Battle for the Nile: How Egypt will be impacted by Ethiopia’s filling of GERD reservoir
For 10 years Ethiopia has failed to reach an agreement with Egypt and Sudan on how quickly the reservoir should be filled
On the eve of the summer rains on the Ethiopian Highlands, the dam is all but complete and filling is about to begin
Updated 19 June 2021
LONDON: In the decade since Ethiopia announced it was going to build Africa’s biggest hydropower dam on the Blue Nile, the source of the bulk of Egypt’s water, the prospect has loomed over Egyptians as an existential threat.
For 10 years Ethiopia has failed to reach an agreement with Egypt and Sudan, its two downstream neighbors, on how quickly its vast reservoir should be filled, and how the electricity-generating Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be operated in the years to come. Now, on the eve of the anticipated annual summer rains that fall on the Ethiopian Highlands, the dam is all but complete and filling is about to begin in earnest.
Dramatic audio recording reveals moment gunmen boarded tanker
Updated 05 August 2021
JEDDAH: The UN was urged on Wednesday to take action against Tehran after two Iranian attacks on shipping in the Gulf in less than a week.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the UN Security Council “must respond to Iran’s destabilizing actions and lack of respect for international law.”
Raab spoke after Iranian hijackers who seized the Panama-flagged tanker Asphalt Princess off the UAE coast on Tuesday fled the vessel, and it resumed its course toward the port of Sohar in northern Oman.
In a dramatic audio recording of the incident, one of the tanker’s crew tells the UAE coast guard that five or six armed Iranians have boarded the vessel.
“Iranian people are onboard with ammunition,” the crewman member says. “We are … now drifting. We cannot tell you exactly our ETA to Sohar.”
When the Emirati coast guard asks the crewman what the Iranian gunmen are doing onboard, he says he “cannot understand them,” his voice muffled, before trying to hand over the radio to someone else. The call then cuts off.
Satellite tracking data for the Asphalt Princess then showed it gradually heading toward Iranian waters off the port of Jask early on Wednesday. Hours later, it stopped and changed course toward Oman, just before British Navy monitors said the hijackers had left and the vessel was now “safe.”
Iran has staged a series of attacks on shipping in the region over the past two years, including limpet mine attacks that damaged tankers.
The maritime intelligence company Dryad Global said the seizure of the Asphalt Princess was the latest Iranian response to outside pressures, economic conflicts and other perceived grievances.
“Iran has consistently shown that in conducting this kind of operation, it is calculated in doing so, both by targeting vessels directly connected with ongoing disputes, and vessels operating within the ‘grey space’ of legitimacy,” which may be involved in illicit trade, it said.
The hijacking followed an attack last Thursday by Iranian explosives-laden drones on the MT Mercer Street, a Liberian-flagged, Japanese-owned petroleum product tanker operated by an Israeli company based in the UK. The ship’s Romanian captain and a British security guard were killed in the attack, prompting international outrage.
Iran has staged a series of attacks on shipping in the region over the past two years, including limpet mine attacks that damaged tankers.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero in the summer of 2019, and in January this year they stormed a South Korean tanker and forced it to change course and head for Iran.
How the coronavirus’ delta variant disrupted Middle East’s ‘return to normal’ plans
Several MENA countries have experienced an explosion of infections linked to the highly transmissible strain
Travel restrictions had to be reimposed once the severity of the threat posed by the spread of delta became clear
Updated 05 August 2021
Rebecca Anne Proctor
DUBAI: Countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region with low rates of vaccination against COVID-19 have been experiencing an explosion of new cases and fatalities linked to the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant.
The variant has been detected in at least 132 countries, prompting new waves of infection, the resumption of travel restrictions, and mounting concern over the availability and effectiveness of vaccines.
In the Gulf and eastern Mediterranean region, the variant has been found in more than a dozen countries including Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar. Although Saudi Arabia has not yet reported any cases, it has reimposed a raft of travel curbs in additions to bans and penalties for violators.
Also known by its scientific name B.1.617.2, the delta variant of the coronavirus was first detected in the Indian state of Maharashtra in October but was only labeled a variant of concern by the WHO on May 11.
Dr. Abdinasir Abubakar, head of the infectious hazards management unit at the WHO’s Middle East and eastern Mediterranean regional office in Cairo, told Arab News: “It was very easy for delta to spread throughout the region due to the many migrant workers from South Asia living in the Gulf and North Africa.”
The strain, itself the product of multiple mutations, is thought to be 60 percent more infectious than the alpha (or Kent) variant, an earlier mutation that emerged in southern England in November, and as contagious as chickenpox.
According to a confidential CDC document, picked up by US media in late July, delta is more transmissible than the common cold, the 1918 Spanish flu, smallpox, Ebola, MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), has a longer transmission window than the original strain, and may make older people more ill — even those fully vaccinated.
US health officials said people infected with the delta variant could carry up to 1,000 times more virus in their nasal passages than other strains, resulting in higher transmissibility. The WHO predicted there could be at least 200 million new cases worldwide in a matter of weeks.
In many countries, including the UK, the delta variant has now become the dominant strain. In Israel, which has a very high rate of vaccination, delta makes up 90 percent of new infections.
What is perhaps most alarming for health professionals is the number of young people, many of them unvaccinated, who are becoming seriously ill with the variant.
Earlier iterations of the virus were considered more harmful to older demographics and people with underlying health conditions, groups that governments have tended to prioritize in vaccination drives.
Although it appears to cause more severe symptoms than its forerunners, there was currently not enough data to suggest delta was any more deadly.
More encouraging was the data on the effectiveness of vaccines. A study by Public Health England found that the Pfizer vaccine was 94 percent effective against hospitalization after one dose and 96 percent effective after two doses, while AstraZeneca was 71 percent effective after one dose and 92 percent effective after two.
On Sunday, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that New York-based Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech “have tweaked their mRNA vaccine to target the delta variant and will begin testing it on humans” this month.
The global market for COVID-19 vaccines, valued at $70 billion this year, could grow bigger as scientists debate whether people will need booster shots for the delta variant.
Owing to the slow rollout of vaccines in large parts of the developing world, there is limited protection for their populations against COVID-19.
In MENA countries, outbreaks of the delta variant of the coronavirus are adding to the pressure on hospitals, life-saving equipment, and even mortuaries.
Tunisia has been gripped by social unrest, attributable to a mix of political dysfunction, stretched healthcare systems, and mounting economic hardship.
Delta was labeled a variant of concern by WHO on May 11.
Most new cases in eastern Mediterranean are delta variant.
Variant is especially transmissible among the unvaccinated.
Delta may be 60% more infectious than alpha variant.
Surge poses serious challenge to MENA health systems.
Best protection is to receive two doses of the vaccine.
In Iran, a country which has vaccinated just 3 percent of its population, around 35,000 new infections and 357 deaths were recorded on July 27 alone.
In conflict-ridden areas of the Middle East, namely Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, where immunization rates remain low, the surge in delta cases poses a serious challenge to already ailing health systems and fragile government structures.
Abubakar said: “We are extremely concerned about what will happen when the delta variant spreads to emergency countries like Syria and Yemen. Delta will reach all countries in the region. The WHO is trying to work with nations to prepare for the worst, like having more ICU (intensive care unit) beds, oxygen, vaccines, and amplifying our social messaging.
“No country is immune from delta. We cannot afford for other countries in the region to go through what Tunisia is going through right now,” he added.
In Lebanon, for instance, a rise in COVID-19 cases would place an even greater burden on a cash-strapped country already blighted by electricity and fuel shortages.
Pierre Abi Hanna, head of the infectious disease division at Rafik Hariri University Hospital, told Arab News: “The numbers in Lebanon are increasing exponentially, and the majority of coronavirus cases circulating in Lebanon, from the samples taken, are from the delta strain.
“Over the last few weeks, we have also seen an increase in the number of hospitalized patients, all of whom are unvaccinated, as well as a small increase in the number of patients in ICU as well as those requiring mechanical ventilation.”
Patients were being hospitalized because they could not take oxygen at home due to Lebanon’s electricity shortages. Those hospitalized had tended to be younger than before and mostly unvaccinated.
“Some of them have received one shot, but the majority have received none. We are now seeing a higher number of cases in the younger population, aged 20 to 49. In the last three days, we have had an increase in the number of people needing ICU beds,” Abi Hanna said.
On a brighter side of the battle, GCC countries have coped well with the delta wave thanks to high rates of vaccination, high levels of compliance with public health measures, and timely travel restrictions.
At the end of June, the UAE announced it was suspending flights from India after recording its first cases of the delta variant. Emirati authorities said the strain now accounted for around one-third of all new infections in the country.
Although it has not recorded any cases of its own, Saudi Arabia unveiled a raft of new measures on July 3 — including a ban on travel to and from the UAE, the world’s top international-transport hub.
Saudi citizens who visit countries on its red list – the UAE, Afghanistan, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Lebanon, and Turkey – now face a three-year travel ban either directly or indirectly through states on the green list.
In addition to urging its citizens to continue wearing face masks and maintaining a safe social distance in public places, the Kingdom stressed that the best protection against the delta variant was to receive a second dose of vaccine.
Dr. Wail Bajhmoum, an infectious disease consultant and head of the internal medicine department at King Fahd Hospital in Jeddah, told Arab News: “Citizens should have the vaccines which have been provided by the government and the Ministry of Health free of charge and have been available for everyone in more than 587 centers all over the Kingdom.
“Researchers have shown that two doses of the vaccine will provide very good immunity against all variants of coronavirus, including delta.”
The UAE, which has implemented one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns, has issued a delta-detecting PCR test to help isolate the new outbreak. Cases rose at the end of June to more than 2,000 per day, contributing to a daily average of 10 deaths – the country’s highest toll in a single day since March, according to Reuter’s COVID-19 tracker.
The UAE’s National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority said the increase in deaths was due to the spread of the alpha, beta, and delta variants. Since then, cases have fallen, with 1,536 recorded infections and two deaths on July 27.
“Some countries are better prepared than others. Delta was confirmed earlier in the Gulf countries, but they have a better system in place to handle the variant. This helped limit the spread of the variant, supplemented by the high vaccination rate in Gulf countries.
“We have found that the impact of delta on Gulf countries is low compared with countries with low vaccination rates, notably Tunisia, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq,” Abubakar added.
The delta variant is only one of several mutations since the coronavirus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 — and it will not be the final iteration.
“It is not the last variant that we will see. We have to be prepared for new variants as well,” Abubakar said.
Turkey refuses to serve as ‘waiting room’ for US-bound Afghan refugees
Updated 04 August 2021
ANKARA: Ankara on Tuesday slammed a US move to offer potential resettlement to Afghan migrants who have US affiliations, saying it would cause another “migration crisis” in the country.
Under the new program announced by the US State Department on Monday, the US will open its doors to thousands of Afghans who are fleeing the Taliban violence, but with certain preconditions.
Ahead of the formal withdrawal of US soldiers at the end of this month, the Priority Two refugee program will cover Afghans who worked for US-funded projects and US-based NGOs and media outlets.
Afghans who do not qualify for the Special Immigration Visa program are among those eligible for this program. However, they should be referred by a US agency or the most senior US citizen employee of an NGO or media outlet that is based in the US.
In the meantime, they must wait in a third country after they leave Afghanistan, and this waiting time can last for 12 to 14 months before their application is processed.
Ankara fears this may trigger potential refugee inflows to the country as Afghans mostly use Turkey as a transit country to reach Europe and the US.
“It is unacceptable to seek a solution in our country without our consent instead of finding a solution among the countries in the region,” Tanju Bilgic, a spokesperson for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, said on Aug. 3, adding that Turkey cannot handle another migration wave on behalf of a third country.
Hundreds of Afghans have recently crossed into Turkey over the passing week, fueling anti-immigrant sentiment in the country and raising concerns about further influx as the country already hosts more than 4 million refugees, mostly Syrians and Afghans.
On Aug. 3, 264 Afghans were held after being found inside a truck in the eastern province of Van, where the country has begun building high walls to stop infiltrators from Iran.
“If the US wants to take these people…it is possible to transfer them directly to their country by planes,” Bilgic said.
Fahrettin Altun, communications chief for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told Bloomberg on Wednesday: “Turkey does not, and will not, serve as any country’s waiting room.”
A great majority of Afghan asylum seekers will probably remain in Turkey because the number of people who are eligible under the US program is limited, while the UN only resettled 20,000 asylum seekers from Turkey this year.
Deniz Senol Sert, a migration expert from Ozyegin University, said the migration wave following the US decision will mainly comprise highly educated Afghans.
“These people will come to Turkey following visa procedures, and they will not cross the border by land but, most likely, by plane. However, Afghanistan’s passport still ranks as the world’s least powerful,” she told Arab News.
According to Sert, Afghan migrants who have already applied for asylum will have to wait at least one year before their procedures finish.
“It is still unknown whether we have the capacity to handle all these migrants. This wave will continue for months depending on the moves of the Taliban, although Turkey has traditionally faced an influx of Afghan migrants in the summer,” she said.
Neva Ovunc Ozturk, a law expert working on transnational migration at Ankara University, said: “The US ranks among the countries that make the most settlements. It is not the first time that the US resettles Afghan migrants under this procedure. This time, it is focusing on Afghans who are affiliated with the US,” she told Arab News.
According to Ozturk, such settlement programs have served as pull factors in the past for immigration waves.
“However, Turkey already has a legal framework for conditional refugee status for those who will be resettled in third countries. Therefore, legally speaking, we have already been serving as a waiting room for some categories of refugees,” she said.
However, experts underline that the latest US decision should accompany diplomacy that promotes fair burden-sharing among countries that are neighboring war-torn Afghanistan.
“The UN High Commissioner for Refugees can encourage states to increase their refugee resettlement quotas. The US may also encourage countries close to Afghanistan, like Pakistan and Bangladesh, to host a certain number of refugees fleeing the Taliban,” Ozturk said.
UN chief: Threat to global peace from Daesh rising
The report said Daesh and other terrorist groups have taken advantage of the disruption caused by COVID-19
It added that the group remains active in wide swaths of Syria where it is seeking to rebuild its combat capabilities
Updated 04 August 2021
UNITED NATIONS: Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says in a new report that the threat to international peace and security from extremist group Daesh is rising, pointing to an “alarming” expansion of its affiliates in Africa and its focus on a comeback in its former self-declared “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.
The report to the UN Security Council, which was circulated Tuesday, said Daesh and other terrorist groups have taken advantage of “the disruption, grievances and development setbacks” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, both on the ground and online.
While lockdowns in non-conflict areas suppressed terrorist activity, in conflict areas where pandemic restrictions have less impact the threat from Daesh “has already increased,” Guterres said.
“As pandemic-related restrictions gradually ease, there is an elevated near-term threat of Daesh-inspired attacks outside conflict zones by lone actors or small groups that have been radicalized, incited and possibly directly remotely online,” he said.
The UN chief said this exemplifies a wider and evolving risk from the accelerated use of digital technologies during the pandemic, and the potential for “new and emerging technologies to be used for terrorist purposes.”
In assessing Daesh’s threat, Guterres said its leader, Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman Al-Mawla, “remains reluctant to communicate directly with supporters,” and “the group’s command and control over its global affiliates has loosened, even though it continues to provide guidance and some financial support.”
He said the autonomy of regional affiliates has strengthened especially in West Africa and the Sahel, East and Central Africa, Afghanistan and South Asia. This evolution will be an important factor in Daesh’s future global impact, he quoted unidentified UN member states as saying.
Member states also assess that the extremist group “will continue to prioritize regrouping and seeking resurgence” in Iraq and Syria as its core area of operations, he said.
The 16-page report, prepared by Security Council counter-terrorism committee and by experts monitoring sanctions on Daesh, said the group remains active in wide swaths of Syria, where it is seeking to rebuild its combat capabilities and expand its insurgency.
Guterres said Daesh wages hit-and-run operations against checkpoints from hideouts on both sides of the Euphrates River in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor and continues operations against government forces and in the Syrian desert.
In Iraq, Daesh remains under constant counter-terrorism pressure but continues to carry out hit-and-run operations “seeking to undermine critical infrastructure projects, inflame sectarian divisions and communal grievances and generate media coverage,” he said.
As for the extremist group’s finances, the UN chief said estimates of financial reserves available to Daesh in Iraq and Syria range between $25 million and $50 million, with one unidentified UN member state saying most funds are in Iraq.
The secretary-general said the most striking development in the first half of 2021 has been the expansion of Daesh in Africa, where terrorist groups have inflicted the largest number of casualties.
He said some of the most effective Daesh affiliates are spreading their influence and activities from Mali into Burkina Faso and Niger, from Nigeria into Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and from Mozambique into Tanzania.
“It highlights that the interplay between terrorism, fragility and conflict has grown stronger, and underscores the need for an urgent, global response to support African countries and regional organizations,” Guterres said.
In Afghanistan, he said, the Daesh affiliate has expanded its presence in several provinces and in and around the capital Kabul, “despite leadership, human and financial losses during 2020.” In Kabul, most of its attacks have targeted minorities, civil society actors, government employees and security forces, he said.
In Daesh’s efforts to regroup and rebuild in Afghanistan, Guterres said the group has prioritized the recruitment and training of new supporters and hopes to attract Taliban members and other militants who reject the US-Taliban agreement as well as fighters from Iraq.
Estimates of Daesh strength in Afghanistan range widely, from 500 to 1,500 fighters, with one unidentified UN member state saying its strength may rise to 10,000 in the medium term, he said.
Guterres said UN member states have already warned “that Daesh could regain the ability to orchestrate international attacks if either its core or one of its regional affiliates became strong enough.”
“This scenario has only become more plausible,” the UN chief warned.
Radio call describes Iranian gunmen storming tanker off UAE coast
“Iranian people are onboard with ammunition,” a crew member said in a radio recording
Updated 04 August 2021
FUJAIRAH, UAE: The hijackers who captured a vessel off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman departed the targeted ship on Wednesday, the British navy reported, as recorded radio traffic appeared to reveal a crew member onboard saying Iranian gunmen had stormed the asphalt tanker.
The incident — described by the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations the night before as a “potential hijack” — revived fears of an escalation in Mideast waters and ended with as much mystery as it began.
Hints of what unfolded on the Panama-flagged asphalt tanker, called Asphalt Princess, began to emerge with the maritime radio recording, obtained by commodities pricing firm Argus Media and shared with The Associated Press. In the audio, a crew member can be heard telling the Emirati coast guard that five or six armed Iranians had boarded the tanker.
“Iranian people are onboard with ammunition,” the crew member says. “We are … now, drifting. We cannot tell you exact our ETA to (get to) Sohar,” the port in Oman listed on the vessel’s tracker as its destination. It was not clear whether the crew members, whom he identified as Indian and Indonesian, were in immediate danger.
No one took responsibility for the brief seizure, which underscored mounting tensions as Iran and the United States seek a resolution to their standoff over Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Apparently responding to the incident, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh on Tuesday denied that Iran played any role. He described the recent maritime attacks in the Arabian Gulf as “completely suspicious.”
Over the past years, the rising tensions have played out in the waters of the Arabian Gulf, where just last week a drone attack on an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman killed two crew members. The West blamed Iran for the raid, which marked the first known fatal assault in the years-long shadow war targeting vessels in Mideast waters. Iran denied involvement.
Late on Tuesday, the intruders boarded the Asphalt Princess sailing off the coast of Fujairah, authorities said. The official news agency of Oman’s military said it received reports that the Asphalt Princess had been hijacked and immediately dispatched Royal Air Force maritime patrol aircraft and naval vessels “to contribute to securing international waters.”
In the recorded radio traffic, when the Emirati coast guard asks the crew member what the Iranian gunmen were doing onboard, he says he “cannot understand the (Iranians),” his voice muffled, before trying to hand over the radio to someone else. The call then cuts off.
Possible signs of trouble began to emerge that evening when six oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah announced around the same time via their Automatic Identification System trackers that they were “not under command,” according to MarineTraffic.com. That typically means a vessel has lost power and can no longer steer.
Satellite-tracking data for the Asphalt Princess had showed it gradually heading toward Iranian waters off the port of Jask early Wednesday, according to MarineTraffic.com. Hours later, however, it stopped and changed course toward Oman, just before the British navy group declared the hijackers had departed and the vessel was now “safe.”
In an analysis, maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global described the seizure of the Asphalt Princess as the latest Iranian response to outside pressures, economic conflicts and other grievances.
“Iran has consistently shown that in conducting this kind of operation, it is calculated in doing so, both by targeting vessels directly connected with ongoing disputes and (vessels) operating within the ‘grey space’ of legitimacy,” which may be involved in illicit trade, Dryad Global said.
The owner of the Asphalt Princess, listed as Emirati free zone-based Glory International, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The US military’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet and the British Defense Ministry also did not respond to requests for comment. The Emirati government did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
The Gulf of Oman sits near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Arabian Gulf through which a fifth of all traded oil passes. Fujairah, on the UAE’s eastern coast, is a main port in the region for ships to take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or trade out crew.
For the past two years, after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal and imposed crushing sanctions, the waters off Fujairah have witnessed a series of explosions and hijackings. The US Navy has blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers.
In the summer of 2019, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard troops detained a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, near the Strait of Hormuz. Last year, an oil tanker sought by the US for allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked off the Emirati coast and later ended up in Iran, though Tehran never acknowledged the incident.
And in January, armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops stormed a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran. While Iran claimed it detained the ship over pollution concerns, it appeared to link the seizure to negotiations over billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks.