Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s outlines priorities for new government

Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati holds the cabinet line up after meeting with Lebanon's President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda. (Reuters)
Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati holds the cabinet line up after meeting with Lebanon's President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda. (Reuters)
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Updated 11 September 2021

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s outlines priorities for new government

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s outlines priorities for new government
  • “We have eight months of hard work to achieve what can be achieved” new PM said
  • In exclusive interview with Al-Sharq, Mikati said he will work to reconnect with Arab entourage

DUBAI: Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati told Al-Sharq on Friday that the four files at the top of his government’s agenda were “confronting the COVID-19 pandemic, the reconstruction of the Beirut port, general reforms and parliamentary elections.”

In an exclusive interview, the new prime minister told Al-Sharq: “We have eight months of hard work to achieve what can be achieved.” Mikati said that “talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF)” would be one of his government’s tasks.

“We will start addressing international bodies and funds in order to be open once again to other countries after a break in the recent period,” he said.

Reconnecting with the “Arab entourage”

Asked about the first Arab figure Mikati would communicate with after the announcement of the formation of the new government, he said: “We will work to reconnect with our Arab entourage. I will contact everyone, especially the GCC countries, to stop the recession in Lebanon.”

“We need quick actions and I will ask for the help of my brothers in the Arab and GCC countries. We are keen to coordinate and cooperate with all Arab countries and we cannot but have a close relationship with them.”

Mikati added: “I am fully aware of the remarks of some Arab countries, but Lebanon can only be their safe country and I promise them that.”

Politicians’ responsibility

On the obstacles he faced in the formation of the government, Mikati said: “Whoever wishes to disrupt the government shall stay out of it.”

“I assure that no party has the (blocking) third, whether it is persuasive or otherwise. I know the structure of my government very well and we will be working as one team.”

Asked about his economic reform program, he said: “This plan is ready, however, I can only present it after the cabinet’s approval.”

“We have a rescue plan and will work on achieving it. It includes eight essential clauses for reforms.”

On the selection of the new minister of finance, Youssef Khalil, given that he is widely considered to be one of the architects of the controversial financial engineering program at the Lebanese central bank (Banque du Liban), Mikati said: “The minister of finance has the expertise in all financial matters. He will not be making decisions alone, but we fully trust him to make change.” 

Mikati said that “the real responsibility lies with politicians who did not undertake any reforms. They were bickering and blaming the central bank, thus BDL is not the only one responsible for the current crisis.” 

Reforms take time

Mikati said that he would “work on stopping Lebanon’s free fall.” He said that his country “needs everything” and that “change in Lebanon might need time to yield results.” 

“We need to work seriously in order to fill the gap, following 13 months of political disruption,” he said, noting that “every Lebanese is well aware of the current crisis that requires solutions.” 

On International Monetary Fund aid, Mikati said: “We hope to make progress in talks with the IMF.”

He pointed out the need to implement the fund’s conditions, which included “the liberalization of the exchange rate and stopping the lifting of subsidies.”

Mikati said that he would “work on a satisfactory agreement with the IMF, provided that it is good for Lebanon.” 

“We will work on what can be rescued of Lebanon and solve the crises as soon as possible. I am not asking for a grace period of three months or 100 days, but I am asking to start working immediately in order to fix the living conditions in the country.” 

Mikati said that the next parliamentary elections would be held on time. “No one can object to the elections that must take place on time and without hesitation,” he said.


‘Horror scenes’ in Syrian refugee camps amid ‘extremely cold winter’: UN official

‘Horror scenes’ in Syrian refugee camps amid ‘extremely cold winter’: UN official
Updated 18 min 49 sec ago

‘Horror scenes’ in Syrian refugee camps amid ‘extremely cold winter’: UN official

‘Horror scenes’ in Syrian refugee camps amid ‘extremely cold winter’: UN official
  • ‘No one should have to live in these conditions,’ Mark Cutts tells briefing attended by Arab News
  • Nearly 3m people internally displaced in northern Syria, most of them women and children

LONDON: Brutal winter conditions in northern Syria have ushered in mass-scale suffering for 2.8 million internally displaced persons, a top UN humanitarian official warned on Monday.

“We’re extremely concerned about the situation there,” Mark Cutts, the UN’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, said in a briefing attended by Arab News.

The IDPs, he added, are “some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” the majority of them living in temporary camps and tents.

“During this extremely cold weather, we’ve seen some real horror scenes in the last few days — about 1,000 tents have either collapsed completely or been very badly damaged as a result of heavy snow,” said Cutts, adding that temperatures have dropped to as low as -7 degrees centigrade.

About 100,000 people have been affected by the heavy snow, while 150,000 more have been affected by freezing conditions and heavy rain.

“These are people who’ve been through a lot in the past few years. They’ve fled from one place to another. The bombs have followed them. Many of the hospitals and schools in northwest Syria have been destroyed in the 10 years of war,” said Cutts, adding that what he and his team are seeing in camps now is a “real disaster zone.”

He said: “Our humanitarian workers have been pulling people out from under their collapsed tents … They’ve been clearing snow from tents with their bare hands.”

Children, the elderly and the disabled are suffering the most from the conditions, added Cutts, who appealed to the international community to “do more, to recognize the scale of the crisis, to help us get these people out of tents and into safer, more dignified temporary shelter.”

In a final plea, he said: “It’s absolutely unacceptable that you’ve got 1.7 million people living in camps in these appalling conditions — most of them are women and children and elderly people.

“These civilians are stranded in a warzone, and now, on top of that, they’re dealing with temperatures below zero. No one should have to live in these conditions.”


Iran: ‘Possible’ to agree on prisoners, nuclear deal

Iran: ‘Possible’ to agree on prisoners, nuclear deal
Updated 31 min 7 sec ago

Iran: ‘Possible’ to agree on prisoners, nuclear deal

Iran: ‘Possible’ to agree on prisoners, nuclear deal

TEHRAN: Tehran on Monday said it is “possible” to reach an agreement on the two issues of Iran-US prisoners’ release and the Vienna talks to restore the 2015 nuclear deal.

“They are two different paths, but if the other party (the US) has the determination, there is the possibility that we reach a reliable and lasting agreement in both of them in the shortest time,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said during his weekly press conference.

Khatibzadeh’s comments came in reaction to remarks made by the US envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, who on Sunday said it is unlikely that Washington would strike an agreement unless Tehran releases four US citizens.

BACKGROUND

The four US citizens held in Iran are Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, 50, and his father Baquer, 85, as well as environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 66, and businessman Emad Sharqi, 57.

“Iran has not accepted any precondition from day one of the negotiations,” Khatibzadeh said.

He added that “the negotiations are complicated enough, and should not get more complex with complicated remarks.”


Kuwait refers two army officers to prosecution over suspected corruption in Eurofighter deal

Kuwait refers two army officers to prosecution over suspected corruption in Eurofighter deal
Updated 33 min 47 sec ago

Kuwait refers two army officers to prosecution over suspected corruption in Eurofighter deal

Kuwait refers two army officers to prosecution over suspected corruption in Eurofighter deal
  • A major general and colonel in Kuwait's army would face prosecutors over their alleged misuse of public funds
  • Kuwait ordered 28 Eurofighter Typhoon jets in 2016 under a contract valued at some $8.7 billion

LONDON: Kuwait has referred two senior army officers to the public prosecutor over suspected corruption related to a deal to buy Eurofighter Typhoon jets, the state anti-corruption body on Monday.
Kuwait received last month its first two Eurofighter Typhoons as part of an order for a total of 28 aircraft that will be delivered to the Kuwait Air Force.
“Investigations show that the defendants committed several violations that caused serious damage to public money by paying inflation bills to the manufacturer that exceeded the total value agreed upon in the main contract ... without prior permission from the relevant authorities,” the Kuwait Anti Corruption Authority (Nazaha) said in a statement.
The authority said it had received a report from the minister of defense on the ministry’s contract to purchase the aircraft, which was marred by special remarks in the inflation clause.
“The investigations revealed that the defendant committed several violations that caused serious damage to public money by issuing inflation-related bills to the manufacturer that exceeded the total value agreed upon in the main contract,” the statement said.
It added that the exchange process took place without prior permission from the concerned authorities in the defense and finance ministries, and without a documentary credit for that exchange, which affected the schedule of payments allocated to the said contract.
Nazaha said that a major general and colonel in Kuwait’s army would face prosecutors over their alleged misuse of public funds.
The authorities thanked an unnamed whistleblower for helping the government obtain information about the misuse of funds and said efforts to collect and examine evidence continued.
(With Reuters and AP)


What prevents Iraq from meeting the youth employment challenge

Iraqis taking part in anti-government protests over corruption and unemployment. (AFP/File Photo)
Iraqis taking part in anti-government protests over corruption and unemployment. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 11 sec ago

What prevents Iraq from meeting the youth employment challenge

Iraqis taking part in anti-government protests over corruption and unemployment. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Iraq’s economy shows few signs of breaking free of its longstanding dependence on oil production and export
  • Successive governments have failed to reduce the burden on state coffers by shrinking a bloated bureaucracy

DUBAI: When tens of thousands of young people took to the streets of Baghdad and towns and cities across southern and central Iraq in late 2019, one core demand resonated louder than any other — employment opportunities.

The country, which had only recently emerged from decades of tyranny, siege, war and insurgency, had delivered precious little for the generation of young Iraqis who came of age in the years after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Two years on from those protests, which fizzled out with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, and under the brutal heel of repression meted out by Iraq’s powerful militias, young Iraqis say nothing has changed.

“If anything we’re worse than when we started,” Rashid Mansour, a hairdresser from west Baghdad, told Arab News. “Neither me nor my cousins can afford to stay here. We all work part time. Just like the country, we’re all just getting by.”

With few performance indicators to suggest otherwise, Iraq’s sputtering economy shows little sign of breaking free of its long-standing dependence on the one thing that sustains it — oil.

Even though the country has opened up to the wider region and the world, having relaxed visa restrictions on visitors, there is not much sign of investment beyond the oil sector in the many other industries and enterprises long championed by its leaders.

Calls to diversify the nation’s economy have gone unanswered, while demands to streamline its bloated public sector continue to fall mostly on deaf ears. Efficiency drives are openly mocked by citizens, as are the hoops investors must jump through to establish private enterprises.

Almost two decades after the US-led invasion toppled the Baathist regime, Iraq continues to maintain one of the biggest per capita public-sector workforces in the world — which on paper employs about 7 million people among an estimated population of 39.3 million.

How this burden on state coffers might be reduced and workers moved into wealth-creating private ventures has stumped successive governments, and none have dared move against a constituency that could tip the result of any election, or against a system that has long been central to the way the country is run.

An Iraqi man smokes a waterpipe under a feminist mural painting with the Arabic slogan: “These are our women.” (AFP/File Photo)

“Iraq is up to its neck in this issue,” Ahmed Tabaqchali, chief strategist for the AFC Iraq Fund and a senior fellow at policy research institute IRIS Mideast, told Arab News.

“You see other countries, like Saudi Arabia with its Vision 2030 — it’s a good plan to stop oil dependency. But Iraq is different. You don’t have a strong central government there but rather multiple power sources.

“Oil revenues play a huge part. They pay public-sector pensions and salaries and offer social security. It’s a challenge to get off that. There is an unwritten social contract between the government and its people. People expect to be provided with services for their acceptance of the ruling government, and a public-sector job is one of those services.

“No party wants to embark on the reforms alone because that would weaken their power. Iraq needs a political class that is committed to long-term plans because that is the only way it would work. The private sector needs time to develop.”

INNUMBERS

* 39.3m Population of Iraq.

* 3.9% GDP growth rate (PPP).

* 12.8% Unemployment rate.

* $708.3bn GDP size (PPP).

Source: The Heritage Foundation (2021)

According to a recent World Bank country profile, oil revenues account for about 85 percent of the Iraqi government’s budget. A UN study in November 2021, entitled A Diagnostic of the Informal Economy in Iraq, found the country’s private sector is largely informal and accounts for 40-50 percent of employment.

Private-sector jobs pay lower average wages, offer fewer benefits and less job security than public-sector roles, which are seen as safer and more comfortable compared with the uncertainty of going it alone or trying to manage a start-up within a cumbersome regulatory environment.

“We have a big unemployment issue in the country,” Baghdad resident Tarek Abu Abdallah, 50, told Arab News.

“A large number of the youth are jobless and restless. Matters haven’t been improving with the dollar rising on the Iraqi dinar. Prices have doubled. It’s hard to afford a lot of things. The economic situation has everyone exhausted.”

The obstacles to building a functioning private sector are well understood by senior officials. In 2020 Ali Allawi, at the time the finance minister, introduced an economic reforms white paper that aimed to streamline the process of investing and setting up a business. A year later, he warned that oil revenues alone cannot support the salaries and perks enjoyed by state employees indefinitely.

Through the years, the tedious but necessary task of overhauling an ossified economy and a sclerotic bureaucracy has proved unappealing to Iraq’s ruling elite. The lumbering process of government formation after every general election demonstrates just how difficult it is to get the country’s many political factions on the same page on almost any issue.

“The Iraqi bureaucracy expanded because of the socialist system which had been established by Gen. Abd Al-Karim Qasim in 1958, and further in 1968 when the Baath party came,” Entifadh Qanbar, president of the Future Foundation in Washington and a former aide to Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, told Arab News.

“The remnants of the socialist Iraqi state still control laws and regulations. I would call it ‘anti-business’ regulations. Bureaucracy was already massive but after 2003 bureaucracy exploded further. Iraqis developed a problematic perception of: ‘If you want to find a job, find a governmental one.’

“Every PM, when he comes to a new government, promises new government jobs — when the state is, in fact, incapable of paying more salaries.”

Iraq has one of the biggest per capita public-sector workforces in the world and a very weak private sector, and its leaders know that any attempt at reform will bring its own supporters out in protest. (AFP/File Photo)

In Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, there are some signs of doing things differently, with Masrour Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, having embarked on a reform program that has shaken up the status quo, in whose preservation the governing factions had a vested interest.

“In the past two years, the KRG has embarked on the biggest initiative ever undertaken to reform our public finances and to empower private enterprise,” a senior Kurdish official close to the PM’s office, who asked to remain anonymous, told Arab News.

“The changes we have put in place are driving efficiencies and recouping large amounts that can be redirected to buy the goods and services that truly matter, such as electricity generation, medicine and frontline workers. We recognize that the old ways of poor public finances do not drive progress or better living standards.

“The digitization of our government expenditure has been central to these changes. This move alone has saved hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the cost of the government, eliminating waste. Better procurement exercises have introduced further savings.

“We are also making sure that small companies have a genuine shot at winning public money. We have streamlined the process of registering a business, which was previously so cumbersome it acted as a disincentive.”

The 2019 protests in Iraq showed that, having only recently emerged from decades of tyranny, siege, war and insurgency, the country’s leaders had delivered precious little for the generation of young Iraqis who came of age in the years after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. (AFP/File Photo)

Looking to the future, Qanbar says the key to solving Iraq’s problems lies in radically improving the business environment and weaning the political economy off its dependence on oil.

“The addiction to the oil revenue has grown dangerous over the years,” he told Arab News.

“The Iraqi budget fluctuates depending on the prices of the oil market. The instability of the country isn’t attractive to foreign investment. There is a huge risk for foreign investors because they would require protection and security, services insurance companies cannot provide.”

The need to do things differently has long been touted by visiting officials and nongovernmental organizations in Iraq. The use of green energy is one such idea that has so far failed to gain traction.

“Given the lack of capability to invest and improve at the most basic levels, I think it’s out of the question that Iraq can invest in green energy at this point,” said Qanbar.

“It can’t provide basic needs to its citizens, such as water, electricity, education and infrastructure.”


Jordan reports its highest daily number of COVID-19 cases to date as fourth wave rages

According to government figures, 4,556,988 people in Jordan have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, while 4,168,651 have received two shots. (Reuters/File Photo)
According to government figures, 4,556,988 people in Jordan have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, while 4,168,651 have received two shots. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 24 January 2022

Jordan reports its highest daily number of COVID-19 cases to date as fourth wave rages

According to government figures, 4,556,988 people in Jordan have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, while 4,168,651 have received two shots. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • An additional 11,478 cases have been confirmed, bringing the total in the country since the pandemic began to 1,152,526
  • Nearly 23 percent of tests returned a positive result, 18 percent above the 5 percent rate considered ‘safe’ by authorities

AMMAN: Jordan on Monday reported the highest number of daily COVID-19 cases in the country since the pandemic began, as the kingdom battles to contain a surging fourth wave of coronavirus infections.

Authorities said an additional 11,478 cases have been confirmed, bringing the total to 1,152,526, and another 15 people have died of conditions related to the disease. The death toll now stands at 13,088.

Nearly 23 percent of PCR tests returned a positive result, 18 percent above the 5 percent rate considered “safe” by the government.

A further 158 COVID-19 patients were admitted to hospital, while 107 have recovered and been discharged. A total of 714 people are currently receiving hospital treatment for the disease.

The government said occupancy rates of isolation beds by COVID-19 patients in the country’s northern, central and southern regions stand at 10 percent, 19 percent and 8 percent respectively.

According to government figures, 4,556,988 people in Jordan have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, while 4,168,651 have received two shots.