Hajj minister says Saudi Arabia’s tech triumph ensured successful season

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The efforts exerted by the government to ensure a hassle-free Hajj and the facilities provided to pilgrims at different levels were highly praised, most notably the health precautions of social distancing and adhering to health requirements. (SPA)
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Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr. Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Benten. (Supplied)
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Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr. Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Benten. (Supplied)
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Updated 17 October 2020

Hajj minister says Saudi Arabia’s tech triumph ensured successful season

  • Kingdom harnesses all its potential to make pilgrims feel at home, prioritizing their safety: Muhammad Saleh Benten

JEDDAH: The Saudi Hajj and Umrah Ministry has shared some of the secrets behind what made the “exceptional” 2020 Hajj season a success, with zero transmitted cases of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr. Muhammad Saleh bin Taher Benten said that the government utilized the latest technology to improve the pilgrim experience this season.
Speaking about his ministry’s efforts in preventing the spread of COVID-19, Benten said that it implemented precautionary measures in every phase of the pilgrimage, starting with the pilgrims being quarantined at home.
It also introduced institutional quarantine from the fourth to the eighth day of the Hajj, gave pilgrims electronic bracelets and enforced social distancing.
“For the second consecutive year, the ministry used the electronic platform through the ‘smart card’ application, taking into account the pilgrims’ special needs in terms of the journey’s organization and management,” he said. “The platform is a digital ID granted to the pilgrim that is directly linked with the ‘Smart Hajj’ application supervised by the ministry.”
He added that the digital ID contains the pilgrims’ personal, health and housing information, such as the numbers of their group, and which bus seat and bed has been allocated to them.
“It also enables pilgrims to know their special program, gathering points and times of departure. Moreover, the ministry registered pilgrims electronically by using an interactive platform that links 52 systems and is complemented by 30 governmental and nongovernmental bodies,” he added.
Relying on those services, the minister said, came as part of the ministry’s strategy to establish virtual platforms that reduce procedures, and keep pace with the technical development required to achieve the Saudi Vision 2030 goal to serve pilgrims.
With every Hajj season having its own challenges, the Hajj and Umrah Ministry has enjoyed success after success. However, the 2020 season put the ministry to an unprecedented test.
“As every year, Saudi Arabia harnesses all its potential and energies to make the Hajj season a success, prioritizing the safety and security of the pilgrims.

FASTFACTS

• When Saudi Arabia took the decision to hold Hajj for a limited number of people, it was keen to comply with all health and precautionary measures.

• This step was taken based on scientific decisions and thorough research studies that would ensure that pilgrims can perform Hajj rituals safely.

• The ministry and all Hajj-related authorities have learned many lessons from the last Hajj experience, where social distancing was implemented.

“However, last year’s Hajj was a little different with the whole world facing the COVID-19 outbreak. During the 2020 Hajj season, the Saudi government faced a rare and unprecedented challenge, and thanks to God, the Kingdom was able to address it,” he said.
He added: “When Saudi Arabia took the decision to hold Hajj for a limited number of people, it was keen to comply with all health and precautionary measures. This step was taken based on scientific decisions and thorough research studies that would ensure that pilgrims could perform Hajj rituals safely.”
He said that the efforts exerted by the Saudi government in this regard and the various facilities provided to pilgrims at different levels were highly praised, most notably the health precautions of social distancing and adhering to health requirements.
The ministry and all Hajj-related authorities have learned many lessons from the last Hajj experience, where social distancing was implemented. The minister shed light on the most notable lessons, and how they can benefit future seasons.
“The ministry implemented social distancing protocols in all phases of the pilgrims moving between the holy sites through limiting the seating capacity of buses to 50 percent,” said Benten.
As for the residence of pilgrims, officials conducted tests for all pilgrims and workers and assigned health observers to ensure guidelines were maintained.
He added: “Moreover, 49-seat buses were assigned to each group of 22 passengers, and Hajj routes were fixed in a way to achieve social distancing. These measures resulted in zero transmission of COVID-19 between pilgrims and their service providers.”
As many government officials have said in the past, preparations for the next Hajj season begin as soon as the previous iteration ends.
One of the advantages of the extraordinary 2020 season was that the ministry could accelerate projects in the holy sites.
Benten told Arab News that his ministry works every year on developing the services provided for pilgrims, to enrich their experience through providing diverse programs and initiatives.
“The ministry always benefits from the accumulated experiences, large-scale projects and personnel to provide the finest services with the best levels for pilgrims,” he said. “One of those initiatives that benefited the ministry, which will continue to implement it in the future, is the preparation and improvement of the holy sites, the preparation of a comprehensive scheme to expand the capacity and receive the largest number of pilgrims in order to achieve comfort, security, safety and environmental dimensions, reduce pollution and study spatial dimensions.”
He added that the ministry aims for a record time reception of pilgrims through the unified center to analyze data, enhancing crowd control efficiency and rapid intervention, reducing time to organize pilgrims, and distributing them equally.
The Hajj and Umrah companies have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic; with some failing to meet their obligations towards their employees.
“The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has provided a myriad of facilities to these companies since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic through developing work and encouraging mergers and investments in Umrah companies,” Benten said.
He added that the ministry has also contributed to reducing the value of financial security for nondefaulting active Umrah companies to SR250,000 ($66,666) for six months.
“The ministry also authorized Umrah companies to reduce their capital in the commercial register to SR500,000 ($133,332), close their doors for one year, and postpone payment of nonessential violations for six months,” said Benten.
The ministry launched the business clinics unit, which is one of its programs aimed at helping companies review their mechanisms and operational plans.
“The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah will also be organizing many workshops and training programs for Umrah companies on strategies to recover from the COVID-19 crisis and the means of developing their business with efficiency,” he concluded.


Saudi Food and Drug Authority wins UN award

Updated 18 October 2021

Saudi Food and Drug Authority wins UN award

  • The 2021 award recognized the SFDA’s commitment to realizing its vision of becoming “a leading international science-based regulator to protect and promote public health”

JEDDAH: The Saudi Food and Drug Authority has won a UN award for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases.

It was honored for its efforts to prevent and control these diseases through nutrition-related legislation.

In line with the Vision 2030 Quality of Life Program, the authority set out in 2018 to improve public health and enable consumers to find a variety of healthier food options.

The UN Inter-Agency Task Force Award on the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases aims to encourage cooperation between UN bodies and global governments to support efforts in combating noncommunicable diseases associated with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The 2021 award recognized the SFDA’s commitment to realizing its vision of becoming “a leading international science-based regulator to protect and promote public health.” 

The authority seeks to protect and ensure community safety through regulations and adequate controls of food, drugs, medical devices, cosmetics, and pesticides.

Since its launch, the SFDA has worked on several pieces of legislation related to food products and food establishments.

The legislation was introduced to improve the nutritional value of food products in local markets by limiting the consumption of sugar, salt, and fat, and obligating food establishments with menu labeling for calories and allergens.

It also launched several initiatives and awareness campaigns on proper nutrition and the healthy choices available in food and beverages.

The initiatives include the Food Labeling Nutrition Calculator and the revival of the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables in food establishments and the workplace.

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War of words as print defies e-book rivals

Updated 18 October 2021

War of words as print defies e-book rivals

  • Tradition is trumping tech in Saudi Arabia, with readers and publishers on the same page

MAKKAH: The march of technology might be gathering pace in all areas of Arab life, but when it comes to reading and enjoying books, old habits die hard, it seems.

Despite warnings in recent years of print’s imminent demise, traditional books are still holding their own against their electronic rivals, as Saudis continue to enjoy the sensation of turning over a new page.

Many publishing houses in the Middle East have acknowledged the power of the printed word, with books maintaining their superiority, especially at book fairs. Buyers still prefer the elegance and feel of a printed masterpiece.

However, publishers acted early to counter the threat posed by electronic books, adopting careful strategies to protect their publications and also fight the growing problem of content piracy. 

Rania Al-Moallem, a commissioning editor at Dar Al-Saqi, told Arab News that there is still a relatively low demand for e-books, mainly due to the limited availability of digital devices, which are still considered a luxury item by many people.

“Buying e-books online is not available to everyone, and there is also an emotional bond between readers and print books. Even readers who are able to buy e-books still prefer print, which is understandable,” she said.

An e-book is a protected electronic copy of a book, making piracy and illegal publication difficult. The copy protects the material rights of the writer, primarily, but also the publisher compared with fake electronic copies found online in PDF, Word or other forms.

“Dar Al-Saqi’s publications have been characterized by their format and high-quality content over the years. It is mainly concerned with acting in the reader’s interest and satisfying their tastes as we give great attention to the subject, style and language,” Al-Moallem said.

“We also focus on the final form of the book in terms of presentation, page layout, font and letter size, paper type, cover design and size. All such considerations are subject to the changes and developments experienced with the advancement of the publishing world,” she added.

As well as high-quality print books, the publisher also caters to e-readers through several platforms and has launched an Al-Saqi Digital Library.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Publishers faced problems with piracy and uploading of books in PDF format online for free, and have filed complaints with Google in a bid to curb the practice, he said.

• Majid Shebr said that despite their widespread availability, e-books are frequently said to cause eye fatigue. Meanwhile, paper books maintain their dominance in Europe and the Arab world through book fairs.

“We are aware that the e-book market is yet to be properly established and the print book is still the much preferred format. However, we are also aware of the importance of engaging with e-book readers, as we believe that the relationship between them is complementary, rather than competitive,” Al-Moallem said.

Despite the tech wave, it is evident that devoted readers in the Kingdom are engaged in a constant hunt for the perfect copy, as evidenced by scenes at the Riyadh International Book Fair, where people, young and old, walked out with handfuls of books.

Majid Shebr, manager of Al-Warrak Publishing in London, said that e-books in the Gulf region are still at an embryonic stage.

Publishers faced problems with piracy and uploading of books in PDF format online for free, and have filed complaints with Google in a bid to curb the practice, he said. 

Arab states lack platforms that can target free pirated books, which directly affect publishers and pose a significant challenge.

Shebr said that despite their widespread availability, e-books are frequently said to cause eye fatigue. Meanwhile, paper books maintain their dominance in Europe and the Arab world through book fairs.

“I was in a Waterstones book store in London to look at the latest releases and saw that large numbers of people still choose paper books,” he said.

Shebr said the competition between the print and electronic formats is driven by the reader’s style and language convenience.

Egyptian writer and novelist Rasha Samir said that as an avid reader, she doubted that e-books could ever match the pleasure of reading print.

“I cannot get rid of the habit of reading paper books and I cannot read electronically at all. The feel of a book, the smell, and the written dedication of literary figures are the secret of my attachment to this type of reading,” she said.

“Paper books will always be my treasure that I keep on the shelves of my large library,” she said.

Some publishers believe that publishing electronically allows them to sell their publications faster, and that online advertisements are easier and do not cost as much compared with paper publications.

Others believe that electronic publishing will eliminate paper books, but these are the origins of the industry, and this should be combated.

Samir added: “There is no fault in finding a literary work electronically, as it gives easy access to several groups such as expatriates and Arabs who live far from Arab libraries. It has now become a means that supports publications and advertises the work of a writer; it has become a good way to shorten the distances that paper books cannot minimize sometimes.”

She said that the response to print or electronic books often depends on the reader’s age and older generations are reluctant to abandon paper, while younger people might see it as nonpractical at a time dominated by modern technology.

With the new generation, whose lives are dominated by technology and the internet, publications need to keep pace, Samir said.

“This is a generation that learns through social media and no longer uses paper books as a source of information. Google is their most trusted source, which is a problem, so we need to meet them halfway, encourage them to read and learn in their own way while we help guide them. We should also push them to understand the value of books, evaluate their content and distinguish valuable books from cheap ones.”

Even if reading on paper transitioned to reading on Kindle or any other device, as educated people, we should continue to advocate for paper books and the preservation of their place.

Adel Houshan, a Saudi poet and novelist, said that even after the demise of some print empires in the Arab world and around the globe, digital projects, including e-books and audiobooks, still suffer due to two reasons.

“The first is related to advertising, as they rely on institutions and small projects that cannot find a way to break the power of paper books and their rich history. The second reason is Arab book festivals, which are growing in popularity with the help of social media,” he said.

“Years ago, we said that paper will not last long, but old habits die hard.”


Saudi minister Al-Jubeir, Spanish envoy discuss ways to enhance Saudi-Spanish ties

Updated 18 October 2021

Saudi minister Al-Jubeir, Spanish envoy discuss ways to enhance Saudi-Spanish ties

RIYADH: The minister of state for foreign affairs, Adel Al-Jubeir, on Sunday received the Spanish ambassador to the Kingdom, Alvaro Iranzo, the Saudi Press Agency reported. 

During their meeting in Riyadh, they reviewed bilateral relations between the two countries and ways to support and develop them.

They also discussed regional and international developments of common interest.

The meeting was attended by the Foreign Ministry’s undersecretary for multilateral international affairs, Abdulrahman bin Ibrahim Al-Rassi.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received a phone call last month from Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

They reviewed bilateral relations between the two countries and ways to enhance them in various fields.

On Oct. 12, King Salman and the crown prince sent greetings to King Felipe VI of Spain on the country’s national day.

They wished the king good health and happiness and the government and people of Spain progress and prosperity.

 


A new batch of Saudi pilots get their wings

Updated 18 October 2021

A new batch of Saudi pilots get their wings

  • Pilots must complete the three years of training before getting their wings

JEDDAH: A new batch of young female and male pilots are taking to the skies after receiving their pilot licenses from the Oxford Saudia Flight Academy on Sunday.

Pilots from the academy’s first graduating class will now receive a three-year contract where they will develop their skills and reach up to 750 hours annual flying hours.

The academy was established in 2018 near King Fahd International Airport in Dammam at the Saudi National Center of Aviation.

As the eighth branch of the Oxford pilot school, it aims to bring the best aviation trainers to the Kingdom.

The Saudi National Center of Aviation aims to have a pilot school, a maintenance training center, and a simulator training center for commercial airlines.

The training program at the school is approved under the GACAR 141 pilot school certification and caters to students in the GCC region.

Pilots must complete the three years of training before getting their wings.

The first year includes learning the basics and passing the flight acceptance test.

In the second year, students learn the practical dynamics of flying and are provided with three licenses at the end of their performance.

They earn the private pilot license, the instrument use license, and the commercial pilot license, which enables them to train on the Airbus 320 in their final year.

Every year, 300 students are enrolled in the training, with female students making up 10 percent of the classes.

The academy is expected to open two more branches at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah and at Princess Nourah University in Riyadh.

The academy has agreements with five Chinese airlines and an Ethiopian airline for training its their students.

It has also signed a contract to purchase 60 European Diamond aircraft, as well as four flight simulators dedicated to the Diamond. It will manufacture one full-motion and one fixed-motion Airbus 320 simulator, costing SR50 million ($13.3 million).


Who’s Who: Abdullah Mohammed Al-Sadhan, vice governor at KSA’s  Zakat, Tax and Customs Authority

Updated 18 October 2021

Who’s Who: Abdullah Mohammed Al-Sadhan, vice governor at KSA’s  Zakat, Tax and Customs Authority

Abdullah Mohammed Al-Sadhan is vice governor of operations at the Zakat, Tax and Customs Authority after the merger of the General Authority of Zakat and Tax and the General Authority of Saudi Customs as of October 2021.

Prior to assuming this role, he served as deputy governor of operations at the erstwhile GAZT since 2017 and played a prominent role in the implementation of VAT in the Kingdom. This gained him a reputation as a strong and supportive leader who can successfully deliver national-level strategic projects in challenging and highly pressurized environments.

Before joining the ZATCA, he worked as director of planning and performance at STC from 2016 to 2017, where he devised and implemented strategic business plans, contributed to the expansion of business opportunities and managed bottom-line factors to maximize efficiency and realize substantial revenue growth.

He worked as an advisor at the Saudi Organization for Certified Public Accountants from 2013 to 2016, where he participated, in collaboration with the former Ministry of Commerce and Industry, in building and launching the Qaweem system, which allows companies to deposit all financial information electronically using innovative technology tools, such as InlineXBRL. Here, Al-Sadhan also played a prominent role in establishing the Bayan Credit Bureau.

Prior to this, he also worked with the Saudi Stock Exchange from 2006 to 2013, where he led major projects including new system implementations and the introduction of a new issuer listing process.

Al-Sadhan is also currently a board member at the Saudi Business Center and SOCPA since January 2019.

He was a member of the Audit Committee at the Bayan Credit Bureau from June 2017 to December 2020.

He earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in professional accounting from King Saud University and a diploma in commercial banks credit from the Arab Academy for Banking and Financial Services.