Iranians say their ‘bones breaking’ under US sanctions

A simple cellphone is worth two months' salary for average government worker. (File/AFP)
Updated 24 June 2019

Iranians say their ‘bones breaking’ under US sanctions

  • More than 12 percent of working-age citizens are unemployed
  • A third of Iran’s national spending comes from oil revenues

TEHRAN: As the US piles sanction after sanction on Iran, it’s the average person who feels it the most.
From a subway performer’s battered leather hat devoid of tips, to a bride-to-be’s empty purse, the lack of cash from the economic pressure facing Iran’s 80 million people can be seen everywhere.
Many blame President Donald Trump and his maximalist policy on Iran, which has seen him pull out of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and levy punishing US sanctions on the country.
In recent weeks, Iran has threatened to break out of the deal unless European powers mitigate what it calls Trump’s “economic warfare.” Iran also appeared ready to push back against the buildup of US forces in the region, after shooting down an American drone it says violated its airspace last week.
In response, US officials have vowed to pile on more sanctions.
But alongside Trump, many Iranians blame their own government, which has careened from one economic disaster to another since its Islamic Revolution 40 years ago.
“The economic war is a reality and people are under extreme pressure,” said Shiva Keshavarz, a 22-year-old accountant soon to be married.
She said government leaders “keep telling us to be strong and endure the pressures, but we can already hear the sound of our bones breaking.”
Walking by any money exchange shop is a dramatic reminder of the hardships most people are facing. At the time of the nuclear deal, Iran’s currency traded at 32,000 rials to $1. Today, the numbers listed in exchange shop windows have skyrocketed — it costs over 130,000 rials for one US dollar.
Inflation is over 37%, according to government statistics. More than 3 million people, or 12 percent of working-age citizens, are unemployed. That rate doubles for educated youth.
Depreciation and inflation make everything more expensive — from fruits and vegetables to tires and oil, all the way to the big-ticket items, like mobile phones. A simple cell phone is about two months’ salary for the average government worker, while a single iPhone costs a 10 months’ salary.
“When importing mobile phones into the country is blocked, dealers have to smuggle them in with black market dollar rates and sell them for expensive prices,” said Pouria Hassani, a mobile phone salesman in Tehran. “You can’t expect us to buy expensive and sell cheap to customers. We don’t want to make a loss either.”
Hossein Rostami, a 33-year-old motorbike taxi driver and deliveryman, said the price of brake pads alone had jumped fivefold.
“The cause of our problems is the officials’ incompetence,” he told The Associated Press as fellow motorbike drivers called out for passengers in Tehran. “Our country is full of wealth and riches.”
The riches part is true — Iran is home to the world’s fourth-largest proven reserve of crude oil and holds the world’s second-largest proven reserve of natural gas, after Russia.
But under Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign, the US has cut off Iran’s ability to sell crude on the global market, and threatened to sanction any nation that purchases it. Oil covers a third of the $80 billion a year the government spends in Iran, meaning that a fall in oil revenues cuts into its social welfare programs, as well as its military expenditures.
The rest of the country’s budget comes from taxes and non-oil exports, among them oil-based petrochemical products that provide up to 50 percent of Iran’s $45 billion in non-oil export.
In Tehran’s Laleh park, retired school teacher Zahra Ghasemi criticized the government for blaming “every problem” on US sanctions.
She says she has trouble paying for her basic livelihood. The price of a bottle of milk has doubled, along with that of vegetables and fruit.
“We are dying under these pressures and a lack of solutions from officials,” Ghasemi said.
Years of popular frustration with failed economic policies triggered protests in late 2017, which early the following year spiraled into anti-government demonstrations across dozens of cities and towns.
The current problems take root in Iran’s faltering efforts to privatize its state-planned economy after the devastating war with Iraq in the 1980s, which saw 1 million people killed.
But Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said earlier this month that the crunch on oil exports hitting harder today than during the 1980s war, when Saddam Hussein’s forces targeted Iran’s oil trade.
“Our situation is worse than during the war,” Zanganeh said. “We did not have such an export problem when Saddam was targeting our industrial units. Now, we cannot export oil labeled Iran.”
Still, many Iranians pin the economic crisis on corruption as much as anything else.
“Our problem is the embezzlers and thieves in the government,” said Nasrollah Pazouki, who has sold clothes in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar since before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. “When people come to power, instead of working sincerely and seriously for the people, we hear and read after a few months in newspapers that they have stolen billions and fled.”
He added: “Whose money is that? It’s the people’s money.”
Sanctions do cause some of the problems, said Jafar Mousavi, who runs a dry-goods store in Tehran. But many of the woes are self-inflicted from rampant graft, he said.
“The economic war is not from outside of our borders but within the country,” Mousavi said. “If there was integrity among our government, producers and people, we could have overcome the pressures.”
Yet people come and go each day to work on Tehran’s crowded metro, seemingly earning less each day for the same work. In one train car, Abbas Feayouji and his son Rahmat play mournful-sounding traditional love songs known as “Sultan-e Ghalbha,” or “King of Hearts” in Farsi.
“People pay less than before,” said the elder Feayouji, a 47-year-old father of three, as he took a short break to speak to the AP. “I don’t know why they do, but it shows people have less money than before.”


INTERVIEW: CEO Maaz Sheikh sees business soar as Saudi viewers turn to streaming services

Updated 05 July 2020

INTERVIEW: CEO Maaz Sheikh sees business soar as Saudi viewers turn to streaming services

  • All eyes on Starzplay as lockdown reaps rewards

Maaz Sheikh has had a good lockdown.

The founder and CEO of Starzplay, the Middle East’s leading entertainment streaming channel, saw his business soar as curfews, social distancing and travel restrictions left people with little to do apart from slump in front of a TV and binge watch for hours on end.

“I think when the whole situation was unfolding, we were trying to think which way is up and which was down, both on a personal level and also as a company — what it means for our subscribers. It was nerve-wracking in the beginning,” Maaz Sheikh told Arab News.

In the region, it was Starzplay subscribers chose to watch, rather than Netflix or other streaming services, in English and in Arabic.

“What we benefited from, of course, was all the people staying home, but one of the things that worked in our favor was that we are an organization based and headquartered here, and we were able to adapt and localize our services much faster than anyone else,” he said.

“In Saudi Arabia, you can sign up for Starzplay via STC, Mobily or any of the other services. You can sign up with your mobile phone number. Netflix came to this region with a very US-centric mindset, thinking that everyone had a credit card and that having a credit card is a norm in the world. In fact, the reality is different, especially in Saudi. Not everyone has a credit card,” he added.

“So, through one bill where you pay your landline and your broadband, you can also have access to Starzplay on the same bill. You can just download onto your smart TV,” he added.

Starzplay has been in business for five years, and while it is probably not as well known as Netflix, it has been making big inroads into the region, especially Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom accounts for 40 percent of total revenue, while almost half of all consumption in the Middle East and North Africa region comes from Saudi viewers.

And what have they been watching during the long weeks of lockdown? 

Lots of “Vikings,” “The Office” and Turkish-made romantic soap “Jusoor Wal Jamila.” 

Saudis on average watched more than 18 hours of Starzplay in May, compared with less than 12 a year before.


BIO

BORN: Islamabad 1970.

EDUCATION

  • Schooling in Dubai, UAE.
  • Oklahoma State University, US.
  • University of Kansas, MBA.

CAREER

  • Various executive roles in media and communications, US.
  • Chief sales and operations officer, OSN, Dubai.
  • CEO and founder, Starzplay.

“The beauty is that everyone has a mobile phone. We were there in the market with the right product, the right content, but also the right distribution so the masses can actually sign up for our service. It really benefited us.

“It was not just that we were a streaming service. The whole category benefited from the lockdown, but we were the only one in the market that had this kind of distribution and payment arrangements. We were the only one available to the masses,” Sheikh said.

It is not just the distribution platform that is different from Netflix. Starzplay takes a distinct stance on content, too, as Sheikh explained.

“Our industry is evolving in a simple and predictable way. What is happening is that the more Netflix has gone into its own originals, the more studios see them as a competitor. So studios have been pulling their content away from Netflix.

“Until now, with what comes out of Hollywood and the UK, 95 percent of English-language content was produced by seven or eight studios. In the UK it’s the likes of the BBC and ITV, while in the US it’s Warner, Disney, Sony, Showtime, CBS, all the major studios,” he said.

“So, the way the industry is evolving is that if you want Netflix originals, you go to Netflix, if you want anything else you go to Starzplay,” he said.

Sheikh reeled off an impressive list of top shows on his platform. “Big Bang Theory,” “Billions,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Britannia” are among them, while younger viewers soak up “The Flash,” “Supergirl” and other DC titles made by Warner Studios.

Starzplay has also made its first foray into original content, tailored for a Middle East audience, with the series “Baghdad Central.”

“Data is the new oil, they say, and ‘Baghdad Central’ was the result of our experience over five years of consumption history, with billions and billions of minutes consumed. So based on what people were consuming in our key markets and with those insights, we produced our first original,” Sheikh said.

“Baghdad Central” was launched in March with a big name Hollywood actor — Corey Stoll from the award-winning series “House of Cards” — as well as top British and Arab actors.

“We wanted to bring a show to the region that combined the best of the three. It was shot in Morocco in partnership with UK and US producers,” he explained.

That kind of content has pulled in the viewers during lockdown. The figures show Starzplay hit a peak of 6.5 million daily minutes of consumption in Saudi Arabia in the middle of April, compared with about 2 million before the pandemic lockdowns.

Existing viewers are also watching more. The average Saudi spent 28 minutes daily in front of a Starzplay show before the lockdown. That more than doubled to one hour as movement outside the home was restricted.

“To put that into perspective, it took us five years to go from zero to 2 million minutes a day, and it took us six weeks to go from 2 million to 6.5 million. We did more consumption growth in six weeks than we did in the first five years,” Sheikh said.

He is reluctant to forecast how many of these consumers will stay with Starzplay as the lockdowns are eased around the world and the region. 

“I’m expecting some churn, so it’s tough to predict what the base will look like later in the year. We saw tremendous growth, but as the lockdown eases I think we’ll see some churn on those subscribers,” he said.

But even as the lockdown are eased significantly in the region, consumers are not going back to pre-pandemic levels. There is likely to be a permanent shift in demand for Starzplay in the “new normal” environment.

“Unlike Netflix, one of the challenges we had in the region is that the brand awareness and content awareness of our service was comparatively low. One of the things that has happened is that because of increasing demand and awareness, people got to find out about Starzplay. People experienced that and connected the content to our brand.

“That is going to be an enduring and lasting benefit for our company. You cannot unlearn it. I’m expecting some churn in high sign-ups and reduced consumption volumes, but the lasting benefit we’re hoping for is the brand awareness and content awareness that was created,” he said.

That kind of growth is likely to accelerate Starzplay’s evolution from a privately funded startup to a listed public company. It has raised $125 million over its five years, from some pretty impressive investors, including US media giant Lionsgate, the big financial firm State Street Global Advisers, and Nordic investment firm SEQ, which backed Starzplay from the beginning.

With profitability just around the corner, Sheikh does not see the need for further funding, especially as investment sources have dried up during the uncertainty of the pandemic period.

“During COVID times, when consumption and new subscribers were going through the roof, the flip side was that we realized that capital markets were going to be out for 2020. Lucky for us, we are well capitalized, and we are not in a situation where we need to use funds. This is not a good time to be out there raising money,” he said.

“The goal is to serve our customers and also create shareholder value. There are multiple ways of doing that. One is that you generate cash and shareholders benefit from cash dividends. That’s the traditional model. The more high-growth model that is more applicable to companies like us is shareholders push for more growth and expansion to increase the enterprise value of the company,” he said.

Sheikh has set his medium-term sights on a public listing. “In the long run the goal is to continue to grow the business, and in the next three to five years to get into a position where we can list the company on the London Stock Exchange.

“We haven’t absolutely decided that, as it’s so far out. I’d say what we’re looking to do is list ourselves, and if not in London, then other markets, local or London. That’s the ambition, to look to IPO on London or other markets. We’re not there yet. We’re still two to three years away from a decision, but that’s our ambition,” he said.