Hajj minister says Saudi Arabia’s tech triumph ensured successful season

Hajj minister says Saudi Arabia’s tech triumph ensured successful season
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The efforts exerted by the government to ensure a hassle-free Hajj and the facilities provided to pilgrims at different levels were highly praised, most notably the health precautions of social distancing and adhering to health requirements. (SPA)
Hajj minister says Saudi Arabia’s tech triumph ensured successful season
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Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr. Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Benten. (Supplied)
Hajj minister says Saudi Arabia’s tech triumph ensured successful season
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Hajj minister says Saudi Arabia’s tech triumph ensured successful season
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Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr. Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Benten. (Supplied)
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Updated 17 October 2020

Hajj minister says Saudi Arabia’s tech triumph ensured successful season

Hajj minister says Saudi Arabia’s tech triumph ensured successful season
  • Kingdom harnesses all its potential to make pilgrims feel at home, prioritizing their safety: Muhammad Saleh Benten

JEDDAH: The Saudi Hajj and Umrah Ministry has shared some of the secrets behind what made the “exceptional” 2020 Hajj season a success, with zero transmitted cases of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr. Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Benten said that the government utilized the latest technology to improve the pilgrim experience this season.
Speaking about his ministry’s efforts in preventing the spread of COVID-19, Benten said that it implemented precautionary measures in every phase of the pilgrimage, starting with the pilgrims being quarantined at home.
It also introduced institutional quarantine from the fourth to the eighth day of the Hajj, gave pilgrims electronic bracelets and enforced social distancing.
“For the second consecutive year, the ministry used the electronic platform through the ‘smart card’ application, taking into account the pilgrims’ special needs in terms of the journey’s organization and management,” he said. “The platform is a digital ID granted to the pilgrim that is directly linked with the ‘Smart Hajj’ application supervised by the ministry.”
He added that the digital ID contains the pilgrims’ personal, health and housing information, such as the numbers of their group, and which bus seat and bed has been allocated to them.
“It also enables pilgrims to know their special program, gathering points and times of departure. Moreover, the ministry registered pilgrims electronically by using an interactive platform that links 52 systems and is complemented by 30 governmental and nongovernmental bodies,” he added.
Relying on those services, the minister said, came as part of the ministry’s strategy to establish virtual platforms that reduce procedures, and keep pace with the technical development required to achieve the Saudi Vision 2030 goal to serve pilgrims.
With every Hajj season having its own challenges, the Hajj and Umrah Ministry has enjoyed success after success. However, the 2020 season put the ministry to an unprecedented test.
“As every year, Saudi Arabia harnesses all its potential and energies to make the Hajj season a success, prioritizing the safety and security of the pilgrims.

FASTFACTS

• When Saudi Arabia took the decision to hold Hajj for a limited number of people, it was keen to comply with all health and precautionary measures.

• This step was taken based on scientific decisions and thorough research studies that would ensure that pilgrims can perform Hajj rituals safely.

• The ministry and all Hajj-related authorities have learned many lessons from the last Hajj experience, where social distancing was implemented.

“However, last year’s Hajj was a little different with the whole world facing the COVID-19 outbreak. During the 2020 Hajj season, the Saudi government faced a rare and unprecedented challenge, and thanks to God, the Kingdom was able to address it,” he said.
He added: “When Saudi Arabia took the decision to hold Hajj for a limited number of people, it was keen to comply with all health and precautionary measures. This step was taken based on scientific decisions and thorough research studies that would ensure that pilgrims could perform Hajj rituals safely.”
He said that the efforts exerted by the Saudi government in this regard and the various facilities provided to pilgrims at different levels were highly praised, most notably the health precautions of social distancing and adhering to health requirements.
The ministry and all Hajj-related authorities have learned many lessons from the last Hajj experience, where social distancing was implemented. The minister shed light on the most notable lessons, and how they can benefit future seasons.
“The ministry implemented social distancing protocols in all phases of the pilgrims moving between the holy sites through limiting the seating capacity of buses to 50 percent,” said Benten.
As for the residence of pilgrims, officials conducted tests for all pilgrims and workers and assigned health observers to ensure guidelines were maintained.
He added: “Moreover, 49-seat buses were assigned to each group of 22 passengers, and Hajj routes were fixed in a way to achieve social distancing. These measures resulted in zero transmission of COVID-19 between pilgrims and their service providers.”
As many government officials have said in the past, preparations for the next Hajj season begin as soon as the previous iteration ends.
One of the advantages of the extraordinary 2020 season was that the ministry could accelerate projects in the holy sites.
Benten told Arab News that his ministry works every year on developing the services provided for pilgrims, to enrich their experience through providing diverse programs and initiatives.
“The ministry always benefits from the accumulated experiences, large-scale projects and personnel to provide the finest services with the best levels for pilgrims,” he said. “One of those initiatives that benefited the ministry, which will continue to implement it in the future, is the preparation and improvement of the holy sites, the preparation of a comprehensive scheme to expand the capacity and receive the largest number of pilgrims in order to achieve comfort, security, safety and environmental dimensions, reduce pollution and study spatial dimensions.”
He added that the ministry aims for a record time reception of pilgrims through the unified center to analyze data, enhancing crowd control efficiency and rapid intervention, reducing time to organize pilgrims, and distributing them equally.
The Hajj and Umrah companies have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic; with some failing to meet their obligations towards their employees.
“The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has provided a myriad of facilities to these companies since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic through developing work and encouraging mergers and investments in Umrah companies,” Benten said.
He added that the ministry has also contributed to reducing the value of financial security for nondefaulting active Umrah companies to SR250,000 ($66,666) for six months.
“The ministry also authorized Umrah companies to reduce their capital in the commercial register to SR500,000 ($133,332), close their doors for one year, and postpone payment of nonessential violations for six months,” said Benten.
The ministry launched the business clinics unit, which is one of its programs aimed at helping companies review their mechanisms and operational plans.
“The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah will also be organizing many workshops and training programs for Umrah companies on strategies to recover from the COVID-19 crisis and the means of developing their business with efficiency,” he concluded.


Saudi Arabia, UAE reject Israeli measures to evacuate Palestinian homes in Jerusalem

Saudi Arabia, UAE reject Israeli measures to evacuate Palestinian homes in Jerusalem
Updated 27 min 4 sec ago

Saudi Arabia, UAE reject Israeli measures to evacuate Palestinian homes in Jerusalem

Saudi Arabia, UAE reject Israeli measures to evacuate Palestinian homes in Jerusalem
  • The ministry renewed its stand with the country’s people, and supported all efforts aimed at reaching a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia rejects Israeli plans to evacuate Palestinian homes in Jerusalem and impose Israeli sovereignty over them, Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement.

The ministry stressed the country’s condemnation of any unilateral measures and violations of international legitimacy decisions. It also denounced anything that might undermine the chances of resuming the peace process to achieve security and stability in the region.

The ministry renewed its stand with the country’s people, and supported all efforts aimed at reaching a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue.

It has also shown its support in enabling the Palestinians to establish their independent state on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, in accordance with international legitimacy decisions and the Arab Peace Initiative.

A night of heavy clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound and elsewhere in Jerusalem left more than 200 Palestinians wounded, medics said Saturday, as the city braced for even more violence after weeks of unrest.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates has also condemened the storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli authorities, stressing the need for them to assume responsibility in accordance with international law.


Saudi Arabia, Pakistan sign agreement to establish Saudi-Pakistani Supreme Coordination Council

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan sign agreement to establish Saudi-Pakistani Supreme Coordination Council
Updated 08 May 2021

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan sign agreement to establish Saudi-Pakistani Supreme Coordination Council

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan sign agreement to establish Saudi-Pakistani Supreme Coordination Council
  • Imran Khan invites Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to visit Pakistan

JEDDAH: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan have signed an agreement to establish the Saudi-Pakistani Supreme Coordination Council.

Ahead of the visit, Pakistan’s Cabinet on Tuesday approved the establishment of the council – a body created for streamlining bilateral cooperation between the two countries – to ‘remove hurdles’ to investment deals signed during the crown prince’s visit to Pakistan in February 2019.

Representatives from both countries also signed a memorandum of understanding on illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances and chemical precursors, Saudi news agency SPA reported.

“Another MoU for financing eligible projects in the fields of energy, infrastructure, transportation, water, and communications between the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD) and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was signed as well,” Al-Arabiya TV reported separately.

The two leaders also witnessed the signing of agreements increasing cooperation on people sentenced to penalties depriving freedom, and on crime prevention.

Khan arrived in the Kingdom on Friday evening for a three-day visit on the invitation of the crown prince, who was present at Jeddah airport to receive him and the first lady. He is accompanied by a high-level delegation, including the foreign minister and other members of the Cabinet.

The crown prince and Pakistani leader held wide-ranging talks on bilateral, regional and international issues in Jeddah, a statement from Pakistan’s foreign office said.

“The two leaders reaffirmed the strong and historic bonds between the two countries rooted firmly in shared beliefs, common values, mutual trust and longstanding tradition of mutual support,” the statement said, and added that the two parties agreed to “further strengthen, deepen and diversify the existing bilateral political, economic, trade, defense and security ties.”

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“Special emphasis was laid on increasing Saudi investments in Pakistan, collaboration in the field of energy, and increased job opportunities for Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia,” the statement said.

Saudi Arabia is home to more than two million Pakistanis who remit billions of dollars back home every year.

On regional issues, Khan outlined his vision of a ‘peaceful neighborhood.’ He lauded the crown prince for efforts and initiatives aimed at reinforcing and promoting regional peace.

Khan highlighted the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir and stressed the importance of a peaceful resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. He also said Pakistan had made consistent efforts to support peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan, the statement reported.

The Afghan question is important in the region against the backdrop of foreign troops pulling out of Pakistan’s neighboring country after a war that has lasted two decades, and that ends with the Taliban controlling huge swathes of the country.

During talks, issues related to the environment and climate change were discussed and the PM reportedly appreciated the crown prince’s ‘Green Saudi Arabia’ initiative.

Khan has reportedly also invited the crown prince to visit Pakistan at his earliest convenience, the foreign office said.

On Friday, Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, whose official visit preluded Khan’s, held talks with the Saudi crown prince and reviewed bilateral ties.

He also discussed defense cooperation with the Saudi military chief of staff.


Opportunities for mutual benefit beckon as Pakistan PM Imran Khan begins Saudi Arabia visit

Opportunities for mutual benefit beckon as Pakistan PM Imran Khan begins Saudi Arabia visit
Updated 08 May 2021

Opportunities for mutual benefit beckon as Pakistan PM Imran Khan begins Saudi Arabia visit

Opportunities for mutual benefit beckon as Pakistan PM Imran Khan begins Saudi Arabia visit
  • Energy, economy and welfare of overseas Pakistanis expected to top the agenda of meetings
  • Remittances sent home from the Kingdom are an important source of foreign capital for Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has long enjoyed warm relations with Saudi Arabia, deeply rooted in their common faith, shared history and mutual support in times of crisis. More than 2 million Pakistanis work in the Kingdom, contributing to its prosperity and sending home billions in remittances. Trade, meanwhile, continues to blossom between the two nations.

With an eye to boosting their mutual cooperation, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived in Saudi Arabia on Friday at the invitation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to begin a three-day official visit, with energy, economy and the welfare of overseas Pakistanis expected to top the diplomatic agenda.

“We believe this is a very important visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan to Saudi Arabia with respect to our historic bilateral relationship, trade and economic ties,” Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri, a spokesman for the Pakistani foreign office, told Arab News.

Pakistan's PM Imran Khan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman riding in a carriage during a welcome ceremony in Islamabad on Feb. 18, 2019.  (Photo by Bandar Al-Jaloud / file photo)

“The two sides will discuss economy, trade, investment and job opportunities for the Pakistani workforce in Saudi Arabia, besides signing a number of agreements on energy and infrastructure related projects.”

Indeed, the Kingdom is an extremely important trade destination for Pakistan and both countries have been searching for ways to boost their partnership along with the volume of imports and exports.

At present, the trade volume between both countries stands at $3.6 billion, with imports from Saudi Arabia worth $3.2 billion and exports to the Kingdom worth $316.3 million, according to the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

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“Our exports to Saudi Arabia have increased this year after our companies were allowed to export halal meat and livestock, and we are trying to further boost it,” Shahid Ahmed Leghari, chairman of the Pak-Saudi Business Council, told Arab News.

Pakistani companies had also started exporting spices and garments to the Kingdom, he said, but there is room for improvement. “We can boost our bilateral trade to $20 billion per annum if we are allowed to export rice, fruits, vegetables, wheat flour and dairy products to the Kingdom,” Leghari said.

Khan’s visit to Saudi Arabia will help “open new business opportunities” for Pakistani businessmen and exporters, he added.

Ahead of the visit, Pakistan’s Cabinet on Tuesday approved the establishment of the Supreme Coordination Council between the country and Saudi Arabia to “remove hurdles” to investment deals signed during the crown prince’s visit to Pakistan in February 2019. 

During the crown prince’s 2019 visit, officials of both countries signed key memorandums of understanding worth $20 billion in the fields of energy, petrochemicals, minerals, agriculture and food processing. 

Khan will be accompanied on his Saudi visit by a high-level delegation, including the foreign minister and other members of the Cabinet.

Pakistan's PM Imran Khan walk along with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Nur Khan Pakistan Air Force (PAF) base in Islamabad on Feb. 18, 2018. (Photo by Bandar Al-Jaloud / file photo)

He will also meet Dr. Yousef Al-Othaimeen, secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation; Mohammad bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, secretary general of the World Muslim League; and the imams of the Two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah.

Khan will also meet with members of Pakistan’s diaspora community in Jeddah during his stay in the port city. The Kingdom remains the largest source of overseas remittances to Pakistan, with Pakistani workers sending home $6.6 billion in the last fiscal year and $5.7 billion from July to March this fiscal year, according to the State Bank of Pakistan.

These remittances are an important source of foreign capital for Pakistan as it fights to stabilize its economy, crippled by the coronavirus pandemic.

“This visit is important because Pakistan is facing real financial challenges where we have to maintain our foreign exchange reserves,” Qamar Cheema, a Pakistani foreign-relations analyst, told Arab News.

“Pakistan is also facing challenges since the UAE visa (for Pakistanis) has not been resumed and at the same time the Pakistani diaspora is very much important. So, Pakistan wants its strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia to remain the same.”

Just weeks after Khan assumed office in August 2018, Saudi Arabia helped Pakistan stave off its looming balance of payments crisis by extending a $3 billion interest-free loan and another $3 billion deferred payment facility for the import of oil.

In exchange, “Pakistan wants to share its experiences with Saudi Arabia, making Saudi Arabia green. And Pakistan also wants to share its (military) experience to protect the security of Saudi Arabia,” said Cheema.

“We are going to nudge forward from where we left off back in 2019 when the crown prince came here.”

 

The Kingdom has often stood by Pakistan during difficult times, extending financial support during wars and natural disasters.

“Pakistan cannot forget the extensive Saudi financial support in the form of oil supply and cash during our difficult times, such as the earthquake in 2005 and flash floods in 2010 and 2011,” Javed Hafeez, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told Arab News.

The presence of Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa in the Kingdom ahead of the prime minister’s visit indicates both countries are interested in “enhancing defense cooperation” and economic ties, he said.

“Saudi Arabia is a time-tested and trusted friend of Pakistan, and the prime minister’s visit will definitely help open new vistas of economic cooperation,” Hafeez said.

 


Mosque named after King Salman to be built in Islamabad

Mosque named after King Salman to be built in Islamabad
Updated 08 May 2021

Mosque named after King Salman to be built in Islamabad

Mosque named after King Salman to be built in Islamabad

RIYADH: A mosque named after Saudi Arabia's King Salman will be built at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said Saturday.

The planned mosque, which will be located at the university's campus, includes a prayer hall for men accommodating 4,000 worshipers and another for women accommodating 2000 worshipers, said the report.

King Salman. (SPA photo)

The project also contains a museum and a library each in the name of the King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Conferences Hall, an administrative area and a parking lot.

There will also be outdoor yards that can accommodate 6,000 people. 

SPA said King Salman has approved the plan.


Farasani people find summer solace in ancient Saudi getaway

Farasani people find summer solace in ancient Saudi getaway
Al-Qassar village consists of old buildings and is located in the south of Farasan Island. (Supplied)
Updated 08 May 2021

Farasani people find summer solace in ancient Saudi getaway

Farasani people find summer solace in ancient Saudi getaway
  • Al-Qassar village becomes a top destination for those seeking moderate climates and potable water

MAKKAH: The village of Al-Qassar — located 5 kilometers away from the Farasan governorate — has long been a hub for the people of the Farasan Islands who are always in connection with the place.

This is especially noticeable during summer, when people migrate to the village to escape from the heat.
For more than 50 years, Al-Qassar’s historic homes have witnessed vibrant ceremonies, as their walls were built with stones, roofed from palm tree fronds, and adorned with seashells and beautiful Arabic inscriptions.
Saudi historian and poet Ibrahim Moftah said that Al-Qassar is one of the first villages that was inhabited in the Arabian Peninsula hundreds of years ago. The village enjoys moderate weather, is covered with palm trees, and is full of fresh wells and rich in history and events, he added.
“Farasan was a deserted island on all levels and the love of change is in the nature of Jizani people, so they used to go to Al-Qassar for change,” he told Arab News.
He said that at the beginning of the month of April, the village becomes a top destination for those seeking moderate climates and potable water. “Water in Al-Qassar can be found at a depth of six meters, whereas it can only be found in Farasan at a depth of 23 meters.”
Previously, most travel and trips to Al-Qassar village were during what Farasani people call the “Shaddah” season, where families ride camels to travel.
People of Farasan would postpone their wedding ceremonies in order to travel to Al-Qassar in summer, where the weather is cool during the Shaddah season.
Those trips to the village were done in two phases: One morning trip for a bride, who rides a camel carrying water and boxes with accompanying music, and another second trip during the afternoon for families.
“The Farasan people used to celebrate new brides in Al-Qassar in a unique way, especially if the bride was in the first year of her marriage, amid the chants and songs of joy,” said Moftah. “A calm and trained camel is chosen, then they decorate the camels with beads, pearls and silk, and copper bells that are fixed to its ankles to make sounds as it walks.”

HIGHLIGHTS

• For more than 50 years, Al-Qassar’s historic homes have witnessed vibrant ceremonies, as their walls were built with stones, roofed from palm tree fronds, and adorned with seashells and beautiful Arabic inscriptions.

• Previously, most travel and trips to Al-Qassar village were during what Farasani people call the ‘Shaddah’ season, where families ride camels to travel.

• People of Farasan would postpone their wedding ceremonies in order to travel to Al-Qassar in summer, where the weather is cool during the Shaddah season.

Moftah said that before a bride’s trip to Al-Qassar, “young women gather at the bride’s house and start singing, then they start their trip with the bride in the forefront. The camels would also be carrying wooden boxes that used to arrive from Aden and are made in India, loaded with expensive clothes and perfumes. The bridesmaid accompanies the bride, and she is usually of a similar weight. Men and women would stand on the sides to wave goodbye to the bride’s procession.”
The bride is then received in Al-Qassar with jugs of water and chants.
However, Moftah said that “nowadays, there are no more camels in Farasan” and that “life has changed and these traditions ended 50 years ago,” as cars, modern homes and air-conditioners have become common and Al-Qassar is no longer an escape or a shelter for anyone, now only home to “deserted houses and souvenirs.”
According to the Saudi historian, official festivals and a surge in tourism “was not fair” to the history of Al-Qassar village, as older traditions were not properly represented. “The region has lost one of the most beautiful cultural traditions.”
Saudi tourist guide Yahya Abbas said that Al-Qassar village consists of old buildings and is located in the south of Farasan Island, and includes almost 400 houses fixed with tree fronds, small stones and sand “to prevent water leaks.”
He added: “The history of this village dates back to the Roman era, and there are writings and drawings dating back to the Himyarite era.
“The village is considered the largest palm oasis in the region, with plenty of fresh wells.”
Abbas said that Al-Qassar has now become an area for tourists and visitors who want to discover its history and that of the Farasan Islands, as well as view the ancient houses in the village.