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.”

TIME animals

Report: Camels Play Key Role in Spread of Deadly Virus in Middle East

A man rides his camel as he waits for tourists at the Giza pyramids area, south of Cairo, Feb. 20, 2014.
A man rides his camel as he waits for tourists at the Giza pyramids area, south of Cairo, Feb. 20, 2014. Asmaa Waguih—Reuters

Researchers remain stumped about the origin of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome but now say the virus (or a close relative) has been circulating in camels for more than two decades

A new study released on Feb. 25 provides the strongest evidence yet that camels are a major player in Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), a viral disease that has killed dozens of people in the Middle East since it was first detected in 2012 and whose origin remains elusive.

The report in mBio finds that those sickened with MERS appear to have contracted the disease from dromedary camels, which are prevalent across North Africa and the Middle East and whose sole hump give it an ability to travel far without water. This is the first big study of camels in the Kingdom, which has seen the most cases—at least 147 of 180 total, leading so far to 61 of 79 deaths—and the animal’s potential link to the virus. What’s more, the study finds that camels have been host to the virus, or one very similar, for over two decades.

Researchers obtained samples (blood as well as rectal and nasal swabs) from 203 dromedary camels around Saudi Arabia last fall and used mobile laboratory equipment to test for antibodies that reacted to MERS, which would indicate prior exposure. They also analyzed archived blood samples that were drawn between 1992 and 2010 to gauge whether the virus was new or had just never been detected. The researchers found that nearly 75 percent of the newly tested camels had antibodies; some of the swabs, more so from younger camels, also showed that the MERS virus was circulating through the Saudi camel population.

“This tells the community right away that we’ve got to be very concerned about who has contact with camels in Saudi Arabia,” said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based organization that studies the animal-human health border, and a co-author of the paper. “Especially those who have come into contact with young camels.” The animals are frequently raced, traded, eaten or kept as pets, all of which raises the chance that viruses could jump from the animals to human beings.

European investigators first posited the camel’s role as at least a middleman between an unknown host and humans in a Lancet study last August, after blood tests of retired racing dromedaries in Oman and ones used for tourism in the Canary Islands found antibodies. Weeks later, another report in Eurosurveillance stoked that suspicion, since most of the dromedaries in Egypt that were sampled had similar results.

Efforts to identify the origin has largely focused on bats. Last year, some of the scientists who co-authored this study designated the Egyptian tomb bat as a possible reservoir after they matched viral RNA from a fecal pellet in Bisha, Saudi Arabia, to a sample from the first person known to contract MERS in the country. That man also owned four dromedary camels.

“I still think that bats are the reservoir—the natural, original reservoir—and somewhere along the way the virus has spilled over into camels and has begun to circulate,” said Daszak. “If we can find out more about the risk for humans from camels, we may be able to reduce the chance of spillover events, and that’s an area where we really need to get active.”

Scientists are still unclear whether other livestock are involved, how the virus is transmitted between camels, what the role is for bats and how humans aren’t just picking up the disease but also spreading it amongst themselves. The researchers stopped short of proving that camels are certain reservoirs for human transmission and insist that additional research must be done.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said a camel vaccine could be answer. “Don’t let the camels get infected. If the camels do get infected, make sure they don’t transmit to humans. If humans do get infected, make sure they don’t transmit to other humans,” he told TIME. “So for each link in the chain of transmission, you’re trying to break it, and ideally the best way to break it is to keep camels from getting infected.”

Daszak thinks the current state of research is largely on par with how similar threats have been treated in the past. “Most new diseases are very inefficiently studied in the early stages,” he said. Low funding and a lack of oversight, among other factors, has hindered progress against emerging diseases. “There’s no one world organization that goes into a place and sorts out an emerging disease. There are political issues. There are national boundaries at stake.” Point taken, but as the world has found out over the years, especially with SARS and H1N1 in the last decade, infectious disease knows no boundaries.

TIME diet

Obese Saudi Loses 700 lbs, On Orders from King

SAUDI-HEALTH-OBESITY
Saudi Khaled Mohsen Chaïri, who suffers from extreme obesity weighing 610 kilograms, is transported with a fork-lift truck on August 19, 2013 at the airport in Riyadh. AFP / Getty Images

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia demonstrates tough love

You know you have a weight problem when all of the king’s horses and all of the king’s men struggle to whip you into shape again.

CNN reports that a Saudi man lost 700 pounds, roughly half of his body weight, after the nation’s monarch personally intervened with a weight loss plan.

King Abdullah had Khaled Mohsen Chaïri hospitalized in August as part of an obesity awareness campaign. Since then, doctors have regularly updated the local press on the patient’s heart rate (improving), breathing rate (improving), body weight (dropping) and emotional well being (uplifting, despite the media circus).

With obesity rates climbing across the Gulf oil states, the focus may now widen from one royal subject to an entire kingdom.

[CNN]

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