Lebanese PM flags up Saudi investment potential, financial ties

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri spoke of the pressing need to restore the nation’s finances at the conference in central London on Thursday. (AFP)
Updated 14 December 2018
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Lebanese PM flags up Saudi investment potential, financial ties

  • Saad Al-Hariri: We have prepared many agreements that we will be signing with Saudi Arabia as soon as we form an administration
  • Al-Hariri has been struggling to form a national unity government in Beirut since elections in May produced an inconclusive result

LONDON: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri highlighted the potential for strong commercial and investment ties between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia at a conference in London on Thursday.
He described his relationship with Saudi Arabia as a good one: “I believe that the Saudi market is a good market for Lebanon.
“We have prepared many agreements that we will be signing with Saudi Arabia as soon as we form an administration. When we form a government, we will see Saudi Arabia taking some serious steps toward Lebanon.
Al-Hariri has been struggling to form a national unity government in Beirut since elections in May produced an inconclusive result.
But he hoped a new government would be unveiled before the end of the year or early 2019.
Al-Hariri said he recognized the need for urgent reforms to rebuild Lebanon after the civil wars of 1976-90, and clashes with Israel that left many areas pulverised in 2006. “We have to do things differently, we can’t go on as before,” he said.
He also spoke of the circumstances that Lebanon found itself after taking in 1.5 million Syrian refugees. There was a pressing need to restore the nation’s finances after several years of GDP growth of between 1 percent and 1.5 percent.
Al-Hariri added: “We can’t tell Gulf countries to come to Lebanon (to invest) at the same time as there are political parties (in Lebanon) cursing the hell out of the Gulf. We need to move away from the regional conflicts. Lebanon is too small to pay a price in these big conflicts. Big countries can afford it. We cannot.”
Creating employment was vital for Lebanese young people, and he said that the unemployment rate among refugees was 75 percent.
“We have to look outside of the box … where we can invest money, create jobs quickly.
“We want to prepare Lebanon as a platform for foreign companies to come and invest in, and make Lebanon a hub for them to take advantage of reconstruction in Syria, Iraq and even Libya.”
At a recent media briefing at the World Bank’s offices in Beirut, Lebanon’s economy was described as “unsustainable” by the bank’s vice president for the MENA region, Ferid BelHajj.
He said: “Lebanon has been defying gravity for quite some time”, and a day would come when “gravity materializes,” though he added that the central bank had a good buffer of foreign reserves. 
The IMF has called for “an immediate and substantial” fiscal adjustment to improve the sustainability of public debt, which stood at more than 150 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) at the end of 2017.
The World Bank has a $2.2 billion investment portfolio in Lebanon, but the lack of government means $1.1 billion of that amount — to be spent on jobs, health and transport projects — is still awaiting approval by Beirut before it can be used.
International donors meeting in Paris pledged more than $11 billion of investment for Lebanon, but they want to see reforms first.
At the Paris meeting Al-Hariri promised to reduce the budget deficit as a percentage of GDP by 5 percent over five years, Reuters reported.


Bitcoin craze hits Iran as US sanctions squeeze weak economy

Updated 18 July 2019
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Bitcoin craze hits Iran as US sanctions squeeze weak economy

  • Some Iranian officials worry that “mining” is abusing the subsidized electricity
  • Iranian Bitcoin miners are purchasing more affordable Chinese ready-made computers

TEHRAN: Iranians feeling the squeeze from US sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic’s ailing economy are increasingly turning to such digital currencies as Bitcoin to make money, prompting alarm in and out of the country.
In Iran, some government officials worry that the energy-hungry process of “mining” Bitcoin is abusing Iran’s system of subsidized electricity; in the United States, some observers have warned that cryptocurrencies could be used to bypass the Trump administration’s sanctions targeting Iran over its unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.
The Bitcoin craze has made the front pages of Iranian newspapers and been discussed by some of the country’s top ayatollahs, and there have been televised police raids on hidden computer farms set up to bring in money by “mining” the currency.
Like other digital currencies, Bitcoin is an alternative to money printed by sovereign governments around the world. Unlike those bills, however, cryptocurrencies are not controlled by a central bank. Bitcoin and other digital currencies like it trade globally in highly speculative markets without any backing from a physical entity.
As a result, computers around the world “mine” the data, meaning they use highly complex algorithms to verify transactions. The verified transactions, called blocks, are then added to a public record, known as the blockchain. Any time “miners” add a new block to the blockchain, they are rewarded with a payment in bitcoins.
To work, the expensive specialized computers require a lot of electricity to power their processors and to keep them cool. In Iran, “miners” have an edge because electricity is cheap thanks to longtime government subsidies. “Miners” also buy cheaper Chinese ready-made computers to do the work.
But the constant raids and authorities’ conflicting statements on the issue have Bitcoin “miners” in Iran incredibly leery of being identified. Those contacted by The Associated Press refused to speak about their work or to say how much they earn from their “mining.”
But they acknowledge they do this to make some money at a time when Iran’s currency, the rial, tumbled from 32,000 rials to $1 at the time of the 2015 nuclear deal, to around 120,000 rials to $1 now.
“It is clear that here has turned into a heaven for ‘miners,’” Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s minister for information and communications technology, recently told AP in an interview. “The business of ‘mining’ is not forbidden in law but the government and the Central Bank have ordered the Customs Bureau to ban the import of (mining machines) until new regulations are introduced.”
Ali Bakhshi, the head of the Iran Electrical Industry Syndicate, said earlier this month that the country’s Energy Ministry likely would boost costs for Bitcoin “miners” to 7 cents for each kilowatt of electricity they consume, a massive increase from the current half-cent but still almost half the cost of electricity in the United States, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.
Still, there are concerns, especially among Iran’s religious leaders, that people might try to circumvent paying extra for the electricity as well as using digital currency to hide or move money illicitly.
Tabnak, a hard-line news website associated with a former commander of the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, quoted three ayatollahs describing Bitcoin as either problematic or “haram,” meaning forbidden. Islam prescribes strict rules about finance.
But Jahromi said clerics became more receptive to the idea after his staff briefed them that Bitcoin had a value in the real world, which is required under Islamic finance. Islamic finance also prohibits gambling, the payment of interest and misleading others.
“Some of our top clerics have issued fatwas that say Bitcoin is money without a reserve, that it is rejected by Islamic and cybercurrencies are haram,” Jahromi said. “When we explain to them this is not a currency but an asset, they change their mind.”
Iran has tried to keep its economic situation in check by controlling foreign currency rates and cutting down on those moving their money from the rial to other currencies, including Bitcoin. Last year, the semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Mohammad Reza Pour-Ebrahimi, the head of the Iranian parliament’s economic commission, as suggesting that about $2.5 billion left Iran through digital currency purchases. He did not elaborate and authorities have not discussed it since.
The US, meanwhile, has been keeping a close watch on Iranians holding bitcoins. In November, a federal grand jury in Newark, New Jersey, accused two Iranian men of hacking and holding hostage computer systems of over 200 American entities to extort them for Bitcoin, including the cities of Newark and Atlanta.
“As Iran becomes increasingly isolated and desperate for access to US dollars, it is vital that virtual currency exchanges, peer-to-peer exchangers and other providers of digital currency services harden their networks against these illicit schemes,” said Sigal Mandelker, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.
Not so, said Jahromi.
“Cybercurrencies are effective in bypassing sanctions when it comes to small transactions, but we do not see any special impact in them as far as mega-transactions are concerned,” he said. “We cannot use them to go around international monetary mechanisms.”