Week of May 27
On Tuesday, a Qatari plane carrying the country’s the prime minister was allowed to land in Saudi Arabia for the first time in two years. In June 2017, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — namely Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain — accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and being sympathetic to Iran, subsequently launching a land, sea, and air blockade on the country. For the past two years, Qatar has vehemently denied these accusations, stating that its neighbors are simply threatened by the country’s independent government and media. [Read more about the Qatar crisis here.] But regional dynamics may be thawing the deep freeze. Qatar’s leader received an invitation to attend two summits in Mecca from Saudi Arabia’s king, though 39-year-old Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani sent the prime minister in his place. At the summits, Saudi Arabia concentrated on regional security issues, specifically the tension with rival Iran. Saudi Arabia’s willingness to reach out to Qatar signaled that Iran’s growing prominence necessitates greater GCC unity. While Saudi airspace remains closed to commercial Qatari planes and the boycott is still in place, there are hopes that the summit could signal the possibility of a détente.
Young women have been gathering in cafés in Kabul, Afghanistan to escape a culture that “still dictates how they should dress, behave in public and interact with men.” These cafés — stylish and modern with English names like “The Cupcake” — are the home base for Afghanistan’s emerging “café society.” The young people who make up this new social group were either very young or not yet born when the Taliban was toppled in 2001; they have grown up with “cellphones, social media and the right to express themselves freely.” The topic that weighs heavily in cafés these days is the Taliban peace talks. The Taliban was in Moscow during the week to discuss peace in Afghanistan but insist that talks cannot move forward until the United States agrees to remove its presence from the country. Approximately 14,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan. Back in the cafés, young Afghan women worry that their rights will disappear if the Taliban comes back into power. Since the fall of the Taliban, women have been able to attend schools and universities, work alongside men at their jobs, and live without male supervision. Mina Rezaee, who opened a coffee shop in Kabul last year, said that, “women make the culture here, not men.”
On Wednesday, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, visited Jordanian King Abdullah in the capital city of Amman to solicit his support for the economic summit scheduled later this month in Bahrain. The summit, led by the U.S., is meant to be the first step in the Trump administration’s plan for peace between Israel and Palestine. Jordan, however, has so far remained non-committal about its attendance, principally because King Abdullah rejects any peace plan other than the two-state solution, which calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Jordan has also disapproved of Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and consequently, no longer sees the U.S. as a neutral mediator. In a call to the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Jordanian foreign minister reportedly said that an economic offer cannot substitute for a comprehensive political plan to move towards the two-state solution.
Another unexpected obstacle to the long-delayed “deal of the century” came early Thursday morning when Israeli lawmakers voted to dissolve parliament just one month after it was sworn in. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to meet the Wednesday-night deadline to form a coalition in the government in order to get a majority. Netanyahu will remain in power until September 17, when another round of elections is scheduled to take place. On the surface, the sticking point came down to a disagreement between two factions over whether ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as the Haredim, should have to serve in Israel’s military. Another explanation, though, is that Netanyahu “had been trying to build a coalition that would grant him immunity from prosecution while he’s in office.” Netanyahu is currently being investigated for corruption; if found guilty, the prime minister would be the first to be indicted while in office. When his supporters in parliament realized their conditions would not be met, the decision to dissolve the legislative body was made. The current political instability in Israel does not do the already-endangered peace plan any favors; on Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “I get why people think this is going to be a deal that only the Israelis could love. I understand the perception of that. I hope everyone will just give the space to listen and let it settle in a little bit.”
A report coming out of Afghanistan indicated that air pollution has killed more Afghans than the war against the Taliban. In 2017, pollution caused 26,000 Afghan deaths while 3,500 civilians died from the war in the same year. Harsh winters have caused Afghans to burn just about anything to stay warm, including plastic, coal, and rubber that is harmful to breathe in. To make matters worse, leaded fuels that were banned in the U.S. decades ago are still in use in Afghanistan, on top of poorly regulated heavy industry and waste energy plants. Hospitals are overcrowded with patients with respiratory infections. The air pollution, the worst in Kabul, disproportionately affects poor Afghans who cannot afford to use generators or buy wood to burn.
And, lastly, Middle East Eye published a story on how swarms of giant grasshoppers became an unlikely source of sustenance in Yemen during the holy month of Ramadan amid food shortages in the war-torn country. Flying red desert locusts, arriving for the first time in the country in three years, descended upon the Hamdan, Arhab and Bani Matar districts of Sanaa governorate on May 5th. The invasion came as the country remains in the grip of a food crisis and prompted villagers to rally to catch the insects in order to save their crops. Wajeeh Mutawakel, the director general of the Plant Protection Office in Houthi rebel-controlled Sanaa, said that locust swarms pose a threat to food security in Yemen: “One swarm covering one square kilometers contains 50 million locusts, and this swarm can eat the equivalent of 100 tons per day.” Attempts were made to spray the affected areas with insecticide but it was a challenge to obtain spraying trucks as well as funds, staff, and equipment to address the issue properly. Mutawakel said the farmers thus used unorthodox means of dealing with the locust invasion: “Yemenis are fond of eating locusts.” The villagers caught locusts at night, when the grasshoppers are not flying. With flashlights on their foreheads, the villagers throw scarves or other large bits of cloth over the insects to trap them, before sweeping them into sacks using shovels or their bare hands. Sacks of insects are brought to Sana’a to sell either fresh or grilled on the side of the road. Some believe locusts are a natural remedy for several illnesses – including diabetes and hypertension — while others simply find the delicacy delicious.