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RIYADH (AFP): With pumping hip hop beats and electrifying dancers, Saudi Arabia has launched what’s being hailed as an entertainment revolution for the ultra-conservative kingdom, which usually tightly restricts music, dance and theatre.

Hundreds of men and women, side-by-side, hooted their appreciation and clapped to the beat as New York-based theatrical group iLuminate took to the stage in Riyadh on Thursday evening. Anywhere else, it would have been a normal night out. But in a country without public cinemas or theatres, iLuminate’s stage show was a rarity.

That is about to change, according to the kingdom’s General Authority for Entertainment, which has lined up WWE wrestling, Arabs Got Talent performances, a food festival, comedy, Monster Jam motor sports and other events in the coming weeks. It is the latest sign that the sands are shifting in the oil-flush desert kingdom, where a new generation of royals is gaining growing influence.

“This signals a new era in Saudi Arabia,” said Ahmed al-Hemedy, 27, who watched the iLuminate show with a group of friends. “I never expected to see something this magnificent in front of my eyes,” he said, questioning why this type of entertainment didn’t come sooner.

“The show was brilliant!” The iLuminate dancers performed on a darkened stage in electrified glow-in-the dark suits, telling the stories of urban America against the thumping backdrop of its beats. Wahhabi Islamic thought, on which Saudi Arabia is founded, frowns upon music and forbids paintings of the human form. The kingdom took a more conservative course, including the banning of cinemas, after fundamentalists in 1979 seized Islam’s holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Makkah, to oppose perceived Westernisation.

They were eventually dislodged in a deadly assault by security forces. Many Saudis spend their entertainment dollars in neighbouring Bahrain and Dubai. The kingdom outlaws alcohol, even in luxury hotels, and unrelated men and women are forbidden from mixing. That means “single” men eat in a separate section at restaurants. But in a sign of flexibility, there was no segregation at Thursday night’s show, where men and women sat together inside the “convention hall” at Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University, a campus exclusively for women.

The hall bore a striking resemblance to an impressive theatre, with red seats, balconies, and an atrium lobby where vendors sold nachos, popcorn and donuts. Saudi women lined up for their snacks dressed from head-to-toe in black abaya robes, according to local custom. Entertainment-starved expatriates were among the youthful audience who spent between 50 and 900 riyals ($13.33-$240) for tickets. Salman Ziauddin, 30, of India, said that in his eight years in Saudi Arabia he had never seen such a show and hopes there will be more like it.

The creator of iLuminate, Miral Kotb, told reporters it was an honour to bring “such a different type of theatre and art to this culture” where the audience was so receptive. “They’ve been some of our best that we’ve had, and we’ve performed these shows worldwide.

Because you can feel the love and the energy and excitement that they have” in Saudi Arabia. Since last year the younger generation has had one of its own at the heights of power in the kingdom where more than half the population is under 25. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a 31-year-old son of King Salman, is the driving force behind Vision 2030, an economic and social diversification plan which he released in April to wean the kingdom off oil. Among its wide-ranging goals is development of tourism and entertainment. “We are well aware that the cultural and entertainment opportunities currently available do not reflect the rising aspirations of our citizens and residents,” Vision 2030 admits. British ambassador Simon Collis, who attended the show, said the kingdom’s “new approach” to entertainment is “a very positive development for young people. It will generate income.

It will create jobs. People will be happier.” He said Britain has already exchanged ideas with the entertainment authority about how they might be able to work together. “There’s a lot of energy around. It’s a time of significant change,” he said. Hundreds of people each night attended six Riyadh performances of iLuminate which now moves to Jeddah. Ahmed al-Khateeb, who heads the entertainment authority, told reporters his agency wants to develop a one-year timetable of events, so that “instead of thinking where to go and having no options now you will have three, four” on a weekend. There are 14 different programmes for the remainder of this year. “Greater things will come, God willing,” he said.

Source: Arab Times

 

DUBAI (RTRS): An air strike on a funeral gathering, widely blamed on Saudi-led warplanes, poses more trouble for a Western-backed Arab campaign against Yemen’s Houthis that has long been criticised for civilian losses. The White House announced an immediate review of Washington’s support for the 18-month-old military push after planes hit mourners at a community hall in the capital Sanaa on Saturday, killing 140 people according to one UN estimate and 82 according to the Houthis.

The statement from Riyadh’s main ally, noting for the second time in as many months that US support was not “a blank check”, sets up an awkward test of a Saudi-US partnership already strained by differences over wars in other Arab lands.

The reproach also indirectly hands a propaganda win to Riyadh’s arch rival Tehran, a Houthi ally that has long seen the Sunni kingdom as a corrupt and domineering influence on its impoverished southern neighbour, diplomats say. Sources in the Saudi-led coalition denied any role in the attack, but Riyadh later promised an investigation of the “regrettable and painful” incident, with US expert advice. The move was apparently aimed at heading off further criticism of a military campaign already under fire for causing hundreds of civilian deaths in apparently indiscriminate attacks.

“There will be pressure on the campaign,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst close to Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry. While the coalition followed very careful rules and understood human rights concerns, “there will now be pressure to end the whole operation, or to restrict the operation”. An estimated 10,000 people have been killed in the war and the United Nations blames coalition strikes for 60 percent of some 3,800 civilian deaths since they began in March 2015. The outcry over civilian casualties has led some lawmakers in the United States and Britain as well as rights activists to push for curbs on arms sales to Riyadh, so far without success.

The coalition denies deliberately targeting civilians and says it goes to great lengths to ensure its raids are precisely targeted, with explosive loads calibrated to limit the risk of causing damage beyond the immediate target area. Saudi officials said the kingdom did not want to fight a war in Yemen. “But we cannot stand by while insurgents overthrow a legitimate government in a neighbouring state by force, while Yemen becomes a lawless state and terrorist haven, and while we are attacked across our border,” one of the officials said. “Saudi Arabia will continue to provide military support to Yemen’s legitimate government while the insurgents continue their illegal campaign. … But we will also continue to support and promote a negotiated settlement.”

The coalition accuses the Houthis, who seized much of the north in a series of military advances since 2014, of placing military targets in civilian areas. The Houthis deny this. Fury in Sanaa at Saturday’s raid was echoed internationally. A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said any deliberate attack against civilians was utterly unacceptable. Ban called for “a prompt and impartial investigation of this incident.

Those responsible for the attack must be brought to justice”, the spokesman said. UN emergency relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien described the attack as obscene and heinous. France called it a “massacre” and said it wanted an independent inquiry. There was dismay, too, in the ranks of the internationally recognised Yemeni government that the coalition is defending. “It’s shocking to see that a target like this was hit,” said a senior official in the Saudibacked government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. “It’s the latest in a series of attacks by all sides on civilian targets like homes and public gatherings that are turning this into a dirty war.” “If anything positive can come from this, it would be increasing the will for a ceasefire that is needed. But incidents like these before have just fuelled a desire for revenge.”

Source: Arab Times

 

WASHINGTON: The United States is ready to send around 600 troops to Iraq to train local forces for an upcoming offensive on the Islamic State group stronghold of Mosul, US officials told AFP on Wednesday.

IS seized Mosul along with other areas in June 2014, but the country’s forces have since regained significant ground from the jihadists and are readying for a drive to retake Iraq’s second city.

Speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement, the officials said the troops would mainly be deployed to Qayyarah, a strategically vital air base south of Mosul that will help funnel supplies and troops toward the city.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was due to make an announcement later Wednesday while on a work trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico. “In consultation with the government of Iraq, the United States is prepared to provide additional US military personnel to train and advise the Iraqis as the planning for the Mosul campaign intensifies,” another US official said, again speaking on condition of anonymity.

A US-led coalition is carrying out air strikes against IS in Iraq, and Washington has authorized the deployment of more than 4,600 military personnel to the country. Most are in advisory or training roles, working with Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces, but some American troops have fought IS on the ground, and three members of the US military have been killed by the jihadists in Iraq.

Earlier Wednesday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office indicated it has requested “a final increase in the number of American trainers and advisers” to support Iraqi troops in the northern city. The statement from Abadi’s office noted that American forces are helping Iraq in its battle against the jihadists, but their presence remains extremely politically sensitive due to the nine-year war the United States fought in the country.

The statement said the number of trainers and advisers would start to be reduced as soon as Mosul is retaken from IS, and also asserted that no American troops had fought alongside Iraqi troops.

In reality, American special forces have fought IS alongside Iraqi Kurdish forces on several occasions that have been made public, and likely in other operations that have not come to light.

A million displaced?
Speaking in New Mexico on Tuesday, Carter said he expected the Mosul offensive to begin in the coming weeks, but stressed the decision was an Iraqi one. “The plan is quite elaborate,” he said. “All of this is under the command of Prime Minister Abadi.” The United Nations warned that military operations there could cause up to a million people to be displaced.

Last week, US President Barack Obama said US-backed Iraqi troops could be in a position “fairly rapidly” to liberate Mosul, though he warned “this is going to be hard, this is going to be challenging.”

Separately, the US military concluded Tuesday that a rocket fired earlier this month at the Qayyarah air base, which houses hundreds of US troops, contained no mustard agent, as initially suspected. In neighboring Syria, hundreds of US forces are deployed alongside Kurdish and rebel fighters to battle IS, which is also facing air raids by the international coalition.

The Pentagon has expressed concern IS fighters could use mustard gas to defend Mosul. Even after Mosul is retaken, the war against IS will be far from over. The jihadists are likely to revert to insurgent tactics, such as bombings of civilians and hit-and-run attacks on security forces, following the demise of their “state” in Iraq.-AFP

CHARLOTTE: Streets appeared calm early yesterday in downtown Charlotte after a second night of violent protests over the deadly police shooting of a black man, although at least three major businesses were asking their employees to stay home for the day as the city remained on edge.

Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Duke Energy all told employees not to venture into North Carolina’s largest city after Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency Wednesday night and called in the National Guard after Charlotte’s police chief said he needed the help.

Anger has continued to build over the shooting of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott by a black police officer on Tuesday afternoon and the wildly different accounts about what happened from authorities and Scott’s family and neighbors.

A peaceful prayer vigil turned into an angry march and then a night of violence after a protester was shot and critically wounded as people charged police in riot gear trying to protect an upscale hotel in Charlotte’s typically vibrant downtown. Police did not shoot the man, city officials said.

Video obtained and verified by The Associated Press, which was recorded right after the shooting, shows someone lying in a pool of blood as people scream and a voice yells for someone to call for help. People are then told to back up from the scene.

The unrest took many by surprise in Charlotte, the banking capital of the South with a population of 830,000 people, about 35 percent of them black. The city managed to pull through a racially charged shooting three years ago without the unrest that erupted in recent years in places such as Baltimore, Milwaukee and Ferguson, Missouri.

2013 charges
In 2013, Charlotte police charged one of their own, Randall Kerrick with voluntary manslaughter within days, after the white officer shot an unarmed black man who had been in a wreck and was looking for help. The jury deadlocked and the charge was dropped last summer. The city saw a few protests but no violence.

On Wednesday, hundreds of protesters who were shouting “black lives matter” and “hands up, don’t shoot” left after police fired flash grenades and tear gas after the shooting. But several groups of a dozen or more protesters stayed behind, attacking people, including reporters, shattering windows to hotels, office buildings and restaurants and setting small fires.

At one point, television news helicopters showed protesters on the loop highway around downtown, trying to stop cars for several minutes before police arrived.

“My heart bleeds for what our great city is going through,” McCrory said on WBTV-TV. He was mayor of Charlotte for 14 years before becoming governor.

Authorities said three people and four police officers were injured, but those figures had not been updated early Thursday morning. Videos and pictures on Twitter showed reporters and other people being attacked.

The violence happened amid questions about what happened when Scott was shot and killed in the parking lot of his condominium complex. Police did not release dashboard or body camera footage, but said Scott had a gun and refused several orders to drop his weapon. Scott’s family and neighbors said he was holding a book.

“He got out of his car, he walked back to comply, and all his compliance did was get him murdered,” said Taheshia Williams, whose balcony overlooks the shady parking spot where Scott was Tuesday afternoon. She said he often waited there for his son because a bicycle accident several years ago left him stuttering and susceptible to seizures if he stayed out in the hot sun too long.

Police Chief
Charlotte Police Chief Kerr Putney was angered by the stories on social media, especially a profanity-laced, hourlong video on Facebook, where a woman identifying herself as Scott’s daughter screamed “My daddy is dead!” at officers at the shooting scene and repeating that he was only holding a book.

Putney was adamant that Scott posed a threat, even if he didn’t point his weapon at officers, and said a gun was found next to the dead man. “I can tell you we did not find a book,” the chief said.

Not long after the Facebook video was posted Tuesday night, the first night of destructive protests began near the shooting scene, about 15 miles northeast of downtown Charlotte. Dozens of demonstrators threw rocks at police and reporters, damaged squad cars, closed part of Interstate 85, and looted a stopped truck and set a fire. Authorities used tear gas to break up the protests.

The distrust of police continued after Wednesday’s shooting of the protester. Many demonstrators did not believe city officials’ assertion that officers did not shot the protester.

“We protesting. Why the hell would we target each other?” Dino Davis said. “They say it was the tear gas, and it looked like one the tear gas exploded. But I think it was a rubber bullet because some of those rubber bullets can penetrate.”

Police said the plainsclothes officer who shot Scott, identified as Brently Vinson, has been placed on leave, standard procedure in such cases. Three uniformed officers at the shooting scene had body cameras; Vinson did not, police said.

Calls for police to release the video increased. North Carolina has a law that takes effect Oct. 1 requiring a judge to approve releasing police video, and Putney said he doesn’t release video when a criminal investigation is ongoing.

But that video may be the only thing that calms Charlotte, said John Barnett, who runs a civil rights group called True Healing Under God, or THUG.

“Just telling us this is still under investigation is not good enough for the windows of the Wal-Mart,” he said. On Wednesday, wooden pallets barricaded the entrance to a Wal-Mart near the protest site that had apparently been looted.-AP

 

BEIJING: Police have ordered some low-end hotels in the Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou not to allow guests from five Muslim-majority countries to stay, though China’s foreign ministry said it had never heard of the policy.

Three hotels with rooms costing about $23 a night said they had received police notices as early as March, telling them to turn away people from Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan.

“I’m not clear about the reason. We just can’t take them,” one hotel worker said by telephone.


‘Pakistan among countries on the list’


The notice appears only to apply to chea­per hotels at the bottom of the price scale.

All of the five countries have been beset by terrorist attacks in the past few years, or in the case of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have been in states of war.

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post said on Friday the rule appeared to be a security measure coinciding with a development forum being held in Guangzhou this week, and also ahead of next week’s G20 summit in Hangzhou, though the two cities are more than 1,000km apart.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said he was not aware that such an order had been issued in Guangzhou. “I’ve never heard that there is this policy being followed in China,” Lu told a daily news briefing.

“Moreover, as far as China is concerned, our policy in principle is that we encourage people from China and other countries to have friendly exchanges and are willing to provide various convenient policies in this regard.”

Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2016

DOHA: Qatar’s government will levy a new airport tax on passengers from Tuesday as the country seeks new revenue streams amid falling oil prices. Every passenger leaving Qatar from Doha’s Hamad International Airport, including transit passengers, will be charged 35 riyals ($9.61) for using airport facilities, according to a statement by the airport.

The charge will apply to tickets issued after Aug 30 and for any travel starting on Dec 1 onwards and would be used to “further increase the airport’s capacity and invest in new infrastructure”, the statement said. Children under two years old without a seat will be exempted.

Airport fees, while common elsewhere in the world, have until recently been avoided by Gulf states as they seek to gain a competitive advantage for business and become regional hubs. Some 1.33 million passengers travelled through Hamad International Airport in June. Airports in the United Arab Emirates announced similar taxes earlier this year. Interest rates are rising in the Gulf as low oil prices pressure governments’ finances, so Qatar has been looking at ways other than borrowing to fund its projects, including raising local gasoline prices.

Qatar has said it expects to post a deficit of 46.5 billion riyals ($12.8 billion) in 2016, its first in 15 years, and to run a deficit for at least three years as low natural gas and oil prices weigh on its revenues as it prepares to host the soccer World Cup in 2022. – Agencies

AMMAN: The US will reach its target this week of taking in 10,000 Syrian war refugees in a year-old resettlement program, the US ambassador to Jordan said yesterday, after meeting families headed to California and Virginia. The resettlement program has emerged as an issue in the US presidential campaign, with Republican nominee Donald Trump alleging displaced Syrians pose a potential security threat. Alice Wells, the US ambassador to Jordan, said yesterday that keeping Americans safe and taking in some of the world’s most vulnerable people are not mutually exclusive.

“Refugees are the most thoroughly screened category of travelers to the United States, and Syrian refugees are subject to even greater scrutiny,” she said. Wells said the target of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees in the US in the 2016 fiscal year will be reached Monday, as several hundred Syrians depart from Jordan over 24 hours. The Jouriyeh family, which attended Sunday’s short ceremony, is headed to San Diego, California. Nadim Fawzi Jouriyeh, 49, a former construction worker from the war-ravaged Syrian city of Homs, said he feels “fear and joy, fear of the unknown and our new lives, but great joy for our children’s lives and future.”

Jouriyeh, who suffers from heart problems, will be traveling with his wife, Rajaa, 42, and their four children. Their oldest son, 14-year-old Mohammed, said he is eager to sign up for school in San Diego and hopes to study medicine one day. The resettlement program focuses on the most vulnerable refugees, including those who were subjected to violence or torture or are sick. Close to 5 million Syrians have fled civil war since 2011. Most struggle to survive in tough conditions in neighboring countries, including Jordan, which hosts close to 660,000 Syrian refugees.

Only a small percentage of Syrian refugees have been resettled to third countries. Instead, donor countries are trying to invest more in job creation and education for refugees in regional host countries to encourage them to stay there instead of moving onward, including to Europe. Wells said the US has taken in more refugees from around the world over the years than all other nations combined. – AP

 

source: Kuwait Times

 

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