Lebanon public sector faces paralysis as strikes widen

Lebanon public sector faces paralysis as strikes widen
Thousands of state employees in Lebanon have been on strike for over two months over the collapse of their wages caused by Lebanon’s economic implosion. (Reuters)
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Updated 18 August 2022

Lebanon public sector faces paralysis as strikes widen

Lebanon public sector faces paralysis as strikes widen
  • Move to raise customs dollar rate plunges markets into turmoil 

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s public sector and legal system are under growing strain amid widening strike action over the plunging value of salaries in the crisis-hit country.

Hundreds of judges continued their strike on Thursday in protest at having their salaries based on exchange rate of 1,507 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.

Civil servants have also decided to go on strike again for the same reason, despite being granted monthly aid.

Meanwhile, Lebanese university professors are continuing their open-ended strike, while students wait for work to resume so they can take last year’s final exams.

Lebanon took preliminary steps to raise the customs dollar rate from 1,507 Lebanese pounds — the rate adopted before the economic crisis hit three years ago — to 20,000 pounds.

The move created confusion in markets, adding to the chaos they were already facing.

The customs dollar is the price for calculating the customs value of imports, and is paid in Lebanese pounds.

On Thursday, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati sent a letter to Finance Minister Youssef Khalil demanding the customs dollar rate of 20,000 pounds be adopted.

Khalil told an expanded ministerial consultative meeting about the move.

The ministerial committee enjoys exceptional powers that allow it to adjust the customs dollar rate without the need for Cabinet approval.

Amin Salam, the caretaker economy minister, told a press conference on Thursday that the preliminary decision will be the subject of discussions between the finance minister and the central bank governor.

Salam said that the impact of the new customs dollar rate on prices of goods would be “insignificant,” adding that the current rate was no longer fair.

“We want to adjust the wages and salaries of civil servants,” he said.

Salam also voiced fears that traders might store goods to be sold later under the new rate.

“We are waiting for traders to provide us with the lists of goods they purchased previously,” the minister said.

Foodstuffs that will be subject to the customs dollar can be substituted by alternative products available in Lebanon, in order to encourage the industrial sector and the Lebanese industry, he said.

Salam said that expensive cheese and canned vegetables are among products that will be subject to the customs dollar.

He warned traders against pricing old products based on the new customs dollar rate.

The customs dollar is one of the main elements feeding the Lebanese treasury, which receives a percentage of the price of imported goods.

MP Ibrahim Kanaan, chair of the parliamentary finance and budget committee, said that he doubted the customs dollar would take into consideration people’s means and needs.

“How can we come up with the customs dollar? What are the covered and non-covered goods, and who is going to monitor the prices?” he asked.

Four rates are currently adopted in Lebanon by the state and banks, in addition to the black market rate, which reached about 33,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar on Thursday.

Economic analysts have predicted that the country will witness a new wave of price increases while social security measures are negligible in the face of worsening economic pressures.

Observers are worried that this might encourage smugglers crossing Lebanese-Syrian border.

Hani Bohsali, head of the Food Importers’ Syndicate, told Arab News: “There are no luxury goods anymore. If we want to speak logically and put things in perspective, the interests of Lebanese come before the traders’ interests.”

Bohsali said the customs dollar “will affect oils and canned vegetables, and we are afraid that those demanding a wage increase might request another one after a while.”

He added: “We will all pay the price of and be affected by ill-considered decisions.

“Do we know what the repercussions of increasing the customs dollar are? Is it really going to profit the state? They calculated it based on how things stand currently, but what if the value of importation dropped by half as a result of the Lebanese low purchasing power.”

MP Ziad Hawat said that increasing the rate without a complete economic plan would not achieve the desired objectives.

He called for a consolidation of the exchange rate instead of “stealing people’s deposits.”


Lebanon set for $1.5 billion cash boost from influx of 700,000 visitors

Lebanon set for $1.5 billion cash boost from influx of 700,000 visitors
Updated 15 sec ago

Lebanon set for $1.5 billion cash boost from influx of 700,000 visitors

Lebanon set for $1.5 billion cash boost from influx of 700,000 visitors
  • Despite session boycott, Lebanese Cabinet approves $35m spending on medicines, assistance for military, pensioners

BEIRUT: Lebanon was on Monday preparing for a much-needed $1.5 billion cash injection with tourist chiefs predicting an influx of around 700,000 visitors over the coming days.

With the festive holiday season fast-approaching, hoteliers were reporting an upsurge in bookings on last year as the country temporarily began to put its economic and political woes to one side.

Decorative lights and trees, traditional markets, music festivals, and other popular events and activities were set to lift the nation’s gloom as Lebanese, expats, and foreign trippers were expected to flood into Beirut and coastal resorts.

And there was even some cheer on Monday from Lebanon’s caretaker Cabinet after it accepted a request for the central bank to release $35 million to buy medicines for dialysis and cancer patients, milk for children, plus financial assistance for the military and pensioners.

However, the Cabinet session was not held without acrimony as ministers of the Free Patriotic Movement boycotted the meeting over the continued political deadlock in Lebanon.

Addressing the session, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said: “We can no longer spend money to help cancer and dialysis patients. Do they (the FPM) want us to commit a collective crime?

“If that is what they are asking, then we won’t assume our responsibility and let everyone assume the consequences of their actions.

“If they want the country to collapse completely, I will not contribute to the crime of killing patients.”

Although the upcoming holiday season would provide a welcome cash boost, most experts said the revenues would act only as painkillers for the country’s ailing economy unless followed by a political breakthrough.

But in downtown Beirut decorative streetlights raised spirits among

the thousands of visitors flocking to markets selling food, drink, toys, books, and flowers.

One shopper said: “Beirut doesn’t fall, and these activities encourage the re-opening of the markets. People need to feel alive again.”

In Achrafieh, Sassine Square was being trimmed up in readiness for the holidays with traders planning to erect a Christmas tree alongside stalls selling festive products.

Preparations were also in full swing for the Beirut Chants music festival. The free event will run over 26 days in churches and souks around the capital and artistic director, Toufic Maatouk, said the festival, now in its 15th year, had received support from foreign ambassies and the participation of Lebanese bands.

Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud said a host of activities had been lined up for visitors to the city.

Officials at Rafic Hariri International Airport noted that many Lebanese expats, especially from the Gulf region, were returning to spend the festive period with their families.

The airport, that has been acting as a transit point for football fans heading to Qatar for the World Cup, had also seen some supporters opting to stay in Lebanon on their way back from the tournament.

Jean Abboud, president of the Association of Travel and Tourist Agents, said flights were fully booked from Dec. 10 to 25 with the number of Arab tourists on the rise, particularly from Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq. Abboud added that bookings had increased by 38 percent compared to the same period last year.

The Lebanese Ministry of Tourism has predicted that around 700,000 tourists will arrive in the country over the coming days.

Pierre Achkar, chairman of the Lebanese Federation for Tourism and president of the Hotel Owners Association, expected hotel bookings to reach 60 percent.

Many luxury hotels are still undergoing restoration following the Beirut port blast, but the iconic Phoenicia hotel recently celebrated its reopening.

And on Beirut waterfront, close to the explosion site, the Arab Cultural Club and Syndicate of Publishers Union in Lebanon has inaugurated the 64th edition of the Beirut International and Arab Book Fair with more than 133 publishers taking part.

Salwa Siniora, head of the Arab Cultural Club, said: “Enlightened intellectuals have a prominent role to play in shaping the destiny of the nation, and that knowledge and intellect are the flame that will remove the abhorrent blackness impeding visibility and the creative imagination.”

But signs of the ongoing crises in the country remain prominent with another protester staging a sit-in at a Lebanese bank, this time in Antelias, demanding the release of savings.


Kuwaiti charity offers psychological aid to victims of war, crisis

Kuwaiti charity offers psychological aid to victims of war, crisis
Updated 05 December 2022

Kuwaiti charity offers psychological aid to victims of war, crisis

Kuwaiti charity offers psychological aid to victims of war, crisis
  • Team of 30 psychologists, specialists will provide support to refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey

KUWAIT: A Kuwaiti charity is offering psychological aid and emotional support for victims of wars and crises in the Middle East.

The International Islamic Charity Organization charity has established a team of 30 psychologists and specialists who will provide support in three refugee-hosting countries: Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, Kuwait News Agency reported on Monday.

Othman Al-Asfour, head of the lICO Tarahum team, said that the initiative affirms an integral part of social and psychological support in humanitarian aid.

Psychologist Dr. Shereefa Al-Khamees stressed that refugees were in urgent need of psychological aid as much as handouts and donations.

The psychological health of the affected is very delicate and requires thorough treatment and support, Al-Khamees added.


Jordan, Algeria launch new phase of cooperation

Jordan, Algeria launch new phase of cooperation
Updated 05 December 2022

Jordan, Algeria launch new phase of cooperation

Jordan, Algeria launch new phase of cooperation
  • Jordan’s King Abdullah, Algerian president witness signing of two agreements and three MoUs
  • Governments instructed to take steps to boost investment, commercial opportunities in both countries

ALGIERS: Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune have launched a new phase of bilateral relations.

The leaders held talks on Sunday in Algiers to discuss boosting Jordanian-Algerian cooperation in politics, economics, trade, investment, and defense, Jordan News Agency reported.

The meeting, which was attended by senior officials from both sides, also affirmed interest in maintaining coordination and consultation on Arab causes and other issues of mutual concern. 

King Abdullah reiterated the centrality of the Palestinian cause and the need to protect Palestinians’ legitimate rights. 

He called for a just and comprehensive peace plan based on the two-state solution which establishes an independent and sovereign Palestinian state along the June 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital. 

He also reaffirmed the significance of maintaining the historical and legal status quo at Al Aqsa Mosque.

Following the meeting, the leaders witnessed the signing of an agreement on visa exemptions for diplomatic passport-holders, as well as a cooperation program between Jordan News Agency and the Algerian Press Service. 

Three memorandums of understanding on political consultations, cooperation between the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy and the Algeria Institute of Diplomacy and International Relations, and the mutual recognition of maritime qualification certificates for seafarers, education programs, and maritime training between the two countries were also signed.

King Abdullah and President Tebboune further instructed their governments to take the necessary steps to encourage investors and businesses to explore investment and commercial opportunities in both countries. 

They were also directed to move forward with agreements that would expand collaborations in health care, energy, medical tourism, hotels, transportation, aviation training, higher education, and cultural exchange between universities. 

Economists have praised the outcomes of King Abdullah’s state visit to Algeria.

Jordanian Senator Mazen Darwazah said that Jordanian investment in Algeria has gradually increased over the last two decades, with the drug industry spending nearly $1 billion.

Jordanian-Algerian Business Council Coordinator Khaled Al-Soub said that Algerian law allows Jordanian investors to expand their projects and acquire shares from foreign partners. 

Energy expert Hashem Akel said that Algeria was rich in petrol and natural resources and hoped that energy imports from the country would increase after Jordan receives preferential prices.


Italy pledges ‘full cooperation’ with Jordan during king’s visit

Italy pledges ‘full cooperation’ with Jordan during king’s visit
Updated 05 December 2022

Italy pledges ‘full cooperation’ with Jordan during king’s visit

Italy pledges ‘full cooperation’ with Jordan during king’s visit
  • ‘Many common points were found during the talks,’ source in PM’s office tells Arab News
  • Trade, cultural and defense cooperation were the core issues discussed

ROME: Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni pledged their country’s “full cooperation” with Jordan “in every field,” during a meeting with King Abdullah II.

The monarch and Queen Rania were received by Mattarella at Quirinale Palace during their visit to Rome.

A source in the Italian presidency told Arab News that Mattarella stressed to the king “the importance for his country of the longstanding friendship between Italy and Jordan.” 

Italy is one of Jordan’s main commercial partners. In the first five months of 2021, bilateral trade grew by 26.7 percent compared to the same period the previous year. During the same period, Jordanian exports to Italy grew by 82.7 percent.

During an official lunch at Chigi Palace, Meloni told the king: “We always can do more together in so many fields.”

A source in the prime minister’s office said trade, cultural and defense cooperation were the core issues discussed.

“The situation in Syria was also covered. Many common points were found during the talks,” the source told Arab News.

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani and Defense Minister Guido Crosetto also attended the lunch.

UNRWA, Arab League urge protection of Palestinian education curriculum

UNRWA, Arab League urge protection of Palestinian education curriculum
Updated 05 December 2022

UNRWA, Arab League urge protection of Palestinian education curriculum

UNRWA, Arab League urge protection of Palestinian education curriculum
  • Israeli censorship a concern, says ALECSO representative

CAIRO: The Palestinian education system should be protected from attempts to censor material being taught at schools.

This was the concern raised by some officials at the 32nd joint meeting of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees and the Council of Educational Affairs of the Arab League in Cairo, the Saudi Press Agency reported. The gathering took place at the Arab League’s headquarters in Egypt’s capital.

Dr. Tamer Anis, a representative of the Arab League Educational Cultural and Scientific Organization, drew attention to Israel’s attempts to censor the Palestinian curriculum. He urged support for the Palestinian Ministry of Education.

Arab News had reported this year about attempts by Israel to impose a “sanitized” curriculum on East Jerusalem’s schools that includes the deletion of all photos of Al-Aqsa Mosque, the word Palestine and the Palestinian flag. Holy Qur’anic verses were also deleted on claims that they help strengthen Palestinian, Arab and Islamic identities.

At Sunday’s meeting in Cairo, Saeed Abu Ali, the Arab League’s assistant secretary-general for Palestine and the occupied Arab territories, said the gathering comes in the wake of the UNRWA’s ongoing financial crisis, which has had a direct impact on the services provided to Palestinian refugees.

Abu Ali stressed the need for the next UNRWA budget to reflect the growing needs of Palestinian refugees. He added that the Arab League would continue to keep communication channels open between the two organizations

Rawda Al-Hajj, the representative of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said that ISESCO continues to support several education projects in Palestine.

The UNRWA’s Deputy Director of Education Moritz Bilagher reiterated that the Palestinian refugee crisis was not solely the responsibility of Arab countries, but rather a global issue for which the international community must take responsibility.