INTERVIEW: Djibouti president stresses importance of preserving peace in ‘sensitive’ Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region

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Updated 16 September 2022

INTERVIEW: Djibouti president stresses importance of preserving peace in ‘sensitive’ Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region

• No alternative to Saudi Arabia’s leading role in region, Ismail Omar Guelleh tells Arab News en Francais

• French military cooperation treaty expiring this year will be renewed, he reveals

• Our people are ready to defend ourselves against Al-Shabab, stresses the president

DJIBOUTI: The president of Djibouti has lauded Saudi Arabia’s efforts to protect and ensure the safety of transportation and prevent “interventions” from sabotaging security of transportation along the “very sensitive” area of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

In an exclusive interview, Ismail Omar Guelleh told Arab News en Francais that efforts to hold an upcoming summit of the Council of Arab and African Countries of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in Saudi Arabia was the result of an initiative led by the Kingdom,  and that these efforts have been welcomed strongly by his country.

“This is a translation of the Kingdom’s seriousness, and the role it is playing in this area. Internationally, it will be a great representative for peace in the region and the world,” he said.




In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh praised Saudi Arabia’s efforts to ensure security in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. (AN photo by Abdullah Al-Jaber)

The council, which consists of eight countries, was originally announced in Riyadh in January 2020, prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The member states of the council are: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Yemen.

Announcing the news at the time, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said that Riyadh “is very keen to coordinate and cooperate with the member states of this council, to face these challenges and the risks that surround us from every side.”
The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden are two of the world’s busiest shipping routes connecting Europe to Asia and the Middle East.

In the wide-ranging interview, President Guelleh also spoke about the devastating consequences of the Houthi actions in Yemen, which has resulted in the overthrow of the legitimate UN-backed government and a war which has now entered its seventh year.

“Djibouti fell victim because we have received a very large number of Yemeni refugees, and if it were not for the contribution, support and solidarity of the Saudi government, headed by King Salman, the situation would have been truly exacerbated by the behavior of Houthis, who have completely destroyed the country and have posed risks to maritime peace and security,” he said.


COUNTRY PROFILE

How Djibouti emerged as a commercial and strategic crossroads of the world


Host to a number of foreign military bases, Djibouti is remarkably home to both the US and Chinese armed forces in the Horn of Africa. It also hosts Japanese and Spanish troops and a diminishing French presence.

Whether or not Djibouti will renew a military treaty with Paris is unclear, with some observers considering this a sign of a deteriorating relationship, something Guelleh denies.

“The relations between Djibouti and France date back to the 19th century. The signed treaty expires this year; we will renew it,” he said. “We are in the process of working with the legal experts. However, there is no position to be taken because we are ... as we say in our country, a husband and his wife are never friends nor enemies.”

President Guelleh also warned of the consequences of the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war, saying that it has reached the point “where it risks having nuclear consequences” and that he believes that “neither Russia nor Ukraine will come out of it as winners.”

The following is a translation of the interview which was conducted in both French and Arabic:


Q: Talk to us about the strategic value of the planned Summit of the Arab and African countries of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden and what it seeks to achieve?

A: Indeed, this summit is the result of a Saudi initiative because it has been too long. The Red Sea strategy is clear and after what happened in Yemen and the foreign forces interventions, and as you know, the Bab Al-Mandab Strait is very important for international security, the security of Arabs and all countries, and it is their responsibility as well.

This initiative was launched by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We welcomed it and for the first time the summit will be held, God willing, in Jeddah and the foreign ministers have prepared for it. This is a translation of the Kingdom's seriousness, and the role it is playing in this area. Internationally, it will be a great representative for peace in the region and the world.

Q: What are the hopes and aspirations of the planned summit for the region and for Djibouti specifically?

A: The results will be strengthening and assuming the international responsibility that falls on the neighboring countries … because you have with you NATO, certainly the institution that assumes responsibility for the safety of transportation and navigation in the world.

Q: Many of the participating countries, especially on the African side, do not get along among each other. How will there be security coordination and will conflicts be put to one side to achieve the goals of the council?

A: The only country that enjoys good relations with all the countries of this region is Saudi Arabia. And it is responsible for being the player and the only force that defends the opinion and the initiative, and provides the services to build peace between Port Said, Bab Al-Mandab and the Gulf of Aden, and prevent the satanic interventions that always seek to sabotage peace in this sensitive region.

Q: But how will you coordinate among yourselves to prevent piracy and impacting global energy shipments? Will we see a unified force in the Red Sea for example?

A: I think that it would be appropriate to think and we will discuss attending the next summit to put things into perspective. Let each one assume their responsibilities. What can we achieve for the population and the whole world? The transition from this phase for the global navigation against all forms of terrorism or piracy that can emerge in the region. That is why we should demonstrate or look into how we can, in a collegial manner, address any external threats we might face.

 Q: Moving on to Yemen, how has the seven-year war impacted you so far and do you see the current truce prevailing?

A: As you know, Yemen is a country that is very close to Djibouti. It is 20 km away from here. And Yemen was a victim of what happened in Syria, of what happened in Libya, and what certain Arab states were truly the victims of: Some sort of conspiracy targeting Arab unity. And the Yemeni people were lured by another evil or another conspiracy, another blow, if you will, that came from a country outside the region.

Djibouti fell victim because we have received a very large number of Yemeni refugees, and if it were not for the contribution, support and solidarity of the Saudi government, headed by King Salman, the situation would have been truly exacerbated by the behavior of Houthis, who have completely destroyed the country and have posed risks to maritime peace and security.




Yemenis displaced by rampaging Houthis fetch water at the UNHCR refugee camp in Obock, Djibouti on March 26, 2016. (AFP file photo)

However, they have failed, as the vigilance of the international forces, namely the Saudi forces, prevented them from doing so. The attempts to block this route and create insecurity and prevent the guarantees from working in good conditions … if it were not for Saudi Arabia, we would not have this peace in this corridor.

Q: Does your position regarding the war against Ukraine stem from the same position which is supporting legitimate governments and opposing attacking another country’s sovereignty? How has that war impacted you?

A: You know, it is very far away. Ukraine is very far away from us. We have, since the beginning, declared our position, considering that the heavy shelling that is hitting civilian populations is not a solution and cannot be a solution. However, with what is happening, what is needed is dialogue and consultations, there is no other alternative.

The destruction continues to the point where it risks having nuclear consequences in this region. Neither Russia nor Ukraine will come out of it as winners and we will have in our region — even if it (the war) is happening far away — consequences that might affect us. However, up until now we have not been affected by any repercussions.

Q: Djibouti hosts military bases for opposing world powers, how do you manage these relationships and the conflicting interests of these countries? And what is the mechanism to regulate the presence of foreign troops in your country?

A: We have not yet had any complaints coming from the countries that have deployed some Armaments and are conducting exercises in our country. One should always look for the reasons behind everything.

The main reason of the US presence, which started after the incident (in 2002) of the American ship (USS Cole) that was the target of an attack in Aden, which was launched by Al-Qaeda in the region, and the fight against terrorism. The first one was our contribution toward fighting international terrorism. This is what motivated the US presence in Djibouti.

After that, the Japanese also wanted to come and they have measured the dangers facing their fleets, their commercial fleets in particular, in the regions of Somalia, the Gulf of Aden. They have also asked us to deploy a plane so they can monitor the coasts, even though we, economically, do not have the capabilities to assume all these responsibilities.




Chinese troops attend the opening ceremony on August 1, 2017, of China's new military base in Djibouti, the Asian superpower's first overseas naval base. (AFP)

We participated by providing them with a space allowing them to secure international navigation and international peace, our share of the responsibility. Then there was China, which also, for the first time in its existence, had a platform and a military presence in Djibouti. These countries are big countries. However, they do not have any problems among themselves in regard to their presence in Djibouti and that is why everything is going well.

Q: But how will changing global geopolitics impact you? For example, do you fear a US-China confrontation because of Taiwan? What if you were asked to choose a side?

A: We have not even considered this. It is linked and they are fighting there, in Taiwan, in the South China Sea. However, the battleground is not here. The war zone is not here and it is not nearby either. That is why there is no fear, in my opinion. There is no fear of a confrontation between China and the US in Djibouti, I do not think so. It is something that God decides, it is not up to us to decide it.

Q: There seems to be a diminishing French military presence here. Word is that the military cooperation treaty between you and Paris might not be renewed. How do you see the future of your relationship with France?

A: The relations between Djibouti and France date back to the 19th century. The signed treaty expires this year. We will renew it, we are in the process of working with the legal experts, all these people.




French troops take part in a two-week military training in the desert in Ali Sabieh, Djibouti, on January 30, 2021. (AFP)

However, there is no position to be taken because we are ... as we say in our country, a husband and his wife are never friends nor enemies. This is the metaphor that illustrates that we can be angry at each other but we are very committed in our relations. We are not planning to have problems with them. It is like a family, in a way. We might fight sometimes. However, it is not a big deal.

Q: But it is that French military presence, as well as the American one, that has driven the terrorist group Al-Shabab to threaten your country directly. Doesn’t this worry you? What measures have you taken to defend yourself?

A: We were victims of an attack in 2014. Some people lost their lives and others were injured (a reference to the 2014 suicide attack on a restaurant that killed three foreigners). Our services only have one purpose now, which has always been to defend ourselves, we are here to defend ourselves. There is no problem. They can say whatever they want but our people are ready.

Q: You have always stood against extremist views and perhaps this is something in common with the current reforms in Saudi Arabia. Tell me how are the changes of the Kingdom seen in your country?

A: We have been waiting for this initiative for a long time and now, with the initiative of the crown prince and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, we are heading in the right direction. And our true religion, centrism and moderation, for a long time we have lived in Djibouti with this belief with ease.

However, the takfiris are seeking to turn half of the Muslims to infidels and expel them from the religion without mercy, without tolerance, and without any respect for Muslim women.

All of this created hatred among Muslims. We welcome and have welcomed moderation with our brothers in the Kingdom; the leadership and the people alike. It is in the best interests of the ummah, Arabs and Muslims, and to Islam all over the world.

Q: Apart from the religious aspect, how does Vision 2030 impact you? How do you see the Saudi-Djibouti relationship developing?”

A: Going back in time, since our independence and to this day, Saudi Arabia has always supported and helped us in development, and we always consult and coordinate with Saudi Arabia in various fields, from security to the Saudi Fund. I mean, we are very satisfied and we want to continue on this path while there is no alternative to the Kingdom’s leading role in the region.

 


Pakistani court acquits ex-PM’s daughter in corruption case

Updated 29 September 2022

Pakistani court acquits ex-PM’s daughter in corruption case

  • Maryam Nawaz is the vice president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League
  • The court also acquitted her husband, Mohammad Sadar

ISLAMABAD: A court in Pakistan’s capital city on Thursday acquitted the daughter of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after she was sentenced to seven years in prison over charges connected with the purchase of luxury apartments in London.
Maryam Nawaz, the vice president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, said outside the Islamabad High court that she is “thankful to God that justice has been done.” The luxury apartments at issue are owned by her brothers.
The court also acquitted her husband, Mohammad Sadar, who had been sentenced to one year in jail on charges of giving false information to investigators in 2018.
Sharif, who had also been sentenced to 10 years in jail in the same case, has been living in self-imposed exile in London since 2019 after authorities released him on bail so that he could travel abroad to seek medical treatment.


US vice president Kamala Harris caps Asia trip with stop at DMZ dividing Koreas

Updated 29 September 2022

US vice president Kamala Harris caps Asia trip with stop at DMZ dividing Koreas

  • The visit comes on the heels of North Korea’s latest missile launches
  • At the DMZ, Harris went to the top of a ridge, near guard towers and security cameras

PANMUNJOM, Korea: US Vice President Kamala Harris capped her four-day trip to Asia with a stop Thursday at the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Korean Peninsula as she emphasized US commitment to the security of its Asian allies in the face of an increasingly aggressive North Korea.
The visit comes on the heels of North Korea’s latest missile launches and amid fears that the country may conduct a nuclear test. Visiting the DMZ has become something of a ritual for American leaders hoping to show their resolve to stand firm against aggression.
North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles on Wednesday, while Harris was in Japan, and had fired one before she left Washington on Sunday. The launches contribute to a record level of missile testing this year that is intended to move Pyongyang closer to being acknowledged as a full-fledged nuclear power.
At the DMZ, Harris went to the top of a ridge, near guard towers and security cameras. She looked through bulky binoculars as a South Korean colonel pointed out military installations on the southern side. Then an American colonel pointed out some of the defenses along the military demarcation line, including fence topped with barbed wire and claymore mines. He said American soldiers regularly walk patrols along a path.
“It’s so close,” Harris said.
Her tour visit to the observation post came after she met US service members and some of their relatives at the Camp Bonifas Dining Facility, where she said she wanted them to know “how grateful and thankful we are.”
“I know it’s not always easy. Most of the time it’s not,” she said.
She asked a soldier from Florida on whether he checked in on his family after Hurricane Ian.
“Yeah, they’re up on a hill,” he said.
When another soldier stammered nervously while introducing himself, Harris said, “You know your name!”
“They’re going to give you such a hard time when this is over,” she joked.
Earlier, Harris met with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at his office in Seoul where they condemned North Korea’s intensifying weapons tests and reaffirmed the US commitment to defend the South with a full range of its military capabilities in the event of war, Yoon’s office said.
They expressed concern over North Korea’s threats of nuclear conflict and pledged an unspecified stronger response to major North Korean provocations, including a nuclear test, which South Korean officials say could possibly take place in coming months.
Harris and Yoon were also expected to discuss expanding economic and technology partnerships and repairing recently strained ties between Seoul and Tokyo to strengthen their trilateral cooperation with Washington in the region.
Harris’ trip was organized so she could attend the state funeral of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but her itinerary was dominated by security concerns, a reflection of fears about China’s growing power and North Korea’s ramped-up testing activity.
In every meeting, Harris tried to lay to rest any fears that the United States was wavering in its commitment to protect its allies, describing American partnerships with South Korea and Japan as the “linchpin” and “cornerstone” of its defense strategy in Asia.
Yoon, who took office earlier this year, had anchored his election campaign with vows to deepen Seoul’s economic and security partnership with Washington to navigate challenges posed by the North Korean threat and address potential supply chain risks caused by the pandemic, the US-China rivalry and Russia’s war on Ukraine. But the alliance has been marked by tension recently.
South Koreans have expressed a sense of betrayal over a new law signed by President Joe Biden that prevents electric cars built outside of North America from being eligible for US government subsidies, undermining the competitiveness of automakers like Seoul-based Hyundai.
There are indications North Korea may up its weapons demonstrations soon as it refines its missiles and delivery systems and attempts to pressure Washington to accept the North as a nuclear power. South Korean officials said last week that they detected signs North Korea was preparing to test a ballistic missile system designed to be fired from submarines.
The US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was to train with South Korean and Japanese warships in waters near the Korean Peninsula on Friday in the countries’ first trilateral anti-submarine exercises since 2017 to counter North Korean submarine threats, South Korea’s navy said Thursday.
US and South Korean officials also say North Korea is possibly gearing up for its first nuclear test since 2017. That test could come after China holds its Communist Party convention the week of Oct. 16, but before the United States holds its midterm elections Nov. 8, according to South Korean lawmakers who attended a closed-door briefing from the National Intelligence Service.


Taliban fire into air to disperse women’s rally backing Iran protests

Updated 29 September 2022

Taliban fire into air to disperse women’s rally backing Iran protests

KABUL:  Taliban forces fired shots into the air on Thursday to disperse a women’s rally supporting protests in Iran over the death of a woman in the custody of morality police.
Deadly protests have erupted in neighboring Iran for the past two weeks, following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while detained by the Islamic republic’s morality police.
Chanting the same “Women, life, freedom” mantra used in Iran, about 25 Afghan women protested in front of Kabul’s Iranian embassy before being dispersed by Taliban forces firing in the air, an AFP correspondent reported.
Women protesters carried banners that read: “Iran has risen, now it’s our turn!” and “From Kabul to Iran, say no to dictatorship!“
Taliban forces swiftly snatched the banners and tore them in front of the protesters.
Defiant Afghan women’s rights activists have staged sporadic protests in Kabul and some other cities since the Taliban stormed back to power last August.
The protests, banned by the Taliban, contravene a slew of harsh restrictions imposed by the hard-line extremists on Afghan women.
The Taliban have forcefully dispersed women’s rallies in the past, warned journalists against covering them and detained activists helming organization efforts.
An organizer of Thursday’s protest, speaking anonymously, told AFP it was staged “to show our support and solidarity with the people of Iran and the women victims of the Taliban in Afghanistan.”
Since returning to power, the Taliban have banned secondary school education for girls and barred women from many government jobs.
Women have also been ordered to fully cover themselves in public, preferably with the all-encompassing burqa.
So far the Taliban have dismissed international calls to remove the curbs on women, especially the ban on secondary school education.
On Tuesday, a United Nations report denounced the “severe restrictions” and called for them to be reversed.
The international community has insisted that lifting controls on women’s rights is a key condition for recognizing the Taliban government, which no country has so far done.


Kremlin suspects foreign ‘state involvement’ in Nord Stream leaks

Updated 29 September 2022

Kremlin suspects foreign ‘state involvement’ in Nord Stream leaks

  • The two other holes are in the Danish exclusive economic zone
  • The EU suspects sabotage behind the gas leaks on the subsea Russian pipelines

MOSCOW/OSLO: The Kremlin said Thursday that a foreign state was likely responsible for an incident that resulted in the leaks at the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines linking Russia to Europe.

“It’s very difficult to imagine that such a terrorist act could happen without the involvement of a state,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in his daily press briefing, renewing calls for an “urgent investigation.”

Sweden’s coast guard earlier this week discovered a fourth gas leak on the damaged Nord Stream pipelines, a coast guard spokesperson told newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.

“Two of these four are in Sweden’s exclusive economic zone,” coast guard spokesperson Jenny Larsson told the newspaper.

The two other holes are in the Danish exclusive economic zone.

The European Union suspects sabotage was behind the gas leaks on the subsea Russian pipelines to Europe and has promised a “robust” response to any intentional disruption of its energy infrastructure.


‘Living in the stone age’: Offline for 18 months in Indian-administered Kashmir

Updated 29 September 2022

‘Living in the stone age’: Offline for 18 months in Indian-administered Kashmir

  • India shut off the Internet at least 85 times last year in Indian-administered Kashmir, largely on security grounds
  • India is one of the few countries in the world to have codified rules in 2017 under which Internet can be shut

SRINAGAR, India: For editors at The Kashmir Walla, fact-checking a story used to involve a flurry of googling before press time. So when an 18-month Internet and phone shutdown began in the Himalayan region in 2019, they had to improvise.

“We used to leave blank spaces in news stories when we couldn’t verify certain facts. Every week, a team member would fly to Delhi and fill in the blanks,” said Yash Raj Sharma, an editor with the weekly magazine.

It was one of numerous headaches for journalists in Indian-administered Kashmir. Unable to use his mobile, Sharma, 25, recalled driving to a telephone booth at Srinagar airport to dictate an 800-word news story to a friend in Delhi.

“That incident will remain with me forever as a memory of working during the longest communication and Internet shutdown,” said Sharma, who also used to call friends in Delhi to ask them to read out and respond to his emails.

India revoked the special status of its portion of Kashmir, known as Jammu and Kashmir, on Aug. 5, 2019 in a bid to fully integrate its only Muslim-majority region with the rest of the country.

Anticipating major unrest, authorities imposed a communications blackout, cutting off phone and Internet connections.

The shutdown lasted until Feb. 5, 2021, when 4G mobile data services were reinstated in the region. Slow-speed Internet was restored a year earlier, but with limited access.

For older Kashmiris, it was a journey back in time to the pre-Internet days of their youth of letters and landlines.

For the young, it felt like “living in the stone age,” said Umer Maqbool, 25, who took out a bank loan to buy cameras and other equipment to set up a videography business in August 2019 — just as the shutdown began.

He got no bookings until the Internet was restored, and had to borrow from family and friends to make the loan payments.

“I had put all my hopes on the earnings from the business, but there was something else written in my destiny,” Maqbool, who supports a family-of-five, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

RECORD SHUTDOWNS

India shut off the Internet at least 106 times last year — the highest number of shutdowns globally for the fourth consecutive year, according to digital rights group Access Now, costing the economy an estimated $600 million.

Of these outages, at least 85 were in Jammu and Kashmir, largely on security grounds.

Elsewhere in the country, authorities have also shut off the Internet and mobile Internet during elections, protests, religious festivals and examinations.

It is “extremely easy” to suspend the Internet in India, as federal and state officers can do so “without any prior judicial authorization,” said Krishnesh Bapat, an associate litigation counsel at the non-profit Internet Freedom Foundation.

“The suspensions are justified as ‘strong decisions’ in response to protests or cheating in exams or other law and order issues ... despite the fact that there is little empirical evidence to suggest they lead to better law and order outcomes.”

India’s interior ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

LAWS FLOUTED

Internet shutdowns have become more sophisticated worldwide, lasting longer, harming people and the economy, and targeting vulnerable groups, according to Access Now, which recorded some 182 Internet shutdowns in 34 countries last year, up from 159 shutdowns in 29 nations the previous year.

India is one of the few countries in the world to have codified rules in 2017 under which the Internet can be shut.

And in 2020, the Supreme Court said that access to the Internet was a fundamental right, and that the indefinite shutdown of the Internet in Indian-administered Kashmir was illegal. It also said that all orders on Internet shutdowns must be made public.

Yet officials have continued to pull the plug — including in Indian-administered Kashmir — often without giving reasons, and the courts have rarely challenged the government, Bapat said.

“It is difficult to challenge the suspension of Internet services because by the time the aggrieved parties reach the courts, the Internet shutdown orders expire,” he said.

“But the legal challenges are needed because of the frequency with which the laws are flouted.”

In a significant shift earlier this year, the Calcutta high court struck down an order by the West Bengal state government suspending Internet services in several districts, aimed at stopping students from cheating in the exams.

In its judgment, the court said the order was “unreasoned” and did not show a public emergency.

FILL IN THE BLANKS

There have been more than 400 Internet outages in Kashmir over the past decade, and shutdowns have become more frequent in recent years, a tracker showed.

Kashmir has been at the heart of more than 70 years of animosity, since the partition of the British colony of India into the countries of Muslim Pakistan and Hindu-majority India.

The region is divided between India — which rules the Kashmir Valley and the Hindu-dominated region around Jammu city — and Pakistan, which controls a wedge of territory in the west, and China, which holds a thinly populated area in the north.

During the 2019 shutdown, Kashmiris waited in long lines to make calls from phone lines in government offices, police stations and other public places, or boarded crowded trains to travel to towns with Internet access.

With Internet speed restricted to 2G during much of the COVID-19 lockdowns, people struggled to work from home, attend online classes or even access health care information online.

It cost Indian-administered Kashmir tens of thousands of jobs as small and medium-sized businesses closed, according to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and took a heavy toll on young Kashmiris like Maleeha Sofi, 22.

The Monday that the shutdown began, she had planned to go to a college in Srinagar to check on the admission process.

She eventually joined the college eight months later, and struggled with her classmates through the outages that made it difficult to do course work and prepare for exams.

“We have now become used to Internet shutdowns. We know it can happen anytime, so we have learned that we should never rely on the Internet, and learned to live without it,” she said.

But others have run out of patience with the disruption to their studies.

Insha, 22, moved to Delhi four years ago for college.

“I couldn’t stay in a place where the Internet can get disrupted anytime — for days and even months,” she said.

“I didn’t see a future in Kashmir.”