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Haj is new harbinger of Saudi-India economic, cultural ties



Prince Mohammed bin Salman

A record 200,000 pilgrims from India are going to perform Haj this year, after the third consecutive increase in India’s Haj quota. The decision was announced when Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, popularly referred to as MBS, visited India in February 2019. His state visit was nothing short of historic as it signalled a growing strategic convergence between Riyadh and Delhi.

The move to increase India’s Haj quota comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is treading the path towards realizing the Crown Prince’s ambitious Vision 2030 that looks at diversifying the country’s economy and reducing its decades old reliance on oil. Haj is an important part of this strategy, with the potential to transform the Kingdom’s infrastructure and religious tourism economy.

Haj has transformed over the years from Islam’s holiest religious pilgrimage to a cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s progress. The religious tourism sector in the country, which includes Haj and Umrah, is currently valued at over $5 billion. The Kingdom’s infrastructural modernization is epitomized by projects like the Haramain High-Speed Rail Project, a 450-km, two-way electric train linking the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, with extensions to Jeddah and King Abdullah Economic City. The project will carry 60 million passengers a year with a seating capacity of 417 per train and travelling at a speed of 300 km per hour. Dar Al-Hijrah is another $14.7 billion upcoming project in Madinah that will have 20 administrative and 80 residential towers, 76 four-star hotels and six five-star hotels offering 40,000 rooms to pilgrims, and a 400-bedded hospital.

Companies from all over the world, including Indian unicorns and construction magnates, are tapping into the vast market that this nation building entails. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Haj and Umrah has partnered with India’s leading hospitality start-up Oyo Hotels for implementing and auditing the aspirational standards for affordable and quality accommodation in existing buildings in the holy city of Makkah, through the use of technology and proprietary applications. Given the substantial movement of people between the two countries, India has also allowed Saudi Arabia a 40 per cent increase in the airline seat quota under the revised bilateral flying rights. Indian airlines like Indigo and GoAir are exploring the market to make the best of the new opportunities.

Saudi Arabia also seems to have taken a cue from India’s Digital India initiative, as innovation is leading the enhancement of Haj services in the country. The Saudi government is incorporating e-services, aiming for full automation in the future to enrich the religious and cultural experiences of the pilgrims. Saudi Arabia is also collaborating with the private sector to develop innovative digital solutions for pilgrims by tapping into mobile applications and the Internet of Things to promote digitally administered services for the pilgrims. Over 3,000 WiFi access points and 16,000 cell towers have been put in place for the pilgrims. A total of 25,000 Haj pilgrims in Mina will be issued wearable high-tech smart cards that will store the pilgrims’ personal information and health status and will have location trackers.

Haj will continue to be the harbinger of cultural and economic cooperation between India and Saudi Arabia. The two counties are in talks to implement the Makkah Road Initiative for Indian pilgrims. The initiative is an integral part of the Kingdom’s National Transformation Program 2020 to make the Haj pilgrimage more comfortable and hassle free. The service entails issuing visas, ensuring compliance with health requirements and codifying and sorting luggage at airports in the pilgrims’ own countries.

Haj demonstrates that cultural diplomacy can play a vital role in furthering economic modernization and boosting strategic cooperation between nations.

(The author is Associate Professor, Centre for West Asian Studies, Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal)

Middle East

Pak medics with MS, MD degrees sacked in Saudi

Most of the affected doctors were hired by a team of the Saudi Health Ministry in 2016 when it conducted interviews in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad after inviting applications online.




Islamabad, Aug 7 (IANS) Saudi Arabia and along with other Arab countries have rejected the century-old postgraduate degree programme of Pakistan – MS (Master of Surgery) and MD (Doctor of Medicine) – removing it from the eligibility list of the highest paid tier, the media reported on Wednesday.

The move by the kingdom has reportedly rendered hundreds of highly-qualified medics jobless, Dawn newspaper reported. It said that a majority of them are in Saudi Arabia who have been told to leave or be ready for deportation.

The Saudi Health Ministry, while rejecting Pakistan’s MS/MD degree, said it lacked structured training programme — a mandatory requirement to hire medics against important positions.

After the kingdom’s move, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain also took the similar step, according to the report.

Most of the affected doctors were hired by a team of the Saudi Health Ministry in 2016 when it conducted interviews in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad after inviting applications online.

One of the affected doctors told the daily that the decision “brought embarrassment for them” since the same degree programme offered by India, Egypt, Sudan and Bangladesh was acceptable in the kingdom and other countries.

The daily said that it obtained copies of service termination letters of several doctors issued by the Saudi Commission for Health Specialties (SCFHS).

“Your application for professional qualification has been rejected. Reason is that your master degree from Pakistan is not acceptable according to the SCFHS regulations,” read a letter.

Some of the affected doctors and senior health officials in Pakistan blamed the College of Physicians and Surgeons Pakistan (CPSP) for “damaging their career”, the report said.

A spokesperson for the Association of University Physicians and Surgeons Pakistan, Dr Asad Noor Mirza, called the move “a setback for Pakistan’s major degree qualification and disrespect to the highly-qualified cream of the nation”.

He claimed that CPSP delegations during their visits to Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states had presented “distorted facts” about Pakistan’s university programme.

Noor said that now Pakistan had to face a huge loss of foreign remittance in addition to sufferings of the medics in the form of joblessness.

Dr Ali Usman, an affected medic in Saudi Arabia, said: “I had done five-year postgraduate qualification from the University of Health Sciences, Lahore, with training from Lahore General Hospital… But all of a sudden the Saudi Health Ministry terminated my job contract, landing me and my family in immense shock.”

University of Health Sciences Vice Chancellor Prof Dr Javed Akram, however, said that “the MS/MD degrees are enriched with dynamic… and structured curriculum… at par excellence of international standards designed by the World Federation of Medical Education”.

Dean (academics) of the CPSP, Prof Dr Ghulam Mustafa Arain, rejected the allegations levelled by the affected doctors and said the institution “can’t think of degrading any medical education programme of Pakistan abroad”.

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Middle East

Dubai ruler, runaway wife begin London court battle

Oxford educated Princess Haya is the third female member of his court to run away from the UAE. She married Sheikh Mohammed in 2004, becoming his sixth and “junior” wife.




UAE Prime Minister and Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum,(2nd from L) sits next to his wife Princess Haya bint al-Hussein (C-R), United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon(L) and Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashed al-Maktoum (R) in 2016, in the Emirate of Dubai. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

London, July 30 (IANS) Dubai’s billionaire ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and his runaway wife Princess Haya Bint al-Hussein are beginning a court battle here on Tuesday over the welfare of their children, according to media reports.

The development comes after Princess Haya, the half-sister of King Abdullah of Jordan, apparently left Sheikh Mohammed with their children and moved to the UK following the “break-up” of their marriage.

The case is highly sensitive for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as it has thrust the personal life of Sheikh Mohammed, one of the most high-profile leaders in the Middle East, back into the headlines. He is also the UAE’s Vice-President and Prime Minister.

Read : Dubai’s Princess Haya flees UAE with money, kids: Reports

Oxford educated Princess Haya is the third female member of his court to run away from the UAE. She married Sheikh Mohammed in 2004, becoming his sixth and “junior” wife. The 70-year-old sheikh, who is the billionaire owner of Godolphin horse racing stables, reportedly has 23 children by different wives.

In June, the princess was reported to be in hiding in London fearing for her life. The UK court case centres around their children and not on their divorce or finances. The UAE has not commented on the dispute, calling it a “private family matter”, the Irish Times reported.

Princess Haya initially fled to Germany to try and seek asylum there, but it emerged in July that she was living in central London – specifically, in an 85 million pounds town house in Kensington Palace Gardens, the BBC reported.

It’s believed that Princess Haya will want to stay in the UK. However, if her husband demands her return to Dubai, this could cause a diplomatic headache for Britain – which has close ties with the UAE.

After she fled, Sheikh Mohammed wrote an angry poem accusing an unnamed woman of betrayal and treachery, and posted it on his Instagram page, the BBC said.

According to the report, which cited sources close to the princess, she had recently discovered “disturbing facts” about the mysterious return to Dubai in 2018 of Sheikha Latifa, one of Sheikh Mohammed’s daughters.

Sheikha Latifa had escaped the UAE by sea with the help of a Frenchman, but was captured on a boat off the Indian coast. She was then returned to Dubai.

At the time, Princess Haya defended Dubai’s reputation over the incident, claiming that Shiekha Latifa had been “vulnerable to exploitation” and was “now safe in Dubai”.

Human rights advocates, however, said she was abducted against her will.

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Middle East

10 civilians killed in Syria bombings

Nine civilians, including two children, died in Ariha town of Idlib and 28 were injured in the bombing by government planes




The Syrian Civil War
File Picture

Damascus, July 27 (IANS) At least 10 people, including three children, died in bombings by the Syrian Army on Saturday after a bloody week that has seen 100 civilians killed, a UK-based war monitor has said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that Damascus planes had carried out almost 40 bombings in various parts of Idlib and Hama provinces, strongholds of opposing armed groups.

Nine civilians, including two children, died in Ariha town of Idlib and 28 were injured in the bombing by government planes, the SOHR was cited as saying by Efe news.

Another child was killed in air strikes outside Kafr Auid, also in Idlib, the last region controlled by rebel and Islamist groups.

According to the SOHR, Russian planes carried out bombings in Hama. It further said that the Syrian Army conducted artillery and helicopter attacks in Aleppo province, neighbouring Hama and Idlib, where there were still rebel fighters present.

An anonymous Syrian military source told Efe news that the Syrian Army attacked “intensely” with artillery and missiles, and with air support from its own government and Russia, the north and northwest of Hama in the past 48 hours.

Troops are preparing to advance on the ground towards the areas in the hands of the armed factions, in particular the Islamist group Army of Al Aza, the source added.

At the end of April, the violence picked up and this week there has been a considerable increase in Syrian and Russian air and land attacks, in addition to the launching of rockets by the insurgents in response.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Friday denounced that 103 people, including 26 children, lost their lives from attacks by the Syrian Army and its allies in the past 10 days in Idlib and Aleppo.

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