Lebanese banks swallow at least $250m in UN aid

Lebanese banks swallow at least $250m in UN aid
Palestinian children at Shatila refugee camp in Beirut.Over $250 million in U.N. humanitarian aid intended for refugees and poor communities has been lost to banks selling local currency at highly unfavourable rates. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 17 June 2021

Lebanese banks swallow at least $250m in UN aid

Lebanese banks swallow at least $250m in UN aid
  • Officials from donor countries confirmed that banks swallowed between a third and half of all direct U.N. cash aid in Lebanon
  • An internal assessment in February estimated that up to half the UN assistance programme's value was absorbed by Lebanese banks

BEIRUT: At least $250 million in UN humanitarian aid intended for refugees and poor communities in Lebanon has been lost to banks selling the local currency at highly unfavorable rates, a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation has found.
The losses — described in an internal United Nations document as “staggering” and confirmed by multiple sources — come as Lebanon grapples with its worst ever economic crisis, with more than half the population living under the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
They stem from a plunge in the value of the Lebanese pound since the economy began to collapse in late 2019, sending prices soaring and forcing many Lebanese into poverty.
The unfavorable exchange rates offered by Lebanese banks have hit Syrian and Palestinian refugees and poor Lebanese particularly hard as they are able to buy far less with the cash handouts they receive from the UN
Pre-crisis, refugees and poor Lebanese received a monthly payout of $27, equal to about 40,500 Lebanese pounds, from the World Food Programme (WFP).
That has now risen to about 100,000 Lebanese pounds per person, but its real value is a fraction of what it was before — about $7 at the current rate.
“The buying power used to be very good, we could get an acceptable food basket,” said Abu Ahmad Saybaa, a Syrian refugee who runs a Facebook page that highlights the challenges faced by refugees in Lebanon.
“But now (the handouts) can’t get us more than a gallon of cooking oil. There’s a huge difference in purchasing power,” said the father of five, who has lived in a refugee camp in Lebanon’s rugged northeast since 2014.
“It’s weighing on all of our health — mental and physical.”
An aid official and two diplomats from donor countries confirmed that between a third and half of all direct UN cash aid in Lebanon had been swallowed up by banks since the outset of the crisis in 2019. All spoke on condition of anonymity.
During 2020 and the first four months of 2021, banks exchanged dollars for UN agencies at rates on average 40 percent lower than the market rate, the aid official said.
Lebanon maintains an official exchange rate of about 1,500 pounds to the dollar, but since the crisis has only been able to apply that rate to a handful of essential goods.
All other imports have to be bought at much higher exchange rates, resulting in soaring prices.
Most of the losses came from a 2020 UN assistance program worth about $400 million that provides around 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon with monthly funds for food, education, transport, and winter weather-proofing of shelters.
Lebanon is home to over 1 million Syrian refugees, nine in 10 of whom live in extreme poverty, according to UN data.
The country received at least $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid in 2020.
An internal UN assessment in February estimated that up to half the program’s value was absorbed by Lebanese banks used by the UN to convert donated US dollars.
The document, seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said that by July 2020 a “staggering 50 percent” of contributions were being lost through currency conversion.
The Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL), which represents the country’s commercial banks, denied using aid to raise capital.
It said the UN could have distributed in dollars, or negotiated a better rate with Lebanon’s central bank.
A central bank spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the rates provided to humanitarian organizations
The $400 million UN program, known as LOUISE, receives funding from the United States, the European Commission, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands and France among others, according to its website.
It comprises the WFP, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The Thomson Reuters Foundation compared the rates at which the banks converted US dollars in 2020 and 2021 with the concurrent market exchange rates to calculate the amount of aid lost.
The losses amounted to about $200 million in 2019 and 2020 and at least $40 million so far in 2021.
The figures are in line with the UN internal assessment and were independently verified by an aid official.
A UNICEF spokesperson said the agency was “very concerned that recipients receive the full value of cash transfers” and had recently renegotiated to obtain a rate close to the market rate.
It is also testing disbursement in dollars for some programs, the spokesperson said.
Banque Libano-Francaise (BLF), which was contracted by LOUISE agencies to give out aid, declined to comment on the unfavorable conversion rates, saying it was bound by a confidentiality agreement with them.
It also said the agencies could have distributed the money directly in dollars.
WFP funding of monthly cash assistance to 105,000 vulnerable Lebanese people, worth some $23 million last year, used the same unfavorable exchange rates, a WFP spokesperson said, meaning up to half of funds were lost to banks.
The WFP and UNHCR referred the Thomson Reuters Foundation to the UN humanitarian coordinator’s office, which declined to comment on the reasons for the massive losses.
A spokesperson for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said between a third and half of the aid it distributed since October 2020 – up to $7 million — was lost through currency conversion. The agency has repeatedly warned of funding shortfalls.
The documented losses from the LOUISE, WFP and UNRWA programs amount to at least $250 million since October 2019.
Following pressure by the UN agencies, the discrepancies between the average market exchange rate and the rate offered by the banks have shrunk, but not disappeared.
Confronted with a financial system keen on sucking in as many dollars as possible, donors and UN agencies have struggled to develop a cohesive approach that maintains the full value of aid.
In May, a top World Bank official said Lebanon had agreed to disburse the aid from a $246 million World Bank loan to poor Lebanese directly in dollars, but the payouts have been delayed.
Dollarization of aid, which was recommended in the February internal assessment and lobbied for by donor countries and independent analysts, would keep the full value of the donations for beneficiaries regardless of fluctuations in currency rates.
But Lebanese authorities have resisted efforts to dollarize aid inflows as they seek to maintain control over one of the few remaining sources of hard currency.
Meanwhile, donor nations have grown increasingly impatient and fearful of reputational damage tied to the millions in taxpayer money absorbed by banks.
“We’ve been more than ready to invest in helping people, but we need a credible counterpart that’s not going to pocket money that we are ultimately accountable for at home,” said one Western diplomat on condition of anonymity.
Jad Chaaban, a professor of economics at the American University of Beirut, said international organizations operating in Lebanon often walked a tight line between making compromises in a difficult political environment and holding to standards of accountability.
“In this case, it’s unacceptable and there must be much higher standards. We effectively see the same dynamics as contractors or crony businessmen siphoning off money that they received to build a school or infrastructure project,” Chaaban said.
“Right now, every cent counts for Lebanon.”


Saudi Arabia’s economy likely to grow in 2021 and 2022, says report

Saudi Arabia’s economy likely to grow in 2021 and 2022, says report
Updated 01 August 2021

Saudi Arabia’s economy likely to grow in 2021 and 2022, says report

Saudi Arabia’s economy likely to grow in 2021 and 2022, says report
  • Capital Economics' forecast a further evidence that the Saudi economic recovery has taken off in 2021

RIYADHH Saudi Arabia’s economy is poised to grow from 2.2 percent to 4.8 percent in 2021 and from 4.1 percent to 6.3 percent in 2022, said a Capital Economics report.

The new forecasts are further evidence that the Saudi economic recovery has taken off in 2021.

At the start of the year, the Kingdom’s Ministry of Finance said that it expected 3.2 percent growth this year — reversing the pandemic-driven downturn of 2020. The International Monetary Fund forecast just 2.1 percent growth two months ago.

The Saudi economy is expected to maintain growth in the second half of the year. The expansion is also backed by higher oil output amid an OPEC+ agreement.

The Kingdom’s finance, insurance, real estate, and business sectors are likely to expand by 9 percent annually and their relative share to overall economic activity will grow by 12.7 percent.

Meanwhile, the services sector is also likely to grow about 10 percent annually on average, implying that its relative gross domestic product (GDP) share will climb to almost 40 percent in 2030.

 


Saudi shoppers helping high-end sector rebound to new peaks

Saudi shoppers helping high-end sector rebound to new peaks
Updated 01 August 2021

Saudi shoppers helping high-end sector rebound to new peaks

Saudi shoppers helping high-end sector rebound to new peaks
  • GCC retail giant aiming to double revenues in the Kingdom, become dominant player by 2022

DUBAI: The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) luxury retail sector has recovered to pre-pandemic levels, with high-end brands performing particularly well, as shoppers splash the cash they saved by not spending on entertainment or travel during the last year, according to one of the region’s biggest retailers.

Consultancy firm Bains & Company in April reported that the GCC luxury goods market declined 16.6 percent year on year to $7.4 billion in 2020, with Saudi Arabia down 8 percent and the tourist-dependent UAE declining 25 percent.

However, Michael Chalhoub, president of strategy, growth, innovation and investment and vice-president joint ventures at the Chalhoub Group, which has 559 stores across the GCC and manages brands such as Diro, Swarovski, Fendi and Louis Vuitton, told Arab News that the market has bounced back.

“I think the luxury market, and fashion in particular, has recovered in 2021, at levels even higher than in 2019,” he said.

“Local consumers are traveling less. And so, consumption has been repatriated. And we estimate that, in normal time, between one-third to 50 percent of the luxury consumption of GCC nationals happens abroad in London, Paris and Geneva. But now, because of the pandemic, they’ve had to stay, in particular in Saudi Arabia, where the borders were blocked for most of the first half of the year,” he added.

With gyms, restaurants, entertainment venues and travel off limits for a long period, Chalhoub said that shoppers now had more disposable income and were feeling free to spend their savings.

“I would say that average income has gone higher because of a lack of entertainment expenses. What people aren’t spending in restaurants and travel, they are probably spending it on taking care of themselves,” he said.

Michael Chalhoub

However, Chalhoub said that the rebound differed across retail segments. Very high-end luxury brands are performing much better than premium or affordable brands. Jewelry, fragrances and beauty brands are seeing strong growth, but he observed that makeup was still down, mainly due to consumers wearing masks and not leaving the house as often.

“With fashion, I think that we’re up by 5 to 7 percent in the region versus 2019, mainly with luxury fashion and even more so with high-end luxury,” he said, looking at the industry as a whole.

Many retailers have seen triple-digit growth in their online sales during 2020, and the Chalhoub Group accelerated its digitalization strategy in line with the wider industry. “If we were to compare 2021 numbers to 2019, we’re probably talking about 100 percent growth for the industry. And this is incredible. I think the numbers I had were plus 96 percent in the GCC as a whole and even 138 percent just in the UAE,” he said.

However, while online sales might be popular for grocery or food outlets, high-end fashion consumers still like to feel, touch and try on clothing before buying.

For this reason, Chalhoub said that the company expects a higher percentage of returns when it comes to online high-end fashion. “We’re inviting our customer to say try it on and then send it back if you need to,” he said.

With Saudi Arabia less dependent on international tourists for retail sales, the Kingdom largely avoided the slump in sales last year. Chalhoub Group has operated in the Kingdom since 1975, where it has six offices, 215 stores and about 3,600 employees.

It now controls 38 percent of the Saudi market, 48 percent of fashion and 55 percent of beauty, but it is aiming to become the largest player in the sector by the end of next year.

“We’ve made Saudi Arabia a main focus for ourselves; we want to make sure that we cater for the new Saudi customers as much as possible. We have a population there that is young and really enthusiastic about some of the transformation that is happening there,” Chalhoub said.

“We’re investing a lot into Saudi Arabia. The objective that we had set ourselves about six months ago was to double our revenues there in eighteen months. And that means investing more and catering to those customers spending more locally rather than internationally,” he added.

One of the ways the group is aiming to capture more of the Saudi market is by tapping into the Kingdom’s local fashion talent. In early July, the company launched Fashion Lab, a first-of-its-kind initiative in the Kingdom, offering local entrepreneurs the chance to win $15,000 in funding to help establish their fashion brands.

Successful participants will get to take part in a two-week “boot camp,” which will help them navigate through the different elements of developing their brand, including marketing, supply chain management, content creation and media exposure.

Looking forward, the Bain & Company report said: “With about 40 percent of the population aged under 25, Saudi Arabia will likely remain the biggest engine of growth for the regional luxury industry in coming years.”


Saudi Arabia sets new rules for fruit, vegetable imports

Saudi Arabia sets new rules for fruit, vegetable imports
Updated 01 August 2021

Saudi Arabia sets new rules for fruit, vegetable imports

Saudi Arabia sets new rules for fruit, vegetable imports
  • The ministry has launched a new system for vegetables and fruit imports to support local production

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Environment, Water, and Agriculture on Saturday called on fruit and vegetable suppliers to complete all formalities to obtain import licenses before the Aug. 9 deadline.

After Aug. 9, no unlicensed supplier will be allowed to import fruit and vegetables. Those interested can visit the following link to apply for a license: https://eservices.mewa.gov.sa/request/111111.

An import license will be valid for three to 10 years depending on the license category, the ministry said.

Saudi authorities have also issued health guidelines for imports like all shipments should be free of pesticide residues or within the limit allowed by the Kingdom’s laws. 

The ministry has launched a new system for vegetables and fruit imports to support local production, enforce quality control and ensure food security in the Kingdom.


Millions of Americans at risk of losing homes as virus cases spike

Millions of Americans at risk of losing homes as virus cases spike
Updated 31 July 2021

Millions of Americans at risk of losing homes as virus cases spike

Millions of Americans at risk of losing homes as virus cases spike
  • The wave of evictions would come as the fast-spreading delta variant has taken hold in the country and rental housing is in high demand in the hot real estate market

WASHINGTON: Millions of Americans could find themselves homeless starting Sunday when a nationwide ban on evictions expires, even as billions in government funds meant to help them go untapped.

The wave of evictions would come as the fast-spreading delta variant has taken hold in the country and rental housing is in high demand in the hot real estate market.

US President Joe Biden on Thursday urged Congress to extend the 11-month-old eviction moratorium, after a recent Supreme Court ruling meant the White House could not extend the measure through September as intended.

Democratic leaders in Congress were pushing for an extension, but it was unclear if they had the votes, even among moderates in their own party, to prevent the ban from expiring.

Efforts stalled on Friday in the House after a move to pass the extension was unsuccessful, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying in a statement, that “not a single Republican would support this measure.”

The day before, she had called the extension “a moral imperative.”

She also called on governors and local officials “to take whatever steps are necessary to distribute the rental assistance that Congress already allocated.”

Unlike other pandemic-related aid that was distributed from Washington, such as stimulus checks, it was states, counties and cities that were responsible for building programs from the ground up to dole out assistance earmarked for renters.

The Treasury Department said that as of June, only $3 billion in aid had reached households out of the $25 billion sent to states and localities in early February, less than three weeks after Biden took office.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ordered the eviction moratorium in September 2020, as the world’s largest economy lost over 20 million jobs amid the pandemic shutdowns. The CDC feared increasing homelessness would boost coronavirus infections.

Although more than half of those lost jobs were recovered as businesses were able to reopen, many families still have not caught up on missed rent payments.

The Census Bureau’s latest Household Pulse survey through the first week of July showed that of 51 million renters surveyed, 7.4 million were behind on their rent and nearly half of those said they were at risk of being evicted in the next two months.


Gulf stocks buoyed by oil prices as emerging markets hammered on China

Gulf stocks buoyed by oil prices as emerging markets hammered on China
Updated 31 July 2021

Gulf stocks buoyed by oil prices as emerging markets hammered on China

Gulf stocks buoyed by oil prices as emerging markets hammered on China
  • Tadawul All Share Index rose 7.5 percent in July
  • MSCI Emerging Market Index dropped 7 percent in the month

RIYADH: Gulf stocks were a relative oasis for emerging market investors this week as the broader complex posted its worst month since March 2020 amid concern over the breadth of a Chinese regulatory crackdown.

The Tadawul All Share Index climbed 0.7 percent on July 29 to end the week 1.9 percent higher for a 7.5 percent monthly gain. The Abu Dhabi Securities Market General Index climbed 1 percent on Thursday, taking it to a record high on the back of a 2 percent advance for First Abu Dhabi Bank.

By contrast, the MSCI Emerging Market Index dropped 1.4 percent on Friday, for a 7 percent monthly loss, the most since the fallout from the pandemic hit global markets early last year. Stocks in mainland China and Hong Kong fell to their lowest this year, on investor worries over government regulations dented the education, property and tech sectors.

Brent crude climbed 2.5 percent in the week after a rollercoaster month that saw it swoon from a two-year high of $77.16 on July 5 to $68.62 on July 19 before recovering to end the month at $76.33.

Concerns over the effect a resurgence in coronavirus cases might have on demand for crude were allayed on Wednesday when a report showed a bigger-than-expected drawdown of crude stockpiles the previous week.

“The reduced stockpile has propped crude prices up which gave a boost to the region’s stock markets,” Daniel Takieddine, senior market analyst at FXPrimus, told Reuters.

The Tadawul’s IPO pipeline will advance this month after Saudi burger chain Burgerizzr said it will begin offering shares to the public on Aug. 15 with the intention to list on the parallel stock market Nomu in September.

The company plans to offer 725,000 shares, representing 29 percent of its SR25 million capital, it said in its prospectus on Thursday.

Further signs of the Kingdom’s ambitious investment program were revealed this week as
The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology announced a $15 billion technology fund to advance digital infrastructure in the Kingdom during the Saudi 4th Industrial Revolution conference held in Riyadh this week.

The public-private partnership will develop advanced technology from the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), which is expected to generate around $1 trillion for the Saudi economy in new revenue streams, a senior Saudi official said on Wednesday.

The Kingdom will enjoy economic boosts from robotics, artificial intelligence, and wireless production models as it pushes for more smarter cities and infrastructure.