UN pushes for Yemen cease-fire as virus cases rise

Security men wearing protective masks stand on a street in Sanaa in May, 6, 2020, during a 24-hour curfew amid concerns about the spread of the COVID-19. (REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah)
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Updated 07 May 2020

UN pushes for Yemen cease-fire as virus cases rise

  • Health teams in Aden, Taiz and Hadramout reported a new surge in the number of infections

AL-MUKALLA: Envoys of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to Yemen have renewed their calls for an immediate cease-fire in the country after an alarming surge in the number of coronavirus cases.  

Following a virtual meeting with Yemen’s Foreign Minister, Mohammed Al-Hadrami, and a spokesperson for the Iran-backed Houthis, Mohammed Abdul Salam, the ambassadors urged both parties to “engage positively” with UN proposals to end hostilities and allow the country’s fragile health system to fight the virus outbreak.

“We told both parties that the best defense against COVID-19 is a permanent cease-fire and a resumption of political dialogue,” Michael Aron, the British ambassador to Yemen, said in an online post on Tuesday.

“We urged both parties to engage constructively with the UN texts with a view to adopting the joint declaration and attending the proposed crisis meeting.”  

Local media outlets also reported that the ambassadors voiced strong support for UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths’ diplomatic efforts with the separatist Southern Transitional Council, which seized control of Aden. 

In a recent interview with Arab News, Griffiths said that his latest peace proposal is based initially on a nationwide truce, measures to alleviate economic and humanitarian strife, and a commitment to the resumption of peace talks.

Discussions were expected to lead to a comprehensive peace settlement that would address the country’s thorny issues and prevent it from plunging into war again, he said.

The Saudi-led coalition and the internationally recognized government have declared a truce in Yemen to allow health workers to fight the spread of the disease.

Houthi rebels have demanded an end to airstrikes on their forces, the opening of airports and the withdrawal of Saudi-led coalition forces from the country before they adhere to a cease-fire.

Yemen’s Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that the army and allied tribesmen pushed back two Houthi attacks in the mountainous Nehim district, near Sanaa and Al-Bayda.

As fighting raged, the Aden-based supreme national emergency committee announced on Wednesday that four new coronavirus cases had been recorded in Lahj and Aden, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in areas under the government’s control to 25, including five deaths.

Health teams in Aden, Taiz and Hadramout reported a new surge in the number of infections as they continued to trace patients’ contacts despite a severe shortage of personal protective equipment. 

Riyadh Al-Jariri, head of the health ministry’s Hadramout office, said that health workers identified more than 50 people who had direct contact with  three people who tested positive for coronavirus in the province.

Patients’ contacts were asked to stay home and report any health problems to local doctors.

At the same time, authorities in Hadramout reimposed a partial curfew from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m., closed land entries to the province, and advised residents to limit social contact.

The emergency committee in the central province of Marib, headed by Gov. Sultan Al-Aradah, stepped up virus curbs, including extra testing at the province’s entry points, the use of rapid response teams, a ban on large gatherings and the shutting down of markets.

Following reports that the Houthis are concealing the number of coronavirus cases, the rebels failed to report any new cases on Wednesday and announced that 10 districts in Sanaa will be placed in 24-hour lockdown.

The first case of coronavirus inside Houthi-controlled territory was announced on Tuesday after a Somali national was found dead in a hotel in Sanaa.

American G20 ‘sherpa’ Chris Olson lauds strong, long-standing Riyadh-Houston links

Updated 44 min 59 sec ago

American G20 ‘sherpa’ Chris Olson lauds strong, long-standing Riyadh-Houston links

  • Chris Olson: It began with oil but developed into a cultural and economic exchange – a lot of Saudis ended up calling Houston home
  • Olson: I’ve been impressed by how Riyadh has taken the U20 concept and moved it forward

One of the aims of the U20 — the urban track of the G20 organization that formally opens on Thursday in Riyadh — is to bring together cities of diverse backgrounds and cultures to explore common interests and challenges, rather than focusing on what makes them different.

In the case of Riyadh and Houston, Texas, that process of familiarization has been underway for decades.

Christopher Olson, director of international affairs and global trade at the offices of the city of Houston, told Arab News: “There has been a long-standing and strong relationship between Houston and Riyadh, indeed the whole of Saudi Arabia, for a very long time.”

Olson reports to the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, but for the past year or so has been the US “sherpa” at the G20, under Saudi presidency this year.

The Riyadh-Houston affinity was based, naturally, on the oil and gas industry, with both cities owing much of their economic dynamism and growth to the energy business. Saudis and Texans share a unique heritage as pioneers of the crude business, and those links have grown and diversified over the decades.

“It began with oil but developed into a cultural and economic exchange. A lot of Saudis ended up calling Houston home,” Olson said.

Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s energy giant, has a big facility in the Texan city, and owns the Motiva refinery complex a short distance away on the Gulf of Mexico coast.

Until the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit, Saudis would travel in droves each year to the CERAWeek energy forum in Houston, the “oil man’s Davos,” not least to keep tabs on what their rivals were doing in the Texas shale industry.

Saudis also attend Texas universities in big numbers, and the Texas Medical Center — which Olson pointed out was the biggest medical facility in the world — treats Saudi patients in increasing numbers.

Oil and medicine came together during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Aramco gifted medical supplies and equipment to Houston. “We were incredibly fortunate in that. We got almost 1 million masks from benefactors, and Aramco made up a big proportion of that. It really was incredibly generous,” Olson added.

The virus outbreak led to the cancellation of CERAWeek this year, but the city hoped organizers would add some physical element to the planned virtual event in 2021, Olson said.

The city managed to avoid most of the early virulence of the pandemic that hit US cities such as New York and Los Angeles, but relaxed early restrictions, along with several American cities, in May, and suffered a resulting spike in infections, the official added. “Now the numbers are moving in the right direction — downwards. But as schools and economic activity restarts, there is the potential for a second wave.”

One of the major themes of the U20 is how big urban centers, such as Houston and Riyadh, can overcome the health and economic ravages of the pandemic. Some experts have forecast mass migration from big cities, partly to avoid infection, but also as working and social habits adapt to whatever post-pandemic “normality” emerges. There has even been talk of “the end of urbanization.”

Olson said: “We’re all going to have to adapt. For example, are we as cities still going to invest in big infrastructure projects to encourage mass transit systems? That is the thing to do from a sustainability viewpoint, but it creates a health challenge.”

The working environment also faces enforced change. “There may have been a reticence in the past about tele-meetings, but now they are ubiquitous. It’s going to fundamentally change the way business is conducted.”

Increased dependence on technology brings other challenges, which the U20 will also consider. The digital divide between those who have access to efficient communications, especially in education, has been brought into sharp relief during the global health crisis, and even impacted on affluent urban hubs such as Houston.

“But I believe the city as a concept will endure. We are urban and social animals. People will adapt, but the general concept of the urban environment will not change,” Olson added.

He said it had been “fantastic” working with his counterparts at the U20 in Saudi Arabia.

“I’ve been impressed by how Riyadh has taken the U20 concept and moved it forward. The U20 is still only in its third year, but Riyadh has solidified it as an engagement group, and created a format for an exchange of thought and ideas. This will help us come up with evidence-based proposals and solutions,” he added.

The climax of the U20 comes on Friday, when mayors from all the big cities come together virtually to approve a 27-point communique for delivery to the G20 leadership. That statement is still under wraps, but Olson said it was a “well-crafted” document that reflected the good relationships that had developed between the sherpas over the past year.

He would like to see the U20 track elevated within G20 proceedings in the future, especially in the way it addresses issues of more concern to younger people, and believes that Saudi Arabia, with its very young demographic, will assist that elevation process.

“The amazing work of Riyadh has built on what was achieved in Tokyo and Buenos Aires and has carried it forward.

“It’s the cities of the world that face the biggest challenges — such as climate change, human rights, and sustainable development. But the cities are also coming up with the solutions. That is where the opportunity lies,” Olson said.