Watch Isha and Taraweeh prayers live from the Grand Mosque in Makkah.
Saudi passengers flock to airports as foreign travel resumes
- About 385 flights to international destinations took off from nine airports in the Kingdom on Monday
JEDDAH: The terminals at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah were once again bustling with passengers on Monday, as international travel resumed more than a year after it was suspended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Arrivals and departures resumed at the Kingdom’s air, land and sea ports at 1 a.m., with Saudi citizens who have been vaccinated, or have recovered from the virus within the past six months, free to travel.
As passengers flocked to the airport from early Monday morning, the flow of traffic was well-organized and smooth. Entry to terminals was restricted to people with valid tickets and helpers accompanying disabled travelers.
As part of the latest rules implemented by authorities, Saudis younger than 18 must also provide proof that they have a health insurance policy, approved by the Saudi Central Bank, that will cover the cost of treatment for COVID-19 in other countries.
Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Civil Aviation also issued updated travel guidelines, including requirements for the use of the country’s Tawakkalna COVID-19 tracking app. The conditions apply to all travelers, regardless of whether their trip is for leisure, study, work or to receive medical treatment.
About 385 international flights took off from nine Saudi airports on Monday, including 225 departures from Riyadh, 75 from Jeddah, 66 from Dammam, and 19 from the other airports. In addition, about 300 vehicles crossed land borders into Qatar during the morning.
The Kingdom’s national carrier, Saudia, resumed flights to 43 destinations in 30 countries. It said it will operate 178 scheduled flights each week from Jeddah and 153 from Riyadh.
Ibrahim Al-Omar, the airline’s director general, said that Saudia has implemented more than 50 precautionary measures throughout all stages of the flight process, and has been ranked among the Top-10 safest airlines in the world by the Airline Passenger Experience Association. He added that since the pandemic began, the airline has operated more than 100,000 flights, transporting more than 10 million passengers.
The destination of the first international flight to depart from Riyadh on Monday was Hyderabad in India, while the first flight of the day from Jeddah was bound for Dhaka in Bangladesh. The first international flight to land in Riyadh on Monday was from Cairo, and the first arrival in Jeddah was from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.
Despite the resumption of international flights, the Saudi Interior Ministry said that a ban remains on direct or indirect travel to 13 countries without prior permission to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The countries this applies to are: Libya, Yemen, Armenia, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Somalia, Belarus, India, Lebanon, Turkey, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Venezuela.
In addition, the ministry said travelers heading to Bahrain must have received two doses of a vaccine, and children under the age of 18 are not eligible to travel there. Diplomats and individuals accompanying them, air navigation and ship crews, workers in companies that are part of the health supply chain, and truck drivers are exempt from these rules. People who arrived at the King Fahd Causeway, on the border with Bahrain, but did not meet the requirements were turned away on Monday.
Travelers returning to the Kingdom after visiting a foreign country will be required to quarantine at home for seven days. However foreign visitors, including members of diplomatic missions arriving by air from most countries, will no longer need to quarantine if they have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Those who are not vaccinated must provide proof of a negative PCR test, issued by an approved laboratory within 72 hours of flying to the Kingdom, otherwise they will not be allowed to board the plane.
With the exception of Saudi citizens, resident expats and GCC citizens, all people arriving in Saudi Arabia must have medical insurance that will cover the costs of COVID-19 treatment in outpatient clinics, emergency rooms and hospitals.
On Jan. 29, Saudi authorities postponed the reopening of air, sea and land ports and extended the travel ban from Mar. 31 to May 17. Further information about international travel, including the rules and requirements, is available at www.saudia.com.
Virus rules violators warned as cases decline in Saudi Arabia
- Saudi Arabia has administered more than 11.7 million COVID-19 vaccines so far at a rate of 33.5 doses per hundred
JEDDAH: More than 250 individuals were fined for breaking social gathering protocols in the last 24 hours, including 72 women attending a wedding where authorities imposed fines on both guests and the host.
For the fourth day in a row, the number of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in Saudi Arabia remained below 1,000 with a significant rise in recoveries.
A total of 886 new cases of the cases were recorded in the Kingdom on Monday, meaning 433,980 people in Saudi Arabia have now contracted the disease.
In addition, 1,127 new recovered cases were also announced, taking the total number of recoveries to 418,914, meaning the Kingdom’s recovery rate has increased to 96.5 percent, marking a significant decline in the epidemiological curve.
There were 7,892 active cases, 1,377 of them critical, an increase of just one patient in the past 24 hours.
The regions with the highest number of infections were Riyadh with 281 cases and Makkah with 250. Twelve new COVID-19 related deaths were reported, raising the death toll to 7,174.
Saudi Arabia has administered more than 11.7 million COVID-19 vaccines so far at a rate of 33.5 doses per hundred. Of the Kingdom’s 34.8 million people, 33.6 percent have now been vaccinated with at least one jab.
On Monday, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs closed nine mosques temporarily in six regions, after cases of COVID-19 were detected among worshipers.
The ministry stated that the total number of mosques that had been closed now amounted to 1,210, with 1,188 subsequently reopened after the completion of disinfection.
Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition
- Group insists final negotiations to end Afghanistan war are held in Doha
KABUL: Afghan Taliban delegates were on Monday reportedly ready to take part in US-sponsored talks with the Kabul government in the Turkish city of Istanbul.
A Taliban spokesman confirmed the negotiators’ position, making a U-turn on the group’s recent decision to boycott the long-awaited discussions.
Zabihullah Mujahid told Arab News: “The talks should not pave the ground for interference from any side.
“This matter is under deliberation ... we, without doubt, say that the Istanbul meeting should be conducted in conformity with the wishes of the Afghan people and should have no imposition aspect.”
However, he said that the final negotiations should be held in Doha, Qatar where both sides resumed stalled discussions on the peace process several days ago.
“This is an opportunity for peace, and we will participate in it on the basis of our conditions ... continuation of the talks in Doha is a good point for ending the war,” he added.
The development follows the group’s decision to snub the Turkey talks after American President Joe Biden said he would be extending the US-led foreign troops’ presence in Afghanistan until Sept. 11.
Initially, all troops were to have left the country by May 1 based on a key condition for a landmark accord signed between the Taliban and US delegates in Doha more than a year ago.
Mujahid did not elaborate on the conditions for the talks to resume and said that the Taliban leadership was “pondering over them.”
He pointed out that the two conditions demanded by the group for participation in future discussions included the “release of the remaining 7,000 Taliban inmates held by Kabul and delisting of their leaders from the UN blacklist.”
Mujahid added that the Taliban had discussed the conditions with Washington which had “pledged to facilitate” the group on both issues, although no date had yet been set for the talks. Fatima Morchal, a spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, welcomed the news.
“It is a good thing; we have always said we will participate. The agenda and timing of the meeting have yet to be finalized, and we will attend it,” she told Arab News.
The Istanbul talks were rescheduled for April 24, before the Taliban announced that they would not participate in any meetings on Afghan peace until all foreign forces withdrew from Afghanistan.
Under Biden’s announcement, US-led troops will leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, ending the most protracted conflict in America’s history, which began nearly 20 years ago with the Taliban’s ousting in 2001.
The group has accused Washington of breaching the deal by delaying the troops’ exit, resulting in an escalation of violence across Afghanistan – with hundreds of lives lost, including civilians – which both the Taliban and the Kabul government have blamed each other for.
Fighting resumed on Monday in a number of major Afghan provinces at the end of a three-day ceasefire announced by the Taliban during the Eid-Al-Fitr holiday.
Two weeks ago, US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the Doha deal with the Taliban, warned that Washington would abandon its push to form an interim government to replace Ghani if the Taliban insisted on boycotting the Istanbul talks.
The Istanbul meeting, under the auspices of the UN, seeks to draw a roadmap to end more than four decades of conflict in Afghanistan, ahead of the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.
Wahidullah Ghazikhail, a Kabul-based political analyst, told Arab News that recently Washington had “secretly shown flexibility to the Taliban” on the date of departure for the remaining troops and could “complete the pullout process either in June or July.”
The Taliban, in return, had to “express leniency for attending the Istanbul meeting,” he said.
“The Taliban would have been blamed by ordinary Afghans for refusing to participate in the Istanbul talks. They now have a condition, want to begin the initial talks in Istanbul, but that the serious decisions and last decisive decisions be taken in Doha,” Ghazikhail added.
Torek Farhadi, an adviser for former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told Arab News: “The Taliban are making sure they have a diplomatic presence in the (Istanbul) talks because the process of delisting them from the UN sanctions list requires to continue talks and for freeing their 7,000 prisoners.”
He said that Kabul also wanted to attend the Istanbul meeting to “give people hope that peace talks are continuing,” but added that in reality “the positions are so far apart that peace talks might continue for years. Both sides are preparing for more war. But it is clear that both sides have actors in the peace theaters as well … the sad part is civilians will suffer.”
Indonesia halts use of AstraZeneca vaccine batch for toxicity tests
- Precautionary measure follows the death of a 22-year-old man one day after receiving jab
JAKARTA: Indonesia has temporarily suspended the use and distribution of an Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine batch pending sterility and toxicity tests by the Drug and Food Monitoring Agency (BPOM), the Health Ministry said on Sunday.
The ministry announced the move following advice from the BPOM’s National Commission on Post-Immunization Accidents, which will carry out the tests.
It follows the death of a 22-year-old man in East Jakarta, who suffered from a high fever and eventually died after receiving his first jab earlier this month.
Siti Nadia Tarmizi, a Health Ministry spokesman for the national COVID-19 vaccination program, said that the suspension of the batch would not deter the use of other AstraZeneca batches in the jabs program, which began four months ago.
“We continue to use the AstraZeneca vaccine because it provides a much greater benefit. The suspension is the government’s precautionary measure to ensure the safety of the vaccine,” Tarmizi said, adding that the test results are expected to be released no later than two weeks.
The commission recommended the drug monitoring agency conduct the tests. Its chairman, Hindra Irawan Satari, said that the agency “did not have enough data to determine” whether the man’s death was related to the vaccine from the suspended batch, which he received a day before his demise.
The batch consisted of 448,480 doses and is part of the 3,852,000 doses Indonesia received from the World Health Organization’s COVAX facility’s vaccine distribution scheme on April 26.
The ministry said that the vaccine batch in question had been distributed in the capital city, Jakarta, among the military, and in the North Sulawesi province.
Tonang Dwi Ardyanto, an epidemiologist of the clinical pathologist association PDS PatKlin said while the suspension was necessary, it would slow down the national vaccination progress.
“We hope the test results will come out soon so that the matter is clear,” he told Arab News on Monday.
“We are well aware that there is no vaccine or medicine that is 100 percent safe, but we just have to look for the ones with the least possible risks,” he added.
Indonesia received 6.4 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which were distributed to seven provinces, with Bali and East Java getting a majority of the share.
The Oxford jab is a small fraction compared to the nearly 68 million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine used in the government’s vaccination program.
A study conducted by the Health Ministry from January to March on health workers who received the Sinovac vaccine showed that it is “almost 100 percent effective in protecting them from infections, hospitalization, and death.”
Pandji Dhewantara, the ministry’s lead researcher, said last week that two shots of the Sinovac vaccine “provided 98 percent protection against death” in the 128,290 health workers who were monitored for the study.
Dhewantara added that the vaccine was 94 percent effective in protecting health workers from being infected with COVID-19 and 96 percent effective in preventing them from being hospitalized.
“We can conclude from this study that vaccination is important to reduce the risks of someone being infected by COVID-19,” he added.
A private vaccination scheme, coordinated by the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce, through which private entities can pay to inoculate their employees and families, will be using China’s Sinopharm and CanSino vaccines, with Russia’s Sputnik expected to be added.
The scheme is expected to commence on Tuesday, with almost 18,000 private entities registered to inoculate about 8.6 million people from labor-intensive manufacturing companies to micro-enterprises with as few as three employees.
Indonesia aims to inoculate 181.5 million people out of its 270 million population, which it expects to complete by the end of the year. But four months into the program, only 8.8 million people have received vaccines, just five percent of the targeted population.
GCC national ID not valid for travel
- King Fahd Causeway Passports raises operational capacity
RIYADH: Using a national ID as a document for traveling to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries remains suspended, a spokesman for the Eastern Province Passports said.
Citizens wishing to travel must verify the conditions of the destination country and ensure they are met, Mualla Al-Otaibi added.
In February last year, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to suspend GCC citizens’ use of national identity cards for travel to and from the Kingdom, coinciding with the onset of precautionary measures to combat COVID-19.
Al-Otaibi said the border points of the Eastern Region Passports had resumed work after the lifting of travel suspensions through all air, land and sea ports on May 17.
“Preventive maintenance work was carried out for all border backup devices and systems,” said Al-Otaibi.
A further 10 lanes have been installed in the departure area, bringing the total number of lanes to 27, with 36 lanes in the arrival area.
King Fahd Causeway Passports increased its operational capacity by 30 percent to facilitate passenger travel.
The spokesman said that meetings and workshops were held with port authorities to ensure speedy and smooth travel, while applying all precautions.
The movement of passengers leaving for Bahrain had decreased sharply since Monday morning, he said. The director general of Saudi Customs at the King Fahd Causeway, Dhaifallah Al-Otaibi, told Arab News they were ready to receive arrivals and departures through the causeway, and to provide customs services to travelers of all categories.
Customs at the causeway linking Saudi Arabia and Bahrain strived to enhance customs procedures, he added.
We are ready to receive arrivals and departures through the causeway.
Dhaifallah Al-Otaibi, DG Saudi Customs
He confirmed the continued cooperation and coordination between all parties operating at the border crossing, and that port authorities were all working as one business system to provide the best services.
“Customs (the land link between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) continues to take precautionary measures, (which are) more intense with the start of travel between the two countries to ensure the maximum levels of safety recommended to protect travelers and arrivals, in addition to protecting the employees of the port,” he added.
Customs at the King Fahd Causeway continued working on freight traffic since the suspension of personal travel between the two countries last year, he said.
Causeway customs statistics said that procedures for about 272,000 trucks entering and leaving the Kingdom had been completed between March 2020 until the end of April 2021, while about 325,000 vehicles had crossed the causeway in both directions since the beginning of this year.