Recent developments in the region until January 26

Saudi Arabia’s delegate to UN urges Syrian government to stop persecution

Bahrain’s parliament endorses plan to move to Gulf union

Saleh leaves Yemen to U.S. via Muscat, says to return to lead his party

Jordan monarch discusses with Abbas latest developments in Palestinian issue

Libya’s interim council says civil war possible if it quits

Obama escalates sanctions against Iran, leaves space for solution

SAUDI ARABIA:

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Abdullah Al-Mouallimi told a Security Council debate on Tuesday that Syria should stop persecuting its own people, urging the council to lend support to the Arab League plan announced on Sunday, and noting that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia feels deeply pained by the suffering and pains of the brotherly Syrian people.

“We call on the Syrian authorities to stop rebuffing the legitimate aspirations of its citizens by violence and bullets,” Al-Mouallimi said. He also called on the Syrian government to implement the Arab League initiative.

“We hope the Syrian government will heed the voice of reason and wisdom and abide by the items of the Arab initiative to find a balanced political solution that achieves the aspirations of the Syrian people, preserves the unity and territorial integrity of Syria, and halts the cycle of violence and spare it foreign interference in its internal affairs,” Al-Mouallimi said.

Al-Mouallimi also explained why the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia decided to withdraw its observers from Syria, saying, “My country decided to withdraw its observers from the Arab Observer Mission to Syria because we did not feel the Syrian authorities were serious about the Arab initiative. We rise above being witnesses and supporters of the practices of assassination and persecution imposed on the great Syrian people.”

“It is high time for the international community to shoulder its responsibilities. The Security Council should hasten to take necessary decisions and resolutions on Syria,” Al-Mouallimi said.

BAHRAIN:

The parliament of the Kingdom of Bahrain approved that the government would work on activating calls by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in his speech at the 32nd Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit hosted in the City of Riyadh, in which he recommended a switch from cooperation into a stage of union.

Meanwhile, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) commended the constitutional amendments declared by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain in his recent speech to citizens, which included empowering the legislative and regulatory authorities for the Representatives’ council and their roles.

According to Bahrain News Agency (BNA), the Secretary-General of the OIC Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu welcomed in his statement His Majesty the King’s initiative to create the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) as well.

Prof. Ihsanoglu also expressed his hopes and wishes that these two initiatives by HM the King would further enable the positive impact on the National Reform Project of HM King Hamad that would benefit the people of Bahrain and its security and stability, as the Kingdom is a vital member of the OIC.

YEMEN:

Outgoing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is seeking exile in neighboring Oman but the sultanate is reluctant to host him for fear of harming relations with Yemen, diplomats said on Tuesday.

Saleh left Sana’a on Sunday and headed to the United States for medical treatment after a brief stopover in Oman. He had said in a parting speech that he would return to Yemen.

A foreign diplomat in Muscat said Saleh had sought permission to reside there. An Omani government source declined to confirm or deny receiving such a request but said Oman would be reluctant to agree to it in case it would harm future ties with Yemen.

A spokesman for the Yemeni embassy in Washington, Mohammed Albasha, said: "Reports suggesting that President Saleh will not return to Yemen and that he is seeking asylum or refuge in Oman or the U.S. are nonsense. I strongly deny them."

The United States, which endorsed a plan to coax Saleh out of office by granting him immunity from prosecution over the deaths of protesters during an uprising against his rule, defended its decision to issue him a visa, despite criticism that it would be seen as sheltering him.

"We ... believe that his absence from Yemen at this critical juncture will help facilitate a transition that completes the end of his rule, helps Yemen and ultimately has a positive effect on the rights and dignity of the Yemeni people," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday.

"Our policy focus remains on preventing further instability and keeping that transition on track," he said, adding Saleh would stay in the United States for a limited time only.

The United States and Saudi Arabia fear protracted political upheaval in Yemen could give al Qaeda's regional wing a foothold near oil shipping routes through the Red Sea.

Those concerns were underscored when Islamist militants seized the town of Radda last week led by Tareq al-Dahab, a relative of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, whom Washington accused of a main role in the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda and assassinated in a drone strike last year.

Dahab had said he would withdraw from Radda, about 170 km (105 miles) southeast of Sana’a, if the town was run according to Islamic law and several jailed militants, including his brother Nabil, were released.

A tribesman negotiating with the militants on behalf of the government said they had agreed to Nabil's release and the formation of the council but refused to let militants run it, at which point the talks broke down.

Despite Saleh's departure, many believe he and his supporters will still wield influence over Yemen, where a year of anti-government demonstrations has been punctuated by warfare between Saleh's forces, those of a rebel general and tribal militias.

Yemeni air force officers blocked main roads in the capital on Tuesday, the third day of a strike demanding the resignation of their commander, a half-brother of Saleh, witnesses said.

Hundreds gathered outside the residence of acting leader Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, calling for General Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar to be dismissed. Others sat in the road, blocking traffic.

The strike is part of a wave of work stoppages that has gripped Yemen since Saleh signed a Gulf-brokered deal formally handing power to Hadi in November.

Political turmoil has worsened the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which has half a million people displaced by various internal conflicts, including fighting between government troops and Islamists in the south of the country.

Maria Calivis, director of the U.N. children’s' fund UNICEF for the Middle East and North Africa told a news conference in Sana’a on Tuesday that 500,000 Yemeni children were now at risk of death from malnourishment.

Four people were injured in an explosion in the village of al-Maajilah, in southern Abyan province, which a local official said was caused by unexploded ordnance from an air strike.

Government forces have used air strikes in the province against alleged members of al Qaeda, the target of a U.S. "counter-terrorism" drive that includes the use of drones.

Dozens of people were killed in a 2009 strike in the area.

PALESTINE:

President Mahmoud Abbas met with Jordan's King Abdullah on Wednesday in Amman, official news agency Wafa reported.

Abbas and the Jordanian King discussed the exploratory meetings between PLO and Israeli envoys and ways to implement the reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah.

The president said the next period would be one of evaluation and that a follow up committee would meet on Feb 4. to discuss progress.

The main obstacles to resuming negotiations are Israeli settlements, above all in Jerusalem, and settler violence against Palestinian communities, Abbas said.

Abbas also told the Jordanian King that Israel refuses to recognize the future borders of a Palestinian state. Recognition of the future Palestinian borders would be a key incentive for the Palestinians to return to negotiations, he added.

PLO official Hanna Amirah told reporters on Wednesday that the Palestinian leadership would not take a decision to extend negotiations with the Israeli side because the government of Benjamin Netanyahu "doesn’t seek at this stage to achieve any positive progress in the peace process with the Palestinian Authority."

The Palestinians ruled out any more talks about a resumption of Middle East peace negotiations Wednesday after a fifth meeting in Jordan produced "not one step" from Israel.

"Today's meeting was the last and there will be no further exploratory talks with the Israeli side," a senior Palestinian official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We can say that all these meetings have gone nowhere because Israel has moved not one step to enable a resumption of negotiations," the official said after the meeting held under tight secrecy in Jordan.

The Jordanian hosts put a brave face on the outcome of the talks, saying they had been "frank and serious, despite the differences of position".

"The coming days will be dedicated to assessing the results in consultation with the concerned parties," Jordan's official Petra news agency quoted Foreign Minister Nasser Jawdeh as saying.

Diplomatic efforts by the so-called Quartet made up of the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States to jumpstart the moribund peace negotiations have intensified in recent days.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Thursday and the United Nations announced that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is to head to the Middle East next week.

Ahead of the Jordan talks, Abbas rephrased the Palestinians' longstanding conditions for new talks.

"If we determine the borders, it is possible to return to negotiations, but the Israelis don't want to determine the borders," Abbas said in comments published by the Palestinians' official Wafa news agency.

Until now, the Palestinians have said they will agree to return to the negotiating table only if Israel agrees to freeze settlement construction and if it accepts the lines that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War as the basis for discussions on future borders.

There was no immediate Israeli response to Abbas's remarks which were made just hours before Palestinian negotiators Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayeh met Israel's Yitzhak Molcho in Jordan.

The two negotiating teams have held four face-to-face meetings since January 3 to explore ways of returning to direct talks which broke down in late 2010.

But they have made little tangible progress, prompting Palestinian threats to halt the talks unless there are concrete signs of progress by Thursday.

The two sides do not even agree on that deadline, with Israel saying it considers the three-month target date set by the Quartet to have begun from the first round of exploratory talks on January 3.

The EU foreign policy chief renewed the bloc's commitment to efforts to re-launch peace talks on a visit to Gaza earlier on Wednesday.

"I am a realist about where we are but I am a passionate believer that we need to keep talks going and increase the potential of these talks to become genuine negotiations," Ashton told reporters in Gaza City.

"So we are looking to see what we can do to help, but at the end this is a discussion that needs to take place between the two sides."

Before he met Ashton late Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted he remained committed to renewed talks.

"We have been trying to make sure the talks between us and the Palestinians continue," the Israeli premier said.

"This is our design and I look forward to discussing it with you to make sure this is what happens."

LIBYA:

Libyan leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil said Sunday the nation would fall into a "civil war" if the ruling National Transitional Council resigned, as it faced its first major challenge.

Angry protests in the eastern city of Benghazi -- the city which first rebelled against Gaddafi last year -- have dealt a severe blow to the NTC's functioning. It led its deputy head Abdel Hafiz Ghoga to resign on Sunday, three days after furious students had manhandled him.

"We are not going to resign because it would lead to civil war," NTC head Abdel Jalil said in an interview on the Libya al-Hurra television station late Sunday as protests raged in Benghazi.

Abdel Jalil said some "hidden hands" were "pushing the demonstrators."

"Who is pushing these sit-ins prompting protesters to invade the headquarters of the council with such savagery?" the new Libya's leader said, referring to the attack on NTC offices in Benghazi Saturday.

Crowds of protesters threw several home-made grenades at and stormed the NTC offices with iron rods and stones before setting the building's front ablaze, witnesses and council members said.

They even threw plastic bottles at Abdel Jalil, who is respected across Libya for his active role in the anti-Gaddafi rebellion.

He had to be escorted out of the premises.

Benghazi protesters rampaged through the NTC's offices, denouncing what they said is a "non-transparent" body.

The protesters also accused the NTC of having marginalized some wounded veterans of the uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in favor of people who were previously loyal to the slain dictator.

Defending the NTC and its work, Abdel Jalil paid tribute to Ghoga, despite the fury of the protesters.

"We must praise the role played by Abdel Hafiz Ghoga. He chose his country before himself," Abdel Jalil said. His onetime deputy had supported the anti-Gaddafi revolution when others "were in Egypt or hidden elsewhere."

Ghoga stepped down Sunday after about 4,000 students protested against him in Benghazi's University of Ghar Yunis where he was manhandled on Thursday and had to flee from the campus to escape the angry mob.

Ghoga, who served as official spokesman for the NTC, had come under increasing opposition from Benghazi residents who accuse him of opportunism because of what they said was his belated defection from the Gaddafi regime.

"My resignation shows that the NTC is a tribune for fighting for a cause and not a governing body," Ghoga told AFP.

"We are not looking for posts," he said, adding that his decision was in the "best interests of Libya."

He said "since the end of the war of liberation an air of hatred had began to dominate which does not serve national interest." "To prove that we are with the interest (of Libya) and that we are a movement of struggle, we decided to give way to other patriots... the important thing is to preserve the NTC... we do not want our country sliding into chaos."

The NTC had staunchly backed Ghoga after the Ghar Yunis incident, saying an attack on him represented "an attack on the sovereignty of the Libyan people and its glorious revolution."

The violent protests against the NTC and Ghoga in particular even forced the council to meet at an undisclosed location on Sunday to discuss the nation's new electoral law.

NTC member Abdelrazzak al-Arabi told AFP that the meeting had postponed the adoption of the law to January 28. It was expected to scrap an article reserving 10 percent of the seats of the proposed 200-member constituent assembly for women, he added.

Several women's bodies and rights groups had criticized the article, saying it does not go far enough in giving women a say in post-Gaddafi politics.

Arabi said the NTC had set up an election commission comprising 17 members, including lawyers, judges and human rights activists, to oversee future polls.

Abdel Jalil, meanwhile, said despite the protests he was "optimistic" about the future of Libya.

"Libya will see prosperity as she has not seen before. But we need help and support" from the people, he said.

IRAN:

President Barack Obama warned Iran on Tuesday the United States would keep up pressure on its disputed nuclear program with "no options off the table" but said the door remained open to talks for a peaceful resolution.

In his State of the Union address, Obama said Tehran was isolated and facing "crippling" sanctions that he said would continue so long as the Islamic Republic keeps its back turned to the international community.

"America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal. But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations," he said.

Upon taking office in 2009, Obama broke with his Republican predecessor George W. Bush and offered an olive branch to Iran, saying he wanted a new beginning with the country that Bush had labeled part of the "axis of evil."

But the offer to negotiate has not borne fruit and tensions have continued to escalate over the Iranian nuclear program that Tehran says is for energy purposes and Western nations fear is meant to build a nuclear weapon.

In his speech to Congress, which focused mainly on the U.S. economy, Obama also said he was sure that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad "will soon discover that the forces of change can't be reversed" and said the United States would stand against violence and intimidation in the Middle East and beyond.

By contrast, he described the democratic transition in Myanmar, or Burma, as having "lit a new hope" in Asia.

With the address, he also sought to assuage concerns among Jewish voters in the United States about his stance on Israel. "Our iron-clad commitment - and I mean iron-clad - to Israel's security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history," Obama said.

Iran's nuclear program is a major concern for Israel, which has not ruled out a unilateral strike on Iran's nuclear sites.

Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Tehran is ready to sit down with world powers for talks on its nuclear drive as he downplayed the harmful effects of newly imposed sanctions.

The Islamic republic, which was already under four rounds of United Nations sanctions, vehemently denies its nuclear program masks an atomic weapons drive as the West alleges, and insists it is for civilian purposes only.

"They have this excuse that Iran is dodging negotiations while it is not the case," the Iranian leader was quoted as saying by state media. "A person who has logic and has right on his side, why should (he) refrain from negotiations?"

He was implicitly responding to comments made by Western officials urging the Islamic republic to return to negotiations over its contested nuclear program.

The last round of talks between Iran and the major powers consisting of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States was held in Turkey in January 2011, but the negotiations collapsed.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Tuesday: "The European Union stands together in sending that clear message to the government of Iran: that we wish to go back to negotiations, to invite them to pick up the issues which were left on the table in Istanbul a year ago."

The six powers are still waiting for Iran's reply to a letter Ashton sent in October, stressing that negotiations should focus on the "key question" of the Iranian nuclear issue, in order to remove doubts.

The United States declined to directly respond to Ahmadinejad's comments Thursday, saying instead that Tehran should formally reply to Ashton's letter.

"Our position is that it is as it always has been -- the Iranian regime needs to live up to its obligations to the international community," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the letter "very specifically offers talks if Iran is ready to be serious about coming clean with regard to its nuclear program".

"So just saying you're open for talks doesn't meet the criteria that we have set, which is to be ready for talks and ready to be serious about letting the world know all of the details of your nuclear program and proving your claims that it's for peaceful purposes."

Several Iranian officials have said publicly that Tehran was ready to resume talks, but without specifying the content of the talks, and have not yet formally responded to Ashton's letter.

"Iran is ready to negotiate on the basis of mutual respect," Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on Wednesday.

He said he would forward the response from Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, "on the date and place of negotiations," to his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu, who is acting as an intermediary, to be given to Ashton.

The European Union on Monday slapped an embargo on Iranian oil imports as the West ramped up the pressure. In his televised comments, Ahmadinejad brushed off the effects of the newly imposed sanctions, saying they would not hurt his nation.

"Once our trade with Europe was around 90 percent but now it has reached 10 percent and we are not seeking this 10 percent... Experience has shown that the Iranian nation will not be hurt," Ahmadinejad said during a visit to the southern Kerman province.

"For the past 30 years, the Americans have not been buying oil from us. Our central bank has no relations with you."

Iranian media reported that parliament would consider a bill next week to ban oil exports to Europe following the bloc's decision to impose an embargo.

EU foreign ministers agreed on an immediate ban on oil imports and a phase-out of existing contracts up to July 1.

They also froze the assets of Iran's central bank while ensuring legitimate trade under strict conditions.

The bloc imported some 600,000 barrels per day of Iranian oil in the first 10 months of last year, making it a key market alongside India and China, which has refused to bow to pressure from Washington to dry up Iran's oil revenues.

The new EU sanctions would make it even more difficult for Iran to be paid in foreign currency for its oil exports, which were worth more than $100 billion in 2011.