KARBALA: Twenty million pilgrims, swelled by a record influx of Iranians, have converged on the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala to mark Arbaeen, an annual Shiite festival that climaxes on Saturday.
It is one of the world’s biggest religious gatherings, observed in Iraq and neighboring Iran, both Shiite majority countries.
The event marks the end of a 40-day mourning period for the killing of Imam Hussein — a founding figure in Shiite Islam and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad — by the forces of the caliph Yazid in 680 AD.
So far, there has been little sign of the intra-Shiite political tensions that have prevented Iraq forming a new government since elections nearly a year ago.
“It’s as if I’ve arrived in paradise,” said Najme, a 37-year-old primary school teacher, wrapped in a black chador and her feet clad in sneakers.
Along with her husband and parents, she is among more than three million Iranians attending the pilgrimage in Karbala, a new record, according to the Iranian government spokesman.
The family drove from the Iranian clerical center of Qom to Najaf — a second Shiite holy city in Iraq — and then walked 80 kilometers (50 miles) to Karbala, home to the shrines of Imam Hussein and his brother, Abbas.
Najme’s mother Latifa could not disguise her joy.
“I keep calling the family back in Iran — I send them photos and videos, to share the atmosphere with them,” she said.
Iranian pilgrims have flocked to the event this year in part due to Baghdad and Tehran waiving visa requirements for travel between the two countries since late last year.
The influx of pilgrims has filled hotels and sent room prices soaring.
Some have even resorted to bedding down on pavements.
The pilgrims press forward on the esplanade, and among alleys that snake around the two mausoleums that sparkle with gold and blue under the unrelenting sun.
At night, processions are bathed in neon light.
Men dressed in black jump up and down on the spot, beating their torsos to the rhythm of religious chants blaring from loudspeakers.
Some cry hot tears, others slap their faces, to mark the killing of Imam Hussein centuries ago in the Karbala desert.
Among the 20 million pilgrims — up from 17 million last year — are five million foreign visitors, according to figures released by Baghdad.
Iran is of course the key external source.
“Arbaeen is an opportunity... for working class Iranians to travel” and celebrate what is both a religious and social occasion, said Alex Shams, who is researching a doctorate on the politics of Shiite Islam at the University of Chicago.
“It’s almost impossible for Iranians to get visas to other countries,” he noted, and US sanctions have made the Iranian rial almost worthless. “Iraq is really one of the few countries that... they can afford to visit.”
Before Saddam Hussein was overthrown in the US-led invasion of 2003, Shiites in Iraq were forbidden from overtly commemorating Arbaeen and indiscreet worshippers risked prison.
But nowadays, the event flourishes and Shams notes that Iran actively promotes the pilgrimage, “despite the fact it is very much an Iraqi grassroots thing.”
Tehran, and other political actors too, seeks to benefit from the pilgrimage’s popularity to “promote their own brand — to kind of coopt it,” Shams said.
Iran rejects UN investigation into protests — spokesperson
The UN Rights Council voted on Thursday to appoint a probe into Iran’s deadly crackdown on protests
Foreign ministry spokesman: Western nations were involved in protests that have swept the country
Updated 38 min ago
DUBAI: Iran will reject a newly-appointed independent UN investigation into the country’s repression of anti-government protests, the foreign ministry said on Monday, as demonstrations showed no sign of abating.
“Iran will have no cooperation with the political committee formed by the UN Rights Council,” ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said.
The UN Rights Council voted on Thursday to appoint a probe into Iran’s deadly crackdown on protests.
Volker Turk, the UN rights commissioner, had earlier demanded that Iran end its “disproportionate” use of force in quashing protests that erupted after the death in custody of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16.
Activist news agency HRANA said 450 protesters had been killed in more than two months of nationwide unrest as of Nov. 26, including 63 minors. It said 60 members of the security forces had been killed, and 18,173 protesters detained.
Challenging the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy, protesters from all walks of life have burned pictures of Khamenei and called for the downfall of Iran’s Shiite Muslim theocracy.
The protests have particularly focused on women’s rights — Amini was detained by morality police for attire deemed inappropriate under Iran’s Islamic dress code — but have also called for the fall of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The unrest has posed one of the boldest challenges to Iran’s clerical ruling elite since it came to power in the 1979 Islamic revolution, though authorities have crushed previous rounds of major protests.
Iran has blamed foreign foes and their agents for the unrest.
Iran has proof that Western nations were involved in protests that have swept the country, Kanaani said on Monday.
“We have specific information proving that the US, Western countries and some of the American allies have had a role in the protests,” he said, without giving details.
Iran has given no death toll for protesters, but a deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, has said that about 50 police had died and hundreds been injured in the unrest — the first official figure for deaths among security forces.
He did not say whether that figure also included deaths among other security forces such as the Revolutionary Guards.
Jordan’s military thwarts attempts to smuggle drugs from Syria
564 palm-sized sheets of hashish, 30,000 Captagon pills, 1 kg of crystal meth seized in 2 days
Updated 28 November 2022
AMMAN: Jordanian security forces have foiled two attempts to smuggle large quantities of drugs from Syria in two days, the Jordan News Agency reported.
On Sunday, border guards at the Jaber border crossing, Jordan’s main border crossing with Syria, seized 10,000 Captagon pills and 1 kg of crystal meth hidden inside a truck.
On Saturday, the Eastern Military Zone in Jordan seized 564 palm-sized sheets of hashish, 20,000 Captagon pills, a Kalashnikov rifle and ammunition.
A source at the Jordanian Armed Forces General Command said frontline surveillance patrols, in coordination with security agencies, tracked an armed group of smugglers illegally crossing into the kingdom from Syria.
Response patrols acted swiftly and applied rules of engagement. Having injured a smuggler, they forced the others to flee into Syrian territory, the source said, adding that the JAF will continue to deal firmly with any border threats, and will foil any efforts to undermine and destabilize Jordan’s security.
‘Troubled nations can never spend their way to improved global reputation,’ says Good Country Index creator Simon Anholt
Stands by comment that money spent on nation-brand advertising campaigns not only goes to waste but rather is a crime
Says hosting the football World Cup, despite an estimated cost of $220 billion, will not benefit Qatar beyond a few months
Updated 28 November 2022
DUBAI: While there is no question that staging a major sporting event will “in a real way raise the profile of the country for a relatively short period,” the data suggests it makes no lasting impact on the image of the host country, according to the man credited with coining the term “nation brands” back in the 1990s.
Simon Anholt, founder of the renowned Nation Brands Index, is currently an independent policy adviser to nearly 60 countries around the world, and publisher of the Good Country Index, which ranks nations based on their contributions to people and planet.
His views on the topic have a special significance as Qatar hosts the Middle East’s first World Cup, prompting many to wonder whether the event, the organization of which has cost the Gulf country an estimated $220 billion, will succeed; and what Arab cities such as Riyadh, Dubai or Doha need to do to become the next London or New York.
“Looking back over the 20-odd years that I’ve been running surveys on this (subject), the evidence is that running or hosting a big sporting event, such as the football World Cup or the summer Olympics, has no impact, generally speaking, on the image of the country, at least not beyond a few months,” Anholt said on “Frankly Speaking,” Arab News’ weekly talkshow.
He added: “Within about six months or so, people would have forgotten about it.
“Occasionally, it can do quite serious damage to the (host) country’s image, if the thing is very controversial or if it shows things about the country that are worse than what people were expecting.”
For Qatar, Anholt said, hosting the World Cup has its upside if “what you are actually looking for is just crude awareness. In other words, you want more people to have heard about the existence of this country, because it’s anonymous.”
He continued: “Then there’s no question that hosting a major sporting event will, just in a real way, raise the profile of your country for a relatively short period.
“And, if you know exactly what you’re going to do to follow on from that immediately afterward, and keep the momentum going and keep the profile high, then that could work as part of a slightly more sophisticated strategy.”
Nevertheless, he cautioned that “believing that just hosting a successful major event will suddenly turn your image from bad into good, or from unknown into super well-known, is just an illusion. It just doesn’t happen.”
Anholt acknowledged that “there can be other valuable effects of hosting a major event” and that “these things are not necessarily a waste of time and money.”
He added: “Particularly the smaller ones can be very useful tactical instruments for countries to engage with the international community.”
In sum, he said: “It’s not a simple, straightforward relationship between hosting an event and the image of the country: It can do you harm. The most common effect is no effect at all.”
Anholt said events such as Saudi Arabia’s thrilling 2-1 victory over Argentina in the World Cup and the UAE’s successful Mars Mission can do more good for their nation brands than PR or advertising campaigns, but “in the longer term.”
He added: “The mistake is always to expect an immediate return. Your brand is not your message; it’s the context in which your message is received.”
Anholt, while delivering a talk at the Riyadh Book Fair last September, said that money spent on nation-brand advertising campaigns not only goes to waste, but rather is a crime.
Elaborating on the point, he told “Frankly Speaking” host Katie Jensen: “You’re saying, if you spend enough money on advertising and it’s good enough advertising, it will work. But what I’m saying is that those tools that work so well for selling products and services, they don’t work for changing the images of countries.”
He added: “All the evidence is that it’s just money burned. Countries are judged by what they do and by what they make, not by what they say about themselves.”
It was recently announced that Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh would host the Global Summit of the World Travel and Tourism Council, a big conference full of world experts who would want to sell their country as the next ideal holiday destination. What, according to Anholt, is the difference between destination marketing and the concept of a nation brand?
He said that the two concepts are separable. “Destination marketing is a very honest and very straightforward marketing exercise. You’ve got a product which is called vacations in Saudi Arabia, and you want to market it to potential tourists, to potential purchasers of that product,” Anholt said.
“Advertising, marketing, online, offline etc, all the conventional tools of commercial promotion are very, very useful to do that. If you do lots of it and you do it well, people will come.
“You can deliberately cause more people to visit your country through effective marketing. There’s no question about that.”
Anholt’s presence at the book fair means he is no stranger to some of Riyadh’s ambitious goals: To double its population by 2030, make huge investments in projects aimed at creating jobs for both locals and expatriates, further expand green cover, and win the bid to host the World Expo in 2030.
What, in his view, does Saudi Arabia need to do so that the capital can become more attractive and grow into another London, New York or Tokyo?
“Making the city into an attractive destination, an attractive product for people to buy into, is really only part of the story,” Anholt said.
“Having a beautiful city or having an attractive destination, or a beautiful nature or a great culture, nice people, is all part of the attraction of a country.
“But, fundamentally, the thing that matters most is that people should feel glad they are there. It’s got something to do with how they perceive you as a player in the international community.”
Anholt also shed light on why Saudi Arabia — which occupies 57th place on the Nation Brands Index — should not expect quick improvements in its international perception purely on the strength of ongoing domestic reforms or the generous sums of money it gives in foreign aid.
He said: “Change is not easy, and it’s not quick. We need to change people’s minds. When you’re talking about the whole world, and you’re talking about a vast cultural construct which is the perceived image of a nation, that really is a slow process.
“It’s very disheartening for the first several years. You’re going to find that almost whatever you do that tries to be good and helpful, it’s going to be interpreted in a negative way. But gradually, if you are persistent and strategic about it and, above all, sincere with those gestures, then, over time, it will begin to shift.
”But this is not something that can be fixed overnight, or in a matter of weeks or years. The images of countries take literally generations to form. They don’t come through the media from one day to the next; they come through the whole of the culture that surrounds us.”
Anholt joked that the Nation Brands Index is “one of the most boring social surveys ever conducted,” simply because the rankings change so little from year to year.
He added: “It’s because people really, really don’t change their minds about countries. These are the stable building blocks of their world view.”
As someone who has never seen a country rise by more than two places from one year to the next, he explained that “when a country does rise or fall by more than two or three places in the ranking, then that’s really important and it’s really worth analyzing.”
Case in point is Russia, which has plunged 31 places to the bottom of the index in one year.
Anholt used the example to say that, based on his experience running the Nation Brands Index survey since 2005, “international public opinion will not tolerate conflict. The one thing that people all over the world just cannot forgive a country for is being involved in a war.”
He added: “If you reach out and you harm or threaten or insult another group, whether that’s a religious group or another state, public opinion will punish you as a state for doing so.”
Does that mean Israel, which occupies illegal lands as per the UN but has not suffered a plunge in its Nation Brands ranking, is an exception to the rule?
Anholt said the explanation is more complicated in that “Israel doesn’t suffer quite the same because (the occupation) hasn’t just happened right now. It’s a situation which people have been used to for a number of years.”
He pointed out, however, that while Israel is nowhere near the bottom of the index, it is also nowhere near the top.
He said: “Considering the size of its economy, and considering its successes and the connections that it enjoys with other countries, its position in the international community, especially since the Abraham Accords and all the rest of it, you might expect Israel to rank significantly higher than it does.”
Moving on to the UK, Anholt said that chaotic politics is so much the order of the day in world affairs these days, he does not think “just changing prime ministers every few weeks is going to have any long-term effect on the image of the country.”
Even so, he said the image of Britain is on the slide and has been so, barring a few reversals, ever since the Brexit referendum.
He added: “The data very clearly shows the number one reason why people admire a country is because they think it contributes something to humanity and the planet.
“The point about Brexit, as it was understood by most people around the world, was that the UK was withdrawing from its multilateral behavior and wanted to do it on its own. It wanted to be the British Empire all over again. Very predictably, people don’t like that.”
As for the US, he said: “It had always been the number one country, right up until the second term of George W. Bush, when the Americans invaded Iraq for the second time. America was always the most admired country on Earth; now, it never is. It seems to have settled down at about seventh to 10th position.”
Anholt put the twin examples of the UK and US this way: “Aside from invading another country, the only way that you can gradually damage the image of a country is by behaving in a persistently chaotic, turbulent and unfriendly way in the international community, and both the US and the US are proving that from year to year.
“Year by year, their scores slip in the Nation Brands Index.”
Finally, with divisions opening up in British public opinion after the passing of Queen Elizabeth this year, how much did Anholt think she and the monarchy were worth to “Brand UK?”
He said: “If you look at monarchies in pure economic terms, they tend to give quite good value for money.
“They cost taxpayers several millions a year, sometimes many millions a year, to keep them there. But what they actually return to the country’s image in terms of pure brand value is in the order of billions. People love monarchies, especially people who don’t live in monarchies themselves.
“Without the monarchy, the UK would be significantly less interesting to people than it is. It would be significantly harder to attract people to visit its old buildings in its old cities. So, purely in economic terms, royal families appear to give rather good value, as long as they behave in the right way.”
Bethlehem prepares for ‘distinguished’ celebration of Christmas
100,000 tourists expected next month, with 80% hotel occupancy: Palestinian minister
Mayor Hanna Hanania highlights special arrangements for festive season targeting global visitors
Updated 27 November 2022
RAMALLAH: Bethlehem was preparing for a “distinguished” celebration of Christmas next month with tens of thousands of visitors from around the world expected to descend on the city, officials said.
The central West Bank city is of special religious and historical importance to Christians, and Bethlehem Municipality, and the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Tourism, have this year launched Christmas activities under the title, “From Bethlehem to the World: The spirit of Christmas Brings us Together.”
Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Hanania said: “All the eyes of the world are currently turning toward Bethlehem in preparation to mark the birth of the child Jesus.”
He pointed out that despite current world crises the event offered an opportunity to unite faithful and peace-loving people and promote freedom and dignity for all.
And by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Hanania noted that visitors were showing their support for the Palestinian presence.
The civic leader told Arab News that the municipality had started gearing up for this year’s Christmas festivities four months ago.
The occasion coincides with the 150th anniversary of the establishment of Bethlehem Municipality and the 10th anniversary of the inclusion of the Church of the Nativity on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
He said: “Bethlehem wears a new suit of joy, and hope has returned to the hearts of the city’s citizens after a long absence, and we look forward to a distinguished Christmas this year.
“Bethlehem and the Holy Land are in dire need of the blessing of peace that does not come at any price, as its highest price is justice, as peace cannot be achieved without justice and love among people.”
He added that the municipality’s aim had been to organize special Christmas celebrations in an atmosphere of joy, starting with a tree lighting ceremony on Dec. 3, Christmas market, and other related activities at the Bethlehem Peace Center and throughout the city.
Palestinian Tourism and Antiquities Minister Rula Maayah said this year had witnessed a sharp rise in the number of tourists with post-coronavirus pandemic visitor numbers already reaching 600,000, with a further 100,000 expected next month, pushing hotel occupancy levels up to 80 percent.
Elias Al-Arja, head of the Palestinian Hotels Association and owner of the Bethlehem Hotel, told Arab News that he anticipated many hotels in Bethlehem to be full during the Christmas holidays and new year period.
He said that in recent months he had joined several Bethlehem hotel owners, backed by the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism, in promoting the city at international tourism exhibitions in Spain, Italy, Romania, the UK, and Turkey.
“We have begun to feel and sense the presence of a Christmas atmosphere in Bethlehem early this year,” he added.
Al-Arja noted that the tourism sector in Bethlehem — that has a Christian-dominated population of around 30,000 — had been the first to suffer from the impact of the pandemic and the last to recover from it.
Fifty percent of Bethlehem’s economy relies on tourism with the city having 56 hotels with a combined 4,500 rooms that can accommodate 9,000 people, almost 100 oriental antique stores, 400 traditional craft workshops, and 20 large restaurants.
The Palestinian Central Statistics Center revealed that in 2020 to 2021 the tourism sector lost $1.5 billion due to the pandemic.
Jeries Qumsiyeh, director at the Palestinian Ministry of Archeology and Antiquities in Bethlehem, told Arab News that this year the ministry was looking to spotlight the religious, heritage, and tourism components of not only Bethlehem but the cities of Jerusalem and Nazareth too.
Egyptian fighter plane crashes in training accident
Crew survived and no damage caused on the ground after technical malfunction
Another technical malfunction caused a fighter plane to crash during training in June
Updated 27 November 2022
CAIRO: An Egyptian fighter plane crashed on Sunday while training, the Egyptian army said.
Gharib Abdel-Hafez, a military spokesman, said on Facebook that the crew survived and that no damage was caused on the ground. He did not identify the location of the crash, which he said was caused by a technical malfunction.
Another technical malfunction caused a fighter plane to crash during training in June. The pilot survived that accident, the spokesman added.
Separately, the British Red Arrows arrived at an air base in southern Egypt to take part in the Hurghada Air Show 2022 over the city of Sahl Hasheesh on Wednesday.
According to the spokesman, the Red Arrows will join the Egyptian Silver Stars team for the event.