A New Arabia, evolving Persia: Friendships, trade, ‘moderate’ Islam and espionage

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Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has vowed to “return” the country to “moderate Islam” and asked for global support to transform the hardline kingdom into an open society that empowers citizens and lures investors.

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Welcome to a new Islam being created in the Saudi kingdom. A country where dance parties are now halal.

In an interview with an International newspaper, the powerful heir to the Saudi throne said the ultra-conservative state had been “not normal” for the past 30 years, blaming rigid doctrines that have governed society in a reaction to the Iranian revolution, which successive leaders “didn’t know how to deal with”.

Expanding on comments he made at an investment conference at which he announced the launch of an ambitious $500bn (£381bn) independent economic zone straddling Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, Prince Mohammed said: “We are a G20 country. One of the biggest world economies. We’re in the middle of three continents. Changing Saudi Arabia for the better means helping the region and changing the world. So this is what we are trying to do here. And we hope we get support from everyone.

“What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”

Earlier Prince Mohammed had said: “We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. 70% of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”

Connecting Egypt to a new $500 billion Saudi city via a bridge across the Red Sea will require cooperation from Israel, analysts say. Could it one day help integrate the Jewish state with its Arab neighbors?

Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt guarantees it access to the Red Sea’s Straits of Tiran, which the planned bridge and causeway would cross. That makes Israel’s involvement in the project crucial, says Yoram Meital, chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies & Diplomacy at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Egypt’s closing of the straits to Israeli shipping in 1967 was one of the central actions that led to that year’s Mideast War.

“There couldn’t be anything close to this unless Israel and the Saudis had the opportunity to discuss in detail their relations and this bridge,” Meital said. “There have to have been back channels.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the project, whose plans were announced Tuesday by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at an international business conference in Riyadh.

It’s safe to say that within a few years, Saudi arabia will be a liberal westernized secular country.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said that relations with moderate Sunni Arab nations are better than ever — though most of the cooperation can’t be discussed because the countries have no formal ties with Israel.

Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief and ambassador to the U.S., Prince Turki al-Faisal, said this week that Netanyahu is exaggerating the extent of Saudi cooperation with Israel and that there are no “under-the-table” talks with the Jewish state. He spoke during an Oct. 22 conference sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum, a liberal advocacy group that distributed a video recording of his remarks.

Israeli business executives say ties with Saudi Arabia are flourishing, particularly in the fields of cybersecurity, infrastructure equipment and water conservation. Many, including Elbit Systems Ltd., Israel’s biggest non-state-owned defense contractor, deal with Saudi Arabia through U.S. subsidiaries and foreign front companies, according to employees, lawyers and Israeli government officials.

“Everybody recognizes the opportunities here, but in order not to ruin them, it’s best not to talk about them at this point,” Israeli Communications Minister Ayoob Kara, a close Netanyahu lieutenant and the only Arab member of his cabinet, said in a phone interview. “We want to find a formula to get above the radar.”

Saudi Arabia’s ambitious plan to transform its economy away from oil has global banks lining up for a piece of the action.

It’s already the busiest year ever for merger and acquisitions and financing deals in the kingdom and that’s prompting the world’s top banks to invest in the country in preparation for a highly-anticipated bonanza of commissions. Up for grabs will be fees on hundreds of state-asset sales, for example, including the Saudi Arabian Oil Co., which could value the company at a record $2 trillion.

HSBC Holdings Plc’s Chief Executive Officer Stuart Gulliver, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Co-President Harvey Schwartz, BlackRock Inc. chief Larry Fink and Credit Suisse Group CEO Tidjane Thiam are among the titans of finance and investing gathering for a three-day summit in Riyadh this week. The occasion: debating the opportunities created by the kingdom’s reform process while mingling with Saudi ministers of finance, energy, and commerce and the head of the country’s sovereign wealth fund.

“We see a multitude of opportunities in the kingdom,” said James Forese, Citigroup Inc. President and head of institutional clients group. “The opportunities here are self evident. We’re not the only ones to realize this, every global bank is trying to hire here as well.”

While Saudis define Islam and look to boost their economy along with forging new ties in the region, Iran makes friends with India.

Uzair Baloch, a notorious leader of the Lyari gang war, on Monday made startling revelations in court, and also admitted to providing secret information regarding Pakistan’s security institution to Iranian intelligence agencies, local media reported.

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While giving his confessional statement regarding his crimes in missing persons case before the magistrate, Baloch said that he provided information regarding army installations and officials to foreign agents, adding that the Iranian agents had assured him of his safety.

Uzair, who was arrested by security forces after he mysteriously appeared in Karachi last year in January, was also once a loyal of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

The gang war leader said that he had also established a terror group named Peoples Aman Committee, and had confessed to killing many people, including police officials and government officers.

“I had political support for these activities, including transfer and posting of favourite police officers,” he said, adding that he acquired weapons during 2008 to 2013 which were used in the attacks.

In 2012, around 35 cases pertaining to murder, attempted murder and attacking the police had been registered against him.

He was also declared a proclaimed offender after he killed three men including Arshad Pappu, the alleged leader of a Lyari gang, his brother Yasir Arafat and their confidant Juma Shera in 2013.

On December 29, 2014, Interpol arrested Uzair when he was crossing into the United Arab Emirates from Muscat by road. Later, the Pakistani authorities confirmed the report and sent a team to UAE for taking him into custody but it was refused.

Later, the same team again visited the Gulf state several times in this regard and it surfaced on media that UAE had handed over the accused to Pakistani authorities, but there was no official statement.

Subsequently, Uzair Baloch had been arrested by Rangers personnel outside Karachi last year in January in what the paramilitary force said was a raid.

Chabahar (which means “four seasons” in Persian) is a port that Iran is developing with some help from India. It is on the border with Pakistan and the local people on the Iranian side are Balochis (Sunnis, unlike Shias who dominate the rest of the country) as they are on the Pakistani side. In Iran it’s referred to as the Sistan

India has signed up to develop the port and a railway line to Zahedan inside Iran. If India does have a grand strategy for Afghanistan and Central Asia, this is the only route open to it. Pakistan and China are not happy over the Indian stakes in Chabahar

Indian national Kulbhushan Sudhir Jadhav was born in the city of Sangli in the Indian state of Maharashtra on Aug 30, 1968, according to a copy of a passport belonging to him under the pseudonym Hossein Mubarak Patel.

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The cover name, he explained in a confessional video released by Inter-Services Public Relations last year, was taken for “intelligence gathering for Indian agencies”.

A resident of Mumbai’s suburban Powai neighbourhood, Jadhav belongs to a family of police officers.

In his statement, the Indian national said he is currently a serving officer in the Indian Navy ─ a claim India has denied.

He added that he joined the National Defence Academy in 1987, and then the Indian Navy in 1991, where he served until December 2001.

After the parliament attack, he said he began to ‘contribute his services’ towards information and intelligence gathering in India.

“I am still a serving officer in the Indian Navy and will be due for retirement by 2022 as a commissioned officer in the Indian Navy,” the spy confessed.

India says he is a former Indian Navy officer.

Members of his Mumbai-based family told The Indian Express last year that Jadhav had become a businessman after taking premature retirement from the Navy, and travelled often in connection with his business.

A report in DNA India claimed Jadhav was “engaged in a legitimate business of operating ferries from the Iranian port town of Bandar Abbas”.

Jadhav said he had commenced intelligence operations in 2003, and established a business in Chahbahar, Iran, where he was able to go undetected and visit Karachi in 2003 and 2004.

He was picked up by Indian spy agency Research and Analysis Wing at the end of 2013, and has been directing various subversive activities in Karachi and Balochistan.

His job, he said, was to hold meetings with Baloch insurgents and collaborate with them to carry out activities “of a criminal nature, leading to the killing or maiming of Pakistani citizens.”

Jadhav, in pursuit of targets set by his RAW handlers, was arrested by Pakistani authorities on March 3, 2016, when he attempted to cross over into the country from the Saravan border in Iran.

India, however, alleges that Jadhav was abducted by Pakistan from Iran, according to IndiaToday.

He was sentenced to death by the FGCM on April 10, 2017.