TIME Yemen

Why the U.S. Is Fighting Beside Iran in Iraq and Against It in Yemen

An armed member of Houthi militia (R) keeps watch as people gather beside vehicles which were allegedly destroyed by a Saudi air strike, in Sana'a, Yemen on March 26, 2015.
Yahya Arhab—EPA An armed member of Houthi militia keeps watch as people gather beside vehicles which were allegedly destroyed by a Saudi air strike, in Sanaa, Yemen on March 26, 2015.

Tehran and Washington share an interest in re-establishing state authority in Iraq, but in Yemen their agendas diverge

Just to set the scene: In Iraq on Wednesday, U.S. warplanes began providing air cover to Iranian-backed militias in Tikrit, in a joint effort against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) coordinated through the Iraqi government. On the same day, 1,200 miles to the south in Yemen, the U.S. was providing guidance to Saudi pilots bombing Shia insurgents who are supported by Iran. So the U.S. was bombing Iran’s enemies in one country, and helping to bomb Iran’s allies in another.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland, American and Iranian diplomats were resuming their intense talks about how to contain Tehran’s nuclear program. Both sides insisted the negotiations were confined to matters atomic, nothing else. And that’s a good thing, because the ever-complex Middle East has never looked more so than it does at this moment.

And yet, in an important way, Wednesday’s events are wonderfully clarifying. March 26, 2015 may go down in history as the day that Arab states came out into the open to fight, putting their names and ordnance into a conflict that had been carried out by shadowy armed groups the governments quietly equipped, sheltered and cosseted, previously preserving a deniability that only muddied the situation even further.

Saudi Arabia declared it sent 100 warplanes to strike targets inside Yemen, and now has 150,000 troops standing by at the border. The intervention was backed by nine other nations, and the announced “logistical and intelligence” support of Washington, where the Saudis chose to convene the news conference revealing the campaign. The governments lined up behind the Saudis were all fellow Sunni governments—Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Morocco, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait, several providing planes of their own. Egypt, according to a fresh report, is also preparing to send troops. The only holdout from the Gulf was Oman, which prides itself on maintaining the trust of Iran: the sultan of Oman played the role of mediator when U.S. and Iranian diplomats secretly met there to talk about formally launching the nuclear negotiation.

So the divide is clearly Sunni v. Shia, the same tension that created ISIS and has torn asunder Iraq and Syria. Iran’s foreign minister kindly pointed this out in an interview with Iran’s state-run satellite channel Al-Alam: “We have always warned countries from the region and the West to be careful and not enter shortsighted games and not go in the same direction as al-Qaeda and Daesh,” said Mohammad Javad Zarif, referring to ISIS by its Arabic initials.

The warning was a bit disingenuous, given Iran’s role as overlord of the Shia side of the divide. Tehran has been an essential ally of the Shi’ite-inflected Syrian regime led by President Bashar Assad, and a major player in Iraq, where on Thursday, three of the Shi’ite militias it backs announced they were dropping out of the fight for Tikrit, to protest the new American role in the battle.

In Yemen, Tehran is the primary sponsor of the Houthi tribe, providing training, arms and money. The Houthis were once largely confined to the country’s north, seat of its Zaidi brand of Shi’ism, but in September they took over the capital city of Sana. After linking up with Ali Abdullah Saleh, the longtime Yemeni president who was deposed during the Arab Spring, the Houthis marched on the southern port of Aden, where the elected president, Abed Raggo Mansour Hadi had been holed up before fleeing Yemen by boat ahead of Wednesday’s airstrikes. He was later seen meeting with the Saudi defense minister.

In peace, Yemen is an amazing country to visit. It doesn’t look like anywhere else on Earth, except maybe the illustrations in a storybook. It’s also an ideal example of what happens when a state collapses—or really, never coalesces in the first place. And that lesson really explains what the United States is doing in both Yemen and Iraq.

States were designed to bring coherence to human affairs, first and foremost by monopolizing the use of violence. In Iraq the government of Saddam Hussein used to manage that coherence—albeit brutally. And then the U.S. invasion of 2003 dismantled Iraq’s military, and distributed political power on sectarian lines. Now, in the battle against ISIS, which rushed into the void left by a state that has continued to fail, the U.S. finds itself joining Iran in an effort to re-establish the power of the weak central government in Baghdad. That government is dominated by Iraq’s Shi’ite majority—as well as by Tehran, which does not want chaos on the long border the two countries share.

Yemen, on the other hand, has never really managed to function as a state. It was two countries—plain old Yemen in the north, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south—as recently as 1990, when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought the cleavage to an end. Tribal authority has often trumped the state’s. And the country’s long border is with Saudi Arabia, that seat of Sunni power, and great regional rival of Tehran. Yemen, known as Arabia Felix, or “Happy Arabia” was so close to the Saudi kingdom that the border was not even demarcated until June 2000, in an agreement signed by Saleh, who like two-thirds of Yemenis, is Sunni.

So the Iranians are not terribly bothered by turmoil in Yemen, especially if the turmoil ends—as it looked like it might—with the Houthis more or less in charge, by dint of their new alliance with Saleh, and the large sections of the Yemeni military that remain loyal to him. But the end is not yet in sight, and in the meantime, al-Qaeda has maintained its most lethal branch in Yemen, and ISIS has been making its mark, claiming responsibility for the March 20 bombings of Shi’ite mosques that killed more than 130 people. The ensuing chaos forced 100 U.S. advisers off the air base from which they operated the drones that searched for al-Qaeda targets.

Those U.S. advisers are likely to return in some form behind elements of the 150,000 Saudi troops on the Yemen border awaiting orders from King Salman, photographed in his war room surrounded by generals in chocolate chip desert fatigues. The uniforms, pattrened after American combat fatigues, say a lot: First, about where the U.S. is in this fight. “We are establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support,” the White House said in a statement. The other use of uniforms? Making clear, for a change, who’s actually fighting.

TIME Yemen

President of Yemen Flees by Sea; Saudis Begin Air Strikes

In this March 24, 2015 photo, tanks seized recently by militiamen loyal to Yemen's President Hadi take positions at the al-Anad air base in Lahej, Yemen.
Wael Qubady—AP In this March 24, 2015 photo, tanks seized recently by militiamen loyal to Yemen's President Hadi take positions at the al-Anad air base in Lahej, Yemen.

Houthi rebels and their allies moved on Aden, captured its airport and put a bounty on the President's head

(SANAA, Yemen) — President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled Yemen by sea Wednesday as Shiite rebels and their allies moved on his last refuge in the south, captured its airport and put a bounty on his head, officials said. Hours later, Saudi Arabia announced it had begun airstrikes against the Houthi rebels.

The departure of the close U.S. ally and the imminent fall of the southern port of Aden pushed Yemen further toward a violent collapse. It also threatened to turn the impoverished but strategic country into another proxy battle between the Middle East’s Sunni powers and Shiite-led Iran.

Saudi ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir said his country had begun airstrikes against the rebels. He said his government had consulted closely with the U.S. and other allies but that the U.S. military was not involved in the operations.

The White House said in a statement late Wednesday that the U.S. was coordinating military and intelligence support with the Saudis but not taking part directly in the strikes.

There were indications that others in the region would follow suit: The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia in a statement published by the Saudi Press Agency, saying they would answer a request from Hadi “to protect Yemen and his dear people from the aggression of the Houthi militias which were and are still a tool in the hands of foreign powers that don’t stop meddling with the security and stability of brotherly Yemen.” Oman, the sixth member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, didn’t sign onto the statement.

In a statement from the state news agency Egypt, too, announced political and military support. “There is coordination ongoing now with Saudi Arabia and the brotherly gulf countries about preparations to participate with an Egyptian air and naval forces and ground troops if necessary,” the statement said.

Arab leaders are expected to meet in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik this weekend for a pre-planned summit, which is now expected to be dominated by the developments in Yemen. It is not clear if Hadi will be able to attend the summit.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies believe the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, are tools for Iran to seize control of Yemen and say they intend to stop the takeover. The Houthis deny they are backed by Iran.

The crumbling of Hadi’s government is a blow to Washington’s counterterrorism strategy against al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, considered to be the most powerful in the terrorist network. Over the weekend, about 100 U.S. military advisers withdrew from the al-Annad air base where they had been leading a drone campaign against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

Yemen now faces fragmentation, with Houthis controlling much of the north, including the capital of Sanaa, and several southern provinces. In recent days, they took the third-largest city, Taiz, as well as much of the province of Lahj, both just to the north of Aden.

In fighting in Lahj, they captured Hadi’s defense minister, Maj. Gen. Mahmoud al-Subaihi, and then swept into the nearby al-Annad base, which the U.S. military had left.

The Houthis are backed by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the autocrat who ruled Yemen for three decades until he was removed amid a 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Some of the best-equipped and trained military and security units remained loyal to Saleh and they have helped the Houthis in their rapid advance.

Hadi left Sanaa for Aden earlier this month after escaping house arrest under the Houthis, who overran the capital six months ago. In Aden, he had sought to make a last stand, claiming it as the temporary seat of what remained of his government, backed by allied militias and loyal army units.

Security officials in Yemen said the Saudi airstrikes targeted a camp for U.S.-trained special forces, which is controlled by generals loyal to Saleh. The officials said the targets included the missile base in Sanaa that was controlled by the Houthis earlier this year. One of the Yemeni security officials said the strikes also targeted the fuel depot at the base.

The Houthis said in a statement to reporters that Saudi jets hit the military base, known as al-Duleimi, and that they responded with anti-aircraft missiles.

Saudi-owned Al-Hadath TV aired pictures of the operation. The dark screen flashed with glaring lights and there was what sounded like machine guns or possibly anti-aircraft missiles.

Riad Yassin, Yemen’s Foreign Minister, told Al-Hadath that the airstrikes were welcomed.

“I hope the Houthis listen to the sound of reason. With what is happening, they forced us into this,” he said.

With Houthis and Saleh forces closing in on multiple fronts, Hadi and his aides left Aden after 3:30 p.m. on two boats in the Gulf of Aden, security and port officials told The Associated Press. The officials would not specify his destination.

Saleh said in a speech two weeks ago that Hadi might head for the African country of Djibouti across the gulf, just as leaders of southern Yemen fled.

Officials said Hadi had been preparing for the move since Sunday, when rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi vowed in a fiery speech that his forces will keep advancing south, referring to Hadi as a “puppet” of international powers.

Shortly after Hadi fled his palace in Aden, warplanes targeted presidential forces guarding it. No casualties were reported. By midday, Aden’s airport fell into hands of forces loyal to Saleh based in the city after intense clashes with pro-Hadi militias.

Yemen’s state TV, now controlled by the Houthis, announced a bounty of nearly $100,000 for Hadi’s capture.

The Houthis still face multiple opponents. Sunni tribesmen and local militias are fighting them in many places around Yemen, and the rebels have little support in the south.

Some military units remain loyal to Hadi, although they are severely weakened. Alarmingly, al-Qaida militants have emerged as a powerful force against the rebels, and there are signs of a presence of the even more extremist Islamic State group. Last week, the group claimed responsibility for suicide bombings against the Houthis in Sanaa that killed 137 people.

AQAP is considered the terrorist group most dangerous to the U.S. because it successfully placed three bombs on U.S. bound airlines, although none exploded. U.S. officials acknowledge their efforts against AQAP are seriously hampered, with the U.S. Embassy closed and the last U.S. troops evacuated.

Although the Houthis are avowed enemies of al-Qaida, they can’t project power against the militants the way the Hadi government could with U.S. support. The deeply anti-American rebels have rejected Washington’s overtures, officials say.

Hadi’s exit is a humiliating reversal, coming in large part at the hands of Saleh, the man he replaced in 2012 under a deal that allowed the former leader to remain free.

The atmosphere in Aden was tense, with most schools, government offices, shops and restaurants closed. In the few cafes still open, men watched the news on TV. Looters went through two abandoned army camps, taking weapons and ammunition.

Mohammed Abdel-Salam, a spokesman for the Houthis, told the rebel-controlled Al-Masirah news channel that their forces were not aiming to occupy the south.

MONEY Oil

Two Big Reasons You Won’t Be Spending More On Gas Anytime Soon

Shaybah oilfield complex, in the Rub' al-Khali desert, Saudi Arabia, November 14, 2007.
Ali Jarekji—REUTERS Shaybah oilfield complex, in the Rub' al-Khali desert, Saudi Arabia.

Chinese demand doesn’t seem to be improving, and Saudi Arabia is actually boosting production.

The beleaguered oil industry was hit with a double dose of bad news on Tuesday, which initially sent oil prices down. On the supply side, Saudi Arabia continues to make good on its refusal to cut its production, instead, it actually boosted production close to an all-time high. Meanwhile, weaker than expected demand in China doesn’t appear to be improving as factory data from the world’s top oil importer slipped to an 11-month low. Unless these two trends reverse course both could continue to put pressure on oil prices in the months ahead.

Gushing supplies

Saudi Arabia is making it abundantly clear that it has no intention of cutting its oil production to reduce the current glut of oil on the market. This past weekend its OPEC governor, Mohammed al-Madi, said that the market can forget about a return of triple digit oil prices for the time being. That statement was backed up by the country’s oil production data, which according to a Reuters report is now up to 10 million barrels per day. Not only is that near its all-time high, but its 350,000 barrels per day more than the country told OPEC it would produce last month. In fact, as we can see in the following chart the Kingdom’s oil output has steadily risen over the past few decades and is nearing its previous peak from the 1980s.

Saudi Arabia Crude Oil Production Chart

Typically the Saudi’s are the first to cut oil production when the market has too much supply. However, this time it’s more concerned with keeping its share of the oil market that it’s willing to flood the market with cheap oil in order to slow down production growth from places like the U.S., Canada, and Russia. This is leaving the world short of places to put the excess oil asstorage space is quickly running low due to weaker than expected demand.

China continues to slow

To make matters worse, China, which is the world’s second largest economy and top oil importer, continues to see its economic growth slow suggesting its demand for oil could be even more tepid in the months ahead. The latest data out of China shows that factory activity is now at an 11-month low. This was after the HSBC/Markit Purchasing Managers’ Index was at 49.2 for March, well below the 50.7 mark from February. Not only is that below the 50.6 that economists had expected, but it’s now below the 50-point mark that separates growth from a contraction.

That’s bad news for oil prices because as the following chart shows China’s rapidly expanding economy has been a key driver of its surging oil demand over the past decade.

China Oil Consumption Chart

With China’s economic growth slowing down it’s leading to a slowdown in its demand for oil. That leaves robust global oil supplies with nowhere to go at the moment as demand for oil in Europe has been weakened by its own economic issues while the U.S. no longer needs as much imported oil thanks to efficiency gains as well as its own robust output. This will put pressure on oil prices as increased demand for oil from China was seen as a key for an oil price rally.

Investor takeaway

So much for peak oil as Saudi Arabia has now pushed its production close to its all-time high with no signs that it plans to tap the brakes. That’s coming at the worst possible moment as the oil market is oversupplied by upwards of two million barrels per day at the moment due to weaker than expected demand in China. Worse yet, Chinese demand could start to contract as its economic machine is notably showing down. This means that investors in oil stocks are in for more volatility as the market continues to work through its supply and demand issues.

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TIME Iran

The Middle East Nuclear Race Is Already Under Way

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, center, and head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, center right, talk outside with aides after a morning negotiation session with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over Iran's nuclear programme in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 19, 2015.
Brian Snyder—AFP/Getty Images Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, talk with aides after a morning negotiation session with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over Iran's nuclear program in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 19, 2015

While the U.S. and other world powers work to constrain Iran's nuclear program, five rival nations plan atomic programs

One of the most important reasons why the U.S. is trying to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran is to prevent an Iranian bomb from triggering a nuclear race in the Middle East. Yet even as talks continue now in Switzerland, Tehran’s regional rivals have already begun quietly acting on their own atomic ambitions. Nuclear power may be on the wane almost everywhere else in the world, but it’s all the rage in the place with all that oil.

Egypt’s announcement last month that it was hiring Russia to build a reactor near Alexandria made it only the latest entrant in an emerging atomic derby. Every other major Sunni power in the region has announced similar plans. And though none appear either as ambitious nor as ambiguous as what’s taken place in Iran — which set out to master the entire atomic-fuel cycle, a red flag for a military program — each announcement lays down a marker in a region that, until recently, was notable as the one place on the planet where governments had made little progress on nuclear power.

With the exception of Israel, which has never publicly acknowledged its widely known nuclear arsenal, no Middle Eastern country beyond Iran had a nuclear program — peaceful or otherwise — until the wealthy United Arab Emirates began building a reactor in July 2012 (due for completion in 2017). The list now includes, in addition to Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — the last Iran’s archrival, and which last year revealed plans to build 16 nuclear plants over the next two decades. When the President of South Korea — which has 23 nuclear plants of its own — visited the Kingdom earlier this month, leaders of both countries signed a memo of understanding calling for Seoul to build two of the nuclear plants. The Saudis have made similar arrangements with China, Argentina and France.

“It’s not just because nuclear power is seen as a first step toward a nuclear-weapons option,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. State Department nuclear expert who now runs the nonproliferation and disarmament program at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. “There is also a prestige factor: keeping up with the neighbors.”

Middle Eastern nations may have legitimate reasons to invest in nuclear energy. Jordan, for instance, has almost no oil in liquid form, and almost less water. Saudi Arabia and the UAE possess huge crude reserves, but lose potential export revenue when they burn oil at home to create electricity — huge amounts of which are sucked up by desalination plants. Turkey, despite impressive hydroelectric potential, must import oil and natural gas.

But all that has been true for decades. What’s changed in recent years is the nuclear capabilities of Iran — a Shi‘ite Muslim country Sunni leaders have come to regard as major threat. Jordan’s King Abdullah II famously warned of a “Shia crescent” of Iran-aligned countries reaching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. The Saudis have made it clear that they will acquire a nuclear weapon should Iran get one.

“This is not the shortest way to a nuclear weapon, by any means,” says Sharon Squassoni, director of the proliferation-prevention program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “But if I put myself in their shoes, I’d think it probably makes sense to start down this path to see if we can develop a civilian nuclear [program], and if we pick up some capabilities along the way, that’s all right.”‘

Suspicion rises with every new announcement partly because the Middle East is bucking a global trend. Worldwide, the number of nuclear plants has declined since the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011. Reactions differed by country. Germany forswore nuclear energy altogether after the disaster, while China pressed ahead, planning more than 100 new reactors. But in most places, the environmental risks and high costs have turned countries off nuclear power.

“My beef with nuclear energy is that it’s sort of held up as this very prestigious thing,” Squassoni tells TIME. “We do nuclear deals with our best allies … all this stuff about strategic partnership. And really, it’s this extremely expensive, complicated, slightly dangerous way to boil water. And that’s what you’re doing, right? You’re boiling water to turn those turbines.”

The expense alone may prevent some Middle Eastern nations from every actually joining the “nuclear club.” Building an atomic plant costs at least $5 billion, Fitzpatrick notes, and Egypt is desperately poor; Jordan relies heavily on remittances and foreign aid. But the Saudis still have money to burn and, according to former White House official Gary Samore, have consistently rebuffed U.S. imprecations to sign a pledge not to divert any nuclear program toward producing a bomb (a pledge the UAE took). Saudi Arabia has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but then so has Iran, and in the end a race can be run by as few as two: India and Pakistan, bitter neighbors, neither of which are rich, went nuclear in 1974 and 1998, respectively. They’ve gone to war once since, raising anxiety levels around the world.

So the talks in Switzerland are about more than preventing Iran from getting the bomb. They are also about persuading Iran’s neighbors that the nuclear option is effectively off the table. If the talks end with a final agreement that looks like a win for the Islamic Republic, diplomats say its neighbors will fast track their own plans. “If the accord is not sufficiently solid then regional countries would say it’s not serious enough, so we are also going to get the nuclear weapon,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Europe 1 Radio on Saturday. “And that would lead to an extremely dangerous nuclear proliferation.”

Read next: Israel Denies Spying on Iran Nuclear Talks With U.S.

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TIME Oil

The Real (and Troubling) Reason Behind Lower Oil Prices

green-gasoline-pump
Getty Images

It isn't supply and demand, as most people believe

I am obsessed with how the top tier of finance has undermined, rather than fueled, the real economy. In part, that’s because of I’m writing a book about the topic, but also because so many market stories I come across seem to support this notion. The other day, I had lunch with Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets for Morgan Stanley Investment Management and chief of macroeconomics for the bank, who posited a fascinating idea: the major fall in oil prices since this summer may be about a shift in trading, rather than a change in the fundamental supply and demand equation. Oil, he says, is now a financial asset as much as a commodity.

The conventional wisdom about the fall in oil prices has been that it’s a result of both slower demand in China, which is in the midst of a slowdown and debt crisis, but also the increase in US shale production and the unwillingness of the Saudis to stop pumping so much oil. The Saudis often cut production in periods of slowing demand, but this time around they have not. This is in part because they are quite happy to put pressure on the Iranians, their sectarian rivals who need a much higher oil price to meet their budgets, as well as the Russians, who likewise are on the wrong side of the sectarian conflict in the Middle East via their support for the Syrian regime.

Sharma rightly points out, though, that supply and demand haven’t changed enough to create a 50% plunge in prices. Meanwhile, the price decline began not on the news of slower Chinese growth or Saudi announcements about supply, but last summer when the Fed announced that it planned to stop its quantitative easing program. Sharma and many others believe this program fueled a run up in asset buying in both emerging markets and commodities markets. “Easy money had kept oil prices artificially high for much longer than fundamentals warranted, as Chinese demand and oil supply had started to turn back in 2011, and oil prices have now merely returned to their long-term average,” says Sharma. “The end of the Fed’s quantitative easing has finally pricked the oil bubble.”

If this is the case, the fact that hot money could have such an effect on such a crucial everyday resource is worrisome. And the fact that the Fed’s QE, which was designed to buoy the real economy, has instead had the unintended and perverse effect of inflating asset prices is particularly disturbing. I think that regulatory attention on the financialization of the commodities markets will undoubtedly grow; for more on how it all works, check out this New York Times story on Goldman’s control of the aluminum markets. Amazing stuff.

Correction: The original version of this story misidentified Ruchir Sharma. He is the head of emerging markets for Morgan Stanley Investment Management.

Read next: The U.S. Will Spend $5 Billion on Energy Research in 2015 – Where Is It Going?

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TIME portfolio

Inside a Saudi Arabian Oil Giant’s American Oasis

“When I think back on growing up in Dhahran, it seems like a dream. An American dream in Saudi Arabia.”

Photographer Ayesha Malik grew up in a typical American suburb with cookie-cutter houses, softball fields, and Christmas trees in December. However, her hometown, Dhahran, is located on the east coast of Saudi Arabia, some 8,000 miles away from the California neighborhood it was modeled after.

Dhahran is a 22.5 square-mile gated compound built for the American expatriate workers of Aramco, the biggest oil company in the world. Now owned by the Saudi state, Aramco was originally founded in 1933 as a U.S.-Saudi joint venture. Palm trees and lush lawns were imported after striking black gold.

“Growing up, I didn’t differentiate between ‘American’ and ‘Saudi’,” says Malik. “In my world, abayas and softball fields were very compatible. As I got older, I realized what a rare privilege it was to have the chance to experience Saudi Arabia.”

 Dhahran Saudi Arabia
Ayesha MalikStreet signs in Dhahran are written in both Arabic and English.

The opportunity for Westerners to travel, let alone photograph, in Saudi Arabia has always been severely restricted. “Sure, [Dhahran] is in Saudi Arabia, but it’s not really Saudi Arabia,” Malik tells TIME. Outside the Aramco compound, women can’t drive, shops close multiple times a day for prayer, and restaurants are segregated between families and single males, she says.

In Dhahran, Malik can drive, ride a bike, and photograph her hometown. But, if she steps out of the compound, she cannot enjoy the same range of freedoms without being accompanied by a male relative, and must conform to the country’s stringent rules. “I still get told to put my camera away by guards at the mall,” she says. “Legally, I can take photos in public — but that wasn’t always the case. For years, camera phones were banned at the mall, but there is no way that could be controlled in this day and age.”

 Dhahran Saudi Arabia Mall
Ayesha MalikDhahran Mall, a 10 minute drive outside of the compound. Women usually wear abayas outside of Aramco’s compound.

With her Pakistani origins, her American passport and Saudi background, Malik is perfectly positioned to document Saudi identity, which now forms an integral part of her work as a photographer. “I try not to let the restrictions on women get in my way,” Malik tells TIME. “I focus on the positive. As a woman, I have the chance to meet and speak with many other young women in Saudi Arabia, which would not be doable as a man. I get my fair share of rejections [from men and women], but I also find that people are more curious and open to [being photographed].”

Saudi Arabia is a complex country, and the pace of change is slow, Malik says. However, she sees signs of a shifting status quo. “I just don’t think you can look at Saudi Arabia and implement changes based on a Western perspective,” she says. “Saudi Arabia takes great pride in its history and tradition, but it also values the importance of a future in the modern world.”

Ayesha Malik is a photographer based in New York City and Riyadh.

Marisa Schwartz is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME.com. Follow her on Instagram and twitter.

 

TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia Says the Chapel Hill Shootings Were a ‘Terrorist’ Act

Namee Barakat, center, watches during funeral services for his son, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Feb. 12, 2015, in Wendell, N.C.
Chuck Liddy—The News/ Observer/AP Namee Barakat, center, watches during funeral services for his son Deah Barakat in Wendell, N.C., on Feb. 12, 2015

Thousands also march in Qatar to show solidarity with victims

Saudi Arabia has condemned the killing of three American Muslims in North Carolina as “heinous” and a “terrorist” act.

A statement published by the official Saudi Press Agency on Sunday also called for an end to incitement against Muslims, the Associated Press reports.

On Sunday, several thousand people took part in a march in neighboring Qatar to show solidarity with the families of the North Carolina victims.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is made up of 57 Muslim countries, also expressed concern, saying the murders reflected “rising anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobic acts” in the U.S.

Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha and her sister Razan Abu-Salha were killed last Tuesday by their neighbor Craig Hicks. The FBI is now investigating whether their deaths were the result of a hate crime.

[AP]

 

TIME Saudi Arabia

Two Saudi Women Who Were Detained for Defying a Driving Ban Have Been Freed

Mideast Saudi Arabia Women Driving
Loujain al-Hathloul—AP This Nov. 30, 2014, image made from video released by Loujain al-Hathloul, shows her driving toward the United Arab Emirates–Saudi Arabia border before her arrest on Dec. 1, 2014, in Saudi Arabia

The pair had spent two months in jail

Two women’s-rights campaigners from Saudi Arabia, who were detained for defying a ban on female driving, have been released after spending two months in prison, a fellow activist said on Friday.

Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysaa al-Amoudi had been held since Dec. 1, after al-Hathloul, 25, attempted to drive into Saudi Arabia from the United Arab Emirates, Agence France-Presse reports.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that bans women from driving.

“Yes Loujain is free,” an activist who spoke to al-Hathloul after her release told AFP.

Al-Amoudi, a 33-year-old Saudi journalist who lives in the U.A.E., was arrested after she arrived at the border to help her friend. Al-Amoudi’s family says she was also let out of prison.

It is unclear whether the pair still face charges, or if any conditions were put on their release.

[AFP]

TIME politics

With Friends Like These

Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.

It’s time for an honest conversation about Saudi Arabia and the roots of Islamist terror

“We … see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge–or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon,” President Barack Obama recently told the National Prayer Breakfast. “We have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism.” A pretty strong statement, one would think. But it went largely unnoticed because of what the President said next: that Christians should be humble, because terrible acts–the Crusades, the Inquisition–had been committed in the name of Christ. Undoubtedly true too. My family was chased from Spain by the Christians in 1492, after Jews had lived there for centuries peacefully–if not totally free–under Muslim rule.

Assorted historical ignorami rose to challenge the President on the Crusades, including, sadly, former governor of Virginia Jim Gilmore, who accused the President of not believing “in America and the values we share.” But I’m not going to waste a column shooting ducks in a barrel. I’m more interested in another question. Why is the President willing to say all that stuff about ISIS terrorists and not call them what they actually are: Islamic radicals?

At first glance, this might seem a classic case of political correctness–which can be defined as avoiding hard truths in order to salve soft sensibilities. It’s certainly true that it is unfair to indict a global faith followed by more than 1.6 billion people, the overwhelming majority of whom consider ISIS an insane distortion of the Prophet’s teachings. “ISIS is a political movement,” says Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies and a former Obama Administration official. “It is an anticolonial movement, an attempt to separate whites from browns … Why should we be coronating ISIS and giving it the credibility it craves by calling it an ‘Islamic’ movement?”

But ISIS is, most definitely, a twisted extrapolation of a religious-political trend that gained traction in the region about a hundred years ago, after the egregious European gobbling, slicing and dicing of the Middle East. When you look at all the straight-line borders in that part of the world, you can be sure the locals didn’t draw them. Anger over the European usurpation is one thing Shi’ites and Sunnis have in common. The Iranian revolution of 1979, which imposed a brand-new form of political Shi’ism on a freewheeling country, was a reaction to the Western-imposed government of the Shah. On the Sunni side, the radical Salafist movement began in the late 19th century, also as a reaction to Western imperialism and ideas. It has become a powerful strand of thought in the Arab world.

“We have a serious internal debate in one of the world’s three great monotheisms,” says Michael Hayden, the former CIA director. “It has to be faced head on.” It is fine to call the ISIS adherents thugs and gangsters, but they are also Muslims. “Of course this is an Islamic issue,” Hayden continues. “It’s not about all Muslims or even the vast majority,” but reactionary Islamic radicalism–militant Salafism–is the source of the ongoing violence.

And the wellspring of Salafism is Saudi Arabia’s extreme, expansionist Wahhabi Islamic sect. Part of the reason Obama can’t utter the words Islamic radicals is that we have not been able to have an honest conversation about our Arabian ally. The Saudi royal family is a source of stability in the region, and under the late King Abdullah, it was a mild force for reform, especially in education. But the Saudi elites have funded not just al-Qaeda but also radical madrasahs throughout the Islamic world. They do it cleverly, privately, through “charitable” institutions. The impact has been enormous. In the 1990s, I asked Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan how her country had changed in the previous 25 years. “I used to be able to go out on the street wearing jeans” and without a headscarf, she said. I asked her why she couldn’t do that now. “The Saudis,” she replied, immediately–a reference to the Saudi-funded madrasahs that were rapidly replacing the ineffective public schools in her country. The Taliban came out of those madrasahs, just as a great many of the ISIS criminals do now.

This is not just an Obama problem. Both presidents Bush were way too close to the royal family. There is a secret section of a report by congressional intelligence committees that may relate to the Saudi role in the attacks. That section should be made public now, as an ongoing suit by the families of 9/11 victims has demanded. If we are going to continue to donate American lives to the fight–and sadly, we must, to protect our country from terrorist attacks–we need to be clear about exactly who the enemy is.

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TIME Saudi Arabia

Prince Charles Will Raise Plight of Christians During Saudi Arabia Visit

Prince Charles visits Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, Feb. 8, 2015.
Sam Tarling—Corbis Prince Charles visits Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, Feb. 8, 2015.

The Prince of Wales is also likely to ask for clemency for a jailed Saudi blogger and two women arrested for driving

Prince Charles has spent much of his adult life feeling he can’t win. He’s often criticized for doing too much, “meddling” in issues of the day, yet his opponents are just as apt to accuse him of doing nothing useful at all. On Tuesday these apparently contradictory responses to the heir to the throne of the United Kingdom will crackle across the headlines and flare into scornful tweets and posts as he arrives in Saudi Arabia on a trip that has already taken in Jordan, moved on to Kuwait and will also include Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. His frequent sojourns in the Middle East rarely fail to spark controversy, and his visit to Saudi Arabia could scarcely come at a more delicate time.

The Kingdom, unlike his own, is grappling with the upheaval caused by the transition from a long-reigning monarch to a newcomer. King Salman has succeeded to the throne vacated by the Jan. 23 death of his older half-brother King Abdullah and is already rolling back some of the cautious reforms Abdullah implemented. The nation also sits at the center of the interlocking crises gripping the Middle East. It is both a wellspring of jihadism and a crucial bulwark against the march of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and other militant groups. But it is Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights and freedoms that is likely to play loudest for the Prince. Two cases, in particular, are causing outrage: Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger, who has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for championing free speech in postings such as these, and Loujain al-Hathloul and Maysa al-Amoudi, two women sitting in Saudi jails, originally detained for the offense under Saudi law of driving a car despite the accident of birth that made them female.

A similarly random accident of birth gives Prince Charles a platform and an influence among the upper tiers of the Saudi establishment. Royals feel comfortable with royals. Yet that’s not the only reason the Prince has become, in the words of an official from Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “a huge asset” to British diplomacy in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. He has assiduously been building on that innate advantage since 1993, when he delivered a speech just before embarking on a trip to Saudi Arabia. His words — startling at the time in their acknowledgment of Christianity’s own muddy history and his call for closer ties between Islam and the West — established his status as a friend of Islam; elsewhere it sowed silly rumors that still flourish in corners of the Internet, holding him to be a secret Muslim.

He has continued to reprise some of the themes of that first speech, most recently in a BBC interview just before his current travels during which he did his best to argue for religious faith as a unifying force rather than a divisive one. That view is pretty hard to marry up with the violent fractures in the region he is now touring, but it is to him an article of his own faith. That faith, despite the rumors, is Church of England Anglicanism but the Prince also believes in the common roots of religion and the interconnectedness of much more besides. “Islam — like Buddhism and Hinduism — refuses to separate man and nature, religion and science, mind and matter, and has preserved a metaphysical and unified view of ourselves and the world around us,” he told his audience in his 1993 speech on Islam.

For all these reasons, his Saudi hosts will treat him with the highest respect when he comes calling. That may well mean more photo opportunities that rebound against him, such as his participation last year in a traditional sword dance that inspired predictably scathing responses on social media

What is far less certain is that he will be able to intervene successfully on behalf of Badawi, al-Hathloul or al-Amoudi, though he is likely to use his high-level meetings to communicate the anxiety of Her Majesty’s Government about their plight. He will also raise concerns about the suffering of Christian communities in the Middle East, as he has done before and with increasing urgency as the turmoil in the region has deepened. He may have the ear of Saudi royalty but little or no sway over the country’s judiciary or its religious leaders, who operate in uneasy and fragile balance with the Saudi monarchy but are not under its control.

The imagery from his trip will not reflect these realities, producing instead a series of vignettes of a monarch-in-waiting cosying up to fellow royals, lending support rather than issuing challenges to the harsh regime. The role the Prince has carved out for himself in the region relies on him wielding such influence as he does have in private.

Catherine Mayer’s biography, Born to Be King: Prince Charles on Planet Windsor, is published in the U.S. on Feb. 17 by Henry Holt.

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