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Pakistan’s balancing act may be failing | Asia

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Earlier this month, the long-simmering tensions between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia came to a boil when Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi publicly criticised the kingdom for its perceived lack of support for Islamabad’s interests in the disputed Kashmir region.

During a televised interview on August 4, Qureshi said Islamabad expects the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to convene a meeting on Kashmir. Otherwise, he said, Pakistan would be “compelled” to “call a meeting of the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir”. Qureshi’s comments have widely been viewed as a veiled threat to create a new bloc that would rival the Saudi-dominated OIC.

In response, Saudi Arabia withdrew a $1bn interest-free loan it had extended to Pakistan in November 2018, when the country was in dire economic straits and required foreign reserves to avoid a possible sovereign default. The kingdom has also refused to renew a deferred oil payments scheme that was part of the same package. 

In a bid to control the damage, on August 17, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant-General Qamar Javed Bajwa rushed to Riyadh. However, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) did not grant an audience to Bajwa, and the powerful military chief abruptly returned to Islamabad after holding a short meeting with Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. 

Soon after General Bajwa landed in Pakistan, Qureshi left for China, sending a clear message to the kingdom that Islamabad is diversifying its alliances and re-evaluating the value of its strategic partnership with Riyadh. 

The latest diplomatic spat between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan should be seen in the broader context of recent strategic realignments in the Middle East and the Muslim world. For some time, Pakistan has been struggling to keep to its traditional policy of maintaining neutral relations with rival Muslim powers. While Islamabad is concerned about the deepening strategic and economic cooperation between its arch-rival India and a group of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, Riyadh is equally frustrated by Pakistan’s overtures towards Muslim-majority states it views as hostile, such as Turkey, Malaysia and Qatar.

Furthermore, the proposed Iran-China deal that is due to make both Islamabad and Tehran important nodes in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative is expected to change the dynamics of Pakistan’s relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia, which views Iran as the main threat to its regional and global ambitions, is concerned about the possible emergence of a new partnership between Iran and Pakistan under the stewardship of China.

After India’s August 2019 move to revoke Indian-administered Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, Pakistan expected Arab states to ferociously endorse its Kashmir policy. However, Saudi Arabia – and its Gulf allies, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – failed to take a strong stance against India, frustrating Islamabad. 

The Gulf states have balanced their dealings with Pakistan and India in the past. But now, it seems, they are openly moving closer to India and away from Pakistan. 

This new strategy was on display during MBS’s February 2019 tour of South Asia. The Saudi Crown Prince not only made the unprecedented move of visiting India directly after Pakistan, but also promised to make larger investments in India than he did in Pakistan. After signing a memorandum of understanding valued at about $20bn to help prop up Pakistan’s economy, MBS said in New Delhi that he expects Riyadh’s investments in India “to exceed $100bn in the coming two years”. 

A few weeks later, in March 2019, the UAE also made it clear that it is seeking closer ties with India at the expense of Pakistan, when it invited India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj as a guest of honour to the OIC summit it was due to host. Pakistani Foreign Minister Qureshi pulled out of the summit in protest, but failed to make the UAE rescind its invitation to India. 

Today, Saudi Arabia has several reasons to value its deepening partnership with India more than its historic ties to Pakistan. While the annual trade between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia stands at around $3.6bn, Saudi-India bilateral trade is worth more than $30bn. This trade differential partially explains, despite persistent Pakistani requests, why Riyadh has avoided raising the Kashmir issue beyond mere tokenism. Unlike Pakistan, Saudis do not take a zero-sum view of their growing economic cooperation with India. In fact, economic overtures towards India are part of MBS’s post-oil economic diversification efforts. 

Furthermore, the new government in Pakistan is moving closer to Turkey and Malaysia – two countries that Saudi Arabia views as challengers to its prominence within the Muslim world. Last December, Pakistan caved in to Saudi pressure and pulled out of the Kuala Lumpur summit, which was perceived by many as an attempt to replace the Saudi-controlled OIC. The embarrassment it suffered over the affair made Islamabad more eager to carve out some autonomous policy space to safeguard its vital strategic interests without perpetually depending on its Arab allies. As a result of Pakistan’s efforts to be more autonomous, which moved it closer to Riyadh’s rivals in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia started to perceive Pakistan more as a potential rival than a loyal ally. This too likely makes the Saudi leadership less eager to lash out at India over Kashmir. 

While Pakistan is undoubtedly well aware of Saudi Arabia’s move away from itself and towards India, given its economic dependence on the kingdom, it cannot afford to sever its ties with Riyadh completely. This is why Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan recently played down his country’s differences with Saudi Arabia, claiming that the “rumours” about a rift between Riyadh and Islamabad are “totally false”. 

Amid ongoing strategic realignments in the Middle East and the wider world, we are likely to see many more ups and downs in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the coming days. It appears Saudi Arabia will continue to move closer to India, ignoring Pakistani demands for support on Kashmir. Pakistan, meanwhile, is unlikely to give up on its diverse partnerships and return to Saudi Arabia’s orbit. While some friction seems unavoidable, the two long-time allies can prevent further fraying by assuming a pragmatic approach and working to strengthen ties in areas of convergence, such as security. 

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 



Source – www.aljazeera.com

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‘Almost 180-degree turnaround’: More Black Americans open to jabs | Coronavirus pandemic News

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More Black people in the United States say they are open to receiving coronavirus vaccines, a new survey shows, an encouraging sign that one community leader described as “almost a 180-degree turnaround” from earlier in the pandemic.

According to the late March poll by the Associated Press news agency and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, about 24 percent of Black people said they would probably or definitely not get vaccinated.

That is down from 41 percent in January, and is similar to the proportion of white people (26 percent) and Hispanic Americans (22 percent) who also say they do not plan to get jabs.

The findings come as US President Joe Biden’s administration works to speed up inoculations to try to outpace a recent rise in infections, after he promised that all adults would be eligible for a jab by April 19.

Public health experts had raised concerns about the need to ensure that Black and other communities of colour in the US, which have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, had equitable access to vaccines.

Local leaders said vaccine hesitancy was fuelled in part by decades of institutional discrimination in healthcare and other public services.

Dr Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told AP that attitudes among Black people have taken “almost a 180-degree turnaround” as outreach campaigns have worked to combat misinformation.

Benjamin said Black physicians, faith leaders and other organisers have helped get targeted messaging to the community “in a way that wasn’t preachy”.

“They didn’t tell people, ‘You need to get vaccinated because it’s your duty.’ They basically said, ‘Listen, you need to get vaccinated to protect yourself and your family,’” he said.

Mattie Pringle, a 57-year-old Black woman from South Carolina who previously had doubts about taking the vaccine, said she changed her mind after a member of her church urged her to reconsider. She got her first jab last week.

“I had to pray about it, and I felt better after that,” Pringle told AP.

Medical and public health experts have continued to urge people in the US to get vaccinated in an effort to slow the spread of the disease, which has killed more than 561,000 people across the country – the highest death rate in the world.

The US, which has reported over 31 million cases to date, has authorised three vaccines for emergency use: the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson jabs.

So far, more than 178.8 million vaccine doses have been administered countrywide, while 68.2 million people are considered fully vaccinated, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Recent surveys have shown that more Americans in general say they intend to get vaccinated than previously did.

The Pew Research Center reported in early March that 19 percent of US adults said they had already received at least one dose, while another 50 percent said they probably or definitely would get vaccinated.

“Taken together, 69 percent of the public intends to get a vaccine – or already has – up significantly from 60 percent who said they planned to get vaccinated in November,” it said.

Other recent surveys show that attitudes towards vaccines are split along political lines. A survey at Monmouth University released last month found that 36 percent of Republicans said they would avoid the vaccine compared with just six percent of Democrats.

That prompted top US infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, to call on former President Donald Trump to encourage his supporters to get vaccinated.

Meanwhile, experts are urging Americans to take whichever vaccine is available to protect themselves and avoid delays.

“When people come in, I always advise them to get the vaccine that’s available because you never know what vaccine is going to be available the next time,” Reham Awad, a pharmacy intern in the Chicago area, told Al Jazeera this week.



Source – www.aljazeera.com

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Erdogan urges end to Ukraine tension, offers Turkey’s support | Conflict News

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Turkish president says tensions between Kyiv and Moscow over Donbass conflict have to be resolved through dialogue.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for the “worrying” developments in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region to come to an end after meeting his Ukrainian counterpart in Istanbul, adding Turkey was ready to provide any necessary support.

Erdogan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy held talks in Istanbul on Saturday amid tensions between Kyiv and Moscow over the long-running conflict in Donbass.

Speaking at a news conference alongside Zelenskyy, Erdogan said he hoped the conflict would be resolved peacefully, through dialogue based on diplomatic customs, in line with international laws and Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

“Our main goal is that the Black Sea continues to be a sea of peace, tranquility and cooperation,” Erdogan said.

Zelenskyy said the views of Kyiv and Ankara coincided regarding the threats in the region and as well as responses to those threats.

Erdogan stressed that Turkey’s cooperation with Ukraine in the defence industry, which was the main item on the meeting’s agenda, was not a move against any third countries.

Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Istanbul, said Ukraine was purchasing Turkey’s military drones.

She also said that “new generation drones will be equipped with the Ukrainian engines”.

Regional tensions

Zelenskyy’s visit to Turkey comes amid renewed tensions in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014.

In a visit to troops there this week, Zelenskyy said breaches of a July truce were increasing.

Separatist authorities have also accused Ukrainian forces of violating the ceasefire.

Russia has reinforced its troops along the border and warned Ukraine against trying to retake control of the separatist-controlled territory.

Kyiv rejects that it is preparing for an offensive. The Russian military buildup has raised concerns in the United States and Europe.

The Turkish and Russian presidents spoke on the phone on Friday. Among the issues discussed was Ukraine.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin expressed concern that Ukraine “recently resumed dangerous provocations on the contact line”.

Turkey is a NATO member. But Erdogan and Putin have forged a close personal relationship, sealing energy and trade deals.

They have also negotiated for opposing sides in conflicts, including Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Erdogan’s office also said he would discuss with Zelenskyy the living conditions of Crimean Tatars, who have ethnic links to Turks. Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.



Source – www.aljazeera.com

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Libya kicks off delayed COVID-19 vaccination drive | Coronavirus pandemic News

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Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah receives shot on live television, urges Libyans to register online for their own vaccinations.

Libya has launched its delayed COVID-19 vaccination drive, with Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, prime minister of the country’s new unity government, getting his shot on live television.

Officially, Libya has registered a total of about 167,000 coronavirus cases, including more than 2,800 deaths, out of a population of seven million. Its healthcare system has struggled to cope during the pandemic, strained by years of political turmoil and violence.

After the vaccination of Dbeibah on Saturday at the headquarters of Libya’s Centre for Disease Control on the outskirts of the capital, Tripoli, Health Minister Ali al-Zenati was next to receive a jab.

Libya has so far received 200,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, alongside more than 57,600 AstraZeneca shots, the latter delivered through the COVAX programme for lower and middle-income countries.

Dbeibah urged fellow citizens to register online for their own vaccinations. He has earmarked the vaccination campaign as a policy priority, alleging that the delivery of the shots was hindered by outgoing authorities.

“The arrival of vaccines has been delayed by political, not financial, considerations,” he said.

Dbeibah’s interim Government of National Unity was sworn in last month [Mahmud Turkia/AFP]

Dbeibah was selected earlier this year through a United Nations-sponsored Libyan dialogue to lead the country to national elections in December.

His government replaces two warring administrations based in Tripoli and the country’s east, the latter loyal to renegade military commander Khalifa Hafar. The rival authorities have given their backing to the new administration, adding to tentative hopes that Libya can exit a decade of crisis.

‘Better late than never’

The World Health Organization said on Thursday that two new variants of the coronavirus are present in Libya, which has lately been detecting about 1,000 new daily infections.

No lockdown measures are currently in place, and while masks are obligatory in public places, the measure is widely flouted.

“I feel sorry that the vaccine arrived late in Libya after thousands were infected. But better late than never,” shop owner Ali al-Hadi told Reuters news agency, adding that his wife had been sick with COVID-19 and recovered.

Many Libyans fear the vaccination campaign could be marred by political infighting or favouritism after years of unrest.

“We hope the health ministry will steer away from political conflicts so that services can reach patients,” said housewife Khawla Muhammad, 33.



Source – www.aljazeera.com

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