2020: Not all doom and gloom despite Middle East’s coronavirus woes

2020: Not all doom and gloom despite Middle East’s coronavirus woes
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Updated 30 December 2020

2020: Not all doom and gloom despite Middle East’s coronavirus woes

2020: Not all doom and gloom despite Middle East’s coronavirus woes
  • Arab region saw political and space breakthroughs during a year otherwise dominated by news of the pandemic
  • Diplomatic successes and great leaps for mankind were tempered by disasters, attacks and high-profile assassinations

JANUARY


Qassem Soleimani killed in US drone strike
Just days into the new year, the Gulf appeared to be on the brink of all out war. Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani — commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s extraterritorial Quds Force — was eliminated in a US drone strike near Baghdad airport on Jan. 3. Iran retaliated with a barrage of ballistic missiles targeting US bases in Iraq. In the process, Iran accidentally shot down a Ukranian commercial jet, killing all 176 passengers and crew on board. The confrontation followed months of tit-for-tat exchanges since the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran. (Image credit: AFP)


FEBRUARY


Coronavirus pandemic hits the Middle East

The Middle East and North Africa were not spared the ravages of COVID-19, with communities enduring the same medical, economic and mental health challenges felt across the globe. GCC countries quickly suspended international flights, devastating the region’s leisure and hospitality sectors. Religious tourism was not exempt, disappointing millions of pilgrims. Face masks, sanitizers and social distancing quickly became the norm, while job losses, school closures and a shift to online shopping and remote work radically changed daily life. Meanwhile, in the region’s conflict zones, the pandemic further hampered humanitarian interventions, making life even harder for millions of displaced families. (Image credit: SPA)


MARCH


Houthi missiles continue to target KSA
Spring arrived with more violence on the Arabian Peninsula, when Saudi Arabia intercepted three ballistic missiles fired from Yemen by the Iran-backed Houthi militias. Two civilians suffered minor injuries caused by falling debris in Riyadh, while another missile was shot down over the southern city of Jazan. It was the first major assault on Saudi Arabia since the devastating twin strikes on Saudi oil installations in September 2019. John Abizaid, the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, condemned the targeting of cities, while GCC Secretary-General Dr. Naif bin Falah Al-Hajraf said the “terrorist attack” had not only targeted Saudi Arabia but the collective security and stability of the Gulf. (Image credit: AFP)


APRIL


Lebanon legalizes cannabis for medicinal use
Lebanon became the first Arab country to pass a law legalizing cannabis cultivation for medicinal and commercial use. Lebanon had previously outlawed the growth, sale and consumption of cannabis, rejecting attempts to legalize its production. Attitudes began to shift after US consultancy firm McKinsey touted the legalization of cannabis in a study on how the government could revitalize the economy. In 2018, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) ranked Lebanon among the world’s top five cannabis producers. In 2019, Raed Khoury, Lebanon’s then-minister of economy, said medicinal marijuana exports could generate up to $1 billion in annual revenues. (Image credit: AFP)


MAY


Veteran Egyptian actor and comedian Hassan Hosny dies
Hassan Hosny, actor, comedian and veteran of Egyptian cinema, died on May 30 at the age of 88 following a heart attack. His career in theater, film and comedy spanned over 50 years, earning him the affectionate nickname of the “Joker” of Egyptian cinema. Born in Cairo in 1931, the young actor discovered his love of the stage while at school before becoming a regular performer in the military’s theatrical group in the 1960s. He went on to star in countless films and TV shows, including “Nasser 56” and “El Nazer,” receiving several prestigious awards. He was laid to rest in the Hosny family cemetery outside Cairo. (Image credit: Social Media/Instagram)


JUNE


Explosions and fires break out in Iran
Still reeling from the killing of Soleimani in January and wrestling with one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the region, Iran entered the summer of 2020 with a rash of suspicious explosions at its nuclear enrichment facilities, missile sites, petrochemical centers, power plants and medical clinics. A blast at the Parchin military complex east of Tehran was downplayed by state media as a gas storage incident. Later, fires broke out at a power station in Ahvaz and at the Natanz nuclear facility and 19 people died in an explosion at a clinic in northern Tehran. The cause of the blasts remains unclear to date. (Image credit: Reuters)


JULY


UAE successfully launches Mars mission
Midsummer heralded a remarkable achievement: the first unmanned Arab space mission to Mars. At 21:58 UTC on July 19, the Emirates Mars Mission launched its probe “Hope” from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan. It is scheduled to arrive in orbit around the Red Planet in February 2021 to coincide with the UAE’s 50th anniversary, where it will study Martian weather cycles and atmospheric events. A team of experts at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center in Dubai is supervising the probe's seven-month voyage. (Image credit: AFP)


AUGUST


Port blast compounds Lebanon’s misery
Tragedy struck Lebanon’s capital Beirut on Aug. 4 when a massive explosion ripped through its port area. The blast, caused when tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate caught fire, sent a gigantic shockwave tearing through the city. The explosion was so massive it was reportedly heard as far away as in Cyprus. More than 200 people were killed and over 6,000 injured, while thousands more lost their homes and businesses. The country was already embroiled in a banking crisis, social unrest, sectarian rivalries and the coronavirus outbreak. (Image credit: AFP)


SEPTEMBER


UAE-Israel agreement sets in motion peace deals
With the onset of autumn came the news that Israel and the UAE had normalized relations in a watershed deal brokered by the US known as the Abraham Accords. Similar deals quickly followed with Bahrain and Sudan. The first ever commercial flights between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi were established and an Israeli delegation landed in Abu Dhabi to finalize the pact. The  Accords were hailed by the US administration as a historic breakthrough. The Palestinian leadership meanwhile branded the normalization a “betrayal” of its cause to establish an independent state based on the 1967 borders with its capital in Jerusalem. (Image credit: AFP)


OCTOBER


Sudan eyes end to war with rebel groups
The government of Sudan signed a peace agreement with 10 of the country’s rebel opposition groups, potentially ending 17 years of ethnic strife and civil war. Representatives signed the agreement following year-long talks at a ceremony in the South Sudanese capital Juba. The deal covered issues from land ownership, reparations and compensation, to wealth, power sharing and the return of refugees. Following the deal, Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok welcomed rebel leaders to the capital Khartoum, where crowds celebrated the end of hostilities. (Image credit: AFP)


NOVEMBER


Riyadh hosts virtual G20 Summit of leaders
Owing to COVID-19 travel restrictions, this year’s G20 Summit took place virtually for the first time in its history. Under Saudi Arabia’s presidency, the two-day summit hosted by Riyadh laid the foundations for a more inclusive, resilient, and sustainable recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The conference also explored collective responses to environmental protection, urban planning, women’s empowerment and technological change. The theme of this year’s presidency was “Realizing Opportunities of the 21st Century for All.” In his closing remarks to summit delegates, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman said: “Due to its unique stature regionally and internationally … the Kingdom will continue to play a key role within the G20 to achieve global cooperation and find solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.” (Image credit: AFP)


DECEMBER


Iran executes journalist as it struggles under sanctions
The year concluded on a dark note with the execution of activist-journalist Ruhollah Zam by the Iranian state a little more than a year after authorities tricked him into traveling to Iraq where he was abducted. Zam’s work helped inspire nationwide protests against economic injustice in 2017 as Tehran struggled under the weight of US sanctions. The 47-year-old, who had lived in Paris, is among several opposition figures seized by Iranian operatives in recent months while based overseas. His execution comes as Iran seeks to pressure France and other European powers into salvaging the nuclear deal in the waning days of the Trump administration. (Image credit: AFP)

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Egypt to test visitors from countries with COVID-19 variants on arrival

Egypt to test visitors from countries with COVID-19 variants on arrival
Updated 08 May 2021

Egypt to test visitors from countries with COVID-19 variants on arrival

Egypt to test visitors from countries with COVID-19 variants on arrival

CAIRO: Egypt will require all visitors arriving from “countries where variants of the virus have appeared” to take a rapid COVID-19 test upon arrival, its health ministry said in a statement on Saturday.
The statement did not specify the countries from which passengers would take the 15-minute DNA test, called ID NOW.
Egypt’s new coronavirus cases have been steadily rising in recent weeks. On Saturday it reported 1,125 new cases and 65 deaths, although experts say that reflects only a fraction of total cases.
In a statement on Saturday, Egypt’s tourism ministry clarified that restaurants and coffee shops attached to hotels were exempt from a recent decree that such outlets as well as malls and stores would close at 9 p.m. local time (GMT +2) in order to not affect tourism.


Medics: 200 Palestinians hurt in Al-Aqsa clashes with police

Medics: 200 Palestinians hurt in Al-Aqsa clashes with police
Updated 08 May 2021

Medics: 200 Palestinians hurt in Al-Aqsa clashes with police

Medics: 200 Palestinians hurt in Al-Aqsa clashes with police
  • Clashes erupted when Israeli police deployed heavily as Muslims were performing evening prayers at Al-Aqsa

JERUSALEM: 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.
Nightly protests broke out at the start of the holy month of Ramadan over police restrictions at a popular gathering place and have reignited in recent days over threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinians from their homes in east Jerusalem, which is claimed by both sides in the decades-old conflict.
It was unclear what set off the violence at Al-Aqsa, which erupted when Israeli police in riot gear deployed in large numbers as thousands of Muslim worshippers were holding evening prayers at the sprawling hilltop esplanade.
Throughout the night large groups of protesters could be seen hurling rocks as Israeli police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades. At one point, the police entered one of the buildings in the complex, which includes the Al-Aqsa mosque and the iconic golden Dome of the Rock.
The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service said 88 of the wounded were hospitalized. The Palestinian Health Ministry said 83 people were wounded by rubber-coated bullets, including three who were shot in the eye, two with serious head injuries and two with broken jaws.
The Israeli police said protesters hurled stones, fireworks and other objects at them, wounding six officers who required medical treatment. “We will respond with a heavy hand to all violent disturbances, riots and attacks on our forces,” it said in a statement late Friday.
The Al-Aqsa mosque compound is the third holiest site in Islam. It is also the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount because it was the location of the biblical temples. It has long been a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was the epicenter of the 2000 Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
Some 70,000 worshippers had attended the final midday Friday prayers of Ramadan at Al-Aqsa, the Islamic endowment that oversees the site said. Thousands protested afterwards, waving the green flags of the Islamic militant group Hamas and chanting pro-Hamas slogans.
At the beginning of Ramadan in mid-April, Israel blocked off a popular gathering spot where Palestinians traditionally socialize at the end of their daylong fast. The move set off two weeks of clashes before Israel lifted the restrictions.
But in recent days, protests have grown over Israel's threatened eviction in Sheikh Jarrah in east Jerusalem of dozens of Palestinians embroiled in a long legal battle with Israeli settlers trying to acquire property in the neighborhood.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” about both the violence and the threatened evictions, and was in contact with leaders on both sides to try and de-escalate tensions.
“It is critical to avoid steps that exacerbate tensions or take us farther away from peace,” the US State Department said in a statement. “This includes evictions in East Jerusalem, settlement activity, home demolitions, and acts of terrorism.”
The European Union also urged calm. It said the potential evictions were of “serious concern," adding that such actions are "illegal under international humanitarian law and only serve to fuel tensions on the ground.
Neighboring Jordan, which made peace with Israel in 1994 and is the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, has also condemned Israel's actions, as has the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, which normalized relations with Israel last year in a US-brokered deal.
Israelis and Palestinians are bracing for more unrest in the coming days.
Sunday night is “Laylat al-Qadr” or the “Night of Destiny,” the most sacred in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Worshippers will gather for intense nighttime prayers at Al-Aqsa.
Sunday night is also the start of Jerusalem Day, a national holiday in which Israel celebrates its annexation of east Jerusalem and religious nationalists hold parades and other celebrations in the city. On Monday, an Israeli court is expected to issue a verdict on the evictions.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza — territories the Palestinians want for their future state — in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally and views the entire city as its capital.


Drone attack on Iraqi base hosting US troops

Drone attack on Iraqi base hosting US troops
Updated 08 May 2021

Drone attack on Iraqi base hosting US troops

Drone attack on Iraqi base hosting US troops
  • The US accuses Iran-backed militia groups of launching regular rocket attacks against its troops in Iraq

BAGHDAD: A drone strike early on Saturday targeted a military base in Iraq that hosts US troops, causing only minor damage and no casualties, Iraq’s military and the US-led coalition said.
The pore-dawn attack damaged a hangar, tweeted coalition spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto. He said the attack was under investigation. An Iraqi military statement also said no losses were reported.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. The US has blamed Iran-backed militia groups for previous attacks, most of them rocket attacks that have targeted the American presence in Baghdad and military bases across Iraq.
Drone strikes are less common. In mid-April, an explosive-laden drone targeted the military section of the international airport in Irbil, in Iraq’s northern Kurdish-run region, causing no casualties or damages. The base also hosts US troops.
The attacks have been frequent since a US-directed drone strike killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport last year. Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis was also killed in the attack. The strike drew the ire of mostly Shiite Iraqi lawmakers and prompted parliament to pass a non-binding resolution to pressure the Iraqi government to oust foreign troops from the country.
The Biden administration has resumed strategic talks with Baghdad, initiated under President Donald Trump, in which the future of US troop presence in Iraq is a central point of discussion.


Philippines, Egypt added to Oman’s travel ban list

Philippines, Egypt added to Oman’s travel ban list
Updated 08 May 2021

Philippines, Egypt added to Oman’s travel ban list

Philippines, Egypt added to Oman’s travel ban list
  • Omani citizens, diplomats, health workers and their families are excluded from the latest rule

DUBAI: The Philippines and Egypt were the latest inclusion in Oman’s list where travelers from the said countries are banned from entering the Sultanate.

The decision was issued by the Supreme Committee, which takes lead in the country’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, and took effect on Friday, May 7.

Travelers from Egypt and the Philippines, and those who transited in any of the said countries during the 14 days, are particularly affected by the travel restriction a report from Times of Oman said.

Omani citizens, diplomats, health workers and their families are excluded from the latest rule but are subject to the procedures adopted upon entering the Sultanate, the report added.

Oman earlier added India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to the travel ban list, joining Sudan, Lebanon, South Africa, Brazil, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and the United Kingdom where their residents have been barred from entering since February 24.


UAE reports 1,766 new COVID-19 cases, three deaths in last 24 hours

UAE reports 1,766 new COVID-19 cases, three deaths in last 24 hours
Updated 08 May 2021

UAE reports 1,766 new COVID-19 cases, three deaths in last 24 hours

UAE reports 1,766 new COVID-19 cases, three deaths in last 24 hours
  • The total number of recorded cases in the UAE is now at 532,710 since the pandemic began

DUBAI: UAE health authorities reported 1,766 new coronavirus cases after conducting 211,462 additional COVID-19 tests over the past 24 hours, as well three deaths fatalities from the contagious disease.

The total number of recorded cases in the UAE is now at 532,710 since the pandemic began, with 1,607 confirmed deaths, a report from state news agency WAM said.

The Ministry of Health and Prevention reiterated its call for residents to adhere coronavirus protocols and maintain social distancing to ensure public health and safety.

Meanwhile, 141,283 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been provided during the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of doses provided to residents and citizens to 11,048,547.

The rate of vaccine distribution now stands at 111.71 doses per 100 people.