New Lebanon government calls for ‘painful economic reforms’

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-HarirI heads a meeting to discuss a draft policy statement at the governmental palace in Beirut. (Reuters)
Updated 07 February 2019
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New Lebanon government calls for ‘painful economic reforms’

  • State jobs hiring freeze as Lebanon tightens belt
  • Statement sets the main policy objectives of Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri's government

BEIRUT:  Lebanon is to freeze hiring for state jobs as it embarks on a program of economic reform described as “difficult and painful.”

The halt to new government employment “in all its forms” will last throughout 2019, followed by four years of replacing only half the number of people who retire, and on condition that strict new deficit reduction targets are met.

A draft government policy statement, parts of which were leaked on Wednesday, sets the main policy objectives of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s national unity government, which was formed last week after nine months of wrangling over ministerial appointments.

The statement commits to bringing down the debt-to-GDP ratio by boosting the size of the economy and reducing the budget deficit. The government is committed to a “financial correction” equal to at least 1 percent of the GDP a year over five years.

This would be achieved by boosting revenues and cutting spending, starting with transfers to the state-run power company, which the World Bank has described as a “staggering burden” on the public finances.

Information Minister Jamal Al-Jarrah said the government was not considering tax increases. There were no major points of contention over the policy statement and it was expected to be approved by the government on Thursday, he said. “The atmosphere was very positive and there was no dispute about any point.”

Hariri’s adviser Nadim Al-Mulla told Arab News: “The government will implement reforms on the restructuring of the electricity and water sector, and tackle corruption.

“Most of the measures aim to reduce the deficit by reducing expenditure. The reduction will affect all ministries without exception and will include administrative expenses.”

The policy statement also said the government would continue the policy of exchange rate stability, as a priority for “social and economic stability.” The Lebanese pound has been pegged to the US dollar for over two decades.

Lebanon has some of the world’s worst debt and balance-of-payments ratios but has avoided financial disaster, confounding critics who have warned for years of debt defaults and a collapse of the pound; all have failed to materialize.

Nevertheless, pessimists were out in force on Wednesday. The Lebanese economy was “an unsustainable story over the medium term,” said Kevin Daly of Aberdeen Standard Investments.

“Having a government in place, that’s important, but they need to address key vulnerabilities and the big one is in the electricity sector — that plus no growth.”


India suspends Kashmir border trade with Pakistan

Updated 21 min 13 sec ago
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India suspends Kashmir border trade with Pakistan

  • Kashmir has been on edge since a February suicide attack that killed 40 Indian paramilitaries
  • India said it had reports that trade on the border was being “misused by Pakistan-based elements for funnelling illegal weapons, narcotics and fake currency”

NEW DELHI: India has suspended trade across its disputed Kashmir border with Pakistan, alleging that weapons and drugs are being smuggled across the route, as tensions simmer between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
Kashmir has been on edge since a February suicide attack that killed 40 Indian paramilitaries and brought the two countries to the brink of war with cross-border air strikes.
On Thursday, India’s government, which is in the middle of a tough national election, said it had reports that trade on the border was being “misused by Pakistan-based elements for funnelling illegal weapons, narcotics and fake currency.”
It also said many of those trading across the Line of Control, which divides Kashmir into zones under Indian and Pakistani control, had links to militant organizations.
The home ministry said trade would be suspended until a stricter inspection mechanism is in place.
The cross-border trade is based on a barter system, with traders exchanging goods including chillies, cumin, mango and dried fruit.
It began in 2008 as a way to improve strained relations between New Delhi and Islamabad, who have fought two of their three wars over the disputed region.
The Indian Express newspaper said Friday that 35 trucks carrying fruit traveling from the Indian side of the border had been stopped after the government order.
Trade on the border has been suspended before, including in 2015, when India accused a Pakistani driver of drug trafficking.
The latest move comes after India withdrew “Most Favoured Nation Status” — covering trade links — from Pakistan after the February attack, which was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed Islamist group.
Islamabad has denied any involvement in the attack.
India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made national security a key plank of his re-election campaign, pointing to the recent flare-up of violence as he battles the center-left opposition Congress party.
He is seeking a second term from the country’s 900 million voters in the mammoth election which kicked off on April 11 and runs till May 19. The results will be out on May 23.