Saudi Arabia launches Nusuk initiative in Bangladesh

Special Saudi Arabia launches Nusuk initiative in Bangladesh
Hajj and Umrah Minister Tawfiq Al-Rabiah launches the Nusuk initiative in Dhaka, Bangladesh on Aug. 24, 2023. (AN Photo)
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Updated 24 August 2023

Saudi Arabia launches Nusuk initiative in Bangladesh

Saudi Arabia launches Nusuk initiative in Bangladesh
  • Launch of platform aims to increase number of visitors to Makkah, Madinah and beyond
  • KSA, Bangladeshi civil aviation authorities sign agreement to enhance connectivity

DHAKA: Saudi Arabia launched its flagship Nusuk initiative in Dhaka on Thursday to streamline the Umrah journey for Bangladeshis.

The South Asian nation is the fourth-largest Muslim-majority country, and more than 150 million people profess Islam. Every year, tens of thousands of them visit Saudi Arabia for Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages.

Nusuk, an e-visa, planning and booking platform that allows travelers to create pilgrimage itineraries for Makkah, Madinah and beyond, is aimed to help them organize their visit.

The platform was launched by the Saudi Tourism Authority and Hajj and Umrah Minister Tawfiq Al-Rabiah, on his first official visit to Dhaka.

“It is our holy responsibility and we are committed to do everything possible to make the spiritual journey of the pilgrims safe, accessible, hassle-free and comfortable. We are constantly working on enriching your pilgrimage experience,” the minister said during the launching ceremony of the service at the Bangabandhu International Conference Center, which was attended by Bangladeshi officials, tour operators and travel organizations.

“We welcome you to Makkah, we welcome you to Madinah, we welcome you to Saudi Arabia. You can come anytime. You are always welcome.”

Alhasan Al-Dabbagh, president of the Asia-Pacific markets at STA, told reporters that the introduction of Nusuk aimed to “increase the ease and accessibility for Bangladeshi travelers, especially with the growing numbers of Umrah pilgrims.”

Fahd Hamidaddin, managing director of Nusuk, said that Bangladesh was a “key strategic market” under Saudi Vision 2030, and in this year alone 332,000 Bangladeshi travelers had already visited the Kingdom.

“We look forward to growing this number to 3 million by 2030,” he said. “We are excited about working together with our key trade partners and collaborating more closely with them to facilitate fulfilling our brothers’ and sisters’ Umrah dream and spiritual and cultural enrichment. I cannot wait to welcome everyone to Saudi very soon.”

The Saudi delegation’s two-day trip to Bangladesh followed a similar visit to Pakistan this week, as part of efforts to highlight the Kingdom’s progress in transforming the Hajj and Umrah ecosystem.

The most recent changes to the Kingdom’s policies allow those performing Umrah to stay longer, as Umrah visas have been extended from 30 to 90 days.

The Hajj minister on Wednesday also announced free four-day visas for Bangladeshis transiting via Saudi Arabia, and the civil aviation authorities of both countries signed an agreement to enhance connectivity.

“Having more direct flights will make it more convenient, also reduce the cost, and there are low-cost carriers being introduced to take travelers between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia,” Al-Rabiah said.

“The visa process now is much faster, much more efficient ... I am still working to enhance the visa facilities more. It’s a continuing process.” 

Bangladeshis welcomed the moves, and the minister’s visit. Al-Rabiah is the first Hajj minister to pay an official visit to Dhaka.

“We are delighted to see him here, and the whole country was waiting to see him, to receive him, to give him a warm reception,” said Shahadat Hossain Taslim, president of the Hajj Agencies Association of Bangladesh.

“Today they have a roadshow here for Nusuk ... This is a wonderful platform to book an Umrah visa, ground service and transportation, and other facilities.”

Efforts underway to bring home Filipinos killed in UAE floods

Efforts underway to bring home Filipinos killed in UAE floods
Updated 11 sec ago

Efforts underway to bring home Filipinos killed in UAE floods

Efforts underway to bring home Filipinos killed in UAE floods
  • At least three Filipinos lost their lives in the unprecedented flooding
  • Philippine consulate received assistance requests from at least 100 Filipinos

Manila: The Philippine government is assisting Filipinos affected by the record-high rains and flooding that hit the UAE this week, authorities said on Saturday, as it works to repatriate the nationals who lost their lives.

A strong storm first hit Oman last weekend, killing at least 20 people, before it pounded the UAE on Tuesday, marking the heaviest rains in 75 years and bringing the Gulf state to a standstill.

The Philippine Department of Migrant Workers has confirmed the deaths of at least three Filipinos who died in road accidents as their vehicles were submerged in floodwaters.

Philippine Consul General Marford Angeles told Arab News the consulate had received assistance requests from at least 100 Filipinos — some working in the UAE, some studying, and some transiting via Dubai.

“Over 1 million Filipino nationals are currently residing in the UAE ... Majority of assistance requests received by the consulate so far originate from the populous emirates of Dubai and Sharjah, reflecting the concentration of Filipino residents in these areas,” he said.

“The unprecedented weather conditions in the UAE affected most residents.”

The three Filipinos who lost their lives in the floods were two women who died inside their flooded vehicle, and a man who died after sustaining major injuries when his vehicle fell into a sinkhole. His two passengers have been hospitalized.

“The Department of Migrant Workers, through its Migrant Workers Offices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is working with local authorities for the repatriation of the remains of three overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who died during the severe flooding,” the DMW said in a statement.

“Two other OFWs, both male, suffered injuries from the vehicular accident that happened in the sinkhole. They are recuperating from their injuries.”

US House to vote on long-awaited $95 billion Ukraine, Israel aid package

US House to vote on long-awaited $95 billion Ukraine, Israel aid package
Updated 41 min 19 sec ago

US House to vote on long-awaited $95 billion Ukraine, Israel aid package

US House to vote on long-awaited $95 billion Ukraine, Israel aid package
  • Some hard-line Republicans have voiced strong opposition to further Ukraine aid

WASHINGTON: The Republican-controlled US House of Representatives on Saturday is set to vote on, and expected to pass, a $95 billion legislative package providing security assistance to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, over bitter objections from party hard-liners.
More than two months have passed since the Democratic-majority Senate passed a similar measure and US leaders from Democratic President Joe Biden to top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell have been urging embattled House Speaker Mike Johnson to bring it up for a vote.
Johnson this week chose to ignore ouster threats by hard-line members of his fractious 218-213 majority and push forward the measure that includes some $60.84 billion for Ukraine as it struggles to fight off a two-year Russian invasion.
The unusual four-bill package also includes funds for Israel, security assistance for Taiwan and allies in the Indo-Pacific and a measure that includes sanctions, a threat to ban the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok and the potential transfer of seized Russian assets to Ukraine.
“The world is watching what the Congress does,” the White House said in a statement on Friday. “Passing this legislation would send a powerful message about the strength of American leadership at a pivotal moment. The Administration urges both chambers of the Congress to quickly send this supplemental funding package to the President’s desk.”
A bipartisan 316-94 House majority on Friday voted to advance the bill to a vote, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told senators to be ready to work over the weekend if it passes the House as expected.
“It’s not the perfect legislation, it’s not the legislation that we would write if Republicans were in charge of both the House, the Senate, and the White House,” Johnson told reporters on Friday. “This is the best possible product that we can get under these circumstances to take care of these really important obligations.”
Some hard-line Republicans have voiced strong opposition to further Ukraine aid, with some arguing the US can ill afford it given its rising $34 trillion national debt. They have repeatedly raised the threat of ousting Johnson, who became speaker in October after his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, was ousted by party hard-liners.
Representative Bob Good, chair of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, told reporters on Friday that the bills represent a “slide down into the abyss of greater fiscal crisis and America-last policies that reflect Biden and Schumer and (House Democratic leader Hakeem) Jeffries, and don’t reflect the American people.”
But Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who carries huge influence in the party, on April 12 voiced support for Johnson and in a Thursday social media post said Ukraine’s survival is important for the US
The bills provide $60.84 billion to address the conflict in Ukraine, including $23 billion to replenish US weapons, stocks and facilities; $26 billion for Israel, including $9.1 billion for humanitarian needs, and $8.12 billion for the Indo-Pacific.

AI’s relentless rise gives journalists tough choices

AI’s relentless rise gives journalists tough choices
Updated 20 April 2024

AI’s relentless rise gives journalists tough choices

AI’s relentless rise gives journalists tough choices
  • AI tools imitating human intelligence are used to transcribe sound files, summarize texts and translate
  • Columbia University teacher says collaborating with AI “tempting” in the face of increasingly right media resources

PERUGIA, Italy: The rise of artificial intelligence has forced an increasing number of journalists to grapple with the ethical and editorial challenges posed by the rapidly expanding technology.

AI’s role in assisting newsrooms or transforming them completely was among the questions raised at the International Journalism Festival in the Italian city of Perugia that closes on Sunday.

AI tools imitating human intelligence are widely used in newsrooms around the world to transcribe sound files, summarize texts and translate.

In early 2023, Germany’s Axel Springer group announced it was cutting jobs at the Bild and Die Welt newspapers, saying AI could now “replace” some of its journalists.

Generative AI — capable of producing text and images following a simple request in everyday language — has been opening new frontiers as well as raising concerns for a year and a half.

One issue is that voices and faces can now be cloned to produce a podcast or present news on television. Last year, Filipino website Rappler created a brand aimed at young audiences by converting its long articles into comics, graphics and even videos.

Media professionals agree that their trade must now focus on tasks offering the greatest “added value.”

“You’re the one who is doing the real stuff” and “the tools that we produce will be an assistant to you,” Google News general manager Shailesh Prakash told the festival in Perugia.

The costs of generative AI have plummeted since ChatGPT burst onto the scene in late 2022, with the tool designed by US start-up OpenAI now accessible to smaller newsrooms.

Colombian investigative outlet Cuestion Publica has harnessed engineers to develop a tool that can delve into its archives and find relevant background information in the event of breaking news.

But many media organizations are not making their language models, which are at the core of AI interfaces, said University of Amsterdam professor Natali Helberger. They are needed for “safe and trustworthy technology,” he stressed.

According to one estimate last year by Everypixel Journal, AI has created as many images in one year as photography in 150 years.

That has raised serious questions about how news can be fished out of the tidal wave of content, including deepfakes.

Media and tech organizations are teaming up to tackle the threat, notably through the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity, which seeks to set common standards.

“The core of our job is news gathering, on-the-ground reporting,” said Sophie Huet, recently appointed to become global news director for editorial innovation and artificial intelligence at Agence France-Presse.

“We’ll rely for a while on human reporters,” she added, although that might be with the help of artificial intelligence.

Media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which has expanded its media rights brief to defending trustworthy news, launched the Paris Charter on AI and journalism late last year.

“One of the things I really liked about the Paris Charter was the emphasis on transparency,” said Anya Schiffrin, a lecturer on global media, innovation and human rights at Columbia University in the United States.

“To what extent will publishers have to disclose when they are using generative IA?“

Olle Zachrison, head of AI and news strategy at public broadcaster Swedish Radio, said there was “a serious debate going on: should you mark out AI content or should people trust your brand?“

Regulation remains in its infancy in the face of a constantly evolving technology.

In March, the European Parliament adopted a framework law aiming to regulate AI models without holding back innovation, while guidelines and charters are increasingly common in newsrooms.

AI editorial guidelines are updated every three months at India’s Quintillion Media, said its boss Ritu Kapur.

None of the organization’s articles can be written by AI and the images it generates cannot represent real life.

AI models feed off data, but their thirst for the vital commodity has raised hackles among providers.
In December, the New York Times sued OpenAI and its main investor Microsoft for violation of copyright.

In contrast, other media organizations have struck deals with OpenAI: Axel Springer, US news agency AP, French daily Le Monde and Spanish group Prisa Media whose titles include El Pais and AS newspapers.

With resources tight in the media industry, collaborating with the new technology is tempting, explained Emily Bell, a professor at Columbia University’s journalism school.

She senses a growing external pressure to “Get on board, don’t miss the train.”

Fighting flares at Myanmar-Thai border as rebels target stranded junta troops

Fighting flares at Myanmar-Thai border as rebels target stranded junta troops
Updated 20 April 2024

Fighting flares at Myanmar-Thai border as rebels target stranded junta troops

Fighting flares at Myanmar-Thai border as rebels target stranded junta troops
  • Resistance fighters and ethnic minority rebels seized the key trading town of Myawaddy on the Myanmar side of the frontier on April 11

Fighting raged at Myanmar’s eastern frontier with Thailand on Saturday, witnesses, media and Thailand’s government said, forcing about 200 civilians to flee as rebels pressed to flush out junta troops holed up for days at a bridge border crossing.
Resistance fighters and ethnic minority rebels seized the key trading town of Myawaddy on the Myanmar side of the frontier on April 11, dealing a big blow to a well-equipped military that is struggling to govern and is now facing a critical test of its battlefield credibility.
Three witnesses on the Thai and Myanmar sides of the border said they heard explosions and heavy machine gun fire near a strategic bridge from late on Friday that continued into early Saturday.
Several Thai media outlets said about 200 people had crossed the border to seek temporary refuge in Thailand.
Thai broadcaster NBT in a post on social media platform X said resistance forces used 40-milimeter machine guns and dropped 20 bombs from drones to target an estimated 200 junta soldiers who had retreated from a coordinated rebel assault on Myawaddy and army posts since April 5.
Reuters could not immediately verify the reports and a Myanmar junta spokesperson could not immediately be reached for comment.
Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said he was closely monitoring the unrest and his country was ready to provide humanitarian assistance if necessary.
“I do not desire to see any such clashes have any impact on the territorial integrity of Thailand and we are ready to protect our borders and the safety of our people,” he said on X. He made no mention of refugees.
Myanmar’s military is facing its biggest challenge since first taking control of the former British colony in 1962, caught up in multiple, low-intensity conflicts and grappling to stabilize an economy that has crumbled since a 2021 coup against Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.
The country is locked in a civil war between the military on one side and, on the other, a loose alliance of established ethnic minority armies and a resistance movement born out of the junta’s bloody crackdown on anti-coup protests.
The capture of Myawaddy and surrounding army outposts is a significant setback for a junta that has been squeezed by Western sanctions, with the town a key tax revenue source and conduit for more than $1 billion of annual border trade.
The Khaosod newspaper in a post on X showed a video of Myanmar civilians, many of them women and children, being marshalled by Thai soldiers at an entry point to Thailand.
Thailand had on Friday said no refugees had entered the country and it was discussing with aid agencies about increasing humanitarian relief to civilians on the Myanmar side.

Taiwan’s defense ministry detects 21 Chinese military aircraft

Taiwan’s defense ministry detects 21 Chinese military aircraft
Updated 20 April 2024

Taiwan’s defense ministry detects 21 Chinese military aircraft

Taiwan’s defense ministry detects 21 Chinese military aircraft
  • The median line bisects the Taiwan Strait, a narrow 180-kilometer waterway separating the island from mainland China

TAIPEI: Taipei’s defense ministry said it had detected 21 Chinese military aircraft around the self-ruled island since 8:15 am (0015 GMT) on Saturday, a month before Taiwan’s May 20 inauguration of incoming president Lai Ching-te.
“17 aircraft (of the 21) crossed the median line and its extension, entered our northern, central, and southwestern (air defense identification zone), and joined PLA vessels for joint combat patrol,” it said in a statement posted on X around 11:30 am.
Taiwan’s armed forces “are monitoring the activities with our joint surveillance systems, and have dispatched appropriate assets to respond accordingly.”
The median line bisects the Taiwan Strait, a narrow 180-kilometer waterway separating the island from mainland China.
Beijing does not recognize the line as it claims democratic Taiwan as part of its territory. It has also never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control.
China sends warplanes and naval vessels around Taiwan on a near daily basis — a move experts say is a form of “grey-zone harassment,” stopping short of an outright act of war but enough to exhaust Taipei’s armed forces.
According to the defense ministry, the 21 aerial objects detected Saturday included J-16 fighter jets and Y-8 medium-range transport aircraft, as well as drones.
The highest number around Taiwan so far this year was in March, when the ministry said 36 Chinese aircraft were detected in a single 24-hour period.
Last year’s record was in September when Beijing’s military sent 103 aircraft — 40 of which crossed the median line — in a 24-hour period.
Saturday’s show of force comes a day after China activated two aviation routes that run close to Taiwan’s outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu.
Taipei’s Civil Aviation Administration expressed “solemn protest against China’s unilateral measures without consultation” on Friday.
The new routes make the airspace separation between the two sides “very narrow,” it said, increasing flight safety risks during bad weather or abnormal flight operations.
China’s aviation authority also said Friday the airspace around Fuzhou Changle Airport — 30 kilometers from the closest outlying Taiwanese island — would be “further optimized and adjusted” on May 16, four days before the inauguration.
Under the administration of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, tensions between Beijing and Taipei have ramped up, as she and her government do not acknowledge China’s claim.
Her deputy, Vice President Lai, won elections in January despite warnings from Beijing that he would be the cause of “war and decline” for Taiwan.
China regards Lai — who used to be outspoken about Taiwan independence — as a “dangerous separatist,” though he has moderated his views in recent years.