Economies of Arab countries to shrink by 5.7% amid pandemic: UN report

News Network
July 23, 2020

Beirut, Jul 23: The pandemic will exact a heavy toll on Arab countries, causing an economic contraction of 5.7% this year, pushing millions into poverty and compounding the suffering of those affected by armed conflict, a U.N. report said Thursday.

The U.N.'s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia expects some Arab economies to shrink by up to 13%, amounting to an overall loss for the region of $152 billion.

Another 14.3 million people are expected to be pushed into poverty, raising the total number to 115 million — a quarter of the total Arab population, it said. More than 55 million people in the region relied on humanitarian aid before the COVID-19 crisis, including 26 million who were forcibly displaced.

Arab countries moved quickly to contain the virus in March by imposing stay-at-home orders, restricting travel and banning large gatherings, including religious pilgrimages.

Arab countries as a whole have reported more than 830,000 cases and at least 14,717 deaths. That equates to an infection rate of 1.9 per 1,000 people and 17.6 deaths per 1,000 cases, less than half the global average of 42.6 deaths, according to the U.N.

But the restrictions exacted a heavy economic toll, and authorities have been forced to ease them in recent weeks. That has led to a surge in cases in some countries, including Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

Wealthy Gulf countries were hit by the pandemic at a time of low oil prices, putting added strain on already overstretched budgets. Middle-income countries like Jordan and Egypt have seen tourism vanish overnight and a drop in remittances from citizens working abroad.

War-torn Libya and Syria have thus far reported relatively small outbreaks. But in Yemen, where five years of civil war had already generated the world's worst humanitarian crisis, the virus is running rampant in the government-controlled south while rebels in the north conceal its toll.

Rola Dashti, the head of the U.N. commission, said Arab countries need to “turn this crisis into an opportunity” and address longstanding issues, including weak public institutions, economic inequality and over-reliance on fossil fuels.

“We need to invest in survival, survival of people and survival of businesses,” she said.

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News Network
September 23,2020

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Sharjah, Sep 23: An Indian expatriate cannot believe that he can finally go home after 20 years, with Dh750,000 of fine waived off by Sharjah authorities.

What's in a name? Even a letter matters, says Thanavel Mathiazhaagan, an Indian worker in the UAE who is set to return home after being granted a waiver of nearly Dh750,000 in overstay fines, reports Gulf News.

The man from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu claims that he could not avail amnesty opportunities in the UAE in the last 20 years as his identity verification was not cleared from India due to a mismatch in his father's name in documents back home and that shown in his passport. As it turns out, there was a spelling error in his father's name in the documents in India.

Mathiazhaagan, 56, said he himself realised this (the reason for not getting the clearance) only after his latest request for repatriation was taken up by two social workers in the UAE after he sought their help to return home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

He told media that he had landed in the UAE in 2000 after paying Rs 120,000 (Dh6,048) to a recruitment agent for a job in Abu Dhabi. This could be verified from the stamp on his employment visa entry permit -- the only document that Mathiazhaagan has preserved, apart from a copy of the last page of his passport.

He said the agent had taken his original passport, claiming that his residence visa would be stamped in the passport once he gets the medical fitness certificate issued.

"I took the medical test and waited for my employment visa. But, the agent kept delaying it and later I got to know that the company, which was supposed to hire me, had shut down." Eventually, he said, the agent stopped answering his calls and could not be traced at all later.

"I stayed in a room with some people from my native place. I lived there for eight months with no job. After that I came to Sharjah and started doing odd jobs."

Mathiazhaagan said he illegally stayed in the UAE to feed his family by doing part-time jobs for various households and companies.

He claimed that he did try for returning home during the previous visa amnesty offers in the UAE and lost more than Dh10,000 to people who promised to help him with clearance of his documents that never came through.

Prior to the fine waiver announced till November 17 this year for people with expired visas or who had their visas cancelled before March 1 during the Covid-19 pandemic, the UAE government had granted visa amnesties in 2003, 2007, 2012 and 2018.

Gulf News could not independently verify if Mathiazhaagan had indeed applied for an emergency certificate (EC), a one-way travel document issued to Indians without a valid passport, in order to facilitate their return home, during the earlier instances of amnesty.

However, A. K. Mahadevan and Chandra Prakash. P, who helped Mathiazhaagan get an EC through the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi, said he had failed to get identity clearance from India during the pandemic. They said they found out the reason behind the rejection only after Mathiazhaagan met Mahadevan, seeking help to return home.

"His name is Thanavel Mathiazhaagan as per the copy of the last page of his lost passport and the UAE entry permit," said Prakash, the Vice-President of Indian People's Forum, a community organisation that also pitched to get a travel clearance for Mathiazhaagan.

"Unfortunately, the documents sent by Trichy Regional Passport Office to the Senthurai Police Station for his identity verification showed his father's name as Thangavel whereas his father's actual name is Thanavel -- according to all other records. The additional letter 'g' in the name created the problem," said Prakash.

The duo said they approached the Indian Embassy and the local departments in Mathiazhaagan's village to rectify the mistake and process his documents. "Indian Ambassador to the UAE Pavan Kapoor took special interest in solving this case after the issue was taken up with him," said Prakash.

Mahadevan said he was happy that Mathiazhaagan would be flying home soon and meeting his youngest daughter, who had not even been born when he left India for the UAE.

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News Network
September 23,2020

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Riyadh, Sept 23: Saudi Arabia on Wednesday suspended air travel to and from India, Brazil and Argentina, in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the country's Civil Aviation Authority, people with travel history to any of the mentioned countries 14 days prior to their arrival to the Kingdom, have also been barred.

"Suspending travel to and from the following countries (India, Brazil, and Argentina) including any person who has been in any of the mentioned countries in the last (14) days prior to their arrival to the Kingdom," General Authority of Civil Aviation said in a statement.

However, those who have official government invitations are excluded.

Saudi Arabia to re-allow umrah pilgrimage

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has allowed pilgrims residing inside the country to undertake the umrah pilgrimage beginning on October 4, after a seven-month pause due to coronavirus concerns, state news agency SPA reported.

Umrah is an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina undertaken any time of the year, attracting 19 million people last year.

Saudi Arabia had instituted a freeze on umrah in March.

It will now allow 6,000 citizens and residents inside the kingdom to perform umrah daily, representing 30% of a revised capacity of 20,000 that takes into account precautionary health measures, SPA added. That will expand to 75% of capacity on October 18.

Beginning November 1, Saudi Arabia will allow visitors from specific countries deemed safe to perform umrah at 100% of the revised capacity, until the end of the pandemic, SPA said.

This year, Saudi Arabia conducted a limited haj, the larger pilgrimage that usually attracts around 3 million people, for a few thousand citizens and residents.

Official data show haj and umrah earn the kingdom about 12 billion USD a year.

On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia reported 330,798 total cases of coronavirus and 4,542 deaths, as cases in the Gulf region topped 800,000.

Global COVID-19 cases

The overall number of global coronavirus cases has topped 31.5 million, while the deaths have increased to more than 969,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.

As of Wednesday morning, the total number of cases stood at 31,517,087 and the fatalities rose to 969,578, the University's Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) revealed in its latest update.

The US is the worst-hit country with the world's highest number of cases and deaths at 6,896,218 and 200,786, respectively, according to the CSSE.

India comes in second place in terms of cases at 5,562,663, while the country`s death toll soared to 90,020.

The other top 15 countries with the maximum amount of cases are:

             Brazil (4,591,364)

             Russia (1,111,157)

             Colombia (777,537)

             Peru (768,895)

             Mexico (705,263)

             Spain (682,267)

             South Africa (663,282)

             Argentina (652,174)

             France (507,150)

             Chile (448,523)

             Iran (429,193)

             UK (406,058)

             Bangladesh (352,178)

             Saudi Arabia (330,798)

             Iraq (327,580)

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News Network
September 23,2020

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Jeddah, Sept 23: Saudi Arabia has announced the gradual resumption of Umrah and visits to the Two Holy Mosques with a limited number of pilgrims, starting from Oct. 4, 2020, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Tuesday citing a source at the Ministry of Interior.

The ministry source said that based on the reports of the competent authorities regarding coronavirus developments and in response to the aspirations of many Muslims at home and abroad to perform Umrah, and based on the leadership's keenness on the health and safety of the visitors the Two Holy Mosques, a royal approval has been given to allow the performance of Umrah and visits to the Two Holy Mosques gradually while taking the necessary health preventative measures.

In the first phase, citizens and expatriates from within the Kingdom will be allowed to perform Umrah at a capacity of 30 percent from Oct. 4 that translates to 6,000 pilgrims per day following the health precautionary measures of the Grand Mosque.

In the second phase, citizens and expatriates inside the Kingdom will be allowed to perform Umrah, visit the Rawdah in the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, and pray in Two Holy Mosques, starting from Oct. 18, with a 75 percent capacity limit that is equivalent of nearly 15,000 pilgrims per day and 40,000 worshippers per day following the health precautionary measures for the Grand Mosque, as well as 75 percent of the capacity in line with the health precautionary measures for the Rawdah in the Prophet’s Mosque.

In the third phase, pilgrims from abroad would be allowed to perform Umrah as of Nov. 1 with a full capacity of 20,000 pilgrims and 60,000 worshipers per day and it will continue until the official end of the coronavirus pandemic or the official announcement that the danger is over. The arrival of Umrah performers and visitors from outside the Kingdom shall be gradual from the countries that are free from health risks related to the coronavirus pandemic, the source added.

The fourth phase will allow the performance of Umrah, visit and prayers by citizens and expatriates from inside and outside the Kingdom, at 100 percent of the normal capacity of the Grand Mosque and the Prophet's Mosque, when the competent authority decides that the risks of the pandemic has disappeared.

Meanwhile, the entry of pilgrims, worshipers and visitors shall be regulated through the application (Etamarna), which will be launched by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, with the aim of implementing the health standards and controls approved by the Ministry of Health and the competent authorities.

The source called upon pilgrims, worshipers and visitors to adhere to preventive measures and apply the health instructions and requirements, including wearing face masks, keeping a safe distance, and avoiding a physical contact.

The source affirmed the Kingdom's keenness to enable the pilgrims from inside and outside the Kingdom to perform the rituals in a safe and healthy manner fulfilling the preventative requirements and spatial distancing in order to ensure human safety and protection from the threats of this pandemic, and achieve the objectives of the Islamic law in preserving human lives.

The source explained that the stages announced in this statement will be subjected to continuous evaluation, according to the developments of the pandemic.

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