Taking shape: the replacement roof at Jeddah’s Haramain station. Photo: @Osama_333

When Saudi Arabia’s Haramain railway opened in 2018 it was hailed as a triumph of technology and engineering. The 450-km line linking the holy cities of Mecca and Medina was designed to carry passengers at 350 km an hour. It took 10 years to build and cost more than $16 billion. A year after its opening, though, disaster struck and the line was shut down when fire devastated one of the stations on the route.

The blaze, in Jeddah, swept across the station’s roof, dropping smouldering debris on to the concourse below. Firefighters took around 12 hours to bring it…

Former UN assistant secretary-general Hans von Sponeck. Photo: Justus Nussbaum

A newly-formed group has joined the campaign to discredit investigations of chemical weapons in Syria and has recruited a former high-ranking UN official to its cause.

Berlin Group 21”, whose website was registered on 10 March, is promoting a “statement of concern” which accuses the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) of “procedural and scientific irregularities” in its investigation of a suspected chemical attack in Syria.

The OPCW found “reasonable grounds” for believing an attack took place in Douma, near Damascus, in April 2018. However, the investigation’s findings were rejected by Syria and its principal ally, Russia, along…

Professor Paul McKeigue: spreading conspiracy theories

It emerged last week that a university professor who spreads conspiracy theories about chemical weapons in Syria has been passing information to someone who he mistakenly believed was working for Russian intelligence.

In a lengthy email correspondence with the supposed Russian agent, Prof Paul McKeigue of Edinburgh University talked about numerous people who he claims are involved in plots to discredit the Assad regime in Syria. As one of the alleged plotters, I have made a formal complaint to the university:

To the Principal and Vice-Chancellor

Dear Professor Mathieson,

You are no doubt aware that one of your university’s professors…

The Yemeni city of Marib lies 120 km to the east of the capital, Sana’a, with mountainous territory in between. It was from Marib, in the early stages of the six-year war, that pro-government forces hoped to launch an assault against the Houthi rebels who had seized Sana’a. Since then, though, the tables have turned and Houthi forces are now threatening Marib.

The Houthis have been preparing for a push on Marib since early last year. There have been periodic clashes but fighting has intensified during the last week or so. …

Yemen’s Houthis struck a civilian airliner at Abha airport in Saudi Arabia last week. Photo via Saudi state television

The US State Department confirmed on Friday that it is revoking a last-minute decision by the Trump administration to designate Yemen’s Houthi movement as a terrorist organisation.

The issue is not whether the Houthis deserve to be designated — their atrocities are well known — but Trump’s action, just days before leaving office, had legal implications for aid agencies, threatening to jeopardise relief efforts in the midst of what many regard as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The incoming Biden administration responded initially by putting the designation on hold for review and has now formally cancelled it, with effect from…

Saudi Arabia’s 85-year-old King Salman receiving his vaccination

As Covid-19 vaccines become more available, here is a country-by-country roundup of the situation in the Middle East and North Africa. While some countries are still waiting for supplies, in others the roll-out is well under way.

Some — mostly the wealthier ones — have struck deals with major pharmaceutical companies, often for more than one type of vaccine. Others are relying on the international Covax initiative and some are making use of both methods.

Covax aims to provide “equitable access to safe and effective vaccines” worldwide and is part of the ACT-Accelerator programme. Covax is of particular interest to…

Higgins’ book, We Are Bellingcat, is due to be published on February 4.

In just six years a small team of investigators at the Bellingcat website have chalked up some remarkable achievements. One was their naming of Russian agents who poisoned Sergei and Yulia Skripal with Novichok in Britain — followed, a couple of years later, by identifying those behind a similar attack on the Russian opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, in Siberia.

Other investigations have included the shooting-down of flight MH17 over Ukraine, the use of chemical weapons in Syria, airstrikes against civilians in Yemen, and the activities of far-right agitators in the United States.

In reporting stories like these Bellingcat has often…

Secretary of State Blinken: “It’s vitally important that we do everything we can to get humanitarian assistance to the people of Yemen.” Photo: State Dept

When Antony Blinken, the newly-appointed US Secretary of State, gave his first press briefing on Wednesday the first topic to come up was the war in Yemen. It’s rare for Yemen to receive much attention in Washington but there are signs that the Biden administration intends to take an active interest.

The immediate reason for this attention was a decision by the Trump administration, in its final days, to designate the Houthi movement as a terrorist organisation. …

The headline from LGBTQ Nation

News that an international conference on “Gender Identity and LGBT Rights” is to take place in the United Arab Emirates is causing a stir in the gay media.

The idea of holding a conference on LGBT rights in the Emirates is not only surprising but potentially significant. It would be the first of its kind and, as Pink News and LGBTQ Nation point out, gay sex in the UAE is a crime punishable by imprisonment.

The conference is due to be held on May 6–7 and LGBTQ Nation reports that the emirate of Dubai will be its “host”. However, it’s…

New Covid-19 infections recorded in the Middle East and North Africa, 1 March–31 December 2020. Daily average, week by week

New Covid-19 infections in the Middle East and North Africa averaged just under 28,000 a day during December, bringing the total since the pandemic began to almost five million, according to official figures.

Across the region as a whole, this represents a modest fall in new cases compared with November, which was the worst month so far.

The list below shows the daily average of new cases reported during December by each of the 20 countries monitored:

Brian Whitaker

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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