Saudi Arabia signs Patriot deal with Greece; Health ministry offers more Pfizer jabs

Maria Carrasco reporting for Politico:

The House on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to restrict arms sales to Saudi Arabia over its killing of the U.S.-based dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The bill, H.R. 1392, would bar sales, authorizations and transfer of arms and other defense services from the president to Saudi Arabia. President Joe Biden, however, could continue sales if he can certify the country is not engaged in killing, torturing or endangering the lives of dissidents and detaining U.S. and international citizens.

The legislation, which passed 350-71, is sponsored by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who represents Khashoggi’s district in Virginia.

The move is seen as the latest sign of frustration among progressives in Congress with Biden’s approach as he seeks to “recalibrate relations” with Saudi Arabia after the release of US intelligence conclusions summary on the Khashoggi murder.

The Biden administration has also removed Patriot antimissile batteries from Prince Sultan Air Base in al-Kharj, about 150km south of Riyadh. Saudi Arabia this week signed a deal with Greece to lend the kingdom a Patriot air defence system to protect critical energy facilities.

“We signed an agreement for the deployment of a Patriot battery here in Saudi Arabia,” Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias told the press on Tuesday. “I think this constitutes a major progress for our country in terms of cooperation with the Gulf countries and of our contribution to the broader security of Western energy sources.”

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Negotiation, said the next step would be to agree on a joint action plan to flesh out the outlines of cooperation between the two sides.

“The renewed cooperation between Greece and the GCC is a natural partnership between two like-minded and complementary parties,” he wrote in English-language daily Arab News. “It should not be seen as a reaction to regional rivalries or confrontations, but it can still serve to defuse regional conflicts and provide a platform to ease tensions.”

That view is not shared by everyone. Okaz columnist Mohammed al-Saaed says the Saudi decision to embrace Greece sends a strong message to Turkey which he accused of pushing an expansionist agenda in the region through its military bases in Qatar, Sudan and Somalia:

It was long overdue, but it finally reached its true position. During the last decade, Riyadh and Athens discovered their ability to draw a strict line against the new invaders in a troubled region that can barely settle and is bombarded by the waves of terrorism, illegal ambitions, and attempts to steal wealth.

In 2017, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan transferred thousands of his troops and tanks to the border with Saudi Arabia. It was a foolish move, and its next bills will be very costly for the Turks who thought at the time that the Saudis can be easily bullied and provoked. The Turkish move was not necessary as much as it was arrogant and hubristic by someone who did not appreciate that Riyadh controls the cards in its region and can use them according to its own timeline.

The staunchly pro-government Saeed goes on to say that the Saudi and Greek armies share the “same traits and ideology” because they use the same American-made weapons and have the same enemy. “Today, Riyadh is drawing with the Greeks a new map for alliances capable of aborting all attempts by the new Ottomans to penetrate the Arabian Peninsula and the Mediterranean basin,” he added. “Saudis have not led their horses and erected their tents in Greek islands until the Turks planted their fezzes on the kingdom’s borders. It is the cunning of bedouins facing the Mongolian idiocy.”

In addition to cooperation with Greece, Saudi Arabia has sought to put pressure on Turkey by imposing an informal ban on Turkish goods since last year. Official data released last month show that imports from Turkey fell to 14.1m riyals ($3.76m) from 50.6m in December, and from 622m riyals in January 2020.

Ministry of Health expands access to Pfizer vaccine

Faced with apparent hesitancy to take the coronavirus vaccine made by AstraZeneca over concerns of blood clotting, the Saudi Ministry of Health announced Wednesday that it is making more appointments for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine available in Riyadh and Jeddah.

“The vaccination centers across the Kingdom are witnessing a great turnout from the members of the community to get inoculated amid regulatory and precautionary measures to maintain their health and safety,” the ministry said in a statement that listed the hospitals and vaccination sites that provide the Pfizer jab.

The announcement comes days after regulators and officials sought to reassure the public about the AstraZeneca vaccine’s safety.

The Saudi Food and Drug Authority on Tuesday said reports of blood clots and other complications remain “very rare” and that the vaccine’s benefits far outweigh any potential adverse effects. The FDA said it received 34 reports of thrombosis and low platelet count after taking the AstraZeneca vaccine. Only seven cases are potentially related to the jab due to the absence of other factors that could cause blood clots, but none of them has been confirmed to be a direct result of taking the vaccine.

“More than 950 million doses of Covid vaccines have been given worldwide and the vaccine has demonstrated a high level of safety and efficacy, while over 3 million people have died because of the coronavirus and more than 100 million people are suffering from the disease,” health minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah said on Twitter. “A heartfelt advice: step up, take the vaccine for your health and safety.”

Abdullah Asiri, the assistant undersecretary for preventative medicine, tried to encourage the public to take the vaccine by giving examples from his own family. “My father, my mother, my brothers and half of my children above 18, they all registered for the vaccine and received one dose of AstraZeneca and waiting for the second dose inshallah,” he said.

The Ministry of Interior also warned that circulating misinformation about the coronavirus is punishable by a fine of up to 1m riyals and up to five years in jail.

Saudi Arabia has administered 7.8m doses so far, and authorities hope that requiring vaccination for international travel when borders open next month and accessing the Muslim holy sites in Mecca and Medina would push more people to overcome their reluctance and take the jab.

State television has been regularly broadcasting footage of socially-distanced pilgrims and worshippers at the Grand Mosque and the Prophet Mosque as they perform their rituals in Ramadan. In a first, 80 female officers are participating in keeping security, organising the limited crowds and ensuring that people adhere to the coronavirus precautionary measures.