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.
Albanian PM: ‘I wish our bond with Gulf states will become stronger and stronger and stronger’
Edi Rama tells Adhwan Al-Ahmari, host of Asharq News talk-show Al-Madar, achievements of Gulf countries are a “source of inspiration”
Explains why ties with Iran remain broken, sounds confident about EU accession, says being in the Western camp is a priority for Albania
Updated 46 min ago
LONDON: During a wide-ranging interview with Asharq News, Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania, has heaped praise on Gulf Cooperation Council countries, opened up about tensions with Iran, and expressed optimism about its path to joining the EU.
Speaking to Adhwan Al-Ahmari, host of the Asharq News talk-show Al-Madar, he expressed his admiration for the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the other GCC member states, describing their accomplishments as “a source of inspiration.”
“As for Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries, we have very strong relations with the UAE, with Saudi and with Kuwait, and I wish they will become stronger,” said Rama, a painter, writer, former university lecturer, publicist and ex-basketball player.
“I see with admiration what is happening there, both in UAE and in Saudi (Arabia), and I praise a lot the leaders there that are showing vision and are lifting up these countries, and they are making them, in many ways, a source of inspiration.
“We can disagree on certain things but this is not a reason to not admire what they are doing, and we have a lot to learn from them. And I wish our bond will become stronger and stronger and stronger.”
By contrast, one Middle East country with which relations remain strained is Iran. Albania, a member of NATO, accused Iran of carrying out a cyberattack on July 15 last year, which temporarily shut down numerous Albanian government digital services and websites. Days later, a second cyberattack hit one of Albania’s border systems.
Tirana responded by cutting diplomatic ties with Tehran and expelling Iranian embassy staff. At the time, Saudi Arabia condemned the cyberattack.
“We had to act on Iran because Iran was acting brutally against us,” said Rama. “They targeted Albania with a very vicious cyberattack.
“Why? Because we have given shelter to a few thousand Iranians, not to make Albania a political platform against the regime — although we have nothing to like about that regime — not to give them a platform against the regime, but to give them a shelter because their lives were in danger.”
Rama was referring to members of the anti-regime People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, also known as Mojahedin-e-Khalq or MEK, who moved their headquarters from Iraq to Albania in 2016.
“We are a country that always honors human beings and human life,” said Rama. “Iran didn’t understand that well, or at all, and attacked us, so we had to sever diplomatic ties and kick them out.”
Rama appeared confident during the interview that his nation will soon be admitted to the 27-member EU bloc.
“I’m always tragically optimistic — I’m not pessimistic — but I must say that to me, the EU is the most fascinating thing in the world history of politics that humankind has created,” he told Al-Ahmari.
“A vision for peace and for security and an action to bring together countries with a long history of fighting each other, and to put common interests for the future above the separate ways of looking at history.
“And on the other hand, the EU has created an incredible experience of state functioning, of institutional functioning, of true separation of powers, of rights, of people being respected and of equality before the law.”
Albania applied for EU membership in April 2009 and was granted candidate status in June 2014. The EU held its first intergovernmental conference with Albania in July 2022.
Since then, the EU-Albania Stabilization and Association Council has praised Tirana’s progress on the rule of law, in particular its comprehensive justice reforms and battles against corruption and organized crime. It has, however, called for more tangible progress on freedom of expression and the consolidation of property rights.
“There are no unrealistic demands from the EU, I must say,” said Rama. “We have to do our homework and it’s very important to make sure that everyone understands that our homework is not something we have to do because of them, or for them. Our homework is something we have to do for our children, for the Albania of tomorrow.”
Besides Albania, there are seven other recognized candidates for EU membership, including Turkiye, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Albania’s road to EU membership has not been smooth, however, leading to suggestions of deliberate stalling or sabotage.
According to a 2011 census, 56.7 percent of Albania’s population adheres to Islam, making it the largest religion in the country. The remaining population either follows Christianity (16.99 percent) or are irreligious.
There has been speculation in recent months that a decision on Albania’s EU membership has been delayed because of misgivings over its Muslim-majority population on a continent that is historically Christian. Rama rejected this as a conspiracy theory.
“We might have a lot of Muslims in our country, God bless them,” he said. “And we have a lot of Christians, too. And we also have a lot of atheists.
“But the important thing, and what we treasure most, is that before all, they are all Albanians, they are all brothers and sisters, and we never had religious problems and we never had conflicts, and we always lived our life together. And it’s very common in our country that Christians celebrate Ramadan and Muslims celebrate Christmas. So I would say that we are really in a very good place and there is no space for (conspiracy) theories.
“Secondly, I know that in Europe there is not always, let’s say, an easy way to accept Muslims. And there is sometimes, unfortunately and disgracefully, one voice here, one voice there, one party here, one party there, that says it shamelessly.
“But overall, the EU is not a place where Muslims are seen as a danger or seen like a problem, and they are being quite welcomed and integrated.”
Bulgaria’s veto over North Macedonia joining the EU stalled Albania’s progress because the bloc is treating both countries as part of a single membership package. However, the path was finally cleared in July last year.
Rama said any suggestion that Bulgaria, an EU member since 2007, plans to put further obstructions in the way of Albania’s accession would be news to him.
“No, this is not something true, I believe,” he said. “Or at least if this is true, it is the first time I’m hearing about it — and I would be very, very surprised. But with Bulgaria we have a very friendly relationship and we have never had a problem.
“Yes, we had some debates in the past but not about Albania, about North Macedonia, which is our beloved neighbor. But no, Bulgaria would never do such a thing to please Russia and veto the integration of Albania in the EU.”
Similarly, Rama said he sees little chance that EU member Greece will stand in the way of Albania’s EU membership, regardless of past disputes.
“On the contrary, Greece has been good to us, has been supportive to our integration process,” said Rama. “And there are hundreds of thousands of Albanians that live in Greece and they are integrated, they work there. And there are a lot of Greeks coming here for tourism. So we are brotherly countries.”
While Albania has set its sights on closer ties with Europe, other powerful players, including China, Turkiye and Russia, have made inroads into the Western Balkans region.
“I would not put the three of them in the same basket because they are three different actors with different reasons and also different will in approaching the Balkans or other areas,” said Rama.
A communist state from 1946 to 1991, Albania split from the Soviet Union in the late 1950s following Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Joseph Stalin, which Albania’s leader at the time, Enver Hoxha, viewed as a departure from the ideological principles of communism.
Rama said strategic relations with Russia did not serve the interests of the Balkans back then and they do not serve them today, as demonstrated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Russia has (revealed) itself fully by attacking Ukraine brutally in the third decade of the 21st century at the gates of the EU, by investing in a war, killing people, and (revealing) itself in a way that is really shocking. It’s a completely imperialistic vision of the world,” said Rama.
“What Russia wants in the region, it’s easy to understand, and we are not interested in having any type of substantial relationship with Russia because of our history, for good or for bad. Of course it is not the same Russia (now). But it’s not very different and so we’re not interested. They also have understood, in time, that Albania is not a field to plant their seeds of division with Europe, with the West.”
Instead, Albania has prioritized ties with Western countries, he said.
“We are totally dedicated to the Euro-Atlantic community, because history has taught us some very important lessons and it is the best place to be for reasons of peace and security,” he added.
Russia accuses Ukraine’s Western allies of helping attack its Black Sea Fleet headquarters
“There is no doubt that the attack had been planned in advance using Western intelligence means,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said
Moscow has repeatedly claimed that the US and its NATO allies have effectively become involved in the conflict
Updated 27 September 2023
KYIV: Russia on Wednesday accused Ukraine’s Western allies of helping plan and conduct last week’s missile strike on the Black Sea Fleet’s headquarters on the annexed Crimean Peninsula.
“There is no doubt that the attack had been planned in advance using Western intelligence means, NATO satellite assets and reconnaissance planes and was implemented upon the advice of American and British security agencies and in close coordination with them,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a briefing.
Moscow has repeatedly claimed that the US and its NATO allies have effectively become involved in the conflict by supplying weapons to Ukraine and providing it with intelligence information and helping plan attacks on Russian facilities.
Unconfirmed news reports said Storm Shadow missiles provided to Ukraine by the UK and France were used in the attack on the headquarters.
The UK Ministry of Defense didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on Zakharova’s remarks or reports that Storm Shadow missiles were used in the strike.
The accusation came the day after video appeared to show the fleet’s commander, Adm. Viktor Sokolov, was still alive despite Ukraine’s claims — without providing supporting evidence — that he was among 34 officers killed in Friday’s strike on the port city of Sevastopol.
The Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, has been a frequent target since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Crimea has served as the key hub supporting the invasion and has increasingly come under fire by Ukraine.
Ukraine said the strike that put a large hole in the main building of the headquarters had wounded 105 people, though those claims couldn’t independently be verified.
Russia initially said one serviceman was killed but quickly retracted that statement and said the person was missing.
Moscow has provided no updates on any casualties.
The Kremlin didn’t comment Tuesday on Sokolov’s status but posted video showing him among other senior officers attending a video conference with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Sokolov didn’t speak in the clip.
When asked about Sokolov on Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted that he took part in Tuesday’s video call with Shoigu but refrained from further comment.
Ukraine’s Special Operation Forces posted a statement Tuesday saying its sources claimed that Sokolov was among the dead, many of whom hadn’t yet been identified. It said it was trying to verify the claim after the video surfaced.
Sokolov was shown speaking to journalists about the Black Fleet’s operations in a video posted Wednesday on a news channel linked to the Russian Defense Ministry. It wasn’t clear when the video was recorded. The video didn’t contain any mention of the Ukrainian attack on fleet headquarters.
Zakharova’s statements follow comments made Tuesday by Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, who said the arrival of American-made Abrams tanks in Ukraine and a US promise to supply an unspecified number of long-range ATACMS missiles would push NATO closer to a direct conflict with Russia.
British PM urges Germany to approve $6bn fighter jet sale to Saudi Arabia
Sale of Eurofighter Typhoons important for financial health of UK’s defense industry
Report: Around 20,000 jobs in Britain depend on Typhoon program
Updated 27 September 2023
LONDON: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has privately urged German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to release a flagship delivery of Eurofighter Typhoon jets to Saudi Arabia, the Daily Telegraph reported on Wednesday.
Sunak is lobbying Germany to approve the sale of the 48 jets, which is thought to be worth over £5 billion ($6.1 billion) and has been identified as a strategically vital interest for the UK.
Britain is believed to have threatened to use a legal clause to try and cut Berlin out of the order altogether after disagreements within Germany’s ruling coalition.
The Typhoon was developed from the mid-1980s by a consortium of defense companies — including Britain’s BAE Systems and counterparts in Germany, Italy and Spain — under the patronage of NATO. As a result, Germany has a veto over any future sales.
Around 5,000 jobs at BAE factories and an additional 15,000 around the UK still depend on the Typhoon program, which contributes about £1.4 billion a year to the British economy, according to a report published by the company last year.
Saudi Arabia has already acquired 72 of the aircraft, and signed a memorandum of understanding with the UK to acquire a further 48 five years ago. The deal later stalled, but the prospects of a sale have been revived in recent months.
In July, however, Scholz caused alarm in London by announcing that Germany would not approve the delivery anytime soon. Britain has put Germany under intense diplomatic pressure to relent as a result, officials said.
The sale is important for the financial health of Britain’s defense industry and thousands of jobs at BAE factories in the north of England.
The UK also hopes that Saudi Arabia will invest in the Tempest program, a British-Italian-Japanese project to develop a next-generation fighter jet.
China’s growing power, Russia-Ukraine war forced US policy turnaround, say panelists at Washington D.C. forum
Saudi Arabia considered a key partner in America’s new foreign policy approach
Updated 27 September 2023
WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden’s administration is seeking increased engagement with Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries — a marked shift from its previous policy position — because of China’s and Russia’s growing influence in the region, and their military and economic expansionist ambitions.
This was the consensus reached by experts evaluating US foreign policy at a forum convened on Monday by the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C.
The event titled “Assessing Biden’s Middle East Policy Approach, 2021–2023,” saw panelists analyze why the administration, which took office in 2021, initially had little desire to engage with what the US perceived as the declining geopolitical importance of Middle East nations.
The experts argued that there were two main reasons for the White House’s subsequent change of heart — the first being Russia’s war in Ukraine launched in February 2021, and the second China’s rising regional influence which saw Beijing score a coup of sorts by brokering a rapprochement deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this year.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow and the vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute, said the Biden administration came into office with the mantra of the “Three Cs” — COVID-19, China and climate change.
Katulis argued that Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s increased footprint in the Middle East triggered an alarm in Biden’s White House.
“Last spring there was a steady realization in Washington that traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia might be leaning toward China,” he said.
“China’s brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia earlier this year was a seismic moment and a wake-up call for many in the White House,” he added.
Dennis Ross, a former advisor on the Middle East to several Democrat and Republican administrations and currently a fellow at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Biden administration did not care about the Middle East when it took office in 2021.
Ross said the conflict in Ukraine changed the dynamics and it was not just oil and energy — the revenue from which Russia needs to finance its war — that drove the administration to reengage in the Middle East.
Ross said Biden’s world view also played a role, which was that there was a global ideological struggle at play between democracy and totalitarianism.
He said the administration wanted to establish a liberal, rules-based international order to counter perceived threats from China and Russia. But it soon realized that it needed what it viewed as non-democratic nations to be part of the coalition.
“It turns out that you need non-democracies who have assets to be part of your coalition or at least ensure they are not part of the other coalition,” he said.
“Biden said we are not going to withdraw from the Middle East and leave a vacuum that the Russians and the Chinese are going to fill,” he added.
Ross argued that Biden’s policy toward the Middle East was more about China than Russia, arguing that the latter was likely to be much weaker because of the war in Ukraine.
The US was also seeking to be the architect of an agreement to establish formal ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as part of its vision to prevent powerful competitors from establishing footholds in the oil-rich region.
Ross said the recent visits to Saudi Arabia by Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, were part of the efforts to reengage with the Kingdom’s leadership.
Agreeing with Ross’ main arguments, Middle East expert and academic Vali Nasr pointed to the manner in which the Biden administration attempted to construct a Middle East coalition to oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Nasr, who is professor of International Affairs and Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said that Biden had traveled to Saudi Arabia in July 2022 after a visit to Israel, in order to sell them the idea of an “Arab NATO,” a proposed US-sponsored Middle East military coalition designed to counter Iran.
“But Biden was completely rebuffed by the Saudis who told him that they are going on the path of reengagement with Iran,” he said.
Nasr added that the US saw it needed to change its policies after perceiving China to have developed closer ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
India using anti-money laundering rules to ‘silence critics’: Amnesty
Critics say Modi’s government has sought to pressure rights groups by heavily scrutinizing their finances
Updated 27 September 2023
NEW DELHI: India is exploiting recommendations by a global money-laundering watchdog as a “draconian” tool to shutter civil society groups and suppress activists and critics, Amnesty International said Wednesday.
Government critics within civil society organizations and the media have long complained of harassment in the world’s biggest democracy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist administration, a charge it strenuously denies.
Amnesty said the recommendations of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) were being abused to bring in “draconian laws to stifle the non-profit sector” and block organizations from funding.
The 39-nation FATF, of which India has been a member since 2010, is mandated to tackle global money laundering and terrorist financing.
Critics say Modi’s government has sought to pressure rights groups by heavily scrutinizing their finances and clamping down on foreign funding.
“Under the guise of combatting terrorism, the Indian government has leveraged the Financial Action Task Force’s recommendations to tighten its arsenal of financial and counter-terrorism laws which are routinely misused to target and silence critics,” Amnesty International India chair Aakar Patel said in a statement.
In the last 10 years, India has canceled the licenses of more than 20,600 non-governmental organizations, with nearly 6,000 of these taking place since 2022, the report said.
In 2020, Amnesty International had to suspend its Indian operations after its bank accounts were frozen.
The Indian government defended its move, accusing Amnesty of “illegal practices” involving the transfer of “large amounts of money” from Amnesty UK to India.
Journalists critical of the government also complain of increased harassment, both on social media — where Modi’s ruling party has a powerful presence — and in the real world.