How UNRWA funding crisis affects its most vulnerable fields of operation beyond Gaza

Special How UNRWA funding crisis affects its most vulnerable fields of operation beyond Gaza
Women look on as they stand outside a home along an alley at the Shatila camp for Palestinian refugees in the southern suburbs of Beirut, on April 19, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 06 February 2024
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How UNRWA funding crisis affects its most vulnerable fields of operation beyond Gaza

How UNRWA funding crisis affects its most vulnerable fields of operation beyond Gaza
  • Defunding major employer of Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon will deprive thousands of families of breadwinners
  • Stoppage of operations will come as a major shock to already ailing Syrian and Lebanese economies

LONDON: With the primary lifeline for millions of Palestinian refugees in the Middle East likely to be severed by the end of February, many families reliant on the UN Relief and Works Agency fear they could fall deeper into poverty — or worse.

Since fleeing the Yarmouk camp in Damascus and moving to Lebanon in 2015, Ayham, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, and his family of three have been surviving on the modest allowance provided by UNRWA.

“We are barely making ends meet even though I do some laboring whenever I find it,” Ayham, 43, told Arab News. “How are we going to survive if we lose UNRWA’s monthly stipend and how will my daughter receive any education?”

Ayham’s family were among the 31,400 Palestinian refugees who fled to Lebanon from neighboring Syria after protests against the government of President Bashar Assad in 2011 escalated into a full-blown civil war.




Shatha, the daughter of 48-year-old Palestinian refugee Issa Al-Loubani, looks out the window of their apartment in the Palestinian Yarmuk camp, on the southern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, on November 25, 2020. (AFP/File)

UNRWA has been providing Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan with a monthly cash grant of $100 per family, and an additional $27 for each family member.

For those who have been unable to secure a steady income, the stipend has been all that has stood in the way of destitution. However, on Jan. 26, the US suspended its funding for UNRWA in response to troubling allegations. Several other major donors quickly followed suit.

Consequently, the UN agency, founded in 1949 in the wake of the mass exodus of Palestinians during the Nakba, will likely have to halt operations, including in the embattled Gaza Strip, by the end of the month if funding is not restored.

The funding suspensions came after Israeli intelligence alleged that 12 UNRWA employees were involved in the Hamas attack of Oct. 7, and that 10 percent of the agency’s 12,000 employees in Gaza had doubled as Hamas or Islamic Jihad operatives.

On Oct. 7, Hamas carried out a surprise attack on southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking 240 others captive.

In retaliation, Israel launched a bombing campaign in Gaza, killing more than 27,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, wounding 66,000 others, and forcibly displacing 85 percent of the enclave’s 2.2 million population.




Palestinian refugees gather outside the offices of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, in Beirut on January 30, 2024 to protest against some countries' decision to stop funding the organization. (AFP)

Munir Nuseibah, professor of international law at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, said cutting UNRWA funds was “unjustifiable.”

He told Arab News: “Defunding UNRWA at a time during which the Palestinian population is suffering from Israel’s genocidal war and policies, including starvation, reflects complicity with this crime.

“Just when the International Court of Justice ordered allowing humanitarian services and aid access to Gaza’s civilians, Israel’s allies decided to defund UNRWA.”

After South Africa brought a case to the ICJ accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza, the UN’s highest court ordered Israel to take all measures within its power to prevent genocidal acts and to allow humanitarian aid into the Palestinian enclave.

Some analysts have even accused donor nations of hypocrisy, highlighting occasions when UN agencies have been caught up in scandals yet have not lost their funding.

INNUMBERS

PALESTINIAN REFUGEES

  • 1.5m In Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and the West Bank.
  • 489,292 Hosted by Lebanon.
  • 438,000 Hosted by Syria.
  • 31,400 Have fled Syria and now reside in Lebanon.

Source: UNRWA

Karam Shaar, a senior fellow at the New Lines Institute, told Arab News: “If you look at the conduct of the UN in other countries and the reaction of Western governments, relative to the way they reacted to what UNRWA might have done in Palestine, I think that reveals a predisposition to basically cut the aid on Palestinians.

“It also, to my mind, shows a level of hypocrisy. Has the UN been implicated in the past with significant scandals? Of course. But is the solution to just cut the funds without establishing alternative channels for a population that’s effectively under siege from all directions? That’s inhumane.”

UNRWA supports around 6 million Palestinian refugees throughout the region. Analysts expect the impact of the defunding of its services will be keenly felt by those countries hosting displaced households.

There were 489,292 Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon as of March 2023, and 575,234 in Syria as of July 2022, according to UNRWA figures. An estimated 438,000 remain in Syria.




A Palestinian refugee holds a placard at a school belonging to UNRWA in the town of Sebline east of the southern Lebanese port of Saida, on March 12, 2018, during a protest against US aid cuts to the organization. (AFP)

Mohammad Al-Asadi, a Germany-based research economist at the Syrian Center for Policy Research, noted that the suspension of UNRWA funding “could have a devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of Palestinian refugees living in Syria and Lebanon, as the vast majority of them are vulnerable.”

He told Arab News: “UNRWA is the sole provider of cash transfers and food baskets to Palestinian refugees affected by the Syrian conflict.

“Tens of thousands of families rely on this aid to secure basic nutrition needs. Suspending aid to these families will push them immediately below abject poverty level.”

Syria’s economy has been brought to its knees by more than a decade of fighting, sanctions, and isolation. The World Bank reclassified Syria in 2018 as a low-income country. Between 2010 and 2020, its gross domestic product shrank by more than a half.




A schoolboy holds a Palestinian flag as he stands with others wearing Palestinian keffiyeh scarves during a sit-in protest at the Shatila camp for Palestinian refugees in the southern suburb of Beirut on November 7, 2023. (AFP)

Although Palestinian refugees in Syria have the same rights as Syrian citizens in terms of employment, trade, and access to civil service positions and public services, Al-Asadi said that shutting down UNRWA operations “will have a substantial impact on increasing poverty incidence in the country, particularly among Palestinian refugees.”

He pointed out that ceasing UNRWA operations in Syria would “leave thousands of breadwinners unemployed, as UNRWA is a major employer of Palestinians and Syrians in its schools, medical clinics, and vocational training centers.”

He added that it would also force the agency to suspend its widespread vocational training programs, “leaving thousands of young Palestinian refugees unequipped in an economy where the unemployment rate exceeds 40 percent, according to SCPR estimates.”

Al-Asadi said: “The confluence of rising unemployment, the cessation of food and cash assistance, and the unattainable healthcare and education services is very likely to compel a significant influx of Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon across the Mediterranean to Europe.”

Furthermore, for both Syria and Lebanon, it “will cause a severe shock to the human capital reserve in these two countries, as UNRWA is the primary provider of education and healthcare services for Palestinian refugees.

“This will leave hundreds of thousands of families without access to affordable life-saving healthcare services. The already overcrowded education systems in both countries have no capacity to embed tens of thousands of students.

“This is particularly problematic in Lebanon, where public-sector-led schools host around 500,000 school-aged Syrian refugees.”




A woman sits with her child after fleeing the Ain El-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon’s southern coastal city of Sidon on September 9, 2023, amid renewed clashes between the Fatah movement and Islamists. (AFP)

Lebanese analyst Nasser Elamine told Arab News that in Lebanon, “defunding UNRWA means over 301,400 Palestinian refugees, the majority of whom already live under the poverty line, according to the UN, will effectively be abandoned by the world with no devices to secure the minimal requirements of daily life, including education and healthcare.”

Elamine said: “Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are denied access to work in trade-union-regulated professions, and with a real economy that barely produces jobs as it is (let alone following the 2019 economic collapse), Palestinians will have no way to even begin to fill the gap that a pause in UNRWA funding will leave.”

Lebanon prohibits Palestinian refugees from participating in around 70 occupations regulated by its trade unions, including in the fields of engineering, law, and medicine.

Pulling the financial plug on UNRWA is likely to have an adverse impact on the Lebanese economy, which has been in the throes of a ruinous financial crisis since 2019.

Elamine noted that the unemployment rate in Lebanon was “already at around 30 percent of the population, while labor force participation was at only 43 percent in 2022, according to UNICEF, and the multidimensional poverty rate is at 81 percent,” as per data from the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia.

“For the last year or so, Lebanon has managed to set up a facade of crisis normalization by effectively dollarizing half of its economy.

“UNRWA was responsible for bringing millions of dollars’ worth of hard currencies monthly into Lebanon through Lebanese banks where they would be spent in the form of salaries, projects, educational and health services, as well funds for small businesses.

“On top of that, the Lebanese state would receive a segment of those funds in return for allowing refugees to remain in the country. The sudden disappearance of these funds will necessarily leave the economy in shock — but to what extent remains to be determined.”




A handout picture released by UNRWA on April 17, 2015 and taken the day before shows displaced people from the nearby Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp queuing to receive aid from the organization in Yalda, south of Damascus. (AFP) 

According to UNRWA officials, the agency had already reached a “danger zone” in 2022 after more than a decade of underfunding. Last year, donations covered just 36 percent of its budget.

Beyond the humanitarian services provided by UNRWA, Lebanese economist Nadim Shehadi told Arab News that the agency’s significance lay primarily in being “the memory” of the Palestinian refugee population and a key entity for resolving the Palestinian issue.

He said: “As an institution, UNRWA is extremely important for any future settlement of the Palestinian question. UNRWA has the details and data of every Palestinian family — of every Palestinian refugee.”

Article 11 of UN Resolution 194 (III) entitles Palestinian refugees to either the right to return to their homes or to be resettled and receive compensation. Shehadi pointed out that the information held by UNRWA was essential to the implementation of the article.

“Any solution (to the Palestinian issue) would have to address the refugee issue. It is the main stumbling block for a comprehensive solution, and that solution, for being implemented, needs the data and the mechanism that only UNRWA can provide,” he added.

 


Lebanon ‘open to any effort to curb Israeli aggression,’ says Berri

Lebanon ‘open to any effort to curb Israeli aggression,’ says Berri
Updated 24 May 2024
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Lebanon ‘open to any effort to curb Israeli aggression,’ says Berri

Lebanon ‘open to any effort to curb Israeli aggression,’ says Berri
  • Parliamentary speaker accuses Israel of ‘greed’ over Lebanese resources
  • Berri’s statement came as hostilities between Hezbollah and the Israeli army in the southern border region entered their 230th day

BEIRUT: Lebanon is willing to cooperate with any international effort to stop Israeli aggression and bring security to the region, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri said on Friday.
However, in a statement marking the 24th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Berri warned that Lebanon “is not ready to waive any of its sovereign rights.”
He also accused Israel of displaying “greed toward Lebanon, its resources, its entity, and its land, sea, and air borders.”
Berri’s statement came as hostilities between Hezbollah and the Israeli army in the southern border region entered their 230th day.
The parliamentary speaker called for intensified international and regional efforts to halt Israel’s assault in the Gaza Strip, saying this was crucial to maintain security and stability in the entire region.
Hezbollah claims its actions have been in support of Gaza amid further Israeli threats to Lebanon.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Thursday from the northern command headquarters “to carry out detailed, important and even surprising plans to return displaced settlers to the north.”
He claimed Israel had killed hundreds of Hezbollah fighters.
Benny Gantz, a minister in the Israeli war Cabinet, said: “Get ready from now on for the return of the residents of the north to their houses safely in early September by force or order.”
Berri returned from Tehran after attending the funeral of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who was killed in a helicopter crash on May 19.
In his message to the Lebanese, he renewed Lebanon’s “commitment and adherence to UN Resolution 1701, and all its terms and stipulations.”
The resolution calls for an end to hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon to be replaced by Lebanese and UNIFIL forces in southern Lebanon, and the disarmament of armed groups including Hezbollah.
Berri accused Israel of ignoring the resolution “since the moment it was issued, with over 30,000 land, sea and air violations.”
Lebanon “upholds its right to defend its land with all the available means in the face of Israeli hostilities,” he said.
He called for the liberation of “the remaining occupied territory in the Kfarchouba Hills, the occupied Shebaa Farms, the northern part of the GHajjar village, and the contested border points with occupied Palestine all the way to the B1 point in Ras Al-Naqoura.”
Caretaker Minister of Defense Maurice Slim said that Lebanon preferred peace to war.
However, “defending the land was and will be the Lebanese state’s choice through the resilience of its army and people, especially the steadfast ones who are still residing in their villages and towns to repel the aggression,” he said.
Israeli warplanes on Thursday struck the town of Maroun Al-Ras in the Bint Jbeil district.
Sirens sounded in Israeli settlements opposite the border with Lebanon amid fears of possible drone attacks.
The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Friday that Hezbollah’s drones caused significant damage in the northern towns and resulted in several fatalities.
Another newspaper, Israel Hayom, said that Hezbollah’s drones are “one of the biggest threats facing Israel in the northern arena.”
The newspaper said that Hezbollah leader Mohammed Hassan Fares, who was killed by an Israeli drone strike last week in Qana, was a scientist who specialized in robotics and machine learning.


2,000 aid trucks stuck at Rafah border: Norwegian Refugee Council

2,000 aid trucks stuck at Rafah border: Norwegian Refugee Council
Updated 24 May 2024
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2,000 aid trucks stuck at Rafah border: Norwegian Refugee Council

2,000 aid trucks stuck at Rafah border: Norwegian Refugee Council
  • Palestinians ‘actively deprived’ of essential items as Israel steps up operations in city
  • Some in Gaza have been displaced as many as 9 times since October

LONDON: The Norwegian Refugee Council has warned that 2,000 aid trucks are stuck in Egypt at the Rafah border crossing, with Palestinians in Gaza being “actively deprived” of essential goods.
Rafah is the last remaining area of Gaza yet to come under full assault by Israeli forces, with fears now mounting of an imminent operation to take the southern city.
The NRC’s head of operations in Gaza, Suze van Meegen, told the BBC: “The city of Rafah is now comprised of three entirely different worlds: the east is an archetypal war zone, the middle is a ghost town, and the west is a congested mass of people living in deplorable conditions.”
She said medical supplies, tents, water tanks and food are being held up at the border, and in some cases Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced as many as nine times since Israel launched its military operation last October.
“People have no choice but to put their faith in so-called ‘humanitarian safe zones’ designated by the forces that have killed their family members and destroyed their homes,” she added.
Israeli journalist Amos Harel told the BBC that he believes Israel is moving ahead with plans to occupy Rafah with tacit US support.
“It’s quite clear that the Americans are no longer trying to prevent Israel from occupying Rafah. So the Israelis may proceed carefully and not too quickly. But it’s less of a question of whether the Israelis are going to occupy Rafah. It’s quite clear that they are,” he said.
It comes despite earlier warnings by US President Joe Biden against Israel attacking “population centers,” and with the International Court of Justice set to rule on the legality of the Israeli campaign in Gaza after a case was submitted by South Africa in December accusing Israel of genocide.


Escaped Iranian director receives ovations at Cannes

Escaped Iranian director receives ovations at Cannes
Updated 24 May 2024
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Escaped Iranian director receives ovations at Cannes

Escaped Iranian director receives ovations at Cannes
  • He received raucous standing ovations before and after the gala screening of “The Seed of the Sacred Fig,” which is competing for the top prize Palme d’Or
  • He attended the premiere on Friday alongside his daughter and Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani, who lives in exile in France

CANNES, France: It is one of the most dramatic storylines ever delivered at Cannes: Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof walked the red carpet Friday after fleeing a prison sentence in his home country just days before the film festival.
He received raucous standing ovations before and after the gala screening of “The Seed of the Sacred Fig,” which is competing for the top prize Palme d’Or.
“I hope the entire apparatus of oppression and dictatorship will disappear from Iran,” he told the packed Cannes theater, where he brandished photos of the movie’s actors.
Made underground in Iran on a tiny budget, it tells the story of a court prosecutor whose family life is torn apart by the “Women, Life, Freedom” protests that convulsed the country in 2022-23.
Friday was the last day of the Cannes Film Festival screenings, with the winners from the 22 entries to be announced on Saturday by a jury led by “Barbie” director Greta Gerwig.
Rasoulof came under pressure in Iran to withdraw his latest from the festival, but he already knew during the production that he faced a new eight-year prison sentence for “collusion against national security” and hatched a plan to escape the country.
He attended the premiere on Friday alongside his daughter and Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani, who lives in exile in France.
Speaking after the premiere, Rasoulof said he was thinking of “everyone who allowed this film to be made — those who are here, and those who were prevented from coming.”
An outspoken critic of Iran’s rulers, Rasoulof had already served two prison terms over his uncompromising political films and had his passport revoked in 2017.
It took 28 days on the road, moving between border villages, to get out of the country, he told Deadline magazine.
“The good thing about going to prison in Iran is that you meet all kinds of youthful people who can help you in such conditions,” he told the magazine.
The final film to screen in the competition, later Friday, is “The Most Precious of Cargoes,” the first animated film to compete for the Palme d’Or since 2008’s “Waltz With Bashir.”
It is the tale of a twin thrown to safety from a death train transporting his Jewish parents to Auschwitz, from Michel Hazanavicius, director of the Oscar-winning “The Artist.”
The 77th edition of the world-famous festival has seen a lot of sex, gore and #MeToo-related issues.
A late frontrunner is “All We Imagine as Light,” which premiered Thursday.
The first Indian entry in 30 years, it is a poetic monsoon-set portrayal of two nurses who have migrated to Mumbai, described as a dreamlike five-star “triumph” by The Guardian.
“Emilia Perez,” an audacious musical about a Mexican narco boss having a sex change, has also been a favorite.
Demi Moore has emerged as a serious contender for the best actress award after rave reviews for her “fearless” performance in “The Substance,” an ultra-gory horror film about the pressures women face to maintain bodily perfection as they age.
There has been a lot of love for “Anora,” a raw and often-hilarious story about a New York erotic dancer who strikes gold with a wealthy client, only to face the wrath of his Russian oligarch parents.
Francis Ford Coppola’s ambitious fable “Megalopolis” has its admirers but proved sharply divisive, while Donald Trump biopic “The Apprentice” has drawn strong reviews as well as legal threats from the former US president.
Also on Friday, George Lucas arrived in town to accept an honorary Palme d’Or.
“It’s always great to be recognized,” said the “Star Wars” creator.
“Obviously we have a lot of fans and all that kind of stuff. But in terms of awards, I don’t make the kind of movies that win awards!“


Hezbollah barrages deal heavy damage in northern Israel

Hezbollah barrages deal heavy damage in northern Israel
Updated 24 May 2024
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Hezbollah barrages deal heavy damage in northern Israel

Hezbollah barrages deal heavy damage in northern Israel
  • The barrages have dealt a heavy blow to Israeli towns and villages near the border which have been evacuated for more than six months
  • The Israeli defense ministry body responsible for rebuilding northern communities said it had received 930 reports of damage

SHTULA: A momentary shriek presages a bone-juddering blast, followed by a plume of thick black smoke. Refrigerator-sized holes mark where Hezbollah anti-tank missiles like this one have hit along Israel’s northern border.
Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has been exchanging near-daily cross-border fire with the Israeli army since Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack triggered war in Gaza.
The Iran-backed militants have launched thousands of rockets, mortar rounds, anti-tank missiles and attack drones at northern Israel.
The exchanges of fire have killed at least 11 civilians and 14 soldiers in Israel, according to the army.
At least 429 people have been killed in Lebanon, mostly militants but also including at least 82 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
The barrages have dealt a heavy blow to Israeli towns and villages near the border which have been evacuated for more than six months. They have also served as a warning of the far greater destruction that would be wrought by a full-blown war.
The Israeli defense ministry body responsible for rebuilding northern communities said it had received 930 reports of damage — around a third of them categorized as moderate to critical — the vast majority of it inflicted on residential buildings.
Hundreds more cases remain unassessed in towns like Arab Al-Aramsheh, Menara and Metula because it is considered too hazardous for inspectors to enter.
The report did not cite an estimated cost, but a senior defense official who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity said reconstruction in the hardest hit locations could take months to a year.
In Kibbutz Menara, around 30 percent of buildings have suffered substantial damage, the official said.
At least 26 percent of the reported damage was caused by Israeli troops who have entrenched themselves in evacuated towns and villages along the 120-kilometer (75-mile) border, according to the Northern Horizon Directorate report.
The Israeli military said it “regrets any damage to the residents’ property” and is working to minimize damage as much as possible.
The most vulnerable communities were evacuated immediately after the outbreak of hostilities, displacing some 60,000 civilians. Access to them is restricted by the Israeli military.
But AFP reporters managed to visit Shtula, a village of 300 people sitting on the border that has 44 recorded cases of moderate to critical damage.
Although her neighbor’s house suffered a direct hit, and missiles pounded several other nearby buildings facing Lebanon, Ora Hatan, 60, is one of the few residents who has stayed on.
“An anti-tank missile flew over the chicken coop and right into the house,” said Hatan, pointing at a neighbor’s property.
“A direct hit. Fortunately, no one was home.”
Even after more than seven months of intense bombardment, Hatan won’t leave.
“It’s my house. It’s my land. It’s my country. Where would I go? Why should I go?” she told AFP on her balcony overlooking the Lebanese village of Raymeh two kilometers (little more than a mile) away.
As the war grinds on, and Hezbollah attacks show no sign of relenting, northern residents have grown weary of what many see as talk and little action.
For months, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has said Israel will restore security — diplomatically or militarily. The two sides fought a devastating war in 2006.
Israel’s Channel 13 reported that National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi told lawmakers Wednesday that “the cabinet hasn’t defined any clear objective concerning the north — not dates, not targets, not strategic aims.”
A poll published Thursday by Israel’s public broadcaster showed that 46 percent of respondents backed military action in Lebanon, while 29 percent opposed.
On Thursday, a few hundred activists set up a protest camp to demand urgent action to restore security and allow displaced residents to return to their homes in the north.
One of the organizers, Nisan Zeevi, lives in kibbutz Kfar Giladi and serves on its emergency response team.
Across the valley from his home, a fortified tower seven storys high looms over the kibbutzim in the valley below that have been frequent targets of drone and missile strikes.
A house in the neighboring kibbutz bears a gaping hole where a missile strike killed a woman and her son in January.
Zeevi said the camp aimed “to express our protest to the Israeli government and to the world until they find a solution to the severe security situation.”


Head of UAE national media officer meets with Saudi, GCC ministers

Head of UAE national media officer meets with Saudi, GCC ministers
Updated 24 May 2024
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Head of UAE national media officer meets with Saudi, GCC ministers

Head of UAE national media officer meets with Saudi, GCC ministers
  • Discussed ways to strengthen media cooperation between GCC countries

DOHA: The head of the UAE’s national media office met with informational ministers from Gulf Cooperation Council countries in Doha on Friday, Emirates News Agency reported.

Sheikh Abdulla bin Mohammed Al-Hamed, who is also chairman of the UAE Media Council, met with Saudi Arabia’s media minister Salman bin Yousef Al-Dosari and Abdulrahman Bdah Al-Mutairi, the Minister of Information and Culture of Kuwait. 

Sheikh Abdulla also held talks with Ramzan bin Abdullah Al-Noaimi of Bahrain and Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer Al-Thani, chairman of Qatar Media Corporation.

They discussed ways to strengthen media cooperation between the GCC countries and developing joint initiatives to advance the media industry in the region.