BEIRUT: A US Treasury delegation on Tuesday held talks with officials in Beirut on the Lebanese government’s cooperation in combating money laundering and corruption, as well as the crisis in the Lebanese banking sector.
The delegation — headed by Paul Ahern, principal deputy assistant secretary at the US Treasury; his deputy Eric Meyer; and a group of experts in financial crime — was following up discussions the previous day on combating terror financing, and illicit drug and smuggling operations,
President Michel Aoun told US officials that Lebanese laws “are applied firmly and accurately in this field, and international financial institutions testify to that.”
Aoun said: “Lebanon actively participates in international efforts to combat money laundering, and plays its role in the Financial Action Group for this purpose in the Middle East region. It also established the National Coordination Committee for Combating the Financing of Terrorism and the National Anti-Corruption Commission.”
The Lebanese leader pledged that the fight against corruption “will continue unabated during the remainder of the presidential term,” and cited the forensic audit of the central bank’s accounts as “one of its most prominent manifestations.”
Aoun said that the capital control bill targeting foreign transfers and cash withdrawals from banks in Lebanon is due to be approved by parliament before its mandate ends in May.
He also thanked the US for its support for Lebanon’s army , as well as humanitarian, development, health and educational assistance.
The US delegation on Monday met Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi to discuss the fight against terror financing, and drug and smuggling operations, as well as the country’s preparations for parliamentary elections in May.
Talks focused on sanctions against Hezbollah and figures close to the party over illegal finance operations.
According to Lebanon’s Almarkaziya news agency, the meeting discussed the continuing investigation into Riad Salameh, the central bank governor, and its likely impact Lebanon’s financial and monetary stability.
Observers said that the delegation’s visit is proof that the US will refuse to tolerate any reluctance by political, financial and banking authorities in Lebanon to apply US sanctions, especially when it comes to corruption and terrorism financing.
US officials also discussed Hezbollah’s financial arm, the Al-Qard Al-Hassan Association, which is subject to US sanctions.
Meanwhile, an IMF delegation headed by Ernesto Ramirez continued talks with Lebanese officials, including Mikati and Berri, on the country’s financial and economic recovery strategy.
The IMF is waiting for Lebanese authorities to begin acting on promises of reforms required by the international community, including an electricity plan since this issue alone is responsible for about half of the deficit in the state’s general budget.
Despite high-level talks during the past two weeks, the government has been unable to reach a final formula on the plan.
A Saudi-French agreement was announced on Monday following talks between French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan to finance several humanitarian projects and provide direct assistance to several hospitals and primary healthcare centers.
Saudi Arabia will also donate $36 million to Lebanon through the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center.
Egypt condemns all operations that target civilians
Foreign Ministry warns of dangers of escalation after East Jerusalem attack
Egypt called on both sides to exercise maximum restraint and to cease attacks and provocative actions
Updated 30 January 2023
CAIRO: Egypt has condemned the attack that claimed the lives of seven Israelis in a shooting incident that targeted worshippers at a synagogue in East Jerusalem.
The country expressed its total rejection and strong condemnation of Friday’s attack in a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was critical of all operations that target civilians.
The country offered its sincere condolences to the families of the victims, and wished a speedy recovery for the injured.
It also warned of the dangers of the ongoing escalation between the Palestinian and Israeli sides.
Egypt called on both sides to exercise maximum restraint and to cease attacks and provocative actions to avoid slipping into a vicious cycle of violence that would worsen the political and humanitarian situation and undermine efforts and all chances of reviving the peace process.
These developments followed an Israeli army attack on the West Bank which left 10 Palestinians dead.
GCC can be a ‘latter-day Venice,’ says former UK government adviser
European trade policy expert Paul McGrade explains why now is the time for a GCC-UK free trade agreement
Domestic politics rules out UK-US FTA while India wrestles with divisions over protectionism and politics, he asserts
McGrade says British public feel Brexit was a mistake, bringing costs and “very, very few benefits”
Updated 30 January 2023
DUBAI: The GCC bloc, with its strategic location and fast-growing economies, can be a latter-day Venice, balancing between East and West, according to Paul McGrade, a former UK government adviser and an expert on UK and European trade policy, who was speaking as the GCC and the UK prepare to launch the third round of their free trade talks.
He predicts that the UK’s attempts to forge free-trade agreements with the US and India will meet with failure, in contrast with an FTA deal with the GCC, which could work despite the two sides’ policy differences over China and Russia.
He also asserts, citing opinion surveys, that the British public now feel that “Brexit was a mistake and has brought costs and very, very few benefits.”
McGrade made the comments during an appearance on “Frankly Speaking,” the Arab News current affairs talk show that dives deep into regional headlines by speaking with leading policymakers and business leaders.
He discussed what a GCC-UK trade deal would entail, whether an agreement could materialize before the end of this year and, given the political upheaval of the last 12 months, whether GCC leaders could really trust the British government’s trade promises.
“The GCC region will still have strong links with China. Energy needs there are huge and growing. (But I hope) the region will continue to have strong links with the West,” he said.
“There’s a difficult balancing act that’s going to get harder in the decades ahead. But the region is very strongly placed and, you (can) already see with the UK, and Europe more broadly, a stronger recognition that this is a strategic partnership, or a set of strategic partnerships, that they can’t afford to ignore.”
Last month, the UK government said it was committed to signing a significant trade deal with the GCC. However, given the political roller-coaster ride that the UK went on in 2022 and the fact that it is no longer the manufacturing giant of the last century, many wonder why GCC countries should still be interested and whether they can trust that the UK will deliver.
“It’s a fair question after six years really of instability in the UK, a country that always prided itself and partly sold itself on its political stability and its business-friendly regulation. It has been a bit of a roller-coaster, but I think that the high tide of Brexit disruption has passed,” McGrade said.
He said although the Tory government and the main opposition Labour Party claim they are committed to making Brexit work, what they really mean is sound public finances, a more stable regulatory relationship with Europe, a more predictable one where essentially the UK will broadly follow what the EU is doing in big areas like net-zero.
“This gives investors some confidence,” he told Katie Jensen, the host of “Frankly Speaking.”
“The UK is not going to be towing itself off into mid-Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean. It’s going to be geographically, obviously and in regulatory terms, very firmly anchored in the European neighborhood. That gives a bit of confidence and a bit of stability going forward. And the UK needs investment, which has dropped off sharply since the 2016 vote.”
As the West decouples from China, experts say it will need strong relationships with the Gulf states. McGrade believes the war in Ukraine has refocused minds on the importance of the strategic partnership with the Gulf countries. “Not just through the trade deal, which could help in some areas, but it’s a broader picture,” he said.
“There’s a huge opportunity here for Gulf states and their investors to kind of reshape this relationship in the sectors that they might want to draw into their own economies in terms of building sustainable, high-skilled models for the future.”
The Conservative government in the post-Brexit era had promised that Britain would be able to make trade deals all over the world. However, they missed their targets last year. The UK has only signed trade agreements with about 60 percent of their global trade partners and talks with the US and India have stalled.
“Some of those (trade) talks have stalled, but some of them probably weren’t very realistic anyway,” McGrade said. “The domestic politics on both sides of the Atlantic probably ruled out the kind of deep trade deal with the US that some Brexiteers said they wanted.”
As for India, he said the country does not “really have a modern ambitious free trade deal with (any entity). It is an economy that is wrestling with its own internal divisions over degrees of protecting its domestic industry. And there are politics at play on things like visas.”
He continued: “It’s a different picture when you look at the Arab world and especially the GCC, because there’s a very strong historic relationship. There are obviously difficult issues in any trade deal about market access, but the relationship is probably more positive and the politics less difficult around the content of that trade deal.”
Elaborating on the potential for cross-border investments, McGrade said: “A lot of the UK’s economic sectors are in a weak position. (But) some of the fundamentals are pretty strong in areas like health tech, digital health. We have got Arab Health Week, of course, and creative industries, net-zero technology, the traditional strengths and areas like banking, other professional services.
“These are sectors that matter to Gulf economies and may matter increasingly, as we look to kind of building a sustainable net-, post-net-zero economy. So, there’s a lot on offer in the UK and probably some of it is underpriced because of the economic hit that the country has taken over the last few years. This probably is a very good time to invest, whether or not we have a trade deal quickly. But this trade deal potentially is an easier one to do than, say, US or India in political terms.”
The Gulf states are strong strategically but the relationship with the UK will need to be two-way, experts say, with British innovation holding the promise of helping the former to become high-skilled, high-tech economies.
McGrade, for one, is confident that as the UK seeks to diversify its trade and investment relationships, the Gulf states would be important in providing access to new markets, energy sources and other areas.
“(They are) going to be vital, (when) you see a Europe cutting itself off from traditional Russian supplies of oil and gas, and is also recalibrating the relationship with China,” he said. “The US talks openly about decoupling from Chinese supply chains. The UK talks a similar kind of language. The UK is probably a bit closer to the US than some of the big European powers on this.
“If that’s the kind of world that we’re going to, then the Gulf states become more important than ever, not just for energy, but for the markets that they represent, the investment and the partnerships that they’re looking to build.”
“Look at the scale of the ambition in the Gulf, not just for sort of investment for return, but for the huge long-term sustainability project that (Gulf) governments, sovereign wealth funds and other investors are aiming for. There’s a huge opportunity for genuine partnerships where some of those innovative technologies that the UK still excels at could be a part of building up that sustainable skills base in Gulf economies.”
The UK estimates that an FTA with the GCC would add about £1.6 billion ($1.98 billion) to its economy. So, where does McGrade see the most gains for countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE?
“A trade deal is nice to have, but it’s not essential. These are already quite open economies in global terms. They already have strong trading relationships with the UK. A trade deal could help reduce some of the barriers, but it’s not the biggest game in town,” he said.
“The broader picture is looking at the sectors where UK innovation in particular can help achieve the long-term strategic aims of countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. If you look at some of the real strengths, in medical technology, health technology, digital health, we have a lot of innovation in the UK market, which is often underpinned by the fact that you have this almost unique data set because you have a huge national health service covering sort of 60 million people.”
McGrade believes the creative sector is another big source of the UK’s global strength, which can be important for areas like tourism and culture, in which some Gulf states have made a big investment. “There are areas like education that are traditional strengths and where there’s already a presence in the region from the UK,” he said.
“The professional services, banking and financial services is an obvious one. But we increasingly see legal and accounting services as well as sort of management consultancy establishing and growing their presences in the region.”
He next turned to what he called another big area, “which is the technology around net-zero, getting to net-zero, but helping make that sustainable and build economies that will be fast growing and rich, and high skilled beyond the dependence on hydrocarbons.”
“There’s a lot there. Sovereign wealth funds in the region are already investing in some of these sectors. In some cases, what they’re looking for in a partnership is to bring some of those skills back home to the region so that they can be used to help build up the domestic high skills and high tech that will be needed (in the) longer term into the century to keep high-growing rich economies in the Gulf region.”
But what happens if the UK fails to sign a specific deal with the GCC as a whole? Does it then have the option to look at single individual trade deals with, say, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar?
McGrade says this has been happening in fact. “It’s been signing individual agreements across some sectors with some of the GCC members. That would continue,” he said.
“Whatever the governments do, those economic fundamentals ought to be attractive to Gulf investors, whether that’s at the state, kind of sovereign wealth fund level or kind of business level, because some of those strengths of the UK economy, innovation across several sectors, can really be part of the answer to what Gulf economies need to do and know they need to do to build sustainable, high-skilled, post-net-zero economies for the 21st century.”
As for the GCC countries’ less hawkish approach to Russia, McGrade does not see that as a hindrance to talks with the UK. “For two reasons,” he said. “There is a greater recognition of the strategic importance of the Gulf region, for the UK and for the West generally because of the war in Russia. Because of what that means for energy prices and long-term energy needs.
“The other point is that if the West is going to decouple from China, then it needs the Gulf. The Gulf states are well placed. They are in a strong position economically.”
To be sure, McGrade said, “the UK and Western governments generally always wrestle with some public opinion and campaigning groups at home on some of the values agenda. They always worry about if that can be squared off with the needs of the strategic relationship with the Gulf. That will continue to be an issue.”
Alluding to technical and political barriers to reaching a trade deal, he acknowledged that the two sides have different opinions on certain issues but said: “They are not showstoppers. The deal is doable. It’s probably more about political will in London. It would be a failure of political will if that deal isn’t done.”
McGrade was forthright about his opinions on British voters’ decision to leave the EU three years ago. “Pretty consistent polling over time suggests that an ever-growing number of the British public feel that Brexit was a mistake and has brought costs and very, very few benefits,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said, both the Conservative and Labour parties have concluded that they cannot revisit the trade deal in a fundamental way. “There is a review of the trade deal at the five-year point, which comes in 2025,” he said. “If Labour wins the election, they will want to improve the terms of the trade deal without changing its fundamental character.”
Quizzed about his personal opinion on Brexit’s costs — a weakened pound, higher inflation, trade and investment disruption, political uncertainty, loss of access to the EU single market — McGrade said it was clear that the downsides were huge and not just economic.
“The hit to Britain’s reputation for political stability, which is sort of the core of its soft power, has been in some ways even worse than the economic hit from loss of market access,” he said.
Tunisians elect weakened parliament on 11% turnout
Economic decline in Tunisia has left many disillusioned with politics and angry with their leaders
About 887,000 voters cast ballots from a total electorate of 7.8 million
Updated 29 January 2023
TUNIS: Tunisia announced that a mere 11 percent of the electorate had voted on Sunday in parliamentary runoffs, with critics of President Kais Saied saying the empty polling stations were evidence of public disdain for his agenda and seizure of powers.
The head of the electoral commission, over which Saied assumed ultimate authority last year, gave a provisional turnout of 11.3 percent for Sunday’s runoff votes.
During December’s first round, the official turnout was only slightly lower, at 11.2 percent.
“Today Tunisians issued a final verdict rejecting Kais Saied’s process and elections,” Nejib Chebbi, head of the main opposition coalition, the Salvation Front, told a news conference.
Economic decline in Tunisia, where some basic goods have disappeared from shelves and the government has cut subsidies as it seeks a foreign bailout to avert bankruptcy, has left many disillusioned with politics and angry with their leaders.
“We don’t want elections. We want milk and sugar and cooking oil,” said Hasna, a woman shopping in the Ettadamon district of Tunis on Sunday.
The newly configured parliament has had its role shrunk as part of a political system Saied introduced last year after a power grab in 2021 that grants the presidency nearly absolute power.
About 887,000 voters cast ballots from a total electorate of 7.8 million, the electoral commission said. Final results were not expected on Sunday. The main parties boycotted the vote and most seats are expected to go to independents.
“I’m not interested in elections that do not concern me,” said Nejib Sahli, 40, passing a polling station in the Hay Ettahrir district of Tunis.
Independent observers, including the local Mourakiboun group, have questioned official turnout figures, accusing authorities in many districts of withholding data they rely on to monitor the election’s integrity.
The commission denied this and said polling station officials had been too busy to cooperate with monitors.
Opposition groups have accused Saied of a coup for shutting down the previous parliament in 2021, and say he has trashed the democracy built after Tunisia’s 2011 revolution — which triggered the “Arab Spring.”
Saied has said his actions were both legal and necessary to save Tunisia from years of corruption and economic decline at the hands of a self-interested political elite.
Though his new constitution passed in a referendum last year, only 30 percent of voters took part.
Opposition activist Chaima Issa, who has led protests against Saied and faces a military court on charges of insulting the president, described the poll as a “ghost election.”
At one polling station in the Ettadamon district of Tunis, no voters attended during the 20 minutes a Reuters journalist spent there.
At another Ettadamon polling station, one voter who gave his name as Ridha said he was supporting Saied: “He is a clean man fighting a corrupt system.”
In a cafe in Ettahrir, another district of the capital, only one of seven men sitting drinking coffee said he might vote.
Another man in the cafe, who gave his name only as Imad, said he did not believe his vote mattered after Saied’s political changes.
“The president alone is deciding everything,” he said. “He does not care about anybody and we do not care about him and his elections.”
Many Tunisians appeared initially to welcome Saied’s seizure of powers in 2021 after years of weak governing coalitions that seemed unable to revive a moribund economy, improve public services or reduce stark inequalities.
But Saied has voiced no clear economic agenda except to rail against corruption and unnamed speculators, whom he has blamed for rising prices.
On Friday, Moody’s credit ratings agency downgraded Tunisia’s debt, saying it would likely default on sovereign loans.
Azerbaijan to evacuate embassy in Iran on Sunday after fatal shooting
The incident came amid increased tensions between the neighboring countries over Iran’s treatment of its large ethnic Azeri minority
Updated 29 January 2023
BAKU: Azerbaijan will evacuate embassy staff and family members from Iran on Sunday, the foreign ministry said, two days after a gunman shot dead a security guard and wounded two other people in an attack Baku branded an “act of terrorism.”
Police in Tehran have said they had arrested a suspect and Iranian authorities condemned Friday’s incident, but said the gunman appeared to have had a personal, not a political, motive.
The incident came amid increased tensions between the neighboring countries over Iran’s treatment of its large ethnic Azeri minority and over Azerbaijan’s decision this month to appoint its first ever ambassador to Israel.
After the attack, the Azeri foreign ministry said it summoned Iran’s ambassador in Baku to demand justice and would evacuate embassy staff from Tehran. It gave no further details, including whether the embassy would continue to function.
Earlier, the ministry said the shooting was the result of Tehran failing to heed its calls for better security.
CCTV footage obtained by Reuters showed the attacker forcing his way into the embassy building and shooting at two men before a third embassy employee grapples him away.
A grey-haired man identified as the attacker was later shown on Iranian state TV saying he had acted to secure the release of his Azeri wife who he believed was being held at the embassy.
A young woman identified as the man’s daughter said her mother was in Azerbaijan.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi called for “a comprehensive investigation” of the incident and sent his condolences to Azerbaijan and the dead man’s family, state media said.
The displaced people have not received their normal food basket for the previous four months, according to the Yemeni official
Updated 30 January 2023
AL-MUKALLA: The World Food Programme in Yemen has lowered the quantity and weight of humanitarian supplies to thousands of internally displaced Yemenis in the central city of Marib, despite the severe winter and ongoing influx of displaced persons, local authorities and impacted individuals told Arab News on Sunday.
Khaled Al-Shajani, deputy head of the internationally recognized government’s executive unit for camps for the internally displaced in Marib, said that the WFP had reduced the number of food boxes sent each month to more than 70,000 displaced persons in Marib from 75kg to 25kg for each family, and they are now distributed every two months instead of each month.
“Marib’s displaced population receives six food baskets yearly instead of twelve. The humanitarian aid has dropped despite the enormous demands,” Al-Shajani said.
The displaced people have not received their normal food basket for the previous four months, according to the Yemeni official, and the international organization is tying the provision of food with its ongoing survey to validate the names of the needy individuals.
“We told them not to relate the evaluation to the food baskets. People have not gotten their food baskets for two consecutive periods (each period is two months) despite the availability of the baskets in their warehouses, and part of the food has gone bad,” Al-Shajani said.
He stated that in addition to the 70,000 displaced people in Marib who receive humanitarian assistance, 56,000 displaced families have applied for food baskets, and this number is expected to rise due to the deteriorating humanitarian situation, the winter, and the ongoing influx of displaced people.
Due to its relative tranquility and security since the first day of the war, Marib is now sheltering 2,222,530 displaced individuals who have left their home regions and towns due to conflict or persecution by the Iran-backed Houthis, making it the city with the highest concentration of internally displaced people in the country, according to the official IDP camp administration unit.
Affected displaced persons in Marib have urged the WFP and other international aid groups to provide humanitarian supplies on a monthly basis and to increase the number of baskets, predicting widespread starvation if help does not come immediately.
Ali, a father of four who was displaced from Houthi-held Dhamar in 2017, told Arab News by phone from Marib that he has not received his regular food basket from the WFP for the past four months, forcing him to go into debt.
He also asked local grocery owners to sell him food with the promise of paying later in order to feed his family.
“There are no wages or other sources of cash for my family other than this food basket. We often miss meals due to a lack of food,” Ali, who preferred to be identified by his first name, said.
The Yemen office of the WFP did not reply to Arab News’ calls or emails for a comment on the decrease of supplies to displaced people.
International relief groups working in Yemen often attribute their cutbacks in food boxes and other humanitarian operations to a lack of cash from international donors.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said last week that it needs $4.3 billion to support the 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen, which is intended to provide humanitarian relief to 17.3 of Yemen’s most destitute people.