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Gulf remains locked in Qatar feud despite Saudi setbacks | GCC News



A United Nations court’s ruling in favour of Qatar over an airspace dispute marks another setback for Saudi-led blockading nations, but despite rising international pressure to end the three-year feud, the group appears unlikely to relent.

United States-led mediation efforts have come to nothing amid reported opposition from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), frustrating Washington, which has tried to unite its allies and focus on its main strategic goal – reining in Iran.

On Tuesday, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s highest judicial body, backed Qatar in a bitter dispute over an air blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt at the start of a regional crisis in 2017.

The ruling came after the World Trade Organization (WTO) last month rapped Riyadh for failing to protect intellectual property rights of Qatari-owned broadcaster beIN, as it refused to crack down on a bootlegging network.

“The ICJ decision marks another blow for the Saudi-led quartet,” Nabeel Nowairah, a Washington-based independent analyst, told AFP news agency.

“It reflects their weak evidence and justification when presented before these internationally recognised bodies.”

The ICJ ruling allows Qatar to challenge airspace restrictions imposed by the Riyadh-led group in a hearing before the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN aviation body.

Qatar said the ruling meant the blockading states will “finally face justice” for violating aviation rules.

The forced rerouting of Qatar Airways flights does more than add to the airline’s fuel bill.

Qatar contributes to the approximately $133m that Iranian media says Tehran receives annually for overflight rights, undermining US President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign to economically squeeze Iran.

“We have been focused and working on trying to patch up the Gulf rift,” David Schenker, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, told the Middle East Institute last month.

“We believe it is a distraction [and] takes focus away from our common threats … We do not think it is [productive] for Qatar to be paying airspace fees to Iran.”

Washington was close to brokering an agreement to end the blockade this month after high-level discussions with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, Fox News reported last week.

But at the last minute, the UAE asked Saudi Arabia to withhold support, it said, without giving a reason.

Saudi authorities did not respond to a request for comment.

If the secret talks are confirmed, it marks a second breakdown of efforts to end the rift after a similar Saudi-Qatar dialogue in late 2019 failed.

“Much of the animosity that generated the blockade in 2017 originated in Abu Dhabi more than in Riyadh, and … the rift can only fully end when the leadership in the UAE is ready to move on,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute in the US.

With Riyadh “balancing US pressure to lift the airspace restrictions with Emirati pressure to maintain blockade unity, the Saudi leadership may prevaricate on the issue to avoid having to take a difficult decision either way”.

The quartet snapped diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar in 2017, accusing it, among other things, of forging close relations with Iran.

It issued a list of 13 demands for Qatar, including shutting down Al Jazeera Media Network and downgrading relations with Turkey, which American officials say were difficult to meet.

But the blockade designed to choke Qatar and force it to align with Gulf interests has only pushed the country closer to Iran and Turkey, observers say. It has also hurt Saudi strategic interests.

The WTO ruling could scupper a proposed 300-million-pound ($370m) Saudi-backed takeover of English Premier League club Newcastle United.

Following the decision, English Premier League football chief executive Richard Masters admitted that the proposed takeover was “complicated”.

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US says it has jabbed 82 million people, topping the world | Coronavirus pandemic News



But coronavirus rates have plateaued over the past week, raising concern over yet another surge in cases and deaths.

The United States has administered 82 million coronavirus vaccine shots, White House officials announced on Friday, more than any other country in the world.

During a coronavirus task force news conference, health officials said 55 percent of Americans aged 65 and older have now received at least one shot, up from 8 percent just six weeks ago.

“Altogether we’ve administered more than 82 million shots, more than any country in the world,” said Andy Slavitt, White House senior adviser for the COVID-19 response team.

But the US has also suffered more deaths than any other country in the world – more than 518,000 Americans have lost their lives to the disease.

President Joe Biden has set a goal of 100 million vaccines administered during his first 100 days in office [File: Evan Vucci/AP Photo]

US President Joe Biden who took office in January has promised to make tackling the pandemic a top priority for his administration and has set a target to vaccinate 100 million Americans by early May – to coincide with his 100 days in office. He has said the country is well under way to meeting that goal.

Officials say 450 vaccination sites have been set up around the country which has sped up the effort and they have plans to open up more sites as vaccine supplies increase over the next weeks.

In an effort to further boost the campaign, last week the US gave emergency approval to use a third vaccine produced by drugmaker Johnson & Johnson. Biden has also announced that the US will manufacture the J&J vaccine, a shot that requires only one dose, further speeding up the effort.

But even with the vaccination campaign well under way, officials said deaths and infection rates have plateaued in recent days, indicating that the nation could be at risk of yet another surge.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said amid the rapid spread of new variants across the country, Americans need to ‘double down’ on protection measures of wearing masks, maintaining social distance and frequent hand washing [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Rochelle Walensky, said over the past week, there have been daily 60,000-70,000 new coronavirus cases, and 1,900 Americans have been dying every day.

“The current numbers remain concerning,” Walensky said, “cases and deaths are still too high, and have now plateaued for more than week.”

Amid the rapid spread of new variants, which have been detected in 48 US states, she urged Americans need to “double down” on protection measures of wearing masks, maintaining social distance and frequent hand washing.

“I know that the idea of relaxing mask wearing and getting back to every day activities is appealing,” she said, “but we’re not there yet.”

Several states have in recent days announced the easing of coronavirus restrictions on businesses and have lifted statewide mandates to wear masks. Health officials have responded with concern and urged Americans to continue to wear masks and follow precautions set under federal guidelines.

Biden blasted the decisions by state governors on Thursday, calling it “a big mistake” and “the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking.”

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor said the current numbers are an indication of a likely fourth surge in cases.

“When you have that much viral activity in a plateau it almost invariably means that you are at risk for another spike,” he said.

During the briefing on Friday, officials also announced that the CDC is working on publishing guidance for fully vaccinated individuals, indicating which activities they may or may not be able to resume.

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