Pakistani cyclist, traveling through Saudi Arabia, falls in love with Kingdom’s natural beauty, hospitality

Kamran Ali, a Pakistani adventurer who travels on his bicycle, poses for a picture in front of Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Madinah, Saudi Arabia on April 13, 2023. (Photo courtesy: Kamran Ali)
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Updated 16 May 2023
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Pakistani cyclist, traveling through Saudi Arabia, falls in love with Kingdom’s natural beauty, hospitality

  • Kamran Ali has cycled through 46 countries and covered a remarkable 56,000 kilometers in eight years
  • Ali’s latest excursion will end in South Africa, he has spent the last three months traveling through Saudi Arabia

ISLAMABAD: Like most Pakistanis who haven’t traveled frequently to Saudi Arabia, Kamran Ali only knew the Middle Eastern country as the home of Islam’s holiest sites in Makkah and Madinah.

But when he pedaled his way into the Kingdom in February this year, Ali, 45, was blown away by Saudi Arabia’s cultural richness and its historical castles, fiery volcanoes and ancient rock formations and art.

In 2019, Saudi Arabia threw open its doors to foreign tourists, launching a new visa regime and appealing to foreign companies to invest in a sector it hopes will contribute 10 percent of gross domestic product by 2030.

The move was part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious plans to develop new industries to wean the world’s top oil exporter off crude. Many of his reforms have received international praise.

“I came to Saudi Arabia without much knowledge because the books we studied only provided information about religious places,” Ali, who in the last eight years has cycled through 46 countries across four continents and covered a remarkable 56,000 kilometers, told Arab News over the phone from Makkah.

“However, when I saw the rock formations in the deserts, the intricate inscriptions, and Islamic rock art and historical castles and volcanoes, it was a mind-blowing and unforgettable experience.”




Kamran Ali, a Pakistani adventurer who travels internationally on his bicycle explores different tourist destinations in Saudi Arabia during the last three months. (Photo courtesy: Kamran Ali)

Among major restoration projects that have taken place in Saudi Arabia in recent years and attracted foreign tourists is Dariyah, the ancestral home of the Al-Saud family and the capital of the First Saudi State. Other projects include the ancient sites of Fau, Madain Saleh, Tayma, Duma and along the Darb Zubaydah, the pilgrimage road to Makkah. There is also the flagship $20 billion tourism project of Al-Ula, the site of an ancient civilization in a remote northwestern corner of the country.

Ali is well on his way to cycling through them all.

Born in Layyah, a small city in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province, Ali has a PhD in Computer Science and made the life-changing decision in 2015 to quit his job in Germany and follow his passion for cycling. He has since biked through cities in Europe, Asia, South America, Central America, and North America.

His latest excursion, which began in December 2022, will end in South Africa and includes an over three-month-long detour in Saudi Arabia, which Ali is currently exploring.

Due to visa issues from Iranian authorities, Ali had to begin his tour of the Middle East from Muscat, Oman, and onwards to the UAE, from where he entered Saudi Arabia on February 9 through the Al-Batha land border.




Kamran Ali, a Pakistani adventurer who travels internationally on his bicycle,   Is camping on roadside near Abu Dhabi, UAE enroute to Saudi Arabia on February 5, 2023. (Photo courtesy: Kamran Ali)

In the last three months, he has explored the Rub’ al Khali, Al-Kharj, Hail, Al-Ula and Madinah cities of Saudi Arabia before arriving in Makkah 12 days ago, having cycled some 3,500 kilometers since he left Muscat.

The Pakistani adventurer lavished praise on Madinah, calling the province and its regional capital city “remarkable” for its historical inscriptions, Islamic rock art, castles and volcanoes.

“The [Madinah] province is a treasure trove of Islamic and pre-Islamic history, boasting breathtaking landscapes,” he said, adding that the Kingdom’s Hail region was also captivating for both its landscape and history.

The Ikmah mountain in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ula city, with over 500 inscriptions from the Dadan and Lihyan civilizations, have also captured the Pakistani cyclist’s imagination.

“Notably, the Lihyanite inscriptions, which are 4,000 to 5,000 years old, narrate the history of ancient Arabia,” Ali explained.

He also spoke of the extensive stone structures that stretch for miles in Saudi Arabia’s Khaybar city, located around 150 kilometers to the north of Madinah, and are replete with Islamic rock art and calligraphic inscriptions that date back 1,300 years.

Impressed by the country’s rock art, Ali has vowed to raise awareness about them.

“I will write about the rock art in Saudi Arabia to promote the country’s tourist destinations beyond the Two Holy Mosques,” Ali said.

But more than the majestic mountains, old rock formations and centuries-old castles, the Pakistani traveler said Saudi Arabia’s “incredible” hospitality, generosity and kindness was what would remain most memorable for him.

He recalled one incident when he was traveling under the harsh sun through the Rub’ al Khali desert, which includes parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Yemen, and was unable to carry much food or water, with no facilities or shade in sight for several kilometers.

“However, the local people checked on me, provided me with food and water, and even invited me to their homes if they were nearby,” Ali said.

He recounted another example of Saudi generosity in the city of Al-Kharj in central Saudi Arabia, where he tried to help a disabled boy while eating at a roadside restaurant.

But a local intervened and not only paid for the boy’s food but also for Ali’s meal.

 Despite traveling through 46 countries, Ali said he had never seen “such examples of generosity” anywhere else in the world.

“I was astonished because such acts of kindness are often only read about in books,” he said, “but this actually happened in Saudi Arabia.”

 


In message to vigilantes, Pakistani army chief lauds cop for saving woman from blasphemy mob

Updated 11 sec ago
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In message to vigilantes, Pakistani army chief lauds cop for saving woman from blasphemy mob

  • Shehrbano Naqvi saved a woman surrounded in Lahore restaurant by men who wrongly claimed her shirt was adorned with verses from Holy Qur’an
  • Army chief General Syed Asim Munir meets Naqvi, lauds her for “selfless devotion to duty and professionalism” in diffusing a volatile situation 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s army chief General Syed Asim Munir on Wednesday lauded a policewoman for risking her life to save a citizen from a blasphemy mob last week, stressing the importance of rule of law in the country and advising citizens against taking the law into their hands. 
Senior woman police officer, Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Shehrbano Naqvi, was praised by politicians, senior police officials and the general public after a video of her emerged on social media this week in which she can be seen rescuing a woman from a charged crowd.
The woman, who has not been named by authorities for security reasons, was surrounded by men in a restaurant in the eastern city of Lahore for wearing an Arabic-inscribed dress. The crowd claimed the shirt was adorned with verses from the Holy Qur’an. Naqvi later clarified that the dress had the word ‘Halwa,’ meaning dessert, written on it in the Arabic script.
According to the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) or the army’s media wing, Naqvi called on Munir at the army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi on Wednesday. 
“COAS [chief of army staff] lauded ASP Shehrbano for her selfless devotion to duty and professionalism in diffusing a volatile situation,” the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said. He said Pakistani women are an inalienable part of the country’s society, noting that their respect is enshrined in the country’s religion and social ethos. 
Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in deeply conservative, Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and its noted personalities can provoke death at the hands of vigilantes. Politicians have been assassinated, lawyers murdered and students lynched over such accusations.
In 2011, the governor of Punjab was killed by his bodyguard after calling for reforms to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Munir highlighted the importance of social harmony and the need for consensus on curbing intolerance, the ISPR said. 
“He emphasized upon the rule of law and advised against taking the law in one’s hands when legal avenues are available for addressing concerns and grievances,” the army’s media wing said. 
“COAS appreciated the sacrifices rendered by the law enforcement agencies to ensure the safety and security of the citizens of Pakistan.”


‘Highly controversial’ elections, weak coalition pose economic challenges to Pakistan — Moody’s

Updated 7 min 9 sec ago
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‘Highly controversial’ elections, weak coalition pose economic challenges to Pakistan — Moody’s

  • The upcoming coalition government’s electoral mandate may not be sufficiently strong to pursue difficult reforms
  • The credit rating agency warns that the rating would be downgraded if Pakistan were to default on its debt obligations

KARACHI: Moody’s Investors Service on Tuesday warned of political risks following “highly controversial” general elections in Pakistan that could lead to insufficient mandate for the next government to pursue difficult economic reforms needed at this stage.
The international agency maintained Pakistan’s ratings, including its Caa3 long-term issuer rating, with a stable outlook unchanged after completing a periodic review of the country’s ratings.
“Pakistan’s credit profile reflects the government’s very high liquidity and external vulnerability risks as the very low levels of foreign exchange reserves remain well below what is required to meet its very high external financing needs over the near to medium term,” Moody’s said in the review report.
The agency did not announce a credit rating action but highlighted the “country’s very weak fiscal strength and elevated political risks” that may also constrain the credit profile.
The South Asian nation is in the process of forming a government after key political parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), agreed on a power-sharing formula last week.
The general elections were marred by allegations of rigging and manipulation.
“Political risks are high, following a highly controversial general elections held on 8 February 2024,” the agency said.
Although a coalition government looks set to be formed, the report said there was high uncertainty around the newly elected government’s willingness and ability to quickly negotiate a new International Monetary Fund program soon after the current $3 billion short-term loan expires next month.
Moody’s said Pakistan’s ability to secure loans from other bilateral and multilateral partners would be severely constrained until the new IMF financing was reached.
Its assessment comes only a year after it downgraded the country’s rating to Caa3 from Caa1, following deadlock in talks with the IMF amid depletion of foreign exchange reserves.
The large amount of external financing required over the medium term along with Pakistan’s very low reserves position imply material default risks if there were funding delays from the IMF and other partners.
“Social pressures and weaknesses in governance may also raise challenges in meeting criteria for future IMF funding,” the agency said.
The agency warned that the rating would likely be downgraded if Pakistan were to default on its debt obligations to private-sector creditors and the expected losses to creditors as a result of any restructuring were larger than consistent with a Caa3 rating.


Imran Khan’s party asks IMF to consider Pakistan’s political stability in bailout talks, sources say

Updated 48 min 32 sec ago
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Imran Khan’s party asks IMF to consider Pakistan’s political stability in bailout talks, sources say

  • Cash-strapped Pakistan secured a $3 billion bailout from the IMF last summer
  • A new Pakistani government may need to seek more funds from the global lender

ISLAMABAD: The party of Pakistan’s former prime minister, Imran Khan, has asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to factor in the country’s political stability in any further bailout talks, two people familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.
Khan’s party has sent a letter to the IMF detailing its position, two senior sources in Khan’s party with knowledge of the letter said.
Pakistan’s cash-strapped economy is struggling to recover from an economic crisis and secured a $3 billion bailout from the IMF last summer. Analysts say that a new government — which Khan’s opponents are expected to form after this month’s national election — may need to seek more funds from the global lender.


After 11-day blockade, Pakistani users report being able to use X without VPN

Updated 28 February 2024
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After 11-day blockade, Pakistani users report being able to use X without VPN

  • X first went down on Feb. 17 when a government official confessed to manipulating votes in Feb. 8 elections
  • X’s prolonged disruption has raised widespread concerns about state of democratic freedoms

ISLAMABAD: After being inaccessible for millions of Pakistanis for 11 consecutive days, many users reported they were able to use the social media platform X without enabling a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on Wednesday morning. 

X first went down on Feb. 17 when a government official confessed to manipulating votes in Pakistan’s Feb. 8 general election. The admission came as former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and other political parties staged protests countrywide, alleging the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had rigged elections, which it denies. Mobile phone services were also shut down on polling day over security threats. 

X’s prolonged disruption has raised widespread concerns about the state of democratic freedoms in the country, with the United States and several international organizations urging Pakistan to provide unhindered Internet access and leading digital rights activists calling the blockade a “blatant violation” of civil liberties. 

On Wednesday afternoon, multiple Arab News staffers were able to access X without a VPN, which can mask the identity and location of users to help access websites and services that may be blocked in a certain region. 

VPNs have become increasingly popular in the days since access to X was cut off for much of the country but software application Surfshark reported this week the Pakistan government was working to restrict VPN as well, which the company’s engineers were working to bypass. 

“Twitter (X) is working without VPN in #Pakistan,” journalist Shiraz Hassan said on X. 

A day earlier on Tuesday, Internet observatory group Netblocks said metrics showed X had remained restricted in Pakistan into a tenth day, “as the nation joins an exclusive set of countries that have imposed extended or permanent bans on international social media platforms.” 

Before the latest blockade, Pakistan experienced multiple Internet disruptions in recent weeks that made social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, X and Instagram inaccessible. Recent occurrences were on Jan. 20, Jan. 7 and Dec. 17, when Khan’s PTI party was holding virtual events. The government had blamed those disruptions on “technical glitches.” 

Such shutdowns have previously had a devastating impact on Pakistan’s economy. The day after Khan’s arrest in May last year, Reuters reported that point-of-sale transactions routed through Pakistan’s main digital payment systems fell by around 50 percent according to the region’s two largest payments system operators, 1LINK and Habib Bank Limited.

According to the Internet Society’s monitor Pulse, it is becoming an increasingly common tactic for governments to shut down the Internet on a national or sub-national level to either control civil unrest, stem the flow of misinformation, sway the results of general elections or to gain strategic advantages in territories with ongoing wars.
 


PM denies state responsibility for Baloch missing persons during Islamabad court appearance 

Updated 28 February 2024
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PM denies state responsibility for Baloch missing persons during Islamabad court appearance 

  • Pakistan’s army, intelligence agencies deny carrying out enforced disappearances
  • Balochistan province is the site of a decades long low-level separatist insurgency 

ISLAMABAD: Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar said on Wednesday the Pakistani state was not responsible for enforced disappearances, a recurring problem that is often blamed on security agencies in the country’s impoverished southwestern Balochistan province.

The prime minister issued the statement during an appearance before the Islamabad High Court in connection with a case regarding Baloch missing students.

Balochistan has long been plagued by enforced disappearances, with families saying men are picked up by security forces, disappear often for years, and are sometimes found dead, with no official explanation. Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies deny they carry out enforced disappearances.

Separatist groups like the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), the most prominent of several separatist groups operating Balochistan, have been fighting a decades long insurgency for independence for mountainous and mineral-rich Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province by territory but the smallest in terms of population. Rights activists, political leaders and families say the insurgency has been used as a pretext to pick up innocent civilians, which the state denies. 

“It is not correct to consider the entire state guilty [for enforced disappearances in Balochistan],” Kakar was widely quoted by local media as telling the court, castigating state critics for not holding separatists and militants responsible when they killed innocent civilians and security officials. 

Balochistan borders Afghanistan to the north, Iran to the west and has a long coastline on the Arabian Sea. It has Pakistan’s largest natural gas field and is believed to hold many more undiscovered reserves. It is also rich in precious metals including gold, the production of which has grown over recent years.

Balochistan is a key location in China’s huge multi-billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), part of President Xi Jinping’s massive Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Though separatists mostly target Pakistani security forces and state installations in Balochistan, they have also attacked Chinese workers and projects. 

In a rare statement on the issue in 2019, the military sympathized with families of missing Balochs but said some may have joined militant groups and “not every person missing is attributable to the state.”

Pakistan has repeatedly blamed India for fanning militancy in Balochistan, a charge New Delhi denies.