Saudi, GCC anger at ‘insult’ by Lebanon minister

Charbel Wehbe, Lebanon's caretaker foreign minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beirut, Lebanon in 2020. (Reuters/File Photo)
Charbel Wehbe, Lebanon's caretaker foreign minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beirut, Lebanon in 2020. (Reuters/File Photo)
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Updated 19 May 2021

Saudi, GCC anger at ‘insult’ by Lebanon minister

Charbel Wehbe, Lebanon's caretaker foreign minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beirut, Lebanon in 2020. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • In a statement, Saudi foreign ministry said comments were inconsistent with the most basic diplomatic norms

BEIRUT: Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Tuesday distanced himself from his foreign affairs minister who appeared to suggest that Gulf states were responsible for the rise of Daesh, as Saudi Arabia issued a strongly worded statement denouncing the minister’s “shameful insults.”  
Foreign Affairs Minister Charbel Wehbe has sparked fury and condemnation after telling Al-Hurra TV on Monday: “There is a second stage when ISIS (Daesh) came, and the countries of the people of love, friendship, and brotherhood brought them. The countries of love brought us Daesh and planted it for us in the Nineveh Plains, Anbar, and Palmyra.”
When he disliked comments from a Saudi guest during the same interview, Wehbe decided to leave the show and criticized “the Bedouins.”
On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry condemned Wehbe’s statements that “bashed the Kingdom and its people, the shameful insults to the Kingdom, its people, and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries.”
It said Wehbe’s statements were “inconsistent with the simplest diplomatic norms” and were not consistent with the external relations between the “two brotherly peoples.”
It also said it had summoned the Lebanese ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Fawzi Kabbara, “to express the Kingdom’s rejection and condemnation of the Lebanese foreign minister’s insults, and it handed him a protest note.”
The UAE also summoned the Lebanese ambassador in Abu Dhabi, who was told the minister’s comments were “derogatory and racist,” and there were protests from authorities in Kuwait and Bahrain. Nayef Al-Hajraf, secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, demanded a formal apology from Wehbe to Gulf states for his “unacceptable” remarks.
A source in Lebanon’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Lebanese news outlet Sawt Beirut International that Wehbe is expected to step down from his position on Wednesday.
Outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab said he had sought an explanation from Wehbe, and his country was keen to maintain the “best relations” with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Aoun was quick to disavow Wehbe’s comments, saying the minister had expressed his personal opinion, which in “no way” reflected the position of Lebanon and its president, who was “keen to reject what harms brotherly and friendly countries in general, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in particular.”
Wehbe tried to contain the crisis by saying he was “surprised by the incorrect interpretations” of his words and that he “did not refer to the brothers in the Arab Gulf states” nor did he name any country.
He then issued a statement in which he admitted “using inappropriate expressions in an emotional moment, rejecting the unacceptable offenses directed at the president of the republic.”
The minister added that he would not hesitate to apologize for the expressions, stressing that “the intention was not to offend any of the brotherly Arab states or peoples. We all make mistakes.”
Wehbe’s interview remarks went viral on social media, provoking harsh comments that described him as “an idiot and a fool” and accused him of “falsifying history.”
His remarks shocked politicians, clerics, and economists inside and outside Lebanon, especially those working in the Gulf states.
The media office of Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said: “Wehbe’s words have nothing to do with diplomatic action and are a reckless round of tampering with foreign policies and this would result in severe consequences for Lebanon and the interests of its people in the Arab countries.”
Lebanon’s Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian also criticized the minister. “Defamation, slander, and insults are not acceptable,” he said. “Whoever attacks the Kingdom and the rest of the Gulf states is attacking Lebanon. How can relations between brothers and siblings be built?”
The leader of the Progressive Socialist Party Walid Jumblatt called the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Walid Bukhari, to denounce Wehbe’s “offensive and irresponsible statement,” while the leader of the Lebanese Forces party Samir Geagea said the minister was supposed to be the foreign minister of Lebanon but “ended up being the foreign minister of Hezbollah.”
Geagea said that those who brought Daesh to prominence were Iran and the Syrian regime. “The first enemy of Daesh and its sisters is the Saudi leadership and other Islamic leaders,” he added, recalling Saudi Arabia’s support for Lebanon.
The media office of businessman Bahaa Hariri held the president and whoever brought him to power responsible for the “grave mistakes that affected Lebanon’s relations” with the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
 


Early global response to omicron variant could save lives, says virologist

Early global response to omicron variant could save lives, says virologist
Updated 31 sec ago

Early global response to omicron variant could save lives, says virologist

Early global response to omicron variant could save lives, says virologist
  • As of Sunday, Saudi Arabia's Health Ministry said that no omicron cases had been detected in the country so far
  • Kingdom suspends flights from 14 African countries

JEDDAH: With the COVID-19 omicron variant prompting renewed concern about the pandemic, a virologist has told Arab News that its early detection is a positive first step to overcoming the mutation.

Omicron, or the B.1.1529 strain of the coronavirus, was marked a variant of concern on Nov. 26 by the World Health Organization, the fifth variant of concern to date.

But, as of Sunday, Saudi Arabia's Health Ministry said that no omicron cases had been detected in the country so far.

All viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, change over time. Most changes have little to no impact on the properties of the virus. 

However, some may affect the transmissibility rate, associated disease severity, or the performance of vaccines.

Speaking to Arab News, Dr. Abdullah Algaissi, a virologist and assistant professor at the college of medical sciences at Jazan University, said: “The interesting thing about omicron is that it accumulated a very high number of mutations compared to other VOCs. The total number of mutations in the spike, the most important part of the virus, was 32, 10 of which were detected that bind to receptors on human cells. That's more than the delta variant, hence the concern.”

The WHO called for increased surveillance of the variant and laboratory experiments to better understand its biology.

The delta variant had nine mutations in the spike gene. According to Algaissi, there are shared mutations between the two, but what makes omicron more of a concern is the additional mutations.

“Based on what we know from the genetic sequencing, we don't have information that could tell us if these mutations will make the virus more lethal, more transmissible, if it will impact the immune response either after infection or vaccination. As of now, we don't know.”

Data shows that most of the infected patients in South Africa were unvaccinated, indicating that the vaccine's efficacy may still protect against omicron, but further studies are needed to determine by how much vaccine efficacy is reduced.

“Of the many concerns when it comes to VOCs is the effect it has on the diagnostic tool, in this case, the PCR tests,” added Algaissi. “Looking at the omicron mutation, early analysis shows that the current PCR used, especially here in the Kingdom, will still detect the variant.”

According to the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data database, more than 5.5 million COVID-19 genome sequence submissions have been made so far.

Last month, Saudi Arabia urged residents to get their booster shots to increase herd immunity further. Currently, 70 percent of the Kingdom's 34.8 million population has received at least one dose of the vaccine.

As of Sunday, Saudi Arabia temporarily suspended inbound and outbound flights from 14 African countries: South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi, Zambia, Madagascar, Angola, Seychelles, Mauritius, and Comoros.

Saudi Arabia announced on Sunday it would extend the validity of resident permits and exit and re-entry visas from countries facing entry suspension. The General Directorate of Passports said the move was the implementation of directive from King Salman.

The visas are extended until Jan. 1, 2022, without fees or charges. People were notified by email, where an e-visa form was attached.

Another concern is transmissibility. Algaissi noted the difficulty of measuring an increase in the transmissibility rate by the number of infected cases. Multiple factors could increase reported cases, such as the ease of restrictions and low vaccination rates.

“Further studies and experiments are needed to determine if the mutations in omicron enhance its binding to cells, thus becoming more transmissible, and it'll take scientists weeks to understand the omicron variant, including how quickly it can spread and what the illness that results from infection looks like.”

According to South African health experts, omicron symptoms have been “pretty mild" so far.

In a joint press conference on Sunday, the acting CEO of Saudi Arabia's Public Health Authority Dr. Abdullah Algwizani said the variant was being monitored and residents were urged to complete their vaccination schedule, to be wary of large gatherings, and adhere to precautionary measures.

The Kingdom's Health Ministry said that 24 new cases of COVID-19 were recorded on Sunday, raising the total number of cases to 549,695. There have been 32 further recoveries, raising this total to 538,856.

There are currently 2,006 active cases, 48 of which are in critical care. One death was reported.


Saudi FM meets Argentinian ministers in Buenos Aires

Saudi FM meets Argentinian ministers in Buenos Aires
Updated 28 November 2021

Saudi FM meets Argentinian ministers in Buenos Aires

Saudi FM meets Argentinian ministers in Buenos Aires

LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan on Sunday met Argentinian Deputy Prime Minister Jorge Neme and Defense Minister Jorge Taiana, in the capital Buenos Aires.
The meeting, which was held during a luncheon hosted by Saudi ambassador to Argentina Hussain Mohammed Al-Asiri, reviewed Saudi-Argentinian bilateral relations and ways to strengthen them in all fields of cooperation, in addition to discussing the latest developments on the regional and international levels.

They also discussed ways of boosting cooperation between the two countries in various fields, especially in light of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan. Intensifying bilateral coordination to achieve the aspirations of both countries is a priority for both sides.
In addition, the meeting focused on the efforts of both countries in boosting security and stability in the Middle East and Latin America. Both sides stressed the importance of strengthening joint work in the international community to ward off threats to international peace and security.


Saudi Arabia registers 1 COVID-19 death, 24 new infections

Saudi Arabia registers 1 COVID-19 death, 24 new infections
Updated 28 November 2021

Saudi Arabia registers 1 COVID-19 death, 24 new infections

Saudi Arabia registers 1 COVID-19 death, 24 new infections
  • Ministry of Interior records 871 violations against precautionary measures in past week
  • Municipalities close several businesses and issue fines to a number of others for breaching coronavirus protocols

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia confirmed one new COVID-19 related death on Sunday, raising the total number of fatalities to 8,833.
The Ministry of Health confirmed 24 new cases reported in the Kingdom in the previous 24 hours, meaning 549,695 people have now contracted the disease. Of the total number of cases, 48 remain in critical condition.
According to the ministry, the highest number of cases were recorded in the capital Riyadh with nine, followed by Jeddah with five, and Madinah, Makkah and Khobar recorded two cases each.
The health ministry also announced that 32 patients had recovered from COVID-19, bringing the total number of recoveries in the Kingdom to 538,856.
Over 47.3 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered since the Kingdom’s immunization campaign started. More than 22.3 million people have been fully vaccinated.


The Ministry of Interior reported 871 violations in the past week, with the highest number of breaches recorded in Makkah with 269, followed by Riyadh with 217, Madinah with 181, and Hail with 118. Qassim recorded the lowest number of violations with one.
The ministry called on citizens and residents to abide by the preventive protocols and the instructions issued by authorities.
Saudi municipalities have ramped up efforts to monitor compliance with health and safety measures.
The municipality of Eastern Province carried out 8,543 inspection tours of commercial centers and facilities during the last week. Authorities recorded 563 violations and closed nine businesses for not adhering to the precautionary measures.
Al-Baha Municipality carried out 3,680 tours in the past week and field teams issued fines to 87 commercial outlets and closed nine others for breaching protocols.
The Northern Borders Province, represented by Rafha Municipality, carried out 280 inspection tours of commercial centers and facilities during the last week and authorities recorded 23 violations.
Officials have also called on the public to report any suspected health breaches by phoning the 940 call center number or contacting authorities through the Balady app.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected over 261 million people globally and the death toll has reached around 5.21 million.


Saudi Arabia suspends flights to and from 7 more African nations due to new COVID-19 variant

Saudi Arabia suspends flights to and from 7 more African nations due to new COVID-19 variant
Updated 28 November 2021

Saudi Arabia suspends flights to and from 7 more African nations due to new COVID-19 variant

Saudi Arabia suspends flights to and from 7 more African nations due to new COVID-19 variant

LONDON: Saudi Arabia announced on Sunday it was temporarily suspending flights to and from seven African countries due to the outbreak of the newly discovered coronavirus strain, Omicron. 

The countries are Malawi, Zambia, Madagascar, Angola, Seychelles, Mauritius and Comoros, an official source from the Ministry of Interior told Saudi state news agency SPA.

Expats will be denied entry if they have been in any of the countries listed within the last 14 days before arrival in the Kingdom. 

Nationals and expats who are allowed entry will be required to quarantine for five days, including those who have been vaccinated. 

The Ministry of Interior called on those who entered Saudi Arabia after traveling to the list of banned countries after Nov. 1, to take a PCR test.


What do parents in Saudi Arabia really think about distance learning?

Schools in the Kingdom closed in March 2020, in the early stages of the pandemic. They began to reopen in September this year, though remote learning remains in place for younger children. (SPA)
Schools in the Kingdom closed in March 2020, in the early stages of the pandemic. They began to reopen in September this year, though remote learning remains in place for younger children. (SPA)
Updated 28 November 2021

What do parents in Saudi Arabia really think about distance learning?

Schools in the Kingdom closed in March 2020, in the early stages of the pandemic. They began to reopen in September this year, though remote learning remains in place for younger children. (SPA)
  • After education minister said 83% of parents believe online education has been good for kids’ mental health, we talk those on both sides of the debate

JEDDAH: Distance learning was a necessity imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the past 18 months there has been a great deal of debate, globally, about the merits or otherwise of remote education and how well its extended use has served students during these difficult times.

In Saudi Arabia, however, parents appear to be overwhelmingly in favor of distance learning, according to figures quoted by Education Minister Hamad Al-Sheikh. Speaking last month at the Saudi Family Forum, organized by the Family Affairs Council, he said 83 percent of parents believe that remote education has positively affected their children’s mental and psychological health. He added that it is here to stay, in some form, even after the pandemic ends because it has become a pillar of the education system.
Saudi authorities responded to the need to close classrooms during the pandemic by developing the Madrasati, or “My School,” platform as a gateway to keep students at all levels, from first to 12th grade, and their parents connected with schools and teachers in an attempt to provide the best possible online educational experience. To help achieve this it provides access to textbooks, notes, study materials, videos, tutorials and more besides. In the first week after its launch in September 2020, the free platform logged 41 million visits.
Redha Omda, a father of three in Jeddah, told Arab News that teachers are using new techniques to enhance the online learning environment, and applauded the increased use of technology.
“I like how technology is playing a big part in the educational sector,” he said. “Teachers are contacting me through WhatsApp and they are more accessible than before.

BACKGROUND

Saudi authorities responded to the need to close classrooms during the pandemic by developing the Madrasati, or ‘My School,’ platform as a gateway to keep students at all levels, from first to 12th grade, and their parents connected with schools and teachers in an attempt to provide the best possible online educational experience. To help achieve this it provides access to textbooks, notes, study materials, videos, tutorials and more besides.

“The Madrasati platform is linked to the parent’s Tawakkalna app, which is amazing, and it lets me know everything about my kids. I am also impressed by how my kids are using technology in a way that I did not imagine.”
Bara’a Alfergani, a mother of two living in Jeddah, said that distance learning saves students a lot of time.
“Study at home is better than attending eight hours of classes every day and then coming home with homework to do,” she said. “It is much easier to attend online and do homework at the same place.”

In the first week after Madrasati launch in September 2020, the free platform logged 41 million visits.

Alfergani added that it also makes it easier for her to keep an eye on her children and be more involved in their education.
The Ministry of Education has indicated that the future of learning in Saudi Arabia will involve some form of hybrid learning, as the concept of distance education has evolved as a result of the global health crisis.
Joud Al-Harbi, a 23-year-old college student from Jeddah, said that online education is a much better option than attending classes.
“It allows me to do many things at the same time,” she said. “I interact with my instructors, and most of my collegemates understand the subjects easily.”
One of her friends has a sick child, she added, and prefers to take classes online because it gives her more time to care for the youngster.
Schools and other educational institutions in the Kingdom closed in March 2020, in the early stages of the pandemic. They began to reopen in September this year, though remote learning remains in place for younger children.
Not all parents agree that distance learning has been a good thing, however. Stay-at-home mom Mashael Al-Sahli said it has had an adverse psychological effect on her two children because it has deprived them of a social life.
“Building social skills starts at school and it is an important factor of the growing process,” she said. “It was something we didn’t feel until schools were closed.”
Not only were her children deprived of the school environment, activities and their friends, she said, even though the online learning system that has been developed is good she nevertheless has found the learning process to be difficult.
“The kids can’t even see the teachers’ gestures or body language,” she added.
Nahedh Almwalad, an elementary school teacher in Jeddah, said that children have a lot of energy and their attention span is limited, which can be a challenge with online education, but added that it can help to teach them patience.