Sunday, 28 October 2012

Pilgrims stone devil as hajj enters final stages


MINA HUNDREDS of thousands of Muslim pilgrims from all over the world, grouped by nationality, stoned the devil in Saudi Arabia’s Mina valley on Saturday, as the hajj reached its final stages.

Men, women and children from 189 countries, many of whom had saved up for years to make the trip, hurled pebbles at the vast stone pillars that represent Satan, shouting “Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest).” They walked easily from one pillar to the next, moving in groups by nationality and carrying their countries’ flags so as not to be separated in the sea of humanity.

As many prayed after and during the stoning, others were taking pictures on their mobile phones of themselves next to the pillars.

The photographing was criticised by members of the security forces who said through loudspeakers: “How are you people stoning Satan and taking pictures with him at the same time?” In a corner, 77-year-old Afghan pilgrim Aysha Mohammed sat down panting.

“There’s a sweet feeling about getting tired during hajj,” which Muslims must perform at least once in their lifetime.

“Ever since I was a child I had dreamt of standing on the Mount of Mercy in Arafat,” where the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) is said to have given his last sermon, she said with a smile. “They were purely spiritual moments.” “The trip to perform the hajj has cost me all the money I had,” she told AFP. “I had been saving small amounts for over 15 years and I finally sold all my jewellery to reach this place.” However, not everyone was satisfied with the way their pilgrimage had turned out.

Walking wearily towards the pillars, an exhausted 63- year-old man told AFP bluntly “my trip has been bad.” Abdullah Jad, as he identified himself, said a company he had paid to organise his pilgrimage took his four-year savings and provided nothing in return, leaving him homeless and penniless as he moved across the holy sites.

“An office took the money and told me they will have everything ready for me here,” said Jad.

But “upon my arrival, I found out that I had been fooled and that I had no transport and nowhere to stay,” said Jad, still dressed in his traditional white pilgrimage robes and carrying an umbrella offered to him as part of an advertising campaign by a local telecom company.

The old man’s voice quivered as he said that he had been sleeping at the Grand Mosque in Makkah and did not have enough money left to eat.

Drenched in sweat, Jad said the trip had cost him around 25,000 Egyptian pounds (nearly $4,000 dollars).

Nearby, many pilgrims struggled to reach the food and water a parked truck was offering free to pilgrims.

Security forces were heavily deployed in the stoning area and first aid teams remained on high alert around the three adjacent pillars representing Satan.

The ritual, which takes place in the kingdom’s usuallydeserted Mina valley and comes to life only during the annual pilgrimage, began on Friday with the Muslim Eid al Adha holiday as the faithful began by stoning the largest pillar, Jamrat al Aqaba.

Mina used to be the most dangerous phase of the hajj and the most problematic for the Saudi authorities, marred as it was by deadly stampedes as well as fires in tent camps.

Bombs, house raids in Iraq leave 18 dead


BAGHDAD A BOMBING near playing children and other insurgent strikes killed 18 people in Iraq on Saturday, challenging government efforts to promote a sense of stability by preventing attacks during a major Muslim holiday.

The bloodshed underscored the difficulties facing Iraq’s leadership as it struggles to keep its citizens safe.

Authorities had increased security in hopes of preventing attacks during the four-day Eid al-Adha celebrations, when people are off work and families gather in public places.

The deadlier of two blasts in Baghdad struck near playground equipment that had been set up for the holiday in a market in the eastern neighborhood of Bawiya. Police officials said eight people were killed, including four children. Another 24 people, including children, were wounded, they added.

“Nobody expected this explosion because our neighborhood has been living in peace, away from the violence hitting the rest of the capital,” said Bassem Mohammed, a 35-year-old father of three in the neighborhood who was startled by the blast.

“We feel sad for the children who thought that they would spend a happy time during Eid, but instead ended up getting killed or hurt.” Elsewhere, a bomb attached to a bus carrying Iranian Shiite pilgrims killed five people and wounded nine, according to police. The bomb, hidden on the underside of the bus, detonated as the pilgrims were heading to a Shiite shrine in Baghdad to mark Eid, a major Muslim holiday.

Authorities have said they planned to increase the number of checkpoints, shut some roads and deploy extra personnel during the holiday period.

They are also relying more on undercover intelligence agents, said Lt. Col. Saad Maan Ibrahim, a spokesman for the interior ministry. He emphasized that both bombings took place on the edge of the capital rather than in densely populated areas.

“The terrorists apparently weren’t able to get to the heart of the city. So they chose to attack soft targets on the outskirts,” he said.

In the northern city of Mosul, gunmen broke into the houses of two Shabak families, killing a boy and his parents in one and a mother and daughter in the other, according to police. A bomb exploded near the house of another Shabak family, wounding six family members.

Shabaks are ethnically Turkomen and Shiite by religion.

Most Shabaks were driven out of Mosul by Sunni militants during the sectarian fighting a few years ago.

In Tuz Khormato, about 210 kilometers (130 miles) north of Baghdad, a car bomb exploded near in a neighborhood with a Turkomen Shiite majority. Mayor Shalal Abdoul said 11 people were wounded, including three children.

Medics in nearby hospitals confirmed the casualties. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Eid al Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice, is a major Muslim holiday that commemorates what Muslims believe was the Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail, the Biblical Ishmael, as a test of his faith from God.

Christians and Jews believe another of Abraham’s sons, Isaac, was the one almost sacrificed.

The holiday, which began Friday, marks the end of the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Muslims worldwide typically slaughter lambs and other animals to commemorate the holiday, sharing some of the meat with the poor.

Violence has ebbed across Iraq, but insurgents frequently attack security forces and civilians in an attempt to undermine the country’s Shiite-led government.

Holidays are a particular time of concern for security forces. A wave of attacks shortly before another Muslim holiday in August, Eid al-Fitr, killed more than 90 people in one of the deadliest days in Iraq this year.

Iran lawmaker blames Euro MPs for trip cancellation


TEHRAN A TOP Iranian lawmaker blamed Euro MPs for making an “irrational request” of meeting two jailed winners of 2012 Sakharov awards that led to Saturday’s cancellation of their visit to Tehran.

A five-member European Parliament team had asked to meet during their six-day visit to Tehran jailed Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and internationally acclaimed filmmaker Jafar Panahi — winners of 2012 Sakharov awards.

“Unfortunately, the European Parliament by putting forward (such) irrational and unusual requests created obstacles for the trip,” Kazem Jalali, a prominent lawmaker and head of Iranian parliament’s relations with the European Parliament was quoted as saying on the Iranian assembly’s website.

He said it was “neither acceptable nor rational to link the trip to the pretext of awarding prizes to those who have been convicted in a legal court as means for political propaganda.” The European Parliament’s “unwise move” led to the cancellation of the delegation’s visit to Tehran and it was the parliament that was “responsible for its repercussions,” Kazali added.

A European source said the visit was cancelled after Tehran refused to let the delegation meet Sotoudeh and Panahi.

“The five MEPs were about to leave for Tehran when delegation chair (Tarja) Cronberg received a phone call from the Iranian ambassador to the EU, saying they would not be allowed to meet with the two Sakharov Prize winners,” the European source said.

Sotoudeh, 47, is in jail serving an 11-year sentence for conspiring against state security.

Panahi, 52, is under house arrest and has been banned from making films for 20 years.

Sotoudeh, a leading human rights campaigner known for her work representing opposition activists, and Panahi, acclaimed at international festivals for his gritty, socially critical movies, were jointly awarded the European parliament human rights and democracy prize on Friday.

Earlier on Saturday a top Iranian official said Tehran had rejected the delegation’s request ahead of the visit due to start on Sunday.

Qatari interest injects fresh life into French soccer


PARIS LONG an underwhelming alsoran of European soccer, underloved by almost everyone but the French, France’s top league has entered what seems a new era, one of eye-popping salaries and international attention. Behind the lift is Qatar. This year, Qatar Sports Investments, a branch of the country’s sovereign wealth fund, completed a buyout of Paris Saint-Germain, the French soccer club known as PSG, that reportedly valued the club at $130 million. With an additional investment of an estimated $340 million — a number unheard of in French soccer — the team has recruited more than 15 players from the top ranks of international soccer, including the Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose $21 million salary set a record in France. The team’s budget is up 100 percent from last year, to $392 million, more than twice that of any other club in the league. PSG’s new slogan seems an apt summation of the Qatari approach to French soccer: “Dream Bigger.” The Qataris want to transform PSG into a club that will challenge Europe’s best and most extravagantly financed teams. Analysts say that aspiration aligns nicely with Qatar’s efforts to promote its national brand, especially ahead of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. PSG, those analysts suggest, could serve as a sort of international billboard. French commentators have been sceptical of the spending, though, not least because PSG is only one of a slew of recent Qatari acquisitions in France. Last year, Qatar Sports Investments purchased the PSG handball team and stocked its roster with top international talent. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund also has considerable holdings in several of France’s largest corporations, and since the French government has offered tax exemptions for Qatari real estate investments here, Qataris have accumulated a fleet of luxury properties valued at almost $4 billion.

The country has also invested heavily in French television, the financial lifeblood of soccer here. Al-Jazeera Sports this year started two French channels under the name beIN Sport, upending the traditional order of televised soccer in France.

For a reported $430 million per year, beIN Sport purchased live broadcast rights for 80 percent of matches in France’s top league, Ligue 1, as well as the rights to most Europa League and Champions League matches.

BeIN Sport has assembled a stable of well-known commentators and personalities, including several who were plucked from Canal Plus, the network that long held a near monopoly on televised French soccer.

Outside analysts contend that, if money is little object, the PSG soccer club represents a particularly prime investment. ‘’Qatar is a smart little country,” said Lars Haue-Pedersen, managing director at TSE Consulting, which has worked for several years for Qatar’s Olympic committee. “If I had to give them 30-second advice, I would say: Where is the market less developed than the big markets? France.” Ligue 1 “has always been a nice league but not the highest level,” Haue-Pedersen said, adding that it was probably the European league with the “most potential.” ‘’By buying into European soccer, you are buying a marketing platform, of course, and a very attractive marketing platform,” he said. “And Paris is Paris, you know,” an ideal city for soliciting potential investors.

In an emailed statement, the PSG president confirmed that “the location of the club in Paris, a leading capital of world, was very important” in the decision to purchase the team. Though PSG had a slow start to the season, the team is now the clear favourite to win Ligue 1, and it is expected to be a contender in future Champions League and Europa League competitions, prestigious tournaments in which French teams have rarely had much success.

“In five years, PSG is going to clobber everyone,” said Jacques Vendroux, the director of sports coverage for France’s public radio stations.

French soccer “needs to have a great club, needs to make people dream,” Vendroux said. A French club has won the Champions League only once in nearly 60 years, he noted.

Vendroux deplored what he called a lack of ambition among many French teams, and a sort of jealous xenophobia toward the Qataris. “We keep things amongst ourselves with our little clubs, with our little second division,” Vendroux said, adding, “Let’s open ourselves to the world!”

Syria truce in tatters; 2-day toll touches 200


DAMASCUS FIGHTING raged across Syria and air raids struck near Damascus and in the north on Saturday after a ceasefire declared for Eid Al Adha fell apart, with nearly 200 killed since it was due to take effect.

The truce for Eid Al Adha that started on Friday — conditionally agreed by the regime and the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) — had raised the prospect of the first real halt to the fighting after 19 months of conflict. But after fresh fighting on both Friday and Saturday, rebels and a monitoring group declared the ceasefire well and truly dead.

As clashes between President Bashar al Assad’s forces and rebels continued, a Syrian warplane struck a building in a rebel-held area east of Damascus that has been the scene of heavy fighting for weeks, killing eight.

“This was the first fighter jet air strike since the declaration” of a truce for the four-day holiday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. “The truce is dead,” the group’s director Rami Abdel Rahman commented. “We can no longer talk of a truce.” Another air strike hit near the Wadi Deif military base in the northwestern province of Idlib, where rebel forces have been battling for control of the facility, it said.

A rebel commander in the northern city of Aleppo said there was no doubt the ceasefire initiative, proposed by UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, had collapsed.

“This is a failure for Brahimi. This initiative was dead before it started,” Abdel Jabbar al Okaidi, head of the FSA military council in Aleppo, said over the telephone.

He insisted the FSA had not broken the ceasefire and was only carrying out defensive actions.

“I was on several fronts yesterday and the army did not stop shelling,” Okaidi said. “Our mission is to defend the people, it is not us who are attacking.” The Observatory, a key monitor of the conflict, said 146 people were killed in bombings and fighting on Friday, including 53 civilians, 50 rebels and 43 members of Assad’s forces.

On Saturday, fresh violence killed at least another 48 people, the Observatory said, amid clashes and attacks in Damascus province, Aleppo, Idlib, Daraa in the south and the eastern city of Deir Ezzor.

Among the dead were five killed in a car bomb attack in Deir Ezzor, it said. State television blamed the attack on “terrorists” and said the bomb had gone off in front of a church, causing significant damage.

Qatari salary hike set to top inflation rate this year


DOHA COMPANIES in Qatar and other GCC countries anticipate a pay hike in 2013, well above the inflation forecasts for the region, a survey has said.

According to the Mercer’s 2012 Total Remuneration Survey (TRS), the future looks bright for the GCC workforce, as companies across the region predict salary hikes for employees during the coming year.

The survey conducted in the six GCC markets highlighted that more than 70 percent of surveyed organisations are anticipating growth within various departments as they look to accelerate recruitment in 2013.

Firms in Qatar anticipate 5.6 percent pay hike next year, while the inflation in the country is expected to be around 4 percent, the survey reveals.

Similarly, firms in Saudi are hoping for a 6 percent hike in 2013, while in the UAE, companies hope for a 5 percent salary rise.

At 4.4 percent, inflation will be highest in Saudi in 2013, while at 1.7 percent, it will be lowest in the UAE.

The Mercer survey pointed out that aggressive recruitment strategies are on the anvil with 60 percent of the companies surveyed looking to increase headcount by the end of the year and 70 percent in 2013.

On the subject of recruiting nationals, the survey said efforts to attract and retain local personnel remains at the existing level in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

In Qatar, the efforts to recruit nationals are expected to be come more vigorous with a 10 percent jump in the number of respondent firms reporting the implementation of Qatarisation policies within their firms.

Mercer’s IPS Business Leader in the Middle East Zaid Kamhawi said that while the results represent good news for the Gulf’s positioning relative to other parts of the world, companies are still cautious about the impact of regional and global events on local economic activity.

“Broadly, economic activity across the Gulf region has been solid in most areas but the social, political and economic transformation under way in some parts of the broader MENA region mean that business leaders are still exercising caution,” he commented.

“Multinational firms, headquartered in Europe or the US and with Middle East operations, perceive the MENA region as a bright spot for investment and as their key growth regions,” he said.

“As a result of this, and as we tend to see in emerging markets, companies are competing to attract and retain valuable talent in the foreseeable future.” He further said that the consumer goods industry is highly driven by retention strategies and the provision of monetary incentives as a means of acquiring employees with specific skill sets, particularly at mid-level sales positions. This is an area in which we expect to see a slightly higher salary increase.

The annual Mercer survey covers the whole range of sectors from consumer goods to energy, technology, durables and manufacturing.