Bloated public salaries at heart of Iraq’s economic woes

Bloated public salaries at heart of Iraq’s economic woes
A woman street vendor waits for customers in Basra. Iraq faces a liquidity crisis as the cash-strapped state struggles to pay public sector salaries and import essential goods while oil prices remain low. (AP)
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Updated 24 October 2020

Bloated public salaries at heart of Iraq’s economic woes

Bloated public salaries at heart of Iraq’s economic woes
  • The government has outlined a vision for a drastic overhaul of Iraq’s economy in a “white paper” presented last week to lawmakers and political factions

Long-time Iraqi civil servant Qusay Abdul-Amma panicked when his monthly salary was delayed. Days of waiting turned to weeks. He defaulted on rent and other bills.
A graphic designer for the Health Ministry, he uses about half his salary to pay his rent of nearly 450,000 Iraqi dinars a month, roughly $400. If he fails to pay twice in a row, his landlord will evict him and his family, he fears. “These delays affect my ability to survive,” Abdul-Amma said.
Iraq’s government is struggling to pay the salaries of the ever-swelling ranks of public sector employees amid an unprecedented liquidity crisis caused by low oil prices. September’s salaries were delayed for weeks, and October’s still haven’t been paid as the government tries to borrow once again from Iraq’s currency reserves. The crisis has fueled fears of instability ahead of mass demonstrations this week.
The government has outlined a vision for a drastic overhaul of Iraq’s economy in a “white paper” presented last week to lawmakers and political factions. But with early elections on the horizon, the prime minister’s advisers fear there is little political will to execute it fully.
“We are asking the same people we are protesting against and criticizing to reform the system,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraq researcher.
The white paper’s calls for cutting public sector payrolls and reforming state finances would undermine the patronage systems that the political elite have used to entrench their power.
A major part of that patronage is handing out state jobs in return for support. The result has been a threefold increase in public workers since 2004. The government pays 400 percent more in salaries than it did 15 years ago. Around three quarters of the state’s expenditures in 2020 go to paying for the public sector — a massive drain on dwindling finances.
“Now the situation is very dangerous,” said Mohammed Al-Daraji, a lawmaker on parliament’s Finance Committee.
One government official said political factions are in denial that change is needed, believing oil prices will rise and “we will be fine.”
“We won’t be fine. The system is unsustainable and sooner or later it will implode,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal politics.
Iraq’s activists have called for a march on Oct. 25, expected to draw large crowds, a year since massive anti-government protests first brought tens of thousands to the streets demanded reforms and an end to the corrupt political class.

FASTFACT

The Iraq government pays 400 percent more in salaries than it did 15 years ago.

“As far as meeting our demands, there have been no changes,” said Kamal Jabar, member of the Tishreen Democratic Movement, founded during the protests last year. “To us, the white paper is a joke.”
Abu Ali, a merchant in Baghdad’s commercial district of Shorjah, fears what the following months have in store. The state is the primary source of employment for Iraqis, and civil servants are the lifeblood of his business.
“The delays in salary payments have affected the market directly,” he said. “If these delays continue our business and the economy will collapse.”
Abdul-Amma’s September pay was 45 days late, and he still hasn’t received the October pay that was supposed to come on the first of the month. He worries about the coming months as well.
“I have a history of chronic heart disease, and one of my daughters is also sick,” said the father of four. He pays $100 in medical fees per month.
But to the architects of the reform paper, he is part of the problem: Public sector bloat is first in line for reform.
“We hope the civil service and bureaucracy will recognize a need for change,” Finance Minister Ali Allawi said in a recent interview.
Iraq relies on oil exports to fund 90 percent of state revenues. Those revenues have plunged to an average $3.5 billion a month since oil prices crashed earlier this year.
That’s half the $7 billion a month needed to pay urgent expenses. Of that, $5 billion is for public sector salaries and pensions, according to Finance Ministry figures. Iraq also imports nearly all of its food and medicine; with foreign currency reserves at $53 billion, the World Bank estimates the country can sustain these imports for another nine months. Foreign debts account for another $316 million.
Poor productivity of public workers is the heart of the issue, Allawi said.
“We’ve ended up with a low productivity, high-cost public sector that doesn’t really earn its keep,” he said. “In one way or another this issue has to be tackled by either reducing numbers, which is politically difficult, reducing salaries ... or increasing productivity.”
The white paper calls for public sector payments to be reduced from 25 percent of GDP to 12 percent but doesn’t detail how. Officials said one step may be to restore taxes on civil servants’ benefits that previous administrations had lifted.
To meet month-to-month commitments now, the government has had to borrow internally from its foreign currency reserves. A request of a second loan of $35 billion was sent to parliament, drawing criticism from lawmakers.
Haitham Al-Jibouri, head of parliament’s Finance Committee, said in televised remarks that if borrowing was the government’s only plan he would fetch a shopkeeper from Bab Al-Sharqi, a commercial area in the capital, to do the finance minister’s job.


New center to lead Saudi role in ‘4th industrial revolution’, economic minister says

New center to lead Saudi role in ‘4th industrial revolution’, economic minister says
Updated 29 July 2021

New center to lead Saudi role in ‘4th industrial revolution’, economic minister says

New center to lead Saudi role in ‘4th industrial revolution’, economic minister says
  • The Saudi minister said the new center will contribute to global discussions on the use of 4IR technology, such as 5G and artificial intelligence

DUBAI: The Saudi Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) will lead the Kingdom’s role in utilizing advanced technologies and their local and global implications, Minister of Economy and Planning Faisal bin Fadel Al-Ibrahim said.

The Saudi minister said the new center will contribute to global discussions on the use of 4IR technology, such as 5G and artificial intelligence, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has introduced new challengers to countries.

“COVID-19 intensified the need for data and evidence-based iterative policymaking supported by technology-driven and innovation-based solutions,” he said at the first Saudi 4IR forum held in Riyadh.

The Kingdom has become a global role model in deploying digital technology at peak of the health crisis, Al-Ibrahim said, enumerating Saudi efforts to manage the pandemic.

Saudi Arabia ranks 4th in the world in 5G connectivity, he added, and a robust digital infrastructure helped the Kingdom overcome challenges in the education and finance sectors.

Over 850 thousand daily classes were executed for over 6 million students in 2020, and around 2.8 billion digital payment transactions were made.

“This demonstrates Saudi`s leadership in having the most modern digital platform and world class capabilities to design local and global solutions at the technological frontier,” the minister said.

A recent report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development said the technology market could reach the value of 3.2 trillion dollars in 2025, increasing by almost 10 times from 2018 figures.

Al-Ibrahim said the Saudi economy could benefit from this by capturing a slice of the industry over the next five years.

The Kingdom is already in a good position, he explained, saying it “has its work cut out for it to move up the Global Innovation Index rankings where we plan to be among the leading pack of our G20 peers.”

“We are passionate about the objectives and vision of the Center, and look forward to working closely with its team in bringing the public and private sectors as well as the science and technology community together,” he added.


Brent crude back above $75 on US inventory draw, positive Fed outlook

Brent crude back above $75 on US inventory draw, positive Fed outlook
Updated 29 July 2021

Brent crude back above $75 on US inventory draw, positive Fed outlook

Brent crude back above $75 on US inventory draw, positive Fed outlook
  • US report showing falling oil supplies boosts market
  • Oil majors Royal Dutch Shell, Repsol post higher profits on oil gain

LONDON: Oil gained for a second day on Thursday as traders remained buoyed by yesterday’s data showing a bigger-than-expected drop in US inventories, while the Federal Reserve painted an optimistic picture of the American economy.

Brent crude gained 0.7 percent to $75.23 a barrel at 2:44 p.m. in London, set to close above the $75 mark for the first time in two weeks. US Benchmark WTI also added 0.7 percent, to $72.87.

Brent, the global benchmark, passed $75 a barrel in June for the first time in more than two years but has fallen below $69 on July 17 on concerns over the spread of the Delta coronavirus variant and an OPEC+ deal to increase production over the coming months.

Crude in storage fell to the lowest since January 2020, while distillate supplies posted the biggest decline since April, the US Energy Information Agency said in its weekly report on Wednesday. Fuel inventories fell by more than 2 million barrels.

The US economy is continuing to recover even as COVID-19 infections increase, the Federal Reserve said on Wednesday, sparking speculation as to when it will begin to taper its bond purchase program.

In a separate report from the US Commerce Department today, the economy was shown to have grown at a 6.5 percent annual pace in the second quarter, below the 8.5 percent predicted in a Reuters poll of economists, but still enough to bring the economy back to its pre-pandemic size.

“The (oil inventory) falls suggest the rise in cases of COVID-19’s Delta variant is having little impact on mobility,” ANZ analysts said in a note on Thursday.

Oil prices also benefited from a statement from Iran blaming the US for stalled progress in talks over its nuclear ambitions, potentially delaying the return of Persian crude to world markets.

Global oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell and Spain’s Repsol reported blockbuster earnings today as higher oil prices boosted returns.

Shell boosted its dividend and launched a $2 billion share buyback program on Thursday as it reported the highest second quarter profits in more than two years.

Shell Chief Financial Officer Jessica Uhl said that global fuel demand was at 90 percent to 100 percent of its pre-pandemic levels, but consumption of aviation fuel remained weak.


Spanish energy giant Repsol booked a net profit of 587 million euros ($700 million) foer the second quarter, compared to a loss of 1.9 billion euros in the same period last year.

“Demand has also increased, thanks in large part to vaccination rollout,” it said.

Repsol said revenues at its petrol stations in Spain jumped by 63 percent in the second quarter when compared to the same period last year as travel picked up following the easing of lockdowns.


Cruise Saudi, MSC Group sign new five-year agreement at Jeddah port

Cruise Saudi, MSC Group sign new five-year agreement at Jeddah port
Updated 29 July 2021

Cruise Saudi, MSC Group sign new five-year agreement at Jeddah port

Cruise Saudi, MSC Group sign new five-year agreement at Jeddah port
  • MSC Bellissima will offer cruises to Safaga for Luxor, Egypt and Aqaba for Petra, Jordan

JEDDAH: Geneva-headquartered MSC Cruises announced on Thursday it had signed a five-year agreement with Cruise Saudi for preferential berthing rights at the port of Jeddah.

The announcement was made aboard the company’s liner MSC Bellissima at a celebration to mark the opening of Jeddah’s new passenger terminal. The ship will sail 21 voyages around the Red Sea starting from July until late October.

Pierfrancesco Vago, executive chairman of MSC Cruises, said in a press statement: “This is a very special, historic day for all of us. The largest and most modern ship to operate in the Red Sea has set sail from Jeddah’s new terminal to mark a new beginning for cruising in Saudi Arabia and, more broadly, for its growing tourism industry.”

The MSC Bellissima, which came into service in 2019, will offer three-to-four-night cruises to Safaga for Luxor, Egypt and Aqaba for Petra, Jordan, before returning to the Saudi homeport in Jeddah.

The ship is equipped with a 975-seat main theater, an aquapark, a bowling alley, an F1 simulator, a kids club, a cinema and a shopping gallery with more than 200 brands.

The Public Investment Fund launched Cruise Saudi in January of this year to develop a cruise industry in the Kingdom. Mark Robinson, chief operations and commercial officer, Cruise Saudi, said in a statement on Thursday: “The creation of Cruise Saudi, tasked with launching the cruise industry in Saudi Arabia, happened just six months ago at [the Future Investment Initiative] in Riyadh."

"The remit of Cruise Saudi — to create 50,000 jobs by 2025, to facilitate the building of an additional five ports, with Jeddah as a homeport, and to welcome 1.5 million annual passenger visits by 2028 — is an ambitious one, which will play a major part in strengthening the tourism industry in Saudi Arabia,” said Robinson.


Mubadala invests $250m in US biosimulation company

Mubadala invests $250m in US biosimulation company
Updated 29 July 2021

Mubadala invests $250m in US biosimulation company

Mubadala invests $250m in US biosimulation company
  • Transaction to close on August 2
  • Mubadala is building a growing life sciences portfolio

RIYADH: Abu Dhabi sovereign investment fund Mubadala has made a $250 million investment in US biosimulation company Certara, WAM reported.

Certara uses biosimulation to and technology-enabled services to accelerate drug discovery and development. The investment aligns with Mubadala’s strategy of enabling innovation to address unmet clinical needs and drive cost efficiencies.

Mubadala and existing institutional shareholders of Certara, including a stakeholder affiliated with alternative investment company EQT, have signed an agreement through which a Mubadala affiliate will buy more than 9.61 million shares in Certara at $26 per share from the shareholders in a private transaction scheduled to close on August 2.

“We are pleased to welcome a significant new investment from Mubadala, a sovereign investor with deep expertise in life sciences that is focused on creating lasting value,” said William F. Feehery, CEO of Certara.

EQT will remain a significant shareholder in the company after the transaction.

Mubadala invested almost $500 million in European veterinary giant IVC Evidensia in nearly in May. It has an asset base of 894 billion Emirati dirhams ($243.4 billion).


Jared Kushner investment firm to open Middle East office — Reuters

Jared Kushner investment firm to open Middle East office — Reuters
Updated 29 July 2021

Jared Kushner investment firm to open Middle East office — Reuters

Jared Kushner investment firm to open Middle East office — Reuters
  • Kushner plans to open an investment office in the coming months, sources familiar with the plan said
  • Israel office will attempt to build ties with India, Gulf, North Africa
WASHINGTON: Jared Kushner, a top adviser to former President Donald Trump, plans to launch an investment firm in coming months, a move that will take him away from politics for the foreseeable future, sources familiar with the plan said on Wednesday.
Kushner, the former CEO of Kushner Companies, who served as the Republican president’s senior adviser in the White House, is in the final stages of launching an investment firm called Affinity Partners that will be headquartered in Miami.
Kushner, who is married to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, is also looking to open an office in Israel to pursue regional investments to connect Israel’s economy and India, North Africa and the Gulf, said two people briefed on the plan, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The sources had no details about potential investors and said the firm was still in the planning phase.
Kushner has spent the last six months with his family in Miami writing a book about his White House experiences that is expected to be published early next year.
Kushner helped broker deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco in a six-month flurry last year. He also helped negotiate a new US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
Kushner remains close with his father-in-law, the sources said, but by re-entering the private sector he is stepping away from politics for the foreseeable future.
The Republican Party has been divided over the deadly attacks on the US Capitol on Jan. 6 by Trump supporters, and Trump’s false claims that he beat Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
Kushner and his family have been spending the summer as Trump’s next-door neighbor at Trump’s golf property in Bedminster, New Jersey.
People close to the former president say he is strongly considering another run for the Republican nomination in 2024.