23 million people used Saudi Arabia’s electronic Absher services last year
The “Absher Individuals” interactive guide was set up to offer easy access to services, providing explanations to more than 300 services
Updated 23 January 2022
RIYADH: Absher, the interactive online platform provided by the Saudi Interior Ministry, announced that the platform served 23 million users who carried out more than 85 million operations last year. The platform’s technical support received more than 1.5 million calls over the year.
In 2021, Absher contributed to raising the quality of life of citizens, residents and visitors, facilitated access to more than 330 services and linked viewers with more than 80 government and private entities.
Moreover, 1.5 billion transactions were carried out via the “Absher Individuals” platform, with more than 50 million logins to the “Absher Business” and more than 1.3 million logins to “Absher Government.”
The platform’s operators launched 36 new services and expanded the provision of the automated responder “Masroor” to answer beneficiaries’ queries more quickly.
The “Absher Individuals” interactive guide was set up to offer easy access to services, providing explanations to more than 300 services.
One of the most prominent services launched in 2021 was the Online Plate Auction service, the digital wallet service. The platform’s portfolio contains more than 25 million digital identities.
The shift from paper to electronic transactions has saved more than 599 million sheets of papers. This shift also reduced CO2 dioxide emissions by 1.6 billion metric tons and saved more than SR17.3 billion ($5 billion).
The online Absher service was introduced to increase productivity and promote more efficient work practices within government departments, while raising customer satisfaction levels. A smartphone app was added in 2015.
Health experts put Hajj season monkeypox concerns into perspective
Still-unknown routes of transmission and virus’ rapid rate of mutation are a cause for global concern
Total number of Hajj pilgrims limited to about 1 million because “pandemic still exists, not over yet”
Updated 05 July 2022
DUBAI: As Saudi Arabia prepares to receive up to 1 million Hajj pilgrims from around the world for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the shadow of a new virus looms over the horizon, raising the inevitable question of whether monkeypox will be the next global health crisis.
Thus far, more than 5,700 cases of monkeypox have been reported in 52 countries, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Europe accounts for nearly 90 percent of all confirmed and reported cases worldwide since mid-May. As of this week, 31 countries in the continent have reported at least one monkeypox case. A handful of cases have been identified in the Middle East, mainly in the UAE.
The World Health Organization has ruled that the spread of monkeypox does not yet qualify as a global health emergency. However, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director general, has voiced concern over the rapidly evolving threat.
Experts are divided on whether the jump in the number of monkeypox cases worldwide from 800 to 3,500 during June is a sufficient cause for alarm.
Smallpox, which belongs to the same family of viruses as monkeypox, was eradicated in the 1980s through mass vaccination. Some scientists believe monkeypox is spreading because of the human population’s diminishing protection from smallpox.
Others believe climate change is a likely culprit behind the spread of the virus as the space between human communities and animal habitats shrinks.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, has suggested that as the planet deals with rising levels of ecological fragility and climate stress, both animal and human behaviors are being affected.
Citing recent findings, researchers at the US National Institutes of Health have said that the monkeypox virus strain has mutated 12 times more than expected since 2018.
The current strain is said to be circulating at an abnormally rapid speed, which could change its regular contamination patterns.
Under the circumstances, how afraid should the Arab world be of the monkeypox virus?
The unprecedented increase in cases is concerning, but the threat can be controlled, says Dr. Abdullah Algaissi, a virologist and assistant professor at the college of medical sciences at Jazan University, Saudi Arabia.
Noting that it is still not clear whether monkeypox is an airborne virus or not, he told Arab News: “While the main route of infection is sexual contact or contact with blisters or rashes of infected persons, there is evidence suggesting that monkeypox can be transmitted through the respiratory system.”
What is known for sure is that close and extended contact with an infected person must take place for contamination to occur.
For the same reasons, according to Dr. Gregory Poland, an infectious diseases expert and director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic, monkeypox should not be a significant concern during the upcoming Hajj season.
While those who live with or have close contact with infected persons are at a higher risk of the disease, increased risk of infection during Hajj is “unlikely,” he told Arab News.
“Monkeypox is a rare but dangerous infection similar to the now eradicated smallpox virus, but it is nowhere near as transmissible and has a very low fatality rate if treated properly and promptly.”
Signs of monkeypox infection, according to Dr. Algassi, include skin lesions such as blisters around the genitals, hands, legs, face and arms, fever and swelling of the lymph nodes. The symptoms are more severe for immunocompromised individuals, he said, but “rarely fatal.”
Dr. Algassi explained that the first outbreak was reported in monkeys in 1958, before it became clear that rodents were the source of the infection.
“The monkeypox virus is a zoonotic virus that is usually transmitted from animal hosts to humans or even other animals and belongs to a larger family called pox viruses,” he said.
The first human case of monkeypox was diagnosed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1970, and quickly became endemic in several African countries. However, the disease has rarely spread outside Africa.
A health protocol issued by the Saudi Ministry of Health last month requires pilgrims flying in from Nigeria to complete a monkeypox declaration form 24 hours before departure.
The ministry earlier said it was fully prepared to monitor and deal with any monkeypox cases, and that no cases had been recorded in the Kingdom so far.
All necessary medical and laboratory tests were available in the Kingdom, the ministry said, adding that it issued guidelines to healthcare workers on the matter. The ministry also said it had a complete preventive and curative healthcare plan to deal with any cases.
With regard to COVID-19, the ministry has announced an approved list of vaccines along with the requisite doses for each inoculation. It has also provided plans for managing any cases that emerge during the Hajj season by providing tents for the isolation of infected pilgrims.
FASTFACTS • Saudia has dedicated a fleet of 14 aircraft for pilgrims.
• More than 268 international flights from and to 15 stations.
• 32 domestic flights to and from six stations.
• 107,000 International and 12,800 domestic seats in total.
• Pilgrims are flown to King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah or Prince Mohammed bin Abdulaziz International Airport in Madinah.
Appearing this week on “Frankly Speaking,” the flagship weekly current affairs talk show of Arab News, Hisham Saeed, Saudi Arabia’s deputy minister of Hajj and Umrah services and official spokesman, said that despite the new threat of monkeypox, “we are ready to handle any case, any scenario.”
A 30,000-strong medical team of doctors and nurses, as well as over 185 hospitals in the Kingdom and more than 100 medical centers in the holy sites of Mina, Arafat and Madinah, will be ready to treat pilgrims suffering from any illness, according to Saeed.
He said although more pilgrims will be allowed this year than in the past two years, the total number will still be limited on account of health concerns.
“This year we have a decision to go for 1 million, because the pandemic still exists, it’s not over yet, and we are not running the full capacity for this year,” Saeed said.
Indeed, according to Dr. Poland, unlike monkeypox, COVID-19 continues to be a threat in huge crowds and gatherings. “This is the much larger issue as immunization rates are likely to be low or variable and amassing large numbers of such individuals together over days represents a risk and threat,” he told Arab News.
Echoing the same concern, Dr. Algaissi cited the emergence of new variants such as the omicron sub-variant, BA.5, which gives COVID-19 an “evolutionary advantage,” adding that these variants could get introduced from one country to another through travel.
Having said that, he noted that “most of the world is now vaccinated, which provides a primary layer of protection, especially against severe infection or death.”
Dr. Algaissi further pointed to the strict precautionary protocols adopted by the health authorities in Saudi Arabia as key in managing any potential outbreaks during the Hajj season.
Apart from being fully vaccinated, wearing masks in the holy sites and practicing basic hygiene precautions are essential during Hajj.
“Most importantly, if a pilgrim feels any respiratory symptoms during Hajj, they should strictly follow these instructions and avoid contacting others to stop spreading the infection,” Dr. Algaissi said.
Avoiding “skin-to-skin contact with others” will also help reduce chances of the spread of monkeypox.
Saudi medical team saves life of Iranian Hajj pilgrim in Makkah
The medical team offered to perform an open heart operation, but the patient refused this medical procedure
Updated 04 July 2022
MAKKAH: A specialized team from Makkah’s King Abdullah Medical City has successfully performed an emergency cardiac catheterization procedure to save the life of an Iranian pilgrim on Saturday, the Saudi Ministry of Health said.
In a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency early Sunday, the ministry said that the Hajj pilgrim was taken to the hospital's emergency department when he complained of severe chest pain while he was on his way to the Grand Mosque in Makkah to perform prayers.
The patient was identified in his Hajj tag as Hussain Qasmi Jalmrazy, from Isfahan in central Iran.
Specialists performed an urgent diagnostic catheterization after examination results "showed the presence of blockage of more than two arteries in the heart," according to the Health Ministry.
The medical team offered to perform an open heart operation, but the patient refused this medical procedure. It was then decided to insert stents instead in the damaged arteries, enabling the patient to recover and continue his pilgrimage, the statement said.
King Abdullah Medical City, with full the support from the Saudi government, offers specialized health care for all Hajj and Umrah pilgrims.
A million Muslims from around the world will perform the Hajj this year, up from only 60,000 vaccinated pilgrims in 2021 and a symbolic 1,000 pilgrims in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Saudi ministry releases Hajj e-guides in 14 languages
Interactive e-manuals pave the way for ‘perfect Hajj journey’
Updated 02 July 2022
JEDDAH: The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, in collaboration with the General Authority for Awqaf, has launched 13 detailed e-manuals offering advice to pilgrims from around the world on a variety of topics.
The guides have been released in 14 languages: Arabic, English, French, Spanish, Turkish, Russian, Persian, Urdu, Bengali, Indonesian, Malay, Hausa, Amharic and Sinhalese.
A ministry video shared on Twitter explains various features of the e-manuals and how the guides function.
“These guiding e-manuals are interactive, and include Shariah and Islamic law, procedural, organizational and health directives which pilgrims will need during their Hajj journey,” the ministry said.
“All you have to do is visit the guide website, pick the language, browse the guide you need, then you can listen or watch the available materials and download it as well.”
The video collected hundreds of thousands of views, with a number of officials commenting on the initiative.
Minister of Hajj and Umrah Tawfiq Al-Rabiah shared the video on his official Twitter account and wrote: “For a perfect Hajj journey, here are Hajj guides.”
In a TV interview, Hisham Saeed, assistant undersecretary of the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah for Hajj and Umrah Services, said that the guides’ detailed explanatory infographics and images will give pilgrims an alternative to audio or written materials.
Each catalog is supported by text, images and illustrations, in addition to a set of educational videos and audio materials.
Topics include Hajj rituals, as well as Ihram, Mina, Muzdalifah, Arafat Day, Jamarat, Umrah, health awareness, the Grand Mosque, the Prophet’s Mosque and its services, and city landmarks of Makkah and Madinah.
The guides are compatible with all phone operating systems, IOS and Android, and can be reached by visiting guide.haj.gov.sa
The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah seeks to serve pilgrims in a way that enables them to perform their Hajj rituals in the most ideal way possible. The ministry aims to facilitate the journey of pilgrims and enrich their spiritual and Hajj experiences.
Saudi Hajj ministry announces alternative flights, facilities for pilgrims from UK, Europe and US
Move comes after people faced technical issues while applying for Hajj via the electronic portal
Additional seats were added on flights after people reported limited capacities on flights
Updated 02 July 2022
RIYADH: The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah in Saudi Arabia announced on Wednesday that it will secure alternative flights and provide additional seats for pilgrims coming from Britain, the US, and Europe.
In cooperation with relevant authorities, visas will also be “issued immediately to the pilgrims entering the Kingdom as part of the efforts”.
This comes after people faced technical issues while applying for hajj via a new electronic portal called Motawif and had several issues including no access to the limited seats on flights.
The statement was also confirmed by a ministry spokesperson who spoke exclusively to Katie Jensen, presenter of Frankly Speaking — the weekly political talkshow produced by Arab News.
The technical issues experienced by some pilgrims with the new Motawif online portal are “solvable and being dealt with”, according to the official spokesperson and deputy minister of Hajj & Umrah Services Hesham A. Saeed.
“I am assuring you now that everybody chooses a program, including the air ticket, now it is solvable, they have the air ticket and everything is done now,” he said.
“(The pilgrims) still have time, the Hajj season still has not started, we still have ten more days to start the Hajj season and all their difficulties, we are solving it now and it is already solved by Motawif company and everything now, Inshallah, is going very fine and smooth,” added Saeed during the interview which will air in full on Sunday July 3 via www.arabnews.com/FranklySpeaking