Lebanon endures gloomy Christmas amid currency crash

Freedivers dressed in Santa Claus costumes pose for a picture while submerged under water off the coast of Lebanon’s northern city of Batroun on Friday. (AFP)
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Freedivers dressed in Santa Claus costumes pose for a picture while submerged under water off the coast of Lebanon’s northern city of Batroun on Friday. (AFP)
Michel Tawil, a gift shop keeper, wraps a gift at a shop in Beirut, Lebanon December 22, 2021. Picture taken December 22, 2021. (REUTERS)
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Michel Tawil, a gift shop keeper, wraps a gift at a shop in Beirut, Lebanon December 22, 2021. Picture taken December 22, 2021. (REUTERS)
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Updated 25 December 2021

Lebanon endures gloomy Christmas amid currency crash

Freedivers dressed in Santa Claus costumes pose for a picture while submerged under water off the coast of Lebanon’s northern city of Batroun on Friday. (AFP)
  • Maronite Patriarch Al-Rahi calls on politicians to visit the homes of hungry people
  • Many parents forced to tell children: ‘Santa Claus will not be coming this year’

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Christians will celebrate Christmas this year amid some of the harshest economic conditions in the country’s history, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi said on Friday.

In his Christmas message, Al-Rahi reprimanded Lebanon’s politicians for “ruminating on disagreements.”

Al-Rahi said: “It would be better if officials would walk among the people, roam the streets, enter homes, visit the sick, talk to parents, listen to their suffering and the cries of their children, and see how many people go to bed hungry every night.

“It would serve them well to see how many people are homeless now, how many girls and boys are not enrolled in schools.

“If they were to see the situation in public hospitals and schools, orphanages and institutions for people with special needs, they would be ashamed of themselves and they would resign,” he said.

“Despite all that, we see the people in power immersed in their conflicts and looking for tricks, compromises and bargains to take revenge, to distance their opponents, to appoint their accomplices, and plot to postpone the parliamentary and presidential elections, only to serve their personal interest, at the expense of Lebanon and the Lebanese,” Al-Rahi stressed.

The patriarch’s plea came as Christmas decorations — much like market activity — appeared timid in most Lebanese regions.

Many Lebanese will not celebrate a festive Christmas this year following the country’s financial collapse and fears over a COVID-19 outbreak over the holidays.

Thousands of Lebanese expatriates, including those who left Lebanon over the past couple of years, have flocked back home for the holidays.

“On Wednesday alone, 91 planes carrying Lebanese returning to spend the holidays with their families and to renew their confidence in Lebanon landed at Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport,” said Public Works and Transport Minister Ali Hamia.

Streets that used to be bright with Christmas lights have plunged into darkness amid the power cuts and rationing hours.

Two years into the country’s unprecedented economic crisis, many Lebanese have forgotten what holiday joy feels like.

People in supermarkets have complained of an additional rise in prices.

“Everything is priced in US dollars or in Lebanese pounds based on the black market exchange rate, except for our salaries. How can we live like this?” Rana, a housewife, told Arab News.

It would be better if officials would walk among the people, roam the streets, enter homes, visit the sick, talk to parents, listen to their suffering and the cries of their children, and see how many people go to bed hungry every night.

Maronite Patriarch, Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi

The price of a kilogram of chestnuts — a popular food during the holiday season — reached 150,000 Lebanese pounds ($99), while the price of an imported mango reached 50,000 Lebanese pounds.

A Christmas staple, the traditional cake, is also expensive, and being sold in many stores for more than 300,000 Lebanese pounds.

Jewelry traders have reported almost no sales during the Christmas season, and many parents have told their children that Santa Claus will not be coming on Dec. 25.

Meanwhile, a growing number of beggars have been imploring restaurantgoers for food scraps, with four out of five Lebanese are now living below the poverty line.

The most humiliating scene this Christmas came when public sector employees, members of the military and security service personnel were filmed queuing for hours in front of banks to collect their salaries.

The Lebanese Central Bank had issued a circular allowing public sector workers to buy dollars from banks at a fixed exchange rate.

And by taking those dollars and exchanging them for Lebanese pounds at the black market rate, some employees were able to net an extra 450,000 Lebanese pounds for every $100.

Based on the black market rate, military personnel now make less than $50. Before the economic crisis, their salaries were equivalent to about $1,000.

Footage of the scenes went viral online, provoking outrage from hundreds of activists and Lebanese citizens.

“Market activity is slow,” said Nicolas Chammas, chairman of the Beirut Merchants Association.

“We had hoped things would pick up during the holidays, especially after the losses that the sector endured during summer,” he added.

“Unfortunately, shoppers were few and their purchasing power has significantly diminished. This is the weakest holiday season we’ve experienced since 1975.

“Even in the midst of the war, the market had never witnessed such depression. Very few people bought toys, electronics, jewelry, and perfumes this year.

“Before the economic crisis, these products were resulting in an income of $250 million per week before Christmas. Today, we estimate only $10 million to $15 million per day. This is a real disaster.”

He attributed the change to a decline in purchasing power among the Lebanese public.

People need to secure their basic needs first in terms of food and fuel before they can consider buying gifts, Chammas said.

“We’ve hit rock bottom. Only about 50 percent of shops have survived the crisis, but not all will make it through the year,” he added.

“The few people who contributed to market activity this Christmas are expatriates who returned to Lebanon for the holidays.”

Pierre Al-Ashkar, head of the Syndicate of Hotel Owners in Lebanon, has warned that the return of expatriates during the holiday season will fail to revitalize the tourism sector.

He said that about 90 percent of expatriates own homes in Lebanon. Very few Arab tourists are also arriving for holiday, Al-Ashkar added.

 


Former student held after two Iraq professors killed

Police believe the shooter did not originally intend to kill the engineering professor. (AFP)
Police believe the shooter did not originally intend to kill the engineering professor. (AFP)
Updated 29 June 2022

Former student held after two Iraq professors killed

Police believe the shooter did not originally intend to kill the engineering professor. (AFP)
  • The suspect was expelled from Soran University by the first victim’s wife and was then refused a place at Salaheddin University by the second victim, the governor said

IRBIL, Iraq: Two Iraqi university professors were gunned down in the Kurdish regional capital Irbil on Tuesday prompting the arrest of a disgruntled former student, authorities said.
Shootings as a means of settling scores are far from rare in Iraq — its legacy of war and sectarian conflict mean the country’s 40 million people count some 7.6 million firearms, according to figures from the Small Arms Survey.
A Soran University engineering professor was shot dead in his home in the early hours, and the dean of the Salaheddin University law faculty, Kawan Ismail, was killed on campus shortly afterwards, provincial governor Omed Khoshnaw told reporters.
Police believe the shooter did not originally intend to kill the engineering professor, but rather his wife, who is a law professor at the same university and was away from home at the time, Khosnaw said.
The suspect was expelled from Soran University by the first victim’s wife and was then refused a place at Salaheddin University by the second victim, the governor said.
He had been arrested several times previously after making death threats against the second victim, whose bodyguard was also wounded in the attack.


Severity of Middle East sandstorms confronts Arab Gulf states with a daunting challenge

Severity of Middle East sandstorms confronts Arab Gulf states with a daunting challenge
Updated 29 June 2022

Severity of Middle East sandstorms confronts Arab Gulf states with a daunting challenge

Severity of Middle East sandstorms confronts Arab Gulf states with a daunting challenge
  • Meteorological officials say climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of sand and dust storms
  • Regionwide afforestation projects aim to alleviate sandstorms’ negative effects on agriculture and human health

JEDDAH: For eons, large plumes of dust and sand sweeping across most of Saudi Arabia have been a natural, seasonal aspect of life. Though a common meteorological phenomenon in arid and semi-arid regions, in recent years scientists have been sounding the alarm over the adverse health and environmental effects of increasing dust storms, prompting Saudi authorities to face the challenges head-on.

The Middle East, Africa and the Arab Gulf are no strangers to sandstorms. They occur relatively close to the ground surface, but finer dust particles may be lifted miles into the atmosphere, where strong winds transport them long distances and across continents.

Saudi Arabia is a prime location for these extreme sandstorms, as it occupies almost the entire Arabian Peninsula, and is primarily desert with patches of rocky terrain in the west and central regions. The Kingdom also sits on a majority of the largest desert area in Asia, the Arabian Desert.

The vast expanse of sandy beige and red terrain stretching across the country leaves Saudi Arabia exposed to some of the harshest sandstorms arriving mainly from the north or west. These storms obscure vision, halt maritime and flight operations, close schools, and harm human health, while turning the cerulean blue skies an ominous orange.

Saudi Arabia’s position across the Arabian Peninsula makes it especially susceptible to sandstorms. (Reuters)

Last month, a transboundary sandstorm engulfed Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait and the UAE, sending thousands to hospital as the air filled with fine dust particles that are linked to asthma attacks and the spread of bacteria, viruses, toxins and more. Depending on the weather and climate conditions, dust can remain in the atmosphere for several days and travel great distances.

Some scientists say that climate change could increase sandstorm frequency and intensity. According to several studies, the Middle East witnesses one of three types of sandstorms approximately 30 percent of the year.

A reduction of visibility defines the sandstorms; blowing dust reduces visibility to a few feet for brief intervals, and horizontal visibility is less than 11 km. For dust storms, horizontal visibility is less than 1,000 meters, and for severe dust storms is less than 200 meters.

A 2019 study analyzed the Kingdom’s dust-storm occurrences by studying figure analysis from 27 observation stations provided by the Presidency of Meteorology and Environment, using data on spatial and temporal distribution of atmospheric dust between 2000-2016. The study noted a significant increase in occurrences, especially in the Eastern Province, with a clear seasonality in the incidence of dust and sand storms.

STORM CATEGORIES

• Blowing dust: Horizontal visibility is less than 11 km.

• Dust storm: Horizontal visibility is less than 1,000 meters.

• Severe dust storm: Horizontal visibility is less than 200 meters.

According to Hussain Al-Qahtani, Saudi Arabian National Center for Meteorology spokesman, the notable increase of sand and dust storms in the Eastern Province is due to its proximity and exposure to the northern winds that commonly hit the Kingdom.

“For over 40 years, the NCM has documented and monitored weather patterns and climate conditions in the Kingdom,” he told Arab News.

“The incidence and intensity of dust storms vary year by year and the World Meteorological Organization declared that the world is going through a turbulent time of extreme climate change. Dust storms with winds up to 45 km per hour for several days are a common phenomenon in the area, and are a result of this extreme global climate.”

When heavy torrential rains in late 2009 and early 2010 inundated Jeddah on Saudi Arabia’s western coast and caused mass floods, civil defense officials declared them to be the worst in over 25 years, prompting the launch by the NCM of a national weather-warning system connecting all relevant governing bodies.

The NCM now uses this system to warn of the possibility and intensity of incoming sandstorms. Green indicates that no severe weather is expected; yellow is “be aware,” amber “be prepared,” and red is “take action.”

Three key factors are responsible for the generation of sand and dust storms: Strong wind, lack of vegetation, and absence of rainfall, making the Kingdom the perfect environment for cross-border dust storms.

Their increasing frequency has taken its toll on the Middle East’s agricultural sector. Sandstorms reduce crop yields by burying seedlings under sand deposits, destroying plant tissue, and reducing the plant’s ability to carry out photosynthesis, which delays plant development.

Sand and dust storms have immediate threats to human health, especially for the young and the elderly, causing respiratory and skin problems. (Reuters)

Some of the most immediate and obvious effects of sand and dust storms are related to human health. Dr. Lamia Al-Ibrahim of the Saudi Red Crescent Authority says human exposure to dust and sandstorms poses a danger to overall health, especially for people with respiratory problems, including asthma, allergies and COPD, and can cause skin and eye irritation.

“Depending on the level of exposure, sand and dust storms in the Kingdom differ from one region to the next. Dust storms could worsen he health of individuals whether they have allergies or not,” she told Arab News. “With simple lifestyle changes, the effects can be minimized, but not prevented.”

Al-Ibrahim says exposure to dust and sand can exacerbate allergies, adding that several health, safety and environmental control strategies can be implemented to cushion communities from the negative impact of storms.

“Precautionary measures and medications such as antihistamines ahead of time can decrease the severity of infections. Though the best mechanism is to stay home, those who need to leave their homes should don face masks and wear glasses. Dust storms impact outdoor and indoor air quality and can trigger breathing problems and more due to one particle — silica,” she said.

FASTFACT

• Aeolian processes: Wind-driven emission, transportation and deposition of sand and dust by wind are termed after the Greek god Aeolus, the keeper of winds.

Most desert dust in the region is composed primarily of silica, exposure to which is a risk factor for several illnesses.

Wearing masks and glasses and staying inside are temporary solutions, leaving authorities to seek out more permanent and far-reaching ways to solve the dust problem. In terms of environmental strategies, afforestation has become a significant player when it comes to fighting issues faced as a result of climate change.

The Saudi Green Initiative, launched last March, aims to rehabilitate 40 million hectares of land over the coming decades, with 24 initiatives launched to plant 10 billion trees. The afforestation plan can improve air quality, reduce sandstorms, combat desertification, and lower temperatures in adjacent areas.

Similarly, the Middle East Green Initiative, the regional alliance and pact on climate change, has similar ambitious goals, aiming to plant 50 billion trees (10 billion in the Kingdom) across the Middle East and restore 200 million hectares of degraded land.

Sandstorms across the Middle East have delayed flights, closed schools and hospitalised thousands. (AFP)

Al-Ibrahim cautions that although afforestation effectively mitigates sand and dust storms, it is essential to know which trees to plant, as some could have adverse effects on human health.

“Some tree pollen can cause severe allergies. I was invited to participate in the Green Riyadh Project launch as a member of several environmental awareness groups and raised the issue of these trees, and a committee was established to specify the types of trees, plants and shrubs best suited for the area,” she told Arab News.

The Royal Commission of Riyadh has issued a plant guide book for the city which lists approximately 300 types of plants, shrubs and trees that are set to be planted.

“NCM’s research and studies contribute to providing data to relevant entities that need to understand how to face the challenges that arise from sand and dust storms, decrease the level of threats and work on solutions such as afforestation initiatives, taking preventive measures, or even increasing the accuracy of the information for the health and safety of citizens,” said Al-Qahtani.


Iraq announces first cholera death since new outbreak

Cholera is an acute diarrheal disease that is treatable with antibiotics. (AFP)
Cholera is an acute diarrheal disease that is treatable with antibiotics. (AFP)
Updated 29 June 2022

Iraq announces first cholera death since new outbreak

Cholera is an acute diarrheal disease that is treatable with antibiotics. (AFP)
  • The other infections were mostly concentrated in neighboring Sulaimaniyah province, in the autonomous Kurdistan region

BAGHDAD: A cholera outbreak in Iraq claimed its first victim Tuesday, with 17 new cases recorded in the country within 24 hours, a health ministry spokesperson said.
The death was recorded in the northern province of Kirkuk, the ministry’s Seif Al-Badr was quoted as saying by state media.
“Over the past 24 hours, 17 new cases were detected, bringing the total to 76 cases registered in Iraq since the start of the year,” he said.
The outbreak was first officially reported earlier this month, with Kirkuk accounting for one of the 13 cases confirmed at that time.
The other infections were mostly concentrated in neighboring Sulaimaniyah province, in the autonomous Kurdistan region.
The country’s last broad cholera outbreak dates back to 2015, Badr had said previously, with the central provinces of Baghdad and Babil to its south the worst affected.
Cholera is an acute diarrheal disease that is treatable with antibiotics and hydration but can kill within hours without medical attention.
It is caused by a germ that is typically transmitted by poor sanitation. People become infected when they swallow food or water carrying the bug.
According to the World Health Organization, researchers estimate that annually there are between 1.3 million and four million cases of cholera worldwide, leading to between 21,000 and 143,000 deaths.


New talks in final bid to save Iran nuclear deal

New talks in final bid to save Iran nuclear deal
Updated 29 June 2022

New talks in final bid to save Iran nuclear deal

New talks in final bid to save Iran nuclear deal
  • Doha talks also come just two weeks before US President Joe Biden’s first visit to the region
  • EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano said the Doha discussions were the start of process to “unblock” the long-running Vienna negotiations

JEDDAH: Iran and the US resumed indirect talks on Tuesday aimed at rescuing Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers.

Tehran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani met EU official Enrique Mora in Doha, and Mora began passing messages to Rob Malley, the US special representative for Iran.

Qatar’s Foreign Ministry said the talks aimed to reestablish the deal “in a way that supports and enhances security, stability and peace in the region and opens new horizons for broader regional cooperation and dialogue” with Iran.

Iran and world powers agreed in 2015 to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, under which Tehran limited its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. In 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal and began reimposing sanctions, raising tensions across the wider Middle East and sparking a series of attacks and incidents.

Talks in Vienna about reviving the agreement have been stalled since March. Since the deal’s collapse, Iran has been running advanced centrifuges and rapidly growing a stockpile of enriched uranium.

As the talks began in Doha on Tuesday, Iran’s nuclear chief Mohammad Eslami confirmed that Tehran had begun installing a new cascade of advanced centrifuges at its Fordo underground nuclear plant.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, said earlier that Iran was planning to enrich uranium through a new chain of 166 advanced IR-6 centrifuges at the site. A cascade is a group of centrifuges working together to enrich uranium more quickly.

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“We will follow measures according to the plans made,” Eslami said.

Iran removed 27 IAEA surveillance cameras this month to pressure the West into making a deal. The IAEA’s director-general warned it could deal a “fatal blow” to the accord as Tehran enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons grade.

Nonproliferation experts warn Iran has enriched enough uranium up to 60 percent purity — a short technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90 percent — to make one nuclear weapon, should it decide to do so.

Building a nuclear bomb would still take Iran more time if it pursued a weapon, analysts say, though they warn Tehran’s advances make the program more dangerous. Israel has threatened in the past that it would carry out a preemptive strike to stop Iran, and is already thought to have carried out a series of sabotage attacks and assassinations targeting Iranian officials.


Mikati continues consultations on draft government as delay extends

Mikati continues consultations on draft government as delay extends
Updated 28 June 2022

Mikati continues consultations on draft government as delay extends

Mikati continues consultations on draft government as delay extends
  • FPM and Lebanese Forces continue to block PM-designate’s attempts to put an end to the political blockage

BEIRUT: Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati, who has been tasked with forming a new Lebanese government at the end of his non-binding parliamentary consultations on Tuesday, said that he “went over the opinions of the MPs and we will take most of what they said into consideration, but what matters is that national interest prevails.”

Mikati said that the opinions shared by the MPs “are in the national interest, even if from different angles.” 

He hoped to be able to form a government “that can carry out its duty and continue what the previous government has started, especially with the IMF, the electricity plan and the file of maritime border demarcation,” hoping that things “would take shape in a proper way.”

If Mikati succeeds in forming this government, it will be his second government under President Michel Aoun’s term; if not, he will remain a prime minister-designate as a caretaker.

The second day of consultations saw the head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Gebran Bassil, issue an ambiguous position. 

Bassil confirmed that “the bloc isn’t interested in participating in the new government but we didn’t meet as a bloc yet to confirm the matter.”

He opposes Mikati and the FPM did not name him in the formation of a government.

He said: “We told Mikati why we don’t agree with the government formation. There’s a real problem with the credibility of the designation and we raised the issue with him, but we overcame this problem given the country’s situation.”

Bassil said that the movement is “against any government stripped of its powers, and we emphasized that it’s important for the government to deal with important files, including the file of the governorship of the central bank.”

At the same time, Bassil denied that he had made a “demand or imposed a condition before Mikati.” 

He said that “making amendments to the current government is a wrong bet,” adding: “We are against a presidential gap and we will prevent it from happening.”

Bassil’s statement was remarkable, especially when he said that “Mikati’s designation lacks credibility” but decided to turn a blind eye given the country’s situation.

The Free Patriotic Movement bloc and the Lebanese Forces bloc did not propose Mikati to form a government during the binding parliamentary consultations held by President Aoun last week. 

However, a source close to Mikati pointed out that the two Christian parties do not fully represent all Christians and that some MPs with popular representation nominated Mikati.

The source said that “the FPM is insisting on having an efficient government that isn’t stripped of its powers for the purpose of implementing a political agenda, as the president’s bloc wants to appoint people affiliated with the party to critical positions before the end of the term, including appointing a new governor for the central bank.”

Head of the Kataeb party Samy Gemayel warned against “the danger of adopting a no-government logic before the presidential elections.” 

He believes that “wasting time in these dangerous circumstances the country is going through is deadly for the Lebanese who are suffering on all levels.” 

Gemayel emphasized “the need to form an independent government as fast as possible to stop the collapse.”

After meeting with Mikati, MP Oussama Saad said that “Lebanon needs a government that can safely transport the country from the current political reality to a new reality capable of facing challenges and crises.” 

He added: “The presidential elections are imminent. Can we elect a new president who is independent of the internal and external axes? Are the internal blocs controlling the state’s decision ready to carry out a rescue project?”

MP Jihad Al-Samad ruled out the possibility of forming a new government “as it is hard to form a government with the ongoing petulance and selfishness.” 

He said that he demanded “that the current government be activated, either by regranting it the parliament’s confidence to revive it, or by expanding the concept of caretaking.”

MP Bilal Houshaymi said that “the decision not to participate in the government is wrong. The previous government implemented some reforms that should be completed and all blocs should cooperate to form a government. People put their trust in the parliament and we should seek to get out of the axis of hell.”

The Armenian MPs bloc expressed its interest in participating in the government. MP Hagop Pakradounian said: “A new government should be formed as soon as possible and we should avoid the game of conditions and counter-conditions. We hope that Mikati will have a governmental lineup in the coming couple of days.”

Head of the Lebanese Forces Media and Communication Department Charles Jabbour ruled out the possibility of a new government formation “because the formation of governments in Lebanon usually takes between two to three months at least, noting that the new government, if formed, will have four months to be able to assume its role.”

Regarding the position of MP Gebran Bassil, the political rival of the Lebanese Forces, Jabbour told Arab News: “The stated position is different from the implicit one. Bassil has said before that competent governments ended and a political government is what is needed. He refuses that the caretaker government remains until the end of the term because the FPM continues to hold on to appointments that are in its interest and wants to be part of the government in case of a presidential gap.”

Mikati is now working on a draft government expected to be submitted to the president so they can both sign the decree of its formation. The current ongoing prevention of its formation is being caused by the parliamentary blocs representing significant political forces that have decided not to participate in the government. 

Few expect this to change. Charles Jabbour said that “the blocs that didn’t nominate Mikati to form a government and won’t participate in the government will surely not grant it confidence in the parliament.” 

He added that the matter might depend on the ministerial statement but “I think that there will be a difficulty facing the formation of the new government.”