Saudi Arabia has issued its first driver's licenses to 10 women ahead of June 24, when the Kingdom's due to end the world's only ban on women drivers.
Officials expect another 2,000 women to seek licenses in the coming week, according to a news release from the country's Ministry of Media.
Activists have long called for the lifting of the ban, and there was some celebration when the Kingdom said last September that the ban would end. However, in recent weeks a number of activists who'd protested against the ban were arrested.
The arrests worried women's rights activists and those monitoring the social reform agenda of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
Last year, the crown prince, regarded as a major power in the country, outlined an ambitious plan to reform the Saudi economy by 2030. Part of that goal includes increasing the number of women in the workforce.
A Saudi woman buckles up in a test car before doing a driving test at the General Department of Traffic in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
On Saturday, the Saudi government "temporarily" released eight activists who were arrested in May for protesting against the ban. Five women and three men were released, but another nine activists remained in custody, according to a statement from Saudi Arabia Public Prosecution.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia follows a strict form of Wahhabi Islam that places many restrictions on women and bans the mixing of sexes at public events. Women have been required to get the permission of a male guardian for almost every activity.
Esraa Albuti, an Executive Director at Ernst & Young, holds her new driving license issued by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
But the kingdom has begun easing some of those constraints, lifting some restrictions on women's education and improving access to public spaces like sports stadiums and movie theaters.
In September, King Salman issued the royal decree giving women permission to drive in Saudi Arabia.
In May 2017, King Salman ordered the government to list services women can seek on their own without permission from their fathers, husbands or other male guardians. He also ordered organizations to provide transportation for female employees.
On Monday, the government took another step by issuing driver's licenses to 10 women in exchange for their foreign licenses.
One of the women, Tahani Aldosemani, assistant professor at the Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz University in Al-Kharj, had a US driver's license obtained when she was studying her PhD.
"Driving for women is not just about driving a car; it enhances strength of character, self-confidence, and decision-making skills," she said in a statement issued by the government.
Rema Jawdat, a risk analyst, also said in the statement, "Driving, to me, represents having a choice; the choice of independent movement, now we have that option and that's important."


The United States must reach an accord with Russia and China for a stable and peaceful world, a former US foreign policy adviser and diplomat says.
James Jatras made the remarks in an interview with Press TV on Monday while commenting on a report which says the United States plans to sharply reduce the number of American Special Operations forces in Africa as part of a new Pentagon strategy that focuses on countering “rising threats” from Russia and China.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis has ordered a review of America’s elite commando missions in recent weeks which could see counterterrorism forces in Africa slashed by as much as half over the next three years, The New York Times reported on Monday.
The review was issued amid an ongoing assessment of Special Operations forces worldwide after four American service members were killed during an ambush in Niger last year.
The US has currently more than 7,300 Special Operations troops deployed to 92 countries, with many conducting shadow wars against militants in Yemen, Libya, Somalia and elsewhere.
“On the one hand I think there is something positive about any reduction we have our presence in third world countries or around the greater Middle East -- much of which by the way is conducted quiet illegally,” Jatras said.
“But it’s not a good thing if this is done simply to shift resources to be deployed against Russia and China. Unfortunately, this is in keeping with the new National Security Strategy… that proclaimed great power rivalry of the sorts we saw perhaps in the 1914 to 1939 is now back on the agenda,” he stated.
The Trump administration released the National Security Strategy in December, calling nuclear weapons “the foundation of our strategy to preserve peace and stability by deterring aggression against the United States.”
Jatras said that “we can give some points for honesty and say: Well, now at least the pretense that American foreign policy is based on fighting a war against terrorism is off the table but setting the stage for the new great power conflict between the United States, and our allies and the Russians and Chinese and the others is not exactly a positive way to go.”
“It is utterly imperative that we come to an accord with Russia and China and the new understanding of a stable and peaceful world,” he concluded.


WB supports Afghan raisin processing plant

Wednesday, 06 June 2018 03:23

Two members of the World Bank Group are providing $3 million in financing and $7.8 million in political risk insurance coverage for a new raisin processing plant in Afghanistan.
Support from IFC and MIGA would help develop the country’s raisin market and boost its agribusiness sector, the World Bank hoped in a press statement.
Agriculture is a key part of the Afghan economy, contributing 25 percent of GDP and supporting more than 80 percent of the population.
The IFC-MIGA package will help the Rikweda Fruit Process Company develop a state-of-the-art raisin processing plant in the picturesque locality of Istalif.
The objective is to double production levels and improve the quality of processed raisins with modern technology and food safety practices, boosting exports and improving the lives of local farmers.
“Afghanistan was once famous around the world for its raisins and we hope this project will put the country back on the global map for raisin production,” remarked Mase Rikweda, CEO of Rikweda Fruit Process Company.
While Afghanistan’s climate is ideal for raisin production, less than 40 percent of its annual produce is currently exported due to instability, and poor quality and food safety standards.
“Nearly 90 percent of Afghanistan’s poor live in rural areas where agriculture plays a major role in their lives,” said Mouayed Makhlouf, IFC regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“Raisin processing can create entry points for farmers, including women, to participate in the value chain and improve the livelihoods of thousands of poor families.”
IFC is providing $3 million in financing to support the project. As well, IFC’s advisory services will help Rikweda provide guidance to small farmers to improve farming practices and implement harvesting, storage, and drying technologies.
MIGA’s political insurance coverage will be against the risk of war and civil disturbance. The Global Agriculture and Food Security Program’s Private Sector Window is providing a first loss guarantee of up to $1.25 million to IFC.
This is the first IFC-MIGA joint project in the country and IFC’s first investment in Afghanistan’s agribusiness sector. The project demonstrates the World Bank Group’s Maximizing Finance for Development approach.

Only fatwas cannot end Afghan war

Wednesday, 06 June 2018 03:23

Religion may be a motivating factor in the Afghan conflict, but it is not a wholly religious war. Seeing the ongoing war in Afghanistan through the prism of religion can complicate than solve the problem. Challenged by growing insurgent activities, Afghan government is in hot pursuit of fatwas declaring the war Un-Islamic. First, it requested Pakistan to encourage its clerics to issue a religious ruling against the war in Afghanistan. Though Islamabad had pledged to do so, it, as usual, betrayed this promise as well. Then came the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Indonesia Ulema Conference in Jakarta, where Pakistani Ulema also apparently blocked the issuance of a fatwa against the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. And finally on Monday, over 2,000 Afghan clerics from across the country gathered in Kabul to denounce the Afghan war and suicide bombings as “haram”.
While the anti-war verdict of Afghan clerics is a commendable step, the violence in the country does not have only a religious aspect that can be stopped by issuing a fatwa against it. The role of Ulema in a highly conservative and religious society like Afghanistan is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, pivotal. However, they alone cannot be expected to encourage an end to the war given its multi-dimensional nature. All contributing factors need to be addressed. This should start from bringing clarity to American goals. Even after two decades of military presence in Afghanistan, American goals are still vague. At least Afghans cannot believe that the United States is here to eliminate terrorism from the region, as its actions also support the assumption. The behavior of Washington and its allies towards Pakistan, which is “the mother of terrorism,” can well define their seriousness and honesty. It is now an undeniable fact that Pakistan uses militants as proxy forces in Afghanistan, but Americans and their allies are chasing them in Afghan homes and villages instead of suppressing them in their sanctuaries in Pakistan. If the ultimate goal is the decimation of terrorism, the fight should start from where the terrorists have safe havens, training camps, and state support. If Americans are not in the belief that Pakistan does so, and also cannot curb the growing Taliban activities, they better talk to the Taliban.
Issuance of fatwas alone cannot put an end to a multi-dimensional war such as that in Afghanistan. In addition to the religious aspect, there is a need for the political will and honesty, and more importantly, the compromise of all sides involved in the conflict. All sides must show willingness to give up some of their demands for the sake of peace.

The Dasht-e-Qala district in northern Takhar province was cleared of Taliban militants following a military operation launched by government forces, Ministry of Defense said.
The ministry said in a statement that at least 40 insurgents including their commander Mullah Mohamad Ghazal were killed and 36 others were wounded in the operation.
The operation was launched last week to clear the area. Meanwhile, the roads to Dasht-e-Qala and Khwaja Bahauddin have been opened to the traffic, the statement said.
The statement did not provide further details about the operation.
Taliban has not yet commented on the report.
The operation launched a week after the militant group attacked the district and captured the center of the district for many hours.

Ten supporters of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) have been killed and 30 others injured in the pro-Pakistani government Taliban attack in tribal area, PTM Leader Manzour Pashteen wrote on his social media account on Monday.
According to some sources, the Taliban had threatened PTM members Ali Wazeri and others to part its way from the movement.
The PTM delegation headed to Waziristan to resolve this dispute with the Taliban but they were attacked.
Government sources also acknowledged the clash in Wanna, the capital of South Waziristan but did not provide details.
After the attack, hundreds supporters of PTM stormed the Taliban who managed to flee. They asked Pakistan’s military in Wanna to cooperate with the PTM and torch the Taliban homes if they were really against them.
Pakistan military often claimed it rendered immense sacrifices in war against terror and thousands of its troops had been killed in this fight. But in reality, the Pakistani establishments not only use these proxies against its neighbors Afghanistan and India but also against its own citizens. PTM is a grass root movement which has been asking for the constitutional rights of Pashtuns living on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line.

Election watchdog considers recent government move of rejecting nominees for chief electoral officer for the Independent Election Commission (IEC) a move in contradiction with article (22) of Electoral Law and a clear interference of government in IEC decision makings, according to a statement of Election and Transparency Watch Organization of Afghanistan on Monday.
Recently the IEC introduced Khalid Fahim, Jawid Habibi and Abdul Baseer Azimi for the post of Chief Secretary of the Commission to the President in order to select one as Chief Electoral Officer of (IEC), but sources say the nominees were rejected by the President and the commission has been urged to introduce more faces, those who are not shortlisted for the post.
Election and Transparency Watch Organization of Afghanistan (ETWA) warned that delays in selection of the new Head for IEC’s Secretariat would further harm the election process in the country.
At the same time, according to reports of some sources, National Unity Government particularly the Administrative Reforms and Civil Services Commission, with breaking article (33) of the Electoral Law, has been interfering in the recruitment process of the provincial commissioners of the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) and creating problems to this commission as well.
“We kindly urge Presidential Palace particularly, the president to let the Electoral Commissions function independently and help provide them with (security and budget) only.
“Furthermore, we ask (IEC & IECC) to make their activities/decisions in accordance with Electoral Law, maintain independency and credibility of themselves as well as the election process before public.”
Election is a national democratic process; so, it should be fair, transparent and based on laws (constitution and electoral law). Moreover, (IEC) is an Independent body in accordance with the article (156) of the Constitution. Neither government nor political parties, CSOs, public and any other individual can interfere and influence in decision making process of this independent institution, the statement read.

Vice-President Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum’s son had survived a Taliban attack in northern Jawzjan province, an official said on Monday.
Lt. Col. Abdul Samad Rahmani, deputy head of Shiberghan Garrison, told Pajhwok Afghan News Batoor Dostum’s convoy came under attack on the Jawzjan-Mazar-i-Sharif highway.
He said the attack happened in the Chaksh locality of Aqcha district on Sunday evening when Batoor Dostum was traveling to Shiberghan.
No one in the convoy suffered casualties. In retaliatory fire, two attackers were killed. Two motorcycles and some weapons were seized from the Taliban.
The bodies of Taliban were handed over to local elders, said Rahmani.

More than 2,000 Afghan religious scholars from around the country issued a fatwa, an Islamic edict, on Monday, saying “the ongoing war in Afghanistan is forbidden under the Islamic law”.
For years, Afghanistan has been plagued by violence by militants, who often use suicide bombers and claim that their struggle is a holy war to impose Islamic rule.
“War in its all types is forbidden according to Sharia and Islamic law and it is nothing but shedding the blood of Muslims,” the religious scholars said in the fatwa.
Suicide attacks in Afghanistan are frequently condemned as fanatical and immoral, especially when civilians are killed, but insurgents view the tactic as their most effective weapon.
“Suicide attacks, explosions for killing people, division, insurgency, different types of corruption, robbery, kidnapping and any type of violence are counted as big sins in Islam and are against the order of the Almighty Allah,” the Afghan clerics said.
The religious scholars said that according to the Holy Quran, killing of Muslims is "Haram" and “illegitimate”.

Meanwhile, the religious scholars repeated their call on the Taliban to accept the Afghan government’s “unconditional” peace offer.
“We the religious scholars call on the Taliban to give a positive response to the Afghan government’s peace offer in order to prevent further bloodshed,” the religious scholars said.
The fatwa by Afghan clerics comes a day after three children lost their lives in a roadside bomb explosion in Nangarhar province – in the east of Afghanistan – on Sunday.


North Korea’s top three military officials have been removed from their posts, a senior US official said, a move analysts said on Monday could support efforts by the North’s young leader to jump-start economic development and engage with the world.
Kim Jong Un is preparing for a high-stakes summit with US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12, the first such meeting between a North Korean leader and a sitting US president.
The US official, who spoke on Sunday on condition of anonymity, was commenting on a report by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency that all three of the North’s top military officials were believed to have been replaced.
Kim’s motivation remains unclear but analysts said the shake-up allows him and the ruling party to tighten control over the Korean People’s Army (KPA) at a critical time of international engagement and domestic development.
“If Kim Jong Un is set on making peace with the US and South Korea and dealing away at least part of the nuclear program, he will have to put the KPA’s influence in a box and keep it there,” said Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organization.
“This reshuffle has brought to the fore the officers who can do just that. They are loyal to Kim Jong Un and no one else.”
Trump revived the Singapore summit on Friday after cancelling it a week earlier.
The United States is seeking a negotiated end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and US officials believe there was some dissension in the military about Kim’s approaches to South Korea and the United States.
Trump wants North Korea to “denuclearize”, or get rid of its nuclear arsenal, in return for relief from economic sanctions. North Korea’s leadership is believed to regard nuclear weapons as crucial to its survival, while Kim has said he plans to focus on economic development.
The US official did not identify the three ousted military officials.
Citing an unidentified intelligence official, Yonhap said No Kwang Chol, first vice minister of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, had replaced Pak Yong Sik as defense chief, while Ri Myong Su was replaced by his deputy, Ri Yong Gil.
North Korean state media previously confirmed that Army General Kim Su Gil had replaced Kim Jong Gak as director of the KPA’s General Political Bureau.
The White House, State Department, CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not respond immediately to requests for official comment.
South Korea’s unification and defense ministries declined to confirm the report, while an official at the Unification Ministry said the government was watching the North’s leadership very closely.
South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-hwa had a 15-minute phone call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday to discuss the upcoming summit between Kim and Trump, the foreign ministry in Seoul said.
Given the military’s secondary role in the North’s nuclear and missile programs, the moves are likely more about installing a younger, even more trusted cohort of officials who Kim Jong Un can rely on as he confronts a variety of domestic and international issues, said Michael Madden, a North Korea expert at Johns Hopkins University’s 38 North website.
“The nuclear weapons are a side issue,” he said.
The moves are likely linked in part to Kim Jong Un’s drive to have the military take a bigger role in critical infrastructure projects. That could explain why newly appointed director of the KPA’s General Political Bureau, Army General Kim Su Gil, accompanied Kim Jong Un on a field guidance trip to a beach tourist zone with other officials, Madden said.
Kim Jong Un is also likely expecting to receive more international economic aid and investment soon as part of the ongoing talks and he wants to prevent corruption that plagued some past projects, Madden said.
All of the newly promoted officials are younger than their predecessors, including 63-year-old Ri Yong Gil, who is 21 years younger than Ri Myong Su.
“This points to two things: the consolidation of Kim Jong Un’s power as the sole leader of North Korea and strengthened cooperation between the North’s party and military as the country works towards further economic development,” said Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“They’re all young but capable people,” Yang said.


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