Archive for October 8, 2014

October 02, 2014

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia sought to assure the public that the kingdom was safe and free of health scares as an estimated 2 million Muslims streamed into a sprawling tent city near Mecca on Thursday for the start of the annual Islamic hajj pilgrimage.

Earlier this year, Saudi authorities banned people from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea — the countries hardest hit in the Ebola epidemic — from getting visas as a precaution against the virus. The decision has affected a total of 7,400 pilgrims from the three countries.

Ebola is believed to have sickened more than 7,100 people in West Africa and killed more than 3,300, according to the World Health Organization. The hajj sees massive crowds every year from around the world gather around the cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca as part of a five-day spiritual journey meant to cleanse the faithful of sin and bring them closer to God. All male pilgrims dress in simple, white robes as a sign of equality before God.

The kingdom has not discovered a single case of Ebola so far and is taking all measures to ensure the safety and health of the pilgrims, said Manal Mansour, the head of Saudi Health Ministry’s department for prevention of infectious diseases.

“The most important precaution that (the kingdom) has taken was to restrict visas from the affected areas,” she told The Associated Press. Upon arrival to the kingdom, pilgrims were asked to fill out “medical screening cards with data” and asked about their travels in the past 21 days, Mansour said.

There were other health concerns related to the hajj earlier this year. The kingdom had to improve its anti-infection measures after it was hit by an upswing in the number of people who had contracted a respiratory virus known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in the spring. There have been more than 750 cases of MERS in the kingdom since 2012, of which 319 people died, including several health workers.

Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, told the AP that the kingdom is also facing continuous threats from terrorists, but is prepared to ensure a safe hajj. Saudi Arabia and four other Arab countries are taking part in U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida fighters in Iraq and Syria. Militants have vowed revenge.

Al-Qaida militants launched a series of deadly attacks in Saudi Arabia aimed at toppling the monarchy around a decade ago, though none were directed at Mecca. No major attacks have happened in recent years during the hajj.

“We have confronted al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia and we have defeated them,” Al-Turki said. “But of course at the same time being we are still considering the threat, which is a continuous threat, and therefore we have actually enforced our security readiness at all the borders of Saudi Arabia.”

Pilgrim Zaid Ajaz Amanea from the United Kingdom said he felt safe. “I don’t have to fear anything from anybody because I’m coming to God’s house,” he said. The routes for hajj pilgrims and inside the Grand Mosque housing the Kaaba have thousands of security cameras, many of them hidden. The kingdom says there are some 70,000 security personnel guarding the hajj this year. Saudi’s interior minister toured hajj sites to check on their readiness over the weekend.

The state-owned Saudi Gazette newspaper reported that the commander of hajj security forces has warned pilgrims against politicizing the pilgrimage. He said anyone who tries to propagate political views during the hajj, which brings Sunnis, Shiites and Muslims of all schools of thought to Mecca, will be severely punished.

The pilgrimage is a central pillar of Islam and all able-bodied Muslims are required to perform it once in their lives. Saudi authorities said there are 1.4 million international visitors for the hajj this year. Some 600,000 pilgrims from the kingdom itself are also expected to take part.

On Thursday, pilgrims headed to Mina, about five kilometers (three miles) from Mecca, where they will spend the night in prayer and supplication. Some pilgrims wore surgical blue masks to be extra careful.

“I’m afraid of the normal flu, I’m not scared of Ebola or anything like that,” said Nayef Aboulein, a Saudi pilgrim.

Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

September 08, 2014

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Dubai’s ruler has endorsed a $32 billion expansion plan for the city’s second airport that aims to make it the world’s biggest, the emirate’s airport operator said Monday in the latest sign that the Middle East’s brash commercial hub is determined to move on from its 2009 financial crisis.

The approval sets in motion a vast building project that will boost capacity exponentially at the airport known as Al Maktoum International at Dubai World Central. Backers envision it will eventually handle more than 200 million passengers per year.

The first phase of the expansion alone aims to build enough runway and terminal space to handle 120 million passengers a year and 100 mammoth Airbus A380 double-decker jets at any given time. The world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, handled 94.4 million people last year.

Paul Griffiths, chief executive of state-backed airport operator Dubai Airports, said he aims to have the first phase of the expansion complete in six to eight years. That part of the project includes adding two new runways and two large concourses housing dozens of aircraft gates each.

“It’s a very aggressive time scale … but I think that we have a track record here of doing remarkable things in a remarkably challenging time frame,” Griffiths said in his office at the city’s main airport, Dubai International.

As later phases are completed, the new airport will eventually boast five parallel runways spaced far enough apart so they can all be used at the same time, and have enough gates for hundreds of wide-body planes.

Dubai World Central opened for cargo flights in 2010 with a single runway in the desert south of central Dubai. It received its first passengers in October at a single terminal that is mainly used by smaller airlines and low-cost carriers.

The currently larger Dubai International ranked as the world’s seventh busiest airport last year, handling 66.4 million passengers. It too is being expanded, with a new concourse expected to open next year.

Griffiths says Dubai needs to expand to keep pace with the rapid growth of airline traffic into the emirate. Much of the increase comes from hometown airline Emirates, the region’s largest carrier and the world’s biggest user of both the A380 and Boeing 777 long-haul jets.

Emirates is expected to move its hub to the new airport shortly after the first expansion phase is complete, freeing up space in the older airport for the well over 100 other airlines that already operate from it.

Griffiths is confident Dubai will be able to generate the funding needed to complete the project given the importance of aviation to Dubai’s economy. Officials say the industry contributes $22 billion annually to the local economy and supports some 250,000 jobs.

“The aviation sector has demonstrated that there is a very compelling economic case to suggest creation of further capacity is a very sensible thing to do,” Griffiths said. “I’m sure that the government will come up with the appropriate funding to make the project a reality.”

Dubai is still recovering from the effects of its financial crisis, which sent property prices plunging and forced it to accept a multibillion-dollar bailout from neighboring Abu Dhabi. The local economy has bounced back strongly since, though Dubai and its state-linked companies still carry tens of billions of dollars in debt. The International Monetary Fund has warned of the possibility of another property bubble forming, and analysts question how Dubai can make good on the debt it still owes.

“There are still plenty of reasons to think that the emirate’s debt problems are far from over,” Jason Tuvey, an analyst at London-based Capital Economics, wrote in a research note last week. That has not stopped officials from announcing plans for headline-grabbing projects reminiscent of the pre-crisis boom.

On Sunday, a property development company controlled by Dubai ruler Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum laid out plans for a $2.7 billion theme park and resort complex near the new airport and the site of the World Expo that Dubai is due to host in 2020.

The expansion of the new airport is unlikely to be ready by the time the Expo kicks off, Griffiths said.

September 19, 2014

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Thousands of opposition supporters rallied in the tiny island nation of Bahrain on Friday to protest a proposal by the country’s leadership for legislative, security and judicial reforms.

The rally by members of the Shiite opposition came a day after the crown prince, Sheik Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, issued a statement summarizing proposed changes that included redefining electoral districts, promises of judicial reform and new codes of conduct for security forces.

The statement follows on-and-off again talks between opposition members and the government aimed at bringing about a political solution to more than three years of unrest. Bahrain is a strategically important Western ally, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. An opposition movement dominated by the country’s Shiite majority is demanding greater rights from the ruling Sunni monarchy.

The government moved to crush an Arab Spring-inspired uprising in 2011 with the help of security forces from Saudi Arabia and other neighboring Gulf Arab states. Dozens of protesters have been killed, as have some members of the security forces.

Protesters and opposition leaders on Friday dismissed the government’s plan as offering too little toward their goal of greater power-sharing in the kingdom. “We consider this letter to be a unilateral approach,” said Abdul-Jalil Khalil, a leading member of the main Shiite opposition bloc, al-Wefaq.