Senate Dems strike jobless aid deal, relief bill OK in sight

Senate Dems strike jobless aid deal, relief bill OK in sight
The compromise, announced by the West Virginia lawmaker and a Democratic aide late Friday, seemed to clear the way for the Senate to begin a climactic, marathon series of votes and, eventually, approval of the sweeping legislation. (File/AFP)
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Updated 06 March 2021

Senate Dems strike jobless aid deal, relief bill OK in sight

Senate Dems strike jobless aid deal, relief bill OK in sight
  • The overall bill, President Joe Biden’s foremost legislative priority, is aimed at battling the killer pandemic and nursing the staggered economy back to health

WASHINGTON: Senate leaders and moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin struck a deal over emergency jobless benefits, breaking a logjam that had stalled the party’s showpiece $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.
The compromise, announced by the West Virginia lawmaker and a Democratic aide late Friday, seemed to clear the way for the Senate to begin a climactic, marathon series of votes and, eventually, approval of the sweeping legislation.
The overall bill, President Joe Biden’s foremost legislative priority, is aimed at battling the killer pandemic and nursing the staggered economy back to health. It would provide direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans and money for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, aid to state and local governments, help for schools and the airline industry and subsidies for health insurance.
Shortly before midnight, the Senate began to take up a variety of amendments in rapid-fire fashion. The votes were mostly on Republican proposals virtually certain to fail but designed to force Democrats to cast politically awkward votes. It was unclear how long into the weekend the “vote-a-rama” would last.
More significantly, the jobless benefits agreement suggested it was just a matter of time until the Senate passes the bill. That would ship it back to the House, which was expected to give it final congressional approval and whisk it to Biden for his signature.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden supports the compromise on jobless payments.
Friday’s lengthy standoff underscored the headaches confronting party leaders over the next two years — and the tensions between progressives and centrists — as they try moving their agenda through the Congress with their slender majorities.
Manchin is probably the chamber’s most conservative Democrat, and a kingmaker in the 50-50 Senate. But the party can’t tilt too far center to win Manchin’s vote without endangering progressive support in the House, where they have a mere 10-vote edge.
Aiding unemployed Americans is a top Democratic priority. But it’s also an issue that drives a wedge between progressives seeking to help jobless constituents cope with the bleak economy and Manchin and other moderates who have wanted to trim some of the bill’s costs.
Biden noted Friday’s jobs report showing that employers added 379,000 workers — an unexpectedly strong showing. That’s still small compared to the 10 million fewer jobs since the pandemic struck a year ago.
“Without a rescue plan, these gains are going to slow,” Biden said. “We can’t afford one step forward and two steps backwards. We need to beat the virus, provide essential relief, and build an inclusive recovery.”
The overall bill faces a solid wall of GOP opposition, and Republicans used the unemployment impasse to accuse Biden of refusing to seek compromise with them.
“You could pick up the phone and end this right now,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said of Biden.
But in an encouraging sign for Biden, a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 70% of Americans support his handling of the pandemic, including a noteworthy 44% of Republicans.
The House approved a relief bill last weekend that included $400 weekly jobless benefits — on top of regular state payments — through August. Manchin was hoping to reduce those costs, asserting that level of payment would discourage people from returning to work, a rationale most Democrats and many economists reject.
As the day began, Democrats asserted they’d reached a compromise between party moderates and progressives extending emergency jobless benefits at $300 weekly into early October.
That plan, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, also included tax reductions on some unemployment benefits. Without that, many Americans abruptly tossed out of jobs would face unexpected tax bills.
But by midday, lawmakers said Manchin was ready to support a less generous Republican version. That led to hours of talks involving White House aides, top Senate Democrats and Manchin as the party tried finding a way to salvage its unemployment aid package.
The compromise announced Friday night would provide $300 weekly, with the final check paid on Sept. 6, and includes the tax break on benefits.
During the “vote-a-rama,” the Senate narrowly passed an amendment from Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that would have extended the $300 unemployment insurance benefit to July 18. But Portman’s victory was short-lived and the proposal was canceled out when the chamber subsequently passed the unemployment insurance proposal worked out by the Democrats.
Before the unemployment benefits drama began, senators voted 58-42 to kill a top progressive priority, a gradual increase in the current $7.25 hourly minimum wage to $15 over five years.
Eight Democrats voted against that proposal, suggesting that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and other progressives vowing to continue the effort in coming months will face a difficult fight.
That vote began shortly after 11 a.m. EST and was not formally gaveled to a close until nearly 12 hours later as Senate work ground to a halt amid the unemployment benefit negotiations.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell chided Democrats, calling their daylong effort to work out the unemployment amendment a “spectacle.”
“What this proves is there are benefits to bipartisanship when you’re dealing with an issue of this magnitude,” McConnell said.
Republicans criticized the overall relief bill as a liberal spend-fest that ignores that growing numbers of vaccinations and signs of a stirring economy suggest that the twin crises are easing.
“Democrats inherited a tide that was already turning.” McConnell said.
Democrats reject that, citing the job losses and numerous people still struggling to buy food and pay rent.
“If you just look at a big number you say, ‘Oh, everything’s getting a little better,’” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “It’s not for the lower half of America. It’s not.”
Friday’s gridlock over unemployment benefits gridlock wasn’t the first delay on the relief package. On Thursday Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, forced the chamber’s clerks to read aloud the entire 628-page relief bill, an exhausting task that took staffers 10 hours and 44 minutes and ended shortly after 2 a.m. EST.
Democrats made a host of other late changes to the bill, designed to nail down support. They ranged from extra money for food programs and federal subsidies for health care for workers who lose jobs to funds for rural health care and language assuring minimum amounts of money for smaller states.
In another late bargain that satisfied moderates, Biden and Senate Democrats agreed Wednesday to make some higher earners ineligible for the direct checks to individuals.


Saudi fintech startup secures $670k seed funding

Saudi fintech startup secures $670k seed funding
Updated 4 min 8 sec ago

Saudi fintech startup secures $670k seed funding

Saudi fintech startup secures $670k seed funding
  • New legislation in Saudi Arabia will make e-invoicing necessary in all transactions

JEDDAH: Saudi fintech startup Prexle has raised SR2.5 million ($670,000) in seed funding from angel investors, the company announced this week.

A cloud-based point-of-sale software startup, Prexle’s platform helps retail store owners control inventories, customer demands, purchasing orders, discounts and generate business performance reports.

In a press statement, CEO and co-founder Abdullah Al-Ajlan said: “We’re happy to close our round of investment, which is going to surely help us improve the retail industry in the Kingdom through employing the latest technologies in the point-of-sale industry.”

Yazeed Al-Saif, co-founder and chief technology officer, added: “We value our investors’ trust. This round marks an important milestone in our journey to change the way retail works, and will allow us to even further develop and improve our product.”

By the end of 2021, new legislation in Saudi Arabia will make e-invoicing necessary in all transactions, and Prexle is one of the companies that stands to benefit from this requirement.

The number of digital payment transactions in the Kingdom surged 75 percent in 2020 as Saudi consumers embraced online shopping during the coronavirus pandemic.

The total number of digital transactions last year amounted to about 2.8 billion, an increase of 75 percent compared with the same period in the previous year. The value of these transactions totaled about SR349 billion, an increase of almost 24.1 percent compared with the same period in 2019.

Network International, the UAE-based digital payment processor which this month told Arab News it is pushing ahead with a Saudi expansion later this year, reported that the amount of non-cash payments it processed in the Kingdom grew from 8 percent in 2017 to 16 percent in 2019, making Saudi Arabia one of its fastest growing markets.


Emirati Coffee set to expand into Saudi Arabia

Emirati Coffee set to expand into Saudi Arabia
Updated 8 min 59 sec ago

Emirati Coffee set to expand into Saudi Arabia

Emirati Coffee set to expand into Saudi Arabia
  • Emirati Coffee reported a 3,135 percent increase in online sales in 2020, fueled by strong market demand for its specialty coffee produce

JEDDAH: Emirati Coffee, the UAE’s first specialty coffee roastery, is expanding into the Kingdom with the opening of its first Saudi branch in July 2021. The chain, which currently has 160 locations worldwide, will open in Alkhobar under the brand name Knowhere.

The company is preparing to open an outlet in Riyadh in 2022.

Mohamed Ali Al-Madfai, CEO of Emirati Coffee, told Arab News that the Riyadh outlet would be called the Emirati Coffee Roastery.

Al-Madfai said he believed there was great potential for growth in the Saudi market and that he is aiming to capitalize on the brand’s popularity among Saudi travelers, “especially those that came to love that brand when visiting Dubai pre-pandemic,” he said. Emirati Coffee reported a 3,135 percent increase in online sales in 2020, fueled by strong market demand for its specialty coffee produce.

The busiest period was during the first two months of the pandemic, when the UAE launched a national sterilization campaign to contain the virus. “Coffee was already the number one e-commerce grocery product before 2020, but the pandemic boosted the growth due to greater consumption at home.

Coffee buyers cut back on trips to the supermarket and coffee drinkers can’t go to the cafés,” Al-Madfai said.

He added: “Consumers resorted to online purchases and with the availability of our own delivery fleet, they were able to get their hands on their cup of coffee.”


Business leaders urge Biden to set ambitious climate goal

Business leaders urge Biden to set ambitious climate goal
Updated 15 min 23 sec ago

Business leaders urge Biden to set ambitious climate goal

Business leaders urge Biden to set ambitious climate goal
  • Biden has promised to reveal the nonbinding but symbolically important 2030 goal before the Earth Day summit opens April 22

WASHINGTON: More than 300 businesses and investors, including such giants as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Coca-Cola, are calling on the Biden administration to set an ambitious climate change goal that would cut US greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The target would nearly double the nation’s previous commitment and require dramatic changes in the power, transportation and other sectors. President Joe Biden is considering options for expected carbon reductions by 2030 ahead of a virtual climate summit the US is hosting later this month.

The so-called Nationally Determined Contribution is a key milestone as Biden moves toward his ultimate goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Biden has promised to reveal the nonbinding but symbolically important 2030 goal before the Earth Day summit opens April 22.

“A bold 2030 target is needed to catalyze a zero-emissions future, spur a robust economic recovery, create millions of well-paying jobs and allow the US to ‘build back better’ from the pandemic,” the businesses and investors said in a letter to Biden. “New investment in clean energy, energy efficiency and clean transportation can build a strong, more equitable and more inclusive American economy,” they wrote.

An ambitious 2030 target would guide the federal government’s approach to sustainable and resilient infrastructure, as well as zero-emissions vehicles and buildings, and “would inspire other industrialized nations to set bold targets of their own,” the group wrote.

Besides the tech and consumer products giants, companies with major energy holdings, including Exelon, General Electric, PG&E and Edison International, also signed the letter.

The letter comes as fissures between corporate America and the Republican Party have opened over the GOP’s embrace of conspiracy theories and rejection of mainstream climate science, as well as its dismissal of the 2020 election outcome. The most recent flashpoint was in Georgia, where a new Republican-backed law restricting voting rights drew harsh criticism from Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, whose headquarters are in the state, and resulted in Major League Baseball pulling the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta.

More than 100 business leaders participated in a Zoom call last weekend to discuss how to oppose Republican-backed proposals across the country that could limit voting. Options include stopping political donations and holding off in investments in states that approve the laws.

On climate, the business leaders told Biden they “applaud your administration’s demonstrated commitment to address climate change head-on, and we stand in support of your efforts.”

Millions of Americans are already feeling the impacts of climate change, they wrote, citing the severe winter storm that caused blackouts in Texas and other states, deadly wildfires in California and record-breaking hurricanes in the Southeast and Gulf Coast.

“The human and economic losses of the past 12 months alone are profound,” they wrote. “Tragically, these devastating climate impacts also disproportionately hit marginalized and low-income communities who are least able to withstand them. We must act now to slow and turn the tide.”

While Biden has reentered the US into the Paris climate accord and made climate action a pillar of his presidency, more action is needed, the business leaders said. “An effective national climate strategy will require all of us,” they told Biden, but “you alone can set the course by swiftly establishing a bold US 2030 target.”


Egypt ‘seizes’ Suez megaship, demands nearly $1bn compensation

Egypt ‘seizes’ Suez megaship, demands nearly $1bn compensation
Updated 13 April 2021

Egypt ‘seizes’ Suez megaship, demands nearly $1bn compensation

Egypt ‘seizes’ Suez megaship, demands nearly $1bn compensation

CAIRO: The megaship which blocked Egypt’s Suez Canal and crippled world trade for nearly a week has been “seized” on court orders until the vessel’s owners pay $900 million, canal authorities said Tuesday.
The 200,000-ton MV Ever Given got diagonally stuck in the narrow but crucial global trade artery in a sandstorm on March 23, triggering a mammoth six-day-long effort by Egyptian personnel and international salvage specialists to dislodge it.
Maritime data company Lloyd’s List said the blockage by the vessel, longer than four football fields, held up an estimated $9.6 billion-worth of cargo between Asia and Europe each day it was stuck.
Egypt also lost between $12 and $15 million in revenues for each day the waterway was closed, according to the canal authority.
The MV “Ever Given was seized due to its failure to pay $900 million” compensation, Suez Canal Authority chief Osama Rabie was quoted as saying by Al-Ahram, a state-run newspaper.
Rabie did not explicitly cite the Japanese owners Shoei Kisen Kaisha, but a different source at the SCA told AFP Tuesday that negotiations over damages between that company, insurance firms and the canal authority were ongoing.
The Japanese-owned, Taiwanese-operated and Panama-flagged ship was moved to unobstructive anchorage in the canal’s Great Bitter Lake after it was freed on March 29, and tailbacks totalling 420 vessels at the northern and southern entrances to the canal were cleared in early April.
The compensation figure was calculated based on “the losses incurred by the grounded vessel as well as the flotation and maintenance costs” Rabie said, citing a ruling handed down by the Ismailia Economic Court in Egypt.
The grounding of the ship and the intensive salvage efforts are also reported to have resulted in significant damage to the canal.
In its court filing, the SCA referred to Articles 59 and 60 of Egypt’s maritime trade law which stipulates that the ship would remain seized until the amount is paid in full, Al-Ahram reported.
But analysts have warned that apportioning legal responsibility for losses incurred by the numerous parties is likely to play out in protracted and complex international litigation.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has ruled out any widening of the southern stretch of the canal where the boat became diagonally stuck.
El-Sisi oversaw an expansion of a northern section, which included widening an existing stretch and introducing a 35-kilometer (21-mile) parallel waterway, to much fanfare in 2014-15.
But that was achieved at a cost of over $8 billion, without significantly increasing revenues from the canal.
The Suez Canal earned Egypt just over $5.7 billion in the 2019/20 fiscal year, according to official figures — little changed from the $5.3 billion earned back in 2014.
Egyptian authorities have presented the dislodging of the ship as a vindication of the country’s engineering and salvage capabilities, but observers point also to the crucial role played by international salvage experts.


SABIC unit aims to ramp up investment support for industrial SMEs

SABIC unit aims to ramp up investment support for industrial SMEs
Faisal Al-Buhair
Updated 13 April 2021

SABIC unit aims to ramp up investment support for industrial SMEs

SABIC unit aims to ramp up investment support for industrial SMEs
  • Nusaned program has potential to create more than 2,000 jobs

JEDDAH: Nusaned Investment, the localization initiative from Saudi Basic Industries Corp (SABIC), was set up in 2018 as part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify the non-oil economy by encouraging the growth of local companies and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the industrial sector.

“We connect potential investors to the program,” Faisal Al-Buhair, vice president local content and business development and CEO of Nusaned, told Arab News. “Once they register with the Entema platform, which is the opportunity gate at Nusaned, we take them through the investor’s journey.”

Last year 106 Saudi entrepreneurs qualified for Nusaned’s program. The screening of proposed investments is an important step in ensuring that the program focuses on the right candidates and those with the ability to scale up and have national impact.

“An important criteria in our screening process is that the investment needs to support the National Industry Strategy sectors and thereby add value to Saudi Vision 2030,” Al-Buhair said. “In any case, an investor who shows a high level of commitment, knowledge, and readiness will have a higher chance of success.”

He was optimistic about the year ahead after the challenges the Kingdom had faced because of the pandemic in 2020.

Nusaned is aiming to increase its investments in companies that are considered to be strategic and critical industries for the Kingdom, such as automotive, aviation, food processing and pharmaceutical/medical manufacturing.

“We are keen on investments that offer differentiated solutions, specialized applications, and advanced technology to help the Kingdom enhance its competitiveness in local and export markets,” Al-Buhair said.

So far the program has more than 33 investments in the execution phase, of which 14 are already in operation. These investments have an expected annualized gross domestic impact of over $500 million and the potential to create more than 2,000 jobs.

This week Nusaned signed an investment agreement with the Saudi Pallet Manufacturing Company (SPMC) to promote the local production of plastic pallets. The funding will help SPMC to accelerate its product development, ramp up production, and expand its product reach regionally and globally.

“The partnership with SABIC will enable SPMC to serve the fast-moving consumer goods market by producing technologically advanced and patented multi-use plastic pallets from its manufacturing facility in Dammam,” Omar Al-Shawaf, SPMC CEO, said in a press statement.