Saudi Arabia's Supreme Court announced on April 25 that it has abolished flogging as a form of punishment, part of a series of reforms to advance human rights in the kingdom. These reforms follow "unprecedented international criticism" that Saudi Arabia received in 2019 for its human rights record, which included 184 executions, 84 of which were for non-violent drug crimes. Court-ordered floggings sometimes extended to hundreds of lashes, and the punishment could be imposed for offenses ranging from extramarital sex and breach of the peace to murder. In the future, the courts will have to choose between fines, imprisonment, or non-custodial alternatives, such as community service.
Yemen's southern separatist group declared self-rule in the parts of the country it controls on April 26, leading to fears of a new and even more dangerous conflict after five years of war. The Southern Transitional Council said in its announcement that it plans to govern several southern provinces, including the de facto capital city of Aden, which the internationally recognized government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi also claims as its seat.
Despite last week's agreement by Saudi Arabia and Russia to end their price war, the oil market remains in free-fall amid the virtual shut-down of the world economy by the COVID-19 pandemic. The price of the main US oil benchmark, West Texas Intermediate, fell on April 20 to $30 below zero—the first time oil prices have ever turned negative. This means anyone trying to sell a barrel would have to actually pay a buyer. The global industry output of 100 million barrels a day would appear to be on borrowed time. (NYT)
Yemeni government officials reported the country’s first case of COVID-19 on April 10, shortly after the Saudi Arabia-led coalition announced that it would be observing a two-week unilateral ceasefire, in part to help confront the pandemic. The move was welcomed by the UN, and the office of Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths said he was working with the warring parties on a "comprehensive initiative" to end the five-year war. But a Houthi rebel spokesperson said coalition air-strikes had continued after the truce's onset, and dismissed the initiative as a "political and media manoeuvre." The rebels were reportedly not consulted before the coalition's April 8 ceasefire declaration, but on the same evening a senior Houthi figure posted on Twitter the details of his group's plan to end the war. All of this comes on the heels of a recent increase in violence, including Saudi air-strikes on the Houthi-controlled capital city of Sana'a, and the shelling of a prison in the province of Taiz that reportedly killed at least five women and one child.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres is calling for warring parties across the world to lay down arms in support of the battle against COVID-19. "The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war," he said in a March 23 statement. "That is why today, I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives... Silence the guns, stop the artillery, end the air-strikes. It is crucial to help create corridors for life-saving aid, to open precious windows for diplomacy, to bring hope to places among the most vulnerable to COVID-19." (UN News, PBS News Hour)
Already depressed oil prices are now plummeting in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Global oil consumption is said to be in "free-fall," and predicted to lead to the largest "annual contraction in history." Bloomberg reports that oil traders fear that demand "may contract by the most ever this year, easily outstripping the loss of almost 1 million barrels a day during the great recession in 2009 and even surpassing the 2.65 million barrels registered in 1980, when the world economy crashed after the second oil crisis." (OilChange)
Trump's Israel-Palestine "peace" plan (sic), unveiled at the White House Jan. 29 in a joint press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, has been anointed by the media with the very Trumpian epithet "Deal of the Century"—although he appears not to have used that actual phrase. Trump boasted the plan, officially dubbed "Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People," as a "win-win solution for both sides" and a "realistic two-state solution." With typical bluster, he said: "Today, Israel takes a big step towards peace. I was not elected to do small things or shy away from big problems." Netanyahu went on Fox & Friends the next day to hail the scheme as an "opportunity of a lifetime for Israel and the Palestinians and for peace."
Saudi Arabia's public prosecutor announced Dec. 23 that five people have been sentenced to death and three sentenced to prison terms in connection with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year. The verdict revealed that charges had been dismissed for the remaining three of the 11 that had been on trial. The trial did not find that the killing was premeditated. Among those not indicted were two top Saudi officials, who were exonerated due to lack of evidence. Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and columnist for the Washington Post, entered the consulate to obtain marriage documents in October 2018, only to be killed there, his body dismembered and later taken from the consulate. The remains have yet to be found.