Recent developments in the region until February 2

Saudi Arabia says any talks with Taliban will not be secret

Turkey’s Abdullah Gul holds important talks with top UAE leaders

Gul: Growth in Dubai is outstanding, achievements in just seven years are unimaginable

Elections commission in Yemen receives documents on election of consensus president

Allawi, Hashemi urge Talabani to intervene to curb Maliki’s excesses in Iraq

Recommendations in Cairo to adopt unified Arab stand to free region from nuclear weapons

Ban Ki-moon urges Israel to stop expanding settlements

SAUDI ARABIA:

Any peace talks between Saudi Arabia and the Afghan Taliban will be general and in public, an unnamed high-level Saudi diplomatic source said, Saudi-owned al-Sharq al-Aswat reported.

Saudi Arabia is reluctant to host talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without concessions from the Islamist movement including renouncing its ties to al-Qaeda, sources in Riyadh and Kabul said on Tuesday.

An Afghan official said on Monday that talks would be held in the Islamic kingdom this year, but on Tuesday the Afghan ambassador to Riyadh, Saeed Ahmed Omarkhail, said no formal approach had yet been made to the Saudi authorities.

"The kingdom has a role and has been involved in these issues in the past ... The Afghan president has asked Saudi Arabia to hold talks in the past but there is nothing new," Omarkhail said.

A Saudi source with strong government connections and a senior Afghan government source said Saudi Arabia was taking a cautious approach to talks.

Al-Qaeda has in the past carried out high profile bombings in Saudi Arabia and has vowed to overthrow the U.S.-backed royal family.

Saudi Arabia's objections to the Taliban's links to al-Qaeda were cited by U.S. diplomats as the reason proposed talks failed to move forwards in early 2010, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.

It said Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin turned down a request from Afghan President Hamid Karzai to host talks because the Saudis "would not support such talks until the Taliban renounced al-Qaeda."

"The major problem that Saudi has in mind is that the Taliban are heavily linked to al-Qaeda, and secondly it's next to impossible for the Taliban to formally cut ties with al-Qaeda," said an Afghan official.

Other potential sticking points include the Taliban's use of the title "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," which Saudi officials believe precludes the movement from recognizing other legitimate power structures in the country, said the Saudi source.

A senior Afghan government source said negotiations would not be possible without a Taliban ceasefire and face-to-face meetings between the two sides.

Ambassador Omarkhail in Riyadh said any move to hold talks in the Gulf Arab kingdom would not be possible until after the Taliban had established a representative office in Qatar.

"After that there will be agendas set for talks," he said.

The Taliban announced this month they would open a political office in the Qatari capital Doha to support possible peace talks with the United States.

The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Frank Ruggiero, visited Riyadh this month but Washington is expected to leave any new moves on talks in the kingdom to the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia has had some influence in Afghanistan since it supported mujahedeen fighters against Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s. It has maintained a close relationship with Pakistan and supports both countries with large aid donations.

Private Saudi institutions have also set up religious schools in the two countries that teach the kingdom's strict Wahhabi brand of Islam.

"What matters to Saudi Arabia is Pakistan. Bringing peace to Afghanistan will help very much in bringing peace back to Pakistan," said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi commentator.

Saudi Arabia has taken a more assertive role in foreign policy in recent months after last year's Arab uprisings, which transformed its immediate neighborhood and threatened to alter the power balance with regional rival Iran.

Riyadh orchestrated a Gulf Arab plan to ease a power transition in Yemen, and led Arab League efforts to isolate Syria over its crackdown on mass protests.

However, it has been frustrated before by the complex process of mediating between warring Afghan factions.

Two decades ago a Saudi prince took Afghan warlords inside the black cube of the Kaaba in Mecca, which all Muslims must face in prayer, and had them solemnly swear to end the fighting that was destroying their country.

That peace was broken before the warlords left the building as a Saudi official who was present received a phone call from Kabul saying that one side had just started shelling the other.

UAE:

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and visiting Turkish President Abdullah Gul held on Tuesday talks at Zabeel Palace over ways of expanding horizons of the strong trade and investment relations to cover all sectors.

Sheikh Mohammed hoped Gul's visit to the UAE would produce positive results that serve interest of the two friendly countries and peoples.

Highlighting the current volume of trade and investment especially between private sectors in the two countries, Sheikh Mohammed lauded the role the Turkish companies operating in the UAE play in the building and construction.

The Vice-President also welcomed Turkish businessmen who have excellent relations with their UAE counterparts.

For his part, the Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, expressed his delight at visiting the UAE and having talks with President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Sheikh Mohammed.

He also marveled at the civilization and humanitarian progress the UAE has made, saying it reflects the far-sighted vision of the UAE leadership.

The Turkish head of state viewed the UAE great achievements as a source of pride and ease to the leadership and people of Turkey.

He hoped that channels of communication between the two countries would broaden in future.

He asserted the vital role of the private sector in building strategic partnership between the two countries.

The meeting was attended by Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Aviation Authority and Chairman of Emirates Group, Mohammed Abdullah Al Gargawi, Minister for Cabinet Affairs, Sultan bin Saeed Al Mansouri, Minister of Economy, and a number of senior officials as well as UAE Ambassador to Turkey Khaled Khalifa Al Mua'alla and Turkish Ambassador to UAE Vural Altay.

Later, Sheikh Mohammed hosted a luncheon in honor of the Turkish president and his accompanying delegation which was attended by a number of sheikhs, ministers, and Turkish businessmen escorting President Gul.

YEMEN:

Yemen is to hold a snap presidential election on February 21 in line with an accord which led to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's resignation after three decades in power, his deputy announced on Saturday.

Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, to whom Saleh has handed over power under the Gulf-mediated accord, announced the date in a decree, bringing forward the election that had initially been due to take place in 2013.

The deal makes Saleh, 69, the fourth Arab leader to be ousted from power in the Arab Spring which has swept away the autocratic rulers of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Hadi as the sole candidate in February's poll is to officially take over as consensus president for a two-year interim period, after which parliamentary and presidential elections are to be held.

The early poll follows a 90-day transition period which kicked off with the signing of the power transfer deal in Riyadh last Wednesday following several months of deadly anti-regime protests in Yemen.

The accord called for Saleh, in return for immunity from prosecution, to hand all "necessary constitutional powers" to his deputy with immediate effect and to hold office on an honorary basis only for the 90-day period.

A bloody crackdown on anti-Saleh demonstrations across Yemen since January has left hundreds of people dead.

But demonstrators in Sana'a's Change Square, the focal point of anti-Saleh protests that broke out in January, say they reject the Riyadh deal and want the president to go on trial.

Yemen's Opposition parties, in contrast to activists on the street, have nominated the head of their coalition to lead the first government after the veteran Saleh agreed to quit under international and domestic pressure.

Mohammed Basindawa, a former member of Saleh's ruling party, was chosen last night to head a unity government, Opposition Common Forum spokesman Mohammed Qahtan said.

Basindawa, who was chosen to head the "National Council for the Forces of the Peaceful Revolution" after it was formed in August, served in governments under Saleh several times, including as a foreign minister.

Born in Aden, the capital of former South Yemen, Basindawa quit Saleh's General People's Congress a decade ago, becoming an opponent but without joining a party.

Saleh himself is to remain in Saudi Arabia for medical tests after having signed the deal, said his foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Kurbi. His return to Yemen depended on the results and he could need treatment in the United States.

He has already undergone a first dose of treatment in Saudi Arabia for wounds sustained in an attack on his palace on June 3.

IRAQ:

As recent bloodshed raises fears of renewed sectarian violence in Iraq, U.S. Vice President Biden has been calling Iraqi leaders in an apparent attempt to soothe political tensions, the White House said Saturday.

Biden telephoned Iraqi Council of Representatives Speaker Osama Nujaifi on Saturday and, a day earlier, spoke with Dr. Ayad Allawi, a leader of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya political bloc.

"The two Iraqi leaders described deliberations under way among all Iraqi political factions and parties in the run-up to a proposed national conference led by President Jalal Talabani," the White House statement said. "The vice president discussed with both leaders the importance of resolving outstanding issues through the political process. The vice president and Iraqi leaders agreed to stay in close touch as events unfold."

In the latest in a series of attacks this year, a suicide car bomber killed at least 31 people and injured 60 more in a Shiite funeral procession in Baghdad on Friday, two police officials said. The bombing occurred as mourners were heading toward a hospital in Baghdad's Zafarniya district to recover the bodies of relatives shot the night before, officials said.

The bombing has raised fears of a return to the sectarian violence of the previous decade when the Sunni-Shiite hostilities engulfed Iraq at the height of the war.

The bloodshed has generated uncertainty about the ability of Iraqi security forces to ensure order, particularly after the United States withdrew troops at the end of 2011, as well as fear about the future.

Analysts painted a disturbing trend in Iraq.

"The situation is worsening," said Hamit Dardagan, co-founder and principal analyst of the London-based Iraq Body Count, a group that tracks civilian deaths.

Ramzy Mardini, research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said, "Sectarian politics in Iraq is setting the stage for armed conflict."

Most of those killed in recent weeks were Shiite pilgrims marking Arbaeen, the end of a 40-day mourning period, officials said. Mardini said Iraqi security forces have also been targeted. Those forces stationed in Baghdad have a large Shiite presence.

According to Iraq Body Count, civilian deaths reached their peak in 2006 and 2007, with 28,250 and 25,063, respectively.

They dropped to 9,385 in 2008 and then rose the next three years -- 4,713 in 2009, 4,045 in 2010 and 4,087 in 2011.

EGYPT:

The committee following up the Israeli nuclear activity called on senior Arab officials to prepare for taking part in the 2012 Finland 2011 conference.

The committee, headed by the representative of Mauritania Mohammad Ahmad Ould Ismael, with the participation of representatives of 15 countries, besides the Director-General of the Arab Authority for Nuclear Energy, and the delegation of the Arab League General Secretariat, concluded its 31st meeting this week.

The committee stressed the importance of working to reach a unified Arab position to take practical steps on transforming the Middle East into a nuclear weapons-free zone.

They also discussed possible options on ways to end the ambiguities concerning the Israeli nuclear program.

The committee also tackled the possibility the 2012 Finland conference might fail in establishing a nuclear free zone, considering the recommendations of the senior officials committee formed upon a resolution of the Arab League.

It called on Arab countries to speed up preparing a comprehensive evaluation of an Arab draft resolution of the Israeli nuclear capacity to allow the General Secretariat of the Arab League to brief the Council of Arab Foreign Ministers by the next summit to organize the best policy to be taken at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference.

The committee examined Israel’s violation of international laws banning the “use of depleted uranium against civilians, and burying radioactive waste in occupied Arab territories.

The Finland meeting will discuss a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, in implementation of the 2010 resolution of reviewing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

PALESTINE:

Israel must halt settlement building and present detailed proposals for a border with a future Palestinian state, visiting U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday, as he tried to persuade the Palestinians to continue low-level meetings with Israel that the international community hopes will evolve into serious negotiations.

Ban praised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for his leadership and publicly backed him on key issues, including the demand for a freeze of settlement building on occupied lands the Palestinians want for their state.

With Abbas by his side, the U.N. chief affirmed that "all Israeli settlements are contrary to international law and prejudice" the outcome of a final peace deal.

At the same time, Ban urged the Palestinian leader not to let the current peace efforts lose momentum. The dialogue on borders and security arrangements began last month at the urging of the Quartet of Mideast mediators — the U.S., U.N., EU and Russia — which asked both sides to submit detailed proposals. The Quartet has said it wants a final deal by the end of the year.

Abbas has said the Jordanian-mediated exploratory meetings in Amman have run their course, but that he'll decide after consultations with the Arab League next week whether to resume them. "I don't like the word 'closing the door to negotiations.'" Abbas said Wednesday. "Israel did not present encouraging offers in the Amman talks, but if it does, we will be ready (to resume talks)."

Earlier Wednesday, Ban met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has rejected Palestinian demands for a settlement freeze ahead of any full-fledged negotiations, arguing that this is an unacceptable precondition.

Israel has said it wants to continue the exploratory talks.

"We are at a critical moment for Israel and the region," Ban said after his talks with Netanyahu. "I remain hopeful that the direct, frequent exchanges between the parties with continue."

Formal peace talks have stalled for more than three years, in large part over the settlement issue. The Palestinians say there is no point in negotiating as long as Israel continues to settle its population in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas that the Palestinians want for their future state, along with the Gaza Strip.

Some 500,000 Israelis now live in these areas, and this week Netanyahu's government approved new financial incentives meant to lure more Israelis to the West Bank.

Continued settlement "does not help the ongoing peace process," Ban said. "They should refrain from further settlement for the sake of ongoing peace talks. This can be a way of expressing goodwill gestures."

Netanyahu appeared to rebuff Ban's request, saying the question of settlements "should be part of the final peace talks and final peace agreements."

Later Wednesday, Netanyahu spoke by phone to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "Israel is interested in continuing talks with the Palestinians while maintaining security for Israel's citizens," Netanyahu told Clinton, according to his office.

Palestinian militants in Gaza fired six mortar shells into southern Israel Wednesday evening, Israeli police said. They exploded in open field without causing casualties.

On Thursday morning the U.N. chief is set to visit Gaza, as well as Sderot, an Israeli border town that is a frequent target of Palestinian rockets.

Ban on Wednesday appeared to take the Israelis to task for not having submitted detailed proposals on borders and security yet, as requested by the Quartet. The Palestinians say they have presented four-page papers on each issue, while Israel presented only general principles for border talks last week Ban said he noted "with appreciation that the Palestinian Authority is forthcoming in presenting concrete proposals for territory and security, as called for by the Quartet," adding that he hopes "that now Israel will present its proposals."

Palestinian officials have said the Israeli principles mean, in effect, that Israel wants to keep east Jerusalem and large chunks of the West Bank. Any proposal that leaves all of east Jerusalem under Israeli control is likely to be rejected by any Palestinian leader.

Responding to Ban's comments, Netanyahu said he recognizes "there has to be an agreement, probably a painful agreement for us given our passion for these historic lands." But he complained that "the real cause of this conflict" is the Palestinians refusal to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.

Israel has also accused the state-run Palestinian media of broadcasting hatred and incitement against Israel and Jews.

Asked about the alleged incitement, Ban said: "Hate speeches or provocations, they are not helpful, they are not acceptable."

Also Wednesday, two Palestinian journalists said they were detained for several hours and questioned by Palestinian security forces, one after mocking the Palestinian leadership and the other after reporting about alleged corruption at a Palestinian diplomatic mission.

A Palestinian government spokesman confirmed one case but did not comment on the other.