COLOMBO/DUBAI: When Ibn Battuta arrived in northern Sri Lanka, the ruler of the Jaffna Kingdom greeted him with pearls more beautiful than any he had ever seen in his life.
The famed Moroccan explorer’s ship arrived in Puttalam in September 1344, and he spent a few days on the island, entertaining the king who was interested in his voyages, and visiting Adam’s Peak, a mountain venerated by Muslim pilgrims as the site of the footprint of the first man and prophet.
Ibn Battuta recorded the journey in his “Travels,” and gave a detailed description of it, focusing much of his attention on pearl reefs and pearl hunting — one of the main revenue earners for the Jaffna king’s coffers.
He wrote in his memoir that the gems he was gifted were “wonderful pearls, the biggest and most beautiful pearls in the world!”
But he was not the island’s first Arab visitor.
Those who arrived in Sri Lanka centuries before Ibn Battuta were the ones that developed pearl fishing, and who lifted the gemstone, formed by mollusks, into becoming the island’s most valuable aquatic resource.
Abdul Raheem Jesmil, development officer at Sri Lanka’s Department of Archeology, whose research focuses on the history of Sri Lankan Muslims, estimates that the first Arab visitors to the island arrived in pre-Islamic times, around the 3rd century B.C.
At that time, the trade with the island was entirely in the hands of Arabs who came mainly from the Arabian Peninsula and parts of Mesopotamia.
“They came in search of spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and white pepper,” Jesmil said.
“When they stayed here, they found that some parts of the island’s ocean were full of pearls ... They diverted their businesses to pearl diving.”
Pearl diving has been practiced for thousands of years and in many communities of the Arabian Gulf was the main source of wealth in ancient times. Men from these regions would spend months on expeditions at sea during the pearling season, while families awaited them on the shore and performed rituals for their safety.
When Arab traders reached Sri Lanka, they immediately understood the wealth of its pearl beds and explored the island’s northwestern coast.
Pearls were initially found mostly in oysters in the Gulf of Mannar, off the towns of Mannar, Chilaw and Kalpitiya.
They were highly valued among the aristocracy of ancient Rome, where chroniclers in the 2nd century A.D. recorded how they were brought by ships that chartered the Indian Ocean or by caravans.
As the industry grew in importance and expanded over centuries, divers also began to explore the areas south of the pearl-rich gulf.
“They found new places from Beruwala to Hambantota, which run from the western coast to the southern,” Jesmil told Arab News, adding that the industry was so lucrative that many of the Arab pearl traders settled down in Sri Lanka and married local women, mostly from the Tamil communities that were involved in their business.
While little is known about any remaining artifacts documenting the presence of pre-Islamic merchants from the Middle East, after the advent of Islam such evidence is abundant, especially as the Arab influence also entered the sphere of culture and religion.
“The first mosque in Sri Lanka was built by these Arabs ... Al-Abrar Mosque stands a monument of Arabian culture,” Jesmil said, referring to a mosque in Beruwala that was built in 920 A.D. It is the oldest remaining —and widely considered to be the first —mosque in Sri Lanka.
Later manuscripts by Europeans indicate that until the 19th century the gathering of pearl shells from the sea, processing of them, and trading were dominated by Arabs and Tamils, who were considered the best divers.
For one century, pearl fisheries were under the control of the Portuguese who entered a pact with coastal communities in Mannar. During that time, the industry reportedly employed some 50,000 people. When the Dutch expelled the Portuguese in the mid-17th century, they expanded it to 200,000 employees.
It was under another colonial power, Britain, which took over a century later, that pearl fishing began to struggle. The waters which used to be one of the most abundant sources of natural pearls in the world for more than two millennia, started to lose their oyster colonies.
After the British made a series of unsuccessful experiments in reviving the industry, in the 1920s it received a final blow with the introduction of the cultured pearl by the Japanese.
Some pearl hunting continued after Sri Lanka gained independence, but today it is nearly extinct.
While Sri Lanka is still a well-known jewelry producer, the gemstones that once gained its fame are no longer in the spotlight.
Rizan Nazeer, chief executive of the annual FACETS Sri Lanka International Gem and Jewelry Trade Show in Colombo, said that the pearls used by local artisans are hardly ever native ones.
“Pearl fishing is a dying industry in Sri Lanka, the gemstones have been superseded,” he said.
More than 200 killed and 800 hurt after 2 trains derail in India
About 400 people were taken to hospitals after the accident, which happened in eastern India
Nearly 500 police officers and rescue workers with 75 ambulances and buses responded to the accident
Updated 03 June 2023
NEW DELHI: Two passenger trains derailed Friday in India, killing more than 200 people and trapping hundreds of others inside more than a dozen damaged rail cars, officials said.
The accident that happened about 220 kilometers (137 miles) southwest of Kolkata created a chaotic scene of twisted wreckage and desperate rescuers as teams tried to free passengers and recover bodies. The cause was under investigation.
Fire Services Chief Sudhanshu Sarangi told the Press Trust of India that more than 800 people were hurt.
Ten to 12 coaches of one train derailed, and debris from some of the mangled coaches fell onto a nearby track, said Amitabh Sharma, a railroad ministry spokesperson.
The debris was hit by another passenger train coming from the opposite direction, and up to three coaches of the second train also derailed, Sharma said.
The Press Trust reported that a third train carrying freight was also involved, but there was no immediate confirmation from railroad authorities. The Press Trust report said some of the derailed passenger coaches hit cars from the freight train.
The death toll rose steadily throughout the night. As dawn approached, the top bureaucrat in the eastern state of Odisha announced that at least 207 were dead.
In the aftermath, television images showed rescuers climbing atop the wreckage to break open doors and windows and using cutting torches to free survivors.
Passenger Vandana Kaleda told the New Delhi Television news channel that she “found people falling on each other” as her coach shook violently and veered off the tracks. She said she was lucky to survive.
Another survivor who did not give his name said he was sleeping when the impact woke him up. He said he saw other passengers with broken limbs and disfigured faces.
Nearly 500 police officers and rescue workers with 75 ambulances and buses responded to the scene, said Pradeep Jena, the top bureaucrat of the Odisha state.
Rescuers were attempting to free 200 people feared trapped in the wreckage, Shinde said.
The Press Trust said the derailed Coromandel Express was traveling from Howrah in West Bengal state to Chennai, the capital of southern Tamil Nadu state.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his thoughts were with the bereaved families.
"May the injured recover soon,” tweeted Modi, who said he had spoken to the railway minister and that “all possible assistance” was being offered.
Despite government efforts to improve rail safety, several hundred accidents occur every year on India’s railways, the largest train network under one management in the world.
In August 1995, two trains collided near New Delhi, killing 358 people in the worst train accident in India’s history.
Most train accidents are blamed on human error or outdated signaling equipment.
More than 12 million people ride 14,000 trains across India every day, traveling on 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) of track.
Biden hails averting ‘catastrophic’ default in Oval Office speech
Oval Office addresses have always been reserved by presidents for moments of unique national danger or importance
Updated 03 June 2023
WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden told Americans on Friday in a rare Oval Office address that the debt ceiling bill passed by Congress after weeks of wrangling saved the country from “economic collapse.”
Speaking from behind the historic Resolute Desk on live primetime television, Biden said that the deal resolving the standoff between Democrats and Republicans was a compromise where “no one got everything they wanted.”
“We averted an economic crisis and an economic collapse,” he said, adding that “the stakes could not have been higher.”
Biden said he will sign the bill, which authorizes the government to extend the so-called debt ceiling and renew borrowing, into law on Saturday.
The US Treasury Department had warned that if the debt ceiling was blocked beyond Monday, the country could default on its $31 trillion debt. A default would have likely triggered market panic, huge job losses and a recession, with global implications.
“Nothing would have been more catastrophic,” Biden said.
Oval Office addresses have always been reserved by presidents for moments of unique national danger or importance.
Biden used the occasion to project a reassuring, calm tone. Sprinkling his speech with chuckles and smiles, he praised his opponents for negotiating in good faith and promised Americans that he had never felt more optimistic.
Biden said that Congress has now preserved “the full faith and credit of the United States.”
But even with the House and Senate putting aside differences to finally rush through an agreement over the last week, the US economy’s reputation took a hit.
Ratings agency Fitch said Friday that it is keeping the United States’ “AAA” credit rating on negative watch, despite the deal.
The debt ceiling is usually an uncontroversial accounting maneuver approved yearly by Congress. It allows the government to keep borrowing money to pay for bills already incurred.
This year, hard-right Republicans dominating their party’s narrow majority in the House of Representatives, decided to use the must-pass vote as leverage for forcing Biden into accepting cuts to many Democratic spending priorities.
This triggered a test of political strength that threatened to end in chaos before the two sides agreed this week on raising the debt ceiling while freezing some budgetary spending in return — yet stopping well short of Republican demands for cuts.
Kevin McCarthy, the speaker of the Republican-led House, had touted the compromise bill as a big victory for conservatives, although he faced a backlash from hard-liners on the right who said he made too many concessions.
But Biden, who is campaigning for re-election in 2024, sees the dramatic resolution to the crisis as a win, showcasing his negotiating powers and his pitch to be the moderate voice in an increasingly extreme political landscape.
He burnished those credentials in the speech by going out of his way to praise McCarthy, a politician long loyal to former president Donald Trump — the man Biden defeated in 2020 and who is seeking his own return in 2024.
“I want to commend Speaker McCarthy. You know, he and I, we and our teams, were able to get along, get things done,” Biden said, calling the Republican negotiators “completely honest and respectful of one another.”
‘Swimming in plastic’: Greek fishermen fight pollution
Active in 42 ports throughout Greece, Enaleia provides fishermen with large bags for marine waste that they can deposit in dumpsters once back at port
Updated 03 June 2023
KERATSINI, Greece: The fish market of Keratsini, west of Athens, is abuzz in the early morning, with trawlers disgorging crates of sardines and anchovies as trucks await nearby to be loaded.
But on his family’s fishing boat, Lefteris Arapakis sorts out a different sort of haul — bottles, boots, plastic pipes and fishing nets, all dragged from the bed of the Aegean Sea.
“We are swimming in plastic,” said Arapakis, whose family has fished for five generations.
By 2050 “there will be more plastic than fish” in the sea, he warned, quoting recent reports.
That morning’s plastic catch “weighs about 100 kilos,” said the 29-year-old economist and co-founder of Enaleia, an NGO that encourages fishermen to collect marine litter caught in their nets.
Since its creation in 2018, it has worked with more than 1,200 fishermen in Greece to raise awareness over the degradation of the maritime environment.
The seabed litter does not come only from Greece but from all over the Mediterranean, moving with the sea currents.
Active in 42 ports throughout Greece, Enaleia provides fishermen with large bags for marine waste that they can deposit in dumpsters once back at port.
For every kilo of plastic they deliver, they receive a small “symbolic” sum. The money is enough for a drink, said Arapakis, who was in Paris this week for global talks on limiting plastic pollution.
Representatives of 175 nations are meeting at the UNESCO headquarters with the aim of making progress toward reaching an agreement by next year covering the entire plastics life cycle.
Since October, fishing crews affiliated with Enaleia have dragged out 20 tons of plastic and old fishing equipment each month. Nearly 600 tons have been collected over the last five years, the NGO said.
The collected plastic is transported to a recycling plant in the industrial area of Megara near Keratsini, to be turned into pellets to make new products such as socks, swimwear or furniture.
A sixth is fishing nets, according to Emalia. Next in line are high and low-density plastics (12.5 percent and 8 percent respectively). But nearly half of the total, 44 percent, is non-recyclable plastic.
Recycling marine waste is a “challenge” because the plastic is degraded by its exposure underwater, said Hana Pertot, sales manager of the Skyplast recycling plant in Megara.
Enaleia began as a fishing school created by Arapakis after he lost his job in 2016 during the Greek financial crisis.
It was originally created to help his father recruit personnel for his trawler.
The organization is now also active in Italy, and this year began partnerships in Spain, Egypt and Kenya.
Arapakis said he embarked on the Mediterranean Cleanup project after a trip to Greece’s Cyclades islands, where he saw fishermen throwing the waste gathered by their nets back into the sea.
In 2020, the UN Environment Programme awarded Arapakis its “Young Champion of the Year in Europe” prize. He is convinced that there has been a “mentality change” among Greece’s fishermen.
Previously “we caught large quantities of plastic but we only kept the fish. All waste was thrown into the sea,” said Mokhtar Mokharam, the team leader on Arapakis’ family’s boat, the Panagiota II.
There are also practical benefits for fishing boats.
“In the past, the anchor often snagged on waste of all kinds, especially nets, and the engine would go out,” said Nikolaos Mentis, who works out of the island of Salamina opposite Keratsini, and has been an Enaleia contributor for the past five years.
“Fishermen are mobilizing, (it’s) a kind of democracy. Climate change mainly affects people on low incomes,” he said.
“Fishermen were part of the problem before. Now they are part of the solution — which means that any citizen or politician can contribute.”
BRICS sees strength in numbers as it envisions a multipolar world order
Summit of foreign ministers in Cape Town sets the stage for a more ambitious role for BRICS in a multipolar world
Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Saudi minister of foreign affairs, attended ministerial meeting of the “Friends of BRICS” in Cape Town
Updated 03 June 2023
Alex Whiteman Robert Edwards
LONDON: Foreign ministers from BRICS countries Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa have expressed their willingness to admit new members, including Saudi Arabia, as the bloc seeks a larger voice in the international arena.
At a two-day conference in Cape Town on Thursday and Friday, attended by Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi minister of foreign affairs, the group presented itself as a force for a “rebalancing” of the global order away from Western-dominated institutions.
Prince Faisal held bilateral talks with several of his counterparts and attended a ministerial meeting of the “Friends of BRICS” under the theme “Partnership for Mutually Accelerated Growth, Sustainable Development, and Inclusive Multilateralism.”
He also held talks with Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s foreign minister, to examine steps “to implement the agreement between the two countries signed in Beijing, including intensifying bilateral work to ensure international peace and security,” according to a statement from the Saudi delegation.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, Cuba, DRC, Comoros, Gabon, and Kazakhstan all sent representatives to Cape Town for the talks, while Egypt, Argentina, Bangladesh, Guinea-Bissau and Indonesia participated virtually.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “more than a dozen” countries have expressed interest in joining BRICS. Meanwhile, Ma Zhaoxu, China’s vice foreign minister, told a press conference: “We expect more countries to join our big family.”
According to reports, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Algeria, Egypt, Bahrain, and Iran have all formally asked to join the BRICS, as have several other nations who appear intent upon recalibrating international ties in line with an increasingly multipolar world order.
According to the Financial Times, Saudi Arabia is also in talks with the New Development Bank, the Shanghai-based lender better known as the “BRICS bank,” to admit the Kingdom as its ninth member.
A heads of state summit is scheduled to take place in Johannesburg in August.
The BRICS economic bloc is positioning itself as an alternative to Western-dominated centers of power. However, experts seem uncertain about its potential, pointing to innate divisions between the central BRICS powers and a lack of clarity on what membership might entail.
Nevertheless, for several countries seeking financial assistance, the stringent demands often attached to bailouts by Western-dominated institutions like the IMF and World Bank have proved increasingly unpalatable, leading many nations to look elsewhere for partnerships.
One such example is Tunisia.
Battered by diminishing output, high debt and rampant inflation, with food and fuel prices spiking, many saw the IMF’s offer of a $1.9 billion loan as Tunisia’s only way out of an escalating economic and political crisis.
President Kais Saied disagreed with this perspective, however, making his views on the deal very clear at the start of April, rejecting demands to cut energy and food subsidies and reduce the public wage bill, which the loan had been made contingent upon.
“I will not hear diktats,” Saied said, noting the deadly riots that ensued in 1983 after bread prices were raised, telling Tunisians they instead had to “count on themselves.”
Others close to Saied seem to think that he has different plans to stop the country’s economic rot.
Echoing Saied, Mahmoud bin Mabrouk, a spokesperson for the pro-presidential July 25 Movement, told Arab News that Tunisia would “not accept diktats or interference” and would now look to the BRICS as “a political, economic and financial alternative that will enable Tunisia to open up to the new world.”
Should bin Mabrouk’s claim hold weight, Tunisia would become the latest North African country to gravitate toward the bloc after Algeria applied to join late last year.
Such a move would suggest that the BRICS bloc is an expanding entity offering an alternative to the IMF and World Bank for states seeking bailouts.
However, Jim O’Neill, the economist who coined the BRICS acronym, questions “what” Tunisia would actually be signing up for, describing the bloc as more of a “political club” than any defined economic grouping, and one that seems to have had negative effects financially.
“As I’ve argued before, since the politic club came around, ironically, its economic strength has weakened,” O’Neill told Arab News. He further questions what criteria the bloc would seek in new members, suggesting that in the case of Algeria and Tunisia “it all just seems (like) symbolism.”
Symbolism or not, Algeria and Tunisia are not alone in their pivot toward the nascent bloc, with Argentina, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkiye all considering tethering their futures to it.
Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow at Carnegie’s Middle East Program, believes that Tunisia’s move should be taken seriously as it represents “an intentional geopolitical shift on its behalf,” noting the increased criticism of Tunisia from both Europe and the US.
“Tunisia is desperate for financial assistance and since the West is focused on conditioning aid to Tunisia on democratic reforms, it makes sense that Saied would seek assistance from countries that are less concerned with human rights and freedom,” Yerkes told Arab News.
However, like O’Neill, she questions whether the BRICS can offer an alternative to the IMF and World Bank, pointing to the bloc’s weak record when it comes to “assisting other countries and helping them achieve real, sustained economic prosperity.”
Internally, the BRICS group, at least, seems confident that it can rival the West. And, with the group set to meet in Johannesburg this August, South Africa’s foreign minister Naledi Pandor has reportedly suggested the launch of the economic bloc’s own currency, intended as a rival to dollar hegemony, would be firmly on the discussion table.
Even so, few commentators offer a defense of BRICS as a new economic bloc, with Elie Abouaoun, director of MENA at the US Institute of Peace, seeing Tunisia’s addition as a weight around the neck of a limited pool of “GDP contributors.”
“At this stage, the main contributors to global GDP among the BRICS countries are China and India, and most of the countries listed as potential candidates to become members are loan consumers rather than solid contributors to the global GDP,” Abouaoun told Arab News.
“With seven or eight new consumer countries integrating into the alliance, I see challenges for the largest BRICS member states and less, if any, financial benefit to the new ones. The alliance will certainly be weaker with more members so desperate to receive economic aid.”
Similarly, Liam Campling, professor of international business and development at Queen Mary University’s School of Business and Management, London, said that agreement by the BRICS cohort to admit Tunisia would be “slightly puzzling, given that it is a mid-level power.”
“When you look at the existing members, they are all sub-regional powers, each dominant in their part of the world, but when you look at Tunisia it is not dominant in North Africa in the same way Egypt is,” Campling told Arab News.
“So, from the BRICS perspective, it is not an obvious ally, but from the Tunisia side, it could obviously be an effort to garner wider macroeconomic support. Although what I think is happening is it is playing both sides, which is part of the play for any mid-ranking country.”
Campling’s skepticism stems from his assertion that while Tunisia may have fallen foul of the US, with increased political acrimony between the two, it is still very much economically “in bed” with the Europeans, adding “it’s not going to jeopardize its EU connections for this.”
And like the others, Campling has wider reservations about the BRICS project, pointing to what he terms the “central tension at the heart of it,” namely the long-running border disputes between China and India.
This, he suggests, renders the bloc more of an ad-hoc alliance than a cohesive unit that can direct global trade, policy and finance in a manner akin to that of the IMF or World Bank, and thus he questions the assertion that BRICS could become an alternative economic bloc.
“Essentially, I do not see it being able to offer a sustained alternative until that central tension between India and China is resolved, and I do not see that being resolved, which means there is nothing really holding it together, leaving little space for a more sustained role,” he said.
Abouaoun says what is really missing is a “normative model” that other countries can buy into beyond the BRICS bloc’s defense of “multipolarity.” Scratch beneath the surface and there seems to be an absence of substance — an opinion shared by Yerkes.
“At this point it doesn’t seem much more than a potential counterweight to Europe and the US, and without a foundational ideology, particularly with members with vastly different economic philosophies, it doesn’t seem likely that it would be a strong competitor,” she said.
Consensus on BRICS’ prospects notwithstanding, O’Neill is at odds with the others when it comes to the question of whether the world needs another economic bloc, believing focus should instead be on strengthening every economy, rather than acting in collectives.
Yerkes, Campling and Abouaoun seem less opposed to the notion of a new bloc, recognizing that US unipolarity seems to be on the way out. Nevertheless, they stress that the bloc’s value would be dependent on its make-up and its intentions.
Indeed, with the likes of Saudi Arabia potentially among its ranks, the BRICS could attain new levels of financial and diplomatic clout, transforming the international arena.
“Historically, the dominance of the West, and its various international bodies and institutions, has been extremely self-serving, producing contradictory outcomes leading to a world that is more volatile and more uneven and increasingly depending on indebtedness,” Campling said.
“This has all been pushed in the interest of Europeans and the US. Maybe we should look to the 1970s and the Non-Aligned Movement — made up of many of those purportedly looking to join BRICS — for inspiration.”
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan will start operating direct Hajj flights to Makkah from Monday, the country’s religious affairs ministry has announced.
The Pakistani government began transporting pilgrims to Saudi Arabia under the official Hajj scheme on May 21.
However, the flights have only been going to Madinah. Many Pakistani worshippers in the Kingdom are now making their way to Makkah by bus as the annual Islamic pilgrimage, due to begin on June 26, draws near.
In a statement, the ministry said: “The first direct flights from Pakistan to Jeddah airport are scheduled to begin on June 5.”
The flights to Makkah will be operated from 10 cities in Pakistan, including Rahim Yar Khan, and Sukkur, state-owned news agency the Associated Press of Pakistan reported.
Pilgrims traveling direct to Makkah, will have an eight-day stay in Madinah after completing Hajj.
Pakistan will launch a post-Hajj return flight operation on July 4.
In January, Saudi Arabia restored Pakistan’s pre-coronavirus pandemic Hajj quota of 179,210 pilgrims and removed the upper age limit of 65.
The country plans to send 80,000 people to perform the pilgrimage under the government scheme this year, while the rest will use private tour operators.