PARIS: Iranian activists and Western nations have dismissed a claim that the protest-hit regime is disbanding its notorious morality police, insisting there was no change to women’s rights.
There were also calls on social media for a three-day strike in Iran, culminating Wednesday on the annual Student Day, nearly three months into a nationwide wave of unrest sparked by the death in custody of Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Amini.
Morality police officers had arrested Amini, 22, in Tehran for allegedly flouting Iran’s strict dress code demanding women wear modest clothing and the hijab headscarf.
“Nothing we have seen suggests Iran’s leadership is improving its treatment of women and girls or ceasing the violence it inflicts on peaceful protesters,” the US State Department said.
Germany’s Foreign Ministry said Iranian protesters “want to live freely and in self-determination,” and disbanding the morality police, “if it is implemented, won’t change that.”
Amini’s death on Sept. 16 triggered women-led protests that have spiraled into the biggest challenge to the regime since the 1979 revolution.
Hundreds of Iranians, including some members of the security forces, have been killed.
In a surprise move over the weekend, Iran’s Prosecutor General Mohammed Jafar Montazeri was quoted as saying that the morality police units — known formally as Gasht-e Ershad (“Guidance Patrol”) — had been closed down.
But campaigners were skeptical about his comments, which appeared to be an impromptu response to a question at a conference rather than a clearly signposted announcement by the Interior Ministry.
“Unless they remove all legal restrictions on women’s dress and the laws controlling citizens’ private lives, this is just a PR move,” said Roya Boroumand, co-founder of the US-based Abdorrahman Boroumand Center rights group.
Abolishing the force, activists argued, would mark no change to Iran’s headscarf policy — a key ideological pillar for its clerical leadership — but rather a switch in tactics on enforcing it. And scrapping the units would be “probably too little too late” for the protesters who now demand outright regime change, Boroumand said.
“Nothing prevents other law enforcement” bodies from policing “the discriminatory laws,” she noted.
The morality police have been a familiar sight since 2006 when they were introduced during the presidency of the ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But the rules, including the headscarf, had been strictly enforced well before then by the clerical leadership that had taken the helm after the fall of the shah in 1979.
After drought, winter rains revive Iraq’s famed marshlands
raq has faced three consecutive years of severe drought and scorching heat, with temperatures regularly exceeding 50 degrees Celsius
Updated 7 sec ago
Chibayish: Black buffaloes wade through the waters of Iraq’s Mesopotamian marshes, leisurely chewing on reeds. After years of drought, winter rains have brought some respite to herders and livestock in the famous wetlands. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the marshes were parched and dusty last summer by drought in the climate-stressed country and by reduced flow from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers due to dams built upstream in Turkiye and Iran. Winter brings seasonal rains, offering relief in marshes like those of Huwaizah — which straddles the border with Iran — and Chibayish, located in nearby Dhi Qar province. Among the reeds of Chibayish, buffalo farmer Rahim Daoud now uses a stick to punt his boat across an expanse of water. “This summer, it was dirt here; there was no water,” said the 58-year-old. “With the rain that has fallen, the water level has risen.” Last summer, photographers traveled to the Huwaizah and Chibayish marshes to document the disappearance of large portions of the wetlands, observing vast expanses of dry and cracked soil dotted with yellowed shrubs. In October, an official in the impoverished rural province of Dhi Qar said that in the previous six months, 1,200 families had left the marshes and other agricultural areas of southern Iraq and more than 2,000 buffaloes had died. Iraq has faced three consecutive years of severe drought and scorching heat, with temperatures regularly exceeding 50 degrees Celsius during the summer of 2022. “There is a gradual improvement,” Hussein Al-Kenani said after the recent rains. Kenani, who heads the governmental center in charge of protecting the wetlands, said rainwater collected in canals and rivers has been redirected to the marshes. “The water level in Chibayish’s swamps has increased by more than 50 centimeters compared with December and by more than 30 centimeters for the Huwaizah swamps,” Kenani said. In July, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization deplored the “unprecedented low water levels” in the marshes, highlighting “the disastrous impact” for more than 6,000 families, whose buffaloes and livelihoods were being lost. The relief of rainfall early this month was welcomed by the UN agency, which noted in a statement that in the Chibayish region “salinity levels decreased” to the point where people and animals could again drink the water. “This has had a great positive impact, especially on buffalo herders,” it said. While the crisis has been relieved for now, there are fears about the longer-term fate of the threatened wetland habitat. “There is not enough water coming from the Turkish side,” said Jassim Assadi, head of environmental group Nature Iraq, who added that Iraq’s dams upstream from the marshes “do not have an adequate and sufficient reservoir for the rest of the year.” “The rains alone are not enough,” he said, voicing fears about another looming “problem next summer.”
Sunni cleric’s aide arrested in restive southeast Iran
Abdolmajid Moradzehi was accused of “manipulating public opinion”
Updated 59 min 14 sec ago
TEHRAN: An aide to Sunni Muslim cleric Molavi Abdol Hamid, an influential leader of Iran’s ethnic Baluchi minority, was arrested in the restive southeastern city of Zahedan late Monday, state media said.
Abdolmajid Moradzehi was accused of “manipulating public opinion” and “communicating on several occasions with foreign individuals and media outlets,” the official IRNA news agency said.
Zahedan is the capital of Sistan-Baluchistan province, which is home to the ethnic Baluch minority and had been the site of often deadly violence even before nationwide protests erupted in September over the death in custody of 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini.
On September 30 last year, dozens of people, including members of the security forces, were killed when thousands took to the streets after Friday prayers at the city’s Makki mosque, headed by Abdol Hamid.
They were protesting the alleged rape of a 15-year-old-girl in custody in the port city of Chabahar by a local police commander.
As the protests raged on for weeks and months, Iranian officials were critical of Abdol Hamid, describing his prayer sermons as “provocative.”
“If there were no provocative remarks in the sermons, we would have seen peace in Zahedan,” Iran’s deputy interior minister Majid Mirahmadi said in late October when asked about the persistent unrest.
State media characterised the unrest as attacks by “extremists” on police stations. Abdol Hamid said security forces “shot at people” around the mosque, amid public anger over the alleged rape.
Zahedan is one of the few cities in Shiite-majority Iran which is mainly Sunni.
Carrier Emirates test flies Boeing 777 on sustainable fuel
Airplane and engine manufacturers have been designing more-efficient models, in part to help keep down costs of jet fuel — one of the biggest expenses airlines face
Updated 31 January 2023
DUBAI: Long-haul carrier Emirates successfully flew a Boeing 777 on a test flight Monday with one of its two engines entirely powered by so-called sustainable aviation fuel. This comes as carriers worldwide try to lessen their carbon footprint.
Flight 2646 flew for just under an hour over the coastline of the United Arab Emirates, after taking off from Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest for international travel, and heading out into the Arabian Gulf before circling to land. The second of the plane’s General Electric Co. engines ran on conventional jet fuel for safety.
“This flight is a milestone moment for Emirates and a positive step for our industry as we work collectively to address one of our biggest challenges — reducing our carbon footprint,” Adel Al-Redha, Emirates’ chief operation officer, said in a statement.
Emirates, a state-owned airline under Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, described the sustainable fuel as a blend “that mirrored the qualities of jet fuel.” It included fuel from Neste, a Finnish firm, and Virent, a Madison, Wisconsin-based company.
Virent describes itself as using plant-based sugars to make the compounds needed for sustainable jet fuel, while Neste’s fuel comes from vegetable oils and animal fats. Those fuels reduce the release of heat-trapping carbon dioxide typically burned off by engines in flight.
Aviation releases only one-sixth the amount of carbon dioxide produced by cars and trucks, according to World Resources Institute, a nonprofit research group based in Washington. However, airplanes are used by far fewer people per day — meaning aviation is a higher per-capita source of greenhouse-gas emissions.
Airplane and engine manufacturers have been designing more-efficient models, in part to help keep down costs of jet fuel — one of the biggest expenses airlines face. Emirates, for instance, used over 5.7 million tons of jet fuel last year alone, costing it $3.7 billion out of its $17 billion in annual expenses.
But analysts suggest sustainable fuels can be three times or more the cost of jet fuel, likely putting ticket prices even higher as aviation restarts following the lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.
It wasn’t immediately clear how much the fuel used in the Emirates’ test on Monday cost per barrel. Jet fuel cost on average $146 a barrel at the end of last week, according to S&P Global Platts.
The UAE, a major oil producer and OPEC member, is to host the next United Nations climate negotiations, or COP28, beginning in November. Already, the seven sheikhdom federation has been criticized for nominating the CEO of Abu Dhabi’s state oil company to lead the UN negotiations known as the Conference of the Parties — where COP gets its name.
Tunisia president blames hatred of parliament for low turnout in elections
The electoral commission announced that only 11.4 percent of the electorate had voted on Sunday in parliamentary runoffs
Updated 31 January 2023
TUNIS: Tunisia’s president on Monday blamed ultra-low turnout for parliamentary elections on hatred among voters of the parliament, not to a decline in his own popularity.
The electoral commission announced that only 11.4 percent of the electorate had voted on Sunday in parliamentary runoffs. Critics of President Kais Saied said the empty polling stations were evidence of public disdain for his agenda and seizure of powers.
Opposition parties called Saied to resign after what they called a “huge failure,” saying early parliamentary and presidential elections were the only route out of the crisis.
Saied rejected accusations, calling his critics “traitors.”
“90 percent did not vote. ... This confirms that Tunisians no longer trust this institution. ... During the past decade, Parliament has been an institution of absurdity and a state within the state.,” Saied said.
“Our popularity is greater than theirs,” he added during a meeting with prime minister Najla Bouden.
Saied closed parliament with tanks in 2021, dismissed the government and started ruling by decree, a move the opposition called a coup.
He accused lawmakers of accepting huge sums of money in return for passing laws.
The newly configured parliament has had its role shrunk as part of a political system Saied introduced last year.
Many Tunisians appeared initially to welcome Saied’s seizure of powers two years ago, after years of weak governing coalitions 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.
Unlike the previous parliament, the new one elected on Sunday will have limited powers. The formation and dismissal of governments will be in the hands of the president.
Over the past decade, parliament has been powerful and has appointed and dismissed governments. Despite the political tensions that took place in the previous parliament since the revolution, it had the ability even to dismiss the president and hold all officials accountable.
Cost of living crisis cuts a cruel swathe through Arab political economies
The middle classes of Middle East and North African countries are now feeling the impact of soaring costs
They have suffered triple blow of pandemic, rising food and fuel prices, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Updated 31 January 2023
DUBAI: With economies in crisis, currencies under pressure and inflation sapping purchasing power, it has long been clear that the poor of the Arab region are suffering. But as even the middle classes in some countries begin to feel the pinch as well, more families are struggling just to put food on the table.
“It’s like we were hit by an earthquake; suddenly you have to let go of everything,” Manar, a 38-year-old Egyptian mother of two, told the news agency Agence France-Presse.
“Now, whatever semi-human life people had has been reduced to thinking about how much bread and eggs cost.”
The Egyptian pound has lost half its value against the dollar since March last year, following a devaluation that was demanded as part of a $3 billion International Monetary Fund loan agreement. Official annual headline inflation in the country hit 21.9 percent in December and food prices have soared by 37.9 percent.
The Egyptian economy had been struggling to recover in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that sparked the latest crisis, as both of those countries are key exporters of wheat to Egypt and sources of mass tourism.
According to the World Bank, nearly a third of Egypt’s population of 104 million people currently live below the poverty line, and almost as many are “vulnerable to falling into poverty.”
Meanwhile, gloomy economic forecasts are already casting a pall over 2023, with economists predicting a deepening global recession that will bring with it further depreciation of currencies, skyrocketing prices, and rising rates of unemployment and poverty.
In the past year there have been multiple setbacks for the world economy. Nations and businesses that were just beginning to recover from the lockdowns, restrictions and other effects of the COVID-19 pandemic suffered a fresh blow with the start of the war in Ukraine almost a year ago.
The conflict has disrupted global supply chains, causing the price of food and fuel to rise sharply, contributing to inflationary pressures. This has placed additional strain on national currencies and business confidence, endangering jobs and hobbling growth.
The depreciation of Arab currencies against the dollar is a particular concern for the most vulnerable nations because households that had built up savings prior to the economic downturn have seen the value of their financial reserves plummet and safety nets cut from beneath them.
The Lebanese pound recently hit another all-time low and has now lost about 95 percent of its value since the start of the financial crisis in the country in late 2019.
Jordan, Syria and Iraq are likewise experiencing massive rises in the costs of food, fuel and other essentials items while public purchasing power continues to fall, leading to protests and occasional waves of violent unrest.
The lives of about 130 million people in the region are now blighted by poverty, according to the Survey of Economic and Social Developments in the Arab Region, which was published in December by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia.
130 million - People in the Arab region affected by poverty.
12% - Unemployment rate in Arab region (highest in the world).
36% - Proportion of the Arab population in poverty by 2024. *
* excluding Libya and GCC countries
(Source: UN ESCWA)
It found that, excluding Libya and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, more than a third of the region’s population, 35.3 percent, is now living in poverty. This rate is expected to increase over the next two years, reaching 36 percent by 2024.
The survey also revealed that the Arab region had the highest unemployment rate in the world in 2022, 12 percent, reflecting widespread economic stagnation, pressures on businesses, and the effects of government austerity measures.
The effects of inflation have not been uniformly felt across the region, however. According to Ahmed Moummi, the lead author of the survey report, it is likely that GCC countries and other oil-exporting nations will continue to benefit from higher energy prices, while oil-importing countries will experience several socioeconomic challenges.
“The current situation presents an opportunity for oil-exporting Arab countries to diversify their economies away from the energy sector by accumulating reserves and investing in projects that generate inclusive growth and sustainable development,” Moummi said.
Saudi Arabia is expected to be the fastest-growing economy in the G20 group of developed nations this year. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s economy contracted last year amid political paralysis and delays in implementing a recovery plan.
Economists said the recent effects of inflation have had disproportionately harsh effects on Arab countries that are dependent on imports of food and other essential commodities. The Arab world was already among the world’s most food-insecure regions, and in the past year the number of hungry households has increased.
Before the war in Ukraine began, Russia was the world’s biggest exporter of wheat and Ukraine the fifth-biggest, accounting for about 20 percent and 10 percent of global exports respectively, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Between them they were also key exporters of other important products.
The blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports last year therefore resulted in massive spikes in the market prices of grain, cooking oil and fertilizers. This caused the price of staple goods such as bread to soar throughout the Arab region.
Although a UN-brokered deal last summer summer allowed Black Sea grain shipments to resume, easing fears of a supply-side shortage, Western sanctions on Russian goods, including hydrocarbon products, raised the price of fuel and, in turn, the cost of importing and exporting.
“Food security has been jeopardized in several countries, especially those witnessing conflicts and unrest (whether political or economic), as the food basket is becoming more and more unaffordable,” Majed Skaini, regional manager of the International Comparison Program at UN ESCWA, told Arab News.
Meanwhile, because of the added pressures on governments and businesses, wages have failed to keep pace with the rising cost of living, leading to a decline in living standards in many countries and mounting levels of public anger.
People in the Arab region are “probably more adversely affected by the rising cost of living for two reasons,” An Hodgson, the global head of consumer research at Euromonitor, told Arab News.
“Firstly, consumers in the region have a relatively low savings ratio, which means that they don’t have much of a financial cushion to help them weather the cost-of-living crisis.
“In 2022, the savings ratio in the Middle East and North Africa stood at 10 percent of disposable income, below the global average of 17.6 percent. In comparison, the savings ratio in Asia Pacific was 26.7 percent of disposable income during the same year.”
The second reason is the high reliance in the region on food imports.
“In 2021 (the latest year for which Euromonitor has data), imports of foodstuffs in the Middle East and North Africa averaged $105 per capita, compared with $44 per capita in Asia Pacific and $67 per capita in Latin America,” said Hodgson.
“This means that consumers in the region are more vulnerable to soaring food prices as a result of global supply-chain and food-production disruptions.”
The mounting cost of living is putting particular pressure on the middle classes, who tend to make up the biggest and most economically active group in societies.
“We see middle classes all over the world struggling to maintain their socioeconomic status, as well as their standard of living, in the context of weak income growth, soaring inflation and the cost-of-living crisis,” said Hodgson.
“As a matter of fact, the middle class in developed countries, especially in Western Europe, have never recovered from the financial squeeze they experienced during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.”
This squeeze has resulted in a widespread shift in consumer habits, including a fall in conspicuous consumption, more cautious spending and general belt-tightening.
According to Euromonitor’s latest findings on global consumer trends, the vast majority of households will focus on saving over the course of the coming year. Its research found that about 75 percent of consumers did not plan to increase overall spending, and 43 percent had reduced their energy consumption.
A recent survey by the World Economic Forum found 92 percent of respondents said people in their countries are “adjusting their budgets to pay for food, some even going without.”
The report added: “When asked how rising prices had impacted consumers, 68 percent said household debt had increased and 59 percent that access to healthcare had been affected.”
Many believe 2023 will be another tough year for parts of the Arab region, which will experience a further widening of the gap between the wealthier oil economies and the more unstable, import-intensive nations of the Levant and North Africa.
In Egypt, the new reality is driving families that were once considered part of the middle class to seek help. Ahmed Hesham of the Abwab El-Kheir charity said a growing number of middle-class Egyptians have been seeking assistance.
“A lot of people had life savings they were keeping aside … Now they’re using them for healthcare or daily costs,” he told AFP.
“They used to make a good living. Now they can’t make ends meet. They’ve never been in this position before and they’re mortified to come to us.
“One man told us he can either feed his kids or put them through school but not both.”