Saudi e-visas offer international scholars passage to the Kingdom’s past

Saudi e-visas offer international scholars passage to the Kingdom’s past
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Updated 10 January 2021

Saudi e-visas offer international scholars passage to the Kingdom’s past

Saudi e-visas offer international scholars passage to the Kingdom’s past
  • Middle East scholars waiting for Saudi Arabia to revive its e-visa scheme after COVID-19 forced authorities to suspend it
  • Granting greater access to its historical treasure trove forms part of the Kingdom’s strategy to educate the world about its unique heritage

RIYADH: Scholars of Islam and the Middle East the world over have long craved a glimpse of the rich collections of artifacts and manuscripts held in Saudi Arabia’s libraries and museums. So, when Saudi authorities launched its e-visa system in September 2019, academics leaped at the opportunity to visit the country.

Among them was Sajjad Rizvi, an associate professor of Islamic intellectual history and Islamic studies at the UK’s University of Exeter, who traveled to Saudi Arabia in December 2019 on the e-visa to conduct scholarly interviews in Riyadh, Madinah and Eastern Province.

“Organizing the e-visa was amazingly easy and entering and travelling around was very easy as well,” Rizvi told Arab News.

His plans to return to the Kingdom in 2020 to consult manuscripts in the King Faisal Foundation (KFF) library had to be shelved when the coronavirus pandemic forced Saudi authorities to suspend the e-visa program for travelers from the worst affected countries in February and to close its borders altogether in March.

Fortunately for Rizvi and other scholars, digital copies of the manuscripts and many other collections can still be requested online.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Tourism said last year it issued more than 400,000 tourist visas in the first six months of its new visa system, which allowed citizens from 49 countries the opportunity to apply online or get a visa on arrival when they visited for the first time.




The introduction of the e-visa system last year has enabled many more academics to visit and learn about Saudi Arabia than in the past. (AFP/File Photo)

Rizvi first visited Saudi Arabia in 2011 with colleagues from the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies following an invitation from the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS) in Riyadh. The two institutions are now linked by a memorandum of understanding.

KFCRIS established its Visiting Fellowship Program in 1999 to help facilitate projects for Saudi and international scholars. The program has already helped more than 500 scholars from 50 countries.

The introduction of the e-visa system last year has enabled many more academics to visit and learn about Saudi Arabia than in the past.

Reports in September raised hopes that Saudi Arabia would resume issuing tourist visas in January 2021, after a stoppage necessitated by coronavirus-linked travel restrictions. However, with a new strain of the virus spreading from Europe and forcing Saudi authorities to temporarily suspend international flights in December, a delay in the resumption of the service cannot be ruled out.

“I do hope that the e-visa system will be reintroduced once things settle in a post COVID-19 era,” Rizvi said. “For my own interests, the manuscripts in places like the King Faisal Foundation in Madinah, as well as in some private libraries in the Eastern Province, are very valuable.

“I am an intellectual historian, interested in the way in which ideas travel. I have also developed an interest in some of the rock inscriptions in the Madinah area and it would be great to go back and see them.”

Another academic who is monitoring travel updates closely is Nir Shafir, an assistant professor of history at the University of California who specializes in the pre-modern Middle East and the Ottoman Empire. He hopes to visit the Kingdom as soon as possible to examine its historical collections as well as explore its tourist hotspots.

FASTFACT

King Fahad National Library

* Riyadh’s King Fahad National Library has 6,000 original manuscripts and nearly 73,000 photocopied transcripts.

“I use a number of collections that have been made available online that are in Saudi Arabia,” Shafir told Arab News.

“I work on manuscripts and I look up the books, all copied by hand, which are now mostly collected by institutional libraries such as the Suleymaniye Library in Turkey and Dar Al-Kutub in Egypt.

“I would like to do the same with the collections in Saudi Arabia, which are quite rich, like the King Abdulaziz Public Library and a few others. Also, the Masjid al-Haram (in Makkah) has its own library. I’ve looked at old catalogues from that library and it would be interesting to see, if possible, what remains of the manuscript collection there.”

Shafir previously used manuscripts provided digitally by King Saud University’s library for his paper titled “In Ottoman Holy Land: The Hajj and the Road from Damascus, 1500-1800.”

Digital collections of the kind used by Shafir are an invaluable resource for academics unable to access them in person. Take the King Fahad National Library, which is playing a seminal role in the preservation of Islamic heritage. Established in 1990 in Riyadh, the library is home to more than 6,000 original manuscripts — many of them rare and ancient, including the exquisite Kufic Qur’an, dating to the 9th century CE — and a total of 73,000 paper and electronic transcripts.




Riyadh’s King Fahad National Library has 6,000 original manuscripts and nearly 73,000 photocopied transcripts. (Supplied)

The library also enables researchers, history lovers and general readers to access its precious collection though a range of electronic services. Researchers can request a specific manuscript, a rare book or a photograph to aid in their work.

In fact, digitization is a top priority for Saudi authorities. In 2018, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) set up a virtual museum to host the “Saudi Archaeological Masterpieces through the Ages,” which displayed more than 400 rare artifacts from Saudi Arabia, the US, China and Europe.

“If you can find a good copy online and the quality is good, you can tell quite a bit about (the manuscript),” Shafir told Arab News.

“But what I do is I don’t just look at the text. I am not just reading for information. I am also looking at who’s the copyist, when was it copied, who is it copied for, what other stuff is mixed in, because the books and these texts are never by themselves. They are usually grouped with other texts. So sometimes I want to look at what other texts are around it.

“If it’s a good library and set up well, you can see some of that online. But there are other things that are important to look at in person: the type of paper, the binding, and so forth. It is always nicer to see them in person. You always get a better sense of the book when you go to a library and touch the actual document.”

More broadly, Saudi authorities are eager to reopen to promote the Kingdom’s archaeological and architectural wonders as part of the Kingdom’s strategy to diversify the economy and educate the world about its unique heritage.

Tourism plays a key role in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan for economic diversification.




King Fahad National Library is playing a seminal role in the preservation of Islamic heritage. Established in 1990 in Riyadh, the library is home to more than 6,000 original manuscripts — many of them rare and ancient, including the exquisite Kufic Qur’an, dating to the 9th century CE — and a total of 73,000 paper and electronic transcripts. (Supplied)

“We opened our doors and hearts to international tourists to come and explore Saudi Arabia and experience Saudi Arabia, and experience our culture, our nature, our pristine and great beaches of the Red Sea or the East Coast and our major cities,” Saudi Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al-Khateeb told the Arab News talk show Frankly Speaking in December.

To this end, Saudi Arabia has plans to invest up to $200 billion and welcome 100 million visitors by 2030. It aims to increase the tourism sector’s contribution to its gross domestic product (GDP) to 10 percent.

The country has created a national destination promoter, the Saudi Tourism Authority, and launched a $9 billion Tourism Development Fund.

According to a Forbes Magazine report, by 2022 Saudi Arabia wants tourism to contribute 4.5 percent to its GDP and add 260,000 jobs, 150,000 hotel rooms and 62 million tourism visits a year.

Despite the pandemic, the Kingdom has forged ahead with its mega-projects, which are designed to attract international and domestic tourists, create millions of new jobs and bring foreign investment into the economy. These include NEOM, the Red Sea Project, Amaala and Qiddiya.

Academics such as Rizvi and Shafir make up just one of several categories of potential visitors to Saudi Arabia in a post-pandemic age of normal air travel. Resumption of the e-visa service is something they must be eagerly looking forward to.

 


Ramadan’s success story visible in Makkah’s Grand Mosque

Ramadan’s success story visible in Makkah’s Grand Mosque
Updated 12 May 2021

Ramadan’s success story visible in Makkah’s Grand Mosque

Ramadan’s success story visible in Makkah’s Grand Mosque
  • Authority tasked with keeping pilgrims safe in holy sites offers glimpse behind the scenes

MAKKAH: Each year, millions of worshippers travel to Saudi Arabia to pray at the Two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah. Keeping these vast crowds safe and provided for is a gargantuan task at the best of times, but the pandemic has added many more layers of preparation.

Saudi Arabia banned international visitors from making the Islamic pilgrimage, or Hajj, in 2020, in a bid to control the coronavirus pandemic. Only a very limited number of people residing in the Kingdom were permitted to take part.

Now that flights have resumed and the Kingdom’s borders have reopened, worshippers are permitted to enter — provided they abide by a strict set of protocols.

The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques, which is overseeing these protocols, works year-round to improve the experience for visitors and staff.

Hani Haider, the presidency spokesperson, said in a recent statement that “immunization is an essential condition for performing Umrah and praying in the Two Holy Mosques.

“It is the first condition for applicants requesting permits to pray, perform Umrah or visit the Grand Mosque in Makkah. The permits are issued through the Eatmarna app or the Tawakkalna app. Entering the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah requires the Tawakkalna app.

“This applies to immunized people that have received their first dose of the vaccine no less than 14 days prior to their visit, and to people that have completely recovered from a coronavirus infection.

“Three tracks have been designated to the elderly and people with special needs near the holy Kaaba, while six entry points have been dedicated to pilgrims that are being allowed to the Mataf dish as batches through 14 virtual tracks,” he added.

Haider called on pilgrims to follow these tracks in order to ensure the smooth flow of movement, in addition to abiding by the preventive measures put in place to preserve everyone’s safety.

Many of these measures are carefully managed by the presidency’s Technical and Service Affairs Agency. Its staff distribute single-use Zamzam water bottles in the Mataf dish and squares.

They also oversee transport inside the Grand Mosque, organize the entry and exit of visitors, assist people with special needs, and supervise the equipping, disinfecting and perfuming process.

The agency coordinates the movement of pilgrims inside the Grand Mosque and its squares with a crew of observers to ensure COVID-19 containment measures are respected.

Its staff of 4,000 cleaners disinfect and perfume the Grand Mosque 10 times a day, using more than 60,000 liters of disinfectant and 1,200 liters of air freshener.

More than 70 field teams have also been formed to disinfect the Grand Mosque, its outer squares and bathrooms using carefully selected eco-friendly materials to ensure the safety of visitors.

More than 500 automatic hand sanitizing machines equipped with sensors have been distributed throughout the mosque as part of health precautions.

Meanwhile, the Transport Services Department has raised its readiness to serve visitors to the Grand Mosque by preparing more than 5,000 regular vehicles and 3,000 electric vehicles.

Stickers stressing the importance of social distancing can be found at distribution points, while other signs can found on vehicles to confirm they are disinfected before and after use.

The agency has also recruited more than 100 observers and deployed them at the Grand Mosque’s doors to welcome pilgrims, and guide them to their designated areas.

Authorities have allocated 10 doors for pilgrims, including the King Fahd Gate, Ajyad Gate, Safa Gate, Gate of the Prophet, Bani Shaybah Gate, Al-Marwah Gate, Al-Arqam Gate and Al-Marwah Bridge.

Security personnel are on hand to guide worshippers in case prayer areas become overcrowded.

One of the agency’s most important tasks is monitoring the operational status of all 200 escalators and 14 elevators, overseen by more than 90 Saudi engineers and technicians.

They are also in charge of checking the sound system, which is made up of almost 8,000 speakers, nine microphones for the imam and six microphones for the muezzin.

Additionally, the agency is in charge of conditioning the air in the Grand Mosque’s squares through water-spraying technology, absorbing the thermal energy from the outside air and lowering its temperature.

There are almost 250 spray fans spread across the squares of the Grand Mosque, which are used during prayer times when the Grand Mosque’s squares are full and the temperature is high.

“The state has mobilized all of its human and material capabilities on various aspects, including engineering, technical and services, to ensure the pilgrims’ comfort,” Kamelia bint Mohammed Al-Daadi, assistant secretary for women’s services and administrative affairs, told Arab News.

Her department has launched four initiatives to help improve security and comfort for female visitors.

The first is dubbed “Safe Sanctuary,” which focuses on managing the squares and transport services dedicated to women, providing name-tagged scarves, and raising awareness about preventive measures through a barcode system that displays incorrect behaviors.

Next is “Good Hospitality,” which manages the doors dedicated to women, welcomes pilgrims, guides them, and provides them with services in numerous languages.

The third initiative is centered on cleanliness, focusing on the disinfection of carpets in the Grand Mosque so that female pilgrims can safely and hygienically break their fast and perform Tarawih prayers.

The initiative’s logo is printed on all sanitized equipment and staff have all been trained to operate disinfection machines, and to distribute disinfectants and cleaning tools in female facilities.

Finally, the department’s Women Suqya Zamzam Unit is responsible for distributing water from the Zamzam well in sanitary containers to female pilgrims.

The General Department for Administrative, Planning, Institutional Excellence and Technology has also launched four initiatives to prepare its staff. The first, dubbed “Digital Flashes,” is overseen by the Technology and Electronic Services Unit.

“It consists of preparing and designing educational publications to promote knowledge and develop digital skills, and publishing them through various social media platforms on a daily basis during the holy month of Ramadan,” Al-Daadi said.

Another initiative called “Proficiency” is carried out by the Planning, Institutional Excellence and Quality Unit, and is designed to actively spread the message and vision of the Two Holy Mosques, and hold educational workshops.

The third, named “Rehabilitation,” is carried out by the Services of Temporary Female Workers Unit to provide temporary female staff with a rehabilitation program before the Hajj season begins and to celebrate World Manager’s Day.

“Lastly, the fourth initiative is ‘Enrichment,’ which is carried out by the Women Training Academy,” Al-Daadi said.

“It consists of organizing an awareness-raising forum that builds bridges between the female employees of the Grand Mosque and female pilgrims in order to raise the level of readiness.”


Saudi family of crescent sighters carrying on 100-year-old tradition

Saudi family of crescent sighters carrying on 100-year-old tradition
Updated 12 May 2021

Saudi family of crescent sighters carrying on 100-year-old tradition

Saudi family of crescent sighters carrying on 100-year-old tradition
  • Kingdom attaches great importance to scientific process, skill of moon sighting

MAKKAH: When it comes to sighting the new crescent moon, one Saudi family is light years ahead of most.

For more than 100 years, members of the hawk-eyed Al-Barghash family have been spotting the moon each month without the use of telescopes or other modern devices.

The tradition has been passed down through generations of the family from the central Saudi city of Tumair, 140 km northwest of Riyadh.

“This is a gift from God that we enjoy and seek to teach to our children after we have inherited it from our parents and ancestors,” Mutaib Al-Barghash told Arab News.

He said his father and friends used to stand on a watchtower to sight the crescent of Ramadan, Eid Al-Fitr, and the month of Dhu Al-Hijjah.

“My father trained me and my brothers on crescent sighting until it became a passion for us. We endeavored to develop the site until it became an observatory that now receives people wishing to train on crescent sighting,” he added. 

He noted that the purpose of training and education in the “art of crescent sighting” was to abide by the words of Prophet Muhammad who instructed Muslims to start fasting on seeing the crescent of Ramadan and stop fasting on seeing the crescent of Shawwal. 

HIGHLIGHTS

• For more than 100 years, members of the hawk-eyed Al-Barghash family have been spotting the moon each month without the use of telescopes or other modern devices.

•The tradition has been passed down through generations of the family from the central Saudi city of Tumair, 140 km northwest of Riyadh.

Al-Barghash’s grandfather, Ibrahim, was a cleric well-known for his 20/20 vision. “My father Abdulrahman inherited this talent from him. All the family was renowned for its sharp sight.”

He pointed out that he and his brothers were all expert crescent sighters who were only ever hindered by cloudy skies, with climatic conditions sometimes differing between observatories in Tumair, Hautat Sudair, and Shaqra.

Located on mountain plateaus, he said these were the three best places to spot the crescent moon because of their clear skies. “We have been climbing that plateau monthly for 16 years to sight the crescent of each month,” he added.

On the prospect of technology making the role of crescent sighters redundant, Al-Barghash said that the old and new ways complemented each other.

“Our sons accompany us each month to understand the science and comprehend it properly. We are also training more than five people at Tumair observatory to be the sighters of the future,” he added. 

Mutaib Al-Barghash

Saudi Arabia attaches great importance to the process of crescent sighting and its Supreme Court ensures the reliability of sighters using several criteria, most notably a comprehensive medical examination and eye tests. Results are then submitted to a special committee affiliated to the Ministry of Justice and accredited by royal decree.

Minister of Justice Dr. Walid Al-Samaani follows up on the work of the committee.

Judges are assigned to accompany sighters at observatories throughout the Kingdom and are supervised by King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) with the participation of specialists in crescent sighting and astronomy, along with representatives of government agencies.

Astronomers are now using computers in crescent sighting to accurately determine variables.

Zaki bin Abdulrahman Al-Mustafa, KACST professor

Suitable observatory sites are selected according to geographic, scientific, and astronomic criteria. KACST’s astronomical observatories are equipped with state-of-the-art instruments, telescopes, binoculars, and thermal cameras to sight the crescents and are linked to the Supreme Court via live video broadcasts.

The Supreme Court closely follows the process of crescent sighting, examining the astronomical and mathematical reports issued by government agencies on the moon’s movements, and weather conditions in each monitoring area.

Sighters are interrogated by the committee to verify the validity of their sighting before an announcement is made.

Zaki bin Abdulrahman Al-Mustafa, professor of astronomy at KACST’s National Center for Astronomy and Navigation, said astronomers were now using computers in crescent sighting to accurately determine variables such as sunrise, sunset, moonset, sunrise and sunset positions, angles between the sun, the intensity of its illumination, and the crescent path in the sky.

The center is a world leader in the field of crescent sighting and has published many scientific papers in trade magazines while annually producing a booklet of related data. Al-Mustafa and his team were able to sight the crescent several times in broad daylight with high-sensitivity cameras and tracked the moon until sunset.

The team obtained two patents for the scientific milestone, and work is underway to develop the technique for sighting in difficult climatic conditions, such as clouds and dust, by designing special filters.


Saudi deputy defense minister meets with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad

Saudi deputy defense minister meets with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad
Updated 48 min 43 sec ago

Saudi deputy defense minister meets with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad

Saudi deputy defense minister meets with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad

RIYADH: Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman arrived in Baghdad on Tuesday. Iraqi President Barham Salih received Prince Khalid and the accompanying delegation.

The Saudi minister conveyed the greetings of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the Iraqi president.

Prince Khalid held a meeting with Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. The two leaders reviewed bilateral ties and ways to enhance them in all fields within the framework of the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council. They also discussed issues of common interest.

In a meeting with Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al-Halbousi, Prince Khalid discussed current regional developments.

Later, the Saudi deputy defense minister met Iraqi Defense Minister Juma Inad Al-Jabouri and reviewed bilateral relations in the military field and ways to develop the ties to achieve common strategic goals.


Saudi king, crown prince register as organ donors

Saudi king, crown prince register as organ donors
Updated 12 May 2021

Saudi king, crown prince register as organ donors

Saudi king, crown prince register as organ donors
  • The donor program is part of the Saudi Center for Organ Transplantation

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have registered in an organ donor program as a humanitarian gesture, Saudi Press Agency reported on Tuesday.

“This unsurprising gesture comes within the framework of the great care that patients with final organ failure receive from the king and the crown prince, and as encouragement from the leadership for all citizens and residents to register in the organ donation program,” the statement said.

The donor program, part of the Saudi Center for Organ Transplantation, is of “great importance because it gives hope to patients whose lives depend on new organ transplants.”

King Salman worked to establish the Saudi Center for Organ Transplantation — formerly known as the National Center for Kidney Transplantation — to ease the suffering of the increasing number of patients with kidney failure.

The circle of organ donation was then expanded to include all patients with final organ failure, and to bring hope to patients on waiting lists, whose recovery depends on new organs, such as hearts, livers, kidneys, lungs and others.

“The king and crown prince’s initiative to register in the organ donor program constitutes a caring, patriarchal gesture toward patients in the end stages of organ failure, as well as one of the most important forms of solidarity known to Saudi society,” the statement said.

It also comes as support for enhancing public health levels, increasing the efficiency of the medical sector in conducting these complex operations, and contributing In raising its success rates in the future.

 

 


Saudi Arabia launches Eid aid projects in various countries

Saudi Arabia launches Eid aid projects in various countries
Updated 12 May 2021

Saudi Arabia launches Eid aid projects in various countries

Saudi Arabia launches Eid aid projects in various countries
  • The project will benefit 294,000 people and help them join in the celebrations of Eid Al-Fitr

JEDDAH: As the Eid Al-Fitr celebrations are about to begin all across the world, the Kingdom is expediting its efforts to ensure that all Muslims join their brethren in the festivities by launching special aid programs.

The King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief) distributed Eid clothes among orphans of Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in different parts of Lebanon. The program benefited 6,548 children, which also included members of the host community.

The aid packages to the cities of Tripoli, Zahle, and Dbayeh, east of the Lebanese capital Beirut, form part of the center’s project to provide Eid clothes for children.

KSrelief on Tuesday launched a project to distribute 6,876 cartons of dates weighing 55 tons to support Jordanians, Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Jordan.

Saud bin Abdul Aziz Al-Hazim, KSrelief director in Jordan, said the center distributes the aid in cooperation with the Jordanian Hashemite Charitable Organization.

In Yemen, KSrelief launched its special Eid aid program in Al-Mahrah governorate. It is part of the center’s project to benefit 42,000 families in nine governorates including Aden, Abyan, Lahj, Al-Dhale’e, Hadramout, Shabwah, Marib, and Taiz.

The project will benefit 294,000 people and help them join in the celebrations of Eid Al-Fitr.

FASTFACTS

• KSrelief distributed Eid clothes among 6,548 children in Lebanon.

• The center’s Eid program will benefit 294,000 people in Yemen.

• The center distributed 14,351 bags of rice weighing 21 kg each among 86,106 individuals in different parts of Pakistan.

• KSrelief launched a project to distribute 6,876 cartons of dates in Jordan.

The center distributed 14,351 bags of rice weighing 21 kg each among 86,106 individuals in different parts of Pakistan including Islamabad, Lahore, Faisalabad, Khanewal, Sahiwal, Dera Ismail Khan, and Lower Dir.

Pakistan’s Communications Minister Murad Saeed thanked King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the humanitarian support extended to the Pakistani people and other countries.

He praised the work of the center and lauded its “dedication” in selecting beneficiaries and the overall distribution process.

KSrelief has implemented 1,556 projects worth more than $5 billion in 59 countries. The initiatives have been carried out in cooperation with 144 local, regional and international partners since the inception of the center in May 2015.

According to a recent KSrelief report, the countries and territories that benefited the most from the center’s various projects were Yemen ($3.53 billion), Palestine ($363 million), Syria ($305 million), and Somalia ($203 million).