Saudis gear up to celebrate first Ramadan free of COVID-19 restrictions 

Special This year, Saudis are gearing up to celebrate the holy month the way they used to before the pandemic — free of restrictions. (AFP)
This year, Saudis are gearing up to celebrate the holy month the way they used to before the pandemic — free of restrictions. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 02 April 2022

Saudis gear up to celebrate first Ramadan free of COVID-19 restrictions 

This year, Saudis are gearing up to celebrate the holy month the way they used to before the pandemic — free of restrictions. (AFP)
  • Mass vaccination allows people to observe Ramadan the way they used to before the pandemic
  • Saudi authorities drop most COVID-19 travel restrictions and social distancing measures just before Ramadan

JEDDAH: Two years ago, at the height of the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Muslims around the world were forced to observe the holy month of Ramadan under lockdown.

They were deprived of the chance to spend time with their extended families and enjoy the tradition of breaking the fast together, to say nothing of the opportunity to make the pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah.

Now, thanks to the protections offered by mass vaccinations, many precautions have been relaxed, including social-distancing rules, travel bans are being lifted, and a semblance of normality is beginning to return to daily life. As a result, many Muslims around the world will, for the first time since 2019, once again be free to observe Ramadan in the ways they are used to.

The Ramadan crescent moon was sighted in Saudi Arabia on Friday evening, which meant that the holy month officially began on Saturday, according to an official announcement from the Kingdom’s Supreme Court. Four other Arab Gulf countries, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, also announced the start of Ramadan on Saturday, while Oman said it is expected to begin a day later.

No one suspected on the final day of Ramadan in 2019, June 3, that the pilgrims who had gathered at the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah to perform the Taraweeh prayers would be the last to do so during Ramadan for quite some time.




Muslims the world over will hope that the social restrictions caused by the coronavirus disease pandemic, which prevented so many from observing core tenets of their faith, will never be seen again within their lifetimes. (AFP)

Nine months later, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared that the novel coronavirus outbreak that initially emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan had become a full-blown global pandemic. Governments worldwide soon began to respond by imposing stringent controls on freedom of movement and social interaction.

The Saudi Ministry of Health announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Kingdom on March 2 that year. The Saudi patient, who had traveled from Iran via Bahrain over the King Fahd Causeway, was immediately quarantined.

The ministry dispatched infection-control teams to trace and test anyone he had been in contact with. Two days later, a second Saudi tested positive for the virus and soon cases of COVID-19 began to increase rapidly across the Kingdom, as in many other countries.

On March 6, a photograph of the circular courtyard in Makkah’s Grand Mosque went viral on social media. Normally packed with worshipers clad in white robes circling the Kaaba, the dish, as the courtyard is also known, was empty, lifeless and still — completely deserted except for a few security guards.

The depressing image seemed to encapsulate the severity of the rapidly escalating health emergency.

“The sight of that empty courtyard was a reality check,” Sanaa Abdulhakeem, 72, a retired Saudi educator, told Arab News.




An eerie emptiness enveloped the sacred Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Makkah in 2020, where attendance at Friday prayers was hit by measures to protect against the deadly coronavirus. (AFP/File Photo)

“Never in my life have I seen the mosque empty. I was born right across from the mosque in Makkah and have lived all my life near it. It’s a place that is always buzzing with life. A hush falls over it only when worshipers are praying in unison with the imam.”

Pandemic restrictions meant that Abdulhakeem and her relatives were forced to break with a cherished family tradition of welcoming and feeding visiting pilgrims. She is excited about resuming this charitable activity this year.

“Every year, my sons and grandsons head to the mosque’s outdoor courtyards to distribute hot meals, dates, water and laban,” she said. “We all pitch in together, and their father and I oversee the process of packaging.

“It is a family affair that we weren’t allowed to experience for two years and that was difficult. How can you cut a 35-year-old habit that grew into a family affair?”

INNUMBERS

* 750,589 COVID-19 infections in Saudi Arabia since the pandemic began

* 9,042 deaths related to the disease reported in the Kingdom

* 62m doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered in the country

Source: Reuters COVID-19 Tracker

On March 6 this year, Saudi authorities announced the lifting of most COVID-19 restrictions and that social distancing is no longer required in public places, including the Grand Mosque and Prophet’s Mosque.

The next day, hundreds of pilgrims gathered to perform early-morning prayers together at the Grand Mosque, standing shoulder to shoulder for the first time in many months.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for; we can go about our rituals and traditions this Ramadan and we hope this will be the last we hear of COVID-19,” said Abdulhakeem.

“In the grand scheme of things the timing couldn’t be better, with Ramadan right on our doorstep. I’m seeing my grandchildren for the first time in over two years. The house will be full again, with everyone under one roof on the first day of Ramadan. This could be the end of COVID as we know it.”

Saudi authorities also recently announced the lifting of a ban on flights to and from 17 countries previously deemed high-risk locations owing to domestic instability and high COVID-19 infection rates. In addition, travelers are no longer required to show proof of vaccination, to quarantine after arrival, or to take a PCR test before departure or arrival at any of the Kingdom’s entry points.




Saudis shopping for food as Muslims from all over the world prepare for the upcoming holy fasting month of Ramadan, at a market in Madinah. (AFP/File Photo)

As part of its efforts to control crowd sizes and ensure a trouble-free pilgrimage, the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has said that Muslims who want to perform Umrah or pray in the Rawdah at the Prophet’s Mosque will still need to apply for permits through the Eatmarna or Tawakkalna apps. Face masks will continue to be mandatory.

For observant Muslims, Ramadan is a month of fasting and prayer but also an occasion for spending more time with extended family. Homes are often decorated with strings of twinkling fairy lights, doorways are adorned by lanterns, and bright red and blue oriental-themed banners hang across living room and dining room ceilings. Some families give their homes a complete Ramadan makeover, including traditional red, patterned fabrics, in preparation for guests.

“This year, Ramadan will be extra special as not only will my mother be visiting, but my uncles and cousins will also be arriving from Egypt to perform Umrah and stay at my place for a few days,” Najia Jamal, a 29-year-old Saudi-Egyptian mother of two who lives in Jeddah, told Arab News.

“My mother’s pulling the strings this year; the decorations were delivered early, with instructions. I bought all their favorite foods and prepared a broad menu filled with the most delicious Saudi dishes.

“The most unusual item I received from my mother’s care package is a traditional jar of foul (fava beans) bought specially from one of Cairo’s old neighborhoods where all sorts of Ramadan goods can be found.




With Ramadan now here, the Kingdom and its people can look forward to a holy month observed in the manner they cherish — surrounded by family and friends. (AFP/File Photo)

“It’s a celebration of its own sort. I don’t know of a single household that is not going all out with decorations and giving each other Ramadan gifts, such as lanterns or dates or decorating kits for children.

“The good news has made us forget that COVID-19 is still a threat. It’s become a minor concern now. It’s time to embrace the month without fear and share the love with family.”

Jamal’s aunt, Gawdat Hafez, a retired Saudia Airlines employee in Cairo, said she hopes to surprise her niece with a customized lantern from a famous seller in Cairo’s Sayyida Zainab neighborhood.

“It’ll be good to see my niece again and bring her a taste of home,” she told Arab News. “It’s the month of giving, unity and family bonding and a time to put the past two years behind us.” 


Bahrain tourism minister discusses opportunities in Saudi Arabia with officials

Bahrain tourism minister discusses opportunities in Saudi Arabia with officials
Updated 59 min 46 sec ago

Bahrain tourism minister discusses opportunities in Saudi Arabia with officials

Bahrain tourism minister discusses opportunities in Saudi Arabia with officials
  • Both officials agreed to explore investment opportunities in the tourism sector in both countries

RIYADH: Bahrain’s tourism minister discussed expanding cooperation with Saudi Arabia in the tourism sector during an official visit to the Kingdom, Bahrain News Agency (BNA) reported.

Fatima Jaafar Al-Sairafi met with Qusai bin Abdulla Al-Fakhri, CEO of Saudi Tourism Development Fund, in Riyadh where both reviewed ways to create diverse business opportunities in the tourism sector and promote sustainability in line with international developments.

“They agreed to explore the future prospects of tourism projects undertaken by the private sector in both countries, in addition to tapping into investment opportunities in this vital sector,” the BNA statement read.

The officials praised the deep-rooted historic relations between both kingdoms, highlighting efforts to strengthen the steadily growing ties.
Al-Sairafi highlighted Bahrain’s 2022-2025 tourism strategy, which aims to increase cooperation with other countries to boost investment in tourism infrastructure.


Saudi charity KSrelief launches medical program combatting blindness in Bangladesh

Saudi charity KSrelief launches medical program combatting blindness in Bangladesh
Updated 11 August 2022

Saudi charity KSrelief launches medical program combatting blindness in Bangladesh

Saudi charity KSrelief launches medical program combatting blindness in Bangladesh
  • Thousands of people were examined in the new scheme

RIYADH: A new scheme combatting blindness and its causes in Bangladesh was launched on Monday by the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief).

The KSrelief voluntary medical team examined 6,600 cases, and performed 150 successful cataract procedures.
This latest scheme serves as an extension of projects combating blindness by the Saudi charity, for families with low incomes in a number of countries.


All you need to know about Saudi Arabia’s new social media influencer permit

All you need to know about Saudi Arabia’s new social media influencer permit
Updated 11 August 2022

All you need to know about Saudi Arabia’s new social media influencer permit

All you need to know about Saudi Arabia’s new social media influencer permit
  • Kingdom’s media regulator says new law to take effect from October, with all social media influencers affected

LONDON: As more Saudis connect through their social media profiles and even begin to profit from these platforms, the Kingdom has launched a new licensing system to properly monitor the influencer industry.

From early October, every Saudi and non-Saudi content creator in the Kingdom who earns revenue through advertising on social media must first apply for an official permit from the General Commission for Audiovisual Media (GCAM).

For a fee of SR15,000 (roughly $4,000), content creators will receive a permit lasting three years, during which time they can work with as many private entities as they wish and promote any product or service, as long as it does not violate the Kingdom’s laws or values.
 

The incoming influencer license “is not a permit to censor or to block,” Esra Assery, CEO at GCAM, told Arab News. “It’s more of a permit to enable the maturity of the sector. We want to help those individuals grow, but grow in a professional way so they can make a career out of (social media revenue).”

The new regulations are being touted as legal protections, both for influencers and businesses wishing to advertise with them, so that rates and contractual obligations are standardized across the industry.

“The market is so unregulated,” said Assery. “We’re not against influencers or those individuals. Actually, we want to enable them. If you check out the new bylaw, it protects them also, because the bylaw regulates their relationship with the advertisers.”
 

Esra Assery, CEO at Saudi Arabia's General Commission for Audiovisual Media. (Supplied)

Currently, anyone in Saudi Arabia is able to advertise on social media and earn money from deals with private entities — with payments per post climbing into the thousands of riyals, depending on the number of followers an influencer can reach.

Concern has been expressed that introducing permits and regulations will undermine how much money influencers can make and might even constitute censorship. However, GCAM insists the permits are designed to ensure transparency between influencers and their clients.

Saudi influencers, whether based in the Kingdom or abroad, must apply for the permit if they wish to work with a brand — local or international. However, non-Saudi residents in the country must follow a different track.

After applying to the Ministry of Investment for a permit to work in the country, they can then apply for an influencer permit through GCAM. However, non-Saudi residents must be represented by specific advertising agencies.

“While some influencers may focus on the short-term loss of paying the license fee, there is a huge benefit to licensing coming in as it legitimizes the sector on a national level,” Jamal Al-Mawed, founder and managing director of Gambit Communications, told Arab News.

“This is crucial in the influencer industry as it has been a bit of a wild west for marketing in the past, with no clear benchmarking for rates or contracts.”

Al-Mawed said that the new measures can protect brands that are susceptible to fraud “when they pay huge budgets to influencers who are buying fake followers and fake engagements. This creates a vicious circle, as hard-working content creators are undermined by the bad apples.”

Although the new license is unlikely to solve every issue overnight, “it does create a foundation for more professionalism and accountability,” Al-Mawed added.

Under new rules, non-Saudi residents and visitors to the Kingdom are prohibited from posting ads on social media without a license. (Shutterstock image)

In June, non-Saudi residents and visitors to the Kingdom were prohibited from posting ads on social media without a license. Those who ignore the ruling face a possible five-year prison sentence and fines of up to SR5 million.

GCAM announced the ban after finding “violations by numerous non-Saudi advertisers, both residents and visitors, on social media platforms.”

“After checking their data, it was found that they had committed systemic violations, including lack of commercial registrations and legal licenses, and they are not working under any commercial entity or foreign investment license,” the commission said at the time.

Now, with a regulated license, such violations will be easier to monitor and the sector will be better regulated to ensure full transparency.
 

Businesses such as bakeries or hair salons that hold social media accounts and advertise their own products or services are not covered by the prohibition. (Shutterstock image)

Although Saudi influencers will be able to hold full-time jobs while earning on the side through promotional campaigns on their social media profiles, the law states that non-Saudis can work only in one specific role while residing in the Kingdom.

However, the system does not apply to businesses and entities — such as bakeries or hair salons — that hold social media accounts and advertise their own products or services on these platforms. Only individuals are affected by the new law.

There are certain exceptions, however, such as individuals who have been invited to the country by a ministry or government entity in order to perform, including musicians and entertainers.

With the rise of social media over the past decade, content creators and so-called influencers with thousands of followers on Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and other platforms have drawn audiences away from traditional outlets, such as television, newspapers and magazines, to new and largely unregulated media.
 

Sensing the shift in content consumption, advertisers have followed the herd. Crystal-blue waters caressing white, sandy beaches at luxury resorts and scrumptious feasts at the finest restaurants are now commonplace on influencer profiles as businesses rush to take advantage of more “natural-feeling” product placement.

However, regulators have struggled to keep up with this rapid transformation, leaving the process open to legal disputes, exploitation and abuse. That is why authorities elsewhere in the world have also been exploring influencer permits.

Dubai, widely seen as the influencer hub of the Middle East, is among them.

In 2018, the UAE’s National Media Council launched a new electronic media regulation system, which required social media influencers to obtain a license to operate in the country.

The cost of the annual license is 15,000 AED (roughly $4,000). Those who fail to obtain or renew the license can face penalties including a fine of up to 5,000 AED, a verbal or official warning, and even closure of their social media accounts.

The rules apply to influencers visiting the UAE as well. They must either have a license or be signed up with an NMC-registered influencer agency to operate in the country.

With Saudi Arabia progressing in the entertainment and creative industries, the introduction of the license is viewed as a step in the right direction.

“It’s great news for the industry,” said Al-Mawed. “When someone is licensed by the government to offer their services, that gives them a level of safety and trust and can help filter out the scammers who prefer to fly under the radar.”

 

Druze: the great survivors
How the world's most secretive faithhas endured for a thousand years
Enter
keywords

 


4,291 Saudi health security trainees graduate   

4,291 Saudi health security trainees graduate   
Updated 11 August 2022

4,291 Saudi health security trainees graduate   

4,291 Saudi health security trainees graduate   

RIYADH: A fourth group of health security trainees graduated from the Saudi Commission for Health Specialties in a virtual ceremony on Wednesday. 

A total of 4,291 male and female graduates will join the job market. 

Dr. Aws Al-Shamsan, secretary-general of the Saudi Commission for Health Specialties, said that health security plays an important role in improving healthcare services.

The program includes practical and theoretical training for three months, in addition to two weeks of field training in one of the health sectors, allowing trainees to benefit from hands-on experience.

Health security graduates receive a diploma allowing them to work in the Kingdom’s health sector.


Umbrellas raise Makkah pilgrims’ spirits

Umbrellas raise Makkah pilgrims’ spirits
Updated 11 August 2022

Umbrellas raise Makkah pilgrims’ spirits

Umbrellas raise Makkah pilgrims’ spirits

JEDDAH: Pilgrims sheltering from heavy rain in Makkah on Tuesday received a helping hand when the General Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques handed out umbrellas to visitors at the Grand Mosque.

Khaled bin Fahd Al-Shalwi, assistant for the general president for social, voluntary and humanitarian services agency, said that the “Umbrella of Mu’tamer” initiative is part of a range of services designed to help visitors perform their rituals. 

Programs and services come under the direction of the President for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques, Abdulrahman Al-Sudais, who strives to provide a safe environment to allow visitors to the Grand Mosque to complete their rituals with ease, he added. 

According to the presidency’s website, the presidency has also employed more than 200 supervisors, 4,000 female and male workers, and utilized more than 500 items of equipment to deal with the rain at the Grand Mosque through its environmental protection agency. 

Ahmed bin Omar Bilaamash, assistant to the general president for services and achievement of the environmental protection agency, said that prayer areas, entrances and exits, and the mataf — the circumambulation space around the Kaaba — are equipped to handle the rainfall.