MERS Outbreak in South Korea Hits Record High, 3 New Cases, 2 More Die

who says south koreas mers outbreak large and complex, photo courtesy of ritika patel

who says south koreas mers outbreak large and complex, photo courtesy of ritika patel

SOUTH KOREA - An outbreak of MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in South Korea has led to 138 confirmed cases and 14 deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Just 17 hours ago news outlets reported 3 new cases with 2 more deaths.

A single traveler brought the disease to South Korea last month and since then it has spread exponentially overwhelming the healthcare system. Contributing factors include overcrowded emergency rooms, the sick and worried returning numerous times to hospitals, additional delays as medical professionals seek second opinions, coupled with an ill-trained medical community unfamiliar with the disease.

Currently, all cases have occurred have been traced back to a hospital where patient zero contracted the disease. Many citizens have started wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from infection. However, the larger community isn't taking any chances either and have subsequently closed more than 2,900 schools and quarantined 3,680 people. (Source: BBC).

An early setback has been a lack of government transparency. President Park Geun-hye has been accused of not being pro-active in his response and of withholding information about who has been infected. The mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, said that a now quarantined doctor attended a gathering of more than 1,500 people the day before he was diagnosed with the disease. (Source: New York Times)

However, the WHO has issued a statement that human-to-human transmission of the virus is only possible through very close contact. As long as reasonable measures are taken there is no need for panic. Currently, the WHO is working with scientists to better understand the disease, develop treatment strategies, and determine the best way to respond to the outbreak.

Although the disease is not well understood and has no cure, the spread of it has thus far been predictable. Most contagious diseases are opportunistic and are most easily incubated and spread in hospitals and other healthcare facilities due to close proximity of the infected. Although doctors and scientists are struggling to find a way to treat the infected, predictive and statistical models have proved invaluable in anticipating what part of the population is at greatest risks and thus help communities implement proactive precautions.

The disease originated in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) there is currently no vaccine to prevent MERS-CoV infection, but the South Korea outbreak is the largest outbreak outside of the Middle East. “MERS-CoV is thought to spread from an infected person to others through respiratory secretions, such as coughing. In other countries, the virus has spread from person to person through close contact, such as caring for or living with an infected person. (Source: CDC)

Contributing Journalist: @SJJakubowski
Facebook: Sarah Joanne Jakubowski

Is Saudi Arabia on Path Toward Balance?

kingdom tower saudi arabia, By faisal photography

kingdom tower saudi arabia, By faisal photography

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -  Geographically located at the geopolitical crossroads of the Middle East and the West, Saudi Arabia has come a long way from being known only as a religiously constrained nation dominated by hardline conservatives focused more on internal governance to the exclusion of Western opportunities because of their possibly corrosive influences.

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, 90, who died on 23 January 2015, was also known as 'the reformer' king, and under his decade long reign the socioeconomic transition strategies had already yielded positive results as the country became more open to doing business with partners that sometimes were at odds with the country's religious precepts. This fact was underscored by the number of world leaders and top dignitaries who visited Saudi Arabia to give their condolences.

The newly enthroned King Salman welcomed U.S. President Barack Obama, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito, Spain's King Felipe VI, Jordan's King Abdullah, Denmark's Crown Prince Frederik, Dutch King Willem-Alexander, and the United Kingdom's Prince Charles and others and will hopefully continue Saudi Arabia's embrace of a path that leads out of the religious cocoon that has historically governed it.

Though still a monarchy, the Saudi Arabian government is relatively stable, and the influx of new business partners is helping this thriving society to transform its image of being a totally Islam-centric culture to one that at least entertains and hosts people from different nations and backgrounds. This includes, doing business with Western companies that sometime send female executives to manage large scale projects.

However, Saudi Arabia is a nation that is built on Islamic principles and protecting these principles remains its cornerstone and governs every transaction. For instance, though Western women may come to work there, they are still expected to observe the decorum and customs that are unique to Muslim society. Even First Lady Michelle Obama was criticized in the media for not wearing an Abaya or head scarf during a recent visit; however, it was noted by the Associated Press that former First Ladies Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush have also appeared in public meetings Saudi royals without an Abaya.

Even still, Saudi Arabia is realizing unprecedented global, economic and employment growth as people embrace the reality that it is simultaneously the ultimate ‘Hajj’ destination, but also for non-Muslims it is a country where they can achieve economic success, explore great job opportunities, or just visit as a great vacation destination.

Socioeconomic Transformation:  In 1970 Saudi Arabia introduced the first of a series of the ongoing five-year development plans. The long-range plan had in scope the implementation of a modern infrastructure, fostering the development of business relations with other nations, and making the kingdom an affordable place for one and all. As a result of assiduously following the scope of this program over a 30-year period, today Saudi Arabia has been transformed into one of the most modern and sophisticated Arab states.

The table below provides a high-level summary of some of the major social and political breakthroughs that were achieved as a consequence of the Social Economic Transformation policies.

Government Goals and Objectives

Achievements

2001, December (Fight for Values & Saving the grace of Islam)

The government calls for the eradication of terrorism, and publicly states that terrorist acts are explicitly prohibited by Islam. The government also takes the unprecedented step of issuing ID cards to women.

2002, May (Sabotaging the rule to “offer pain”)

The criminal code underwent major revision that included ban on torture and right of suspects to legal representation.

2005, November (The World knows the worth now)

The prestigious World Trade Organization (WTO) gives a green signal to Saudi Arabia's membership after 12-years of negotiations.

2009, June (Making relations rock-solid)

U.S. President Barack Obama visits Saudi Arabia as part of a Middle East tour. The visit was aimed at increasing U.S. engagement with the Islamic world.

2012 June (Let the souls breathe and get their dreams)

Saudi Arabia agreed to allow women athletes to compete in the Olympics for the first time. This decision was against the background of speculation that the entire Saudi team might be disqualified on grounds of sex discrimination.

2014 February (Banish the “Crude”)

New anti-terrorism law were introduced to fortify the suppression of violent groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda.

2014, June-September

Activists for women's rights have become more vocal and public in their demands for equal rights for women to fully participate in society, in particular, being able to drive. Among other platforms, social media users continue to push the boundaries and test the limits of freedom of expression.

The Employment Affairs:  Saudi Arabia currently possesses more than 25% of the world's oil reserves. The oil and gas sector in Saudi Arabia has created astounding wealth for the country, and has encouraged investment by other nations that buy oil and gas from this Middle East powerhouse. Experts believe that with social reforms that continue to take place, will encourage nations not traditionally inclined to do business with Saudi Arabia to reconsider. Such expansion should result in the creation of many high-paying job opportunities for foreign and domestic workers alike; a fact evidenced by Jeddah being named one of the top livable cities in the world.

Persistent Concerns:  Saudi Arabia still has much to improve upon when it comes to human rights especially with regard to meting out punishment. In this respect the country is still in a religious cocoon of ultra-conservative, orthodox ‘Wahhabism' which has been Saudi Arabia's dominant faith for the past two centuries. This religious interpretation of Islamic law takes a literalist view of Qur'an and the tenets, and thus continues to condone heinous acts such as "death penalty or stoning for adultery and fornication, flogging and amputation for stealing, and punishments of retribution, are sanctioned by the Qur'an and are unchangeable," legal scholar Shahid M. Shahidullah explains. Wahhabist interpretation of "sharia law is the exclusive foundation of criminal justice" in Saudi Arabia. (Source: VOX)

Frontline PBS featured an Analyses of Wahhabism and its rigidity that "has led it to misinterpretation and distortion of Islam, pointing to extremists such as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban." Indeed, many of the perpetrators of the September 11th air attacks against the U.S. were instigated and perpetrated by Saudi nationals, and indeed many people still believe that the government and constituent nations in the region harbor extremist.

Between 2014 and 2015 Saudi Arabia has more than redeemed itself with tangible efforts and resources in the fight against radical Islamist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda, two of the greatest terrorists threats facing the world today. The "Saudis have sent jets to bomb the group in the Syrian regions where it [ISIS] first gained strength and broader influence. The result is that Saudi Arabia now has useful intelligence on the groups the U.S. will be arming and training within Syria later this year. Saudi Arabia is one of only three Muslim countries (the others are Turkey and Qatar) that would allow the U.S. to set up rebel-training camps on its soil." (Source: Huffington Post)

In summary, Saudi Arabia has realized vast improvements and it has boldly embraced the challenges that face a country that struggles to balance modernity with tradition; and though many may yet criticize this nation, its increased presence on and involvement in global affairs heralds its desire to move toward balance.

Middle East Correspondent:  @Vinita Tiwari

ISIS, Al Qaeda, Houthi Rebels Compete in Yemen

Local Fighters Team with al-Qeada, Abyan Province, Yemen, Photo by Joe Sheffer

Local Fighters Team with al-Qeada, Abyan Province, Yemen, Photo by Joe Sheffer

YEMEN - ISIS has infiltrated Yemen, a country already flooded with terrorist groups. The Syria-based terror group, known for its extreme brutality and shockingly successful recruitment of outsiders, has gained a tentative foothold alongside the Al Qaeda forces already present.

Al Qaeda remains the dominant presence, but the competition for recruits and support may sway in favor of the more financially-appealing ISIS. This friction between the two groups can spell increased trouble for civilians in Yemen and elsewhere. In-country fighting and instability has escalated, as is evidenced by a gun battle between the two groups last month and White House analysts fear the competition will become a race to see who can hit US soil first and hardest. (Source: CNN)

Another key player in the Yemeni crisis is the Houthis, a rebel group demanding greater control of what they claim is a western-controlled government and protesting unequal distribution of resources. They belong to the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam, also known as Fivers, a sect of Islam almost exclusively present in Yemen. They are from the Shi'ite minority similar to the Twelvers found mainly in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran and are known for being most similar to Sunni Muslims in matters of religious law and rulings. They do however, believe in the concept of an Imamate as being essential to their religion, which makes them distinct from Sunnis. (Global Security.org, "Zaydi Islam”, by John Pike)

Pressure from Houthi fighters resulted in the resignation of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. His departure triggered thousands of Yemeni citizens to counter-protest the Houthi actions. (Source: BBC)

Yemen, although among the world's poorest countries, has strategic political and geographical importance. The terror activity poses a danger to the U.S., who is often the target for attacks. In addition, it is a gateway for foreign fighters to go to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, providing ample recruiting opportunities for ISIS and other terror groups. The U.S. government had found allies in Yemen officials and was working with their government to develop counter-terrorism methods. Now that the shaky government has been obliterated by rebels and terrorist groups compete for dominance and destruction, the future of Yemen is unclear.

Does Middle East Harbour Fears of Oil Drying Up?

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MIDDLE EAST - Will the world soon experience a major oil and gas crunch? Many global countries are gradually becoming self-dependent and planning to adopt new drilling technologies in the hope of discovering their own oil reserves. The Middle East, which has long maintained its stature as the world’s largest oil exporter, now feels great pressure. Someday the oil reserve will dry up under the burden of consumption of a vast volume of barrels of crude oil per day.

Governments and those involved in framing policies in the Middle East are now aware that the world’s oil fields are depleting at a rate of 9.1% per year, which is terrifying. It has been reported that if nothing is done to overcome the threat, then oil production could fall 38% in only five years. A recent report in the Guardian revealed that conventional sources of oil are expected to continue to decline and future oil demands will need to be satiated through more unconventional resources.

This is a matter that requires immediate attention for most of the oil producing nations in the Middle East. What if the economic highs created by the precious oil drop down to nothing? This very fear has brought economic diversification to the center stage. The only saving grace that can protect the global population from experiencing this painful outcome is to introduce a diversification strategy.

The concept of economic diversification is to improve the GDP. Economic diversification is a process that generates a growing range of economic outputs. This diversifies the markets for exports or income sources outside of domestic economic activities (i.e. income from overseas investment). The Middle East and its constituting nations have adopted the concept, where previously they were characterized by the lack of it.

Other sectors will now stand with pride and make their own contributions to the GDP and thus lead to a flourishing fiscal health. At the moment, private sectors are the first visible output of the economic divergence protocol.

Price and demand are two of the most important aspects of the global economic system and fiscal diversification is one way to escape the complex phenomenon. Countries and their respective economic systems are experiencing problems such as low growth rates, lack of public and private incentives to accumulate human capital, lack of competition in manufacturing, and similar problems. This is something that has coaxed the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council to opt for economic diversification.

Economic diversification can reduce a nation’s economic volatility and increase its real activity performance. With oil consumption going up at a very steep rate, diversification is something that can pacify the fear in the Middle East associated with its diminishing oil reserve.

The answer lies in the relationship between fiscal divergence and private sector economic reforms. The theory suggests that diversification will help increase the private sector and will lower the contribution of the public sector to a certain level. One of the reasons for more private sector involvement is that a part of economic divergence relates to the issue of the foreign direct investments. A report from LSE suggests FDIs can bring in capital, create new jobs for people living in the Middle East, encourage development of new technology, and formulate management methods. These will help the countries build and expand their societies and knowledge communities.

It can safely be said that the potential of the Middle Eastern nations to attract FDI is severely limited without a well-functioning private sector. The growth of the private sector in the overall GCC economy has not only brought a fresh breath of air but has also created ripples in the employment market as a whole. The premise is simple: Take the revenue from oil and gas and invest it in other budding industries and sectors.

The expectation of fiscal diversification is freedom from the monopoly of oil and gas revenue on the GDP, and newcomers entering the economic arena. The Gulf would soon be relieved from the fear of depleting oil reserves and could still manage the country with a growing private sector. There would be well-paying jobs in the Middle East and the standard of living would still be maintained.

Follow Vinita on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Middle East Correspondent: @vinita1204

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Saudi Arabia Grapples with Women's Right to Drive Within Existing Restrictions

SAUDI ARABIA - A common Western activity such as driving has been an issue for women in Saudi Arabia for ages. Although women over thirty have been allowed to drive, this right has been curtailed by the stringent restriction to which they are forced to adhere.

Currently, "Saudi Arabian laws" limit their freedom to drive outside of a proscribed schedule which prohibits them driving after 8:00 p.m. Also, an additional restrictive and seemingly punitive issue is that women who are driving are forbidden to wear make-up while operating the vehicle. One would presumably understand the restriction against distracted drivers using cell phones and other communication devices thus taking their attention away from the road, but the wearing of make-up does not seem to fall into this category as women are allowed to wear it in all other instances.

This matter came to the attention of the world because the consul of Saudi Arabia has put on the table for discussion the possibility of removing the time constraints, and also considering the option of allowing women older than 30-years-old to operate a vehicle during restricted hours. Though, these discussion are not open to the public, it seems that this is a growing necessity for a society that is increasingly mobile and where the use of a vehicle would greatly enhance the performance of such mundane duties such as grocery shopping, picking up children from school, etc.

Although the decision to reassess the restrictions imposed on women drivers seems precipitous, in fact women have been actively campaigning for this basic right to drive for years. The consul stated that there is the necessity to create a “female traffic department" in order to bring precise control over the matter, in case a car suffers some damage while being utilized by a woman. There are also restrictions when it comes to women interacting with men while driving. Though these discussion seem to be a recognition of the need for equal rights for women in terms of driving, the additional restriction makes us wonder if this response is a ploy to seemingly comply with women's rights group while in fact devaluing the struggle in which many women defied the laws, boldly driven their cars, and consequently suffered punishment.

Additionally, the existing restriction have resulted in a culture of families hiring drivers to transport women. But, what happens when the traditional family does not have the economic resources to hire someone? Women then are directly dependent of spouses, siblings, parents and even their children in order to accomplish their daily activities, and such restriction are unduly punitive for women who are in the lower classes. Thus, the current debate is considering the possibility that under certain conditions women might drive more days of the week during the hours between 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Restrictions regarding wearing make-up and interacting with men during the driving are not up for discussion and will likely remain in place.

According to The Associated Press, "There have been small, but increasingly bold protests by women who took to their cars in open defiance....over the past year despite the restrictions. The driving ban, which is unique in the world, was imposed because the kingdom's ultraconservative Muslim clerics say "licentiousness" will spread if women drive.”

A protest occurred last October when Saudi women drove around their neighborhoods and recorded themselves on videos which they then posted on social networks such as YouTube as a means to publicize their plight and reinforce their belief in the right to protest this unjust situation. Although there isn't a written law that limits schedules or outlines formal details on restrictions imposed on women driver, these unwritten cultural restrictions have been ubiquitously enforced, and punishments have varied between jail time or other sanctions.

In 2011 forty women protested against the driving ban and as a consequence one of them was sentenced to 10 lashes; however this barbaric punishment was subsequently overturned by the king. The revocation of this sentence can be viewed as an improvement since the situation has been discussed for years over what type of judgement should be meted out for women who break the de facto "driving ban" laws, and corporal punishment of women who are considered disobedient is actively practiced in other traditional cultures.

Since the consuls' discussion are private and there has been no indication of when an announcement of their decision will be made, women who have been demanding their right to drive continue to peacefully protest by driving despite these anachronistic traditions.

Saudi Arabia Blames Camels for MERS Outbreak in US

deadly-mers-virus-detected-in-egypt-first-cases-of-2014-surface-photo-by-gullpress-wna.jpg

Allyson Cartwright, Contributing JournalistLast Modified: 20:24 p.m. DST, 14 May 2014

Riyadh Camel Market, Photo by Charles Roffey SAUDI ARABIA, Riyadh— A second case of an American infected with the MERS virus has been confirmed in Orlando, Florida. As MERS breaches the US border, death tolls of those infected with the virus in Saudi Arabia continue to rise. MERS originated in Saudi Arabia, where they claim that camels are the source of the pathogen that causes the respiratory virus.

There are near 500 diagnosed cases of MERS—short for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome— in Saudi Arabia alone. The Saudi health ministry reports that half of these MERS victims were diagnosed in April of this year. According to Ahram Online, the death toll of MERS victims in Saudi Arabia stands at 121 deaths, four of those within the last week.

The Saudi Ministry of Agriculture has issued a state public health through the official Saudi Press Agency. They urge people who are handling animals to “exercise caution and follow preventive measures”. This kind of warning has not come from Saudi officials since the MERS virus was discovered in 2012. Health experts conclude that the most dangerous animals to handle are camels, a vital livestock for the nomadic culture of Saudi Arabia.

The Ministry of Agriculture suggests when dealing with camels, "It is advisable to wear protective gloves, especially when dealing with births or sick or dead.” The National Turk says that the ministry has also warned that any camel milk should be boiled and camel meat thoroughly cooked before consumption. Also, gloves and face masks should be worn when handling animals or coming in contact with infected people. Despite the link between the MERS pathogen and camels, ABC News says that scientists do not know how the virus is spreading from the animal to people.

There is international concern as the virus is spreading globally. The hajj, the pilgrimage of Muslims to the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, will be occurring in this fall as well as during the Ramadan holy month of July. The large numbers of people, estimated at two to five million, will be travelling to Saudi Arabia from all over the world and putting themselves at risk of MERS infection. Some countries have even considered imposing travel restrictions to Saudi Arabia.

In Egypt, where their first case of MERS was diagnosed this April, there is deliberation on banning pilgrims from participating in the Hajj. Ahram Online reports that former Egyptian health minister and member of the special task force for the MERS virus, Mohammed Awad Tag El-Din, said if the “epidemic status of the virus and its development” gets worse then travel restrictions will be considered.

The World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a 5-day mission to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to evaluate the outbreak of the virus. WHO determined that they “recommend the application of any travel or trade restrictions, including for upcoming pilgrimage travel to Saudi Arabia.”

NBC News reports that 17 countries, mostly on the Arabian Peninsula, currently have cases of infected individuals. Countries that have reported MERS infections include Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, the United States and several countries in Europe. NBC News also say that with Dubai being the world’s busiest airport and the Middle East’s growing role in international trade, the MERS virus could eventually have economic implications that go beyond its dangers to health.

Follow Allyson on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Journalist: @allysoncwright

Sporting News | Saudi Women May Soon See Athletic Opportunities

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Progress towards greater gender equality continues in Saudi Arabia. Last year, King Abdullah allowed the addition of physical education programs in private schools. 2012 saw the first Saudi female athletes competing in Olympic games. And now, the Shura Council has voted to expand athletic programs to public schools throughout the Kingdom. While Saudi women remain some of the most restricted in the world, their cause is gaining momentum.

Growing concerns over women's health are at the core of the movement. Increased heart disease, obesity and diabetes threaten Saudi women at much higher rates than their male counterparts. According to Human Rights Watch, as many as 33% of women likely suffer from obesity, and 25% are plagued by diabetes. Regular exercise through physical education regimens and after-school sporting opportunities could greatly offset these life-threatening conditions, according to doctors.

The Shura Council has little power in Saudi government, but the assembly fills an important gap between the people and lawmakers. The Council's recommendation will be forwarded to the education ministry. This department will have the final say. In recent years, high-power clerics have questioned the longstanding ban on female recreation, stating that the Qur'an does not explicitly oppose this activity.

Externally, Saudi Arabia was the subject of international pressure. Until the 2012 Summer Olympics, the Kingdom was the only country recognized by the International Olympic Committee to prohibit female participants. The London games saw two Saudi women competitors, Wojdan Ali Seraj and Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who competed in judo and track, respectively. The ladies' achievements were veiled, as the events were not televised in their mother country.

The makeup of the Shura Council is in itself indicative of the direction of the country. Last year, King Abdullah included 30 women on the board of 150 advisors. In the past, the Council had been exclusively male. But, the assembly's new power balance is not representative of wider Saudi society. Legally, women are unable to participate in business dealings, drive cars or even vote. Even so, Saudi women work in sales, education and now, law. Earlier this year, Bayan Mahmoud Al-Zahran was the first woman in the Kingdom to gain her lawyer's license.

However necessary, the implementation of female athletics could prove dubious. Even the discussion of expanding of women's athletics generated controversy from conservative Council members. If the education ministry approves wider sporting provisions, participants will abide by Sharia codes. According to these Islamic laws, traditional attire and female supervision will be mandated during sport practices and events.

The Council's endorsement is just one component of an increasingly progressive Saudi Arabia. Last August, King Abdullah took official action against domestic violence. The order provides victims with necessary medical treatment and levies serious punishments against culpable parties. By most data, Saudi Arabia is home to the most codified gender inequity in the world, and yet, developments continue to give hope to the women of the Kingdom.

Follow Michael on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Senior Correspondent: @MAndrewRansom

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