Is it China’s turn to wield influence over Lebanon?

Is it China’s turn to wield influence over Lebanon?
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Is it China’s turn to wield influence over Lebanon?
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China's military donated to the Lebanese Army surgical face masks, goggles, protective clothing and other medical supplies needed in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. (Xinhua news agency photo)
Is it China’s turn to wield influence over Lebanon?
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Lebanon’s Culture Minister Abbas Mortada (2nd left) and China's Ambassador Wang Wang Kejian (2nd right) signing a cooperation agreement last month in Beirut. (Xinhua news agency photo)
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Updated 12 August 2020

Is it China’s turn to wield influence over Lebanon?

Is it China’s turn to wield influence over Lebanon?
  • China’s ‘donation diplomacy’ pays off in crisis-plagued Lebanon as it also battles a coronavirus pandemic 
  • Economy projected to shrink by 12 percent this year, with 75 percent of the population under the poverty line

BEIRUT: Over the past 10 years, the commercial landscape of the Middle East and North Africa has undergone a gradual but radical change. Gone are the days when goods from the West filled the shelves of corner shops and supermarkets. They now stock the full gamut of Chinese-made products, from cellphones to air-conditioners and from school stationery to washing machines.

Few countries in the region exemplify China's emergence as a competitor to the West's global manufacturing dominance as clearly as Lebanon, with its economy in tatters and foreign currency reserves exhausted. 

When the first case of COVID-19 was recorded on February 21 in Lebanon, Chinese authorities rushed to deliver medical assistance to the government.

The promptness of the response created the impression in some circles that China was seeking to gain a strategic foothold in Lebanon, which had long been viewed as a political playground for major powers and the Middle East’s gateway of sorts to the West. 

A call sounded by the Hezbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah, in November last year, and repeated a few weeks ago, to “go to China to save Lebanon financially and economically,” has left many wondering whether Lebanese politicians are aligning their country too closely with the Asian power.

Even by the standards of the calamities that struck it in the 20th century, Lebanon has never been more vulnerable than it is now amid the coronavirus crisis.

The economy is projected to shrink by 12 percent this year, while half the government’s budget will go to service a debt burden that has reached 170 percent of GDP. The share of Lebanon’s population below the poverty line is believed to have jumped to 75 percent from the pre-pandemic level of 50 percent.




Armed Forces guard a demonstration against the poor economy. Analysts fear poor economic conditions make Lebanon ripe for exploitation. (AFP)

Against this grim backdrop, some Lebanese politicians, economists and academics are arguing that Beirut has lagged behind other countries in strengthening ties with Beijing, just as it was late in giving diplomatic recognition to the Communist-led People’s Republic of China.

“Lebanon recognized the People’s Republic of China only after Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to the country in 1971,” said Dr. Massoud Daher, head of the Chinese-Lebanese Friendship and Cooperation Committee, referring to the former US secretary of state and national security adviser. 

Nearly 50 years on, it seems the shoe is on the other foot.

In the last week of May, the People’s Liberation Army made a direct donation to the Lebanese Army to boost the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The items included surgical face masks, goggles, protective clothing and other medical supplies.

The coronavirus gear was handed over as part of an agreement that was signed by Wang Kejian, China’s ambassador to Lebanon, and General Joseph Aoun, the Lebanese Army Commander. 

“The Chinese donation clearly reflects the solidity and depth of the relationship between the two peoples and the two armies,” Wang said. 

“China is ready to work with the Lebanese people and army to overcome the difficulties and troubles. After all the difficulties and obstacles have been cleared, new roads and horizons will open up.”




China's military donated to the Lebanese Army medical supplies needed in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. (Xinhua photo)

By contrast, in an op-ed last month that appeared to encapsulate the view from Washington, Danielle Pletka, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote: “While the Islamic Republic of Iran is still calling the political shots, vultures from Beijing are circling, eyeing tasty infrastructure assets like ports and airports as well as soft power influence through Lebanon’s universities. Meanwhile, Lebanon as a sovereign nation collapses.”

China of course has also a longstanding military presence in Lebanon, in the form of a 410-strong unit serving with UNIFIL in the country’s south.

The soldiers of the unit perform operational and humanitarian duties involving medical services, disposal of unexploded ordnance, construction of UNIFIL protection facilities, road building and rehabilitation of schools and kindergartens in the border areas.

The Chinese Field Hospital at the UNIFIL headquarters, north of Marjeyoun, provides a range of medical services to local residents and to UNIFIL soldiers.

Even before the coronavirus aid started arriving, relations between Lebanon and China were warming, with the latter doing all the giving as part of its “soft power” projection.




Worshippers perform prayers during Ramadan while keeping a safe distance at a Mosque in Beirut. (AFP)

Last year, a delegation of Chinese businessmen visited Lebanon and held meetings away from the media gaze, during which they offered to fund a number of projects.

These included the Arab highway linking Beirut to Damascus and a parallel railway project connecting Beirut first to Damascus and then to China’s $900 billion new Silk Road, the trade corridor designed to reopen channels between China and countries of Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

The Chinese visitors also offered to construct highways going from Lebanon’s north to south and build solar power plants that would generate electricity at affordable rates.

Just last month, China signed a cooperation agreement with Lebanon aimed at establishing cultural centers in the two countries “on the basis of equality and mutual benefit.”

According to the agreement, signed by Ambassador Wang and Abbas Mortada, Lebanon’s Culture Minister, on behalf of their governments the centers will provide a “wider platform for cultural exchange and mutual learning between the two countries.”

In April, the Lebanese Ministry of Health received a donation consisting of protection gear and COVID-19 testing kits, given as part of Beijing’s “donation diplomacy.”

February saw a number of online training workshops conducted by Chinese doctors aimed at raising awareness of coronavirus risks among medical workers and volunteers in community clinics in Lebanon’s refugee camps.

About 80 percent of Lebanon’s needs are met through imports and, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency, 40 percent of the imports come from China.

The gross value of imported Chinese goods — typically electrical appliances, clothing, toys, cellphones, furniture, industrial equipment, candies and foodstuff — is estimated at $2 billion annually.

The trade imbalance is evident from Lebanon’s annual exports to China, which amount to no more than $60 million. 




Lebanon’s Culture Minister Abbas Mortada (2nd left) and China's Ambassador Wang Wang Kejian (2nd right) signing a cooperation agreement last month in Beirut. (Xinhua photo)

The influence of China can be gauged from social trends as well. In recent years, Lebanon has seen a growing interest among young people in learning Chinese.

Among other academic institutions, the Confucius Institute at St. Joseph’s University in Beirut and the Language Centre at the Lebanese University have Chinese language programs.

“Until 2003, Lebanon and China had only formal political relations,” Daher told Arab News, noting that in 1978 China adopted a policy of openness and reform as well as signaled its intent to expand its influence abroad in order to promote its industry.

“In 2006, we established the Chinese-Arab Friendship Association (CAFA). Since then, we have held more than 15 conferences sponsored by China in various disciplines in 23 Arab countries. The number of Lebanese merchants who have visited China stands at 11,000.”

According to Daher, China has signed four agreements with the Lebanese University and another with the Ministry of Culture.

“China had to wait for three years to be granted the permit to build its cultural center in Lebanon,” he said.

“The Chinese donated $66 million to set up Lebanon’s largest music center, currently being built by Chinese companies. The Lebanese state has only provided the land.”

Daher believes “the Chinese are taking the long view,” with the Lebanese economy and the military as well as the banks still tied to American institutions.

He dismisses the notion that China is seeking to gain control over Lebanon’s political and economic decision-making structures.

“China is not being able to get into Lebanon. Entry even through investment projects will be difficult since the Lebanese ask for their cuts, but the Chinese, like the Japanese, do not pay bribes from government money.”

Pointing to the interest reportedly expressed by Chinese firms to take over electricity and infrastructure projects in Lebanon, he said “the offers have not been approved, and China is forbidden from entering Lebanon in such ways.”

Daher puts it this way: “China is interested in marketing its products in such a way that both parties can benefit from. Lebanon is an economically distressed country and does not constitute an important market for China.

“The problem is that the money of the Lebanese people is blocked in banks and the economy is in recession. China sells us its products at attractive prices, but how can the products be marketed in a country whose purchasing power is declining on a daily basis?”

Still, with tensions between China and the US rising over Beijing’s donation diplomacy in the latest of many disputes, Zhang Jian Wei, director general of the Department of West Asia and North Africa at the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, said: “We do not intend to replace the United States in Lebanon and we do not have the capacity to do so because China is still a developing country. Even if China becomes more developed economically, it will not seek to fill any vacuum in Lebanon.” 

Wei hinted that China’s cooperation with Arab countries is bothering some countries, such as the US, which “is taking all measures to contain China’s influence.” 

“The US is the largest developed country in the world, with which we do not want a trade war. But if the American insisted, we will fight it till the end,” he said.

For all the deepening, multidimensional ties with China, Daher says Lebanon is tied to the US until further notice.

“It can neither open up to China, nor free itself of American influence,” he said.

“Since the political class is capitalist, rentier and sectarian by nature, it sticks to quotas and avoids reforms.

“If Lebanon decides to change for the better, then it must open up to China. If the situation remains the same, Lebanon will go bankrupt.”

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@najiahoussari

 


UAE to restart accepting Filipino household service workers

UAE to restart accepting Filipino household service workers
Updated 2 min 50 sec ago

UAE to restart accepting Filipino household service workers

UAE to restart accepting Filipino household service workers
  • Agreement involves recruiting Filipino domestic workers via official entities from April 2021

DUBAI: The UAE will resume accepting Filipino household service workers (HSWs) next month after signing a labor agreement with the Philippines giving greater protection to home-based employees.

The agreement involves recruiting Filipino domestic workers via official entities from April 2021, which “will begin a new phase of bilateral cooperation between the two friendly countries in the recruitment of domestic workers,” Saif Al-Suwaidi, Undersecretary at the UAE Ministry for Human Resources Affairs said in a statement released by state news agency WAM.

The agreement will control and regulate the recruitment process, maintain the rights of all involved parties, and reduce the overall costs of this process, Al-Suwaidi added.

The deployment of Filipino domestic workers to UAE has been suspended since 2014 when the UAE stopped foreign embassies from verifying the contracts of their nationals serving as domestic helpers. Contract verification is required under Philippine law.

The new deployment scheme will now be covered by a Unified Employment Contract that provides stringent measures to protect HSWs pursuant to the directives of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, various Philippine media reports noted.

Under the unified contract, both the employer and the foreign recruitment agencies, and the Philippine recruitment agencies are bound by joint and solidary liability should anything happen to the Filipino workers.

The same provisions were in the standard employment contract being used in Kuwait, Philippine labor officials noted.

The UAE official also said discussions were held with their Philippine counterparts regarding “precautionary procedures implemented by the UAE to protect workers, including domestic workers, from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as its efforts to offer medical treatment to patients.”


Oman COVID-19 fatalities rise in February

Oman COVID-19 fatalities rise in February
Updated 32 min 30 sec ago

Oman COVID-19 fatalities rise in February

Oman COVID-19 fatalities rise in February
  • Sultanate has reported 1,5480 COVID-19 deaths so far this month

DUBAI: The number of COVID-19 related fatalities in Oman rose in February compared with the earlier month, health officials in the country said.

A total 41 were reported to have died from coronavirus complications last month compared with 30 in January, according to the latest Ministry of Health figures.

The Sultanate has reported 1,5480 COVID-19 deaths so far this month.

The Gulf country has expanded its immunization campaign against coronavirus, and now covers individuals aged 60 and above, whether or not the individuals are healthy, as well as patients suffering chronic diseases and health workers in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.

“Some of this spread is due to the presence of rapidly spreading mutated strains of the virus,” according an earlier statement from the country’s Supreme Committee, which tasked with addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

A total 142,169 coronavirus cases have been reported overnight, with 132,945 of the patients making full recovery.

Health officials meanwhile said 19 people have been admitted to hospital with COVID symptoms over the last 24 hours, a report from Times of Oman said.


Israeli-owned cargo ship back at sea after suspected attack

Israeli-owned cargo ship back at sea after suspected attack
Updated 37 min 18 sec ago

Israeli-owned cargo ship back at sea after suspected attack

Israeli-owned cargo ship back at sea after suspected attack
  • The MV Helios Ray was sailing along the Omani coast toward the Arabian Sea
  • The suspected attack has raised tensions in the region

DUBAI: An Israeli-owned cargo ship that suffered a mysterious explosion last week has left Dubai’s port and was transiting the Gulf of Oman on Wednesday, satellite tracking data showed. The suspected attack has raised tensions in the region.
The giant MV Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo ship, was sailing along the Omani coast toward the Arabian Sea, according to satellite-tracking data from website MarineTraffic.com, days after docking in Dubai for repairs. Overnight, the vessel passed through the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Arabian Gulf through which a third of the world’s oil flows. Its destination remained unclear.
Last week, a blast struck the cargo ship in the same waterway, raising alarms about ship security in the Mideast. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Israel’s regional foe Iran of attacking the ship. Iran swiftly denied the charge.
Tensions between Iran and the West have escalated in recent weeks as Iran accelerates its nuclear program, seeking to pressure the United States to grant sanctions relief it received under its tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. In the current standoff, each side is insisting the other move first to return to the deal, which former President Donald Trump abandoned nearly three years ago.
It remains unclear what caused the explosion, which reportedly punched two holes in the vessel’s port side and two on its starboard side, just above the waterline. The incident recalled the summer of 2019, when the US military blamed Iran for a series of suspected attacks on oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf. The Navy had alleged that Iran used limpet mines — designed to be attached magnetically to a ship’s hull — to strike some of the vessels. Iran denied any role in the suspected assaults.


Dubai expands coverage of COVID-19 vaccination program

Dubai expands coverage of COVID-19 vaccination program
Updated 03 March 2021

Dubai expands coverage of COVID-19 vaccination program

Dubai expands coverage of COVID-19 vaccination program
  • Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can also now be administered to all individuals 16 years and above
  • Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine can now be injected to anyone aged 18 and above

DUBAI: Dubai has expanded the coverage of its COVID-19 vaccination program, with residents aged 40 and above holding valid resident visas now allowed to register and receive jabs at any of the emirate’s inoculation facilities.

Dubai’s health authority likewise said that elderly individuals aged 60 and above with a valid resident visa issued in any emirate can register for the vaccine, provided they can prove they are residing in Dubai, according to state news agency WAM.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can also now be administered to all individuals 16 years and above, instead of 18 years, while the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine can now be injected to anyone aged 18 and above, instead of those between 18-65 years.

Gulf nationals with a valid Emirates ID can also now get vaccinated at Dubai health facilities, the report added.

The UAE, which leads the world on COVID-19 vaccinations, has embarked on a widescale campaign to inoculation to achieve mass immunity and will help reduce the number of cases and control the spread of coronavirus.

About 66,539 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were administered overnight, bring the total doses at 6,094,956 with a rate of vaccine distribution of 61.62 doses per 100 people.

Health officials meanwhile confirmed 2,721 new infections overnight, bringing the total number of recorded cases in the UAE to 396,771.


Syrian victims of chemical strikes file case with French prosecutors

Syrian victims of chemical strikes file case with French  prosecutors
In this file photo taken on May 22, 2017, smoke rises from buildings following a reported air strike on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. (AFP)
Updated 03 March 2021

Syrian victims of chemical strikes file case with French prosecutors

Syrian victims of chemical strikes file case with French  prosecutors
  • People in Khartoum watch a movie at the Sudanese European Film Festival at an outdoor cinema for visitors adhering to COVID-19 restrictions. (AFP)

PARIS: Lawyers representing survivors of a chemical weapons attack in 2013 in Syria have filed a criminal complaint against Syrian officials whom they blame for the deaths of hundreds of civilians in a rebel-held area.
France is home to thousands of Syrian refugees, and its investigating judges have a mandate to determine whether crimes against humanity were committed anywhere in the world.
The case, which about a dozen people have joined, follows a similar one opened in Germany last year. It offers a rare legal avenue for action against the government of President Bashar Assad.
Attempts by Western powers to set up an international tribunal for Syria have been blocked by Russia and China at the UN Security Council.
“This is important so that the victims have the possibility to see those responsible being brought to justice and held accountable,” Mazen Darwish, who heads the Paris-based Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), said.
The SCM filed the complaint along with two other NGOs: the Open Society Foundation’s Justice Initiative and Syrian Archive.

BACKGROUND

France is home to thousands of Syrian refugees, and its investigating judges have a mandate to determine whether crimes against humanity were committed anywhere in the world.

France’s intelligence services concluded in 2013 that a sarin gas attack on the Eastern Ghouta region just south east of Damascus that killed 1,400 people had been carried out by Syrian government forces.
The complaint is based on what the lawyers say is the most comprehensive body of evidence on the use of substances such as sarin gas in Syria.
“We have compiled extensive evidence establishing exactly who is responsible for these attacks on Douma and Eastern Ghouta, whose horrific effects continue to impact survivors,” said Hadi Al-Khatib, founder and director of Syrian Archive.
A UN-commissioned investigation to identify those behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria concluded in 2016 that Syrian government forces had used chlorine and sarin gas.
Darwish said he expected another case to be opened in Sweden in the coming months.