As Hajj concludes, Pakistani pilgrims recount special moments in Makkah

Thousands of Muslim pilgrims make their way across the valley of Mina, in western Saudi Arabia, to perform the "stoning of the devil" ritual on July 9, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 12 July 2022

As Hajj concludes, Pakistani pilgrims recount special moments in Makkah

  • One pilgrim who got separated from his group spent the night moving, praying with strangers 
  • As the last day of Hajj comes to a close, Pakistani pilgrims will leave Mina in the evening

MAKKAH: Pakistani pilgrim Muhammad Shoaib experienced the true spirit of Islam while performing Hajj rituals last week, he said on Monday, when surrounded by a million people, he was separated from his group. 

Shoaib, who hails from Islamabad, was traveling to Muzdalifah to spend the night under a starry sky on Friday when he lost himself in the crowd and joined a group of pilgrims from another country.

“I didn’t know anyone around me,” he told Arab News on Monday. “I could not contact members of my own group since there were no Internet signals. I spent over an hour with unfamiliar faces and said my prayers with them.”

Shoaib said that night in Muzdalifah removed all differences of caste, color and country between the pilgrims. 

“We were all the same,” he said. “We were all one.”

“While every moment of Hajj is memorable,” he added, “this has got to be the highlight of my spiritual journey.”

The Pakistani pilgrim from Islamabad was not the only person who shared sentimental memories on the last day of Hajj.

Fiaz Mahmood, a pilgrim from Pakpattan, spoke about the memorable decision to walk from Mina to Arafat at night to sit in the front rows of the Nimrah Mosque and attend the Hajj sermon.

“People were also taking buses to the mosque,” he said. “However, my friends and I started walking toward our destination at midnight. We were surrounded by the vast expanse of the desert and it took us two hours to reach the mosque. I can never forget how we felt when we saw the minarets of the building from a distance. It was as if we were no longer tired. We only had a strong sense of gratitude after performing that journey.”

Chaudhary Hammad from Wah Cantt praised Saudi authorities for trying to provide the best possible services for pilgrims.

“I was among the pilgrims who benefited from the Makkah Route Initiative,” he told Arab News, referring to a Saudi facility under which pilgrims from Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Morocco and Bangladesh were allowed to go through the immigration process at their airport of origin.

“Since a large number of flights arrive in Saudi Arabia ahead of Hajj, it can get extremely crowded at airports,” Hammad said.

“But this initiative made things extremely comfortable. We walked out of the airport shortly after our arrival, though the immigration in Jeddah would have otherwise taken at least a few hours.”

As the last day of Hajj comes to a close, Pakistani pilgrims will leave Mina in the evening, Ibrar Mirza, the director-general of the country’s Hajj mission in Makkah, told Arab News.

He said his team was busy with last-minute arrangements for the pilgrims who would soon arrive to their respective accommodations in Makkah.

“Pilgrims performing Hajj under the government scheme, who have yet to go to Madinah, will travel to that city on Saturday,” he said. “Until then, they will continue to stay in Makkah.”

Serving Pakistani general appointed to head National Database and Registration Authority

Updated 02 October 2023

Serving Pakistani general appointed to head National Database and Registration Authority

  • NADRA has in the past been largely headed by civilians, retired government, police and military officers
  • Afsar was currently serving as army’s Inspector General Communication and Information Technology

ISLAMABAD: A serving Pakistani general was on Monday appointed to head Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), which regulates government databases and statistically manages the identity data of all citizens of Pakistan.

NADRA is responsible for issuing computerized national identity cards (CNICs) to Pakistani citizens and securing their national identities from being stolen or misused. In the past, the body has been largely headed by civilians as well as retired government, police and military officials.

“The federal government has been pleased to appoint Lt. Gen. Muhammad Munir Afsar as Chairman NADRA,” a ministry of interior notification said.

Afsar was serving as the army Inspector General Communication and Information Technology and Commander of Pakistan Army Cyber Command before being appointed NADRA chief. He has substantial experience in IT-related technical development and management within the army as well as during his service with Pakistan’s mission to the United Nations.

Afsar holds an MPhil in Public Policy and National Security Management, and is a specialist in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), with an MS in GIS and remote sensing. He is currently pursuing a PhD in remote sensing from NUST Islamabad, focusing on the detection of plant diseases through the integration of remote sensing and artificial intelligence. 

In the past he has also served as a Military Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Officer at the UN.

As a major general, Afsar was the Director General of the DG Command, Control, Communication, Computers, and Intelligence (C41) Directorate, responsible for the overarching management of IT.

Pakistan says will evict 1.1 million ‘illegal foreigners’ as crackdown rattles Afghans

Updated 02 October 2023

Pakistan says will evict 1.1 million ‘illegal foreigners’ as crackdown rattles Afghans

  • Since last month, Pakistan has launched a crackdown against those it says are without legal status
  • Crackdown comes amid rise in terror attacks by militants Pakistan says are hiding in Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s caretaker government has decided to evict 1.1 million ‘illegal foreigners’ because of what it calls their involvement in “funding, facilitating terrorists and other illegal activities,” state-owned APP news agency reported on Monday, in a decision that will likely hit Afghans. 

Afghans have poured into Pakistan in the millions during decades of successive wars, many living in aid camps with restricted access to education, health care and employment. Around 1.3 million are registered refugees and 880,000 more have legal status to remain in Pakistan, according to the latest United Nations figures.

But since last month, police have launched a widening crackdown against those they say are without legal status and in response to rising terror attacks, crime and poor regulation of immigration that is straining resources. A majority of those arrested in the latest crackdown are Afghans.

“In the first phase, illegal residents, in the second phase, those with Afghan citizenship and in the third phase, those with proof of residence cards will be expelled,” APP reported.

“Illegally resident foreigners pose a serious threat to the security of Pakistan. A plan for eviction of illegally residing Afghan citizens has also been approved as this lot is involved in funding, facilitating and smuggling terrorists whereas 7 lacs [0.7 million] Afghans have not renewed their proof of residence in Pakistan.”

APP reported that illegal residents and those who had not renewed their visas would be deported in the first phase.

“In the second phase, those with Afghan citizenship will be deported, in the third phase, those with proof of residence cards will be deported,” the news agency said, adding that the plan had been prepared by the interior ministry in consultation with all stakeholders, including the Afghan government.

Kabul has not yet responded to the announcement of the eviction plan.

“The [interior] ministry has also issued directives to the concerned to compile a record of Afghans living without permits and prepare a transportation plan to bring them to the Afghan border,” APP said. 

“Apart from checking the records of all the Afghans residing in the country the concerned officials were directed to quickly deal with the applications filed regarding the registration of Afghans.”

The crackdown comes amid a rise in terror attacks in Pakistan, mostly by militants belonging to the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan says the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, have become emboldened since the Afghan Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021 as US and NATO troops were in the final stages of their pullout from the country after 20 years of war. Authorities say the insurgents, who are allied but separate from the Afghan Taliban, have found sanctuaries and have even been living openly in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover.

The TTP has especially stepped up its attacks on Pakistan since November last year when it unilaterally called off a tenuous peace deal that had been brokered by Kabul.

The Afghan government says it does not permit its soil to be used by armed groups against other nations.

At least 700 Afghans had been arrested since early September in Karachi alone as part of the latest crackdown — 10 times more than in August — and hundreds more in the other cities, according to official police figures.

Afghans say the arrests have been indiscriminate. They accuse police of extorting money and ignoring legal documents, while pointing to rising anti-Afghan sentiment as prolonged economic hardship burdens Pakistani households and tensions rise between Islamabad and Kabul’s new Taliban government.

Pakistan to become part of ‘incredible’ Saudi growth story, IT minister says after signing agreements

Updated 02 October 2023

Pakistan to become part of ‘incredible’ Saudi growth story, IT minister says after signing agreements

  • Delegation comprising 15 top Pakistani IT companies led by IT minister is visiting Saudi Arabia
  • Both countries have decided to establish a task force to promote Saudi-Pakistan digital cooperation

ISLAMABAD: Caretaker Minister for IT Dr. Umar Saif said on Monday Pakistan could benefit by becoming part of the “incredible growth story” of Saudi Arabia, a day after Islamabad and Riyadh signed multiple memorandums of understanding (MOUs) to boost IT cooperation.

A delegation comprising 15 top Pakistani IT companies led by Saif is visiting Saudi Arabia where they signed deals last week to accelerate digital transformation, foster innovation and advance digital infrastructure. The agreements will also boost the ecosystems for small and medium-sized enterprises and startups and encourage transfer of businesses and exchange of information on accelerators and incubators.

Both countries have also decided to establish a special task force to promote Saudi-Pakistan digital cooperation.

“There is a huge opportunity for Pakistan in Saudi Arabia as everyone we met here, the IT minister, the investment minister, the small and medium enterprises, the digital corporations, everyone is eagerly waiting for us,” Saif told Arab News on Monday.

The Kingdom has in recent years been pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into an economic plan, known as Vision 2030, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Earlier this year the Saudi government said it had attracted more than $9 billion in investments in future technologies, including by US giants Microsoft and Oracle Corp, which are building cloud regions in the kingdom. 

“Pakistan could be part of this development story because the growth is so fast, they [Saudis] need people, they need technical skills, companies to make software, to make IT systems and to make financial systems for them,” Saif said. 

“Now it is largely up to us [Pakistan] that we should make sure to grab this opportunity, turn this into business for our IT companies, and become part of this incredible growth story in Saudi Arabia.”

A statement from Pakistan’s mission in Riyadh on Sunday said the two countries would support each other in e-governance, smart infrastructure, e-health, e-education, and emerging technologie, such as AI, IoT, robotics, cloud computing, e-gaming, and blockchain.

Muhammad Zohaib Khan, Chairman of the Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA), who is part of the delegation visiting Riyadh, said a “significant” outcome of the visit was that Saudi Arabia had agreed to a demand by Pakistani IT companies for a dedicated desk to support their operations in the Kingdom.

“This desk will help immensely by providing exclusive access to Pakistani companies to liaison with Saudi companies to benefit from the opportunities provided by Saudi Vision 2030,” Khan told Arab News over the phone from Riyadh.

“During our meetings, we have requested to allocate a point of contact everywhere, so that further follow-up is easier for us with the private and government sectors in the Kingdom.”

Swat administration says ‘banned’ girls cricket match to be held at ‘safer place’

Updated 02 October 2023

Swat administration says ‘banned’ girls cricket match to be held at ‘safer place’

  • Organizer of match on Sunday says district administration and clerics banned the game over concerns about modesty
  • Charbagh Assistant Commissioner Muhmmad Yar says match had been rescheduled, would be held at “better locality”

PESHAWAR: The administration of Charbagh in Pakistan’s northwestern Swat valley said on Monday a girls’ cricket match scheduled to be held last week had been called off due to “security reasons” and not because of concerns over immodesty by local clerics.

Swat valley, in Pakistan’s deeply conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, was previously long controlled by Taliban militants before they were flushed out in a military operation in 2009. Swat is also the hometown of Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by Taliban militants in 2012 for advocating for girl’s education.

On Sunday, a cricket match between two local girls’ teams was not allowed to take place over what the organizer of the match, Ayaz Naik, said were concerns from local clerics and elders that it defied “traditional values.” 

The match’s cancelation was widely reported by media and debated on social media, where users called for women from Swat to be allowed to exercise their right to play sports.

Assistant Commissioner Charbagh, Muhammad Yar Khan, denied the match was called off over concerns it was “immodest and inappropriate.”

“A wrong information has been spread in the media that the females were barred from playing the cricket match,” he told Arab News. 

“The match was canceled for security reasons in the locality and because the organizers had not taken the administration in confidence to provide any security … We have decided to reschedule the match at a safer place and a better locality.”

Naik, the match’s organizer insisted it had been called off due to pressure from local elders, despite the fact that male spectators were not allowed on the Charbagh ground where the game was scheduled to be held on Sunday.

“Despite all the arrangements, wrong information was spread about the match on social media that it was against the traditional values owing to which the locals reacted and the game was not allowed to be played,” Naik said, adding that police and local elders were already present on the ground when the teams reached there on Sunday morning and were informed the game could not be held.

But given the outpouring of support on social media, Naik said he was hopeful the match would be allowed to take place soon:

“The district administration called me for a meeting today and it was decided that the girls will be able to play this week after all the security arrangements have been made.”

Sheema Ghafar, a high school student and a player on one of the teams, expressed disappointment over the match’s postponement.

“We were so excited for the match, we waited a lot but as we reached the ground, there was a mess inside, so many people were gathered there,” she told Arab News.

“When we saw the situation, we were so depressed and returned disappointed from the ground.”

Pakistan’s security situation has deteriorated since late last year when the Pakistani Taliban called off a truce with the government and vowed to launch attacks.

In two separate incidents, suicide bombings ripped through two mosques in Pakistan last week, killing over 60 people as believers marked the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

Despite high inflation, Pakistan stocks and currency close bullish on ‘smooth’ IMF review hopes

Updated 02 October 2023

Despite high inflation, Pakistan stocks and currency close bullish on ‘smooth’ IMF review hopes

  • Pakistan’s inflation rate rose to 31.4 percent year-on-year in September from 27.4 percent in August
  • KSE-100 index closed the trading session with a gain of 394 points at 46,627.08

KARACHI: Pakistan equities closed bullish on Monday amid upbeat data on a falling trade deficit and strong rupee recovery ahead of the first review of a $3 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout agreement signed earlier this year, equity experts said.

The KSE-100 index of the Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSX) closed the trading session with a gain of 394 points at 46,627.08. Analysts said the bullish sentiment was fueled by a weekend cut in petroleum prices and an over 48 percent decrease in the trade deficit ahead of the next IMF program review, expected in the last week of this month when the lender’s team arrives in Pakistan.

Pakistan and the IMF struck a staff-level agreement for the provision of $3 billion in bailout funds under a stand-by arrangement (SBA) earlier this year, giving the South Asian economy a much-awaited respite as it teetered on the brink of default.

“Stocks closed bullish amid upbeat data on the trade deficit falling by 48.2 percent in September 2023 ahead of IMF review meetings this month for the release of the next support tranche as well as an upbeat growth outlook,” Ahsan Mehanti, CEO of Arib Habib Corporation, told Arab News.

Pakistan’s trade deficit was down by 48.2 percent year-on-year to $1.5 billion during September 2023. Exports stood at $2.5 billion, up by 1 percent on an annual basis and 4 percent on a month-on-month basis while imports were recorded at $3.9 billion, down 25 percent on an annual and 13 percent on a month-on-month basis, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS).

The bullish sentiments were also fueled by the government slashing the prices of petrol and high-speed diesel (HSD) by Rs8 per liter and Rs11 per liter respectively last week as part of its fortnightly price adjustment mechanism.

Yousuf Muhammad Farooq, director research at Chase Securities, said he was confident the review meetings with the IMF would go “smoothly.”

“Apparently, Pakistan has complied with major SBA conditions except the gas tariff, and hopefully that will also be done,” Farooq told Arab News. “The IMF review should go on smoothly.” 

Mehanti at Arif Habib attributed the bullish sentiments to upbeat data on the strong rupee recovery as well as agriculture and industrial productions. 

“Strong rupee recovery and government’s deliberations on privatization of SOEs (State-Owned enterprises) played a catalyst role in the bullish close of the bourse.” 

The rupee further strengthened against the United States Dollar by 0.34 percent to Rs286.76 in the interbank market on Monday and by 0.7 percent to Rs286 in the open market for selling.

The stock and currency markets were bullish despite higher inflation numbers released by the government on Monday, which said inflation rose to 31.4 percent year-on-year in September from 27.4 percent in August. The higher inflation was fueled by the rise in the price of petroleum products which had hit a historic high of Rs331.38 and Rs329.18 per liter for petrol and diesel, respectively, before being cut last weekend.

On an annual basis electricity charges have increased by 163.72 percent, textbooks 101.78 percent and gas charges 62.82 percent, among other nonfood commodities and services rate hikes, according to the statistics bureau.

Pakistani analysts expect the inflation rate will cool down in the first quarter of next year due to the improving value of the rupee against the greenback and the current account deficit. 

On a month-on-month basis, inflation climbed 2 percent in September, compared to an increase of 1.7 percent in August. 

Reforms required by the IMF bailout, including an easing of import restrictions and a demand that subsidies be removed, have already fueled annual inflation, which rose to a record 38.0 percent in May.

Interest rates have also risen to their highest at 22 percent, and the rupee hit all-time lows in August before recovering in September to become the best performing currency following a clampdown by authorities on unregulated FX trade.

On Friday, the ministry of finance said in its monthly report that it anticipated inflation remaining high in the coming month, hovering around 29-31 percent due to an upward adjustment in energy tariffs and a major increase in fuel prices.

The report added that inflation was, however, expected to ease, especially from the second half of the current fiscal year that starts on Jan. 1.