MENA Brief newsletter 17 - 23 May 2019

The latest MENA Brief analyses the tensions in Iraq, escalation of violence between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis, as well as protests in Algeria and Lebanon.

Middle East
  • Iraq - Nationwide rallies in support of security forces
  • Iraq - Rocket attack in international zone highlights terrorism risk
  • Lebanon - Protests in capital over government's budget cuts
  • Saudi Arabia & Yemen -  Houthi rebels strike airport in south-western city
  • Turkey & Cyprus - Compliance risk over treat of arrest warrants
  • Turkey, Iran & United States - Port access denied to oil tankers due to sanctions
  • Yemen & Saudi Arabia - Houthis threaten Saudis with 300 new strikes
North Africa
  • Algeria - Anti-government protests continue, as confrontations escalate
  • Algeria - Largest trade union conducts nationwide strike
  • Libya - Besieging forces cut off water supply to capital

Middle East

Iraq – Nationwide rallies in support of security forces

Iraq – Travel risk: Extreme 

Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have called for mass rallies in cities across the country on 24 May – except the Shia holy city of Najaf – in support of Iraq’s security forces, and to demonstrate against the threat of war in the region, due to heightened tensions between neighbouring Iran and the United States. They did not specify why protests are not to take place in Najaf.

Why it matters: The rallies are set to begin at 2100 local time and attract large crowds across the country, causing widespread travel disruption. Specific locations for the rallies have not been announced, however it is likely that in the capital Baghdad, demonstrations will gather in Tahrir Square next to the Al Umma Park in the city centre. Travellers should allow for additional journey time and avoid any protests as a precaution.

Iraq – Rocket attack in international zone highlights terrorism risk

– Terrorism risk: Extreme 

A rocket exploded on 19 May in the vicinity of the United States embassy in the heavily fortified international zone – the centre of the international presence – in the capital Baghdad. According to the authorities, a Katyusha rocket was fired after sunset, but did not cause any casualties. No organisation has claimed responsibility for the attack. Meanwhile, US multinational oil and gas corporation ExxonMobil has evacuated all foreign staff from its West Qurna oilfield, near the southern city of Basra, amid growing tensions between the US and Iraq’s neighbour Iran.

Why it matters: It is likely the rocket attack was carried out by Shia militia groups, due to heightened tensions between Iran and the US. Iraq’s Shia militias are close allies of Iran. Last week, the US said it had detected threats from Iran and its proxy forces in the region targeting American interests. On 15 May, the US Department of State ordered all non-emergency US government staff to immediately evacuate the country. A2 Global advises travellers to remain in secure locations and only travel if essential. Business personnel in the country should employ trusted close protection services and travel under strict journey risk management protocols.

Lebanon – Protests in capital over government’s budget cuts

Lebanon – Travel risk: High

Lebanese grassroot organisation ‘You Stink’ – a popular protest movement that began in July 2015 due to the government’s failure to find solutions to a waste crisis – staged protests on 17 May in the capital Beirut against the government’s austerity measures.

Anti-government protests also occurred on 22 May, over fuel shortages caused by an ongoing custom workers’ strike against government austerity measures. Local media reported long queues at petrol stations around the capital, with some running out of supplies.

Both protests took place at Riad Al Solh Square, a popular square in the city centre and gathering point, opposite the Lebanese parliament.

Why it matters: Protests have been ongoing over the past four weeks, over government plans to cut civil servants’ salaries, and allegations of government corruption. Business travellers should allow for additional journey time, due to the disruptions that the protests are set to cause. Logistics and facilities managers should factor the fuel workers’ strike into their operational plans.

Saudi Arabia & Yemen – Houthi rebels strike airport in south-western city

Houthi rebels claimed responsibility on a drone attack targeting Najran Domestic Airport (EAM) in the city of Najran, 943km south-west of the capital Riyadh, on 21 May. According to Saudi forces, no damage or casualties were reported at the civilian airport, which also houses a Saudi military base. Unconfirmed press reports claimed that the drone attack was targeting an arms depot.

Why it matters: The attack is likely to further escalate the conflict between Saudi-led forces and Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen. On 14 May, Houthi forces conducted drone strikes on two oil pumping stations and a major pipeline in al-Duadmi and Afif, about 200km and 400km west of the Saudi capital Riyadh, respectively. In response, on 16 May Saudi Arabia conducted airstrikes on Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, killing at least six civilians in a residential area. A2 Global advises operations managers to ensure staff are drilled on how to respond to drone and missile attacks and have medical evacuation plans in place. Personnel should heed the advice and warnings of local security officials. Businesses with interests in the region should monitor developments and factor these into their operational and contingency planning.

Cyprus & Turkey – Compliance risk over treat of arrest warrants

The Cypriot government has threatened to issue international and European arrest warrants ‘for all involved’ in what it says is the illegal drilling for oil and gas in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The warning comes after Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, wrote to Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, on 18 May, insisting that Ankara had the right to conduct drilling operations in the eastern Mediterranean. This was despite repeated concerns expressed by the EU and the US.

Why it matters: The warning from Cyprus comes amid escalating tensions with neighbouring Turkey over its decision to conduct offshore exploration in Cyprus’ EEZ. A2 Global assesses the threat by Cyprus to issue arrest warrants as credible. It has already issued an international arrest warrant for the crew of the Fatih drillship, which is owned by state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corperation, after it reportedly began drilling off the west coast of Cyprus on 6 May. New warrants could be issued against executives at Turkish Petroleum and potentially business personnel linked to Turkey’s offshore operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. In turn, this will carry compliance and legal risks for companies with links or commercial partnerships with these individuals. A2 Global advises businesses to conduct extensive due diligence on existing and potential business partners, particularly if they have interests in Turkey’s oil and gas sector, to mitigate potential reputational and regulatory risks.

Turkey, Iran & United States – Port access denied to oil tankers due to sanctions

On 21 May, Turkey closed its ports to Iranian oil, denying access to oil tankers carrying consignments from Iran. This indicates that Turkey is fully complying with US sanctions on Iran, despite President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan previously criticising the sanctions. He had insisted that Turkey would not accept a position in which it was denied the opportunity to import oil from Iran.

Why it matters: Turkey relies heavily on its oil imports, and the decision shows a clear indication that Erdoğan is not willing to cause another trade dispute with the US, after the Turkish lira hit an all time low against the dollar in the rift between the two countries in August 2018. This development takes place against the backdrop of heightened tensions between the US and Iran. A2 Global advises businesses with interests in the region and those which operate in Iran’s oil sector, to monitor ongoing developments and factor these into their operational and contingency planning.

Yemen & Saudi Arabia  – Houthis threaten Saudis with 300 new strikes

The Saudi air defence forces intercepted two ballistic missiles on 20 May. According to Saudi authorities, the missiles were heading towards the holy city of Mecca and the port city of Jeddah, 869 km and 954 km west of the capital Riyadh respectively. Although not confirmed, the attack is likely to have been carried out by Houthi forces in Yemen. This followed an announcement by Houthi rebel leader Abdul-Malik Badreddin al-Houthi on 19 May that the group is preparing to conduct military operations targeting at least 300 targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Why it matters: This announcement is likely to further escalate the conflict between Saudi Arabian-led forces and Houthi rebels in Yemen, despite signs of de-escalation after Houthi forces on 11 May began withdrawing from the port city of Al Hudaydah, 148km east of the capital Sana’a. On 14 May, Houthi forces conducted drone strikes on two oil pumping stations and a major pipeline in al-Duadmi and Afif, about 200km and 400km west of the Saudi capital Riyadh, respectively. The areas most at risk from Houthi strikes in Saudi Arabia are in the southern provinces of Asir, Jizan, and Narjan, and further north, including the capital Riyadh. Businesses with interests in the region should monitor developments and factor these into their operational and contingency planning.

North Africa

Algeria – Anti-government protests continue, as confrontations continue
Algeria – Travel risk: High
Mass anti-government protests are set to take place  24 May in the capital Algiers, for the 14tht consecutive Friday. Protests are also set to occur in the city of Oran, 413km west of the capital, and the city of Constantine, 392km east of Algiers. Protesters are demanding the resignation of interim president Abdelkader Bensalah and other government figures linked to former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who stood down last month.

Why it matters: On 19 May, student protesters clashed with security forces in Algiers after breaking through the security barrier surrounding the Council of the Nation building, where the upper house of parliament sits, on Zighout Youcef Boulevard. This marked an escalation in confrontations between security forces and protesters, and security is expected to be high in the capital tomorrow. Over the past few weeks, security forces have also set up roadblocks in various locations, in a bid to stop protesters from joining demonstrations in the capital. These have been located in the town of Lakhdaria, 68km south of Algiers, and the town of Bouzegza, 50km east of the capital. In Algiers, potential gathering points for protesters include outside the Grande Poste building, Place Audin, and La Rue Didouche Mourad, all in the city centre. Security services have recently deployed tear gas, as well as used batons and water cannon to disperse protesters – a sign of escalating tensions – and bringing increased collateral risk to bystanders. Business travellers should avoid protests as a precaution, and allow for additional time when travelling to Algiers, and within the city. Logistics operators should be aware of the potential delays to their operations due to limited access to Algiers.

Algeria – Largest trade union set to conduct nationwide strike 
Algeria – Travel risk: High
A nationwide general strike and protests occurred on 22 May, after members of the UGTA, the main trade union in the country, demanded the resignation of the union’s general secretary Abdelmadjid Sidi Saïd. This is due to Saïd long-term support of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who resigned in April after mass anti-government demonstrations. UGTA members are also protesting against the suspension of trade union members following anti-government strikes by senior UGTA members.

Why it matters: Demonstrations occured in the cities of Béjaïa and Tizi Ouzou, 275km and 102km east of the capital respectively. During recent protests across the country, security services have deployed tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters, a sign of escalating tensions, and bringing increased collateral risk to bystanders. Business travellers should avoid protests as a precaution, and allow for additional journey time.

Libya – Besieging forces cut off water supply to capital
Libya –Travel risk: Extreme 
The UN-recognised Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) has claimed that forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, leader of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), were responsible for cutting off the main water pipeline to the capital Tripoli, affecting supplies to two million people. Gunmen loyal to the LNA stormed the Great Man-Made River pump station in Ash Shwayrif, 418km south of the capital, on 19 May, cutting off the supply to Tripoli and the surrounding area.

Why it matters: Prior to the attack, the capital was already experiencing water shortages, and this latest development further worsens the humanitarian crisis on the ground. According to the World Health Organization, at least 510 people have been confirmed killed, and 2,476 injured, since Haftar ordered his forces to advance on the city on 4 April. This led the GNA to announce a state of emergency. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised against all travel to the country and for all British nationals there to leave immediately. Individuals should anticipate significant disruption to public and private health services. In light of the extreme security risks in the country, individuals with no essential need to remain should consider leaving the country.