Recent developments in the region until December 15:

Saudi Defense Minister Prince Salman receives U.S. official

Sultanate of Oman hosts 7th summit on natural gas

Egypt’s PM says economy is far more serious than widely believed

Tensions continue in South Lebanon as France, Syria and Hezbollah exchange accusations

Palestinian President Abbas witnesses ceremonies to raise Palestinian flag over UNESCO headquarters

Palestinians term Gingrich as “ignorant and racist”

SAUDI ARABIA:

Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, Minister of Defense received Qatari Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Ali bin Abdullah Al Mahmoud.

During the meeting, they exchanged cordial talks and discussed issues of common concern.

The meeting was attended by the Director General of the Office of Minister of Defense, Lieutenant General Abdulrahman bin Saleh Al-Bunyan.

Prince Salman also received Assistant Secretary of State for Political and Military Affairs Andrew J. Shapiro and his accompanying delegation.

During the meeting, they discussed issues of common interest between the two friendly countries.

The meeting was attended by Chief of General Staff, General Hussein Abdullah Al-Qabil, Lt. General Bunyan, and Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Thomas Williams.

Prince Salman also received the Director General of Civil Defense, Lieutenant General Saad bin Abdullah Al-Tuwaijri and Commanders of Civil Defense who came to greet and congratulate him on the royal trust in his appointment as Minister of Defense.

The Prince thanked them for their noble feelings, wishing them all success in their great works in the service of the society. The meeting was attended by Lieutenant General Bunyan.

SULTANATE OF OMAN:

The seventh annual Gas Arabia Summit, which concluded on Tuesday, discussed the rising role of gas as a global energy resource.

The summit, organized by British Energy in collaboration with Oman Gas Company (OGC), attracted 200 experts from the Sultanate and outside along with officials from the international oil and gas companies.

The two-day summit, hosted by the Sultanate for the first time, comes as part of the country’s focus on oil and gas industries and its efforts to promote the added value of the industries based on gas derivatives and reviewing the international experience in the field.

Eng. Yusuf Bin Mohamed Al Ojaili, CEO of OGC, said: “Gas Arabia Summit succeeded in achieving many objectives. The summit aimed to develop the gas industries in the Sultanate.

The proposals from the summit will be used to develop gas industries in the Sultanate. It will also explore the future of gas industry in the world and search for means to overcome the challenges faced by the industry.”

The CEO of OGC said: “The Sultanate pays great attention to the gas industry as it is one of the major contributors to the national economy. The summit shared experiences of many international companies like Shell and British Petroleum, which presented reports on the future of gas industry till year 2030.”

“It is expected, as indicated by the papers, that the energy generated by oil, gas and copper will be equal with a 33 per cent for each. This means the rising role of gas as an energy resource in the world. It is a new indicator for the rising demand on gas consumption all over the world. It is also expected that the gaseous emissions like carbon dioxide (Co2) will decrease.”

The paper presented by Maktoom Bin Rashid Al Matani, DG of planning and OGC, focused on the optimal utilization of all ingredients of natural gas and the necessity of achieving some sort of integration between some important industries.

With several industries depending on gas for their energy needs, the demand for gas in the Sultanate has increased considerably in recent years, said an official from the Ministry of Oil and Gas on Monday.

“There is huge demand for natural gas by industries around the world. And the Sultanate has made steady development in terms of storing, producing and using gas since its discovery in 1978. Several power plants at Salalah, Sur, Sohar, Nizwa and Al Buraimi, in addition to the one in A’Duqm Industrial Estate that will be opened soon, are gas operated,” said HE Khalifah Bin Mubarak Al Hinai, adviser at the Oil and Gas Ministry, while speaking at the seventh Arab Gas Conference hosted by the Sultanate.

Hinai added that the industry has generated thousands of job opportunities for Omani youths.

The four-day conference, which being held from December 11-14 at Al Bustan Palace Hotel, will focus on opportunities in the gas industry, while covering relevant strategic and technical challenges related to unconventional gas projects, besides issues related to gas supply and demand in the region.

The conference will take a closer look at the issue of gas flaring that causes wasting of 5 per cent of global natural gas and emission of 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually that pose serious consequences to the environment.

The first day of the conference focused on rising importance of gas for the Middle East region.

Delegates from BP and Oman Oil Company Exploration & Production (OOCEP) will take part in the discussion on the second day, presenting papers on their future plans and investments in the Sultanate’s gas sector. BP has announced plans to invest approximately $15 billion in the development of its gas-rich Block 61 concession and OOCEP intends to invest $1.1 billion in the development of the Abu Butabul gas field as part of the Block 60 concession.

The concluding day of the Gas Arabia Summit will focus specifically on reducing gas flaring. The conference comes at a time when Oman has made advancements in the development of tight and sour gas while exploring its unconventional gas reserves.

YEMEN:

Yemen's new government, sworn in last weekend, vowed on Wednesday to restore normalcy in the country by swiftly clearing the streets of armed men and removing military checkpoints.

The transitional unity government overseeing the departure of long-serving President Ali Abdullah Saleh has created a new military commission tasked with stabilizing Yemen, the official Saba news agency reported.

The commission is led by Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, who has been charged with managing Yemen's transition period and designated to serve as a consensus president following Saleh's departure, expected in February.

"From Saturday, the roads will be open, normalcy re-established, the troops returned to their barracks with their equipment and armed men must return to their homes and checkpoints dismantled," Hadi was quoted as saying by Saba.

The military commission will also aim to reform the security services, controlled partly by Saleh loyalists in accordance with a power transfer deal signed by Saleh in November after more than 10 months of protests against his regime.

Violence in Yemen has continued since the deal was reached, notably in Sana’a and in the second city of Taez, where clashes between loyalist troops and dissidents have left dozens dead.

EGYPT:

Egypt's new interim prime minister broke into tears in front of journalists on Sunday as he spoke about the state of the country's economy, saying it was "worse than anyone imagines."

Egypt's transition in the months since Hosni Mubarak's ouster has been rocky, with protests against the military council leading the process, an increase in crime and the battering of the tourism industry that was once a pillar of the economy.

Kamal el-Ganzouri, the third temporary prime minister since Mubarak's ouster in February, said his priorities were the restoration of security and economic progress.

At one point in his news conference, el-Ganzouri became teary eyed as he recalled seeing "an Egyptian man on TV saying I want security, not bread."

He said austerity measures were needed to start reducing the deficit but that no new taxes will be imposed. He did not elaborate on exact steps.

El-Ganzouri said his government will not consider loans from the International Monetary Fund until the outlook of the Egyptian budget becomes clear. In the summer, the IMF offered a $3 billion loan, but Egyptian officials turned it down.

The IMF is projecting Egypt's economic growth to be just 1.2 percent this year, compared with about 5 percent in 2010.

"Solidarity is needed to face the economic crisis and security problem for citizens to be pleased with the revolution," he said.

Urban consumer inflation in Egypt rose to an annual 9.1 percent in November from 7.1 percent in October. The unemployment rate in the third quarter climbed to 12 percent from just under 9 percent a year earlier. Net international reserves dropped by roughly 40 percent by the end of October, compared with the end of 2010.

The military council, which stepped in to rule when Mubarak was pushed out, appointed el-Ganzouri and his government at the end of November after a violent crackdown on protesters demanding an end to military rule.

In response to the protests, the previous prime minister, Essam Sharaf, resigned and the head of the military council pledged to transfer power to a civilian administration by July 2012.

The council also transferred wide powers to el-Ganzouri's government in an attempt to show it had independence and that the military council would leave power -- though gradually.

Ganzouri blamed the last decade of Mubarak's 30-year rule and the corruption that took place then for the ballooning deficit.

Ganzouri is himself a Mubarak-era prime minister who served from 1996 to 1999 but he has not been tainted by corruption.

Still, protesters who dislike him for his part in the old regime have been camped in front of Ganzouri's office in downtown Cairo, forcing him to hold meetings at the Ministry of Planning in a Cairo suburb.

Egypt urgently needs a massive cash injection and should strike a deal with the International Monetary Fund as soon as possible to reassure investors, said John Kerry, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Speaking after meeting military and civilian leaders in Cairo, Kerry said he was hopeful that Egypt would emerge as a strong democracy following the unrest and uncertainty that has followed the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in February.

But he said the main priority should be to strengthen the economy.

"The most significant challenge right now is the economic challenge," Kerry told reporters at the weekend.

"It is very important for Egypt to work with the IMF and undertake to come to an agreement with the IMF for an immediate infusion of money," he said.

Kerry added that Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the military council temporarily governing Egypt, had indicated that there were "compelling reasons" for outside help given the state of Egyptian foreign reserves.

Egypt negotiated a $3.2 billion facility with the IMF earlier this year, only to turn it down in the summer. Since then it has sent conflicting messages about whether Egypt still wants the funds, even as the economy flails.

Foreign reserves have plunged from $36 billion at the end of 2010 to about $20 billion at the end of November in the wake of the uprising that unseated Mubarak and the subsequent political turmoil that sent investors and tourists packing.

Kerry said millions of jobs needed to be created in the Arab world's most populous state and a sense of security re-established to attract foreign direct investment.

"Everything could be lost if there is not a focus on the economic reality," he said.

Kerry met with members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group set to dominate the new parliament, as well as the country's military ruler and prime minister on Saturday.

The Muslim Brotherhood said in a statement three of its top officials attended the meeting with Kerry, who was accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson.

In their meeting with the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, Brotherhood officials vowed to respect civil rights and international treaties that have been signed in the past, possibly an attempt to allay fears that the group may try to re-examine Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.

The Brotherhood, which was banned under ousted President Hosni Mubarak, has so far won about 47 percent of the vote for the lower house of parliament. Two-thirds of the country have yet to vote in the staggered process that finishes in January, but the outcome is not expected to dramatically change.

Kerry, who is also chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was among the first U.S. politicians to call on Mubarak to step down earlier this year during the massive protests that led to his ouster in February after nearly 30 years in power.

Kerry told the Brotherhood's members on Saturday that he was not surprised by their success in parliamentary elections, according to a statement by the group.

The elections in Egypt are the first since Mubarak was ousted and are considered Egypt's fairest and freest vote in years.

Egypt depends heavily on foreign assistance and cannot afford to dramatically change its foreign policy. Egypt is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, with a large percentage of that going to the military.

Kerry also met separately with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who has been ruling the country since Mubarak was toppled.

The U.S. Senator last visited Egypt in July, when he praised the changes taking place in the country.

LEBANON:

A bomb exploded near a UNIFIL peacekeeping patrol on Friday, wounding five French soldiers in southern Lebanon, a witness and security sources said.

The blast, which hit a jeep carrying the French peacekeepers on the outskirts of the city of Tyre, was the third attack on the UNIFIL forces deployed to keep the peace along Lebanon's southern frontier with Israel.

"I can confirm that a UNIFIL vehicle was hit by an explosion in Tyre," UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said.

A Reuters reporter saw six wounded people at the scene minutes after the explosion. Security sources said five of them were French UNIFIL personnel, and that two passersby had also been wounded. Most of the injuries were light but medical sources said one of the UNIFIL soldiers was badly wounded.

Friday's attack followed two roadside bombings targeting UNFIL forces near the city of Sidon earlier this year. In May six Italian peacekeepers were wounded, prompting Italy to look into reducing its peacekeeping contribution in Lebanon.

Two months later six French soldiers were wounded in another attack.

UNIFIL has about 12,000 troops and naval personnel in Lebanon after its expansion under U.N. Security Council resolution 1701 that halted the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war in southern Lebanon.

Syria on Monday denied involvement in a bombing that wounded five French UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, a day after France said Damascus was probably behind the attack.

"Syria has no link whatsoever with this act which we condemn," foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi said in a statement that also criticized French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe for pointing a finger at Damascus.

Juppe said on Sunday that Syria was probably behind Friday's bombing in southern Lebanon, adding however that so far he had no proof to back his claim.

"We have strong reasons to think that this attack came from there," Juppe told the TV5 Monde television channel and Le Monde newspaper.

Juppe claimed that Syria had used the militant group Hezbollah for such attacks in the past.

"I don't have proof," he said, however.

Also on Sunday, Lebanese pro-Western opposition leader and ex-prime minister Saad Hariri tweeted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was to blame for the attack.

"Another message from Bashar," Hariri said on Twitter.

"Another Syrian message," he wrote.

In his statement, Makdisi said that "remarks by Juppe and others are within the framework of premeditated French accusations made to mask the reality concerning Syria."

The five French members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon were wounded on Friday when a bomb targeted their patrol on the outskirts of the coastal city of Tyre. Two passers-by were also wounded.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, the third this year on UNIFIL soldiers.

Speaking at a military base in the northeastern French town of Saint Dizier, Prime Minister Francois Fillon paid homage to the injured soldiers and said the attack would not dampen France's commitment to the mission in Lebanon.

"I want to send a thought to the five French UNIFIL peacekeepers who were injured Friday in the south of Lebanon, in an attack whose cowardice will not shake our determination," said Fillon.

PALESTINE:

The raising of the Palestinian flag at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris on Tuesday dominated Wednesday’s issues of the three Palestinian Arabic dailies.

Al-Quds, al-Hayat al-Jadida and al-Ayyam dedicated their front pages to the historical moment of raising the flag at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, all three dailies printing pictures of the Palestinian flag being raised there in the presence of President Mahmoud Abbas.

Al-Quds featured Abbas’ address to the UNESCO General Conference, where he said, “It is a historical and an emotional moment for me and my people to raise the Palestinian flag at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.”

Al-Hayat al-Jadida highlighted Abbas’ meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the sub headline quoting Abbas saying “Sarkozy is serious in supporting the Palestinian state, pleased with internal reconciliation.”

Al-Ayyam featured on its front page reports that Israel intends to release the second group of prisoners on Sunday, within the Gilad Shalit prisoners swap deal with Hamas.

Al-Quds editorial praised the Palestinian historical and victorious moment when the Palestinian flag was raised at the UNESCO headquarters, despite intense opposition from the US to Palestinian membership in the UN body.

The daily also tackled the international silence on the Israeli measures to Judaize Jerusalem and the occupied Palestinian Territory, criticizing the continuous condemnation of Israeli settlement activities internationally with a lack of action taken against Israel.

The European Union should support the Palestinians’ recognition bid at the United Nations, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday, a day after the Palestinian flag was raised at UN cultural agency UNESCO in Paris.

"We raised the flag of Palestine in front of UNESCO," Abbas said in Brussels after talks with EU President Herman Van Rompuy, and before meeting EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton.

"I hope that (the EU) will come when we will raise the flag of Palestine at the United Nations ... with the support of the European Union," he added.

Abbas thanked the bloc for supporting the UNESCO bid, even if four EU members - including Germany - voted against it and 14, including Britain, Italy and Poland - abstained on the issue.

Belgium, France and Spain were among the countries which voted in favor.

EU nations are equally split on the notion of supporting a bid for full UN membership, which Israel, with the United States’ support, strongly opposes.

The Israelis’ refusal to halt settlement building on occupied Palestinian land is seen as a major stumbling bloc for restarting deadlocked peace talks.

Speaking before Abbas, Van Rompuy praised Palestinian state-building efforts, which are largely funded by the EU, but warned that the "best way" to achieve a two-state solution in the Middle East "is through direct negotiations between the parties."

Both leaders stressed the importance of striking a deal in ongoing reconciliation talks between Abbas' Fatah movement, which is running the West Bank, and its radical foe Hamas, which is based in the Gaza Strip and is listed as a terrorist organization in the EU and the US.

Any Palestinian national unity government that may result from a Fatah-Hamas agreement should stick to the moderate principles that Abbas has committed himself to, Van Rompuy insisted.

Israel has approved construction of a new Jewish enclave in the heart of a Palestinian neighborhood of annexed east Jerusalem, state-owned Channel One TV reported Wednesday.

The channel said the 14-home project, to be named Maale David, was approved late Wednesday by the Jerusalem city council's planning committee and was likely to spark fresh international condemnation of Israel's settlements policy.

It is to be sited in the Arab neighborhood of Ras al-Amud, near an existing Jewish settlement of 1,000 people, the report said.

"By this decision the committee is throwing oil on the flames... encouraging the settlers (and) their very explosive and problematic presence in this neighborhood," Yudith Oppenheimer, of Israeli NGO Ir Amim which lobbies for co-existence in Jerusalem, told the channel.

"We condemn this Israeli step very strongly," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told AFP, adding a call for international support for a Palestinian appeal to the UN Security Council to intervene against the settlement.

Earlier on Wednesday, the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization decided to seek a Security Council meeting on the issue, Erekat said.

"The Palestinian leadership has decided ... to go urgently to the Security Council to stop these settlement plans, which aim to prevent the implementation of the two-state solution," he said.

"We took the decision to begin preparing a Security Council resolution to stop these practices," he added. He said "consultations" with the council would begin immediately.

Last month, the Israeli housing ministry invited tenders for the construction of more than 800 new homes in Har Homa and Pisgat Zeev, two settlement neighborhoods in occupied and annexed east Jerusalem, as part of a response to a successful Palestinian bid to join UNESCO.

On November 1, Israel's inner cabinet decided to speed up construction of homes for Jews in Arab east Jerusalem and in other nearby settlements to punish the Palestinians for joining the UN agency a day earlier.

The initiative brought protest from the Palestinians and statements of concern from the international community.

Israeli construction of settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank remains one of the thorniest issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, scuppering direct negotiations that began in September 2010 and ground to a halt shortly afterwards when a 10-month Israeli settlement freeze ended.

In May this year, the speaker of Israel's parliament and two ministers attended the dedication of a previous batch of Jewish settler homes at Ras al-Amud, on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, overlooking the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound and close to the centre of east Jerusalem.

The international community has repeatedly called on Israel to stop new building projects in east Jerusalem, which it captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed shortly afterwards.

Meanwhile, Republican Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has been slammed by Palestinians for telling a Jewish television channel that they are an “invented” people.

“These are extremely trivial, demeaning and ridiculous remarks,” Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said, according to the Ma’an News Agency. “Even the most extremist settlers of Israel wouldn’t talk in such a ridiculous way.”

“Ignorant” and “despicable” were also used by top Palestinian officials to describe Gingrich’s comments.

“This is the lowest point of thinking anyone can reach,” said lead negotiator Saeb Erekat. The comments only “increase the cycle of violence.”

Gingrich told the Jewish Channel that Palestinians are “invented” because there has been no state of Palestine.

“I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs, and who were historically part of the Arab community,” said Gingrich. “And they had a chance to go many places, and for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and it’s tragic.”

The land of Israel and the Palestinian territories was part of the Ottoman Empire before being taken over by Great Britain.

Mandated Palestine, as it was known, was then partitioned by the United Nations in 1947.

Gingrich went on to call the Israeli-Palestinian peace process “delusional” and that President Barack Obama’s treatment of Palestinians is “favoring the terrorists.”

Gingrich’s argument is regularly made and far from new.

In 1969, former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people… It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn’t exist.”

“This proves that in the hysterical atmosphere of American elections, people lose all touch with reality and make not just irresponsible and dangerous statements, but also very racist comments that betray not just their own ignorance but an unforgivable bias,” said top Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) official Hanan Ashrawi.

Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond released the following statement in response to the Jewish Channel interview: “Newt Gingrich supports a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which will necessarily include agreement between Israel and the Palestinians over the borders of a Palestinian state,” the statement said.

“However, to understand what is being proposed and negotiated you have to understand decades of complex history, which is exactly what Gingrich was referencing during the recent interview with The Jewish Channel.”