running a website without a license on Sunday. This is the latest in a string of crackdowns on free speech by Egyptian President el-Sisi since the military uprising that removed former president Hosni Mubarek from power.

Saudi sculptor, Abdulnasser Gharem, has set up a studio to showcase emerging talent in Saudi Arabia. Saudi youth are eagerly trying to find new ways to express themselves against the strict backdrop of Saudi culture through artistic means and through Twitter, where usage rates are amongst the highest in the world.

An Instagram account that posts pictures of Iranian imams, or Islamic scholars, in everyday situations has become a social media success with over 12,000 followers. The Instagram, “Talabah Today”, attempts to break down the stereotypes about ultra-conservative, fear-mongering Imams yelling “death to America”, by showing them leading normal lives; playing basketball with schoolgirls and posing with Christmas trees to wish season’s greetings to Christians.

The Israeli military is preventing non-residents from entering the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, after a Palestinian policeman was killed after an attempted attack on three Israeli soldiers. This is the latest development in an onslaught of stabbings and shootings between Israelis and Palestinians since October.

When President Xi Jinping of China traveled to the Middle East last month, he kept his meetings strictly about building closer economic and infrastructure ties, rather than focusing on the recent uptick in turmoil in the region. Visiting both Saudi Arabia and Iran, where ties have been more strained than usual after the Saudi execution of a Shiite cleric, President Jinping focused on support for China’s “One Belt, One Road” plan, an initiative that intends to increase the integration between Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

Despite a suicide attack in Syria on Sunday that killed approximately 70 people, peace talks continued on Monday as the United Nations mediator in the Syrian war met with members of the opposition. The two sides have yet to talk directly, but the mediator, Staffan de Mistura, also met with Syrian government representatives on Friday.

Week of Jan 25, 2016: 

Week of Jan 11, 2016: 

The Israeli Ministry of Education banned a book about an Israeli-Palestinian love story from high school reading lists. In response, Time Out Tel Aviv published a viral video to YouTube which depicts couples, friends and strangers, one a Jew and one an Arab, kissing on camera. When asked how it felt to kiss a stranger on camera, one of the men in the video says that it’s “less strange than the [Arab-Israeli] conflict.”

Nawal al-Hawsawi is being called the “Rosa Parks” of Saudi Arabia because of her campaign against racism. Al-Hawsawi is a black Saudi woman, a certified pilot, and the wife of a white American. She has garnered a lot of positive and negative attention due to her Twitter campaign where she posts about the importance of racial diversity and marriage equality.

Iran reported Monday that it dismantled its only heavy-water reactor, a key step to implementing its nuclear agreement with the United States and other world powers. Today an Iranian nuclear official called this report “baseless” and stated that Iran planned to sign an agreement with China to modify the reactor. Analysts viewed this, not as an intentional move by Iran to keep their nuclear program in place, but as a shifty move to appease hard liners in the country that are hesitant to acquiesce to the United States, while working as quickly as possible to adhere to the nuclear agreement.

suicide bomber killed at least 10 people and wounded 15 in Istanbul on Tuesday. A deputy prime minister of Turkey said the bombing was carried out by a Syrian man, while President Erdogan of Turkey blamed both the Islamic State and Kurdish separatists for endangering Turkey’s security.

Week of January 4, 2016:

The Israeli Ministry of Education banned a book about an Israeli-Palestinian love story from high school reading lists. In response, Time Out Tel Aviv published a viral video to YouTube which depicts couples, friends and strangers, one a Jew and one an Arab, kissing on camera. When asked how it felt to kiss a stranger on camera, one of the men in the video says that it’s “less strange than the [Arab-Israeli] conflict.”

Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran after the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was set ablaze by protestors. The burning of the Saudi Embassy was in response to Saudi Arabia’s execution of the Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. This execution sparked outrage among the entire Shi’a community across the Middle East, including Shi’a dominated Iran. The Sheikh was an outspoken critic of the Saudi and Bahraini regimes and had been jailed since 2012.

42,000 Syrians are currently trapped and starving in the Lebanese-border town of Madaya, where Syrian government forces surround the rebel-controlled area. This is part of a Syrian regime tactic to starve out rebel-led towns until they surrender. This intentionally plays on the divide between the UN’s political and humanitarian branches – with the political branch refusing to make concessions, leaving the humanitarian branches unable to deliver much-needed aid.

The shooter who attacked a Philadelphia policeman last Thursday pledged his allegiance to the Islamic state while being questioned by detectives. He also traveled to Saudi Arabia for the hajj – the Muslim pilgrimage – and to Egypt in the last several years.

2015

The Week of Dec 28, 2015: 

The Iraqi army recaptured the city of Ramadi from ISIS fighters that had controlled the city 55 miles west of Baghdad since May. There are still pockets of ISIS resistance in the city, but the reclamation of the city center was a major territorial blow for ISIS.

Saudi officials announced the end of a weeks-long ceasefire in Yemen between Saudi-backed government forces and Houthi rebels who seized power in March. Saudi Arabia claimed that the Houthi forces violated the ceasefire by killing and detaining Yemeni civilians and attacking Saudi border posts and aid operations.

The Week of Dec 21, 2015: 

Tests on the black box of the Russian war plane that was downed by Turkey last month came back unreadable. This stymied Russia’s efforts to prove that the plane was not in Turkish airspace when it was shot down. Turkey argues that the plane, deployed to Syria in support of President Bashar al Assad, received several warnings to exit Turkish airspace before it was shot down.

The U.N.-brokered peace talks aimed at bringing an end to the nine-month war in Yemen ended with no sign of a resolution to the conflict. The talks were meant to broker an accord between the official government of Yemen and the Houthi rebels, but Saudi-led airstrikes against the rebels continued unabated over the weekend in response to Houthi actions, stymieing any hope for peace until the next round of talks in mid-January.

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies conducted a survey of 18,000 Arabs from 12 countries that showed overwhelming opposition to the Islamic State. They also found no correlation between those who expressed some support for the Islamic State and religiosity. In other words, any favorable views of ISIS were prevalent among religious and non-religious responders.

Saudi Arabia announced the creation of a 34-nation coalition to combat Islamic extremism in the Middle East. While this could be construed as a response to the international call for Arab unity in fighting terrorist threats such as ISIS, many see this coalition as an attempt by Saudi Arabia to boost its standing in the region and counter Iran, rather than a legitimate attempt to address the violence.

Amnesty International declared that Russia may have committed war crimes during its three month air raid in Syria. The rights group said there is evidence that Russia covered up attacks on a field hospital and a mosque, and is using cluster bombs in civilian areas which have led to the death of hundreds of civilians in Syria. Amnesty International called for independent investigations to verify these claims.

The Week of Dec 14, 2015: 

Israeli and Turkish diplomats have reportedly reached a preliminary agreement to restore normal diplomatic relations, which were suspended in 2010 after 10 activists were killed by Israeli troops boarding a ship, the Mavi Marmara, that was trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Under the terms of the agreement, Israel will establish a fund to provide compensation to the families of the dead activists and Turkey will drop criminal charges against Israeli officers. Turkey has also agreed to cooperate with Israel to prevent a senior Hamas operative from entering the country.

President Obama has pushed for a reconciliation agreement for years and an administration official called the arrangement “a welcome step.” Israeli opposition politicians have already criticized the agreement, saying that the “damage has already been done” and that it “must not give Erdogan a foothold in Gaza.”

Turkey announced that 102 Kurdish militants were killed in a major military attack over the weekend. This is part of an ongoing offensive against the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which is labeled as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and the EU.

Iraq hosted its first beauty pageant in over four decades, choosing green-eyed Shaymaa Qasim, from Kirkuk, to win the title and the chance to represent Iraq at the Miss Universe pageant. Many celebrated this as a unique cultural emancipation for Iraq. Certain concessions were given to the candidates based on cultural sensitivity, including the removal of the swimsuit portion and a requirement of more modest evening dresses.

For the first time in the nearly five-year-old Syrian civil war, the UN embraced a plan for a ceasefire agreement on Friday. The month-long ceasefire discussions were led by the U.S. and Russia, but it is far from clear what the parameters of the ceasefire will be, especially while the two nations are at extreme odds over the best policies to end the conflict.The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that China and Egypt imprisoned record numbers of journalists in 2015. Egypt is second only to China as the world’s worst jailer of journalists in 2015. Worldwide, the number of journalists behind bars for their work declined moderately during the year, but a handful of countries continue to use systematic imprisonment to silence criticism. A CPJ special report by Elana Beiser.

The European Union revived the possibility of Turkey’s membership on Monday, reversing its position to cease EU expansion. Failing states, war, Islamist militants and a refugee crisis has brought to light the benefits of pushing countries towards market economies. Turkey has also promised to stem the flow of Turkish migrants into Europe in exchange for cash, visas, and renewed talks on joining the EU.

The German TV station, DW, is now broadcasting Arabic-language channels so that refugees can watch programming in their native language. The channel will focus on information, understanding and cultural exchange, including German language courses in television format.

On Thursday, December 17th, the World Trade Organization formally approved Afghanistan’s membership in the WTO (ReutersBusiness StandardPajhwokTOLO News). The approval occurred at a ministerial conference in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and follows eleven years of talks regarding the possibility of Afghanistan joining the organization. Afghanistan has until June 30 to ratify the agreement and officially become a member of the WTO.

The Islamic State has surpassed Al Qaeda as the most violent and disruptive force in war-torn Yemen. After nine months of conflict between the Saudi-led military coalition and rebel forces bent on seizing power, ISIS is attacking mosques, planting car bombs and executing members of Yemen’s Shiite minority. There is also significant evidence that ISIS in Yemen is highly coordinated with the main branches in Syria and Iraq, making their threat in Yemen more significant and long-term.

Monday morning, President Obama attended a meeting of the National Security Council at the Department of Defense to discuss the offensive against the Islamic State. While current policy is unlikely to change because of this meeting, President Obama’s attendance shows his determination to stay up-to-date on the issues and proactive in his policies to combat the Islamic State. This increased attentiveness comes in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks and the shooting in San Bernardino, CA.

Iranians are hosting impromptu charity drives around the country to provide warm clothing for the homeless during the winter months. This involves setting up “walls of kindness”, which consist of hooks nailed into the outer walls of buildings with a sign that reads “If you don’t need it, leave it. If you need it, take it”, prompting donations of coats, trousers and other warm clothing.

The Week of Dec 7, 2015:

Two recent London film festivals have featured films that explore the Arab world and issues such as gender, migration and exile. The Green Caravan Film Festival showcased films by directors from Iran, Kuwait and Bahrain that touched on human rights and social issues. The BBC Arabic Festival was hosted by Eddie Izard who grew up in Yemen, and featured a film set in the UAE that explored topics of gender and sexuality.

At least 33 people in Iran have died from an outbreak of swine flu. The country’s deputy health minister warned that the outbreak was likely to spread to other parts of the country, including Tehran.

The Knowledge Summit kicked off in Dubai on Monday with a presentation on the Arab Knowledge Index, which is meant to help experts and researchers implement development policies for building knowledge societies. The goal of the summit is to promote and discuss knowledge-based economies in the Arab world, which focus on development, innovation and the transfer of knowledge in fields such as education, scientific research and information technology.

The Syrian government claimed on Monday that the United States was responsible for an airstrike on a Syrian military base that killed 3 soldiers. This is the first time that President Bashar al Assad’s government has accused the United States of bombing a Syrian military facility since the U.S. began airstrikes in Syria over a year ago. U.S. Government officials denied the claim and stated that a Russian warplane seemed to be responsible.

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s remarks about banning all Muslims from entering the United States was widely condemned around the world on Tuesday. Representatives from Lebanon, Egypt, Afghanistan and Paris, which recently suffered a devastating terrorist attack at the hand of radical Islamists, all spoke out condemning Trump’s comments as “hate rhetoric”.

For the first time, Saudi Arabia held elections that allowed women to both vote and run for office. More than a dozen women won seats on local councils, but women still make up less than 1% of the elected council members nationwide. This is part of Saudi Arabia’s gradual social transition in a society which often oppresses women’s rights. These changes have come in the wake of growing female empowerment in Saudi Arabia, with more women working in the public sphere and increased access to the rest of the world.

Week of November 30, 2015:

NATO spoke out in solidarity for a future national unity government in Libya, but remains opposed to any military intervention in the war-torn country. This followed an announcement by the warring factions in Libya that they had reached an agreement to end the political deadlock that has gripped the country since former President Muammar Qaddafi was removed from power.

ISIS announced publicly on Saturday that the couple responsible for the shooting in San Bernadino, CA were followers of the Islamic State. Prior to the attack on the corporate holiday party which killed 14 people, one of the attackers, Tashfeen Malik, posted her allegiance to the Islamic State on Facebook.

Week of November 9, 2015:

Former Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Riad Sattouf spoke on NPR about a series of graphic memoirs that he is publishing in the aftermath of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in France. He intends to narrate the story of his cross-cultural childhood; growing up in Libya, Syria and France with a French Catholic mother and Syrian, Sunni Muslim father. The first volume is already a bestseller in France and has been translated into English. Sattouf’s memoir is called “The Arab Of The Future: A Childhood In The Middle East, 1978-1984.”

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a meeting at the White House on Monday to ease tensions in the aftermath of the Iranian nuclear deal and to discuss ongoing Middle East strategy. The talk between the two world leaders was described as productive and pragmatic. Among the topics discussed was a 10-year, multi-billion dollar package of military aid for Israel.

In a rare act of clemency, Egyptian rights journalist Hossam Bahgat was released after being arrested on Sunday for “publishing false information” in an independent Egyptian newspaper. His release followed criticism from Amnesty International, citing his arrest as “yet another nail in the coffin” for freedom of speech in Egypt.

The Israeli Association of Baseball is launching a program to bring American baseball players to Israel for five months in the hopes of elevating the sport within Israel. The American players will play in the Premier League and go into communities around Israel to develop and promote the game.

International and domestic airline traffic is empowering Middle Eastern growth. Travel to and from the region has quadrupled in the last decade, and now 90% of the world’s population can connect in the Middle East. Aviation currently supports two million jobs and $116 billion in GDP in the region.

Oct 31, 2015: An ISIS Ally, the Sinai Province of the Islamic State, has emerged as the most recent suspect in the bombing of the Russian charter jet that exploded in midair over Egypt last week, killing all 224 people on board. The Sinai Province is an Egyptian terrorist unit that pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State and has grown increasingly violent in its attacks. Photo: EPA.

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The Week of September 21, 2015:

Over 100,000 people gathered for an anti-terrorism rally in Istanbul, Turkey on Sunday, September 20th, to protest a recent string of attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has been denounced as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU and the US.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited he Parchin military site in Iran to collect information on nuclear research that may have been conducted there in the 2000s. Iran is allowing access to this site for the first time in nearly a decade, adhering to parameters set forth under the P5+1 nuclear agreement reached in July.

Fifty-eight defectors from the Islamic State have risked persecution and gone public with their testimonies in the past year, according to a report by the International Center for the Study for Radicalization at King’s College London. Many cite grievances with ISIS’s treatment of moderate Sunni rebels, indiscriminate killings of civilians and hostages, and coerced suicide bombings.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to coordinate military activity in Syria so as to avoid accidentally trading fire. This is meant to synchronize Russia’s reinforcements to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with Israel’s bombings of arms shipments to Hezbollah.

UNESCO historical sites in Yemen are under threat as Saudi warplanes launched airstrikes around Old Sana’a this past weekend. This follows an attack in June of this year that ravaged three historical sites in Sana’a’s Al Qassimi quarter.

The e-commerce (online commercial transactions) market of the Arab World is worth $7 billion, according to a study released this week. The United Arab Emirates accounts for the biggest portion, and there is an increasing trend amongst young shoppers aged 26-35 who use social media to locate online goods.

Sept 4, 2015: Sesame Street is returning to the Arab world. Originally launched in Kuwait in 1979, Sesame Street, or Iftah Ya Simsim, underwent a twenty-five year hiatus but is now being re-launched in Abu Dhabi.

The-new-Iftah-Ya-Simsim-cast-sized