How coronavirus crisis has changed business in the Middle East

How coronavirus crisis has changed business in the Middle East
Passengers watch a movie from their car at a drive-in cinema outside the Mall of Emirates in Dubai on May 17, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 12 August 2020

How coronavirus crisis has changed business in the Middle East

How coronavirus crisis has changed business in the Middle East
  • COVID-19 containment efforts, economic slowdown and low oil prices amounted to a perfect storm
  • Some Middle East and North Africa enterprises have reacted quickly and creatively to the challenges

CAIRO: While countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have responded unevenly to the coronavirus pandemic, a majority imposed aggressive temporary lockdowns on businesses and people’s movement.

Containment efforts, paired with a global economic slowdown, supply chain disruptions and a drop in crude oil prices, have had grave implications for regional enterprises.

In anticipation of prolonged pain, some MENA businesses have reacted quickly and creatively to this economic turmoil. Here is a look at some of the innovations that swiftly took hold.

* Fine dining delivered to your home

Luxury dining is perhaps the hardest-hit segment of the food and beverage industry. Operators were quick to switch to delivery and takeout.

“High-end fine dining restaurants such as Coya (and) Zuma, amongst others, have pivoted in this way, and it’s inspiring to see restaurants quickly move to a completely new business model,” said Ryan Andrews, marketing director of Eat App, a Bahraini startup providing an electronic system for restaurant reservations.

Chatfood, a platform offering a commission-free direct-to-consumer delivery option for restaurants, witnessed a surge in new clients from the region, said co-founder Ben Mouflard.

* The rise of e-commerce

E-commerce in the region has been growing at a cumulative rate of 25 percent since 2014, and online-only retailers have long captured more than 90 percent of this market.

To mitigate the deleterious effects of the lockdown on luxury retailers relying on in-store sales, Dubai Mall launched Noon.com, enabling them to sell and deliver products through the virtual store.

Dubai Airport Free Zone (DAFZA) is accelerating its efforts to launch Dubai Commercity, a 2.1 million sq. feet haven for e-commerce businesses with spaces for offices and logistics.

“Given the traction witnessed by clients (going) online due to the pandemic, we are on track for the scheduled opening by the end of 2020,” said Mohammed Al-Zarooni, DAFZA director-general.

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READ MORE: A UAE-based startup addresses gaps in women’s medical care

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* Mobile banking and e-wallets

A surge in the use of mobile banking and e-wallets has been observed across the region. Starting in March, Egyptian banks — including National Bank of Egypt, Banque Misr and BLOM Bank — have increased their electronic service capabilities.

National Bank of Oman encouraged users to make contactless payments. Fintech startups have been capitalizing on this trend with the launch of new services, among them PayBy’s mobile payment app in the UAE.

“The future of banking is not digital. The future of banking is customer experience, and digital is a tool enabling customer experience,” said Ali Khan, financial services director of PwC Middle East.

* Virtual music concerts

No-crowd live-streamed music concerts have become hugely popular, with a tipping point reached over the Eid Al-Fitr holiday.

The Egyptian Culture Ministry’s YouTube channel started live-streaming music concerts in March. By the end of May, it had added more than 1 million new subscribers.

Supported by major production companies, several popstars from the region, including Egyptian Tamer Hosny and Saudi Mohamed Abdo, performed to an online audience.




(Photo: AFP)

* The shift toward gift cards

Entertainment businesses had to innovate to keep the cash flowing as many countries enforced curfews.

With the entertainment market shut down, companies have been promoting gift cards to stay afloat.

Vouchers and gift cards for cinemas and restaurants offer customers future discounts once restrictions are lifted.

“We’ve helped restaurants market their vouchers” via a dedicated marketplace, said Andrews of Eat App.

* Telemedicine gets a real-life test

Based on a recent report by Research and Markets, the digital health care market in Saudi Arabia will grow by 8.8 percent in 2020 to $16.1 billion.

This growth is fueled by hospitals’ rapid adoption of telehealth services to cater to non-urgent medical needs while people’s movement is restricted.

As part of its response to COVID-19, Saudi Arabia has required that health insurance companies cover the costs of telehealth consultations.

* Virtual guided tours

Tourism was the first sector impacted by the pandemic, and is expected to be the last to recover.

Egypt’s Tourism and Antiquities Ministry launched online virtual 3D tours of ancient tombs and monasteries.

The Contemporary Art Platform in Kuwait and the Akkasah Center for Photography in Abu Dhabi are among the region’s art galleries currently offering online tours of their collection.

* Drive-in cinemas are back

Drive-in cinemas are coming back to help film lovers in the region get their entertainment fix without breaking social distancing rules.

Dubai welcomed its latest drive-in cinema in May on the rooftop of Mall of the Emirates, with a capacity of 75 cars.

It was followed by one at Dubai Mall, and Cairo’s Mall of Arabia has also launched its own version.

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This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.


Panic in Lebanon as desert locust swarms hit farmland

Panic in Lebanon as desert locust swarms hit farmland
Updated 31 min 11 sec ago

Panic in Lebanon as desert locust swarms hit farmland

Panic in Lebanon as desert locust swarms hit farmland
  • Videos showing the insects flying over farmland in the towns of Ersal and Ras Baalbek in Bekaa circulated on social media, with the hashtag #locust trending in Lebanon
  • The Lebanese military said that helicopters had begun spraying pesticides over Baalbek and Ras Baalbek to “fight and eradicate” the desert locusts

BEIRUT: The arrival of locust swarms in Lebanon has caused panic among the country’s farmers.

Videos showing the insects flying over farmland in the towns of Ersal and Ras Baalbek in Bekaa circulated on social media, with the hashtag #locust trending in Lebanon on Friday as people made sarcastic comments about the latest crisis to hit the beleaguered country.

The Lebanese military said that helicopters had begun spraying pesticides over Baalbek and Ras Baalbek to “fight and eradicate” the desert locusts.

Ersal Mayor Bassel Al-Hujairi recounted seeing “millions” of locusts flying and attacking cherry trees and crops.

“Locusts have invaded one-third of Ersal,” he told Arab News. “As we rushed to find out the size of the disaster, locust swarms had already gone across the town, which means that in the early hours of Friday locusts were able to cross 15 km, heading from barren areas toward Ersal. If these swarms multiply, they can cover the sun.”

Ersal was home to more than two million cherry, apple and apricot trees that were located on the town’s southern and eastern sides, said the mayor, and locusts were still on the northern side of the town. 

“I hope wind will not take them to other directions,” he added.

The swarms arrived in Lebanon after invading Syria, Iraq and Jordan.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said the appearance of desert locusts in Syria and Jordan was an “unusual and rare” event caused by several days of strong southerly winds and high temperatures that brought the adult groups to these areas.

It added that while the swarms did not represent a “large-scale invasion” and could be controlled, it feared that some of the mature adults may lay eggs and reproduce.

The ministries of agriculture and defense have mobilized to address the problem as Lebanon is a member of the FAO’s Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in the Central Region.

Agriculture Minister Abbas Mortada inspected Ersal and said that ministry teams had witnessed “locust waves” and were able to define their approximate scope. 

“But we still have fears that these locusts may reproduce and invade fields and farms. People are filming the locust swarms, but they are still relatively far.”

Ras Baalbek Mayor Menhem Mhanna reported “huge numbers” of locusts over the town’s barren areas and expressed his fears about these swarms reaching inhabited areas.

“Locusts will not find anything in Lebanon since the politicians have devoured everything,” said one person on social media, while another said: “Lebanon’s politicians are more dangerous than these swarms.”

“Locusts are the cherry on the top to be added to Lebanon’s economic collapse, political gridlock and starvation,” read another comment.

The crisis has brought the Lebanese back to the beginning of the 20th century, when swarms stripped the country of almost all its vegetation.

At that time Lebanon was already grappling with economic hardship and a double blockade by both the Ottoman Empire and the Allied Forces, resulting in a famine that led to more than a third of the population dying.

In 2013, historians and researchers Dr. Christian Taoutel and Father Pierre Wittouck released a book compiling the previously unpublished French chronicles of Jesuit priests during the famine called “The Lebanese people in the turmoil of the Great War of 1914-1918.”

According to the book, “famine started with a hungry swarm of locusts that devoured everything, where the Lebanese called the year of 1915 ‘The Year of Locusts’ which were impossible to control.”


Cyprus to impose partial lockdown to stem virus surge

Cyprus to impose partial lockdown to stem virus surge
Updated 23 April 2021

Cyprus to impose partial lockdown to stem virus surge

Cyprus to impose partial lockdown to stem virus surge
  • Restrictions will be slightly eased for Orthodox Easter at the start of May
  • Measures would help Cyprus’s vaccination rollout play catch up and ease pressure on hospitals, said Health Minister

NICOSIA: Cyprus on Friday announced a two-week partial lockdown as hospitals struggle to cope with surging coronavirus cases, with restrictions covering the key Orthodox Easter holidays.
“The growing number of infections, combined with intense pressure on the health system, cannot leave us indifferent and requires difficult decisions, drastic measures,” Health Minister Constantinos Ioannou told reporters.
The new restrictions, running from April 26 to May 9, mean that people are encouraged to work from home and must seek authorization for only one non-work-related trip daily.
Non-essential shops will close, and a 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 am curfew will be imposed, tightening the start time from 11:00 pm.
Restrictions will be slightly eased for Orthodox Easter at the start of May.
After May 9, people wanting to gather — such as in a restaurant — must provide either a negative Covid-19 test result with 72 hours or proof they have either had their first vaccine jab or have contracted the virus within the past three months.
Ioannou said the measures would help the Mediterranean island’s vaccination rollout play catch up and ease pressure on hospitals, witnessing record patient admissions.
Local daily the Cyprus Mail reported Friday a record high number of coronavirus patients in state hospitals, with the western town of Paphos opening a second Covid-19 ward to cope.
“We are in a very difficult phase of the pandemic,” Ioannou said.
Cyprus is facing a third wave of Covid-19 infections fueled by the more contagious British variant, with daily cases peaking at a record 941 on Tuesday.
The situation marks a stark deterioration from September last year, when reported cases were often close to or at zero per day.
Cyprus detected 668 new cases per 100,000 people over the seven days to April 22 — the highest population-adjusted rate of any country in the world, AFP’s database shows.
Uruguay was second highest worldwide on this measure, with 558 detected infections per 100,000 people.


King Abdullah II declares Jordan’s ‘strong’ as defendants in ‘sedition’ case released

King Abdullah II declares Jordan’s ‘strong’ as defendants in ‘sedition’ case released
Updated 23 April 2021

King Abdullah II declares Jordan’s ‘strong’ as defendants in ‘sedition’ case released

King Abdullah II declares Jordan’s ‘strong’ as defendants in ‘sedition’ case released
  • The king said the “sedition” would not shake Jordan and that his country was “strong”
  • Defendants in sedition case released in honor of Ramadan

AMMAN: Jordan’s King Abdullah II said in a meeting this week that in honor of Ramadan 16 defendants involved in a “sedition” case would be released.

“As a father and a brother to all Jordanians, and in this holy month of tolerance and solidarity, when we all wish to be with our families, I ask the relevant officials to look into the proper mechanism to have those who were misled into following the sedition, return to their families soon,” he said during the meeting with officials from Jordan’s various governorates at Al-Husseiniya Palace.

The king said the “sedition” would not shake Jordan and that his country was “strong.”

King Abdullah II said although “what took place was painful,” recent events in the kingdom “won’t shake us.”

Several people have been arrested since the beginning of April following events that threatened to undermine the kingdom’s security and stability.

Reaffirming his commitment to the Jordanian people, the king said: “My duty, goal, and the pledge I have made is to serve and protect our people and country, and this is the standard that defines how we deal with everything.”


Libyan FM calls for ‘stability, peace, security’

Foreign Minister Najla El-Mangoush, Libya’s first woman foreign minister, speaking in a hearing of the Italian Chamber of Deputies’ foreign affairs committee attended by Arab News. (AN Photo/Francesco Bongarrà)
Foreign Minister Najla El-Mangoush, Libya’s first woman foreign minister, speaking in a hearing of the Italian Chamber of Deputies’ foreign affairs committee attended by Arab News. (AN Photo/Francesco Bongarrà)
Updated 23 April 2021

Libyan FM calls for ‘stability, peace, security’

Foreign Minister Najla El-Mangoush, Libya’s first woman foreign minister, speaking in a hearing of the Italian Chamber of Deputies’ foreign affairs committee attended by Arab News. (AN Photo/Francesco Bongarrà)
  • Tripoli laying path for ‘fair, legal elections,’ minister tells Italian MPs

ROME: “Stability, peace and security” are Libya’s major priorities ahead of the country’s next elections, Foreign Minister Najla El-Mangoush told a meeting of Italian MPs.

Speaking in a hearing of the Italian Chamber of Deputies’ foreign affairs committee attended by Arab News, El-Mangoush said that Libya’s transitional government intends to “talk to everyone the same way and put a new agenda on the table.”

“Peace and security will not be possible without regional and international support,” she said.

Libya’s first woman foreign minister addressed Italian MPs for more than an hour, and was quizzed on her Cabinet’s views on issues ranging from Libya’s relationship with Italy to tackling illegal immigration. 

She said that Libya takes responsibility for violations of migrants’ rights in its territory, but urged the global community to adopt a “different and alternative approach” to stop the flow of illegal immigrants crossing the country’s southern borders.

“Illegal immigration is a broad and thorny topic. However, it is not only a Libyan issue, but a regional and an international one,” El-Mangoush said.

“I ask the international community to be practical and proactive: You need a strategy that is consistent with the current phase. Blaming the coast guard is useless. We have an uninterrupted flow of migrants coming from African states. We do not know who is coming: They could be criminals or sick.

“We are against the violation of human rights and we are sad for the condition of these migrants, but Libya is a transit country for migratory flows and our resources are limited.”

She added that “in southern Libya, we have a famine in progress. What can you ask to a people on the edge  of famine? How can these people help somebody arriving from the south if they need help themselves? Please, don’t blame us, but try to understand the difficult situation we are facing. We have limited resources and outdated policies to deal with this.”

Discussing the withdrawal of foreign forces from Libya, the minister said she believes this will not happen in a day, but will be the result of long negotiations. However, she believes that the dialogue with several states involved “gives us hope.”

“For us, sovereignty is the top priority, so stability and security are in order to be able to hold democratic, clean and legal elections,” she said.  

“We asked everyone, including Turkey, for cooperation to get all foreign forces off Libyan soil. Our safe future depends on the withdrawal of foreign forces.”

El-Mangoush said that the Libyan government “wishes for an even bigger role for Italy to solve Libya’s crisis, to put an end to foreign interference and help us to release all foreign forces.”

She called for Italian help in economic, medical and cultural areas, including the restoration of Tripoli’s old town and ancient buildings in the center of Benghazi damaged by war.

“Only the Italians can do a good job,” she said.


Thousands fall victim to $2bn Turkish cryptocurrency fraud

Thousands fall victim to $2bn Turkish cryptocurrency fraud
Updated 23 April 2021

Thousands fall victim to $2bn Turkish cryptocurrency fraud

Thousands fall victim to $2bn Turkish cryptocurrency fraud
  • The founder of cryptocurrency exchange Thodex, Faruk Fatih Ozer, fled the country with about $2 billion, leaving more than 391,000 users defrauded
  • The fraud case coincided with an overnight decision by the Central Bank of Turkey to ban the use of digital currencies and assets to pay for goods and services from April 30

ANKARA: Turkey’s cryptocurrency market has seen its first large-scale fraud case after the founder of cryptocurrency exchange Thodex, Faruk Fatih Ozer, fled the country with about $2 billion, leaving more than 391,000 users defrauded.

Ozer reportedly escaped to Albania.

In collaboration with Turkish authorities, Interpol has issued a red notice for the fugitive wanted for prosecution.

Although an investigation was launched into the company whose accounts were blocked by the financial crimes investigation board MASAK on April 21, the scheme revealed loopholes in the system.

The company has operated since 2017. It recently shut down services for several days, saying that it will allow outside investment from “prestigious banks and funding companies” in order to serve partners.

However, shortly after the statement, users began facing problems with money transfers before the site became inaccessible.

The daily volume of cryptocurrency trading in Turkey is believed to be about $1-$2 billion.

The fraud case is the largest in Turkish history, and coincided with an overnight decision by the Central Bank of Turkey to ban the use of digital currencies and assets to pay for goods and services from April 30.

Among other decisions, the central bank also targeted people and companies that fund illegal activities or facilitate money laundering through cryptocurrencies.

The Thodex founder was previously photographed in a meeting with several top Turkish policymakers.

According to a report by the World Economic Forum, Turkey ranked fourth among the 74 largest economies in the world and first in Europe for cryptocurrency adoption by the population.

“Thodex, as a cryptocurrency trading platform, is just another company in Turkey, and there are no laws for this kind of setup,” Fatih Guner, an expert on the cryptocurrency market, told Arab News.

Recent polls revealed that between 16 and 20 percent of Turks used or owned cryptocurrencies last year.

“The adoption is high, but the literacy is not that high. And the lack of literacy is crucial for cryptocurrency trading platforms because these platforms only make money if people buy and sell coins on their platforms. Exchanges from all over the world are investing in PR and dark marketing to gain new amateur traders, with influencers, YouTube creators, newsletter writers and Twitter trolls,” Guner said.

According to Guner, influencers work with exchanges to encourage inexperienced investors with false claims of profit.

“Turkey is a haven for coin exchanges because of the lack of legislation. The government has to step up and legislate heavily,” he said.

“In recent years, we saw that Turkish people heavily indulged in the lottery, football bets and all kinds of lawful gambling. The government seems to see exchanges as some other kind of gambling and loosely controls them to keep people busy while they live on the edge of poverty. Turkey’s cryptocurrency adoption rate is fourth in the world after Nigeria, Vietnam and the Philippines. The economic resemblance is uncanny,” Guner added.

Experts have long urged the government to take tougher measures to deal with criminals who defraud amateur cryptocurrency investors.

In March, a man in the southern Turkish city of Antalya killed his two children and wife before committing suicide after losing a large sum of money in Bitcoin investments.