TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia Reports 4 More MERS Deaths

Asian workers wear mouth and nose masks while on duty during a football match at the King Fahad stadium, on April 22, 2014 in Riyadh.
Asian workers wear mouth and nose masks while on duty during a football match at the King Fahad stadium, on April 22, 2014 in Riyadh. The health ministry reported more MERS cases in the city of Jeddah, prompting authorities to close the emergency department at the city's King Fahd Hospital. Fayez Nureldine—AFP/Getty Images

Nearly 300 people have been infected so far, including a 65-year-old Turkish pilgrim in Mecca, a city to which millions of Muslims will make the Hajj later this year, worrying health experts about the virus's spread internationally

Saudi Arabia has reported four new deaths and 36 more infections within the last day from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the Associated Press reports.

Among the newly infected is a 65-year-old Turkish pilgrim in Mecca, one of two cities where millions of Muslims from across the world will gather later this year for the Hajj, an annual Islamic ritual. Some health experts are concerned the gatherings will exacerbate MERS’ rapid spread to other countries.

Saudi Arabia has seen a spike in MERS infections in recent weeks, with many health workers among the sick and the dead. The Saudi Health Ministry says there have now been 297 cases and 85 deaths related to the virus since it first appeared in the country two years ago.

MERS is in the same family of viruses as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and the common cold. MERS has no vaccine or treatment. It’s unclear how the virus is being transmitted, though some scientists theorize that the virus may have spread from camels. The virus does not spread as quickly as SARS. It’s possible MERS will die out on its own, though some are worried it could mutate into a more easily-spreadable disease.

[AP]

TIME Saudi Arabia

Fears Rise Over MERS Outbreak While Saudis Fumble

The deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome has neither no definitive origin, nor a known cure, so global public health officials are becoming increasingly concerned by the Saudi government's sluggish response as the number of human cases continues to rise

The sudden spike in cases of Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, in Saudi Arabia came soon after camel-racing events at the Jenadriyah Festival in Riyadh. That suggested the surge in the incurable coronavirus, which resembles pneumonia but is fatal to 1 in 3 who contract it, confirmed what scientists already knew of the disease: that camels seem to be reservoirs for the virus, and transmit it to humans more easily than humans do to one another.

But with the number of cases picking up, there are worries that may be changing. And if the virus has mutated to increased person-to-person contagion, it has potentially catastrophic implications for another annual festival: the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina known as hajj. More than a million Muslims from around the globe gather in the western Saudi cities during the first week of October, then return to their home countries, which last year numbered 188. In an age when international travel has dramatically exacerbated the spread of new viruses like SARS, virologists say the mounting concern is only too clear.

The worries are aggravated by the performance of the Saudi government, which has failed to confirm whether the virus is, in fact, mutating. The Saudis have either not performed tests that would reveal the changes, or have not shared them with international authorities, virologists complain. On Monday, Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabiah was fired amid mounting criticism of the kingdom’s handling of the budding crisis.

“It’s frustrating,” says Ian Mackay, an associate professor at the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre at the University of Queensland, who compared the Saudi handling of MERS with China’s response to the 2013 outbreak of bird flu. “With the H7N9 virus, China provided almost too much information. You worried about the privacy of some of the patients, given the level of detail that China was providing.

“But we’re seeing the complete opposite extreme in Saudi Arabia, where you can’t even get the sex of the patient in some cases,” Mackay tells TIME. “And the WHO doesn’t seem to be getting that information either.”

Indeed, the World Health Organization as good as confirmed it did not have the latest information from Riyadh in declining to comment on the outbreak on Tuesday afternoon. “Kindly be advised that we cannot comment on latest MERS figures since we do not have the latest case count,” the WHO’s media office says in an emailed reply to questions from TIME. “And we can only communicate and comment on the cases that we have been officially notified of by a member state, namely Saudi Arabia.”

Concerns that the virus may have mutated are focused on two clusters of cases among health care workers: one cluster is in Jeddah, the western Saudi city through which pilgrims pass en route to nearby Mecca. The other cluster is among paramedics in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.

Mackay, who noted the clusters in his blog, says he can see two possible explanations: “One is a fairly bad but widespread breakdown of infection control and prevention protocols” among the health care workers — that is, nurses or doctors failing to use gloves, surgical masks or other standard measures designed to prevent infection while working with a MERS patient. Such a breakdown would be possible even in a well-equipped and prosperous Gulf nation, Mackay noted, but for both outbreaks to take place at the same time “would be fairly coincidental.”

The other, more alarming possibility? “The other avenue is the virus has changed and become more easily transmitted between humans,” Mackay said.

That is cause for concern way beyond the Middle East. “When humans readily transmit to humans, that’s what will cause a worldwide outbreak,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told National Public Radio. “We are very concerned that … with what we’ve seen over the last two weeks … we may be at that point now.”

Whether the virus has, in fact, mutated dangerously cannot be known until the Saudis examine the genome of the latest samples of the virus and share the results. The WHO has said it is “working closely” with the kingdom, but has not issued any conclusions. Another way to find out if the virus has mutated would be if the number of cases were to skyrocket. But with only 344 cases worldwide so far — a decade ago, SARS infected at least 8,000, and killed 775 — the count remains low, and awareness is growing.

In 2013, concerns over MERS kept many as a million people away from hajj, an obligation that the Koran imposes upon any Muslim who can afford the trip. Saudi authorities discouraged attendance by the very young, the elderly, pregnant women, and people already suffering from chronic illness, a major risk factor for the virus. Still, more than 3 million people circulated at the holy sites for five days, at close quarters. With the risk of mass contagion in the air this year, the world may be hoping for a better reaction from Saudi Arabia than it has got so far.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the name of the institution that scientist Ian Mackay belongs to. He works for the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre.

TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia Confirms 20 New Cases of Deadly MERS Virus

SAUDI-HEALTH-MERS-VIRUS
Saudi medical staff leave the emergency department at a hospital in the center of Riyadh on April 8, 2014 Fayez Nureldine—AFP/Getty Images

About 49 people have been infected in the past six days by the incurable Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus, which has claimed 76 lives in Saudi Arabia. The country's Health Minister said he did not know the cause of the sudden rise in cases

Saudi Arabia’s Health Ministry this weekend confirmed 20 new cases of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS. All told, the MERS virus has infected 244 people in Saudi Arabia, with 49 confirmed cases in the past six days alone.

Of the 244 infected people in total, 76 have died, Reuters reports. MERS has no known cure and kills approximately a third of the people it infects.

Saudi Arabia’s Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabia said on Sunday he did not know the cause of the sudden rise in cases. He said there was no current need for extra precautionary measures like travel restrictions.

Authorities say the disease, which scientists have linked to camels and is similar to the SARS virus, does not spread easily from person to person and could die out on its own. However, some experts have warned that the virus could mutate, allowing for easier human-to-human transmission.

[Reuters]

TIME Saudi Arabia

MERS Death Toll Climbs as Man Killed By Virus in Saudi Arabia

The deadly virus, whose origins may be linked to camels, has claimed 68 lives in Saudi Arabia and caused a panic among health workers

A foreigner has died of the MERS virus in Saudi Arabia, the country’s health ministry announced Saturday. Eight others, including five health workers, have also been recently infected with MERS, the ministry said.

The nationality of the 45-year-old man who died in the city of Jeddah has not been disclosed, the AFP reports. His death brings Saudi Arabia’s MERS-related fatality count to 68, making it the country most affected by the virus.

The origins of the MERS, or the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, has puzzled scientists, though a February study suggested camels may play a role in spreading it. MERS is related to but more deadly than the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus.

The World Health Organization said Friday that it knows of 212 confirmed cases of MERS. 88, or approximately 42%, of those patients have died.

[AFP]

TIME Middle East

Saudi Clerics Condemn Gym Classes for Girls

Plans to expand physical education for girls beyond private schools has caused outrage among conservative clerics, who consider it a pathway to adultery and prostitution

A move to introduce physical education for girls to Saudi Arabian public schools has been condemned by conservative clerics, reports the Wall Street Journal, who say allowing girls to take gym classes will only end in adultery and prostitution.

Currently only private schools in Saudi Arabia allow girls to do P.E. The Shoura Council, a body in Saudi Arabia appointed by King Abdullah, voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday in favor of encouraging the kingdom’s education minister to look at introducing physical education for girls. After the news broke of the vote, several conservative clerics condemned it on social media.

“We are giving the Shoura Council a green light to continue the steps of Westernization and these steps will end in infidelity and prostitution,” tweeted Abdullah Al Dawood. Others called for the mass resignation of Saudi Arabia’s most senior council of clerics, a body normally responsible for declaring fatwas.

King Abdullah has loosened various restrictions on women in recent years, including laws allowing women to vote in municipal elections and also to work in retail. He has upheld, however, conservative objections to women driving cars and traveling without a male guardian.

[Wall Street Journal]

TIME Saudi Arabia

Obama Meets Saudi King in Bid to Mend Fences

Barack Obama, King Abdullah
President Barack Obama meets with Saudi King Abdullah at Rawdat Khuraim, Saudi Arabia, March 28, 2014. Pablo Martinez Monsivais—AP

President Obama added a stop in Riyadh to his tour of Europe to reassure the Saudis that their desert kingdom still matters, even as recent moves he made in the Middle East has irked the House of Saud, especially talking to its archenemy Iran

By the time photographers were ushered into the room where U.S. President Barack Obama was meeting Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Friday, both men were seated in armchairs, tucked safely behind a table laden with bouquets and sweets. The leaders had greeted one another in private, avoiding any possibility of repeating the awkwardness that ensued the last time they met in 2009, when the new American President’s deep dip from the waist was interpreted as an obsequious act of deference to a Muslim monarchy Washington has assiduously cultivated for 80 years.

This time, the problem was exactly the opposite. Obama added a stop in Riyadh to his tour of Europe expressly to reassure the Saudis that their desert kingdom still matters. “It’s an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of the relationship,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor, told reporters on the flight from Rome.

For the House of Saud, affirmation is needed on several fronts. In Syria, Obama has declined to back the Sunni Muslim rebels that Saudi Arabia supports with arms and cash, and infuriated Riyadh by failing to order threatened air strikes after hundreds were killed by an alleged Syrian government chemical weapons attack.

In Egypt, the American President both backed away from President Hosni Mubarak faster than Riyadh found comfortable, and offered support to the government elected to replace him, even though it was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement the Saudis loathe.

But what most concerns the Saudis is Obama’s courtship of its archrival, Iran. “At the heart of the problem is the White House’s new fondness of Iran,” Fasial J. Abbas, a senior official at the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya satellite news network, wrote in Gulf News this week. The Saudis regard Obama’s diplomatic efforts to address Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy as naïve, as well as Obama’s desire to perhaps even coax Tehran back into the “community of nations.”

As the center of Islam’s dominant Sunni branch, Riyadh fought proxy wars against Shiite Iran for decades before the deterioration of state authority in Iraq and Syria brought sectarian identities brutally to the foreground. The Saudis are in deep in Syria, and continue to lobby Obama to supply more formidable weapons to the rebel side, including the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles also known as man-pads. But the administration fears that, given the number of extremists, including al-Qaeda, operating on the rebel side, such weapons could end up bringing down civilian airliners.

“We have made clear that there are certain types of weapons, including manpads, that could pose a proliferation risk if introduced into Syria,” Rhodes reiterated in advance of the leaders’ meeting. “We continue to have those concerns.”

The king and the President spoke for two hours in a palatial hall in Rawdat Kharaim, the monarch’s desert “camp” outside Riyadh. Neither leader made a public statement afterward, but senior Obama administration officials said Iran and Syria dominated the meeting, which one described as “excellent.” Obama emphasized that, whatever their recent differences on tactical approaches, the strategic interests of the two countries remain aligned. There was (unspecified) progress on how best to support the “moderate opposition” in Syria, the officials said, and straight talk on Iran.

“It was important to have the chance to look him in the eyes and explain how determined the president is to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” one senior U.S. official said after the meeting, ” and how determined the president is to continue to counter Iran’s other destabilizing activities, and that the president and the United States are going into this eyes wide open, there’s no naivete.” .

Abdullah, who is 89, appeared to breathing with the assistance of oxygen, photographs capturing a translucent hose under his nose. The visible infirmity recalled the circumstances of another fence-mending visit by an American President, in the early, still- fragile days of the alliance. In the waning months of World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to northern Africa to receive King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, who founded the modern kingdom, on the USS Quincy, in a section of the Suez Canal called the Great Bitter Lake. The monarch was too ill to manage a gangplank and had to be hoisted aboard in a lifeboat.

FDR was failing as well, and the leaders sparred over American support for the Zionist effort that would become Israel. Yet historians judged the meeting a success, noting that the alliance only grew stronger. The verdict on Friday’s session is still out.

TIME Saudi Arabia

Obama Goes to Riyadh to Reassure the Saudis on Security

U.S. President  Obama leaves the Marine One helicopter as he arrives at the Rijksmuseum on the Museumplein in Amsterdam
U.S. President Barack is on a week-long trip to the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Saudi Arabia. © Paul Vreeker – Reuters

But the U.S. President should not expect an easy ride

When U.S. President Barack Obama visits Riyadh Friday, one of the main goals is to convey to the Saudis that the American commitment to their security remains iron-clad, the New York Times reports.

The strategic relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has been a stabilizing force in the Middle East for decades, but recently the allies have faced disagreements over policies toward Iran, Syria and Egypt.

“Their view of Mr. Obama is that his entire understanding is wrong. The trust in him is not very high, so he will not have an easy ride, and a lot of hard questions will be put on the table,” Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center, told the Times.

Negotiations with Riyadh’s arch-rival Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program, and the possible lifting of sanctions on Iran, have especially worried and angered the Saudis.

[The New York Times]

 

 

TIME Saudi Arabia

U.S. Criticizes Saudi Arabia Over Snub To Jerusalem Post Reporter

Obama administration says it is "very disappointed" by the decision not to grant a Saudi Arabian visa to Michael Wilner, a U.S. citizen, days before president is scheduled to meet with King Abdullah

The White House criticized the Saudi Arabian government’s decision to bar a Jerusalem Post reporter from entering the country to cover President Barack Obama’s visit later this week.

Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes told reporters Tuesday that the administration is “very disappointed” by the decision not to grant a visa to Jerusalem Post reporter Michael Wilner, a U.S citizen, just days before Obama is scheduled to meet with King Abdullah.

“We expressly reached out to the Saudi government through multiple channels when we became aware of this issue,” he said. “We made it clear how important it was to us that this journalist, like any other journalist, have access to cover the President’s trip. And we’ll continue to raise our concerns with the Saudis about why this journalist was denied a visa and about our very strong objections to their decision.”

Rhodes said the Saudi government did not give the White House a reason for barring Wilner from entering the country. Israel and Saudi Arabia do not maintain diplomatic relations, but have a substantial backchannel relationship, in particular with regards to Iran’s nuclear program. Wilner, the Washington bureau chief for the English-language Israeli paper, has never held Israeli citizenship, the paper reported.

“Any journalist should be able to cover the President’s trip if they have the appropriate credentials to do so, and it certainly should not be the case that the affiliation of a journalist should in any way count against their ability to do their job just because they work for the Jerusalem Post,” Rhodes said.

He added that the White House did not consider scrubbing the visit over the flap. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Tuesday that the United States “will continue to register our serious concerns about this unfortunate decision with the Saudi Government.”

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