Unleash the beast

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. If you are not a subscriber, please use the button below to subscribe. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed

Coachella who?

BANBAN — As the sun slowly disappeared behind yellow sand dunes in a chilly December weekend, tens of thousands of young people descended on this barren plot of land, 40km north of Riyadh, where a series of stages, VIP boxes, food booths and temporary toilets were rapidly erected for an event that was promoted as “the largest music festival ever in the region.”

Saudi royal court adviser Turki al-Alsheikh, who also heads the kingdom’s General Entertainment Authority, urged his 3.7 million followers on Twitter to “wear the bandana and go” to MDL Beast, a huge electronic music party featuring dozens of foreign and local DJs from 4pm to 2am over three consecutive nights. Organisers said a crowd of more than 400,000 visited the site, making it bigger than Coachella.

The numbers are certainly impressive for a first-time event that was not announced until the start of this month. In addition to the heavy promotion by al-Alsheikh and others, every measure appeared to be taken to build interest and focus attention on the festival. Other major attractions and events in Riyadh were suspended and tickets were discounted by 50% from their original prices.

As you pass security and enter through the gates to the purpose-built venue, you would be forgiven if you briefly thought that you have been teleported to another country. Young men in thobes next to gender-ambiguous teenagers in flashy outfits swaying to music and local girls showing their midriffs as they jumped to the heavy bass beats by David Guetta, J Balvin and Afrojack. If there is an image of what the new modern and moderate Saudi Arabia is all about, this was it.

However, the event had its fair share of issues and controversies.

Many women, who were vastly outnumbered by men, complained about sexual harassment. Riyadh police announced later that 24 men were arrested for sexual harassment at the festival. The police also announced on the same day that 9 women were arrested for breaking the public decency law, though it was unclear from the statement if it was related to the event or a separate thing.

“I think officials wanted to send a reassuring message to society that acts and behaviours that violate the public decency law documented in videos and photos circulated on social media are rejected and will not be tolerated,” columnist Khalid al-Sulaiman wrote in Okaz daily, “while the message to females was that recent social changes do not give them absolute freedom and do not put them above the law.”

Despite the country’s official ban on alcohol, videos and photos taken after the event appeared to show empty bottles of vodka and whiskey in the VIP boxes of big name guests, some of them transported to the location by helicopters to avoid getting stuck in the horrendous traffic jams on roads to and from the venue.

Many foreign influencers were invited to attend the festival and post about it to their millions of followers on social media with captions about how the “spectacular” and “revolutionary” event shows the changing face of Saudi Arabia. Those influencers later faced criticism for promoting the musical extravaganza while ignoring the kingdom’s human rights record just a few days before five people were sentenced to death for killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The case was seen as a test of how serious Saudi Arabia is about addressing a crisis that has sent the kingdom into its worst diplomatic crisis since the 9/11 attacks and strained its relations with western allies.

In addition to the five death sentences, three others were sentenced to a total of 24 years in prison. Two former aides to the crown prince were exonerated: Former royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani was investigated but not charged, while former deputy intelligence chief Ahmed Assiri was charged but the court dismissed it. Lack of evidence against the two men was cited as the reason, according to the deputy attorney-general who announced the verdict on December 23.

Poke in the eye

The contrast in reactions to the verdict was stark.

Human rights groups like Amnesty International called it a “whitewash” and criticised the trial for lack of transparency. Access to court was limited, but officials said the Khashoggi family and representatives from the embassies of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council as well as members of local human rights organisations attended the hearings.

Many pro-government voices lauded the verdict as evidence of the independence of Saudi judiciary and took to social media to post celebratory messages welcoming the return of Qahtani and Assiri, saying their innocence was “never in doubt” and praised them for serving the country proudly.

Qahtani was sanctioned last year by the US, along with 16 other Saudis, in relation to the killing that took place in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The Americans are likely to see the sentences as “a poke in the eye” after they spent months privately pressing the crown prince for accountability and an acknowledgment of his former advisor’s role, according to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.

The sentences can be appealed and Qahtani has not made any appearances since the verdict, but he seems to have been deeply hurt by the damage to his public image over the past year. State television posted a video highlighting his career and achievements, a rarity for a former official who was sacked by royal decree in contentious circumstances.

His supporters have also circulated a long defiant poem attributed to him where he attempted to defend his honour and lashed out against his enemies, particularly Qatar and Turkey. “They wanted to break Saud or defeat him,” he wrote. “And I remain standing tall like a great mountain.”

It remains unclear whether Qahtani would be reinstated in government, but if his official return to power is confirmed then that raises questions about some policies and issues, including any potential resolution to the Gulf crisis. Qatar foreign minister said some progress has been made in talks with Saudi Arabia but Sheikh Tamim skipped the GCC summit in Riyadh earlier this month.

In other news

  • Saudi king approved the country’s budget for 2020, including a cut of 8% on defence spending. Even though non-oil GDP will remain solid at 2.7% in 2020, the crown prince is said to be unsatisfied with the state of the economic reform programme and officials are reviewing many parts of “Vision 2030” that could be cut, merged and amended.

  • It took Saudi Aramco just two days after trading began on Tadawul to reach the coveted $2 trillion valuation. WSJ is reporting that an international IPO remains on the table and officials held meetings about potentially listing in China or Japan.

  • Twitter has suspended tens of thousands of accounts that appear to be linked to the company of a Saudi citizens accused in the US of spying over what the social media giant described as a “significant state-backed information operation” originating in the kingdom. Smaat, the Saudi company, has threatened to sue Twitter.

That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others. Happy new year!

Narrow set of options

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. If you are not a subscriber, please use the button below to subscribe. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed

Sad bankers

Almost 5 million people have applied for shares in Saudi Aramco’s initial public offering with a total value of 47.4 billion riyals as the retail tranche came to an end on November 28, while bids from institutional investors have reached 119 billion riyals so far with few more days to go for them to submit bids until December 4.

This brings the total to 166 billion riyals which means it has been oversubscribed and raised 1.7 times what the government said it wanted, but this is still far less than what we have seen with previous Saudi share sales. The National Commercial Bank IPO in 2016 was covered 23 times over, while 10 million Saudis participated in Emaar IPO in before the stock market crash in 2006.

Only 10.5% of bids came from non-Saudi investors after the company decided not to market the flotation abroad due to lack of appetite from foreign institutional investors over the valuation and other concerns, but Saudi Aramco executives have traveled to Kuwait and UAE as their sovereign wealth funds are expected to invest.

King Salman highlighted the importance of the IPO for economic reform plans in a speech he delivered before the Shura Council on November 20 and the government will tout the process as a success, but this has been a long and difficult journey as the Wall Street Journal detailed in their backstory on how we got here:

The much-reduced ambition and domestic listing on Saudi’s Tadawul exchange have frustrated investors and bankers who say Aramco is now only selling at that size to try to break a record. Bankers working on the deal recommended pricing Aramco’s valuation far lower to attract international buyers, but Prince Mohammed balked at going lower than $1.6 trillion.

The long process has been frustrating for bankers on the deal who started attacking each other in the days leading up to opening the subscription period. The Financial Times reported:

One accused a rival of having “whored themselves on the price range” while others spread stories of peers being castigated by Saudi officials. Another banker said: “There is real tension in the syndicate. These deals take on a dynamic and everyone turns on each other.”

Seeing the prospect of years of work disappearing over the horizon, they are increasingly philosophical about the deal’s degeneration into, what one banker called, a “Greek tragedy”.

Regardless how bankers feel, the government can now call it a victory and move on. “Saudi Arabia does not have to sell a single Aramco share, but the idea itself reflects a different approach to state administration,” Abdulrahman al-Rashed wrote. “That is something that any visitor who knows Saudi Arabia will verify — the country is changing in all aspects of life.”

Riding the de-escalator

Geopolitical risk as seen in last September’s attacks on Saudi Aramco’s facilities was cited by investors among the reasons for their lower valuation. The attack was seen as a result of the US “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and exposed the vulnerability of Saudi infrastructure on the Gulf, prompting the kingdom to take a measured approach in their response amid a narrow set of options.

But observers also pointed out to a series of self-inflected Saudi domestic and foreign policy missteps over the last few years, like the Yemen war, the boycott of Qatar and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as additional factors that have made overseas investors reluctant to make a bet on the kingdom’s reform project for which the Saudi Aramco IPO is a cornerstone.

Saudi Arabia has been in recent weeks pushing what officials describe as a deescalatory approach to issues in the region. The coalition announced recently the release of 200 Houthi prisoners as part of a new effort to end the conflict, and we are finally seeing some movement to resolve the Gulf crisis as the Kuwaiti and US mediation appears to be bearing fruit.

This has started with a bit of sports diplomacy: National football teams from Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain traveled to Qatar to participate in the Gulf Cup despite earlier signals that they would skip the tournament. (Fun fact: the Gulf Cup is actually older than the Gulf Cooperation Council. The football tournament started in 1970 while the GCC was founded in 1981)

Qatar’s foreign minister has reportedly made an unannounced visit to Riyadh last month and said Doha is willing to sever its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Jazeera has also appeared to tone down its coverage of Gulf neighbours in recent weeks, and Bahrain foreign minister said he expects Saudi Arabia to soon announce a date for the next GCC summit which will now take place in Riyadh instead of Muscat.

The optimists say we are closer than ever to bringing this dispute to an end even as hardliners in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi continue to play down any potential resolution by insisting that Qatar cannot be trusted. That division is easily visible as you read cryptic (and not-so-cryptic) posts by media figures connected to the three countries on Twitter, but a solution seems more likely than not at this point.

Dark clouds

Speaking of Twitter, the social media company has again found itself at the centre of another Saudi controversy after the US Department of Justice this month accused two former employees and another Saudi citizen of spying for the kingdom.

The New York Times last year exposed the role of one of them, Ali al-Zabarah, who used his position inside the company to access private information of government critics. Western intelligence agencies alerted Twitter about him at the end of 2015 and he left the company shortly after that. The new case sheds more light on the roles of Ahmad Abouammo, a Lebanese-American who oversaw Middle East media partnerships for the company and Saudi national Ahmed al-Jbreen.

Al-Jbreen is the founder of Smaat, a social media agency that has done extensive work for the Saudi government since it was established in 2012. According to court documents, he is accused of acting as a go-between for Saudi officials and the Twitter employees. A senior Saudi official has declined to give detailed comment on the allegations when he met reporters in Washington in early November but added that “we expect all our citizens to abide by the laws of the countries in which they live.”

While Abuammou was arrested in Seattle (and later released after a US District Court judge ruled that he may be freed pending trial), al-Jbreen appears to be going about his life normally in Saudi Arabia. Twitter has suspended his account but he continues to post almost daily on Snapchat, sharing moments from desert trips and giving his followers tips about how to deal with stage fright.

Effort by authorities to control and manipulate social media has been effective in the sense that it has stifled debate and forced many of the vocal writers and intellectuals during the Arab Spring years to go silent. Despite their silence in recent times, some of these people were briefly arrested last week. Most of them were released on bail and it remains unclear if they are facing any charges.

The latest wave of arrests suggests that the crackdown on any potential dissent domestically would continue even as Saudi Arabia is promoting its “deescalation” message abroad as the kingdom takes over the G20 presidency. Few days earlier, the Twitter account of State Security posted a video labelling feminism as one of the extremist ideologies. Local daily al-Watan wrote a story about the video and quoted a lawyer who said feminists could face lashing and jail time.

State Security backtracked after the news went viral. An official statement said posting the video was a mistake and it has been deleted. State Security also said it has taken action against the newspaper for publishing fake news. The story is no longer available on al-Watan’s website.

That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.

Clarify the narrative

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed

It’s official

Saudi Arabia is finally moving ahead with the initial public offering of its state oil company after several delays. Saudi Aramco has officially kickstarted its IPO process on November 3 after the kingdom’s Capital Market Authority said it has approved an application to list the company in the local stock market Tadawul.

One of the main reasons for the day has been the valuation: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pegged the company’s value at $2 trillion, but many analysts and bankers said investors were likely to buy below that price in the range of $1.5 trillion to 1.8 trillion. Estimates after the ITF announcement varied wildly from around $1.2 to $2.3 trillion.

Accepting a lower price suggests that the prince has decided to “put getting the deal done above being proved right” about the valuation, a rare compromise for the heir apparent whose rise to power has been marked by a decisive drive to achieve the goals of an ambitious economic and social reform programme known as “Vision 2030.”

The IPO is at the centre of the programme and getting the listing done, even if it is limited to the local market for now, has political significance for Prince Mohammed as the government is keen to show that reforms are on track. The Aramco announcement came few days after the finance ministry released its 2020 pre-budget statement which shows that government expenditure next year would be reduced to 1.02 trillion riyals from an estimated 1.05 trillion for 2019.

Not losing sleep

Cutting spending for the first time in three years suggests that the government is confident that reforms are working and there is no need to spend more to stimulate the economy, even as the IMF has revised its forecast for GDP growth from 1.9% to 0.2% this year.

Finance minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said the IMF revision has to do with the global economy slowing down and oil production cuts due to the Opec+ deal. Oil GDP is down 3% this year, while non-oil GDP is growing at 2.9%. “Our KPI in Vision 2030 is the non-oil GDP and not the oil,” he told attendees at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh last week.

Asked if the volatility of oil prices keeps up him up at night, Jadaan said: “I sleep very well every night. Seriously, I don’t watch the oil price every day. I watch it regularly but not every day.”

Saudi Arabia is the top performer in the “Ease of Doing Business 2020” report issued by the World Bank released last month, jumping 30 positions at the ranking from 92 to 62. Officials said this is the clearest signal yet that reforms are being implemented, but they acknowledge there is still more work to be done. “Economic reform is a long journey and we still have a long way to go,” trade minister Majid al-Qasabi told me after the report release.

The investment forum, hosted by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, was well attended as more than 6,000 people gathered at the Ritz-Carlton for the event’s third year. Many of the top executives and bankers who boycotted the conference last year after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi were back in town this time around.

In reality, many of them have never actually left. While the major names skipped FII last year, most of their lieutenants and staffers —the people who actually do the deals— were there, and the big guns returned publicly when the kingdom hosted its Financial Sector Conference in April.

In addition to business elites, this year has also seen the return of senior US government officials. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Senior Advisor Jared Kushner all took the stage and praised Saudi reforms.

Kushner also used the occasion to repeat his assertion that Israel is not responsible for the suffering of the Palestinian people. The problem, according to him, is that the Palestinians have failed to provide a good business environment for investors. “If you want to go and invest in the West Bank or Gaza, the issue that’s holding you back is the fear of terrorism and that your investment could be destroyed,” he said.

Young and dynamic

The only notable absence in this year’s FII was the crown prince who appeared on stage in the first two editions of the event in 2017 and 2018. Prince Mohammed did attend some of the sessions at the end of the second day when the King of Jordan and India PM spoke to the conference, but he did not speak this time around despite many rumours that he would at some point.

A Saudi official who was surprisingly on stage is Ibrahim al-Assaf, who was relieved of his duty as foreign minister just few weeks before the conference after less than one year in that position (he remains as a state minister and member of the cabinet).

A senior Saudi diplomat told me recently that there has been some frustration that the veteran minister was not making progress on his mandate to restructure the foreign ministry after the Khashoggi killing at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. What is needed, the diplomat told me, is someone young and dynamic.

That someone appears to be Prince Faisal bin Farhan who was named foreign minister on October 24 after a brief stint as ambassador in Germany and before that a senior adviser at the Saudi Embassy in Washington DC.

The 45-year-old, who has previously worked in the defence sector, is widely praised as intelligent, skilful and articulate. Adel al-Jubeir will continue in his position at minister of state for foreign affairs, but Prince Faisal is likely to take over the portfolio fully in a couple of years as the government seeks to renew its diplomatic corps with a new generation that is more proactive and engaged.

The prime examples of that effort are Prince Khalid bin Bandar, the envoy to the UK, and his sister Princess Reema bint Bandar, who has recently given an extensive interview to Politico Magazine, her first major engagement with American media since she was appointed in February.

“My job is to clarify that narrative,” she said. “My job is to hear the tone here, understand the sentiment and convey it back home.”

In other news

That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau, delivered to you this month from Jeddah. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.

Opinions and inclinations

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. If you are not a subscriber, please use the button below to subscribe. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed

Ahead of the passing of one year on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has given an interview to CBS show 60 Minutes where he said he takes “full responsibility as a leader in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” for the killing because it happened under his watch but denied that he was aware of the operation before it took place:

The government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has three million employees. So it is impossible for three million employees to file reports to the commander in Saudi Arabia or to the second man in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There are ministries and institutions operating in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and shortcomings happen.

When asked about the CIA concluding that he ordered the killing, the prince said he has not received any direct information from the US government implicating him or people close to him. He added that they did not perceive Khashoggi as a threat:

There is no threat from a journalist. There are many journalists around the world, be they Saudi or non-Saudi, who speak every day about their opinions and their inclinations. There are also many journalists inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia who speak their opinions inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in accordance with the laws of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia so there is no threat in this regard. The threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and what Saudi Arabia is doing, is someone who treats a Saudi journalist, whom I know personally in this way, and for this painful event to happen to him in embassies – in one of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s consulates.

Khashoggi’s son this week released a statement rejecting what he called the exploitation of his father’s case to “undermine my country and my leadership” and renewing his faith in the Saudi judiciary to achieve justice. Local daily Okaz reported that there have been 8 hearings in the trial so far, although it remains unclear where the case stands.

A US State Department official told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that the Saudi prosecution of this crime remains “episodic, haphazard and ad hoc.” Former royal court adviser Saud al-Qahtani, who has been identified by the Saudi public prosecutor for playing a major role in the murder, does not appear to be part of the trial as he “has ignored the Saudi prosecutor’s request to testify,” a Saudi source told Ignatius.

The crown prince interview covered a wide range of issues but it was in many ways more about reinforcing the Saudi positions on these issues rather than indicating a shift in strategy or messaging.

He has denied torture allegations against detained female activists, and said it was not up to him to release them. “It goes back to the attorney general,” he said. “We have an independent attorney general and Saudi Arabia has a very strong history of the King and the Crown Prince not interfering in the work of the judiciary.”

On the topic of Iran, Prince Mohammed said “the last thing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wants is war” despite recent attacks on Saudi Aramco’s facilities in the eastern side of the country that were blamed on the Islamic Republic. There have been reports that Saudi Arabia sent messages to Iran about dialogue, but Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir described such reports as “inaccurate.”

The attack came at a particularly tricky time for Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the king’s son who replaced Khalid al-Falih as energy minister in early September. It was a dramatic change of fortunes for Falih who saw his power quickly diminishing in the matter of two weeks: Public Investment Fund’s governor Yasir al-Rumayyan replaced him as Aramco chairman and Bandar al-Khorayef named to lead a new ministry for industry and mineral resources, sectors that previously fell under Falih’s portfolio.

Before the end of September, Saudi Arabia announced opening its doors for foreign tourists with a new visa programme aimed at visitors from 49 countries, many of them would be able to get it either online or on arrival at select airports. The majority of visitors to the kingdom now are religious tourists who come for hajj and umrah, but the government hopes to increase the number of visits to the kingdom from 40 million now to 100 million by 2030.

Can the kingdom attract such large numbers? Officials are optimistic that the country’s history and culture, as well as its hospitable people and diverse landscape, would convince many to come, particularly adventurous spirits who want to experience a place that has been closed off for a very long time. The tourism sector’s potential is certainly high, but recent headlines on the country could make it a difficult sell for some.

In conjunction with that announcement, the Interior Ministry said the new “public taste” law has come into effect with guidelines for tourists about acceptable behaviour and appearance. The law also offers details on a new dress code: abaya would be optional for women but they are still expected to wear modest clothings that cover shoulders and knees.

Some Saudi women have been in recent pushing the limit on the dress code issue, whether by deviating from the black colour or doing away with the abaya altogether, but now they finally have an official rule in place and it would be interesting to see how the rest of society would react as these changes in the dress code become more commonplace.

The larger context of many recent changes and statements from Saudi Arabia is trying to move on from the Khashoggi killing as the kingdom prepares itself to host the G20 Summit next year, but judging by coverage marking the passing of one year on the murder it is clear that this remains a painful task even as many top executives and financiers will soon arrive in Riyadh for the PIF’s annual investment forum at the end of October. Business back as usual? Hardly, but the show must go on.

That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.

Operation imprecision

Welcome to the latest edition of Riyadh Bureau, a newsletter for people interested in Saudi Arabia — written by me, Ahmed Al Omran. If you are not a subscriber, please use the button below to subscribe. Send your feedback to alomran@gmail.com or via Twitter: @ahmed

Solid and fluid

When the United Arab Emirates pulled most of its forces from Yemen last month, Abu Dhabi insisted that the move was coordinated with coalition leader Saudi Arabia as part of the plan to implement the Stockholm Agreement brokered by the United Nations earlier this year:

The UAE is redeploying its forces in Hodeidah, Yemen with the agreement of Saudi Arabia, its Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said Friday.

The redeployment is the outcome of extensive dialogue with the Arab coalition, and the country has agreed on a strategy for the next phase in Yemen with Saudi Arabia, Gargash said.

He added that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are determined to avoid confrontation with Iran, and that the relationship between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is “solid and lasting.”

The chaos that has ensued in Aden following the Emirati withdrawal not only brought that coordination into question but also appeared to reveal cracks in the KSA-UAE alliance that was seemingly impenetrable since the coalition launched its military campaign in Yemen back in 2015.

Yemen’s government led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi accused the UAE of supporting separatists and demanded its expulsion explosion from the coalition while Saudi and Emirati pundits exchanged harsh accusations and criticism on Twitter as tensions rose in Southern Yemen between groups backed by the two sides.

This has prompted Saudi Arabia and UAE to come out with a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to Yemen and “denouncing the smear campaign against the UAE over the recent events”:

The governments of both countries express their rejection and condemnation of the accusations and defamation campaigns targeting the UAE due to those events; reminding everyone of the sacrifices made by the Coalition Forces in Yemen, motivated by sincere fraternal and neighbourly ties, the preservation of security in the region, and the prosperity of its people and their common destiny.

While the heated Twitter exchanges relatively cooled down, the situation on the ground remains fluid after the Yemeni government on Thursday accused the UAE of killing dozens of its troops in airstrikes. The UAE said in a statement that its “precision air operations” were in response to “armed groups affiliated with terrorist militias targeting coalition forces at Aden Airport.”

Reuters reported that the Saudi king took the unusual step of expressing “extreme irritation” with the UAE at his palace in Mecca earlier this month, but the Emiratis have their reasons for attempting to put some distance between them and their larger neighbour. They have invested a lot of time and money to build their reputation in Washington as a reliable ally, and they realised that their closeness to the kingdom was damaging that image, particularly after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

Former Saudi ambassador to the US Prince Khalid bin Salman, currently deputy defence minister, was back in Washington this week for talks as the Wall Street Journal reported that the the Trump administration is preparing to open direct talks with the Iran-backed Houthis and pushing the kingdom to take part in secret negotiations in Oman.

Peaks and roller coasters

Despite the situation on the Yemen border, Saudi Arabia has continued to push its programme to promote local entertainment and tourism, including a festival at the southwestern region of Assir even as Houthis continued to target Abha airport with drone attacks that have become almost a daily occurrence

Al-Soudah Season, named after a peak of 3000m above sea level, has taken place during the month of August to take benefit of the nice summer weather there compared with other parts of the kingdom, and featured music concerts by famous Arab singers, open-air cinema and extreme sports events. 

American amusement park operator Six Flags announced that it would build 12 roller coasters and 6 themed areas covering 79 acres of land as part of the Qiddiya entertainment project outside the capital Riyadh. The park is expected to generate 800 full-time jobs when it opens in early 2023, officials said.

Next month should be relatively quiet except for celebrations around Saudi National Day on September 23, but in the meantime we have seen the government’s decision to allow women to travel without permission from their male guardian coming into effect, with local media reporting that thousands of women are taking advantage of the latest change in rules.

However, there have been complaints in the early days that the e-government system still did not allow women to obtain passports online despite the change in law. A spokesman said women must visit passport offices until the system is updated to reflect the recent amendments.

Giving women the freedom to travel will have a positive impact on the lives of many women, even if the change could lead to tension in some families. International human rights groups welcomed the implementation but urged the kingdom to follow it up by releasing detained women’s rights activists:

If Saudi Arabia wants to show the world it is truly serious about improving the rights of women, the authorities must drop all charges against the defenders of women’s rights who have been crucial in pushing for these kinds of reforms through their activism. They must immediately and unconditionally release all those who are in detention for fighting for these most basic of rights.

The family of Loujain al-Hathloul said she has rejected a proposal to be released from prison in exchange for recording a video statement denying reports she was tortured in custody.

“Our initial agreement with the State Security was that she will sign the document in which she will deny she had been tortured. And that’s why we remained silent in the past few weeks,” her brother Walid said on Twitter. “Asking to appear on a video and to deny the torture doesn’t sound like a realistic demand.”

In other news

Saudi officials continue to insist that the Aramco IPO remains on track and have recently invited more than 20 advisory firms from the US, Europe and Asia to the company’s headquarters in Dhahran to pitch for roles in the listing as former Trump administration official Dina Powel helped Goldman Sachs to claw its way back into contention. According to WSJ, the oil giant plans to split the IPO into two phases: a local listing later this year followed by an international one next year with Tokyo emerging as the front-runner.

That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. Thanks for reading! You can send your feedback by email: alomran@gmail.com. If you enjoy this newsletter please do share it with others.

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