For the first time, Saudi women stand guard in Makkah during Hajj

A Saudi police female officer stands guard as pilgrims perform final Tawaf during the annual Haj pilgrimage, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia July 20, 2021. (REUTERS)
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Updated 22 July 2021

For the first time, Saudi women stand guard in Makkah during Hajj

  • Since April, dozens of women soldiers have become part of the security services that monitor pilgrims in Makkah and Madina
  • Under his Vision 2030, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pushed through social reforms, also empowering Saudi women

MAKKAH: Inspired by her late father’s career, Mona decided to join the military and the first group of Saudi women soldiers to work in Islam’s holiest sites, where they are helping secure the Hajj.

Since April, dozens of female soldiers have become part of the security services that monitor pilgrims in Makkah and Madina.

Dressed in a military khaki uniform, with a hip-length jacket, loose trousers and a black beret over a veil covering her hair, Mona spends her shifts roaming in the Grand Mosque in Makkah.

“I am following the steps of my late father to complete his journey, standing here at the Grand Mosque in Makkah, the holiest place. To serve the worshippers is a very noble and honorable task,” said Mona, who declined to give her family name.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pushed through social and economic reforms as part of plans to modernize the conservative kingdom and attract foreign investment under a diversification drive.

Under his reform plan, known as Vision 2030, the crown prince lifted a driving ban on women, allowed adult women to travel without permission from guardians and granted them more control over family matters.

But the reform plan has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including on women’s rights activists.

Saudi Arabia has restricted the Hajj to its own citizens and residents for the second year in a row, barring millions of other pilgrims from abroad in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Samar, another soldier watching pilgrims near the Kaaba, said she was encouraged by her family to join the military, after psychology studies.

“This is a huge accomplishment for us and it is the biggest pride to be in the service of religion, the country and the guests of God, the most merciful,” she said.


Russia reports 23,239 new COVID-19 cases, 727 related deaths

Updated 12 min 52 sec ago

Russia reports 23,239 new COVID-19 cases, 727 related deaths

  • Russia has been in the grip of a surge in cases that authorities blame on the more contagious Delta variant
MOSCOW: Russia reported 23,239 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, including 2,629 in Moscow, taking the official national tally since the pandemic began to 6,149,780.
The government coronavirus task force said 727 people had died of coronavirus-linked causes in the past 24 hours, pushing the national death toll to 154,601.
Russia has been in the grip of a surge in cases that authorities blame on the more contagious Delta variant, though some officials have suggested in recent days that cases, at least in Moscow, have started to decline.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to deliver final speech to Congress amid crises

Updated 26 July 2021

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to deliver final speech to Congress amid crises

  • Popular president winding down his six-year term amid a raging coronavirus pandemic, a battered economy
  • Increasingly vocal opponents have pounded on Duterte’s missteps and handling of key issues

MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is set to deliver his final state of the nation speech Monday before Congress, winding down his six-year term amid a raging pandemic, a battered economy and a legacy overshadowed by a bloody anti-drug crackdown that set off complaints of mass murder before the International Criminal Court.
Allies defended the 76-year-old populist leader’s record, with documentaries on state-run TV and speeches highlighting his administration’s efforts to fight criminality, poverty, corruption and decades-long communist and Muslim insurgencies, as well as build infrastructure.
They backed calls by the ruling party for Duterte, who took office in mid-2016, to run for vice president when his term ends in June next year — potentially with his daughter, now a city mayor, running to succeed him in the May 9 elections. Opposition lawyers have threatened to block the move in the Supreme Court, arguing it would breach constitutional term limits. Philippine presidents are limited to a single term.
“Six years is not enough for a very good president,” House of Representatives Speaker Lord Allan Velasco told ABS CBN News. Velasco said he would back Duterte’s possible bid for the vice presidency. The 1987 Constitution prohibits political dynasties, but the House, where powerful political clans have held sway for generations, hasn’t passed a law to enforce the ban.
“The pandemic really hurt us a lot, no one was ready for it, and because of that I can’t give the administration a perfect grade,” Velasco added.
But increasingly vocal opponents have pounded on Duterte’s missteps and handling of key issues, including his refusal to steadfastly confront China’s aggressive behavior in the disputed South China Sea, given his cozy ties with President Xi Jinping. They railed at the government’s coronavirus vaccination campaign, which has faced delays due to supply problems in a country with the second-largest numbers of infections and deaths in Southeast Asia, after Indonesia.
On the eve of Duterte’s speech, left-wing activists hung a huge banner that read “Goodbye, Duterte” on a pedestrian bridge across a highway leading to the heavily guarded Congress in suburban Quezon City. More than 300 legislators and top officials, who were required to get full coronavirus vaccinations, were expected to hear the address.
The Philippines has reported more than 1.5 million confirmed COVID-19 infections, with 27,224 deaths. Months-long lockdowns and natural disasters caused the economy to plummet by 9.5 percent last year in the country’s worst post-war recession. Businesses could not fully resume nationwide due to continuing virus surges.
Duterte and police officials have denied condoning extrajudicial killings of suspects, although he has publicly threatened to kill suspects. More than 6,000 mostly petty suspects have been killed under his crackdown, but a large number were also gunned down by motorcycle-riding assassins who human rights groups suspect were linked to law enforcement.
An ICC prosecutor said last month a preliminary examination found reason to believe crimes against humanity had been committed under Duterte’s crackdown on drugs and sought permission to open a formal investigation. Duterte said he would never cooperate in the possible investigation.
“Why would I defend or face an accusation before white people? You must be crazy,” Duterte said.


China blames US for ‘stalemate’ in relations, as talks begin

Updated 26 July 2021

China blames US for ‘stalemate’ in relations, as talks begin

  • Biden administration officials have said the goal of the talks is not to negotiate specific issues

TIANJIN, China: China blamed the US for what it called a “stalemate” in bilateral relations as high-level face-to-face talks began Monday in the Chinese city of Tianjin.
Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng urged the US “to change its highly misguided mindset and dangerous policy,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
The China-US relationship is in a stalemate because some Americans portray China as an “imagined enemy,” Xinhua quoted Xie as telling US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.
America’s No. 2 diplomat is discussing the fraught relationship between the countries in separate meetings with Xie, who is in charge of US-China relations, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a closed-off resort hotel in the city of Tianjin.
Sherman is the highest-ranking US official to visit China since President Joe Biden took office six months ago. Relations between the countries deteriorated sharply under his predecessor, Donald Trump, and the two sides remain at odds over a host of issues including technology, cybersecurity, human rights and other issues.
In an interview Saturday, Wang accused the US of adopting a superior attitude and using its strength to pressure other countries.
“China would never accept any country that claims to be superior to others,” he told China’s Phoenix Television. “If the US has not learned to treat other countries equally, China and the international community have the responsibility to help the US learn how to do this.”
Biden administration officials have said the goal of the talks is not to negotiate specific issues but to keep high-level communications channels open. The US wants to ensure that guardrails are in place to prevent competition between the countries from becoming conflict, they said.
A possible meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to be on the agenda, possibly on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Rome at the end of October.
Sherman, who arrived Sunday evening from Mongolia, tweeted “heartfelt condolences (from the United States) to those who have lost loved ones” in severe storms and flooding last week that killed at least 63 people in Henan province.
Her meetings follow an initial and highly contentious meeting in March in Anchorage, Alaska, where Wang and veteran Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi flew to meet Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
John Kerry, the Biden administration’s special climate envoy, traveled to Shanghai for meetings with his Chinese counterpart in April.


UN: Civilian casualties in Afghanistan at record level in May-June

Updated 26 July 2021

UN: Civilian casualties in Afghanistan at record level in May-June

  • Dire situation for Afghan civilians as intense fighting picked up in May and June after US troops withdrawal announced

KABUL: Nearly 2,400 Afghan civilians were killed or injured in May and June as fighting between Taliban insurgents and Afghan security forces escalated, the highest number for those two months since records started in 2009, the United Nations said on Monday.
The UN’s Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a report it had documented 5,183 civilian casualties between January and June, of which 1,659 were deaths. The number was up 47 percent from the same period last year.
The figures underscored the dire situation for Afghan civilians as intense fighting picked up in May and June after US President Joe Biden announced American troops would withdraw by September, bringing an end to 20 years of foreign military presence in the country.
“Of serious concern is the acute rise in the number of civilians killed and injured in the period from 1 May, with almost as many civilian casualties in the May-June period as recorded in the entire preceding four months,” UNAMA said in a statement.
Heavy clashes around the country have taken place in the past two months as the Taliban launches major offensives, taking rural districts, border crossings and surrounding provincial capitals, prompting Afghan and US forces to carry out air strikes to try and push back the insurgents.
Negotiators have been meeting in Qatar’s capital of Doha in recent weeks but diplomats have cautioned there has been little substantive progress since peace talks began in September.
“I implore the Taliban and Afghan leaders to take heed of the conflict’s grim and chilling trajectory and its devastating impact on civilians,” said Deborah Lyons, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan. “Unprecedented numbers of Afghan civilians will perish and be maimed this year if the increasing violence is not stemmed.”


China says US responsible for relations standstill, making ‘imaginary enemy’

Updated 26 July 2021

China says US responsible for relations standstill, making ‘imaginary enemy’

  • China’s vice FM Xie Feng made the remarks during a meeting with visiting US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman 

BEIJING: A high-ranking Chinese diplomat said some people in the United States view China as an “imaginary enemy” and that it was the main cause of tensions between the two countries.
Xie Feng, China’s vice foreign minister, made the remarks during a meeting with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, according to a report by Chinese state television on Monday.
Sherman arrived in the eastern Chinese city of Tianjin for talks with Xie and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Sunday.
A day before her arrival, Wang had warned China would not accept the United States taking a “superior” position in the relationship.
Senior US officials on Saturday outlined Sherman’s expected position during the talks, saying the United States welcomes competition with Beijing but would insist on a level playing field and “guardrails” to avoid conflicts.
The tense back and forth comes amid already frayed relations between Beijing in Washington that have worsened in the months since an initial diplomatic meeting in March, the first under US President Joe Biden’s administration.
At the meeting in Alaska, Chinese officials railed against the state of US democracy while US officials accused the Chinese side of grandstanding during the meeting.
Ties have continued to deteriorate since, including a series of tit-for-tat sanctions and diplomatic barbs that have overshadowed the talks in Tianjin.
Sherman is expected to continue with the talks in Tianjin on Monday before traveling to Geneva to head a US delegation at nuclear arms control talks with Russia on Wednesday.