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

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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

Deadly car bombs target Turkish-held town in north Syria

The car bombs were detonated on Thursday in swift succession at the al-A’laf roundabout in Ras al-Ayn, the report said.

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Car Bomb in Syria

Damascus, Dec 6 : At least two civilians were killed when two car bombs went off in Syria’s northeastern city of Ras al-Ayn controlled by the Turkey-backed rebels, state-run SANA news agency reported.

The car bombs were detonated on Thursday in swift succession at the al-A’laf roundabout in Ras al-Ayn, the report said.

Six people were also wounded in the bombing attack, it added.

The attack is the latest in series of bombings targeting the areas that have been recently stormed by the Turkey-backed rebels and Turkish forces, Xinhua news agency reported.

The previous day, at least five Turkish soldiers were killed when a car bomb targeted their convoy in the city of Jarablus in northern Aleppo province when it was en route to a Turkish-run base on the outskirts of the city, SANA reported.

It added that 12 other Turkish soldiers were wounded and later sent across the border to Turkish hospitals.

There have been a series of bombings and explosions targeting the Turkey-backed rebels and Turkish forces in northern Syria since Turkey launched an offensive against the Syrian Kurdish forces in October.

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Israel PM Netanyahu indicted for fraud, bribery

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Netanyahu Israel

Jerusalem, Dec 3 :Netanyahu Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has been indicted for fraud, bribery and breach of trust in three separate corruption cases.

Israeli Attorney General Avihai Mendelblit publicly released an official indictment on Monday, allowing a period of 30 days during which the long-time leader may request the parliament to grant him immunity from standing trial, Xinhua reported.

The 77-page indictment charges Netanyahu with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three separate corruption scandals.

According to the indictment, the trial will be held at the Jerusalem District Court. The date of the trial has not yet been published.

The document contains a list of 333 witnesses the prosecution may call to testify against Netanyahu, including Sheldon Adelson, an American Jewish business magnate and one of US President Donald Trump’s major donors, and Arnon Milchan, an Israeli billionaire and Hollywood producer, and other businessmen and politicians.

Netanyahu has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, saying the indictment is part of “an orchestrated witch hunt”.

He is the first Israeli Prime Minister, who has been served with an indictment while being in office.

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Iraqi Parliament approves PM’s resignation

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Adel Abdul-Mahdi

Baghdad, Dec 2 : Iraq’s Parliament has accepted Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation after two months of deadly anti-government demonstrations in the country.

State media reported that the Iraqi MPs on Sunday gathered for a special session to vote on the PM’s resignation presented to the Parliament in writing on Saturday, Efe news reported.

Abdul-Mahdi tendered his resignation on Friday after the country’s top Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani denounced the violence in the southern city of Nasiriyah.

Abdul-Mahdi on Friday said that if the Parliament accepted his resignation, his government would turn into a caretaker cabinet pending the formation of a new one.

Under the Iraqi constitution, the largest political bloc would have to propose a new candidate, whom the President Barham Saleh will then assign to form a cabinet within 30 days.

The bloc with the majority of seats is Saairun Alliance led by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who stressed Friday Abdul-Mahdi’s departure is “the first fruits of the revolution and not the last”.

He also suggested that the nomination of the new prime minister should be decided through a popular referendum among five candidates.

Earlier on the day, the Iraqi Supreme Council said that an arrest warrant was issued against a military chief for allegedly ordering a deadly clampdown on protesters in the southern province of Dhi Qar.

General Jamil al-Shammari, who was removed from his post and banned from travelling, was in charge of the security crisis cell of Dhi Qar, where about 50 people were killed during clashes between security forces and protesters in recent days.

On Wednesday, protesters torched the Iranian consulate building in the southern city of Najaf, located north of Nasiriyah, the capital city of Dhi Qar.

Mass demonstrations erupted in Iraq on 1 October and have recently intensified in the Shiite-majority southern provinces over the intervention of Iran in Iraq’s internal affairs.

At least 400 people were killed and over 16,000 others injured amid the protests decrying the lack of public services and employment opportunities mainly in Baghdad and other areas in the south.

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