Jailed Saudi princess pleads for release as Ramadan arrives

LONDON (Reuters) – A prominent Saudi princess has appealed to the kingdom’s king and crown prince to release her from prison as the holy month of Ramadan began, according to a letter published on her official website and Facebook account.

Princess Basmah Bint Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, 56, a businesswoman, writer and rights activist, went missing in March 2019. Only recently did she publicly communicate that she has been held at Ha’ir prison in the capital Riyadh for over a year and is sick.

The youngest child of the late King Saud, Princess Basmah has been particularly critical of the kingdom’s treatment of women.

A close relative, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, confirmed the letter’s authenticity.

The relative told Reuters that the princess had been due to travel abroad for medical treatment around the time of her arrest in late February, 2019, and was informed after her detention that she was accused of trying to forge a passport.

The charges were dropped, but she remains imprisoned along with a daughter who was with her at the time, the relative said.

The princess has had limited, though regular contact with relatives through visits and phone calls over the past year. Her family has not heard from her since she made her public appeal.

Reuters has not been able to verify independently the circumstances of her disappearance and detention.

The Saudi government media office did not respond to a written request for comment on the details of her case.

There has been no public comment by Saudi officials on the letter published on Wednesday or an earlier plea posted on her social media accounts last week.

“This week, Muslims around the globe begin our Holy month of Ramadan … (I) will be spending it at al-Ha’ir prison unless my uncle, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and my cousin, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, decide to release me,” the letter said.

“My health is continuously deteriorating, which may lead to my death, it’s VERY critical and they know it.”

HEALTH PROBLEMS

The princess has a series of health problems, including heart trouble, osteoporosis and severe gastrointestinal issues, according to health records from 2016 and 2018 reviewed by Reuters and people close to the family.

She has not been receiving adequate medical care for several months, the relative said.

Reuters could not establish whether her arrest was linked to past detentions of Saudi royals and prominent citizens that sources have tied to Prince Mohammed’s consolidation of power or crackdown on dissent, including women’s rights activists.

In a petition submitted to the United Nations, dated March 5 and seen by Reuters, the princess’ family suggested the reason for her detention may be her role “as an outspoken critic of abuses in our country of birth, but likewise for … enquiring about the frozen fortune left (by) her father”.

“She was deemed as supportive of former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef Al Saud,” the document said, referring to the royal whom Prince Mohammed replaced as crown prince in a palace coup in 2017.

The relative and a U.S. lawyer for the princess said that before her detention, Princess Basmah had chartered a plane to take her to Switzerland via Turkey for medical treatment.

“In hindsight this (Turkey) cast the travel plan in a bad light, it could have suggested she was fleeing,” said the princess’ lawyer Abdul Latif Bennett, who helped arrange the flight.

He was referring to the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate which caused a global furor and strained Riyadh’s ties with Ankara.

On Feb. 28, 2019, seven men arrived at the princess’ apartment near midnight, according to security footage provided by a close associate of the princess and seen by Reuters. Reuters could not independently verify its authenticity.

The princess was suspicious but went with them, accompanied by her 28-year-old daughter Shroud al-Sharif, on assurances from a relative. But both women were taken to prison, the family member said.

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OPEC+ likely to agree to cut production if U.S. joins effort: sources

DUBAI/LONDON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Major oil producers including Saudi Arabia and Russia are likely to agree to cut production at a Thursday meeting but only if the United States joins the effort, aimed at coping with the disastrous effect of the coronavirus on fuel demand, three OPEC+ sources told Reuters on Monday.

Worldwide oil demand has dropped by roughly 30%, or about 30 million barrels a day, at the same time that Saudi Arabia and Russia have been flooding markets with extra supply.

Last week, in response to a weeks-long market rout, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies including Russia, a group known as OPEC+, started talking about cutting production, but want other non-OPEC nations to participate, particularly the United States.

“Without the U.S., no deal,” one of the sources said.

Two OPEC sources said Thursday’s meeting would be held by video conference at 1400 GMT.

The United States has not committed to taking part in any deal, which U.S. President Donald Trump has said could take 10% to 15% of world supply off the market. U.S. companies cannot coordinate production due to antitrust laws.

The White House has said it was encouraging talks between the other countries, instead. Major U.S. oil companies and industry groups are opposed to mandated cuts, which would be an extraordinary step in the United States.

On Friday, G20 energy ministers and members of some other international organisations will hold their own video conference, hosted by Saudi Arabia, a senior Russian source told Reuters. Efforts to get the United States involved in the production cut deal will be on the agenda, the source said.

Russia and Saudi Arabia have long been frustrated that curbs by OPEC and others have left a gap that has been filled by shale oil firms in the United States, which became the world’s biggest producer.

That frustration led in part to March’s collapse of an OPEC+ supply deal that has propped up oil prices for three years.

U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said on Fox Business Network on Monday that U.S. production was already starting to fall due to the plunge in crude prices.

“In the United States we have a free market and the industry will adjust on its own,” he said. U.S. Energy Department officials did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Following the collapse of the OPEC+ deal, Riyadh and Moscow blamed each other and launched a battle for market share, sending oil prices to their lowest in two decades. That has strained the budgets of oil-producing nations and hit higher-cost producers in the United States.

Scrambling to secure a bigger market share, Saudi Arabia raised crude output to 12.3 million barrels per day (bpd) on April 1 and said it planned to export more than 10 million bpd. With by far the world’s biggest reserve of extra capacity, Riyadh has insisted it will no longer carry what it considers an unfair burden of cuts.

ANTITRUST ISSUES

While antitrust laws prohibit U.S. oil producers from taking steps to push up oil prices, curbing output would be legal if state regulators or the federal government set lower production levels, antitrust experts said.

The U.S. authorities have yet to indicate what, if any, action they might take.

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said OPEC+ cuts could amount to around 10 million bpd, or some 10% of global output. Russian production reached 11.29 million bpd in March.

A Russian government and an industry source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 10% might not be enough to steady the global oil market given the weakness of demand.

“I think the whole market understands that this deal is important and it will bring lots of stability, so much important stability to the market, and we are very close,” Kirill Dmitriev, one of Moscow’s top oil negotiators, who also heads Russian’s sovereign wealth fund, told CNBC.

Dmitriev was the first to make a public declaration last month about the need for an enlarged supply pact, potentially involving producers outside the OPEC+ group.

The Russian energy ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

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Yemen's Saudi-aligned government says Houthis attacked oil pipeline pumping station in Ma'rib: Saudi Press Agency

DUBAI (Reuters) – The oil ministry of the internationally-recognized, Saudi-aligned government in Yemen said on Sunday the Iran-aligned Houthi group had attacked an oil pipeline pumping station in the province of Ma’rib, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported.

The pipeline is operated by the Safer oil company, owned by Yemen’s Saudi-aligned government, the agency added, without giving details on the attack. A spokesman for the Houthi group was not immediately reachable for comment.

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Trump says he brokered deal with Saudi, Russia for huge oil cuts

DUBAI/MOSCOW (Reuters) – U.S President Donald Trump said on Thursday he had brokered a deal with top oil producers Russia and Saudi Arabia to cut output and arrest an oil price rout amid a global coronavirus pandemic, sending crude prices up by 45%.

Trump said he spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and now expected the two nations to cut output by 10 million barrels per day (bpd) – an unprecedented number representing 10% of global supply.

Trump said cuts could amount to as much as 15 million bpd but didn’t say whether the United States, the world’s largest oil producer, would contribute to reductions, a move which is forbidden by U.S. antitrust legislation.

“Just spoke to my friend MBS (the crown prince) of Saudi Arabia, who spoke with President Putin of Russia and I expect and hope that they will be cutting back approximately 10 Million Barrels, and maybe substantially more which, if it happens, will be great for the oil & gas industry!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Global oil demand has fallen by a third or 30 million bpd in the last few week as some 3 billion people have been put in a lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The immense decline in demand has sent oil prices to their lowest levels since 2002, close to $20 per barrel, hitting budgets of oil producing nations and dealing a huge blow to the U.S. shale oil industry, which cannot compete at low prices.

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  • Russia does not rule out returning to oil talks with Saudi Arabia

The downward pressure has been exacerbated by a battle for market share between Russia and Saudi Arabia, after the two countries failed to reach a deal to curb supply in early March and, as result, pledged to raise production instead.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said on Thursday that Moscow was no longer planning to raise output and said it was ready to cooperate with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and other producers to stabilise the market.

OPEC’s de-facto leader Saudi Arabia called on Thursday for an emergency meeting of OPEC and non-OPEC oil producers, an informal grouping known as OPEC+, saying it aimed to reach a fair agreement to stabilise oil markets.

It was not clear when any such meeting could be held.

“This invitation comes within the framework of the kingdom’s constant efforts to support the global economy in this exceptional circumstance, and in appreciation of the U.S. president’s request and the U.S. friends’ request,” the state news agency SPA reported.

Trump will meet U.S. oil company chiefs later on Thursday but it was not clear if production cuts would be discussed.

Brent oil prices stood 15% higher at $29 per barrel at 1520 GMT, having earlier risen to as high as $36.29. U.S. benchmark WTI crude was 17% higher at $24.4.

Even with Thursday’s surge, Brent is still less than half its $66 closing level at the end of 2019.

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Hard times shape speedy Saudi and Kuwaiti coronavirus response

RIYADH/KUWAIT (Reuters) – The world’s last major coronavirus outbreak, in 2012, began in Saudi Arabia, where a faltering response allowed the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) to kill several hundred people and spread across the region.

This time around, the kingdom was better prepared, public health officials say. Their experience of MERS meant hospitals had already established separate triage units for respiratory illnesses, with specialized ventilation to protect medics from infection.

At least two hospitals also had drive-thru testing in place, which the United States is scrambling to implement, and seven weeks before the first domestic case, authorities developed guidelines to deal with the new virus.

“Their experience with MERS uniquely positioned them because they learned a lot from that,” said Joanna Gaines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which for years has supplied the Saudi health ministry with its only full-time foreign disease expert.

“They know it’s MERS season and they’re already cued up for that. The preparation and processes … really cuts down on your exposure right away.”

Saudi Arabia and neighboring Kuwait took drastic measures early on to contain the new pandemic, halting air travel, imposing curfews, and quarantining and testing thousands of people.

Saudi Arabia has reported 1,453 infections and eight deaths while Kuwait recorded no fatalities among 266 cases. Initial outbreaks in both countries were linked to foreign travel.

It’s still too early to tell whether those efforts have contained the disease, but the health officials said authorities are doing the best they can by severing the transmission chain.

UNIQUE EXPERTISE

The World Health Organization said Saudi Arabia’s “whole of government” approach had benefited from the MERS experience and “unique expertise” in emergency preparedness from managing the haj pilgrimage, the world’s largest annual gathering of Muslims.

Riyadh is trying to replicate the kingdom’s haj inter-ministerial coordination in its fight against the coronavirus through the Saudi Center for Disease Prevention and Control, conceived in 2013 but not fully operational until 2018.

“It is a coordination oversight center…that gave more maturity to public health services in the country,” senior Saudi epidemiologist Sami Almudarra told Reuters.

Kuwait also has experience with national health emergencies, from the oil well fires after the 1990 Iraqi invasion to fears of biological and chemical warfare during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

It took precautionary measures soon after reporting its first case on Feb. 24, a week before Saudi Arabia.

The luxury Khiran resort and five-star Al-Kout Beach Hotel have become quarantine centers and the international fairgrounds are being used for testing and as a field hospital.

Kuwait’s parliament, the most outspoken in a region dominated by autocratic rulers, was initially critical of the government response but has since praised the health minister and by extension Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah, facing his first crisis as premier.

“Continuous parliamentary pressure made government institutions feel they must perform,” said Nada Al-Mutawa, management professor at the Australian College of Kuwait.

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