Waking the sleeping giants above Saudi Arabia’s deserts

Waking the sleeping giants above Saudi Arabia’s deserts
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Milky Way core rising above Wahba Crater. (Credit: Huda Alerwy)
Waking the sleeping giants above Saudi Arabia’s deserts
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Earthshine, a phenomenon from which a dull glow overwhelms the moon as sunlight reflects off the Earth's surface and back onto the moon. (Credit: Mohammed Jan.)
Waking the sleeping giants above Saudi Arabia’s deserts
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The Veil Nebula. (Credit: Anas Almajed)
Waking the sleeping giants above Saudi Arabia’s deserts
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Photo credit: Anas Almajed
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Updated 26 October 2020

Waking the sleeping giants above Saudi Arabia’s deserts

Waking the sleeping giants above Saudi Arabia’s deserts
  • Saudi stargazers are fusing ancient traditions with cutting-edge technology

JEDDAH: Saudis have for years wandered off to explore the country’s varied landscapes, with excursions that focus on stargazing and meteor watching.

The Kingdom’s vast, open lands provide one of the most optimal views of space in the region, a hidden secret has not been fully discovered yet, and which feeds curious minds and wakes the sleeping giants above.

For thousands of years, Arabs traveling across the region’s lands used stars to navigate through rough terrain and vast deserts. Indigenous tribes inherited their navigation skills on land and sea from those who traveled from one end of Arabia to the other.

Today, satellites and navigation apps do the job instead, but people’s curiosity has remained, and many still look up at blue or red dots of glowing planets, star systems, and constellations in a bid to understand their historical significance and beauty.

Photographers in the Kingdom have advanced the field of nature photography, with some branching out to become astrophotographers, documenting celestial events such as eclipses and meteor showers. The keenest have gone even further and captured nebulas and star clusters.

Many medieval Muslim scholars made huge contributions to astronomy — from Ibn Yunus’ successful attempts in correcting historic Greek calculations of planetary movements to Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sufi, who was the first astronomer to observe the Andromeda Galaxy and Large Magellanic Cloud.

Anas Al-Majed, an avid astrophotographer based in Riyadh, bought his first telescope seven years ago and was able to view the moon’s mountains and craters as well as neighboring gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, in fine detail.

“I was awestruck with how detailed everything was, like Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s gaseous bands. With time, I upgraded from a simple telescope to a Dobsonian 8-inch, where I delved into discovering deep-sky objects, starting with the Andromeda Galaxy and Orion’s Nebula,” Al-Majed told Arab News. “As a photographer, I wanted to know more and continue discovering, and again, upgraded to a refractor with an equatorial mount for my camera, which brought simple results.”

But the photographer still needed more, as he wanted to capture images of the sleeping giants in bright detail, and he soon bought a camera with features that suited deep astrophotography. The result was surprising and magnificent.

“The refractor’s lens is the closest to a camera lens, my first love. Maintaining the refractor telescope doesn’t take much effort and it can handle the tough terrain unlike other telescopes,” he said.

Although an expensive hobby, turning to international sites means cheaper prices for proper equipment and telescopes, which many say are expensive in the Kingdom.

Al-Majed said the field is still young and there is more room for exploration, but warned that it takes time, practice, and patience to achieve optimal results.

With seven years of experience, he is still keen to find more deep space objects to photograph. “It’s the challenge that’s exciting. The Bubble Nebula is very difficult to photograph due to its distance and the Veil Nebula is a strange and beautiful object. There are still many deep space objects to find and I can head out of Riyadh and search.”

FASTFACTS

• Some of the constellations that can be viewed with the naked eye during autumn above the Saudi deserts include Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, and Minor, Crux, and Draco.

• Planets such as Venus, Saturn, Jupiter also shine bright, but it is Mars in opposition that steals the show this time of year.

The Kingdom is ideal for stargazers and astrophotographers, but few know where or how to watch one of nature’s most striking sights in all its glory — the Milky Way Galaxy.

With proper research and by selecting the right time and place, the Milky Way’s core can be seen rising during the country’s summer months and disappearing toward the Southern Equatorial Belt.

Huda Alerwy, a Jeddah-based photographer, went on a hiking trip in April 2019 and camped off the edge of the Wahba Crater, a volcanic crater located 250 km from Taif. There she witnessed the Milky Way galaxy’s rise above the horizon for the first time in her life.

Fortunately, there are apps that people can use to reach areas with relatively clean and stable air to make the viewing of stars sharp and clear.

Mohammed Jan

“The scene was mesmerizing. We started to see the glow of the belt at 2 a.m. and I had the chance to capture the moment,” Alerwy told Arab News. “We spent more than an hour photographing its rise and if I get the chance to relive that experience again, I’ll do it with no hesitation.”

With her tripod in tow, she was able to ensure that her camera was stable enough to withstand any wind gusts and stabilize it for a clear shot.

Some of the constellations that can be viewed with the naked eye during autumn above the Saudi deserts include Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, and Minor, Crux, and Draco. Planets such as Venus, Saturn, Jupiter also shine bright, but it is Mars in opposition that steals the show this time of year.

For casual stargazers in many parts of the Kingdom, the stars have been further away, photographer Mohammed Jan told Arab News. “Many Saudis can’t see the Milky Way where they live, or many stars for that matter, due to light pollution. They’d have to drive for hundreds of miles outside city limits to get away from it.

“Fortunately, there are apps that people can use to reach areas with relatively clean and stable air to make the viewing of stars sharp and clear for both stargazers or photography enthusiasts alike,” he added.

Obsessed with astrophysics and space for years, Jan captured his first glimpse of the Milky Way in 2014 and soon became more knowledgeable in the field. He often drives for hours just to make sure he is away from any light pollution.

“There are different apps that you can use to make sure that you’re in the right area. Large cities such as Makkah and Jeddah are within Zone 9 and barely feature any stars. For optimal viewing and astrophotography, you’ll need to be in an area less than a Zone 4,” he added.

With time, Jan grew used to capturing celestial objects, but soon ventured into new territory — nebulas and deep-sky objects.

“The Helix Nebula has always captured my interest. The planetary nebula was and has always been my favorite object to photograph in the dark skies,” said Jan, repeating Al-Majed’s warning that it is through time, practice, and effort that he was able to reach his level of expertise. Jan is looking forward to doing better but has called for greater community support for astrophotography.

“Not many understand what we do and why we do it. It’s educational, it’s knowledge and its understanding,” he said.


After COVID, Saudi Arabia set to turn its attention to an older scourge: viral hepatitis

The WHO says 4.5 million deaths could be prevented in low- and middle-income countries by 2030 through vaccination, testing, medicines and education. (AFP)
The WHO says 4.5 million deaths could be prevented in low- and middle-income countries by 2030 through vaccination, testing, medicines and education. (AFP)
Updated 53 min 59 sec ago

After COVID, Saudi Arabia set to turn its attention to an older scourge: viral hepatitis

The WHO says 4.5 million deaths could be prevented in low- and middle-income countries by 2030 through vaccination, testing, medicines and education. (AFP)
  • Ahead of World Hepatitis Day on July 28, health professionals are calling for action against the “silent killer”
  • Dr. Faisal Aba Alkhail of King Faisal Specialist Hospital says the Kingdom will need to resume efforts to eliminate Hepatitis B and C

DUBAI: Before the coronavirus swept the planet in early 2020, Saudi Arabia was on course to eliminate viral hepatitis by 2030. But as in the rest of the world, the task of fighting COVID-19 in the Kingdom was understandably given precedence over efforts to defeat what is often called the “silent killer.”

Hepatitis fits the description because 95 percent of infected individuals worldwide are unaware of their infection and in most cases people are asymptomatic. It nevertheless remains the world’s seventh-leading cause of death.
The illness is an inflammation of the liver that can cause a range of health problems and can be fatal, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). There are five main strains of the virus, referred to as types A, B, C, D and E.
While all cause liver disease, the five strains differ in important ways, including modes of transmission, severity of the illness, geographical distribution and prevention methods.

In particular, types B and C lead to chronic disease and, together, are the most common cause of liver cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer. An estimated 325 million people worldwide live with hep-B or C and, for most, testing and treatment remains beyond reach.
In 2015, viral hepatitis caused 1.34 million deaths worldwide, mostly from hep-B infection, which is higher than the number of global deaths caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Some types of hepatitis are preventable through vaccination. According to the WHO, “an estimated 4.5 million premature deaths could be prevented in low- and middle-income countries by 2030 through vaccination, diagnostic tests, medicines and education campaigns.”
July 28 is World Hepatitis Day. The date was chosen to coincide with the birthday of Nobel prize-winning scientist Dr. Baruch Blumberg, who discovered hep-B virus and developed a diagnostic test and vaccine.

FASTFACT

July28

World Hepatitis Day is observed each year on this date to raise awareness about the virus that causes liver disease and hepatocellular cancer.

With COVID-19 vaccination efforts continuing apace and the pandemic beginning to subside in many parts of the developed world, the fight against viral hepatitis is once again high on Saudi Arabia’s public health agenda.
“The Saudi Ministry of Health instituted a specific program to fight hepatitis C in the country before the pandemic, in accordance with the WHO,” Dr. Faisal Aba Alkhail, a consultant transplant hepatologist at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, told Arab News.


“But then COVID-19 came and disrupted many initiatives. The battle against COVID-19 had to be the priority.”
In 2016, the WHO Global Health Sector Strategy issued a road map for the elimination of viral hepatitis as a public health problem by 2030.
The plan entailed a 90 percent reduction in infections and a 65 percent reduction in mortality by the end of the decade, compared to a 2015 baseline that showed 257 million people living with hepatitis B, 71 million with hepatitis C, and 36.7 million with HIV.
“As Saudi Arabia gains control over COVID-19, it’s time to revisit the initiatives and campaigns to eliminate viral hepatitis B and C with full force to meet the WHO target of elimination by 2030 in our country,” Aba Alkhail said.
Hepatitis B is spread through contact with the blood, semen and other body fluids of an infected individual, but can be prevented through vaccination.
Hepatitis C is also blood-borne, but varies in its severity, in some cases lasting only a few months while at other times developing into a lifelong illness. It is a major cause of liver cancer, with sufferers often requiring liver transplantation. There is currently no vaccine.
In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia had one of the highest rates of hep-B infection in the world, with an estimated 8.3 percent of the population infected.
Then, in 1989, the Kingdom became the first country in the Middle East to launch a hep-B vaccination program, eight years after the first vaccine was approved for use in the US. By 1990, the vaccine was available to all infants from birth and children were routinely vaccinated when they started school.
While the vaccination of children and infants has been associated with a notable decline in the rate of infection in Saudi Arabia, falling to just 1.3 percent according to the Saudi Journal of Gastroenterology, hepatitis remains a major public health risk in the Kingdom, especially among high-risk groups, including those with HIV, drug addictions and those who have undergone blood transfusions.


In 2007, the Saudi Ministry of Health ranked hepatitis the second most common reportable viral disease in the country, with almost 9,000 new cases diagnosed that year alone. Of these, 52 percent had hepatitis B, 32 percent hepatitis C, and 16 percent hepatitis A.
In Saudi Arabia, hepatitis B and C remain a major cause of hepatocellular carcinoma, the most common type of primary liver cancer, and diseases that require liver transplantation. The infection rate may have dropped, but morbidity and mortality related to the disease have not shown a parallel decline.

 

It’s time to revisit the initiatives and campaigns to eliminate viral hepatitis B and C with full force.

Dr. Faisal Aba Alkhail - Consultant transplant hepatologist at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh

Medical experts expect the burden of associated liver diseases to rise in the coming years, owing to aging in infected populations.

Dr. Faisal Aba Alkhail

Saudi Arabia has implemented a number of programs designed to improve diagnosis, including premarital screening for hepatitis B and C and HIV. “In Saudi Arabia you can’t complete marriage documents without doing the test for hep-B and hep-C,” Aba Alkhail said.
“In addition, the Kingdom follows the standard special population screening of dialysis patients, blood bank donors, hospital-based patients and other high-risk groups.”
Crucially, it has also made hepatitis screening and treatments free to all citizens and residents, both Saudi and non-Saudi.
“In Saudi Arabia, we are (trying our best to follow) the WHO targets: To diagnose 90 percent of infections and treat 80 percent of high viral-load patients by 2030, as well as diagnose and treat all infected patients by 2022,” said Aba Alkhail.


“Most known cases have been rated and cured since effective treatments were made available in 2014. Many countries are running out of new hepatitis C patients to treat, according to the World Hepatitis Alliance.
“Saudi Arabia still has the burden of hepatitis C patients that are not yet diagnosed and there is a need for a screening program to detect previously undiagnosed cases.”
Medical professionals set out a list of recommendations in a May 2021 report, titled “Revealing Hepatitis B Virus as a Silent Killer: A Call-to-Action for Saudi Arabia,” published in the Cureus Journal of Medical Science.
“In 2016, hep-B caused 1,700 annual deaths (i.e. five deaths per day) in KSA,” the report said. “Although substantial improvements have been made in hep-B management, a lot remains to be done for hep-B screening and care pathways.
“Considering the current hep-B estimates in KSA, the country is expected to achieve the WHO hep-B 2030 target goals for diagnosis, treatment and mortality by 2051.
“The current scenario in KSA demands the implementation of a structured policy framework to combat and eliminate hep-B.”
The report’s authors said the Kingdom could curb the virus by “establishing a national-level registry, implementing screening campaigns, improving linkage of care between primary care physicians (PCPs) and specialists, and increasing PCP education and awareness.”
However, the report said that in order for these measures to have the desired effect on transmission rates, they must be adhered to consistently and simultaneously throughout the Kingdom.
“We have already come so far since the 1990s. Saudi Arabia had a problem in the past with hepatitis, but the vaccine has greatly improved its prevalence in the Kingdom,” said Aba Alkhail.
“The challenge now is finding the undiagnosed cases and treating them effectively so that we can win this battle.”

 

Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor

 

Decoder

Hepatitis

● The illness is an inflammation of the liver that can cause a range of health problems and can be fatal, according to the World Health Organization. There are five main strains of the virus, referred to as types A, B, C, D and E. ● While all cause liver disease, the five strains differ in important ways, including modes of transmission, severity of the illness, geographical distribution and prevention methods. ● In particular, types B and C lead to chronic disease and, together, are the most common cause of liver cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer.


Saudi Culture Ministry issues 149 more scholarships

Saudi Culture Ministry. (SPA)
Saudi Culture Ministry. (SPA)
Updated 28 July 2021

Saudi Culture Ministry issues 149 more scholarships

Saudi Culture Ministry. (SPA)
  • Female students dominate the new batch of scholarships at 74 percent

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Culture Ministry on Tuesday said it issued 149 additional scholarships, which will provide specialized learning opportunities for Saudi male and female students at prominent international institutions.
It is part of the ministry’s cultural scholarship program. Female students dominate the new batch of scholarships at 74 percent.  The ministry said so far 50 percent of the male and female students enrolled with the program are undergraduates, while 49 percent are pursuing their master’s degrees. They are studying in several creative fields.
Archaeology, design, museums, music, theater, filmmaking, literature, visual and culinary arts, will be just some of the fields of study available at Ph.D., bachelor’s, and master’s degree levels.
 


Saudi tourism fund adopts cloud computing

Tourism Development Fund has adopted cloud computing technology. (SPA)
Tourism Development Fund has adopted cloud computing technology. (SPA)
Updated 28 July 2021

Saudi tourism fund adopts cloud computing

Tourism Development Fund has adopted cloud computing technology. (SPA)
  • The fund was founded in June with an initial $4 billion investment and is part of plans to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy

RIYADH: The Tourism Development Fund (TDF) has adopted cloud computing technology in cooperation with Oracle to enable investors to benefit from the Saudi tourism sector’s promising opportunities.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, TDF said that implementing the Cloud Computing Strategy (CCS) would enhance data integration, increase productivity, reduce costs, unify and facilitate operations and ensure smooth communication with all stakeholders, including investors, donors, and governmental agencies.  TDF said cooperation with the world’s largest database management company will provide a full range of Oracle Cloud Infrastructure solutions and Oracle Fusion Cloud Applications which will contribute to enhancing TDF’s services. 
The fund was founded in June with an initial $4 billion investment and is part of plans to diversify the Kingdom’s economy.


New ‘Hawi’ platform launched to develop Saudi Arabia hobbies sector

The platform will support symposiums and lectures related to hobbies in Saudi Arabia and abroad. (Supplied)
The platform will support symposiums and lectures related to hobbies in Saudi Arabia and abroad. (Supplied)
Updated 28 July 2021

New ‘Hawi’ platform launched to develop Saudi Arabia hobbies sector

The platform will support symposiums and lectures related to hobbies in Saudi Arabia and abroad. (Supplied)
  • Hawi will be involved with training courses, where international expertise can be transferred to clubs and exchanged with other institutions

JEDDAH: The Quality of Life Program’s Center on Tuesday launched a pilot version of the “Hawi” online platform to develop the Kingdom’s hobbies sector.
Hawi has been produced for the Saudi Amateur Clubs Association to raise awareness on the importance of hobbies to boost creativity and social activities.
The platform aims to encourage communication among those who share the same interests and ensure the operational and financial support for amateurs.
Director of the association Najlaa Al-Ajmi said the platform will promote positive lifestyles and improve the quality of life in the Kingdom.
“The platform has been developed to establish communities that share the same interests under an official umbrella, making it easier for clubs to establish their teams and register members,” she added.
She said that the platform has many benefits including “promoting healthy lifestyles, establishing balance between work and social life and allowing amateurs to practice their hobbies in an adequate environment, with people who share the same passion.”

HIGHLIGHTS

• Hawi has been produced for the Saudi Amateur Clubs Association to raise awareness on the importance of hobbies to boost creativity and social activities.

• The platform aims to encourage communication among those who share the same interests.

• It allows people to establish and register amateur clubs, manage members and their activities, define the regulations of the sector, reserve facilities and organize training courses.

Hawi allows people to establish and register amateur clubs, manage members and their activities, define the regulations of the sector, reserve facilities and organize training courses.
It also encourages amateurs to practice their hobbies by finding the proper facilities for their role.
The platform will support symposiums and lectures related to hobbies in the Kingdom and abroad.
Hawi will be involved with training courses, where international expertise can be transferred to clubs and exchanged with other institutions.
Hawi’s board of directors comprises representatives of 11 governmental authorities under the supervision of the Quality of Life program, the supervisory authority for hobbies in the Kingdom.


Arab coalition intercepts several missiles, drones launched by Yemen’s Houthis toward Saudi Arabia

Arab coalition intercepts several missiles, drones launched by Yemen’s Houthis toward Saudi Arabia
Updated 28 July 2021

Arab coalition intercepts several missiles, drones launched by Yemen’s Houthis toward Saudi Arabia

Arab coalition intercepts several missiles, drones launched by Yemen’s Houthis toward Saudi Arabia
  • The coalition said the missile and the drone were targeting Jazan region

RIYADH: The Arab coalition said on Tuesday it intercepted and destroyed four ballistic missiles and two explosive-laded drones launched by Yemen’s Houthi militia toward southern Saudi Arabia, state TV reported.
The coalition said the missiles and the drones were targeting Jazan region, in a “deliberate” attempt to target civilian objects and populated areas.
The coalition also said that it is “taking operational measures to target the sources of the threat, in accordance with international law.”
Earlier on Tuesday, the US condemned the Iran-backed Houthis recent attacks on the Kingdom, and called on the group to cease its military actions and commit to a cease-fire that would end the conflict in Yemen.
On Saturday, the coalition said Saudi air defenses intercepted and destroyed a ballistic missile and three drones launched by the militia toward the Kingdom’s southern region, which was also strongly condemned by the Arab Interior Ministers Council, the Arab Parliament, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and regional and Arab countries.