Could Zarif’s resignation be the first of many for the Iranian regime?

Could Zarif’s resignation be the first of many for the Iranian regime?
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif delivers his statement, during the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 26 February 2019

Could Zarif’s resignation be the first of many for the Iranian regime?

Could Zarif’s resignation be the first of many for the Iranian regime?
  • The announcement by Zarif prompted reports that large numbers of diplomats are considering resigning too
  • Experts say it is a sign of the downward spiral facing the Islamic Republic

DUBAI/JEDDAH: After Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave his resignation on Instagram Monday night, experts say it is a sign of the downward spiral facing the Islamic Republic.
The announcement by Zarif, Iran’s lead negotiator of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with major powers, prompted reports that large numbers of diplomats are considering resigning too in a show of support.
“He couldn’t be resigning from one action. It’s a compilation of events that has led to this decision,” said Riad Kahwaji, founder and CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
“When you see a head of state being received by the Supreme Leader (Ali Khamenei), accompanied by the Quds Force instead of the foreign minister, this by itself is an indication of how things are headed in Iran and who has the upper hand.”
According to Iran’s Entekhab news agency, Zarif’s resignation appears to be linked to a surprise visit by Syrian President Bashar Assad to Tehran on Monday.
The top diplomat was not present at any of the meetings Assad had with Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, according to the semi-official news agency ISNA.
Entekhab said it tried to reach Zarif and received the following message: “After the photos of today’s meetings, Javad Zarif no longer has any credibility in the world as the foreign minister!”
Kahwaji said the power of diplomacy has been eroded in Iran at the expense of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of the country’s armed forces.
“The IRGC didn’t like the nuclear agreement because it imposed limitations on a program it spearheaded,” he added.
Zarif resigned on social media “to make sure he presented his own view, instead of submitting a resignation letter and waiting for the official media to give its own justification. This way, no one can claim he meant something else. He used a platform with his own voice stating the reasons for his resignation,” Kahwaji said.
There was no immediate indication that Rouhani had accepted the resignation, and a petition urging him not to do so was signed by a majority of MPs, senior lawmakers said. Kahwaji said the decision lies ultimately with Khamenei, not Rouhani.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Zarif was “one of the frontmen for a corrupt religious mafia. We note his resignation. We’ll see if it sticks.”
Pompeo added: “Our policy is unchanged — the regime must behave like a normal country and respect its people.”
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami, head of the Riyadh-based International Institute for Iranian Studies, said Zarif had submitted his resignation more than once before, but these were rejected.
“The visit of … Assad to Iran and the man’s resignation as foreign minister aren’t related, despite the fact that both took place in one day,” Al-Sulami said, adding that Khamenei may persuade Zarif to withdraw his resignation.
“Another assumption is that the resignation can mirror the political end of Zarif. Either the relieved Deputy Foreign Minister (Hossein) Amir-Abdollahian or Abbas Araghchi (the current political deputy) may be chosen for the post. I personally expect the former to replace Zarif.”
Dr. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, professor in global thought and comparative philosophies at the department of politics and international studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, said Iranian ministers and other government officials are prominent on social media, and have repeatedly used them to communicate their decisions.
“It’s deemed effective and prudent in terms of political neutrality,” he said. “Zarif has been a doyen of Iranian diplomacy ever since he was Iran’s ambassador to the UN.”
As for potential replacements, Adib-Moghaddam said Iranian foreign policy has never really been dependent on one person.
“I know from my own research that the Foreign Ministry is staffed by highly educated and capable diplomats,” he added.
Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri, an international affairs scholar in Riyadh, said some claim that Assad’s visit to Iran did not go through the Foreign Ministry, which was considered a marginalization of Zarif and his ministry.
“Others believe that the man has failed in his tasks as foreign minister,” Al-Shehri added. “Rouhani and his men are no more than PR employees. The IRGC is the governing force in Iran, and Zarif was forced to submit his resignation.”
Al-Shehri said: “The resignation, which hasn’t been accepted or rejected by Rouhani, may also be a media distraction (from) the British government’s decision to designate Hezbollah’s political wing a terrorist organization.”
The official IRNA news agency quoted Zarif as saying: “I hope my resignation will act as a spur for the Foreign Ministry to regain its proper statutory role in the conduct of foreign affairs.”
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Zarif was “never going to moderate the regime” in Iran.
“His job was to con Westerners into thinking the regime was moderating,” Dubowitz tweeted. “With his departure, the civilized world has one less excuse for seeing what has been in front of its nose all along.”
As the lead negotiator in the nuclear deal, Zarif’s standing within Iran’s political establishment took a hit when the US withdrew from it and re-imposed crippling unilateral sanctions last year.
Ultraconservative MPs tried to impeach Zarif but backed down in December as the initiative lost steam.


Palestinians injured during clashes in Jerusalem

Palestinians injured during clashes in Jerusalem
Updated 12 min 7 sec ago

Palestinians injured during clashes in Jerusalem

Palestinians injured during clashes in Jerusalem
  • Police said they made three arrests after the Jerusalem clashes
  • The Palestinian Red Crescent said four people in the crowd were wounded
JERUSALEM: Four Palestinians were injured in clashes with Israeli police in annexed east Jerusalem, the Palestinian Red Crescent said Monday, after officers cordoned off a popular gathering spot for Ramadan crowds.
Separately in the historically Arab Jaffa district of Tel Aviv, residents assaulted a rabbi seeking to acquire land for housing for Jewish seminary students in a predominantly Arab neighborhood, prompting clashes with police.
Police said they made three arrests after the Jerusalem clashes, during which they used tear gas and water cannon to disperse a large crowd gathered outside one of the gates to the walled Old City, video posted on Twitter showed.
Police said the crowd attacked officers with stones and firecrackers but caused no casualties.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said four people in the crowd were wounded.
During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when the faithful fast from dawn to dusk, the promenade around the walls of the Old City is a popular place for Palestinians to gather after dark.
Two far-right lawmakers — Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Religious Zionism alliance — visited police deployed outside the Old City on Sunday night.
“We need zero tolerance, an iron fist and to bring all the perpetrators to justice,” Smotrich tweeted.
In Jaffa, the unrest began when residents assaulted the head of a Jewish seminary, Rabbi Eliyahu Mali, police said, adding that they had arrested two suspects in their thirties.
After the assault, groups of Jaffa residents faced off with seminary students in the streets. Police in riot gear and on horseback rode through the neighborhood, where residents set off firecrackers and clouds of smoke hung in the air.
Police said officers were attacked with stones and firecrackers and two were injured. Three people were arrested.
The seminary’s director, Moshe Sendovich, told Israeli public radio that he and Mali had been touring a possible site for student housing when the alleged assault took place.
He said he and Mali were hit, slapped and kicked, and the rabbi’s glasses were thrown.
Sendovich said that the seminary, in the predominantly Arab Ajamni neighborhood of Jaffa, was part of an effort to boost the local Jewish community.
“The Jewish communities in Jaffa got weaker, and got thinner and we came to strengthen them,” he said.
Lawmaker Sami Abu Shehadeh, an Arab resident of Jaffa, said the seminary’s promoters were seeking to change the character of the neighborhood.
“These are people who have an ideology that is dangerous to a mixed city,” he said.

Exclusive: Ethiopian survivors retell horrors of last month’s ‘Houthi holocaust’

Exclusive: Ethiopian survivors retell horrors of last month’s ‘Houthi holocaust’
Updated 19 April 2021

Exclusive: Ethiopian survivors retell horrors of last month’s ‘Houthi holocaust’

Exclusive: Ethiopian survivors retell horrors of last month’s ‘Houthi holocaust’
  • Witness testimonies confirm that racism underlies Houthis’ abuse of Africans trapped in Yemen
  • Lawyer says 10 women taken to hospital after the March 7 fire are now nowhere to be found

NEW YORK CITY: When Abdel Karim Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, fled the recent violence consuming Ethiopia’s Oromia region, he never imagined he would fall into the hands of Yemen’s Houthis.

In fact, like many of his compatriots desperate to escape conflict-ridden Ethiopia, he had not even heard of the Iran-backed militia, which seized control of Yemen’s capital Sanaa in 2015.

When he first set out on his dangerous voyage across the Red Sea, Abdel Karim had envisioned an arduous overland crossing to one of the Arab Gulf states where opportunity and prosperity awaited him.

Events had taken a frightening turn in his native Ethiopia, where the security situation has continued to deteriorate amid growing unrest and political tensions. Human rights abuses, attacks by armed groups and communal and ethnic violence have forced thousands to seek refuge abroad.

Abdel Karim’s first encounter with the Houthis came just two days after his arrival in Sanaa, when two militiamen approached him in a marketplace. They singled him out in the crowd and demanded to see his ID.

Without so much as glancing at his papers, he was placed under arrest and taken to the city’s Immigration, Passport and Naturalization Authority (IPNA) Holding Facility, where he found hundreds of African migrants languishing.

Among them was Issa Abdul Rahman Hassan, 20, who had been working a shift at a Sanaa restaurant to save for his journey when Houthi militiamen stormed in and carried him off to the detention center.

There he was placed inside a hangar with dozens of others. In a video recorded three months after his arrival, Issa gestures around him. “Look, we are living on top of each other. We have no food. No water. Some people are exhausted, as you can see. They just sleep night and day.

“We don’t even have medicine here. And organizations like UNHCR do not care about us. All of us here are Oromo,” he said, referring to Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.

Human Rights Watch has corroborated several accounts like Issa’s, describing conditions in the detention center as “cramped and unsanitary, with up to 550 migrants in a hangar in the facility compound.”

On March 7, unable to tolerate these conditions any longer, the migrants went on hunger strike.

Conditions in the hangar before the fire were bad enough. (Oromia Human Rights Organization photo)

According to witness testimonies, the camp’s Houthi guards told the migrants to say their “final prayers” before firing tear gas and what may have been a flash grenade into the hangar. A fire quickly broke out.

Amid the smoke and chaos, migrants trampled one another in their desperation to escape. According to Houthi accounts, 40 migrants succumbed to the smoke and flames. Human rights groups put the figure closer to 450 — not to mention the scores of burn victims and amputees.

Abdel Karim was in the bathroom when the fire broke out. He survived, but suffered severe burns to his arms. He was taken to a government hospital, where he could see from the window a heavy security presence deployed around the medical facility, blocking relatives and aid agencies from reaching the injured.

Afraid he would be rearrested, Abdel Karim discharged himself and escaped.

A fire victim is treated at a hospital in Aden. (Oromia Human Rights Organization photo)

Despite his injuries, he joined survivors and relatives of the dead outside the UNHCR building in Sanaa to demand international action to hold the perpetrators to account.

They also demanded the names of all those killed, dignified funerals and closure for the families of those still missing.

“UNHCR did not respond to us,” Abdel Karim said in a video, shared with Arab News by the Oromia Human Rights Organization (OHRO).

“Only two days after the protests began, a UNHCR guy came out and told us that they (the agency’s staff) are also refugees like us here, guests who are incapable of doing anything. He told us that since 2016, the refugee file has been in the hands of the Houthis.”

INNUMBERS

550 Migrants in the IPNA hangar before March 7 fire.

6,000 Migrants in detention in mainly Houthi-controlled Yemen.

Source: Human Rights Watch

Undeterred, the crowd refused to leave, camping outside the UNHCR building for several weeks. Then, in the early hours of April 2, Houthi militiamen cordoned off the area, and dispersed the protesters with tear gas and live rounds.

“They hit us, dragged us by force, took our fingerprints and photographed us, before loading some of us into cars and shuttling us to the city of Dhamar, where they abandoned us in the rugged mountainous areas,” said Abdel Karim.

“We knew nothing and no one there. We just kept walking. We had no food, no water and hardly any money. When we stopped at one of the small villages, one of us got a bottle of water, and we passed it on to one another. There was only enough water to wet the tips of our tongues.”

The group eventually made it to Aden two days later. From the UNHCR’s headquarters in the port city, Abdel Karim asked to be taken to hospital to have his burns treated.

According to Arafat Jibril, head of OHRO, only 220 of the 2,000 detainees at the detention facility on the day of the fire made it to Aden. The fate of the others remains unknown.

Arafat Jibril, head of Oromia Human Rights Organization. (Supplied photo)

“African migrants just keep disappearing,” Jibril told Arab News. “The numbers of the forcibly disappeared are on the rise. But we have no means of knowing the exact numbers. This would be the job of international organizations, provided they are given access to secret detention centers, many of which are in Sanaa.”

As a lawyer and activist, Jibril collects eyewitness testimonies from inside Houthi-occupied territories in the form of secret WhatsApp recordings made by determined volunteers compelled to expose the horrors they see committed against African migrants.

Piecing together what happened to the disappeared is proving a challenge. “We know, for example, that 10 women who were taken to hospital are now nowhere to be found,” she said.

Only 220 of the 2,000 detainees at the detention facility on the day of the fire made it to Aden. The fate of the others remains unknown. (Oromia Human Rights Organization photo)

“We know that detentions of African migrants are continuing on a large scale, and that there is a long ‘wanted’ list, including the names of protest ringleaders and those migrants who talked to the press.

“And we know that the Houthis sort the migrants out. They send the young and healthy to war, and position them at the forefront of the trenches so ‘the blacks’ — as the Houthis call the African migrants — would die first. We have heard many accounts like that from those who survived the battles and returned to their families.

“They send African women to the battlefield, too, referring to them as Zaynabiyat (the Houthis’ all-female militia), to do the cooking and other services. At least 180 women and 30 children who had been detained were kidnapped two days before the fire. We also know nothing about them.”

African migrants receive food and water inside a football stadium in the Red Sea port city of Aden in Yemen on April 23, 2019. (AFP)

Few doubt that racism lies at the core of this maltreatment.

“Shortly after the tragic fire, Houthis were bullying the African migrants, hurling racial slurs at them, calling them ‘the grandchildren of Bilal’ — the Ethiopian companion of the Prophet and the first muezzin in Islam — and threatening ‘to burn you one by one like we burned your friends’,” Jibril said.

She fears these examples are just the tip of the iceberg in a largely overlooked tragedy that, despite its increasing severity, has failed to capture the interest of the international community.

The Houthis are well aware that African migrants have no one looking out for their interests.

“No organization to protect them,” said Jibril. “No one. So, the Houthis say, ‘let’s use them’. The only ‘sin’ these migrants committed was that they were born black.”

_____________________

Twitter: @EphremKossaify


Greek FM visits Egypt in lead-up to Saudi Arabia visit

Greek FM visits Egypt in lead-up to Saudi Arabia visit
Foreign ministers from Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and adviser to the president of the UAE Anwar Gargash hold a press conference in Paphos on Friday. (AFP)
Updated 19 April 2021

Greek FM visits Egypt in lead-up to Saudi Arabia visit

Greek FM visits Egypt in lead-up to Saudi Arabia visit
  • Diplomatic move by Athens against backdrop of Libyan situation, tension with Turkey

CAIRO: Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias arrived in Egypt on Sunday during a tour leading up to a visit to Saudi Arabia. It comes within the framework of a diplomatic move by Athens against the backdrop of the situation in Libya and tension with Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean.

Dendias tweeted on Saturday: “Yesterday I was in Cyprus to participate in the quartet meeting with Emirates, Israel and Cyprus, and I will go tomorrow to Cairo, and on Tuesday to Saudi Arabia, while I will participate on Monday in the European Council meeting.”
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry held talks with Greek Foreign Affairs Minister Nikos Dendias on his arrival in Cairo. They dealt with the bilateral ties between the countries and ways of enhancing them, in addition to the trilateral cooperation between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, and regional and international issues of common concern.
Last February, foreign ministers participating in the “Friendship Forum” in Athens, which included Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Greece and Cyprus, in the absence of Jordan, stressed the importance of stability in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean region.
Participants said that “discussion of confronting provocative acts and violations in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean was held.”
Saudi Arabia and Greece carried out a joint air exercise, “Eye of the Falcon 1,” in Crete, with the aim of refining and developing the skills of the air crew and technical division, and raising the combat readiness of their air forces. This was in addition to exchanging military expertise in the implementation and planning of air operations.

FASTFACT

Saudi Arabia and Greece carried out a joint air exercise, ‘Eye of the Falcon 1,’ in Crete, with the aim of refining and developing the skills of the air crew and technical division, and raising the combat readiness of their air forces.

Greek and Turkish disputes over maritime rights continue in the eastern Mediterranean region, with each side claiming encroachment on their maritime areas, while Arab countries condemn what they describe as Turkish military intervention in several Arab countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria.
The two ministers held a consultation session in Cairo to address common regional issues.
The Greek foreign minister tweeted through his official account on Twitter that he and his Egyptian counterpart discussed bilateral relations and developments in the eastern Mediterranean.
Spokesperson for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, Ambassador Ahmed Hafez, said that the talks between the two ministers dealt with issues of bilateral cooperation and regional issues that were a priority for both countries.
The Greek minister’s visit is the second in less than a month and a half. He is discussing with Egyptian officials bilateral cooperation and reviewing the latest developments within common political files, most notably the eastern Mediterranean, Libya, as well as Syria.


Berbers: North Africa’s ‘free people’ struggle for rights

Berbers: North Africa’s ‘free people’ struggle for rights
The Berbers are descendants of pre-Arab North Africans, whose historic homelands stretched from the Canary Isles and Morocco to the deserts of western Egypt. (AFP)
Updated 19 April 2021

Berbers: North Africa’s ‘free people’ struggle for rights

Berbers: North Africa’s ‘free people’ struggle for rights
  • The Berbers comprise about 10 million people in Algeria, making up roughly a quarter of the country’s population of 40 million. The majority live in Kabylie, a restive, mountainous region to the east of the capital Algiers

ALGIERS: Thousands rioted in Algeria’s northern Kabylie region 20 years ago this week — a symbolic chapter in the long fight for Berber rights.
The indigenous group is also in the vanguard of the Hirak anti-government protests that have rocked the country since 2019.
The Berbers are descendants of pre-Arab North Africans, whose historic homelands stretched from the Canary Isles and Morocco to the deserts of western Egypt.
They refer to themselves as the Amazigh, meaning “free people,” and have long fought for recognition for their ancient culture and language in modern states across the region.
Here is an overview of the Berbers’ varying fortunes in the Maghreb and Libya.
The Berbers comprise about 10 million people in Algeria, making up roughly a quarter of the country’s population of 40 million.
The majority live in Kabylie, a restive, mountainous region to the east of the capital Algiers.
On April 18, 2001, a teenager held at a gendarmerie post near Tizi Ouzou, the capital of Kabylie, was hit by a hail of bullets. He died two days later.
Massinissa Guermah’s death sparked riots, as Kabylie was preparing to celebrate the 21st anniversary of its fight for recognition of its Berber identity.

An estimated 126 people died in the two months of unrest, many of them youths shot in clashes with riot police.
Thousands of others were wounded in the crackdown.
In 2002, Berber was finally recognized as a national — but not an official — language, allowing it to be taught as a second language in some Berber areas.
Its recognition as an official language only came with constitutional reforms in 2016.
Berber New Year was celebrated as an official feast day for the first time on Jan. 12, 2018.
Morocco is home to the world’s largest Berber community.
According to a 2014 census, more than a quarter (26.7 percent) of Morocco’s population of 35 million use one of the country’s three main Berber dialects.
Their language was only given official status alongside Arabic in a new constitution in 2011.
Their Tifinagh alphabet now appears on many public buildings next to Arabic and French.
Since 2010, the Tamazight TV channel has been dedicated to promoting Berber culture.
In Libya, the Berbers were persecuted under former ruler Muammar Qaddafi.
However, they make up around 10 percent of the population, living mainly in the mountains west of Tripoli or in the vast southern desert regions.
In Tunisia, official statistics based on ethnicity are prohibited.
While their traditional heartland is in the south, an exodus from the countryside means Berbers today are mainly found in the capital Tunis.


How Middle East public attitudes have evolved, 1 year into COVID-19 pandemic

Health workers check worshippers entering the Grand Mosque in Makkah on April 18, 2021 as part of efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (SPA)
Health workers check worshippers entering the Grand Mosque in Makkah on April 18, 2021 as part of efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (SPA)
Updated 19 April 2021

How Middle East public attitudes have evolved, 1 year into COVID-19 pandemic

Health workers check worshippers entering the Grand Mosque in Makkah on April 18, 2021 as part of efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (SPA)
  • Data from polling agency YouGov suggests pandemic will have long-lasting impact on attitudes towards public health
  • Fear of catching COVID-19 has fallen among Saudi and UAE respondents, while willingness to accept vaccines has grown

DUBAI: On March 11, 2020, just a matter of months after it first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, outbreaks of the novel coronavirus were reported from multiple continents — marking the start of an unprecedented health emergency and an abrupt change in daily habits.

After the World Health Organization (WHO) decision to raise its alert from a scattering of localized epidemics to a full-blown pandemic, governments in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) area were quick to respond.

Mandatory nationwide closures were put in place, schools and workplaces emptied, front-line workers mobilized and households ordered to stay home. Few could remember a time of such disruption or ever seeing their streets so empty.

Data collected by British polling agency YouGov found that in April 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, some 75 percent of respondents across Saudi Arabia and the UAE felt “somewhat” or “very scared” of contracting the virus. This fear has generally fallen as the pandemic has worn on.

To curb the spread of COVID-19, governments placed much of the onus on the general public to abide by new personal hygiene and social distancing guidelines.

In the same YouGov poll, 78 percent of Saudi and UAE respondents said they had improved their personal hygiene (frequently washing their hands and using hand sanitizer), while 80 percent said they had avoided public places and 70 percent said they had started wearing face masks in public.

COVID-19 spreads primarily through contact with infected individuals when airborne particles are expelled through coughing and sneezing. It can also be spread by touching contaminated surfaces and transferring particles to the eyes, nose and mouth.

A Saudi police officer inspects a motorist's permit to travel during the lockdown in the Kingdom in April 2020 to fight the spread of COVID-19. (SPA file photo)

The combination of lockdown measures and ubiquitous public health messages has had a profound effect on people’s daily lives, running the gamut from how they work and study to how they travel and socialize.

It has also highlighted the significant role that widespread community uptake of hygiene and social distancing rules can play in successfully containing outbreaks.

During the first six months of the pandemic, YouGov data showed rates of mask wearing were high in the GCC. Some 80 percent of UAE respondents and 69 percent of Saudi respondents said they were consistently wearing face masks during this period.

Throughout the pandemic, at-risk groups, including the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, have been urged to be extra vigilant. In August 2020, 80 percent of Saudi respondents over the age of 45 reported having avoided public places, whereas just 58 percent of 18-24-year-old Saudis said they took the same precautions.

In the same month in the UAE, 81 percent of people aged over 45 reported wearing a face mask in public, while just 66 percent of 18-24 year olds said they were complying with the mandatory mask rule.

Although men and women are equally susceptible to catching coronavirus, medical data suggests men are more likely to suffer from severe symptoms and ultimately die from the disease.

In August 2020, four out of every five Saudi respondents over the age of 45 reported having avoided public places. (Reuters file photo)

And yet, despite WHO advice to the contrary, YouGov data found that male Saudi and UAE residents were less likely to improve their personal hygiene, less likely to wear face masks, less likely to avoid crowded places and less likely to avoid touching potentially contaminated surfaces.

Since the pandemic began, nearly 142 million people have been infected worldwide and more than 3 million have died. The UAE has seen about 500,000 COVID-19 cases, while Saudi Arabia’s total is approaching the 405,000 mark.

Compared with many European states, where governments were slower to react to the pandemic, the outbreak in the GCC has been relatively mild, with a much lower death rate. But even here, as vaccines are rolled out and restrictions are gradually eased, things feel a long way from normal.


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“What’s happening to us may seem to so many people to be alien and unnatural, but plagues are not new to our species — they’re just new to us,” writes social epidemiologist Dr. Nicholas Christakis in his book “Apollo’s arrow: The profound and enduring impact of coronavirus on the way we live.”

And just like the great epidemics of the past, writes Christakis, the COVID-19 pandemic will eventually pass, bringing with it a brighter period in which people seek out long-denied social interactions.

The Yale professor even predicts a second “roaring 20s” similar to the decade of prosperity and cultural resurgence that followed the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918.

But in order for this to happen, people must be safe — and feel safe. Annual vaccinations, improved treatments and vaccine passports are all possible tools to get societies and economies back on track.

Until then, the behavior of those least at risk will continue to impact those most at risk. Therefore, getting “back to normal” will depend not only on medical science, but on the actions of the community as a whole.

Without a widespread uptake of vaccines and containment measures, the virus will enjoy a stronger foothold and a greater chance of mutating, allowing it to become more transmissible and its symptoms more severe.

“When a virus is widely circulating in a population and causing many infections, the likelihood of the virus mutating increases,” according to the WHO’s “Vaccine Explained” series. “The more opportunities a virus has to spread, the more it replicates — and the more opportunities it has to undergo changes.”

INNUMBERS

83% Saudi respondents who believe the pandemic situation is improving.

14% UAE respondents who believe the pandemic situation is getting worse.

70% Saudi and UAE respondents who say they will continue avoiding crowded places.

Source: YouGov COVID-19 Public Monitor, March 2021

A major factor in uptake is the trustworthiness of the vaccines on offer.

In early December last year, the UAE became one of the first countries to approve the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine for emergency use. YouGov’s polling data at the end of that month found that just 56 percent of UAE respondents felt comfortable taking the vaccine or had already done so. In Saudi Arabia, that figure was only 42 percent.

An Emirati man gets vaccinated against COVID-19 at al-Barsha Health Centre in Dubai on December 24, 2020. (AFP file photo)

Since the national vaccination program was launched in Saudi Arabia, more than 2 million doses have been administered at 500 centers across the Kingdom. In the UAE, which has one of the highest vaccination rates per head of the population in the world, more than 10 million have been administered.

Since the December 2020 poll, confidence in the safety and efficacy of the new crop of COVID-19 vaccines has grown. Data from the YouGov COVID-19 Public Monitor in March 2021 showed an increase in willingness to take the vaccine by 20 percent of respondents in Saudi Arabia and 26 percent in the UAE.

Now the vast majority of respondents in the UAE (82 percent) and in Saudi Arabia (62 percent) say that they have either received a vaccine, or are willing to take one.

In other findings, 83 percent of Saudi respondents believe the pandemic situation is improving; only 14 percent UAE respondents believe the pandemic situation is getting worse, while but 70 percent of Saudi and UAE respondents intend to continue avoiding crowded places.

None of this is surprising given that scientists still have a lot to learn about COVID-19, its mutations, spread patterns, long-term symptoms and its ability to outmaneuver the vaccines and treatments doctors throw at it.

Mask wearing, hand sanitizing and social distancing might therefore be requisite behaviors for some time yet to come.