Rescuers push to find survivors of ‘disaster of the century’ as toll nears 21,000 in Turkey and Syria

Rescue workers made a final push Thursday to find survivors of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria that rendered many communities unrecognizable to their inhabitants and led the Turkish president to declare it “the disaster of the century.” The death toll topped 20,000.

The earthquake affected an area that is home to 13.5 million people in Turkey and an unknown number in Syria and stretches farther than the distance from London to Paris or Boston to Philadelphia. Even with an army of people taking part in the rescue effort, crews had to pick and choose where to help.

The scene from the air showed the scope of devastation, with entire neighborhoods of high-rises reduced to twisted metal, pulverized concrete and exposed wires.

In Adiyaman, Associated Press journalists saw someone plead with rescuers to look through the rubble of a building where relatives were trapped. They refused, saying no one was alive there and that they had to prioritize areas with possible survivors.

A man who gave his name only as Ahmet out of fear of government retribution later asked the AP: “How can I go home and sleep? My brother is there. He may still be alive.”

The death toll from Monday’s 7.8 magnitude catastrophe rose to nearly 21,000, eclipsing the more than 18,400 who died in the 2011 earthquake off Fukushima, Japan, that triggered a tsunami and the estimated 18,000 people who died in a temblor near the Turkish capital, Istanbul, in 1999.

The new figure, which is certain to rise, included over 17,600 people in Turkey and more than 3,300 in civil war-torn Syria. Tens of thousands were also injured.

Even though experts say people could survive for a week or more, the chances of finding survivors in the freezing temperatures were dimming. As emergency crews and panicked relatives dug through the rubble — and occasionally found people alive — the focus began to shift to demolishing dangerously unstable structures.

The DHA news agency broadcast the rescue of a 10-year-old in Antakya. The agency said medics had to amputate an arm to free her. A 17-year-old girl emerged alive in Adıyaman, and a 20-year-old was found in Kahramanmaras by rescuers who shouted “God is great.”

In Nurdagi, a city of around 40,000 nestled between snowy mountains some 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the quake’s epicenter, vast swaths of the city were leveled, with scarcely a building unaffected. Even those that did not collapse were heavily damaged, making them unsafe.

Throngs of onlookers, mostly family members of people trapped inside, watched as heavy machines ripped at one building that had collapsed, its floors pancaked together with little more than a few inches in between.

Mehmet Yilmaz, 67, watched from a distance as bulldozers and other demolition equipment began to bring down what remained of the building where six of his family members had been trapped, including four children.

He estimated that about 80 people were still beneath the rubble and doubted that anyone would be found alive.

“There’s no hope. We can’t give up our hope in God, but they entered the building with listening devices and dogs, and there was nothing,” Yilmaz said.

Mehmet Nasir Dusan, 67, sat watching as the remnants of the nine-story building were brought down in billowing clouds of dust. He said he held no hope of reuniting with his five family members trapped under the debris.

Still, he said, recovering their bodies would bring some small comfort.

“We’re not leaving this site until we can recover their bodies, even if it takes 10 days,” Dusan said. “My family is destroyed now.”

In Kahramanmaras, the city closest to the epicenter, a sports hall the size of a basketball court served as a makeshift morgue to accommodate and identify bodies.

On the floor lay dozens of bodies wrapped in blankets or black shrouds. At least one appeared to be that of a 5- or 6-year-old.

At the entrance, a man wept over a black body bag that lay next to another in the bed of a small truck. “I’m 70 years old. God should have taken me, not my son,” he cried.

Workers continued to conduct rescue operations in Kahramanmaras, but it was clear that many who were trapped in collapsed buildings had already died. One rescue worker was heard saying that his psychological state was declining and that the smell of death was becoming too much to bear.

In northwestern Syria, the first U.N. aid trucks since the quake to enter the rebel-controlled area from Turkey arrived, underscoring the difficulty of getting help to people there. In the Turkish city of Antakya, dozens scrambled for aid in front of a truck distributing children’s coats and other supplies.

One survivor, Ahmet Tokgoz, called for the government to evacuate people from the region. Many of those who have lost their homes found shelter in tents, stadiums and other temporary accommodation, but others have slept outdoors.

“Especially in this cold, it is not possible to live here,” he said. “If people haven’t died from being stuck under the rubble, they’ll die from the cold.”

The winter weather and damage to roads and airports have hampered the response. Some in Turkey have complained that the government was slow to respond — a perception that could hurt Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a time when he faces a tough battle for reelection in May.

“As you know, the earthquake hit an area of 500-kilometer (311-mile) diameter where 13.5 million of our people live, and that made our job difficult,” Erdogan said Thursday.

In the Turkish town of Elbistan, rescuers stood atop the rubble from a collapsed home and pulled out an elderly woman.

Rescue teams urged quiet in the hopes of hearing stifled pleas for help, and the Syrian paramedic group known as the White Helmets noted that “every second could mean saving a life.”

But more and more often, the teams pulled out dead bodies. In Antakya, more than 100 bodies were awaiting identification in a makeshift morgue outside a hospital.

With the chances of finding people alive dwindling, crews in some places began demolishing buildings. Authorities called off search-and-rescue operations in the cities of Kilis and Sanliurfa, where destruction was not as severe as in some other areas.

Across the border in Syria, assistance trickled in. The U.N. is authorized to deliver aid through only one border crossing, and road damage has prevented that thus far. U.N. officials pleaded for humanitarian concerns to take precedence over wartime politics.

It wasn’t clear how many people were still unaccounted for in both countries.

Turkey’s disaster-management agency said more than 110,000 rescue personnel were now taking part in the effort and more than 5,500 vehicles, including tractors, cranes, bulldozers and excavators had been shipped. The Foreign Ministry said 95 countries have offered help.

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Hope fading as deaths in Turkey, Syria quake near 12,000; Turkish leader acknowledges ‘shortcomings’ in quake response

The President of Turkey on Tuesday acknowledged “shortcomings” in his country’s response to the world’s deadliest earthquake in more than a decade as hope dwindled that more survivors would emerge from the rubble of thousands of toppled buildings.

With the confirmed death toll approaching 12,000, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the especially hard-hit Hatay province, where more than 3,300 people died and entire neighborhoods were destroyed. Residents there have criticized the government’s efforts, saying rescuers were slow to arrive.

Mr. Erdogan, who faces a tough battle for reelection in May, reacted to the mounting frustration by acknowledging problems with the emergency response to Monday’s 7.8 magnitude quake but said the winter weather had been a factor. The earthquake also destroyed the runway in Hatay’s airport, further disrupting the response.

“It is not possible to be prepared for such a disaster,” Mr. Erdogan said. “We will not leave any of our citizens uncared for.” He also hit back at critics, saying “dishonorable people” were spreading “lies and slander” about the government’s actions.

Turkish authorities said they were targeting disinformation, and an internet monitoring group said access to Twitter was restricted despite it being used by survivors to alert rescuers.

Meanwhile, rescue teams in Turkey and Syria searched for signs of life in the rubble. Teams from more than two dozen countries have joined tens of thousands of local emergency personnel in the effort. But the scale of destruction from the quake and its powerful aftershocks was so immense and spread over such a wide area that many people were still awaiting help.

Experts said the survival window for those trapped under the rubble or otherwise unable to obtain basic necessities was closing rapidly. At the same time, they said it was too soon to abandon hope.

“The first 72 hours are considered to be critical,” said Steven Godby, a natural hazards expert at Nottingham Trent University in England. “The survival ratio on average within 24 hours is 74%, after 72 hours it is 22% and by the fifth day it is 6%.”

Rescuers at times used excavators or picked gingerly through debris. With thousands of buildings destroyed, it was not clear how many people might still be in the rubble.

In the Turkish city of Malatya, bodies were placed side by side on the ground and covered in blankets while rescuers waited for vehicles to pick them up, according to former journalist Ozel Pikal, who said he saw eight bodies pulled from the ruins of a building.

Mr. Pikal, who took part in the rescue efforts, said he thinks at least some of the victims froze to death as temperatures dipped to minus 6 degrees Celsius (21 Fahrenheit).

“As of today, there is no hope left in Malatya,” Mr. Pikal said by telephone. “No one is coming out alive from the rubble.”

Road closures and damage in the region made it hard to access all the areas that need help, he said, and there was a shortage of rescuers where he was.

“Our hands cannot pick up anything because of the cold,” Mr. Pikal said. “Work machines are needed.”

The region was already beset by more than a decade of civil war in Syria. Millions have been displaced within Syria itself and millions more have sought refuge in Turkey.

Turkey’s president said the country’s death toll passed 9,000. The Syrian Health Ministry said the death toll in government-held areas climbed past 1,200. At least 1,600 people have died in the rebel-held northwest, according to the volunteer first responders known as the White Helmets.

That brought the overall total to nearly 12,000. Tens of thousands more are injured.

Stories of rescues continued to provide hope that some people still trapped might be found alive. A crying newborn still connected by the umbilical cord to her deceased mother was rescued Monday in Syria. In Turkey’s Kahramanmaras, rescuers pulled a 3-year-old boy from the rubble, and rescuers sent by the Israeli military saved a 2-year-old boy.

But David Alexander, a professor of emergency planning and management at University College London, said data from past earthquakes suggested the likelihood of survival was now slim, particularly for individuals who suffered serious injuries.

“Statistically, today is the day when we’re going to stop finding people,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we should stop searching.”

Mr. Alexander cautioned that the final death toll may not be known for weeks because of the sheer amount of rubble.

The last time an earthquake killed so many people was 2015, when 8,800 died in a 7.8 magnitude quake in Nepal. A 2011 earthquake in Japan triggered a tsunami, killing nearly 20,000 people.

Many of those who survived the earthquake lost their homes and were forced to sleep in cars, government shelters or outdoors amid rain and snowfall in some areas.

“We don’t have a tent, we don’t have a heating stove, we don’t have anything. Our children are in bad shape,” Aysan Kurt, 27, said. “We did not die from hunger or the earthquake, but we will die freezing from the cold.”

Some families began mourning their dead. In the Turkish city of Gaziantep, relatives who rushed to Kahramanmaras to rescue 21-year-old Mustafa Sonmez instead buried him Wednesday.

“May God have mercy on those who died. I wish patience for those who remain alive,” said relative Mustafa Caymaz.

The disaster comes at a sensitive time for Erdogan, who faces an economic downturn and high inflation. Perceptions that his government mismanaged the crisis could hurt his standing. He said the government would distribute 10,000 Turkish lira ($532) to affected families.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, blamed the devastation on Erdogan’s two-decade rule, saying he had not prepared the country for a disaster and accusing him of misspending funds.

In their effort to crack down on disinformation related to the earthquake response, police said they had detained 18 people and identified more than 200 social media accounts suspected of “spreading fear and panic.”

Global internet monitor NetBlocks said multiple internet providers restricted access to Twitter in Turkey. Trapped survivors have used Twitter to alert rescuers and loved ones, while others have taken to the social network to criticize the government’s response.

Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency said a government official held a video conference with a Twitter official to remind him of the company’s responsibilities on disinformation and obligations under a strict new social media law.

“We are reaching out to understand more,” Twitter CEO Elon Musk tweeted.

The government has periodically restricted access to social media during national emergencies and terror attacks, citing national security.

In Syria, aid efforts have been hampered by the ongoing war and the isolation of the rebel-held region along the border, which is surrounded by Russia-backed government forces. Syria itself is an international pariah under Western sanctions linked to the war.

Ahmad Idris, a Syrian now living in Saraqib after being displaced by the war, cried in agony as he looked at the bodies of 25 of his family members.

“We came here on the basis of finding a safe shelter for us and our children,” he said. “But in the end, look how fate has caught up to us here.”

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Rescuers scramble in Turkey, Syria after earthquake kills 4,000

Rescuers in Turkey and war-ravaged Syria searched through the frigid night into Tuesday, hoping to pull more survivors from the rubble after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake killed more than 4,000 people and toppled thousands of buildings across a wide region.

Authorities feared the death toll from Monday’s pre-dawn earthquake and aftershocks would keep climbing as rescuers looked for survivors among tangles of metal and concrete spread across the region beset by Syria’s 12-year civil war and refugee crisis.

Survivors cried out for help from within mountains of debris as first responders contended with rain and snow. Seismic activity continued to rattle the region, including another jolt nearly as powerful as the initial quake.

Workers carefully pulled away slabs of concrete and reached for bodies as desperate families waited for news of loved ones.

“My grandson is 1 1/2 years old. Please help them, please. … They were on the 12th floor,” Imran Bahur wept by her destroyed apartment building in the Turkish city of Adana on Monday.

Also Read | Why Turkey is prone to devastating earthquakes?

Tens of thousands who were left homeless in Turkey and Syria faced a night in the cold. In the Turkish city of Gaziantep, a provincial capital about 33 kilometres (20 miles) from the epicentre, people took refuge in shopping malls, stadiums, mosques and community centres.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared seven days of national mourning.

US President Joe Biden called Erdogan to express condolences and offer assistance to the NATO ally. The White House said it was sending search-and-rescue teams to support Turkey’s efforts.

The quake, which was centred in Turkey’s southeastern province of Kahramanmaras, sent residents of Damascus and Beirut rushing into the street and was felt as far away as Cairo.

It piled more misery on a region that has seen tremendous suffering over the past decade. On the Syrian side, the area is divided between government-controlled territory and the country’s last opposition-held enclave, which is surrounded by Russian-backed government forces. Turkey, meanwhile, is home to millions of refugees from the civil war.

In the rebel-held enclave, hundreds of families remained trapped in rubble, the opposition emergency organisation known as the White Helmets said in a statement. The area is packed with some 4 million people displaced from other parts of the country by the war. Many live in buildings that are already wrecked from military bombardments.

Strained medical centres quickly filled with injured people, rescue workers said. Some facilities had to be emptied, including a maternity hospital, according to the SAMS medical organisation.

More than 7,800 people were rescued across 10 provinces, according to Orhan Tatar, an official with Turkey’s disaster management authority.

The region sits on top of major fault lines and is frequently shaken by earthquakes. Some 18,000 were killed in similarly powerful earthquakes that hit northwest Turkey in 1999.

The US Geological Survey measured Monday’s quake at 7.8, with a depth of 18 kilometres (11 miles). Hours later, a 7.5 magnitude temblor, likely triggered by the first, struck more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) away.

The second jolt caused a multistory apartment building in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa to topple onto the street in a cloud of dust as bystanders screamed, according to video of the scene.

Thousands of buildings were reported collapsed in a wide area extending from Syria’s cities of Aleppo and Hama to Turkey’s Diyarbakir, more than 330 kilometres (200 miles) to the northeast.

In Turkey alone, more than 5,600 buildings were destroyed, authorities said. Hospitals were damaged, and one collapsed in the city of Iskenderun.

Bitterly cold temperatures could reduce the time frame that rescuers have to save trapped survivors, said Dr. Steven Godby, an expert in natural hazards at Nottingham Trent University. The difficulty of working in areas beset by civil war would further complicate rescue efforts, he said.

Offers of help — from search-and-rescue teams to medical supplies and money — poured in from dozens of countries, as well as the European Union and NATO. The vast majority were for Turkey, with a Russian and even an Israeli promise of help to the Syrian government, but it was not clear if any would go to the devastated rebel-held pocket in the northwest.

The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense described the situation in the enclave as “disastrous.” The opposition-held area, centred on the province of Idlib, has been under siege for years, with frequent Russian and government airstrikes. The territory depends on a flow of aid from Turkey for everything from food to medical supplies.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said 224 buildings in northwestern Syrian were destroyed and at least 325 were damaged, including aid warehouses. The U.N. had been assisting 2.7 million people each month via cross-border deliveries, which could now be disrupted.

At a hospital in Idlib, Osama Abdel Hamid said most of his neighbours died when their shared four-story building collapsed. As he fled with his wife and three children, a wooden door fell on them, shielding them from falling debris.

“God gave me a new lease on life,” he said.

In the small Syrian rebel-held town of Azmarin in the mountains by the Turkish border, the bodies of several dead children, wrapped in blankets, were brought to a hospital.

In the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras, rescuers pulled two children alive from the rubble, and one could be seen lying on a stretcher on the snowy ground. Turkish broadcaster CNN Turk said a woman was pulled out alive in Gaziantep after a rescue dog detected her.

In Adana, 20 or so people, some in emergency rescue jackets, used power saws atop the concrete mountain of a collapsed building to open up space for any survivors to climb out or be rescued.

“I don’t have the strength anymore,” one survivor could be heard calling out from beneath the rubble of another building in Adana as rescue workers tried to reach him, said Muhammet Fatih Yavuz, a local resident.

In Diyarbakir, hundreds of rescue workers and civilians formed lines across a huge mound of wreckage, passing down broken concrete pieces and household belongings as they searched for trapped survivors.

At least 2,921 people were killed in 10 Turkish provinces, with nearly 16,000 injured, according to Turkish authorities.

The death toll in government-held areas of Syria climbed to 656 people, with some 1,400 injured, according to the Health Ministry. In the country’s rebel-held northwest, groups that operate there said at least 450 people died, with many hundreds injured.

Huseyin Yayman, a legislator from Turkey’s Hatay province, said several of his family members were stuck under the rubble of their collapsed homes.

“There are so many other people who are also trapped,” he told HaberTurk television by phone. “There are so many buildings that have been damaged. People are on the streets. It’s raining, it’s winter.”

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Sweden, Turkey not expected to back down in NATO accession tug of war

Sweden said on Sunday that Turkey is asking for too much in exchange for allowing it to join NATO, as Ankara effectively demands the impossible – that Stockholm override a decision by its own Supreme Court. But analysts say Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is unlikely to retract its condition, at least not before the all-important presidential elections scheduled in June. 

Sweden’s new conservative Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said that, as far as he is concerned, Stockholm has done enough for Ankara.

“Turkey confirms that we have done what we said we would do. But they also say that they want things that we can’t and won’t give them,” Kristersson told the Forsvar Security Conference in Sweden. 

Along with neighbouring Finland, Sweden made joining NATO its top foreign policy objective last year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine jolted them from their official neutrality stretching back through the Cold War. However, Erdogan made Turkey’s green light conditional – accusing Sweden of giving safe haven to people linked to Kurdish militant group the PKK and to the Gulenist movement Turkey holds responsible for the 2016 failed coup. 

Sweden – which has a large Kurdish diaspora of some 100,000 people – responded to Erdogan’s demands at a NATO summit back in June. Sweden and Finland agreed to “commit to prevent the activities of the PKK” on its territory.  

Stockholm then reversed an embargo on arms sales to Turkey and distanced itself from the YPG – a Syrian militia Western countries championed for its role fighting the Islamic State group but anathema to Ankara because of its close ties to the PKK, which has waged intermittent guerrilla campaigns against the Turkish state since 1984 and is classed as a terrorist organisation by the EU and US as well as Turkey. 

But Erdogan demands the extradition of journalist Bulent Kenes, an ex-editor-in-chief of the now closed Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman, for his alleged role in the foiled coup.  

‘Not a political question’ 

The Swedish Supreme Court rejected Turkey’s demand in December, on the grounds that Kenes risked persecution for his politics if he were sent to Turkey. 

This is a judicial matter in a country run according to the separation of powers, and that gives the Swedish government no choice, noted Hakan Gunneriusson, a professor of political science at Mid Sweden University.

“Specific individuals can’t be expelled to Turkey from Sweden if there’s no legal foundation for it. It is a legal procedure, not a political question,” Gunneriusson said. 

If anything, Turkey’s intransigence on the question will only strengthen Swedish resolve, suggested Toni Alaranta, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki. 

“Both Sweden and Finland are applying for NATO in order to secure our [political order based on] rule of law in times of possible external attack – not to throw it in a dustbin,” Alaranta said.  

This approach is popular amongst the Swedish electorate, according to a poll published by newspaper Dagens Nyheter last week, which showed that 79 percent of Swedes favour standing by the court ruling even if it holds up NATO accession.  

Turkey’s stance is expected to soon become the only remaining obstacle to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, since 28 of the Western alliance’s 30 members have validated their requests and the Hungarian parliament is set to give its approval later this month. 

‘Happy to wait things out’ 

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto lamented that Ankara will probably not allow the two countries to join before Turkey’s presidential polls in June. Yet Sweden and Finland could well end up waiting for longer.  

Turkey is no stranger to rowing with fellow NATO members – as demonstrated by Erdogan’s public spats with French President Emmanuel Macron and, especially, Ankara’s decision to buy Russia’s S-400 air defence system in 2017 in the face of US uproar followed by sanctions. Erdogan also has a history of making life difficult for European countries to help advance his priorities in the Middle East – most notably when he threatened in 2019 to let millions of migrants into Europe unless European powers quietened their criticism of Turkey’s offensive on Kurdish forces in Syria. 

Of course, Russia’s war against Ukraine is the West’s most pressing geopolitical concern, making it a natural priority to bring Sweden and Finland into the NATO umbrella. But the war in Ukraine also highlight’s Turkey’s importance to the Western alliance, even if Ankara has been an awkward NATO member over the past decade. So far Erdogan has kept ties with both Russia and Ukraine while alienating neither – and that bore fruit for the rest of the world when Turkey brokered alongside the UN a deal to export Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea in July, before renewing the deal in November after Russia briefly withdrew. 

“Erdogan approaches the NATO alliance with the belief that Turkey’s interests are not taken seriously enough and that NATO needs Turkey,” observed Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St. Lawrence University in New York state and the Middle East Institute in Washington DC. “He doesn’t see acrimony within the alliance as necessarily a bad thing, so long as it underlines that Turkey’s interests need to be addressed.” 

The Turkish government’s “core assumptions about how Western governments should pursue Turkey’s enemies are at odds with basic principles of rule of law”, Eissenstat said, adding that he thought: “Ankara knew this at the onset but believes the process serves its interests.” 

“Ankara is perfectly happy to wait things out,” he reasoned. “Those calculations may well change after Turkish elections when the domestic benefits decrease, but until then I doubt Ankara is likely to budge.” 

Indeed, Erdogan faces a tricky re-election campaign in June amid a woeful economic context, as a currency and debt crisis has racked Turkey since 2018.  

“The key issues in Turkey’s elections are, of course, mostly domestic – the abysmal economy and the question of [Syrian] refugees,” Eissenstat pointed out. “But Erdogan clearly benefits from taking a tough stance on Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO.” 

Not only do the Turkish public like to “see Turkish leaders playing important roles in the world”, Eissenstat said, it is also “probably true that many share Erdogan’s distrust of the West and belief that Western governments have given safe haven to Turkey’s enemies”. 

So the Swedish-Turkish tug of war is set to continue. However, perhaps the most revealing statement at that Swedish defence conference was not Kristersson’s refusal to override the Supreme Court – but rather NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s suggestion that the alliance has already extended its security umbrella to the two Scandinavian countries. “It is inconceivable that NATO would not act if the security of Sweden and Finland were threatened,” he said.

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Why Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia means so much for the Gulf monarchy’s sporting ambitions | CNN

Editor’s Note: A version of this story appears in today’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, CNN’s three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.


Abu Dhabi, UAE
CNN
 — 

It’s a partnership that’s been hailed as “history in the making.”

One of the world’s most famous soccer stars landed in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Tuesday, where Cristiano Ronaldo was received in an extravagant ceremony, with excited children sporting his new club’s yellow and blue jerseys.

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s success in luring the five-time Ballon d’Or winner on a two-year contract with the kingdom’s Al Nassr FC is the Gulf monarchy’s latest step in realizing its sporting ambitions – seemingly at any cost.

According to Saudi state-owned media, Ronaldo will earn an estimated $200 million a year with Al Nassr, making him the world’s highest-paid soccer player.

Shortly after the 37-year-old’s signing with Al Nassr, the club’s Instagram page gained over 5.3 million new followers. Its official website was inaccessible after exceeding its bandwidth limit due to the sudden surge in traffic, and the hashtag #HalaRonaldo – Hello, Ronaldo in Arabic – was trending for days across the Middle East on Twitter.

Analysts say that his recruitment in Saudi Arabia is part of a wider effort by the kingdom to diversify its sources of revenue and become a serious player in the international sporting scene.

It is also seen as a move by the kingdom to shore up its image after it was tarnished by the 2018 dismemberment and killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents, and a devastating war it started in Yemen in 2015.

Critics have decried the kingdom for “sportswashing,” an attempt to burnish one’s reputation through sport.

“I think Saudi Arabia has recognized a couple of years ago that to be a powerful nation internationally, you cannot just rely on hard power,” Danyel Reiche, a visiting research fellow and associate professor at Georgetown University Qatar, told CNN.

“You also need to invest in soft power, and the case of Qatar shows that this can work pretty well,” he said, adding that Saudi Arabia is following in the Qatari approach with sport, but with a delay of around 25 years.

Neighboring Qatar has also faced immense criticism since it won the bid to hosting last year’s FIFA World Cup in 2010.

Despite the smaller Gulf state facing similar accusations of “sportswashing,” the tournament has largely been viewed as a success, not least in exposing the world to a different view of the Middle East, thanks in part to Morocco’s success in reaching the semifinals and Saudi Arabia beating eventual World Cup champion Argentina in their opening group game.

Gulf nations engage in fierce competition to become the region’s premier entertainment and sporting hubs. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, in close proximity to each other, each have their own Formula One racing event. But their competition hasn’t been confined to the region. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also bought trophy European soccer teams.

Riyadh is playing catchup with neighbors who have long realized the importance of investing in sports, said Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in Lille, France, especially as its main source of income – oil – is being gradually shunned.

“This is part of an ongoing attempt to create more resilient economies that are more broadly based upon industries other than those that are derived from oil and gas,” Chadwick told CNN.

Ronaldo’s new club Al Nassr is backed by Qiddiya Investment Company (QIC), a subsidiary of the kingdom’s wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), which has played a pivotal role in Saudi Arabia’s diversification plans.

“It is also a sign of interconnectedness, of globalization and of opening up to the rest of the world,” said Georgetown University’s Reiche.

The move is part of “several recent high profile moves in the sports world, including hosting the Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua world heavywight boxing championship bout in 2019, and launching the LIV Golf championship,” said Omar Al-Ubaydli, director of research at the Bahrain-based Derasat think tank. “It is a significant piece of a large puzzle that represents their economic restructuring.”

The kingdom has been on a path to not only diversify its economy, but also shift its image amid a barrage of criticism over its human rights record and treatment of women. Saudi Arabia is today hosting everything from desert raves to teaming up with renowned soccer players. Argentina’s Lionel Messi last year signed a lucrative promotional deal with the kingdom.

Hailed as the world’s greatest player, 35-year-old Messi ended this year’s World Cup tournament in Qatar with his team’s win over France, making his ambassadorship of even greater value to the kingdom.

The acquisition of such key global figures will also help combat the monarchy’s decades-long reputation of being “secretive” and “ultra-conservative,” James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and an expert on soccer in the Middle East, told CNN’s Eleni Giokos on Wednesday.

Al-Ubaydli said that the kingdom wants to use high profile international sports “as a vehicle for advertising to the world its openness.”

Saudi Arabia bought the English Premier league club Newcastle United in 2021 through a three-party consortium, with PIF being the largest stakeholder. The move proved controversial, as Amnesty International and other human rights defenders worried it would overshadow the kingdom’s human rights violations.

Ronaldo’s work with Saudi Arabia is already being criticized by rights groups who are urging the soccer player to “draw attention to human rights issues” in Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi Arabia has an image problem,” especially since Khashoggi’s killing, says Reiche. But the kingdom’s recent investments in sports and entertainment are “not about sportswashing but about developing the country, social change and opening up to the world.”

Saudi Arabia is reportedly weighing a 2030 World Cup bid with Egypt and Greece, but the kingdom’s tourism ministry noted in November that it has not yet submitted an official bid. Chadwick believes that Ronaldo’s deal with Al Nassr, however, may help boost the kingdom’s bid should it choose it pursue it.

Another way Saudi Arabia may benefit from Ronaldo’s acquisition is that it will be able to improve commercial performance, says Chadwick, especially if this collaboration attracts further international talent.

“It is important to see Ronaldo not just as a geopolitical instrument,” said Chadwick, “There is still a commercial component to him and to the purpose he is expected to serve in Saudi Arabia.”

What Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia shows is that the kingdom aspires “to be seen as being the best” and that it wants to be perceived as a “contender and a legitimate member of the international football community,” said Chadwick.

UAE FM meets Syria’s Assad in Damascus in further sign of thawing ties

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad received the United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed in Damascus on Wednesday in the latest sign of thawing relations between Assad and the Gulf state. The meeting addressed developments in Syria and the wider Middle East, according to UAE state news agency WAM.

  • Background: It was Abdullah bin Zayed’s first visit since a November 2021 meeting with Assad that led to the resumption of relations. Months later, in March 2022, Assad visited the UAE, his first visit to an Arab state since the start of Syria’s civil war.
  • Why it matters: A number of Assad’s former foes have been trying to mend fences with his regime. Last week, talks between the Syrian and Turkish defense ministers were held in Moscow in the highest-level encounter reported between the estranged sides since the war in Syria began. The regional rapprochement is yet to improve the lives of average Syrians. Syria is still under Western sanctions.

Turkish President Erdogan says he could meet with Assad

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech on Thursday that he could meet the Syrian leader “to establish peace.”

  • Background: Erdogan’s comments came after the Moscow talks between the two nations’ defense ministers and intelligence chiefs. “Following this meeting… we will bring our foreign ministers together. And after that, as leaders, we will come together,” Erdogan said on Thursday.
  • Why it matters: The meeting would mark a dramatic shift in Turkey’s decade-long stance on Syria, where Ankara was the prime supporter of political and armed factions fighting to topple Assad. The Turkish military maintains a presence across the Syrian border and within northern Syria, where it backs Syrian opposition forces. Erdogan has also pledged to launch yet another incursion into northern Syria, aiming at creating a 30-km (20-mile) deep “safe zone” that would be emptied of Kurdish fighters.

Iran shuts down French cultural center over Charlie Hebdo’s Khamenei cartoons

Iran announced on Thursday it had ended the activities of a Tehran-based French research institute, in reaction to cartoons mocking Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and fellow Shia Muslim clerics published by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this week.

  • Background: Iran summoned the French ambassador to Tehran on Wednesday to protest cartoons published by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. More than 30 cartoons poking fun at Iran’s supreme leader were published by the magazine on Wednesday, in a show of support for the Iranian people who have been protesting the Islamic Republic’s government and its policies.
  • Why it matters: French-Iranian relations have deteriorated significantly since protests broke out in Iran late last year. Paris has publicly supported the protests and spoken out against Iran’s response to them. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna criticized Iran’s freedom of press and judicial independence on Thursday, saying “press freedom exists, contrary to what is going on in Iran and… it is exercised under the supervision of a judge in an independent judiciary – and there too it’s something that Iran knows little of.”

The prized legacy of iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum re-emerged this year when Rolling Stone magazine featured her in its “200 Greatest Singers of All Time.”

Ranking 61st, Umm Kulthum was the only Arab artist to make it to the list, with the magazine saying that she “has no real equivalent among singers in the West.”

Born in a small village northeast of the Egyptian capital Cairo, Umm Kulthum rose to unmatched fame as she came to represent “the soul of the pan-Arab world,” the music magazine said.

“Her potent contralto, which could blur gender in its lower register, conveyed breathtaking emotional range in complex songs that, across theme and wildly-ornamented variations, could easily last an hour, as she worked crowds like a fiery preacher,” it wrote.

Nicknamed “the lady of Arab singing,” her music featured both classical Arabic poetry as well as colloquial songs still adored by younger generations. Her most famous pieces include “Inta Uumri” (you are my life), “Alf Leila Weileila” (a thousand and one nights), “Amal Hayati” (hope of my life) and “Daret al-Ayyam” (the days have come around). Some of her songs have been remixed to modern beats that have made their way to Middle Eastern nightclubs.

The singer remains an unmatched voice across the Arab World and her music can still be heard in many traditional coffee shops in Old Cairo’s neighborhoods and other parts of the Arab world.

Umm Kulthum’s death in 1975 brought millions of mourners to the streets of Cairo.

By Nadeen Ebrahim

Women athletes aim their air rifles while competing in a local shooting championship in Yemen's Houthi rebel-held capital Sanaa on January 3.



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Two companies have luxury trains called the ‘Orient Express.’ Here are the differences


The “Orient Express” has been called the “king of trains” and the “train of kings.”

Royalty, writers, actors and spies have ridden the original route between Paris and Istanbul, which started in the late 19th century.

Author Agatha Christie described the Orient Express as “the train of my dreams.” She set a bestselling murder mystery novel on its carriages, and fictional spy James Bond rode it in the movie “From Russia With Love.”

Travelers might think of the Orient Express as a single luxurious train, but there have in fact been quite a few over the years, with many routes and owners.

Soon, people will be able to choose to take a ride on several trains using the Orient Express moniker, by two competing companies, the LVMH-owned luxury travel company Belmond and the French hospitality multinational Accor.

Both have original carriages which date to the late 1800s. But they differ in how they’re designed, where they travel and how long they’ve been in operation — one for decades and the other set to launch in 2024.

History behind the ‘Orient Express’

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express will launch eight new suites in June 2023.

Belmond

A few years later, the train was renamed the Orient Express and began traveling to Istanbul, then known as Constantinople. Travelers flocked to the train’s modern technology and luxurious silver cutlery and silk sheets.

Soon, Nagelmackers’ firm started to build more upscale trains for other European routes, including one that ran through the then-new Simplon Tunnel, which connects Switzerland to Italy, as well as the “Arlberg-Orient-Express,” operating between Calais, France, and Budapest, Hungary.

By the 1970s, the original Orient Express trains had made their last journeys, and the carriages fell into disrepair.

But in the 1980s, two businessmen undertook separate endeavors to revive them.

James Sherwood, an American, spent a reported $31 million acquiring and restoring enough carriages to form the “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express,” now owned by Belmond. (To add to the confusion, Sherwood also added hotels to his travel group, calling them Orient-Express Hotels. He renamed the company to Belmond in 2014.)

Swiss tour operator Albert Glatt began a service between Zurich and Istanbul, known as the “Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express,” which is now owned by Accor.

The ‘Venice Simplon-Orient-Express’

The “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express” has been operating since 1982. The train is made of original restored carriages that Gary Franklin, vice president of Belmond’s trains and cruises, called “works of art.”

“This train comes imbued with so much history,” he said. “The carriages are beautiful.”

As for Accor’s plans to launch a train also called the Orient Express,” Franklin said, “We’re the ones that have been doing it for 40 years, and I think we take it as a huge compliment that people are … seeing how well we’re doing with that.”

A one-night trip on the “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express” starts from £2,920 ($3,292) per person.

Belmond

Belmond has a one-off licensing deal to use the Orient Express name on its Venice Simplon train, Franklin confirmed, while Accor has the rights to the brand as a whole.

The “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express” will operate winter journeys for the first time this December, visiting Paris, Venice, Vienna and Florence, encouraging guests to visit the Christmas markets in those cities.

And next June, new suites are opening on the train, which come with private bathrooms, a steward, kimonos and slippers.

A one-night journey will cost from £5,500 ($6,135) per person in the new suites, which are one step below the train’s most luxurious category — the Grand Suites — which come with private dining, heated floors and “free-flowing” champagne, according to the website.

A suite on the “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.”

Belmond

Tickets for around half of the new suites have already been bought, and Grand Suites (about $9,600 per night) are almost sold out, Franklin said.

The ‘Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express’

A few years after Glatt put his train back on the rails, it was again left derelict.

Fast forward to 2015 and French rail company SNCF — which then owned the rights to the Orient Express name — commissioned researcher Arthur Mettetal to find the train.

“We had a beautiful brand, but no cars,” Guillaume de Saint Lager, now vice president of Orient Express at Accor, told CNBC. “We knew there was this complete train, but we didn’t know where it was.”

Using Google Maps and Google 3D, Mettetal located 17 of the original cars on the Poland-Belarus border.

Carriages from the “Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express,” found derelict on the Poland-Belarus border, are being restored by the French hotel group Accor.

Maxime d’Angeac | Martin Darzacq | Accor

The bar car on the “Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express” will feature a bar with a glass counter, a tribute to French designer Rene Lalique.

Maxime d’Angeac | Martin Darzacq | Accor

Much of the interior — including original marquetry, or decorated wood — was intact, said de Saint Lager.

A detailed restoration is now underway, with architect Maxime d’Angeac hired to design the interiors. His brief was to “have a kind of fantasy of what could be Art Deco,” d’Angeac told CNBC by phone. He said he had a significant collection of the train’s original drawings and models.

Original glass Lalique lamps, in the shape of a flower, will light the train’s corridors, while other original elements from the rediscovered train will also be incorporated, such as suitcase racks and door handles.

A corridor on the “Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express” features original glass Lalique flower lamps.

Maxime d’Angeac | Martin Darzacq | Accor

The bar car will feature call buttons for champagne and service, while the dining car will have a mirrored ceiling as well as a glass wall to the kitchen, so guests can see the chef.

Sleeping suites will feature leather walls, embroidered headboards and en suite marble bathrooms. De Saint Lager described it as a “cruise train,” where guests can alight at lesser-known places (routes and prices are yet to be announced).

Passengers will soon be able to stay at “Orient Express” hotels, too, the first of which will launch in Rome in 2024, according to Accor’s website.

The Orient Express ‘La Dolce Vita’

Accor has more plans to use the Orient Express name. It’s also developing six “La Dolce Vita” trains that will run through 14 regions in Italy as well as neighboring countries, with aims to have 10 Orient Express hotels by 2030.

A rendering of the “Orient Express La Dolce Vita,” which will connect Rome to cities like Paris, Istanbul and Split.

Dimorestudio | Accor

These trains will pay tribute to an era different from the Venice Simplon or the Nostalgie-Istanbul trains.

“La Dolce Vita” — which translates as “the sweet life” — refers to Federico Fellini’s 1960 movie, as well as to a sense of Italian glamour and pleasure. The trains are designed to embody “the Italian art of living and all its beautiful traditions,” according to an online post by interiors company Dimorestudio, which is working on the project.

The trains will have 18 suites, 12 deluxe cabins and an “honour suite.” Most will leave from Rome’s Termini station, where passengers will have access to a lounge before departure, and will travel around 16,000 kilometers (about 10,000 miles) of railway lines, with stops at lesser-known Italian destinations.

A rendering of a bedroom suite on the “Orient Express La Dolce Vita,” showing the train’s 1960s-style decor.

Dimorestudio | Accor

Along with the Orient Express La Minerva Hotel in Rome, Accor will also open the Orient Express Venice Hotel in 2024 in a restored palace. In addition, Accor has plans to launch an Orient Express hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Those trains are also set to be launched in 2024, according to a company representative.

— CNBC’s Monica Pitrelli contributed to this report.



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