Saudi Arabia has dismissed as “baseless” allegations that it used Israeli-supplied Pegasus malware to spy on journalists and human rights activists.
“A Saudi official denied the recent allegations reported in media outlets that an entity in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia used software to monitor phone calls,” the official SPA news agency reported late Wednesday.
“The source added that such allegations are untrue and that KSA’s policies do not condone such practices.
Hajj pilgrims streamed out of the holy city of Mecca towards Mina on Sunday, the second day of a massively scaled-down version of Islam’s greatest pilgrimage, held in the shadow of coronavirus for the second year running.
Authorities in Saudi Arabia are only allowing 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents to take part, far from the vast crowds of some 2.5 million pilgrims who descend on Mecca in normal times.
Health authorities confirmed at a briefing late Sunday that not a single coronavirus case had been reported amongst the pilgrims.
Starting Saturday, groups of the faithful performed the “tawaf” at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, circling the Kaaba, a large cubic structure draped in golden-embroidered black cloth towards which Muslims around the world pray.
After that, they made their way to Mina, where they were to spend the night. An official confirmed on Sunday that all the pilgrims were now in Mina.
Mina sits in a narrow valley surrounded by rocky mountains, some five kilometres (three miles) from the Grand Mosque, and is transformed each year into a vast encampment for pilgrims.
Pilgrims were brought there Sunday on buses which were only half-filled to respect social distancing rules, and authorities provided 3,000 electric cars to transport the elderly and those with limited mobility.
“We have applied social distancing inside the camps where there are four pilgrims in each room. We have put barriers between each bed to apply social distancing,” tour operator Hadi Fouad told AFP.
“For the common areas at the camp, like the prayer area and the cafeteria, we have assigned a security company whose guards are spread throughout the camp to make sure there is no crowding.”
– Golden ticket –
In the high point of the hajj, worshippers will on Monday climb Mount Arafat.
Also known as the “Mount of Mercy”, it is the site where it is believed that the Prophet Mohammed delivered his final sermon. Worshippers will pray and recite the Koran there for several hours.
After descending the following day, they will gather pebbles and perform the symbolic “stoning of the devil”.
The hajj, usually one of the world’s largest annual religious gatherings, is one of the five pillars of Islam and must be undertaken by all Muslims with the means at least once in their lives.
This year’s pilgrimage is larger than the pared-down version staged in 2020, but is drastically smaller than in normal times, creating resentment among Muslims abroad who are barred once again.
Participants were chosen from more than 558,000 applicants through an online vetting system, with the event confined to fully vaccinated adults aged 18-65 with no chronic illnesses.
– ‘A privilege’ –
“I thank God that we received approval to come, even though we did not expect it because of the small number of pilgrims,” said Abdulaziz bin Mahmoud, an 18-year-old Saudi.
Saddaf Ghafour, a 40-year-old Pakistani travelling with her friend, was among the women making the pilgrimage without a male “guardian”, a requirement recently scrapped.
“It is a privilege to perform hajj among a very limited number of pilgrims,” she said.
Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 509,000 coronavirus infections, including over 8,000 deaths. Some 20 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 34 million people.
The hajj, which typically packs large crowds into congested religious sites, could have been a super-spreader event for the virus.
But the hajj ministry has said it is working on the “highest levels of health precautions” in light of the pandemic and the emergence of new variants.
Pilgrims are being divided into groups of just 20 “to restrict any exposure to only those 20, limiting the spread of infection”, ministry undersecretary Mohammad al-Bijawi said.
Aside from strict social distancing measures, authorities have introduced a “smart hajj card” to allow contact-free access to camps, hotels and the buses to ferry pilgrims around religious sites.
The hajj went ahead last year on the smallest scale in modern history.
Authorities initially said that only 1,000 pilgrims would be allowed, although local media said up to 10,000 eventually took part.
This year, “public health teams are monitoring the health status of pilgrims around the clock upon their arrival in Mecca,” said Sari Asiri, director of the hajj and umrah department at the health ministry.
Anyone found to be infected would be taken to isolation facilities, he added.
The hajj — a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime — typically packs millions of pilgrims into congested religious sites and could be a major source of contagion.
Only up to 10,000 Muslims took part last year, a far cry from the 2.5 million who participated in the five-day annual pilgrimage in 2019.
In a relaxation of coronavirus curbs last October, Saudi Arabia opened the Grand Mosque for prayers for the first time in seven months and partially resumed the all-year-round umrah pilgrimage.
The limit on umrah pilgrims is 20,000 a day, with a total of 60,000 worshippers allowed to perform daily prayers at the mosque.
The umrah usually attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe each year. Authorities said the umrah would be allowed to return to full capacity once the threat of the pandemic has abated.
The revered Black Stone in the Kaaba — which is customary but not mandatory to touch during the pilgrimage — remains out of reach.
– ‘Highest precautions’ –
“In light of what the whole world is witnessing with the coronavirus pandemic… and the emergence of new variants, the relevant authorities have continued to monitor the global health situation,” the hajj ministry said Saturday.
“Considering the large crowds that perform hajj, spending long periods of time in multiple and specific places… required the highest levels of health precautions,” it added in the statement carried by SPA.
A scaled-down hajj represents a major loss of revenue for the kingdom, already reeling from the twin shocks of the virus-induced slowdown and a plunge in oil prices.
The hajj and the year-round umrah pilgrimages together rake in some $12 billion (10.3 billion euros) annually.
Last year, the foreign press were barred from the hajj, usually a huge global media event.
Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 460,000 coronavirus infections, including 7,536 deaths.
The health ministry says it has administered more than 15 million coronavirus vaccine doses, in a country with a population of over 34 million.
Hosting the hajj is a matter of prestige for Saudi rulers, for whom the custodianship of Islam’s holiest sites is their most powerful source of political legitimacy.
But a series of deadly disasters over the years, including a 2015 stampede that killed up to 2,300 worshippers, has prompted criticism of the kingdom’s management of the pilgrimage.
Saudi Arabia on Saturday executed three soldiers for “high treason”, the defence ministry said.
The soldiers were found guilty of “the crime of high treason in cooperation with the enemy” in a way that threatens the kingdom and its military interests, the ministry said in a statement published by the official Saudi Press Agency.
The statement named the three soldiers — Mohammed bin Ahmed, Shaher bin Issa and Hamoud bin Ibrahim — without identifying who they were accused of colluding with.
The announcement comes as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 35-year-old heir to the throne, consolidates his grip on power and as a Saudi-led military campaign intensifies in neighbouring Yemen.
Prince Mohammed is already viewed as the country’s de facto ruler, controlling all the major levers of government, from defence to the economy.
He holds the title of defence minister, while his younger brother Prince Khalid bin Salman is the deputy.
Over the past three years, the crown prince has mounted a sweeping crackdown on critics and rivals, with the imprisonment of prominent royal family members, business tycoons, clerics and activists.
In March last year, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, a brother of King Salman, and the monarch’s nephew Prince Mohammed bin Nayef were detained, multiple sources said, as the crown prince sought to stamp out traces of internal dissent.
Saudi authorities have not publicly commented on their ongoing detention.
Riyadh led a military coalition into Yemen in March 2015 to prop up the internationally recognised government, but it has struggled to oust the Iran-backed Huthi rebels.
It has also faced a surge in missile and drone attacks against the kingdom.
Fighting has also intensified for the key Yemeni region of Marib, with 53 pro-government and Huthi rebel fighters dead in the past 24 hours, loyalist military officials said Saturday.
The Huthis have been trying to seize oil-rich Marib, the government’s last significant pocket of territory in the north, since February.
The latest batch of Nigerian returnees from Saudi Arabia has alleged that the country’s consulate in Saudi Arabia is returning more citizens of the neighboring Niger Republic than Nigerians who are stuck in deportation camps in the Arabian country.
The affected Nigerians who served mostly as house helps in Saudi Arabia also accused their former bosses of sexually molesting and maltreating them while in their service.
“They are not Nigerians, they are Nigeriens. Nigerians are there and they are suffering, I was there for two months plus in the deportation camp,” a visibly angry Nigerian told journalists in Abuja.
Another returnee, who spoke in the Hausa language, lamented the dehumanising treatment they were subjected to in Saudi Arabia.
She said, “My suffering started from my arrival in Saudi Arabia. I was sad because my education couldn’t help me in my country. I was in my master’s house doing my chores.”
Another batch of Nigerians, numbering 255, stranded in Saudi Arabia have returned to the country.
This was announced on Monday by the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM).
In a post on Twitter sharing pictures of the returnees, NIDCOM said the 255 stranded Nigerians arrived at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja via Saudi Air Flight SV3405 at about 1:00 pm local time today Monday, 29th, March 2021.
This according to the agency is the first batch of returnees while the arrival of other returnees is expected in subsequent days.
BREAKING NEWS. EVACUATION.
255 Stranded Nigerians in Saudi Arabia arrived at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja via Saudi Air Flight SV3405 at about 1:00 pm local time today Monday, 29th, March 2021.
The family of Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul said Thursday US President Joe Biden’s election win helped secure her release after nearly three years’ imprisonment, but cautioned she was still far from free.
Hathloul, 31, was provisionally released by Saudi authorities on Wednesday. She was detained in May 2018 with about a dozen other women activists, just weeks before the kingdom’s historic lifting of a decades-long ban on female drivers — a reform they had long campaigned for.
“I would say thank you Mr President that you helped my sister to be released,” Alia al-Hathloul told a virtual press conference.
“It’s a fact that Loujain was imprisoned during the previous administration, and she was released a few days after Biden’s arrival to power.
“Biden’s arrival helped and contributed a lot in my sister’s release.”
Saudi Arabia, which has detained hundreds of activists, clerics as well as royal family members over the past three years, abruptly accelerated some political trials — including that of Hathloul — after Biden’s election win late last year.
Biden, inaugurated last month, has pledged to intensify scrutiny of powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s human rights record after the kingdom received something of a free pass under his predecessor, president Donald Trump.
On Wednesday, Biden welcomed the decision to release her, saying it was “the right thing to do”.
The US State Department said the activist should never have been jailed.
The release of Hathloul, who is still under probation and is barred from leaving Saudi Arabia, came after her siblings launched a vigorous campaign overseas for her freedom in a major embarrassment for the kingdom.
“What we want now is real justice,” Lina said, adding that her sister would exhaust all legal options to overturn restrictions imposed on her.
The siblings said the activist is on probation for three years and faces a five-year travel ban, prompting her to refrain from media interviews and limit her presence on social media.
“Loujain is still not free,” Lina said, adding that the activist’s parents are also banned from leaving Saudi Arabia.
‘Ready to electrocute me’
The siblings posted pictures on Twitter of the smiling activist, who appeared physically weaker and had streaks of grey hair.
When asked what was the first thing her sister did upon her release, Alia said she “bought an ice-cream”, a joy denied to her in detention.
In their first post-release video call with the activist on Wednesday, her other sister Lina al-Hathloul said they could not “trust her smile”.
“We asked her ‘when you were in prison, you said you were fine,'” said Lina.
“She said ‘what did you want me to do? An electric (stun gun was) on my ear… They (prison authorities) were ready to electrocute me’.”
Hathloul’s family has alleged she experienced torture and sexual harassment in detention, claims repeatedly dismissed by a Saudi court.
In late December, a court handed Hathloul a prison term of five years and eight months for terrorism-related crimes, but her family said a partially suspended sentence — and time already served — paved the way for her early release.
The women’s rights activist was convicted of inciting regime change and seeking to disrupt public order, in what her family deplored as a “sham” trial.
Saudi authorities have not officially commented on her detention, trial or release.
“With Hathloul banned from travel and threatened with more prison time if she does not stay silent, her ordeal remains a flagrant miscarriage of justice,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“Saudi Arabia should quash the convictions against Hathloul that essentially deem her women’s rights activism ‘terrorism’, lift the travel ban, and end her suspended sentence.”
While some women activists detained along with Hathloul have been provisionally released, several others remain imprisoned on what campaigners describe as opaque charges.
The detentions have cast a spotlight on the human rights record of the kingdom, an absolute monarchy which has also faced intense criticism over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate.
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday suspended entry from 20 countries, ranging from some neighbouring states to the United States, in a bid to curb a jump in coronavirus infections.
The interior ministry announced the “temporary suspension” would be effective from 9.00 pm (1800 GMT) on Wednesday, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.
The ban applies to neighbouring Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and in the wider region, to Lebanon and Turkey.
In Europe, the ban includes Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland.
Elsewhere, as well as the US, it applies to Argentina, Brazil, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan and South Africa.
Saudi citizens, as well as diplomats and health workers coming from those countries, will be allowed to enter the kingdom “in accordance with the precautionary measures”, it added.
The announcement comes after Saudi’s health minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah warned on Sunday that new coronavirus restrictions could be imposed if citizens and residents do not comply with health restrictions.
Saudi Arabia has reported more than 368,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 6,400 deaths, the highest among Gulf Arab states.
Daily infections dipped below 100 in early January, from a peak of nearly 5,000 last June.
However, new daily infections have tripled since then, with 310 cases reported by the health ministry on Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia launched its coronavirus vaccination campaign on December 17 after receiving the first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
The health ministry said the programme would roll out in three phases, starting with people over 65 and those with chronic ailments, or who are at high risk of infection.
But last month the ministry said it was forced to slow the rollout due to a delay in vaccine deliveries.
He however said the Nigerian government does not support illegal migration.
The evacuation of the stranded Nigerians follows a call for help my them in a video that went viral recently on social media.
The videos showed bodies – wrapped in black polythene bags – lying on the floor in a packed room with a voice narrating that they have been stranded for more than seven months.
The Chairman of NIDCOM, Abike Dabiri-Erewa while responding to the viral video depicting Nigerians pleading to be returned from Saudi Arabia assured that they will be evacuated from the Muslim country by January 28th and 29th.
She attributed the delay to the coronavirus pandemic as both countries bickered over the responsibility of paying for COVID-19 tests.
“I can’t confirm the video. But I know that we have 600 Nigerians that are illegal migrants, that would be leaving Saudi Arabia.
“Yesterday we were with the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Zubairu Dada, and other officials and plans have already been made to get them home before the end of the month pending any unforeseen circumstances,” the NIDCOM boss said.
The NIDCOM chief, who appeared on Channels Televisions flagship News At 10 late Friday, attributed the delay to the coronavirus pandemic as both countries bickered over the responsibility of paying for COVID-19 tests.
While noting that the 600 are now set to be returned home by the end of January, Ms Dabiri-Erewa urged Nigerians to shun illegal migration.
Below is an edited transcript of Ms Erewa-Dabiri’s interview:
CTV: Are you in touch with these Nigerians?
Dabiri-Erewa: I can’t confirm the video. But I know that we have 600 Nigerians that are illegal migrants, that would be leaving Saudi Arabia. Yesterday we were with the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Zubairu Dada, and other officials and plans have already been made to get them home before the end of the month pending any unforeseen circumstances.
It’s been on for a while. Saudi Arabia said they want to rid their country of illegal migrants and they gave them deadlines; and different countries have been taking away their citizens, and Nigeria will do the same thing. But there’s been delays, dates have been changed because of COVID-19, and there have been arguments about who’s responsible for the tests; but everything has been resolved and like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says, they should be home before the end of the month.
What condition are they – the 600 – in at the moment?
They are in a deportation camp awaiting to be returned to Nigeria at the moment. And like I said, they are from different nationalities, different countries, not only Nigerians because Saudi Arabia actually packed the illegal immigrants and said they should all return to their countries once they don’t have proper documentation.
Of course, a deportation camp is never the best place to be and that is why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been working hard to get them back home. And I’ll keep saying, we need to really discourage irregular migration. It’s getting tougher, more dangerous, more difficult to survive as an irregular migrant anywhere in the world.
So one of the things we will be doing is massive awareness of the dangers of irregular migration. Now, this 600 will come back, and don’t be surprised you will still hear tears and cries of ‘oh we are irregular migrants, we are stranded, bring us back home’. So we really have to ensure that we put a stop to this issue of irregular migration. It’s dangerous, it’s deadly, and where you are running to ends up being worse than where you are running away from. So that’s actually the issue we have to deal with as a nation.
What sort of measures is being put in place to stop this?
It’s actually something that every Nigerian should be involved in, not just the government. But on the part of the government, we should work at having a managed migration. Okay, these people are going to work . . . they just want to work. And the people need their services. So why can’t we work at having a properly documented managed migration? Some other countries are doing that. The Philippines does it. They come to you properly and you know what they are being paid. It’s even said they make as much as $6 billion from that. So, really, irregular migration can become regular. It can be made possible to be legal because they need these services. It doesn’t have to be done in an irregular manner. That’s one of the things Nigeria must do, working with other countries. The Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Labour should come together and see the next steps to be taken in this regard.
But for all of us, we need to discourage our citizens from traveling irregularly. President Buhari instructed a delegation to go to Libya. Under his leadership, Nigeria brought back about 7,000 irregular migrants. The International Organisation for Migration played a big role in bringing back Nigerians regularly from Libya. But guess what, we still have stories of people going there. There should be massive awareness, each one talking to the next person; don’t encourage this kind of irregular migration. I was surprised that even on social media, some will say we should still go because the country is so bad. Out there, it is worse. And the government has some things in place that the youths can key into. There are programs. It’s not going to fetch you big money, but you can survive with it.
So we need to talk to young Nigerians. There are opportunities you can key into. It’s tough, we know – Government needs to provide jobs. But we need to also encourage one another that this is a dangerous, torturous journey, and it’s not worth it. If you survived it three years ago, not anymore in today’s age and time.