After seven months of shutdown, pilgrims have started to return to Mecca as Saudi Arabia eased coronavirus restrictions.
A very small, limited number of people donning the white terrycloth garment symbolic of the Muslim pilgrimage circled Islam's holiest site in Mecca on Sunday, reports AP.
The Saudi Arabia kingdom had taken the rare step of suspending the smaller “umrah” pilgrimage that draws millions year-round from across the world in early March as the coronavirus morphed into pandemic and prompted countries to impose lockdowns and curfews to slow down transmission.
But as nations begin to ease those restrictions, the Saudi government on Sunday started allowing a maximum of 6,000 pilgrims a day to enter the sprawling Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Only Saudi citizens and residents will be permitted to enter the mosque during this first phase of reopening, and each person has up to three hours to complete the pilgrimage.
The Grand Mosque, which is being sterilised and cleaned multiple times a day, houses the cube-shaped Kaaba that observant Muslims pray toward five times a day.
Loosening restrictions in phases
Before visitors can enter the mosque to pray or perform the umrah, they have to apply and reserve a specific time and date through an online application to avoid crowding and maintain social distancing.
Visitors can also select via the app their means of transportation and meeting points.
State TV showed on Sunday what appeared to be fewer than 50 people circling the Kaaba at the same time and walking several meters (feet) apart.
Typically, the mosque would be packed with worshippers from around the world crowded shoulder-to-shoulder at all times of the day and night.
The second phase for loosening restrictions at the Grand Mosque comes into effect on October 18, allowing a maximum of 15,000 pilgrims and 40,000 for prayer from among residents and citizens based on allocated times via the app.
Muslim travelers from outside Saudi Arabia could be allowed to perform the umrah pilgrimage as early as November 1, the Interior Ministry has said.
Saudi Arabia recently began easing some restrictions on international flights for the first time since March.
The kingdom held a dramatically downsized, symbolic hajj pilgrimage in July due to concerns that it could easily have become a global super-spreader event for the virus.
Pilgrims were selected after applying through an online portal and all were residents or citizens of Saudi Arabia. Rather than the more than 2 million pilgrims the kingdom hosts for the annual event, as little as 1,000 took part after being tested for the virus and quarantined.
Despite taking early and sweeping measures to contain the virus, Saudi Arabia has recorded nearly 336,000 cases, including 4,850 deaths.
Kuwait’s Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah was sworn in Wednesday as the ruling emir of the tiny oil-rich country, propelled to power by the death of his half-brother after a long career in the security services, reports AP.
At age 83, Sheikh Nawaf is not expected to deviate from the diplomatic path charted by his predecessor, the late Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah.
But his accession touched off speculation about who will become the next crown prince in the country known for its lively elected parliament and relative independence in the neighborhood of Gulf Arab monarchies.
The late Sheikh Sabah was set to make his final journey to Kuwait later on Wednesday, his coffin flying back from Rochester, Minnesota, home of the flagship campus of the Mayo Clinic where he had been receiving medical treatment after surgery.
Although his funeral would typically draw tens of thousands of mourning Kuwaitis and scores of foreign leaders and dignitaries, because of the coronavirus pandemic the burial will be a private service restricted to relatives, said Kuwait’s state-run news agency, KUNA. The breadth and depth of emotion over the loss of Sheikh Sabah, known for his deft diplomacy and peacemaking, was reflected in condolence messages that streamed in from countries on opposite ends of regional bitter disputes, including Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Sheikh Nawaf took office as the new ruler of Kuwait in the Parliament building before rows of applauding lawmakers, clad in their traditional white robes and surgical masks because of the pandemic.
Kuwait's Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, has died on Tuesday. He was 91.
He was expected to be succeeded by his 83-year-old half-brother and crown prince, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed, reports BBC quoting the state media.
In July, Sheikh Sabah was flown to the United States for medical treatment following surgery for an unspecified condition in Kuwait.
He had ruled the oil-rich Gulf Arab state since 2006 after Emir Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah stepped down just nine days into his rule as parliament moved to depose him on health grounds.
The emir often acted as a mediator in regional disputes, including the ongoing diplomatic stand-off between Saudi Arabia, its allies and Qatar.
Kuwait also refrained from intervening in Syria's civil war, instead hosting several donor conferences for humanitarian aid.
He had been prime minister under the previous Emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, and for several years had been seen as the de facto ruler.
Before then, he served as foreign minister from 1963 to 1991 and from 1992 to 2003.
Kuwait - which has a population of 4.8 million, including 3.4 million foreigners - has the world's sixth-largest known oil reserves and is a major US ally.
It has been ruled by the Sabah family for the past 260 years.
Sheikh Sabah had pushed for diplomacy to solve regional issues, such as the continuing boycott of Qatar by four Arab nations, and he hosted major donor conferences for war-torn nations such as Iraq and Syria, reported Al Jazeera.
Kuwait television earlier interrupted regular programming to cut to Quaranic verses on Tuesday, a move that often signifies the death of a senior member of the Gulf Arab state’s ruling family.
His death comes as the nation continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 103,981 people and caused 605 related deaths in the country of 4.1 million. Its health ministry said more than 95,500 people have recovered from COVID-19.
Foreign Minister of Iraq Fuad Hussein arrived at Tehran on Saturday, on order to hold bilateral talks with senior Iranian officials.
It is the first visit to Iran since the murder of General Qassim Soleimani in January, AP reports quoting Iran’s state run news agency IRNA.
During the visit, Fuad Hussein is likely to meet his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani.
Earlier in July, Zarif visited Baghdad and met with Hussein and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
It was Zarif's first visit to Iraq since a US airstrike in January killed a top Iranian general, Qassim Soleimani, outside Baghdad's international airport.
The strike catapulted Iraq to the brink of a US-Iran proxy war that could have destabilized the Middle East.
After Zarif's trip, the Iraqi premier visited Iran in July.
The report did not elaborate on the main reasons behind the top Iraqi diplomat's two-day trip to Tehran.
Iran sees neighboring Iraq as a possible route to bypass US sanctions that President Donald Trump re-imposed in 2018 after pulling the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.
The Arabian Peninsula is the vast new frontier where newly-formed US Space Force is being deployed.
Space Force now has a squadron of 20 airmen stationed at Qatar's Al-Udeid Air Base in its first foreign deployment.
The force, pushed by President Donald Trump, represents the sixth branch of the US military and the first new military service since the creation of the Air Force in 1947, reports AP.
It has provoked skepticism in Congress, satire on Netflix, and, with its uncannily similar logo, “Star Trek” jokes about intergalactic battles.
Future wars may be waged in outer space, but the Arabian Desert already saw what military experts dub the world's first “space war” — the 1991 Desert Storm operation to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Today, the US faces new threats in the region from Iran's missile programme and efforts to jam, hack and blind satellites.
“We’re starting to see other nations that are extremely aggressive in preparing to extend conflict into space,” Col Todd Benson, director of Space Force troops at Al-Udeid, told The Associated Press. “We have to be able to compete and defend and protect all of our national interests.”
Some American lawmakers view the branch, with its projected force of 16,000 troops and 2021 budget of $15.4 billion, as a vanity project for Trump ahead of the November presidential election.
All for a ‘peaceful space’
Concerns over the weaponisation of outer space are decades old. But as space becomes increasingly contested, military experts have cited the need for a space corps devoted to defending American interests.
Threats from global competitors have grown since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when the US military first relied on GPS coordinates to tell troops where they were in the desert as they pushed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait.
Benson declined to name the “aggressive” nations his airmen will monitor and potentially combat. But the decision to deploy Space Force personnel at Al-Udeid follows months of escalating tensions between the US and Iran.
Hostilities between the two countries, ignited by Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of the US from Iran’s nuclear accord, came to a head in January when US forces killed a top Iranian general. Iran responded by launching ballistic missiles at American soldiers in Iraq.
This spring, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard launched its first satellite into space, revealing what experts describe as a secret military space programme. The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Iran’s space agency, accusing it of developing ballistic missiles under the cover of a civilian program to set satellites into orbit.
“The military is very reliant on satellite communications, navigation and global missile warning,” said Capt Ryan Vickers, a newly inducted Space Force member at Al-Udeid.
Still, American officials insist the new Space Force deployment aims to secure US interests, not set off an extraterrestrial arms race.
“The US military would like to see a peaceful space,” Benson, the director of Space Force troops stationed in Qatar, said. “Other folks’ behaviour is kind of driving us to this point.”