The number of dead keeps rising in reports on a stampede at a pilgrim camp crossroad on the way to the Jamarat area of the Haj pilgrimage. The exact cause of the stampede is unknown, though clearly overcrowding will be seen to have played an important role.

At least 453 dead in Mina stampede

Saudi Arabia’s civil defense says that at least 453 pilgrims have died on Thursday when a stampede broke out in the city of Mina, reported Al Arabiya News.

At least 719 others were injured in the crush at a crossroads on Street 204 at the camp city at Mina, a few kilometres east of Makkah, the Saudi civil defence said.

Al Arabiya News Channel’s correspondent Abdulrahman Al-Osaimi reporting from Mina emergency hospital said the stampede happened at the entrance of the Jamarat bridge near Street 204, and not inside of the Jamarat area where the stoning pillars are situated.

“The injured have been distributed to four other hospitals in the Mina area. Some of the injured have been evacuated by helicopters to hospitals in Makkah city,” our reporter said.

Al Arabiya TV also provides a timeline of earlier disasters — including other stampedes — that led to high numbers of deaths during the pilgrimage. Balancing public access with public safety is a difficult equation.

Timeline: A look at the worst stampedes during Hajj

UPDATE: The death toll has now reached 717, as of Sept. 25. There are still hundreds of injured being treated, not all of whom are expected to survive.

The groups suffering the highest number of deaths is reported to have been Iranians and Moroccans.

September:24:2015 - 07:10 | Comments Off | Permalink

Arab News provides a concise history of Saudi students studying in the US. Starting with a handful of students on scholarship in the 1940s and 1950s, the number now exceeds 125,000, male and female students. This year, a record 10,491 new students will be arriving.

Rapid rise of Saudi students in America

Saudi Arabia and the United States have enjoyed a fruitful relationship for over eight decades. This has been driven by shared interests and a vision of the late King Abdul Aziz to ensure that the Kingdom has wide and beneficial relations with the entire world, without prejudicing deep-held values and principles based on Islam.

With the discovery of oil, the Kingdom used its newfound economic status to ensure rapid development on all fronts. Apart from a massive focus on upgrading its infrastructure, there was a particular focus on the education and training of its citizens on the secular and religious fronts. This was based on the recognition that people are the true wealth of the nation.

Under the guidance of the late King Abdul Aziz, there were various institutions of learning set up in the Kingdom, with top educators brought in from other Arab countries. In addition, in 1927, Saudi citizens were granted scholarships to study in other Arab countries. It was only later that the king expanded the scholarship program to include the top universities in Europe and the United States.

September:04:2015 - 05:43 | Comments Off | Permalink

Asharq Alawsat runs two opinion pieces today discussing the Al-Khobar barracks bombing of 1996 and the recent arrest of one of the perpetrators. Though the first is not yet mounted at the paper’s website, it can be found at Al Arabiya TV. In both pieces — and we can take this as unofficial reflection of Saudi policy — Iran is lambasted for its support of the bombing, if not its planning. Both pieces rail against Iran’s historic and continued use of terrorism as part of its official statecraft.

In the first, Abdulrahman al-Rashed reviews the history of the attack as well as of Iran’s meddling in the region…

The significance of arresting the 1996 Khobar bomber
Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Who would have thought that the head of the terrorist cell that carried out the Khobar bombing in Saudi Arabia would be arrested after being on the run for 19 years? Arresting Ahmed al-Mughassil in Beirut and handing him over to Saudi authorities in Riyadh has turned the page on one of the most important and dangerous security and political cases. This is because the operation was plotted in Iran, the victims were from the U.S. and the crime was committed on Saudi territories. This case also involved other countries such as Canada, Syria and Lebanon because of the presence of the suspects on their territories.

It is said that the violent attack in the summer of 1996 was so big that the explosion was heard from Bahrain. The force of the bomb caused a10-meter crater in the ground and destroyed one side of the Khobar towers. Nineteen U.S. forces were dead and about 500 others were injured. Perhaps it would have ranked the worst terrorist operation in the world, in terms of injuries, if the perpetrators did not put the bomb in a water truck, which reduced the force of the explosion.

In the second piece, Salman Aldosary asks the whereabouts of others involved in the attack. He again points to Iran…

Where are the other three Khobar Towers suspects?
Salman Aldosary

All the 19 years he spent living in hiding, under assumed identities, did not protect Ahmed Al-Mughassil from being eventually caught. Mughassil, who thought he had escaped from justice, was caught by the Saudi authorities in a complex intelligence operation this month. It is not surprising that Mughassil was living in Iran, using forged Iranian ID cards all along. What would have been really surprising is if the scenario was different: that Iran had no hand in the terrorist bombing that killed 19 US airmen and injured 372 others and that it did not provide the perpetrators with shelter over the past two decades. Following the discovery and arrest of Mughassil, three out of the 14 suspects remain at large. Where are they? Who operates their movements and hides their identities?

Guesswork aside, the other three suspects presumably live in Iran, the country accused of standing behind the terrorist bombing. Even if they were not there, they must have received orders from Tehran to return immediately since Mughassil’s arrest. There is no country in the whole world capable of defying the United States and the international community, sheltering fugitives and terrorists, but Iran. It previously did that with Al-Qaeda members—something which could be supported with evidence. It cannot be imagined that the suspects—Ali Al-Houri, Ibrahim Al-Yacoub and Abdel karim Al-Nasser—who are also members of the so-called Hezbollah Al-Hejaz, an Iran-allied group, have escaped the Interpol’s clutches without some country providing them with shelter and legal cover.

August:29:2015 - 08:33 | Comments Off | Permalink

Arab News reports that UNESCO has recognized the ancient rock art in the area of Ha’il as part of the world’s heritage. The art in question dates primarily from the Bronze Age and features scenes of hunting, animals, and a mysterious glace at society.

Rock art from Ha'il

Credit: Arab News

Global recognition of rich cultural heritage

RIYADH: Inclusion of the Hail rock art in the UNESCO World Heritage List is proof of the Kingdom’s status and cultural profoundness, said the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTNH) on Monday.

Reacting to the announcement of the fourth site in the Kingdom to be added to the UNESCO heritage list after Madain Saleh, the Turaif neighborhood in historic

Al-Diriyah earlier, and historic Jeddah last year, Prince Sultan bin Salman, SCTNH) president, termed the inclusion as proof of the rich cultural profoundness, further asserting that the new entry will be of great benefit to the Kingdom in general and to Hail province in particular as it will provide a great tourist attraction and will further help promote tourism.

Prince Sultan considered the consensus of UNESCO committee members, representing 22 countries, on the importance of the site and necessity of its registration in the World Heritage List, as recognition of Kingdom’s deep-rooted history and heritage.

A description of the rock art from ARAMCO World:

Art Rocks in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Commission on Tourism and National Heritage has its own promotion of the art:

Rock Drawings in Hail province

There is also at website from Saudi Archeology that features excellent photography:

Arabian Rock Art Heritage

July:07:2015 - 07:04 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

Writing at Al Arabiya TV, Joyce Kalam argues that the growth of ISIS has meant the death of the map drawn up by the Sykes-Picot Agreement concluded in 1916. That agreement drew lines on the map of the Middle East that might have made sense for certain European powers — France, the UK, Russia — but made little sense to the people on the ground.

Syria and Iraq, main beneficiaries/victims of the Agreement, have now abandoned their joint border. Intent on the survival of their regimes, they have been forced to pull in toward their centers, Baghdad and Damascus, leaving a vacuum that is now being filled by the disaffected. New borders are going to result, though not any time soon.

ISIS’ ‘Caliphate’ one year later: The end of Sykes-Picot
Joyce Kalam

When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi , the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) flaunted a year ago from the Great Mosque in Mosul the birth of his new “Caliphate,” it was both a statement of the organization’s brutal ambition and the unraveling of the Sykes-Picot map in both Iraq and Syria.

One year later, ISIS as a non-state actor and a terrorist organization is the loudest but not the only symptom of the de facto crumbling of the central nation state structures in Baghdad and Damascus. Understanding its threat and prospects cannot occur absent of this context of rising militias and autonomous groups in what was once “the beating heart of Arab nationalism.”

June:25:2015 - 07:19 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Arab News reports that Type II Diabetes is a serious problem in Saudi Arabia and that it’s going to get worse. Already, the Kingdom ranks 7th in the world and 1st in the GCC in incidence. The article states that Arab genetics produce a higher susceptibility toward developing the disease. Lifestyle, too, plays a role. Arab (and particularly Saudi) diets have undergone massive changes over the past few generations, apparently not for the better when it comes to diabetes, though perhaps positively in terms of overall nutrition.

Diabetes: KSA is 7th in the world, 1st in Gulf

RIYADH: Despite significant improvement internationally in the study and treatment of diabetes over the past five years due to the development of new drugs that control blood sugar levels, endocrinologists have revealed that the Kingdom ranks seventh worldwide and the first in the Gulf in terms of diabetes rates.

Director of the diabetes program at the National Guard, Dr. Saleh Al-Jasser, said the American Diabetes Association stressed that new medicines must be studied to prove their effectiveness and to confirm their degree of safety, following a review of the results of a scientific study conducted over four years about the side effects of some diabetes treatments.

He said that diabetes rates have exceed 23 percent among 60 to 73-year-olds, while Arabs are more susceptible to diabetes due to the existence of particular genes not present in other races.

Consultant physician and head of the Diabetes and Endocrine Unit at King Saudi Medical City in Riyadh, Dr. Morad Al-Morad, said that Type II diabetes affects 400 million people around the world, or 9 percent of the total population, and is expected to increase to 600 million people over the next 20 years.

June:24:2015 - 07:30 | Comments Off | Permalink

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed rails against the way religion is being used as a weapon of mass destruction in the Middle East. He tries to pin the blame on Iran and its regional surrogates, but I think he’s forgetting his history.

Religion has been a popular tool used to mobilize the masses for hundreds, if not thousands of years. We need only look at Afghanistan in the 1980s to see how government — including the US and Saudi Arabia — were willing to enlist religion as a weapon against the “godless Communists.”

Now, religion is being used to wage sectarian war and, of course, that’s a bad thing. But it was also a bad thing when it was used as a club against Israelis as Jews, as a stick with which to beat Baha’is, as a cudgel in the separation of India and Pakistan. The use of religion as a weapon is amazingly foolish because it’s a weapon that cannot be controlled, no matter what the manipulators think. Loosing non-rational dragons is and always will be a tactic that will turn on its masters.

The long-term fallout of religious warfare
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

We are going through a gigantic, chaotic war in the Middle East. It is worse than anything the region witnessed even during the two world wars. All kinds of weapons are being used, from primitive knives to the most advanced military hardware such as drones.

However, the most dangerous weapon of all is religion, because it is capable of mobilizing communities and controlling armies of young people willing to die, and because it is similar to a nuclear bomb: its toxic fallout will last long after the end of the war. Many were killed by radiation caused by the nuclear bombs years after they were dropped on Japanese cities in the Second World War. This is also the case with sectarian wars: their consequences will linger for decades.

Citizens are dragged into civil wars after centuries of coexistence because they are mesmerized by propaganda. If you want to understand your opponent, put yourself in their shoes. Ever since the failure of Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian government in the Syrian war, and the ever-worsening situation in Iraq, these three players have been keen on spreading sectarian bacteria to the Gulf states, which are modern and comprise a variety of social components.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has done the same, focusing its hate speech against Shi’ites. Uncivilized, religious-oriented people have been dragged into sectarian clashes; clerics, intellectuals and a large audience have fallen for this trick. They started accusing each other of reinterpreting history and settling scores. That is what Iran, the Syrian regime and ISIS want.

June:08:2015 - 07:14 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

The Saudi justice system, often decried as harsh and even barbaric, has its elements of mercy as well, a story in The New York Times reports.

A serious issue with the system is that it is erratic. The same crime, adjudged in different courts by different judges, can result in widely varying sentences. Much depends on the sensibilities and sensitivities of the sitting judge. Uncodified laws and the lack of a requirement to rely on legal precedent can result in wide disparities in results.

This is a factor taken into consideration by appeals courts and, ultimately, the King who can issue pardons.

But there are also mechanisms through which the harshest penalties can be avoided. The story reports on just such a case, involving a clear case of murder, in which the miscreant’s life was spared by the daughter of the victim.

If nothing else, the article does a good job of portraying the complexity of a system based on tradition, custom, and religious law.

Saudi Justice, Harsh but Able to Spare the Sword

BURAIDA, Saudi Arabia — The murder that almost cost Bandar al-Yehiya his head started with an old debt to a close friend.

Struggling to raise the cash, Mr. Yehiya invited the friend to his home and offered him a rifle as payment. But when the friend refused, Mr. Yehiya got angry and shot him in the chest, leaving him dead on the living room couch, the slain man’s brother, Faleh al-Homeidani, said.

Mr. Yehiya confessed to the murder, so under Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islamic law, he would face the punishment that has made Saudi justice notorious around the world: beheading in the public square.

But the execution never happened.

Saudi Arabia’s justice system is regularly condemned by human rights groups for violating due process, lacking transparency and applying punishments like beheading and amputation. Criticism has grown as Saudi cases have made news abroad: a liberal blogger caned for criticizing religious leaders; activists jailed for advocating reform; a woman held without charge for more than two months for driving a car.

March:23:2015 - 09:16 | Comments Off | Permalink

An interesting op-ed in Asharq Alawsat from former Editor-in-Chief Tariq Alhomayed. In it, he complains about how media (and others) use names to identify both individuals and groups. It’s a problem of long standing, not just in today’s contexts. Do you use the name the subject uses for self-identification or do you use something else, perhaps assigned for political or other reasons? Who gets to do the naming? And what of the consequences of name that carry emotional or political baggage?

He doesn’t really offer any good solutions, but identifying the fact that names are not just some neutral tag is useful. It might help journalists (and others) to think about names, but it doesn’t offer any useful argument or conclusions on how to deal with the conundrum.

Opinion: Abu Who?
Tariq Alhomayed

One can only be shocked and surprised by the way the Arab media has been reporting on terrorism and terrorists. Most recently we had the story of the Australian teenager Jake Bilardi, aged 18, who is believed to have carried out a suicide bombing in Iraq’s central city of Ramadi on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

What is shocking to me is that the majority of Arab media used this teen’s chosen kunya (an Arabic teknonymic naming convention) of Abu Abdullah Al-Australi (meaning “Father of Abdullah the Australian” in Arabic) in their reports, rather than describing him as what he actually was, namely “the terrorist Jake Bilardi.” Here we must ask ourselves: Is it so important for the media to respect the protocols and naming conventions of terrorists and terrorist groups? Must we ensure that the chosen name of a terrorist is used and repeated again and again until it becomes infamous?

Should we allow terrorists and terrorist groups to promote themselves in our media in this manner? Doesn’t the media have a duty to take a position on this issue? The media, by its very nature, is biased to one degree or another—regardless of claims to neutrality. So a killer must be described as a killer; a criminal as a criminal; and the same applies to a terrorist, even a teenage one.

Today, for example, we find some media outlets describing ISIS as the “Islamic State” or the “Islamic State group.” While other news outlets describe them in the same manner, but make sure to add the term “militant” or “radical” to the mix. But, by adding this description—or shall we say classification—do these latter media outlets inadvertently stumble into the realm of propaganda?

What about the media outlets or governments that insist on using the Arabic acronym of the group and call them “Daesh”? Is this better or worse, particularly when we know that ISIS itself does not approve of this name?

March:18:2015 - 08:32 | Comments Off | Permalink

The Washington Post runs an analysis of human rights issues in Saudi Arabia. The piece notes that the Kingdom receives low marks on whatever metric is being used to measure liberty interests, including women’s rights, free speech, and religious freedom. The quandary is that most Saudis are not calling for changes in the way things work and, what’s more, it has been the government at the forefront of change and liberalization.

The US government, the article notes, is not eager to get involved in pushing for reform when there’s no popular support for reform. It would rather leave it to the Saudi government to implement changes at a pace acceptable to Saudi society.

The article also points to the question marks hanging over the changes in government following the ascension of King Salman, not noted as a reformer himself.

The facts — and a few myths — about Saudi Arabia and human rights
Adam Taylor

For almost 70 years, Saudi Arabia has been a vital U.S. ally in the Middle East. The relationship, which famously opened in a meeting on the Suez Canal between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the first Saudi king, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, is based around shared concerns about regional security and crude oil supplies. It has proved remarkably durable, despite a rapidly changing world.

Over the past few months, however, something seems to have shifted. Americans and other Westerners seem to have grown more and more skeptical about the true nature of their ally. In particular, an unusual set of circumstances — including the fearsome rise of the Islamic State, the death of Saudi King Abdullah and renewed concerns about Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks — has led to a significant public debate about Saudi Arabia’s true values.

One particular source of concern has been the state of human rights in the country, highlighted by a spate of public executions and the high profile punishment of liberal blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam” last year.

February:11:2015 - 08:40 | Comments Off | Permalink

Arab News offers a piece explaining who the new Deputy Crown Prince — second in line to the throne — Prince Muhammed bin Naif is. The article gives a gloss on his involvement with the government and the various jobs he has held, as well as his role in Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism efforts. It does not mention that he has survived four assassination attempts.

Prince Mohammed’s appointment as deputy crown prince welcomed

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman appointed Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Naif as the second-in-line to the throne, according to a royal decree issued Friday.

Prince Mohammed will be the deputy crown prince in addition to his present portfolio as the minister of interior.

Prince Mohammed bin Naif was born in Jeddah on Aug. 30, 1959. The prince is the son of the late Crown Prince Naif.

During his primary, preparatory and secondary education, Prince Muhammed studied at the Capital Institute in Riyadh. Then he studied in the United States during the university stage. In 1401, he obtained the BA degree in political science from Lewis and Clark faculty in Portland. He attended a number of advanced military courses related to anti-terrorism in the Kingdom and abroad.

January:24:2015 - 07:59 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Al Arabiya TV provides a pictorial history of King Salman’s political engagement over the decades:

King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s path to the throne in pictures

January:24:2015 - 07:41 | Comments Off | Permalink
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