Saudi antiquities site, long seen as haunted, tries to woo visitors

AL ULA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) – In a remote northern corner of Saudi Arabia sit the relics of an ancient civilization, which the kingdom hopes to turn into a global tourism destination as it tries to open up to the world and diversify its economy away from oil.

Backed by billions of dollars in state-led investment and a French cultural partnership, the authorities expect al-Ula and its majestic rock-hewn tombs of Madain Saleh could eventually attract millions of visitors, local and foreign alike.

That is generating excitement in the kingdom, while upending a superstition among many Saudis – and long-backed by religious edicts – that the area is haunted by jinn, the malevolent spirits of the Koran and Arabian mythology, and must be avoided.

Al-Ula’s development is part of a push to preserve pre-Islamic heritage sites in order to attract non-Muslim tourists, strengthen national identity and temper the austere strain of Sunni Islam that has dominated Saudi Arabia for decades.

Madain Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage site located there, is a 2,000-year-old city carved into desert rocks by the Nabateans, the pre-Islamic Arab people that also built Petra in neighboring Jordan.

Elaborately carved multi-storey facades with epigraphs inscribed into the red sandstone give way to internal chambers where bodies were once laid to rest. At night, stars twinkle in the vast desert sky.

Superstition about the site can be traced back to a hadith, or saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammad, warning Muslims not to enter “unless you are crying … lest you suffer the affliction” of its people, said to have perished for their sins.

While interpretation of that passage is nowadays contested, Saudi state-backed clerics had referenced it for years. In 2012, one of them ruled that al-Ula should be opened to the public, but even years later a school in the area was temporarily closed after students sighted jinn, local media reported.

“JUST GETTING STARTED”

During a media tour, residents refused to speak about the area’s reputation for being jinxed, instead focusing on opportunities to make money and welcome visitors.

Locals are planning to open restaurants and shops, and a few hundred young people have been sent abroad to study hospitality. As conservative Saudi Arabia loosens social restrictions, some of the tour guides in al-Ula will be women.

“The local community is peaceful, educated and hospitable,” said resident Talal al-Faqir. “The crown prince … has paved the way for the entire world to visit us and see the huge civilizations in our region. We are just getting started.”

In Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s headlong push to transform Saudi Arabia’s economy and society, al-Ula has gained prominence.

He has ridden dune buggies through its sands and invited Western investors and celebrities for helicopter tours of the area, which abuts NEOM, the $500-billion mega-city he wants to build along the Red Sea.

Plans to admit tourists to Saudi Arabia have been discussed for years but have not come to fruition due to sluggish bureaucracy and concern over conservative sentiment.

International outcry over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents last October may give some potential tourists pause, but calls for Western performers to boycott the kingdom have not caught on.

Many of the visitors to al-Ula during an ongoing winter music festival are VIPs or well-heeled guests, with ticket prices reaching several thousand dollars. Visas were arranged on an ad hoc basis.

Riyadh native Dana Daham visited last month with friends, taking a train from Jeddah to Medina and then a 300-km (180-mile) car ride.

“We didn’t expect it to be this magnificent. We keep hearing stories from people but this is way more than we thought it would be,” she said. “It’s amazing, it’s beautiful. So much history, so much going on.”

The weekend she visited featured a concert by the hologram of the late Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum. Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli performed a few days later and Greek singer Yanni is also expected, alongside Arab stars such as Kadim al-Saher and Mohamed Abdo.

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U.S. sanctions delay Russian passenger jet by a year: Rostec CEO

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Serial production of Russia’s first post-Soviet mainline commercial aircraft will be delayed by a year due to U.S. sanctions, the head of state-owned industrial conglomerate Rostec said on Monday, Russian news agencies reported.

Russia hopes the MS-21, a twin-engine, medium-range passenger plane, will give Boeing and Airbus a run for their money. Three prototypes have been built and Rostec said on Monday the plane had been set to enter serial production at the end of this year.

But Sergei Chemezov, Rostec’s chief executive, said production would not now start until the end of 2020 due to U.S. sanctions.

The sanctions have cut off imports of components from the United States and Japan needed to make the plane’s wings and part of its tail fin, Russian officials have said previously.

Chemezov said Russia would now have to make the necessary components itself and that would take time.

“Due to the Americans stopping deliveries of composite materials (for the wings) we are moving to make our own composites,” the Interfax news agency cited Chemezov as telling reporters at the IDEX military exhibition in Abu Dhabi.

“The timeline of when we can start serial production is shifting a bit. We were meant to start producing several planes as part of serial production towards the end of this year, but now it will be towards the end of 2020.”

Russia’s Aeroflot has agreed to lease 50 of the new planes and Moscow has said Syria is in talks about buying the new aircraft.

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Brazil dam disaster death toll rises to 169

SAO PAULO (Reuters) – The official death toll from a dam burst in the Brazilian town of Brumadinho rose to 169, authorities in the state of Minas Gerais said on Sunday night. In addition, 141 people have yet to be located.

The dam, which held back mining byproducts, is owned by nickel and iron ore miner Vale SA.

Around 200 residents were evacuated from an area near another tailings dam operated by Vale late on Saturday, amid fears that it was structurally weak and could also collapse.

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Maldives court orders arrest of former president over alleged corruption

MALE (Reuters) – A court in the Maldives ordered the arrest and detention on Monday of the former president, Abdulla Yameen, on suspicion of money laundering.

Yameen, who drew the Indian Ocean island country closer to China during his rule, is accused of receiving $1 million of government money through a private company, SOF Private Limited, which has been implicated in a corrupt deal to lease tropical islands for hotel development.

He denies the allegations.

After a two-and-a-half hour remand hearing on Monday, prosecutors sought a court order to detain the former president. The court ruled that Yameen, who appeared in person, should be taken into custody.

Preliminary hearings in his money-laundering trial are expected to begin this week.

The Maldives is due to hold a parliamentary election on April 6, with corruption likely to dominate campaigning.

On Friday, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih suspended two government ministers over financial transactions conducted with SOF Private.

The scandal has implicated several other businessmen and politicians, all of whom deny wrongdoing.

Officials from SOF could not be reached for comment.

The state-run Anti-Corruption Commission in 2016 found that SOF, a company launched by former tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb, was used to launder more than $92 million from the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation, the country’s tourism board.

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China arrests 62 suspects abroad, $1.5 billion seized in P2P crackdown

(Reuters) – China has arrested 62 suspects abroad and seized 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion) in assets from 380 fraudulent peer-to-peer (P2P) lending platforms since June as part of a crackdown on online finance, the public security ministry said.

The arrest of P2P suspects hiding overseas is a top priority of Operation Fox Hunt, part of President Xi Jinping’s war on corruption that includes bringing back government officials and business executives who have fled abroad with assets.

The ministry said their teams “successfully brought back 62 criminal suspects from 16 countries and regions, including Thailand and Cambodia.”

The suspects are accused of crimes related to illegal fundraising, the ministry said on its website.

P2P platforms gather funds from retail investors and loan the money to small corporate and individual borrowers, promising high returns. At its peak in 2015, the sector had about 3,500 businesses in China.

The P2P industry had outstanding loans of 1.49 trillion yuan ($217.96 billion) last year, far larger than the combined sector outside China.

After Beijing moved to defuse debt bubbles and reduce risks in the economy, including the shadow lending sector, a wave of company collapses hit the P2P sector and triggered protests by angry investors who had lost their life savings.

The latest investigations found that many fraudulent P2P operators had lured investors with the promise of high returns, but had falsified investments and embezzled funds, the ministry said.

($1 = 6.7658 Chinese yuan renminbi)

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Germany in talks for joint arms exports agreement with France

BERLIN (Reuters) – Berlin and Paris are in talks on common defense exports licensing procedures, a German government spokesman said on Monday.

German magazine Der Spiegel on Friday reported that Germany and France had signed a defense agreement in January which aims for regulation of arms exports to third countries.

“It’s true that Germany and France are in talks on the question of arms exports,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert told journalists during a regular news conference.

He said Berlin and Paris were in talks to reach a formal agreement on the issue.

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Indonesian presidential hopefuls vow energy self-sufficiency via palm

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia’s two presidential candidates pledged to achieve energy self-sufficiency by boosting the use of bioenergy, particularly fueled by palm oil, to cut costly oil imports by Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

Indonesia, the world’s biggest palm oil producer, has been pushing for all diesel fuel used in the country to contain biodiesel to boost palm consumption, slash fuel imports, and narrow a yawning current account gap.

In a televised election debate, President Joko Widodo said if he won a second term the government planned to implement a B100 program, referring to fuel made entirely from palm oil, after last year making it mandatory to use biodiesel containing 20 percent bio-content (B20).

“We hope 30 percent of total palm production will go to biofuel. The plan is clear, so we will not rely on imported oil,” Widodo said, adding that Indonesia’s crude palm oil production had reached 46 million tonnes a year.

Agreeing on the importance of bioenergy for self-sufficiency, his opponent Prabowo Subianto said if elected he would also “boost the use of palm oil, palm sugar, cassava and ethanol from sugar (cane)”.

The challenger did not elaborate on his bioenergy plan, but his campaign team has proposed using millions of hectares of degraded land to cultivate palm sugar to produce energy.

Widodo’s government has previously said it would offer incentives for developers of B100, which the net oil importer hopes can replace fuel imports within three years.

Oil imports have contributed to Indonesia’s widening current account deficit and the volatility of the rupiah currency. The government claimed that its biodiesel program would save billions of dollars in diesel fuel imports.

Although retired general Prabowo agreed with Widodo on several points during the debate, he said Indonesia’s “land and water, and the resources within” must be controlled by the government.

“We are of the view that the government must be present in detail, thoroughly, firmly and actively to correct inequalities in wealth,” he said.

The challenger said the proportion of small farmers’ holdings in the country’s palm plantations should also be larger. Smallholders currently account for roughly 40 percent of Indonesia’s 12 million hectares of palm oil plantations.

Farmers currently do not require larger plots of land, but instead, they need a program to boost yield from their current farm, Mansuetus Darto of Palm Farmers Union said.

He added that farmers wanted more clarity on Widodo’s B100 program and have asked to ensure that small holders play a greater role in the biodiesel supply chain.

“This is an important task for Jokowi on how to prevent big palm companies to be the only main suppliers and not farmers,” Darto said, referring to the president’s nickname.

Meanwhile, environmental group Greenpeace criticized both candidates for failing to ensure that the biofuel programs they promised will not cause further erosion of forests, peatlands and mangrove, due to potentially higher demand for palm oil that is mixed with the fuel.

By 2030, the global demand for biofuels would reach 67 million tonnes from the current 10.7 million tonnes, which could potentially result in 4.5 million hectares of deforestation and 2.9 million hectares of mangrove disappearance, Greenpeace said.

Both candidates expressed support for greater control of Indonesian natural resources.

President Widodo highlighted Pertamina’s takeover of stewardship of major oil and gas blocks from foreign operators, and an agreement for a state company to purchase a 51 percent stake in the giant Grasberg copper mine from Freeport McMoRan.

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U.S. cannot back Syrian forces who align with Assad: U.S. commander

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The United States will have to sever its military assistance to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling Islamic State if the fighters partner with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Russia, a senior U.S. general said on Sunday.

The remarks by Army Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, who is the commander of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, underscore the tough decisions facing the SDF as the United States prepares to withdraw its troops from Syria.

Syrian Kurdish leaders have sought talks with Assad’s state, hoping to safeguard their autonomous region after the withdrawal of U.S. troops currently backing them.

They fear an attack by neighboring Turkey, which has threatened to crush the Kurdish YPG militia. Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters as indistinguishable from the Kurdish PKK movement that has waged an insurgency inside Turkey.

But LaCamera warned that U.S. law prohibits cooperation with Russia as well as Assad’s military.

“We will continue to train and arm them as long as they remain our partners,” LaCamera said, praising their hard-won victories against Islamic State militants.

When asked if that support would continue if they aligned themselves with Assad, LaCamera said: “No.” “Once that relationship is severed, because they go back to the regime, which we don’t have a relationship with, (or) the Russians … when that happens then we will no longer be partners with them,” LaCamera told a small group of reporters.

President Donald Trump’s surprise December decision to withdraw all of the more than 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria has triggered deep concern among U.S. allies about the risk of a resurgence of Islamic State.

With U.S.-backing, the SDF has routed Islamic State and is on the verge of recapturing the final bits of its once sprawling territory. But Islamic State still has thousands of fighters, who, now dispersed, are expected to turn to guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks.

On Friday, the four-star U.S. general overseeing U.S. troops throughout the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, told Reuters that he backed supporting the SDF as needed as long as it kept the pressure on Islamic State militants.

But LaCamera’s comments make clear that the SDF may have to choose between backing from Assad, Russia or the United States.

Kurdish forces and Damascus have mostly avoided combat during the war. Assad, who has vowed to recover the entire country, has long opposed Kurdish ambitions for a federal Syria.

Earlier on Sunday, Assad warned the United States would not protect those depending on it, in reference to the Kurdish fighters.

“We say to those groups who are betting on the Americans, the Americans will not protect you,” he said without naming them. “The Americans will put you in their pockets so you can be tools in the barter, and they have started with (it).”

Reuters has reported that Trump’s decision was in part driven by an offer by Turkey to keep the pressure on Islamic State once the United States withdrew.

But current and former U.S. officials warn Ankara would be unable to replicate the SDF’s success across the areas of Syria that the militias captured with U.S. support including arms, airstrikes and advisers.

Brett McGurk, who resigned in December as Trump’s special envoy to the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, warned last month that the SDF could not be replaced as the provider of stability in areas of Syria formerly held by the militant group. He also cautioned that Turkey, a NATO ally, was not a reliable partner in the fight in Syria.

“The Syrian opposition forces (Turkey) backs are marbled with extremists and number too few to constitute an effective challenge to Assad or a plausible alternative to the SDF,” McGurk wrote.

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Syria's Assad pledges no bargaining over constitution

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Sunday his government would not bargain over the country’s constitution with the Turkey-backed opposition, lambasting a U.N. peace process that aims to rewrite its terms.

A congress convened by Russia, Assad’s key ally, last year tasked the U.N. envoy for Syria with forming a committee to draft a new constitution, after many rounds of talks to end the war had failed.

The stalled process is meant to lead eventually to new elections.

“The constitution is the fate of the country and as a result, it does not succumb to any bargains that could have a bigger price than the war itself,” Assad said in a televised speech.

Assad added that the U.N. role was welcome as long as it respected state sovereignty. He described opposition officials chosen for the constitutional committee as “agents” of Turkey, which backs anti-Assad rebel factions in northwest Syria.

U.N.-based talks to end the eight-year conflict have never led to direct meetings between the two warring sides. With the help of Russia and Iran, government forces have seized most of the country back from rebels and Islamic State militants.

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