NEW DELHI: An Indian Hajj flight run exclusively by women and carrying only female pilgrims has made history, authorities said on Friday, after it reached Saudi Arabia from the southern state of Kerala.
The Air India Express flight from Kozhikode arrived in Jeddah on Thursday night carrying 145 pilgrims.
It was operated by Capt. Kanika Mehra, First Officer Garima Passi, and four cabin crew members.
At the airport, the women were accompanied by Minority Affairs State Minister John Barla, who distributed their boarding passes.
“I am very proud,” C. Mohammed Faizi, chairman of the Kerala Haj Committee, told Arab News.
Kerala this year also boasts a higher overall percentage of female Hajj pilgrims than other Indian states.
The passengers of the special flight are part of a group of 4,000 Indian female pilgrims who this year will reach the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah on their own.
India tweaked its Hajj policy following last year’s decision by Saudi Arabia to lift a rule that required female pilgrims to be accompanied by a mahram, or male guardian.
Most of the Indian pilgrims who applied for Hajj in the Ladies Without Mahram category are from Kerala.
“Without mahram, there are about 2,000 … The largest number without mahram are from Kerala,” Faizi said, attributing the high number to the level of education in Kerala and the fact that many women in the state are used to traveling to the Middle East to meet their relatives working there.
Kerala this year also boasts a higher overall percentage of female Hajj pilgrims than other Indian states.
“Sixty percent are women,” Faizi said.
Muslims constitute about a fourth of Kerala’s population of 35 million.
About 11,000 of them will be performing the Hajj pilgrimage this year under India’s quota of 175,000, and approximately 60 percent of them will be women.
Philippines to remove any barrier China installs in the disputed South China Sea
The barrier has prevented a swarm of Filipino boats from entering the rich fishing area
Updated 27 September 2023
MANILA: Filipino forces would dismantle any floating barrier that China’s coast guard may install in the disputed South China Sea, a Philippine admiral said Wednesday after Manila infuriated China by removing one such obstruction in a contested shoal.
Philippine officials strongly condemned the installation last week of a 300-meter-long (980-foot) barrier by Chinese coast guard vessels at the entrance to the lagoon of Scarborough Shoal as a violation of international law and the country’s sovereignty.
The barrier has prevented a swarm of Filipino boats from entering the rich fishing area, they said. The shoal lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone just west of the main Luzon Island, but has been occupied by China since 2012 as part of a push by Beijing to lay claim to virtually the entire South China Sea.
On Monday, the Philippine coast guard said it has complied with an order by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to launch a covert operation to remove the rope and net barrier held up by small buoys in the mouth of the shoal. China reacted on Tuesday by asking the Philippines “not to make provocations or seek trouble.”
“Huayang Island is China’s inherent territory,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday, referring to the Chinese name for Scarborough.
“What the Philippines (has) done is nothing but a farce that entertains itself. China will continue to safeguard territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests of Huangyan Island.”
Philippine Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, who heads the military’s Western Command in charge of overseeing the South China Sea, told journalists he was concerned that the Chinese coast guard may also install a similar floating barrier at the entrance to Second Thomas Shoal, which is occupied by a small Philippine navy contingent on a long-grounded warship but has been surrounded by Chinese coast guard ships.
“My concern is, if they also put a barrier in Ayungin … we also have to remove the barrier,” Carlos told journalists, using the Philippine name for Second Thomas Shoal. “Whatever they install, we will remove.”
Under Marcos, who took office last year, the Philippines has intensified efforts to fight China’s increasingly aggressive actions in one of the world’s most hotly contested waters. The Philippine coast guard now often invites journalists to join its territorial patrols in an effort, it says, to expose China’s bullying in the busy waterway.
Aside from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are also involved in the long-simmering territorial conflicts in the South China Sea. The areas have long been regarded as a potential Asian flashpoint and a delicate fault line in the US-China rivalry in the region.
Washington lays no claim to the sea passageway, a major global trade route, but US Navy ships and fighter jets have carried out patrols for decades to challenge China’s expansive claims and promote freedom of navigation and overflight. China has told the US to stop meddling in what it says is a purely Asian dispute.
Carlos said the Philippine military would comply with Marcos’s order to ensure that the marooned and crumbling navy ship, which Filipino forces use as a territorial outpost at Second Thomas Shoal “should remain there, strong enough to be able to fly the Philippine flag.”
China has asked the Philippines to tow away the ship from the shoal. But Marcos and the Philippine military have insisted the offshore region lies in their country’s exclusive economic zone.
Chinese coast guard ships have repeatedly tried to block Philippine resupply vessels, resulting in near-collisions.
Washington has said it’s obligated to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if Filipino forces, ships and aircraft come under attack, including in the South China Sea.
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 27 September 2023
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.