Thousands forced to evacuate homes as UAE, Oman hit by torrential rainfall

Thousands forced to evacuate homes as UAE, Oman hit by torrential rainfall
Two days of heavy rain across the north and east of the country left 4,225 needing to be evacuated. (@FujPoliceGHQ)
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Updated 29 July 2022

Thousands forced to evacuate homes as UAE, Oman hit by torrential rainfall

Thousands forced to evacuate homes as UAE, Oman hit by torrential rainfall
  • The emirates of Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah were the most affected areas
  • Meanwhile in Oman, the Police Aviation and the Royal Air Force of Oman said they evacuated hundreds of people who were trapped in their homes and vehicles

DUBAI: Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes in the UAE as torrential rainfall hit the country’s east and northern region, the Ministry of Interior (MoI) said in a statement.

Two days of heavy rain across the north and east of the country left 4,225 needing to be evacuated.

Twenty hotels were made ready to accommodate more than 1,885 people, the National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority (NCEMA) announced on Thursday. 

The emirates of Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah were the most affected areas.

Videos circulating online showed vehicles almost entirely submerged, particularly in Sharjah, Ras Al-Khaimah and Fujairah.

The National Centre of Meteorology earlier issued a safety alert warning of a continuity of rainfall and flooding in the valleys over some eastern and mountain areas of the country.

NCEMA said it was coordinating with relevant authorities to provide water drawing tanks in the affected areas, and is closely monitoring the weather condition to prevent any potential risks and ensure the public’s safety. 

Both private and public non-essential employees in Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, and Fujairah were urged to work remotely until Friday, the Emirates News Agency reported. 

Meanwhile in Oman, the Police Aviation and the Royal Air Force of Oman said they evacuated hundreds of people who were trapped in their homes and vehicles after valleys in the Wilayat of Madha, Musandam Governorate overflowed. 

A shelter was set up in Madha to house those forced to evacuate, the Oman News Agency reported.


Crushed by war, Syrian tourism eyes expat uptick

A visitor uses a mobile phone as she walks at Al Azem Palace in Damascus, Syria July 31, 2022. (REUTERS)
A visitor uses a mobile phone as she walks at Al Azem Palace in Damascus, Syria July 31, 2022. (REUTERS)
Updated 2 min 2 sec ago

Crushed by war, Syrian tourism eyes expat uptick

A visitor uses a mobile phone as she walks at Al Azem Palace in Damascus, Syria July 31, 2022. (REUTERS)
  • Foreign visitors to Syria today come mostly from countries that have good relations with President Bashar al-Assad's government
  • Syria's economy is in dire straits, hurt by factors including a precipitous decline in the currency's value since 2019, prompted by neighbouring Lebanon's financial collapse

DAMASCUS: Somar Hazim had high hopes when he opened a hotel in Damascus in 2009, adding to a growing number of boutique guest houses in the Old City that were proving to be a hit with tourists, before war broke out and forced him to close down.
Although security returned to Damascus years ago, big-spending foreign visitors have not, with Syria still fractured by war.
Hazim has no plans to reopen his Beit Rose Hotel, an 18th century house with rooms set around a picturesque courtyard, a decision that reflects the weakness of tourism and the wider economy of a country suffering from 11 years of conflict.
“The number of foreign tourists in Syria — as they were before 2011 ... are still few,” said Hazim, smoking a water pipe at a cafe he owns in another old Damascene house. But he sees a glimmer of hope: more Syrian expats are visiting.
At its peak in 2010, Syria attracted 10 million tourists, many of them Westerners. That all changed in 2011 with the onset of the war that has killed at least 350,000 people and uprooted half the population, forcing millions abroad as refugees.
Foreign visitors to Syria today come mostly from countries that have good relations with President Bashar Assad’s government. They include Iraqis, Lebanese and Iranians on pilgrimage to sites revered by Shiite Muslims.
Visitor numbers rose to 750,000 in the first half of 2022 from 570,000 in the same period of 2021, Tourism Minister Mohammed Rami Martini told Reuters, attributing the rise to the easing of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
He expects visitor numbers this year to recover to levels last seen in 2018 and 2019.
“We have close to 100,000 Iraqis, and there are Lebanese and others from friendly states. But the biggest number are the expatriates,” he said, describing this as a boost to the economy because they spend amounts similar to foreign tourists.
Syria’s economy is in dire straits, hurt by factors including a precipitous decline in the currency’s value since 2019, prompted by neighboring Lebanon’s financial collapse.
Subsidies on essential goods have been gradually lifted, with prices of items such as fuel rising to unprecedented levels.
Although the currency’s collapse has boosted the purchasing power of expatriates visiting with wads of foreign currency, the gaps in some basic provisions has been frustrating.
Sami Alkodaimi, a Syrian expatriate who lives in Saudi Arabia, stayed away from the country from 2011 to 2019, during the peak of the country’s conflict.
In Syria this summer, Alkodaimi said he felt less hope during this visit, noting higher prices, fuel shortages, and poor electricity provision in the heat of summer.
“I came in my car from Riyadh. The gasoline issue is very annoying. We are trying to obtain it, but with difficulty,” he said.


How active lifestyles, sports and fitness programs are enabling Arab women to beat obesity, manage weight

How active lifestyles, sports and fitness programs are enabling Arab women to beat obesity, manage weight
Updated 15 sec ago

How active lifestyles, sports and fitness programs are enabling Arab women to beat obesity, manage weight

How active lifestyles, sports and fitness programs are enabling Arab women to beat obesity, manage weight
  • Article in The Economist attributes obesity among Arab women to social conservatism restricting outdoor exercise
  • Saudi efforts show why such perceptions are outdated as women take charge of their health and lifestyles

JEDDAH: Obesity rates worldwide have been steadily rising over the past half-century, reaching a point at which experts say many nations are way off schedule to meet the World Health Organization’s 2025 global nutrition targets.

Mindful of the pressures that high obesity rates place on local healthcare systems, to the detriment of quality of life, countries such as Saudi Arabia are working hard to promote fitness and challenge people to change their sedentary lifestyles.

According to a recent study by Ohio State University College of Medicine, obesity and the associated health implications cost the Saudi healthcare system $3.8 billion in 2019 alone, equivalent to about 4.3 percent of the Kingdom’s total annual health expenditure.

Keeping weight under control is nevertheless easier said than done in the age of globalization. (AFP)

Excess weight and obesity — defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that can impair health — is not only a concern in the Arab world. More than a billion people worldwide are classified as obese, which means that they have a body mass index (a measure of body fat based on height and weight) of 30 or higher, and the number is rising.

According to the WHO, obesity is more prevalent among women than men, with factors such as sociocultural issues, economics, genetics and biology all contributing factors. Worldwide, obesity affects 15 percent of women and 11 percent of men. In the Middle East and North Africa, this gender gap is even wider, with 26 percent of women classified as obese compared with 16 percent of men.

A recent article published by The Economist attributes the problem in the region to two key factors: Socioeconomics, on the grounds that the cheapest local foods are usually the most unhealthy, such as bread and rice; and culture, on the grounds that pervasive social conservatism in the Arab region can prevent women from participating in outdoor exercise or shedding calories passively in the workplace.

The reality is, of course, more complex than that. The perception of Arab women as mere sedentary housewives appears grossly outdated as women in the region increasingly enter the labor force, take charge of their diets, and seize new opportunities in the worlds of sports and fitness.

Obesity and the associated health implications cost the Saudi healthcare system $3.8 billion in 2019 alone. (AFP)

Keeping weight under control is nevertheless easier said than done in the age of globalization. Arab countries, too, have experienced significant lifestyle changes and rapid urbanization that have introduced many additional high-fat foods to the market alongside the preexisting unhealthy eating habits, including the traditionally carbohydrate-rich Arab diet.

Nations in the Middle East and North Africa, including Saudi Arabia, have not been immune to such changes. Obesity levels have soared in recent decades owing to a mix of unhealthy eating, inactivity and keeping “fat in fashion” — a stereotype associated with Gulf countries on account of their affluence.

Globally, the perception of obesity varies widely. In many high-income and, increasingly, middle-income countries, weight gain carries a social stigma that fuels a perception of individual weakness that undermines the support for comprehensive prevention, treatment and management measures.

Different ideals associated with weight and body shape can found in various cultures. Specific cultural pressures to be tall and thin are postulated to cause people to misreport their height and body weight in an attempt to appear what is deemed more socially popular and desirable.

A similar situation exists in some places in terms of attitudes to excess weight. Many African and Polynesian, and some Arab, cultures associate overweight women with affluence, health, strength and fertility. In the Gulf region at least, however, being fat is certainly no longer in fashion.

Sulafa Kurdi, a photographer and cafe owner, has been overweight almost all of her life. In August 2020, she took the first steps on a nearly two-year journey to get fit and healthy by signing up with a gym. She chose Sweat Army in Jeddah and began her transformation.

“I was waiting for the right time to make the move and turn my life around,” she told Arab News. “Breaking down that wall was tough but, with the support I received from my coach, the journey was what I needed. I wanted to lose weight the healthy way, the right way and the difficult way.

“Within three months of signing up, I found the discipline to maintain a healthy lifestyle that I still stick to as best as I can. Yes, we all fall off the wagon and feel sluggish at times. With the right support, I’ve managed to get back again and move, breaking my own records.”

Indeed, contrary to the assertions in The Economist’s article, anecdotal evidence suggests more and more women in the Arab world are taking control of their physical lives and setting off on a journey to improved their fitness. This has in turn motivated many to pursue their dreams of becoming professional athletes.

Studies have found that engagement in sports and physical activity has been lower among women than men. Now various government-led and private programs are providing women and girls with access to sports facilities, encouraging them to become athletes and even role models for younger generations.

This has challenged outdated stereotypes about women in Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab region and the incorrect notions about social conservatism preventing them from going outdoors both to exercise and to take part in organized sports.

Dubbed “Cleopatra Squash,” Egyptian Nuran Johar has won padel tournaments such as the England Open Junior Championship five times. Meanwhile, Ulfah Alkaabi, one of the UAE’s top padel players, has been making her mark on the court.

Halfway around the world, Saudi Arabia’s female national football team won a silver medal at the Special Olympics Unified Cup in Detroit, Michigan this month.
 

Although Saudi sprinter and first-time Olympian Yasmeen Al-Dabbagh fell short in her first race in Tokyo 2020, she has set her sights on bringing home a medal from the next Games in Paris in 2024.

By all accounts, women’s participation in sports and fitness boils down to a supportive community. In the Kingdom, the Sports For All Federation has been building community-driven programs to improve overall health through community sports programs, a powerful tool to create a healthy society in line with the Vision 2030 Quality of Life objectives.

SFA says its programs and initiatives are created based on a community’s specific needs and what motivates them, and can be incorporated easily into their daily routines such as walking, running, cycling and other activities. It says the number of female participants in community sports has increased dramatically.

“Since 2018, we’ve seen the numbers reflected across our programs,” an SFA spokesperson told Arab News. “SFA wants to provide women with the right programs and female-driven initiatives to encourage them to go further.

“We provided a special course for ladies in our Spartan race, there was an area for women at SandClash to compete, and the same goes for our Neighborhood Clubs across the Kingdom for women who prefer to have their own spaces.

Women’s participation in sports and fitness boils down to a supportive community. (AFP)

“SFA has also hosted the Global Goals World Cup, a five-a-side women’s football tournament, and is the first country to add basketball to the games. One of the main objectives of SFA is to enable them, provide them with access to facilities, motivate them and feel that they are part of the community.”

Underscoring the importance of community-based physical activity programs, Haya Sawan, a fitness trainer and the owner of SheFit Gym in Jeddah, told Arab News that having such programs is helping to build a strong fitness culture among women.

“There’s been a huge jump in the past five years and you can see more people engaged in some sort of physical activity than ever before. It’s not just a matter of gyms opening, it’s more about changing the mindset and changing the lifestyle,” said Sawan.

“The region’s climate and unique environment restrict us from walking for miles, so we need to put in extra effort just to stay active all day. We utilize the space that we have and create programs fitting for the space, and using vast spaces such as malls and outdoor pathways designated for walking or jogging is a great way to engage the public.

The perception of Arab women as mere sedentary housewives appears grossly outdated. (AFP)

“Initiatives such as the ones launched by SFA where they cooperated with malls makes it so much easier for people to be active. It’s accessible and you can count your steps. It’s a small gesture that makes a difference in the long run.”

That said, personal motivation remains an integral part of any fitness journey, and changing perceptions among Arab women — and wider society — about their role, status and body autonomy no doubt has a part to play.

“I am a strong believer that your thoughts can really control your life,” said Sawan. “A positive mindset will always believe that there’s room for improvement, and look at challenges as a source of motivation to overcome, rather than challenges that would stop you from moving forward. Everything changes.”


Kurdish Iraqi farmer sprouts online advice, green awareness

Kurdish Iraqi farmer sprouts online advice, green awareness
Updated 09 August 2022

Kurdish Iraqi farmer sprouts online advice, green awareness

Kurdish Iraqi farmer sprouts online advice, green awareness
  • With almost half a million Facebook followers, Azad Mohamad posts weekly videos on topics such as protecting fruit trees, dealing with insects and helping people get more from their farms and gardens

HALABJA: Kurdish Iraqi farmer Azad Mohamad has become a social media star by sharing tips on growing fresh fruit and vegetables in the sun-parched country that is highly vulnerable to climate change.

The moustachioed 50-year-old with almost half a million Facebook followers posts weekly videos on topics such as protecting fruit trees, dealing with insects and helping people get more from their farms and gardens.

“They should make you agriculture minister,” one of his fans, Ahmed Hassan, commented on a recent video.

Mohamad also uses his popular online platform to raise awareness about protecting the environment and the need to support local farmers, in his native Kurdistan region and beyond.

“Developed-country farmers have government support and harvesting machines,” said Mohamad.

“Our farmers do everything themselves with their own sweat — and when they lose money at the end of the year, they start over with the same passion and energy.”

He also has a message for authorities in Iraq, which the UN classifies as the world’s fifth most vulnerable country to climate change and where many are mired in poverty despite Iraq’s oil wealth.

“Our land is fertile, and our earth is like gold,” Mohamad said.

Therefore, he said, the government should “focus on agriculture rather than oil, for a sustainable economy.”

From his farm near Halabja, Mohamad squats among grape vines and other plants, wearing traditional Kurdish clothing as a friend uses a mobile phone to film him.

Many of his followers, he said, are not farmers but people who “have transformed their roof into gardens — and that’s a way to better preserve the environment.”

He invites his Facebook followers to post their questions, and says some farmers have sent him videos of their crops, thanking him for his help.

“That makes me very happy,” he said.

In one video, he advises farmers to space their trees out by just two meters instead of four to keep the soil shady and damp, protecting it from the scorching summer heat.

“With desertification, and low rainfall, we must change how we plant trees,” he said.

“Look at these tomatoes,” he added, gesturing at a group of plants. “Because they are in the shade, they are juicy and perfect — whereas these that are in the direct sun have been burned.”

Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region has been spared the worst effects of desertification, water scarcity and drought that have ravaged other parts of the country.

“The region has high rainfall precipitation compared to the rest of Iraq,” said a 2019 study involving UN agencies and the autonomous Kurdistan regional government.

But the report warned that “local agricultural production is in severe competition with foreign goods with largely lower prices” ... “mainly from Turkey and Iran, whose products have flooded Iraqi markets.”

It urged “more investments” to improve irrigation, along with water management to promote sustainability, to ensure the efficient use of resources and “mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Hamid Ismail Abdulrahman, a fellow farmer in Halabja, said low water levels in wells had impacted agricultural development.

Twice a week, the 47-year-old opens his farm to families who can buy “fresh and organic products,” from tomatoes to corn and eggplant.

He said climate change had greatly affected agriculture all over Iraq, though “southern Iraq has the lion’s share of this impact, while in the north the effect is less.”

With Iraq already witnessing record low rainfall and high temperatures in recent years, Mohamad warned that “if the government doesn’t act now and present a concrete plan ... the damage will be done.”

Mohamad has recently opened a small educational area on his farm, and now also receives visits from university students.

He says he hopes his initiatives will have a longer-term impact.


Erdogan plays up diplomatic gains with eye on elections

Erdogan plays up diplomatic gains with eye on elections
Updated 09 August 2022

Erdogan plays up diplomatic gains with eye on elections

Erdogan plays up diplomatic gains with eye on elections
  • As he prepares for what is shaping up to be the biggest electoral challenge of his nearly 20-year rule, the president is playing up his achievements on the global stage

ANKARA: A series of diplomatic wins, capped by the deal to resume Ukraine’s grain exports, provides some respite for President Tayyip Erdogan from Turkey’s economic strife and offers a blueprint of his campaign strategy for elections due next year.

As he prepares for what is shaping up to be the biggest electoral challenge of his nearly 20-year rule, the president is playing up his achievements on the global stage.

“Turkey is going through its strongest period politically, militarily and diplomatically,” he told a crowd of thousands of people in northwest Turkey at the weekend, a day after holding talks in Russia with President Vladimir Putin.

Progress internationally contrasts with a grim economic picture at home, with inflation soaring to 79 percent and the lira languishing near record lows it hit during the most recent currency crisis in December.

Opponents blame Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policies, including a series of interest rate cuts despite high inflation and the sacking of three central bank governors since 2019, that have left the country running large current account deficits and reliant on external financing to support the economy.

Erdogan said the fruits of the government’s economic policies — prioritising exports, production and investment — would become clearer in the first quarter of 2023.

In the meantime, government officials and senior members of his ruling AK Party portray the president as a statesman standing against electoral rivals who are nowhere near matching his international credentials.

“Whether you like him or not, Erdogan is a leader,” a senior Turkish official said, arguing that no other international figure had the same level of contact with top global players. “There is no leader in Turkey who can replace him.”

The accord to restart exports from Ukraine, cut off since Russia’s February invasion, could ease grain shortages which have left millions of people vulnerable to hunger and driven up global prices.

Brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, it came after Erdogan secured concessions from NATO over the accession of Nordic countries and initiated a rapprochement with rival powers in the Middle East.

Erdogan also won a pledge in June from US President Joe Biden that he would support the sale of F-16 fighters jets to Turkey, after Washington blocked Ankara from buying more advanced F-35 jets because of its purchase of Russian weaponry.

Erdogan faces parliamentary and presidential elections that must be held by June 2023.

A survey by pollster Metropoll last week found a slight rise in support for his AK Party to 33.8 percent, still comfortably the most for any single party. But he faces a loose alliance of opposition parties, and polls show him trailing opposition presidential candidates.

Topping voter concerns are the state of the economy, and the presence of 3.6 million Syrian refugees, welcomed by Turkey at the start of Syria’s conflict but increasingly seen by Turks as competitors for jobs and services.

“The government is using foreign policy as material to cover up the economic disaster it has dragged the country into, telling tales of ‘diplomatic victory’ at home,” said Erdogan Toprak, a lawmaker from the main opposition CHP and senior adviser to its leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Toprak said that even on the diplomatic front, Erdogan was making concessions that “damage the dignity of our country and drag it into weakness.”

“Voters are aware of the benefits of diplomacy. At times they will complain about the economy or refugees, but they will vote for Erdogan for the continuation of an effective Turkey,” an AK Party official said.


Israel concerned over Russian push to ban Jewish non-profit group

Israel concerned over Russian  push to ban Jewish non-profit group
Updated 09 August 2022

Israel concerned over Russian push to ban Jewish non-profit group

Israel concerned over Russian  push to ban Jewish non-profit group
  • Russia’s Justice Ministry is seeking to liquidate the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel for alleged breaches of privacy laws

JERUSALEM: Israeli President Isaac Herzog spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday about Russia’s attempt to ban the world’s biggest Jewish nonprofit group, which helps Jews move to Israel.

Russia’s Justice Ministry is seeking to liquidate the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel for alleged breaches of privacy laws.

Some Israeli politicians have expressed concern that Russia may be retaliating for Israel’s criticism of its invasion of Ukraine, and about the effect that bilateral tensions might have on Russia’s own Jewish community.

Some also worry that it could damage Russian-Israeli communications on Syria, where Moscow deploys air power in support of the government and Israel has attacked what it describes as Iranian-linked military targets.

“The phone call was frank and honest. The two presidents emphasised the important areas of cooperation between Israel and Russia and agreed to remain in contact,” Herzog’s statement said.

The Kremlin said the men had agreed that contacts about the Jewish Agency would be continued by both countries.

Some 600,000 Russians are eligible to emigrate to Israel because of Jewish heritage, and officials say there has been a rise in applications since the dispute arose.

Herzog, whose post is largely symbolic, said the call with Putin had been coordinated with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.