Saudi Arabia — A leading regional player

September 23, 2017
P.K. Abdul Ghafour

Saudi Gazette

ASIAN economic giant Saudi Arabia is a leading player in the region in terms of combating terror, providing humanitarian assistance to victims of natural calamities and civil wars and stabilizing international oil market. It hosts nearly eight million pilgrims who come for Haj and Umrah every year and more than 10 million foreign workers.

Saudi Arabia marks its 87th National Day on Sept. 23 when we commemorate the marvelous efforts of King Abdul Aziz and his men to unify the Kingdom, setting the stage for establishing a modern Islamic state. Since then Saudi leaders have been working hard to drive the Kingdom to greater progress and prosperity.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, who ascended the Saudi throne on Jan. 23, 2015, has been the Kingdom’s driving force as he established strong relations with the United States, Russia, China, Japan, France, India and other countries. He worked relentlessly to strengthen the unity and solidarity of Saudi people.

Perhaps, the Kingdom’s hosting of three major summits — Saudi-US, US-GCC and US-Islamic — was its outstanding achievement this year. US President Donald Trump, leaders and representatives of 55 Arab and Muslim-dominated countries took part in the conferences held in Riyadh seeking unity in the fight against terrorism.

Islam stands for coexistence

King Salman opened the summit, telling world leaders that Islam provided the best example for coexistence and “will always be the religion of mercy and coexistence.” He denounced extremists who distorted the true picture of Islam.

“We all, peoples and countries, reject in every language and in every form damaging the relations of Muslim countries with friendly countries and profiling countries based on a religious or sectarian basis,” the king told the summit leaders.

Trump, who was on his first foreign visit after becoming the president, said the US was seeking a coalition of nations in the Middle East with the aim of “stamping out extremism.” The president said the overwhelming majority of victims of terrorist attacks were the “innocent people of the Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern nations,” pointing out that “95 percent of the victims of terrorist attacks were Muslims.”

The president said the US was prepared to stand with those leaders in the fight against extremists, but that those countries should take the lead, urging them to drive extremists “out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your community. Drive them out of your holy land.” He also called on religious leaders to condemn attacks in the name of religion, but insisted that “this is not a battle between different faiths.”

The US president’s speech in Riyadh had a new tone, which was quite different from his anti-Islam and anti-Muslim rhetoric during the election campaign.

“Trump reached out to the Muslim world with a new message, calling for peace, hope and unity. I think this is something that will resonate among Arab leaders, particularly those who were attending the summit today and their support is going to be crucial for the fight against Daesh (so-called IS),” said a media person who covered the summit.

During Trump’s visit Saudi Arabia and the US signed a series of agreements, including an arms deal worth almost $110 billion, described as the largest in US history. He also signed a memorandum of understanding with GCC on countering terror financing.

Trump said he was “honored to be received by such gracious hosts like King Salman, continuing King Abdul Aziz’s legacy.” He added: “I bring the message of love from the US — that is why I chose Saudi Arabia for the first foreign trip. US vision is one of peace, security and prosperity in the Middle East region and throughout the world.”

Tehran responsible for instability

Trump lashed out at Tehran, saying the “Iranian regime is responsible for so much instability in the region,” and that it “funds arms, trains militias that spread destruction and chaos.” The US leader also spoke of how “the Iranian regime has spearheaded terrorism since Khomenei’s revolution.”

On Aug. 20, Saudi Arabia took practical steps for establishment of the US-Gulf Anti-terrorism Financing Center as part of implementing terms and conditions of the joint agreement signed during the summit in Riyadh in May 2017. The Riyadh-based center will monitor, and share information, regarding both outgoing and incoming financial transactions to the Middle East and North Africa.

Haj 2017 a big success

The successful management of this year’s Haj pilgrimage was another major achievement. More than 2.5 million Hajis took part in the event, the largest gathering of Muslims in the world. The Saudi government mobilized all its human and material resources to make the annual pilgrimage a resounding success without any major security incidents.

King Salman expressed his happiness over the successful Haj operation and thanked the Almighty for granting Saudi Arabia the honor of serving pilgrims and visitors to the Two Holy Mosques and the holy sites. “Since Saudi Arabia’s foundation, its kings have exerted maximum efforts to serve pilgrims and visitors, and will continue to do so as this is a source of pride for the country and its citizens,” he said.

Despite the Kingdom’s dispute with Qatar over terror funding, King Salman ordered the reopening of the border and relaxed flight restrictions to help Qatari pilgrims perform Haj. The king has permitted “the entry of Qatari pilgrims to the Kingdom through Salwa border crossing to perform Haj, and to allow all Qatari nationals who wish to enter for Haj without electronic permits,” said a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency.

King Salman also ordered that jets belonging to Saudi airlines be sent to Doha airport “to bring all Qatari pilgrims on his expenses.” The Salwa border crossing had been shut after Saudi Arabia along with Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE, severed diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar on June 5, accusing Doha of supporting Islamist extremist groups.

The government deployed more than 300,000 military and civil personnel to ensure safety and security of the Guests of God. About 6,000 surveillance cameras were erected in the holy sites to watch for any violations while three Inspire 2 drones transmitted photos of the holy sites around the clock to the security control and command center.

The Ministry of Health said as many as 10,531 pilgrims received medical treatment at its four general hospitals in Mina while 27,726 were treated at its 26 health centers. About 400 hospitalized pilgrims were transported in ambulance vans to Arafat, 391 were admitted to hospitals and over 1,000 Hajis were treated for sunstroke.

Minister of Health Dr. Tawfiq Al-Rabiah announced that this year’s Haj season is free from epidemic diseases. During this Haj season, the Ministry of Health equipped 25 hospitals in Makkah, the holy sites and Madinah and 158 health centers and appointed 31,000 health practitioners and administrators on Haj duty.

He added that the health teams provided vaccine and preventive treatment against polio and meningitis to more than 700,000 pilgrims. Medical and therapeutic services were provided to more than 465,738 pilgrims while 566 Hajis underwent cardiac catheterization, 28 open heart surgery and 1,520 renal dialyses.

Entertainment revolution

The establishment of the General Authority for Entertainment (GAE) was instrumental in bringing about a revolution in entertainment. It organized 26 special programs with the participation of international entertainment companies like Blue Man Group and Artists Gallery to celebrate Eid Al-Adha. The programs covered 13 major Saudi cities as part of GAE’s move to entertain citizens and residents across the Kingdom.

The authority wanted to organize entertainment programs with high quality content, improve relations between citizens and families and enhance the quality of their lives. “We wanted to meet the expectations of citizens,” said a senior official, who requested anonymity, while talking about Eid programs.

He said the move to organize a variety of attractive entertainment programs in different parts of the Kingdom would not only boost the economy, but also create thousands of new jobs for young Saudi men and women and provide new investment opportunities. “It goes in line with the Vision 2030,” he added.

The government has promised a shake-up of the Kingdom’s cultural scene with a set of Vision 2030 reforms announced by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense, aimed at creating jobs and opening up Saudis’ lifestyles.

The changes are also intended to capture up to a quarter of the $20 billion currently spent overseas by Saudis, who are accustomed to traveling abroad to see shows and visit amusement parks in nearby tourist hub Dubai or further afield.

Ahmed Al-Khatib, chairman of the General Entertainment Authority, said conservatives who criticize the reforms are gradually learning that most Saudis, a majority of whom are under 30, want these changes.

His goal was to create entertainment that “will be like 99 percent of what is going on in London and New York,” although he noted that after decades of cultural conservatism such change could not be rapid.

Al-Khatib said the GEA’s activities have created 20,000 jobs so far after only seven months, and can surpass targets set out last year in the Vision 2030. He predicts the share of Saudi spending on entertainment will triple to 8 or 9 percent by 2030.

The Kingdom’s most ambitious leisure project to date is a giant entertainment city being planned for outside the capital Riyadh, which would aim to draw regional visitors with resorts, golf courses, car racing tracks and a Six Flags theme park.

KSA returns to World Cup

Saudi Arabia’s qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup after a hard-fought 1-0 win over Japan in the group qualifiers was another landmark achievement. With this glittering victory, the Saudis finished second in Group B of the third round of Asian World Cup qualifying, booking their ticket to the soccer extravaganza in Russia next summer.

Fahad Al-Muwallad’s second-half winner against Japan at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah took Saudi Arabia to its fifth World Cup. The half-time substitute smashed a fierce shot into the top corner of the net on 63 minutes to secure Group B’s second automatic qualifying spot for the Saudis ahead of Australia on goal difference.

The final whistle started celebrations at the packed stadium, with players lifting each other into the air and embracing Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk as traditional Arabian music played. The Saudis join Iran, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, Belgium and hosts Russia in the 32-team tournament, which will take place from June 14 to July 15, 2018.

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