Oil tanker’s impossible voyage signals new sanction evasion ploy

Oil tanker’s impossible voyage signals new sanction evasion ploy
Vehicles line up near a gas station to fill their tanks in Caracas. Maritime safety mechanisms have become a powerful mechanism for tracking ships engaged in rogue activities like transporting sanctioned crude oil to places like Venezuela. (AP)
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Updated 28 May 2021

Oil tanker’s impossible voyage signals new sanction evasion ploy

Oil tanker’s impossible voyage signals new sanction evasion ploy
  • In recent years, as the US has expanded economic sanctions and tracking technology has become more widely used, companies have adopted a number of techniques to evade detection

MIAMI: The Cyprus-flagged oil tanker Berlina was drifting near the Caribbean island of Dominica earlier this year when tracking technology showed it stopping in its tracks and in two minutes turning around 180 degrees.
It was an amazingly quick pivot since the 274-meter (nearly 900-foot) ship needs roughly 10 times that amount of time to perform such a maneuver.
Even more intriguing: Around the same time the Berlina was pinging its location at sea, it was physically spotted loading crude oil in nearby Venezuela despite US sanctions against such trading.
Meanwhile, nine other ships, some connected to the same Greece-based owner of the Berlina, were digitally monitored moving nearby at an identical speed and direction with sudden draft changes, indicating they had somehow been loaded full of crude though apparently out at sea.
The Berlina’s impossible journey could represent the next frontier of how rogue states and their enablers manipulate GPS-like tracking systems to hide their movements while circumventing sanctions, maritime experts say.
In recent years, as the US has expanded economic sanctions and tracking technology has become more widely used, companies have adopted a number of techniques to evade detection. Most involve a ship going dark, by turning off its mandatory automated identification system or by “spoofing” the identity and registration information of another ship, sometimes a sunken or scrapped vessel.
Windward, a maritime intelligence agency whose data is used by the US to investigate sanctions violations, carried out a detailed investigation into the Berlina. It considers the movements of the Berlina and the other ships to be one of the first instances of orchestrated manipulation in which vessels went dark for an extended period while off-ship agents used machines to hide their activities by making it appear they were transmitting their locations normally.
Militaries around the world have been using the same electronic warfare technology for decades. But it is only now cropping up in commercial shipping, with serious national security, environmental and maritime safety implications.
“We believe this is going to spread really fast because it’s so efficient and easy,” Matan Peled, co-founder of Windward, said in an interview. “And it’s not just a maritime challenge. Imagine what would happen if small planes started adopting this tactic to hide their true locations?”
Under a United Nations maritime treaty, ships of over 300 tons have been required since 2004 to use the automated identification system to avoid collisions and assist rescues in the event of a spill or accident at sea. Tampering with its use is a major breach that can lead to consequences for a vessel and its owners.
But the maritime safety mechanism has also become a powerful mechanism for tracking ships engaged in rogue activities like illegal fishing or transporting sanctioned crude oil to and from places under US or international sanctions like Venezuela, Iran and North Korea.
In the cat-and-mouse game that has ensued, the advent of digital ghosts leaving false tracks could give the bad actors the upper hand, said Russ Dallen, the Miami-based head of Caracas Capital Markets brokerage, who tracks maritime activity near Venezuela.
“It’s pretty clear the bad guys will learn from these mistakes and next time will leave a digital trail that more closely resembles the real thing,” Dallen said. “The only way to verify its true movement will be to get a physical view of the ship, which is time consuming and expensive.”
The Berlina never reported a port call while floating in the Caribbean. Nonetheless, on March 5, the draft indicated by its identification system went from 9 meters to 17 meters (30 feet to 60 feet), suggesting it had been loaded with oil.
Was it manipulation or a malfunction?
While the Berlina’s voyage remains something of a mystery, Vortexa, a London-based energy cargo tracker, determined the tanker had loaded at the Venezuelan port of Jose on March 2 and then headed toward Asia. Separately, Windward also confirmed the crude delivery through two sources.
Two months later, on May 5, the Berlina discharged its crude in a ship-to-ship transfer to a floating storage vessel, the CS Innovation, according to Vortexa. The CS Innovation remains off the coast of Malaysia where the transfer took place and has undertaken a number of ship-to-ship transfers in the interim, making it nearly impossible to know where Venezuela’s oil will end up.
Adding to suspicions, the Berlina and at least four of the nine other vessels involved in the Caribbean voyage earlier this year are connected to the same Greek company, according to Windward. And all 10 vessels switched flags — another common ploy used to make it harder to keep track of ships — to Cyprus in the four months prior to the manipulation of the fleet’s tracking information.
The AP was unable to locate any contact information for the Berlina’s ship manager or owner, both of which are based in the port city of Pireaus, near Athens.
Peled said the Berlina’s activities may never have been detected if not for a tip it received from an external source that it wouldn’t identify.
But the know-how gained from the investigation has allowed it to identify other recent examples of location tampering, including one in January when a ship it did not identify was spotted loading Iranian crude at Kharg island while broadcasting its location out at sea somewhere else in the Arabian Gulf.
While the US government has additional resources to ferret out such deceptive practices, doing so will require extra effort.
“It suggests the length to which rogue actors are willing to go, to hide their activities,” said Marshall Billingslea, an assistant Treasury secretary for terrorist financing during the Trump administration and former deputy undersecretary of the Navy. “It’s a worrisome trend and given the huge volume of maritime traffic will introduce a lot more noise into the system.”


Equities eye third week of gains after tech boost, dollar dips

Equities eye third week of gains after tech boost, dollar dips
Image: Shutterstock
Updated 5 sec ago

Equities eye third week of gains after tech boost, dollar dips

Equities eye third week of gains after tech boost, dollar dips

Global shares were on course for their third straight week of gains on Friday, buoyed by tech stocks in Asia overnight, while the dollar dipped and oil prices held steady.


MSCI's broadest gauge of global shares was up 0.1 percent in early European trade, 1.4 percent higher on the week and just 0.8 percent off its all-time high. Europe's top markets were all up, with the biggest, Britain's FTSE 100, up 0.4 percent

.
That followed gains in Asia, where equity bulls were also comforted by news that heavily indebted Chinese property firm China Evergrande Group had made a surprise interest payment, averting a default for now.


Japan's Nikkei advanced 0.3 percent, led by the technology sector, while energy and basic materials shares were the biggest drags as coal futures extended their losses after Beijing signalled it would intervene to cool surging prices that contributed to the country's electricity shortage.


More broadly, investors have become increasingly concerned that persistent inflation could force central bankers to tighten monetary policy at a point where global economic growth remains fragile.


Mark Haefele, Chief Investment Officer, UBS Global Wealth Management, said in a note to clients that equities could still move higher, despite growing concerns around the impact of inflation and the potential for central banks to tighten policy.


"With current issues still appearing more temporary than structural, we believe equity markets will continue to move higher," Haefele said.


"Indeed, small increases in inflation expectations can be positive for markets if it helps to banish fears of deflation. Furthermore, by our assessment, global growth remains strong, supply chain challenges should recede into 2022, and corporate earnings should continue to grow."


U.S. stock futures point to a 0.1 percent lower open, after the cash index posted a record closing high overnight, led by surging tech shares.


Next week, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google-owner Alphabet all report, with bulls hoping they can follow forecast-beating earnings this week from Netflix.


Meanwhile, yields on benchmark 10-year Treasury notes were at 1.6828 percent, easing back from a five-month high of 1.7050 percent reached overnight.


The dollar index, which gauges the greenback against six major rivals, was down 0.1 percent to 93.639 on Friday, despite initially bouncing off recent lows after U.S. jobless claims fell to a 19-month low, pointing to a tighter labor market.


The Fed has signalled it could start to taper stimulus as soon as next month, with rate hikes to follow late next year. Full employment is among the Fed's stated requirements for rates lift-off.


Fed Chair Jerome Powell speaks later on Friday in a panel discussion.


Across commodities, oil was flat with Brent crude set for its first losing week in seven and West Texas Intermediate its first in nine.


Gold was up 0.5 percent on the back of the weaker dollar, on course for its second week of gains.


Ex-Google Executive Raising $1 Billion Middle East Tech Fund

Ex-Google Executive Raising $1 Billion Middle East Tech Fund
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Updated 6 min 25 sec ago

Ex-Google Executive Raising $1 Billion Middle East Tech Fund

Ex-Google Executive Raising $1 Billion Middle East Tech Fund
  • Interest in the technology industry in the Middle East has increased the past few years as governments seek to diversify their energy-dependent economies

STV, a venture capital firm started by ex-Google executive Abdulrahman Tarabzouni, is looking to raise at least $1 billion for its second Middle East technology investment fund, making it potentially the biggest fund of its kind in the region, according to people familiar with the matter as reported on Bloomberg.

The company, formed in 2017 with $500 million for its first fund provided entirely by Saudi Telecom Co., has started talks with other potential backers, including Middle East sovereign wealth funds and international pension funds and endowments, the people said, asking not to be identified as the information is private.

A computer science graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tarabzouni worked at Morgan Stanley and Oracle Corp. before becoming head of emerging Arabia at Google in 2009. He subsequently held a number of roles at the search giant before leaving Silicon Valley to lead the launch of STV.

Interest in the technology industry in the Middle East has increased the past few years as governments seek to diversify their energy-dependent economies. Investor interest has been piqued by deals like the sale of Dubai-based ride hailing firm Careem to Uber for $3.1 billion in 2019. The pandemic has also accelerated a shift online for many businesses in a region that has a large tech-savvy young population but has been slower to embrace e-commerce.

Since its launch STV has backed many of the tech firms that have quickly risen to prominence. It was an early investor in Careem and also invested in communications platform Unifonic, which received a $125 million infusion led by SoftBank Group’s Vision Fund 2 in September.

STV declined to comment.


China coal prices dive as govt plans intervention to ease power crunch

China coal prices dive as govt plans intervention to ease power crunch
Updated 3 min 7 sec ago

China coal prices dive as govt plans intervention to ease power crunch

China coal prices dive as govt plans intervention to ease power crunch
  • China thermal coal prices plunge 12.8 percent

BEIJING: China’s thermal coal futures sank about 13 percent on Friday, extending their losses since Tuesday when Beijing said it would intervene to cool surging prices https://www.reuters.com/world/china/china-liberalize-thermal-power-pricing-tackle-energy-crisis-2021-10-12 of the commodity to help electricity producers out of a widespread power crunch.
The most-active thermal coal futures on Zhengzhou Commodity Exchange, for delivery in January, tumbled to 1,384 yuan per ton by 1130 Beijing time (0329 GMT) — down more than 30 percent since Tuesday’s all-time peak of 1,982 yuan per ton.
Coking coal was down 9.91 percent and coke futures fell 7.42 percent on the Dalian Commodity Exchange in morning trade, having fallen by the maximum 12 percent in day-time trade on Thursday.
A widening power crisis in China caused by shortages of coal led to record high fuel prices amid booming post-pandemic industrial demand as the country shifts to greener fuels.
China has halted production at factories which has dragged on factory gate inflation.
China is pushing miners to ramp up coal production and increasing imports so that power stations can rebuild stockpiles before the winter heating season, but analysts say shortages are likely to persist for at least another few months.
“We’re now seeing the fruits of China’s supply response, as the government has given miners carte blanche to produce at full tilt — even permitting the relaxation of safety inspections in some cases,” said Atilla Widnell, managing director at Navigate Commodities in Singapore.
“The parabolic pricing action largely represented the fear of buyers being unable to source sufficient volumes to feed power plants and coke ovens,” Widnell said.
“Therefore, we can expect prices to fall almost as fast as they’ve risen now that a wave of supply is inbound,” he added.

MEASURES TO TAME RUNAWAY PRICES
China’s state planner, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), said this week that it was studying ways to lower coal prices and would take all necessary steps to bring them into a reasonable range.
The NDRC said on Friday it would send teams of inspectors to major coal producing regions to probe the costs of coal production and circulation.
It added that it had met with the China Coal Industry Association and key firms, and was looking at steps to prevent coal companies from seeking excessive profits.
China’s securities regulator has said it would ask futures exchanges to raise fees, restrict trading quotas and crack down on speculation in response to high coal prices.
The NDRC “has concluded that the unbridled soaring of coal prices is partly driven by those hoping to hit the jackpot by taking advantage of the power supply falling short of actual need,” Chinese state media outlet China Daily wrote on Thursday.
There should be “zero tolerance to the hoarding of coal,” the newspaper added. “It is of the utmost importance to rein in coal prices as they will pose a threat to people’s daily lives when winter sets in.”
Due to cold winds and rain, temperatures in most parts of central and eastern China are currently lower than normal, the National Meteorological Center said.


The Saudi Green Initiative: a technology-driven revolution

The Saudi Green Initiative: a technology-driven revolution
Updated 17 min 13 sec ago

The Saudi Green Initiative: a technology-driven revolution

The Saudi Green Initiative: a technology-driven revolution
  • Saudi Green Initiative (SGI) Forum to be held in Riyadh on 23-24 October
  • Saudi Arabia plans to plant 10 billion trees

RIYADH: The forthcoming Saudi Green Initiative (SGI) Forum, to be held in Riyadh on 23-24 October, is set to be a milestone in the historic effort to transform the oil-based economy of Saudi Arabia into a cleaner and more sustainable one.
In addition to planting 10 billion trees (covering 30 percent of total land area), the SGI aims to create vast protected zones, conserve marine life around the coasts and encourage alternative forms of agriculture. One key aspect of this sea change will be the contribution of technology to the greening of Saudi Arabia.
A leader in the realm of agritech is Dr. Nahid Sidki, chief technology officer with Research Products Development Company (RPDC), a PIF-owned not-for-profit resource for the commercialization of Saudi-based research and breakthrough technology.
With a 30-year background in Silicon Valley, where he was executive director at the Stanford Research Institute, Dr. Sidki is an authority on robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).
“The SGI is a great initiative that can produce a clean future, reduce carbon emissions and impact climate change,” Dr. Sidki told Arab News. “AI and robotics can play a major role in this, not only here in Saudi Arabia but across the Gulf region.”
But how exactly does hi-tech have anything to do with planting trees and growing crops? The answer lies partly in the sheer volume of what the SGI envisions.
“To plant 10 billion trees in a country like Saudi Arabia, one has to ask how they will be monitored and how their health will be sustained for decades to come. We cannot rely on just hoping for the best. We need to look to the ultimate goal and then work backwards in terms of the development and implementation of technology. It’s like a closed-loop ecosystem: planting, monitoring, irrigating and harvesting the trees.”
A primary consideration of the SGI is the use (and misuse) of water, a precious resource in the desert kingdom. Conventional irrigation methods often lead to significant wastage.
Smart dust
“AI can play a crucial role here via smart, efficient irrigation systems that utilize sensors and data analytics to monitor climate conditions and soil moisture,” Dr. Sidki said. “If every tree and every plant had sensors to monitor the condition of the soil surrounding the roots, this could determine exactly when it requires water and exactly what amount.”
Such AI-based solutions are already being put into practice, for example in the form of “smart dust,” nanoparticles that communicate with each other, enabling complex data collection and efficient decision-making in all aspects of agriculture.
“Land health monitoring is also very important,” said Dr. Sidki. “Throughout the life cycle of crops, drones can enable precision spraying and maximize seed pollination, and the same kind of sensor technology can be used for livestock monitoring, crop spraying and smart harvesting.”
These technologies, combined with local and global advances in genetic engineering, could soon turn the parched landscape of Saudi Arabia into an agricultural powerhouse with many verdant oases. Having said that, the greening of Saudi Arabia will require not just the conservation but also the production of potable water.
Some 60 percent of the Kingdom’s fresh water is currently supplied by energy-intensive seawater desalination plants reliant on polluting fossil fuels, an unsustainable solution in view of the SGI. But new desalination and water filtration techniques are emerging quickly, positioning the KSA as a hub for proprietary green technology.
In one RPDC-assisted project called the Red Sea Farm, a group of KAUST researchers have successfully grown tomatoes using a mix of 75 percent seawater and 25 percent freshwater, a scalable method that was recognized and lauded by the United Nations General Assembly in September.
“The idea is to develop smart technology to reduce the cost of desalination,” said Dr. Sidki. “Imagine if we could utilize solar energy for desalination. We would have unlimited fresh water from the ocean, which we are surrounded by in the KSA.”
The SGI represents one aspect of Saudi Arabia’s broader 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR), the fusion of AI, robotics, Internet of Things (IoT), genetic engineering and quantum computing, blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological worlds. This is a highly collaborative movement involving numerous government bodies, PIF-owned companies (both commercial and not-for-profit), academic institutions, corporations, startups and SMEs.
“Robotics and AI will be playing a major role in every sector of society,” said Dr. Sidki. “And here in Saudi Arabia we have huge public and private funds to build capabilities.”
Innovation largely comes down to talent and education, and Dr. Sidki is again optimistic in this regard. “Saudi Arabia has a population of about 35 million, 70 percent of which is 25 or younger. And the percentage of those with a higher degree is very high compared to most other countries. In terms of PhD-holders the KSA probably ranks the highest in the region.”
Saudi Arabia is on the cusp of a major transformation that will involve a great deal of hard work and a lot of imagination.
“There’s an endless list of ways that new forms of technology can improve the quality of our daily life,” Dr. Sidki said. “People need to be very passionate about what they’re doing, and to be aware of the contributions they can make to their society, in order to have a huge impact. I think the combination of education and passion, and that impact, are the ingredients for a society to successfully achieve whatever it wants to do.”


Electrified cars hit almost a fifth of EU Q3 vehicle sales

Electrified cars hit almost a fifth of EU Q3 vehicle sales
Updated 22 October 2021

Electrified cars hit almost a fifth of EU Q3 vehicle sales

Electrified cars hit almost a fifth of EU Q3 vehicle sales
LONDON: Nearly one in five vehicles sold in the European Union in the third quarter was an electrified model as sales continued to soar while fossil-fuel cars slumped, according to sales data released on Friday by a trade organization.
The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, or ACEA, which represents major European car, truck, van and bus makers, said that battery electric and plug-in hybrid model sales across the European Union made up just under 19 percent of all sales.
Battery electric vehicle sales jumped nearly 57 percent to more than 212,000 units, while plug-in hybrid models rose nearly 43 percent to more than 197,000 units.
This is a slower pace of growth than in 2020 when sales almost trebled from a low base.
But it compares with a 35 percent drop in sales for petrol cars — which still are the biggest sellers and account for nearly 40 percent of overall sales — and a more than 50 percent drop for diesel cars during the quarter.
Less than a decade ago, diesel cars made up more than 50 percent of sale in the EU, but accounted for under 18 percent of all cars sold in the third quarter.
As well as having to meet stringent new EU carbon emissions targets, car makers and consumers have benefited from government subsidies for electric vehicles.
The European Commission has also proposed an effective ban on fossil-fuel vehicles from 2035, aiming to speed up the switch to zero-emission electric vehicles as part of a broad package of measures to combat global warming.