From Westminster to Makkah: Two British MPs join the Hajj pilgrimage

Naz Shah, left, and Yasmin Qureshi in Makkah. (AN photo/Essam Al-Ghalib)
Updated 09 August 2019
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From Westminster to Makkah: Two British MPs join the Hajj pilgrimage

  • Both women are members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Hajj and Umrah

MAKKAH: Among more than 2 million Hajj pilgrims thronging the holy sites are two British Members of Parliament — Yasmin Qureshi, Labour MP for Bolton South East and Shadow Minister for Justice, and Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West.

Both women are members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Hajj and Umrah, and they work with the British and Saudi governments to ensure that UK pilgrims have the best experience possible.

“Basically I managed to get MPs from different political parties together so that we could set up the organization, which I chair, to ensure the experience of people performing Hajj and Umrah is a good one, both for the UK and the Kingdom,” Qureshi told Arab News. 

“Our aim is to try to let the British government and the Saudi government know some of the issues and challenges that we had, and try to work constructively so that we can make the experience of the people who come for Umrah and Hajj a good one.”

For Shah, being a member of the parliamentary group is of particular importance to her and her constituents. “Over 50 percent of my constituents are Muslim,” she said. “I do a lot of work on Islamophobia etc, but also with Hajj and Umrah, the experiences of my constituents are very important to me because many of them make the sacred journey every single year and throughout the year for Umrah. 

“So the parliamentary group is in regular contact with officials here. We want to make sure that the experience of Hajj and Umrah is the right one for our constituents, to make sure they get the best out of it, because often there are issues related to people coming to Hajj and Umrah and we want to make sure it is as smooth as possible.”

There are 26,000 Hajj pilgrims from the UK this year, and 126,000 have already performed Umrah in 2019.

The parliamentary group deals mainly with the Saudi Embassy in London, and Qureshi has had a good experience with the Kingdom’s representatives in the UK. “I have to say that the Saudi Embassy has been absolutely brilliant,” she said. “Whenever I have had to call them about one of our constituents who has got an issue because someone in his family has passed away, they have been very kind and compassionate, granting the visas to come. 

“I really want to actually take the opportunity to thank the Saudi Embassy in the UK, but also the Kingdom, for the way things are done here to make the experience of Hajj and Umrah a good one. I have to congratulate the Kingdom for the tremendous work they have done over the years to make sure that the experience is a comfortable one, and I am looking forward to Hajj over the next few days.”

A little over two weeks ago, Qureshi had no plans to perform the Hajj this year, but an unexpected phone call changed her plans. “For me it is a dream to be here,” she said. “The call came very much out of the blue, inviting me to come to Hajj. I was actually booked on a flight elsewhere and that changed at the very last minute.

“For me, as a Muslim, for God to call me to be here, is such a humbling experience, such a privilege, such an honor to be here among so many Muslims from around the world who made the journey.”

The Kingdom’s sweeping reforms over the past three years to empower women have not gone unnoticed in the UK.  “I think it is great that women are able to drive, and that they don’t need to get permission from a guardian to be able to do things,” Qureshi said. “It is a good initiative and I think it will make the lives of women far better. It is something that people like myself, we welcome very much.”

This will be Qureshi’s second Hajj. The last time was 20 years ago, when Makkah, Mina and Muzdalifah were very different places from what they are now. “The first time, I was quite young, and with my mother,” she said. “Most of these hotels near the Grand Mosque were not there, and now I understand in Mina there are air-conditioned camps, trains and food, and many other things available.”

For Shah, it is a first visit to the Kingdom, a journey she has been eager to undertake her entire life. “I landed in Madinah, had an amazing time there, went to Al-Masjid An-Nabawi, spiritually it was very important for me to make that journey , then we arrived here in Makkah on the new train, which was really interesting.

“The new investment that the government has put in is very impressive and has made the journey very pleasant. 

“Then landing here in the Holy City, in Makkah, that first experience of raising my gaze to see the Kaaba was absolutely amazing. It is one of those moments you carry with you for the rest of your life. It is indescribable to anyone, because the emotion is so internal you really feel it.”


US training helps Saudi pilots avoid civilian casualties

Updated 40 min 50 sec ago
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US training helps Saudi pilots avoid civilian casualties

  • Saudi-led coalition has made mistakes in Yemen war but has apologized for them
  • Saudi pilots have been working with their US counterparts to improve targeting

CHICAGO: Saudi pilots in the fight to destroy terrorist cells in Yemen have been receiving high-level training by the US military to reduce civilian casualties, Arab News has learned.

The war against the Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen began after they toppled the UN-backed government.

The Saudi-led coalition has made mistakes but has apologized for them. Just over a year ago, for example, the Houthis fired missiles at Jazan and other civilian communities in southwest Saudi Arabia. The Saudis responded with airstrikes; one of the missiles accidentally struck a school bus, killing 30 children.

Since then, Saudi pilots have been working with their US counterparts to improve targeting. Pentagon officials say the training has resulted in a significant reduction in civilian casualties in the Yemen conflict.

“It’s a difficult challenge … but we believe, and the Saudis agree, that everything needs to be done to protect civilians,” said a senior Pentagon official, who asked not to be identified because of the ongoing training.

There has been a marked decrease in civilian casualties ... the Saudis deserve credit for the improvements.

Pentagon official

He added that civilians are often unintended victims of conflicts and efforts to eliminate terrorist threats, especially when militants operate in areas heavily populated by civilians.

The US has been working in different ways to help the Saudis improve some procedures and encourage expedited, transparent assessment of alleged civilian casualties.

“Training has helped them reduce non-combatant casualties. We believe there has been a marked decrease in the number of civilian casualties,” said the Pentagon official.

“The Saudis have been very good partners. They deserve the credit for the improvements and changes.”

Salman Ansari, founder of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC), commended the US and Saudi militaries for the training.

“As a reliable ally and trusted friend, it’s highly commendable that the US is helping train Saudi pilots in precision and avoiding casualties,” he said.

“This is a true example of positive engagement, and demonstrates the deeply rooted US support for Saudi Arabia,” he added.

“It’s true that the Saudi-led coalition has made mistakes in the past, but these mistakes have been accounted for and investigated,” Ansari said.


“The training of our pilots … shows that we’re serious about avoiding casualties. The same logic can’t be applied to the Houthis, who deliberately attack civilian targets in Saudi Arabia regularly and brag about it.”

 


TIMELINE

Feb. 2012: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh hands over power to Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Iran begins to arm Houthi militias.
Sept. 2014: The Houthis launch a nationwide assault, targeting civilians and Yemeni government institutions.
April 2015: Houthis driving Iranian tanks kill 12 civilians in an attack in Aden.
Sept. 2015: The Houthis launch Iranian-supplied Tochka ballistic missiles, killing 60 coalition soldiers.
Dec. 2017: The militias target and kill Saleh near his hometown.
Dec. 19, 2017: The Houthis fire missiles at Riyadh.
June 2019: The militias strike Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport, killing at least one civilian and wound nearly 50.
July 2019: The Houthis target Abha airport, injuring nine civilians.
July 2019: The militias ambush Saudi soldiers in Jazan, killing four.
Aug. 2019: The Houthis attack a military graduation ceremony in Aden, killing 36 people, including a commander.


Without disclosing how many Saudis are involved in the training or where it is taking place, the Pentagon official said the program focuses on aspects of military responses to Houthi provocations.

“We’re working with the Saudis on making onsite decisions as to whether strikes should continue,” he added.

“Everything starts with intelligence, doing a better job of gathering intelligence on the battlefield and developing strike targets.”

The official said making positive identification of intended targets is key to protecting civilians.

He added that operations need to ensure that there is a “strong command and control link,” and that forces are not sent “looking for targets” but have a “clear and deliberate chain of command” for the strikes.

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He said it is important for pilots to be able to make decisions themselves during operations, and to be encouraged to provide onsite information that might contradict intelligence used to select targets.

“We want the pilots to feel empowered to not have to strike a target if they feel there’s something wrong or inaccurate,” said the official. “We teach them how important they are to a successful campaign.”

He added that the Saudi pilots are enthusiastic in embracing the strategies and avoiding civilian casualties.

“No one wants to have an accident … on their conscience,” he said. “The pilots are already well trained in flying their aircraft … but we hold seminars to talk to them about the specifics of each of the areas of training.”

Ansari said: “We must always remember the causes of this war, which was forced upon the Saudi-led coalition.”

He added: “It was a war caused by the overthrow of a legitimate UN-backed government at the hands of an Iran-backed militia that prides itself on its ‘Death to America’ slogan, and attacked the US Navy three times during the time of the Obama administration.”

In a recent op-ed for Arab News, Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former intelligence officer, called the Saudi response to the Houthi attacks a “necessary campaign” that is “failing in the public relations arena.”

He wrote that “if it ultimately fails, then Iran will have another Hezbollah in the region — and that’s the goal.”

Pregent added: “The Saudis are going out of their way to show their targeting process is aligned with the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and that they are rushing humanitarian aid in, only for it to be stopped by Iran’s Quds Force and the Tehran-backed Houthis. Few give the Saudis credit for trying to do this right.”