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Will a cabinet reshuffle fix Saudi Arabia’s economic malaise? | News

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When he emerged on the political scene in 2015, 33-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials MBS, was given a rock star’s welcome by US politicians and Silicon Valley executives.

Saudi Arabia‘s young crown prince had a vision for the kingdom: He planned to diversify the economy, improve public services, such as healthcare and education, and drastically reduce dependence on oil.

But nearly two years on, the world’s youngest defence minister and de-facto ruler of one of its last absolute monarchies, has failed to keep pace with most of his proposed reforms.

On Thursday, his ageing father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, 83, reasserted his power as the kingdom struggles with its worst diplomatic crisis since the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who has repeatedly defended the monarchy following the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, was demoted to the position of minister of state for foreign affairs.

In return, 69-year-old Ibrahim al-Assaf, who was arrested last year during MBS’ so-called “anti-corruption” drive, was brought in as his replacement.

The other notable cabinet changes saw Prince Miteb bin Abdullah fired as the chief of the National Guard, while Khalid bin Qirar al-Harbi was named general security chief and Musaed al-Aiban was appointed national security adviser. 

Jubeir didn’t do too well when talking about the Khashoggi murder, but then again, nobody in Saudi Arabia did. But this is more of an attempt to show the world that changes are being made, despite there not being any real change in policy.

Rami Khouri, non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School

Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst, said Assaf’s appointment was a “signal” from Riyadh to the international community that it was “open for business – literally”.

“The Saudis are trying to send a message that they want to change, they want to regain confidence and credibility in the international community, especially among the international business community.

“And since Assaf was something of a star at the Davos summits and the World Economic summits in previous years, Riyadh reckons he’s the man for the new challenge – which is to bring back business and much-needed investment.”

‘MBS needs foreign investment’

The outcry over Khashoggi’s brutal murder in October saw dozens of prominent CEOs and international media pull out of MBS’ “Davos in the desert” summit, the crown prince’s attempt to suck foreign investment into the Saudi economy.

The murder, as well as the Saudi government’s shifting narratives, fractured Riyadh’s relations with its Western allies, and according to Forbes, foreign investment in the local stock market – Tadawul – has been falling steadily.

International shareholders controlled 5.1 percent of all listed shares on September 27, Forbes said, but the list of shares fell to 4.7 percent by early November.

The fall was not a surprise. The UN reported earlier this year that foreign direct investment had fallen by 23 percent in 2017 to $1.4bn, its lowest level in 14 years.

“Western businesses have looked askance at what’s been going on in Saudi Arabia,” said Bill Law, a Middle East analyst.

“It’s not just the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but it’s also the many other blunders that MBS has conducted
– the first and most obvious being the terrible war in Yemen.”

MBS has faced widespread criticism in recent months for the horrific humanitarian disaster unfolding in Yemen where more than 20 million people need some form of humanitarian assistance.

The kingdom has been heading a US-backed military coalition fighting against Houthi rebels since March 2015, and has launched more than 18,000 air raids on the impoverished country.

Schools and hospitals have not been spared from the bombardment, and according to Save the Children, an estimated 85,000 children under the age of five have starved to death as a result of the war.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also maintained a blockade on food and much-needed medicine in the Houthi-controlled regions of Yemen, resulting in a cholera outbreak.

“If we recall what happened in November 2017, he [MBS] also rounded up 200 senior members of the ruling family and business people, these were all individuals with very good connections with western business, the very people he needs to get western investment coming in,” Law said. 

Many of them, including Prince Turki bin Abdullah, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd and prominent businessman such as Mohammed al-Amoudi, are still missing and thought to be held in secret locations without access to legal advice. 

“With the price of oil sitting at around $50 a barrel, the Saudis urgently need to get it over $70 a barrel. Until then, he [MBS] needs foreign investment to kick-start the Saudi economy so it can live up to Vision 2030.”

Vision 2030, the flagship programme of MBS, contains a list of ambitious aims including plans to start manufacturing 50 percent of all of its military equipment and for non-oil state revenues to increase five-fold. 

Law added that Assaf’s appointment was intended as a statement to western businesses. “It’s like a ‘hey, look we might have made a mistake here, but we need your investment, the past is the past, let’s move forward’,” he said.

US Congress holds MBS’ fate

Besides Vision 2030, MBS has also announced several ambitious projects including Neom, a futuristic mega-city of self-driving cars and passenger drones.

Several foreign advisory board members, including British billionaire Richard Branson, have distanced themselves from the project following Khashoggi’s death.

Rami Khouri, a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, said Assaf’s appointment was King Salman’s attempt at both consolidating his son’s authority and “steadying the Saudi ship”.

“Jubeir didn’t do too well when talking about the Khashoggi murder, but then again, nobody in Saudi Arabia did. They were all saying things which turned out to be untrue.

“So, it’s not as if Jubeir didn’t carry the load, he did. He was a loyal servant and has been for the last 30 years or so.

“But this is more of an attempt to show the world that changes are being made, despite there not being any real change in policy.

“The latest changes in the cabinet have brought in a lot of younger princes who are close to MBS, so that’s strengthened his grip on power to some extent, but it’s also brought in some experienced managers -Ibrahim Assaf and others.

“This will help steady the ship in terms of the management of the affairs of state.” 

Several US senators, from both sides of the political divide, have expressed their anger over Khashoggi’s murder.

Riyadh has been a key ally of the US for decades and has grown closer with Washington under the Trump administration.

Trump has pointed to a “$450bn” arms deal with Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s position as a bulwark to Iranian expansion in the region as reasons to continue close relations.

“The US Congress is probably, right now, the single most important player [in determining MBS’ fate],” Khouri said.

“Ahead of the new Congress in January, they have taken several decisions which are critical of MBS and the Saudi leadership, [including decisions on] the Khashoggi murder, the war in Yemen and other issues – and it seems they’re not going to let go.

“MBS is damaged goods but he is not out of the picture. He is still a very strong player. His father just reaffirmed support for him and he’s brought in people who close to him, so they’re going to try and ride this one out.

“So his [MBS’] future is going to depend on a lot on what foreign capitals do in the next two months or so.”

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Ottawa transit commission hopes to prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for OC Transpo workers

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Ottawa’s transit commission is pushing local and provincial health officials to recognize the role OC Transpo operators have played in keeping the city running during the COVID-19 pandemic, hoping to bump train and bus drivers in the vaccination queue amid a recent surge in coronavirus infections affecting transit workers.

More than 100 OC Transpo staff across the entire organization have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to an update at Wednesday morning’s transit commission meeting.

Of those cases, 26 employees are currently recovering from the disease in self-isolation.

OC Transpo has seen a recent jump in COVID-19 cases, with Ottawa city council receiving reports of eight operators testing positive for the virus over a recent eight-day period.

Transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert attempted to find out how many of the total cases are traced to workplace transmission, but OC Transpo boss John Manconi said he’s been advised by medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches that he can’t share that information for privacy reasons.

Transit operators are listed in the second priority group of essential workers as part of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine sequencing plans, but several commissioners speaking Wednesday wanted to get the city’s bus and train drivers bumped higher in the order.

Councillors Riley Brockington and Glen Gower both put forward motions looking to get front-line OC Transpo employees prioritization in vaccine sequencing, but others pointed out that the much-debated public health topic of who gets the vaccine and when is well beyond the scope of the transit commission.

“We are not in a position in transit commission to be decreeing, or making an edict, about what group of essential workers is more at risk than others and should be prioritized. That should be left up to public health experts,” Wright-Gilbert said.

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli, who also chairs the Ottawa Board of Health, reflected on the board’s four-plus-hour meeting on Monday evening, during which vaccine sequencing and prioritizing essential workers dominated the conversation.

“Vaccine sequencing is obviously a very difficult maze to get through,” he said.

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COVID-19: Ottawa police announce end of 24-7 presence at Ontario-Quebec border

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Less than two days after the Ontario government’s latest COVID-19 restrictions came into effect, calling for non-essential traffic to be stopped at the province’s borders with Quebec and Manitoba, the Ottawa Police Service has announced it is stopping its 24-hour checkpoints.

According to a statement issued by the service Tuesday evening, the around-the-clock border checkpoints were set to end as of 8 p.m. on Tuesday in favour of rotating checkpoints across the city throughout the day until Ontario’s temporary regulations end.

“Since the onset of the border operations, the OPS has been working closely with Ottawa Public Health (OPH) along with local stakeholders and interprovincial stakeholders (the City of Ottawa, the City of Gatineau, the Ontario Provincial Police etc.) to assess any local public health, traffic and safety impacts. The assessment resulted in today’s operational changes,” the statement said.

“The operational changes announced today are designed to better ensure the health and safety of all, to minimize delays and/or hazards for travellers and to ensure essential workers can get to their places of employment on time.”

The statement also said the police service, while working to comply with the provincial order, was focused on education and enforcement actions that “support improved public health outcomes and respect the concerns of our most marginalized and racialized communities”

Officers said they will be conducting daily assessments on border crossings and that there could be further changes.

In a statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said that the border closures are ultimately subject to the discretion of local police enforcing the regulations.

“Local police services are best positioned to determine the operational deployments necessary to ensure the continued safety of their communities,” the spokesperson said, noting that the order’s regulations still apply to individuals entering the province.

The temporary order restricts Quebec residents from entering Ontario. If prompted, individuals must stop when directed by an enforcement officials and provide their reason for entering the province.

The main exemptions to the restrictions include if the person’s main home is in the province, if they work in Ontario, if they’re transporting goods, if they’re exercising Indigenous or treaty rights, if they need health care or if there’s a basis on compassionate grounds.

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COVID-19 vaccines in Ottawa: Nearly half of all residents in their 60s have at least one dose

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Public Health’s latest COVID-19 vaccination update shows that nearly half of all residents 60 to 69 years old have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, a figure that has all but doubled in the past week.

OPH’s COVID-19 vaccination dashboard shows 58,000 residents 60 to 69 have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, accounting for 49.3 per cent of that age group’s population in Ottawa. Last Wednesday, OPH reported 30,000 residents 60 to 69 had had at least one dose, which was 25.4 per cent.

As age demographics get younger, the population grows larger and the coverage by percentage may appear to grow more slowly, even if clinics are vaccinating greater numbers of people. For example, the latest figures show that 83 per cent of people aged 70 to 79 have had at least one dose. By raw population that’s 60,000 people, only slightly higher than half of all people in their 60s.

Vaccinations are open through the Ontario portal to anyone 60 and older and, this week, the AstraZeneca vaccine was approved for administration at pharmacies and primary care clinics to anyone in Ontario 40 and older.

OPH reported a new shipment this week of 25,740 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. To date, Ottawa has received 305,130 doses of COVID-19 vaccines from the provincial government.

The number of eligible residents (i.e. 16 and older) with at least one dose of a vaccine is now up to 28 per cent.

Tuesday was Ottawa’s second-busiest day for vaccinations overall, with the OPH reporting 9,729 shots administered. Last Friday saw 9,887 shots administered in a single day.

QUICK STATS

  • Ottawa residents with at least one dose: 248,668
  • Ottawa residents with two doses: 26,722
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with at least one dose: 28 per cent
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with two doses: 3 per cent
  • Percent of total population with at least one dose: 24 per cent
  • Percent of total population with two doses: 3 per cent

VACCINATION COVERAGE BY AGE FOR OTTAWA RESIDENTS WITH AT LEAST ONE DOSE

  • 10-19: 1.6 per cent (1,804 people)
  • 20-29: 8.3 per cent (13,452 people)
  • 30-39: 9.5 per cent (14,999 people)
  • 40-49: 12.9 per cent (17,350 people)
  • 50-59: 28.8 per cent (40,320 people)
  • 60-69: 49.3 per cent (58,627 people)
  • 70-79: 82.9 per cent (62,808 people)
  • 80-89: 87.5 per cent (29,358 people)
  • 90+: 89.2 per cent (7,893 people)
  • Unknown age: 2,057 people 

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