Iraq protests take toll on economy, vulnerable suffer most

The protracted street hostilities, Internet outages, blocked roads and a general atmosphere of unease are posing risks to Iraq’s economy. (File/AFP)
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Updated 20 December 2019

Iraq protests take toll on economy, vulnerable suffer most

  • The unrest has not significantly affected Iraq’s main economic lifeline, oil, which brings in $6-7 billion a month, up to 90% of the state’s revenue
  • A military spokesperson for the prime minister said the protests had cost Iraq $6 billion within the span of a month

BAGHDAD: With wisps of smoke still rising from the remnants of another night of violence, the workers came in the morning to salvage what merchandise they could from the torched warehouses in Baghdad’s central commercial district.
Boxes upon boxes of clothes, cosmetics and household goods stored by traders in the country’s most thriving market were hurled onto pick-up trucks to be taken away from Rasheed Street, a historic avenue that for weeks has been scene of ongoing violence between anti-government protesters and security forces.
Stores were shuttered across the once bustling thoroughfare, where the chatter of bargain-hunters has been replaced by an occasional volley of bullets.

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“We are loading and leaving,” said one merchant, Salah Redha. “My merchandise is worth over $1.5 million. Half of it is gone and the other half destroyed ... who will compensate me?”
With Iraq’s leaderless uprising now in its third month, the protracted street hostilities, Internet outages, blocked roads and a general atmosphere of unease are posing risks to Iraq’s economy. In particular, the unrest has set back the most fragile segment of the country’s economy, the private sector, where business owners have faced losses from damage to merchandise and disruptions of markets and from consumers reeling in their spending out of fear for the future.
So far, the unrest has not significantly affected Iraq’s main economic lifeline, oil, which brings in $6-7 billion a month, up to 90% of the state’s revenue. Oil exports have not faced disruptions, according to two senior oil ministry officials. Production has not been hurt by regular sit-ins blocking roads to major oil fields in the south, home to the vast majority of Iraq’s oil resources.
But future investment is now in question, said Zaab Sethna, co-founder of Northern Gulf Partners, a frontier investment firm with experience in Iraq. Foreign investors have pulled out of deals in energy and other sectors, alarmed by the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq, highlighted by the heavy-handed security crackdown on demonstrations.
“We had an American backer ready to commit, to put money into Iraq, and they turned around and said, ‘Look everything I am reading says this is a place the Iranians are taking over and I am not going to put my money there,’” he said.
Other investors have been worried by the slowness of talks on forming a new government after Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi resigned in the face of the protests. Political blocs are expected to name a new consensus-based candidate for the premiership this week.
Reform measures taken to retire key director-generals over the age of 60 has also caused anxieties for companies who have vested business relationships with bureaucrats. Ironically, the very issues raised by protesters on the street, including corruption, bureaucracy and lack of adequate public services, have long been a factor deterring investment, Sethna said.
Two industry officials who were in the middle of negotiating lucrative energy contracts said they have taken a step back — “until the dust settles,” one said. Both spoke on condition of anonymity to not derail future talks with the government.
Periodic road closures by protesters leading to Iraq’s two main commodities ports in Umm Qasr and Khor Al-Zubair have halted trade activity several times. To compensate, higher volumes of goods were imported through the border cross with Turkey in the north in late November. Hussein Ali, a potato trader, said delays at Umm Qasr cost him up to $6,000 per container, so he opted for the northern land route. Customs from the ports are an important source of state revenue.
There are no figures to know exact economic losses suffered due to protests, because disruptions, when they occur, are often temporary or reliable data is hard to come by.
A military spokesperson for the prime minister, Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, said the protests had cost Iraq $6 billion within the span of a month. This figure is unlikely, since it would require major setbacks in oil earnings, according to calculations by the Associated Press.
The impact has been indelible on Iraq’s hobbled private sector.
The World Bank has said developing this sector was key to diversifying the oil-dependent economy and creating much needed jobs. With poor regulations and high start-up costs, however, Iraqis have had little incentive to take the risks associated with entrepreneurship.
As a result, much of the sector remains informal and limited largely to cash-based retailers — who are highly sensitive to any disruptions.
“We have a huge informal sector that has no chance of joining the formal sector — they have no deeds, ownership, just conventions and understandings. If something goes wrong, you are dropped,” said Ahmed Tabaqchali, chief investment officer of AFC Iraq Fund.
At Shorja market, Baghdad’s main wholesale market, merchants said they have seen daily earnings drop since protests started in October in part because customers are buying less and in part because of the turmoil at Rasheed Street, where most store their merchandise.
In southern Iraq, a rising number of medium to small businesses owners are defaulting on monthly payments on bank loans, said an official in Iraq’s League of Private Banks, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.
Iraq’s growing ecommerce sector was decimated by widespread Internet cuts imposed by authorities in October and November in a failed attemp to quell the protests, said Mujahid Waisi, an entrepreneur and founder of KAPITA, an incubator space set to launch early next year.
Even with the Internet restored, “because most of those items are not essential, people fear making purchases because of the situation,” said Waisi. “They want to keep money in their hands.” Moreover, ecommerce startups are hesitant to promote their services online, fearing protesters will criticize them as unpatriotic, he added.
Many cash-strapped merchants have let go of workers because of the escalating crisis.
“It has been 25 days that I haven’t worked,” said Mohammed Hamid, a worker in Rasheed Street. He said the shopowner he worked for told him not even to come in — “how am I going to pay your ... weekly salary when I am closed?”


Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays

Updated 11 April 2021

Libya launches COVID-19 vaccination drive after delays

  • The country's healthcare system has been strained by years of political turmoil and violence
  • Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh called it a "blessed day" in the fight against COVID-19 after receiving his shot

TRIPOLI: Libya's new unity government launched a long-delayed COVID-19 vaccination programme on Saturday after receiving some 160,000 vaccine doses over the past week, with the prime minister receiving his jab on live television.
While Libya is richer than its neighbours due to oil exports, the country's healthcare system has been strained by years of political turmoil and violence, and it has struggled to cope during the pandemic.
Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh called it a "blessed day" in the fight against COVID-19 after receiving his shot, without saying which vaccine he had been given. At least 100,000 of the doses that arrived this week were Russia's Sputnik V vaccine.
Dbeibeh's interim Government of National Unity was sworn in last month after emerging through a UN-facilitated process with a mandate to unify the country, improve state services and oversee the run-up to a national election in December.
Dbeibeh's government has framed the delivery of vaccines and the national roll-out as evidence that it is improving the lives of ordinary Libyans after replacing two warring administrations that ruled in the east and west of the country.
"Through the political consultations and the efforts of the prime minister, the vaccine is available," said Health Minister Ali Al-Zanati, who has said previously the government had so far ordered enough doses to inoculate 1.4 million of the country's more than six million people.
Libya's National Centre for Disease Control has said more than 400,000 people have registered for vaccination in more than 400 centres around the country.
Libya has recorded more than 166,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 3,000 deaths, though UN envoys have said the true figures are likely far higher.
"I feel sorry that the vaccine arrived late in Libya after thousands were infected. But better late than never," said Ali al-Hadi, a shop owner, adding that his wife had been sick with COVID-19 and recovered.
Many Libyans fear the vaccination campaign could be marred by political infighting or favouritism after years of unrest.
"We hope the Health Ministry will steer away from political conflicts so that services can reach patients," said housewife Khawla Muhammad, 33. 


Iran boosts nuclear program in snub to US

Updated 11 April 2021

Iran boosts nuclear program in snub to US

  • President Hassan Rouhani inaugurates cascades of 164 IR-6 centrifuges and 30 IR-5 devices at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant
  • The new move is a direct challenge to the US, after talks began last week aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal

TEHRAN/JEDDAH: Iran on Saturday started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges in breach of its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to curb its nuclear program.

The new move is a direct challenge to the US, after talks began last week aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. Washington said it had offered “very serious” ideas on rescuing the agreement, which collapsed in 2018 when the US withdrew, but was waiting for Tehran to reciprocate.

Tehran’s response came on Saturday, when President Hassan Rouhani inaugurated a cascade of 164 IR-6 centrifuges for producing enriched uranium, as well as two test cascades of 30 IR-5 and 30 IR-6S devices at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, in a ceremony broadcast by state television.

Rouhani also launched tests on the “mechanical stability” of its latest-generation IR-9 centrifuges, and remotely opened a centrifuge assembly factory to replace a plant that was badly damaged in a July 2020 explosion widely attributed to Israel.

Rouhani again underlined at the ceremony, which coincided with Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day, that Tehran’s nuclear program is solely for “peaceful” purposes.

Under the 2015 deal between Tehran and world powers, Iran is permitted to use only “first-generation” IR-1 centrifuges for production, and to test a limited number of IR-4 and IR-5 devices.

When the US withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, Donald Trump reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, which responded by stepping up its nuclear enrichment to levels prohibited under the JCPOA.

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Iran’s latest move follows an opening round of talks in Vienna Tuesday with representatives of the remaining parties to the deal on bringing the US back into it.

All sides said the talks, in which Washington is not participating directly but is relying on the EU as an intermediary, got off to a good start.

However, US allies in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, believe any revived deal should also cover Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional meddling through proxy militias in Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere.

Iran has demanded that the US lift all sanctions imposed by Trump before it resumes compliance with the JCPOA. The US insists that Iran must act first.

“The United States team put forward a very serious idea and demonstrated a seriousness of purpose on coming back into compliance if Iran comes back into compliance,” a US official said.

But the official said the US was waiting for its efforts to be reciprocated by Iran.

Iran is also demanding an end to all US restrictions, but the JCPOA covers only nuclear sanctions and not US measures taken in response to human rights and terrorism issues.

(With AFP)

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Never insulted Erdogan? You’re eligible to stay in a Turkish student dormitory

Updated 10 April 2021

Never insulted Erdogan? You’re eligible to stay in a Turkish student dormitory

  • Students who have been convicted for a prison term of more than six months — or for insulting Erdogan— will be unable to stay in dormitories
  • The move was criticized by rights groups as politically motivated

JEDDAH: A surprise amendment to the regulation of dormitory services under the Youth and Sports Ministry was adopted and published in the Official Gazette on Friday.
Under the amendment, students who have been convicted for a prison term of more than six months — or for insulting the Turkish president — will be unable to stay in student dormitories.
The move was criticized by rights groups as politically motivated.
Between 2014 and 2019, 128,872 investigations were launched into cases of insults against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and prosecutors launched 27,717 criminal cases about these alleged insults.
Turkish courts sentenced 9,556 of those charged with insulting the president, including politicians, journalists and even children. A total of 903 minors between the ages of 12 and 17 appeared in court on this charge.
In 2018, a 14-year-old boy was prosecuted over an Instagram post that allegedly insulted the president. Although he was sentenced to five months in jail, it was later turned into an administrative fine.
Several students from Bogazici University were recently charged with “insulting the president” during protests against the appointment of a ruling party loyalist, Melih Bulu, as the rector of the university, one of the most prestigious in the country.
An open letter in which they addressed the president, reiterating their demands and seeking to enjoy their constitutional rights, was also subjected to criminal proceedings with charges of insulting Erdogan.
Separately, Turkey’s main opposition Peoples’ Republican Party (CHP) faced an investigation after banners were put up in the northwestern province of Mudanya.
On the banners, which were taken down within hours, the CHP asked about a $128 billion hole in the Turkish Central Bank’s foreign reserves.
For a couple of months, the CHP has been raising the issue of accountability as to where and how these reserves have been spent since 2019.
Durmus Yilmaz, former head of the Turkish Central Bank, has also called for an investigation to determine how these huge and much-needed reserves were spent.
The opposition claims that the reserves might have been spent to support the Turkish lira against foreign currencies, while Erdogan said that the money was used in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The chief public prosecutor will investigate the party officials — who will be charged with insulting the president — for being involved in the preparation and display of the banners on the billboards for a couple of hours.
“The name of the president does not appear anywhere on the posters. I’m wondering what they thought about when opening such an investigation,” Zeynep Gurcanli, a senior journalist, tweeted.
The decision triggered a nationwide social media protest, with thousands of people tweeting: “Where is the 128 billion dollars?”


Disappointed Lebanese protesters return to street, demanding end of deadlock

Updated 10 April 2021

Disappointed Lebanese protesters return to street, demanding end of deadlock

  • “Soldiers can no longer provide for their families or even pay transportation to and from work,” Akar said
  • 170 days have passed since Hariri’s nomination to form a new government

BEIRUT: Heavy rainfall on Saturday afternoon prevented large numbers of people from participating in a “Day of Rage” in the heart of Beirut, declared by the Oct. 17 groups demanding a transitional government with exceptional legislative powers.

These groups are trying to reactivate protests against the political class that they accuse of corruption.

Waddah Sadek, deputy head of the “I Am a Red Line” initiative, told Arab News: “We support these protests. The aim on this day was to mobilize school and university students to take to the streets and encourage people to gradually return to the streets to express their anger. Protest squares have been empty in the past few months due to the coronavirus and people are disappointed as demos did not manage to make any change on the governmental level.”

Sadek talked about “the recent mistakes of protesters, caused by some disputes over minor issues that could have been avoided.”

Sadek said that “the main revolutionary groups, opposing political parties, independent politicians and intellectual figures will announce the formation of an opposition political front by the end of April, that has a political program aiming to form a rescue government that would save the country.

“The current political class is unable to form an alternative government. Any government they form will only be the same as the current one,” he said.

Judge Shoukri Sader, who served as head of the State Shoura Council before retiring, told Arab News: “If protesters do not unite, the same politicians will be elected in 2022. Those in power now are seeking to divide us. If we present three electoral lists in the next parliamentary elections, they will beat us. Today, we are risking our own presence. We cannot remain divided; therefore, we are forming a political front to unify votes and priorities.”

He added: “We cannot play their game; they disagree on the government’s nature and quota. We, on the other hand, must unite and put the small details aside.

“Large groups of protesters are communicating via Whatsapp and Facebook and each one of them has their own demands and opinions. What is required of these groups at this point is to be mature and aware, before actually trying to wake up the silent majority of Lebanese who are suffering.

“Activists must agree on the priorities and must not force others to follow them. People quit their political parties and joined us not to be forced to follow opposing politicians and partisans nor to be marginalized.

“The top priority we should agree on is the rejection of Hezbollah’s arms. We must reclaim the decision of the state from its kidnappers. Our second priority is restoring the provisions of the constitution because the Lebanese constitution includes all our sovereignty demands; the neutrality of Lebanon, a parliamentary republic and a free economic system. Therefore, let us cut to the chase and call for early elections and a transitional government. The country is collapsing.”

He said: “President Michel Aoun’s experience in power has been unsuccessful, from the War of Liberation in the 1980s, the War of Cancellation until his current mandate. He has only done the opposite of what he promised and has put his personal interests above the national interests. We are aware that in Lebanon, revolutions are doomed to fail, and we are also aware that a new civil war is impossible since there is no equity among fighters in the presence of Hezbollah’s arms. Chaos might prevail and this is what is making us wait for the constitutional deadlines to make the change.”

One hundred and seventy days have passed since Saad Hariri’s nomination to form a new government, yet officials are still swapping responsibilities and accusations without establishing any social security network for the poor and needy amid the worsening economic collapse.

Zeina Akar, defense minister in the caretaker government, shed light on the living situation of soldiers during a visit she made to a town in the Bekaa valley. She said that soldiers’ salaries had lost 85 percent of their value against the US dollar. “Soldiers can no longer provide for their families or even pay transportation to and from work,” she said.

Akar urged soldiers “not to slip into anything that could prevent them from performing their duties because they represent the safety valve protecting Lebanon’s sovereignty and people, and preserving its security and stability.”


As Black Sea ‘boils,’ Ankara tries to strike balance between Russia, US 

Updated 10 April 2021

As Black Sea ‘boils,’ Ankara tries to strike balance between Russia, US 

  • In line with the convention, Washington notified Ankara about its future deployment of vessels to the Black Sea on April 9, 15 days before they are due to do so
  • The warships are expected to stay in the area until May 4

ANKARA: The US decision to sail two warships through the Turkish Straits has sparked anger from Russia and may trigger a new standoff with Turkey, amid talk of a possible revision of the 1936 Montreux Convention.
Under the terms of the agreement, Turkey is granted the authority to control its Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, including the passage, the tonnage and the duration of stay of foreign warships.
In line with the convention, Washington notified Ankara about its future deployment of vessels to the Black Sea on April 9, 15 days before they are due to do so, in a move to support Ukraine against increasing Russian activity on the country’s eastern border. The warships are expected to stay in the area until May 4. 
“We are concerned by recent escalating Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, including the credible reports about Russian troop movements on Ukraine’s borders and occupied Crimea,” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said last week. 
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Istanbul on Saturday to attend the ninth high-level strategic council meeting between the two countries. The pair have increased their defense cooperation in recent years, with Ukraine purchasing unmanned combat aerial vehicles and ground control stations from Turkey.
However, the passage of the US warships and the visit of Zelensky drew a negative reaction from Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin held a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to discuss developments in Ukraine.
A statement issued by the Kremlin revealed that Putin stressed the importance of preserving the current status of the Montreux Convention, and that he had also blamed Ukraine for carrying out “dangerous provocative activities” in the eastern Donbas region.
The presence of two warships might escalate tensions in the region, experts say. 
Aydin Sezer, an expert on Russia-Turkey relations, told Arab News: “The Biden administration made its Russia policy crystal clear: It wants to contain that country and consolidate NATO toward this goal, to restore transatlantic ties that were undermined during the previous Trump period.
“During Friday’s phone call, Putin reminded (Erdogan) of the bilateral commitments in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib region and the previous cooperation protocols. The tourism embargo is also significant as the Russian side knows that it is Turkey’s Achilles heel,” Sezer added. 
Turkey, which relies in tourism, was the most popular holiday destination for Russian tourists before the outbreak of the coronavirus disease pandemic, with over 6.7 million visiting the country in 2019. The pandemic severely disrupted global tourism, and on Monday Russia will reportedly restrict air traffic with Turkey for a month due to the virus. 
“In an ideal world, Turkey should remain neutral in this crisis, and it should also calm down NATO,” Sezer continued. “Otherwise, a serious crisis with Russia is likely to emerge, like … when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in November 2015.”  
The future of the convention was brought into focus earlier this month, after 104 retired Turkish admirals released a controversial declaration on April 3 to warn the government over the artificial waterway project, dubbed Kanal Istanbul, to ease shipping traffic through the Bosphorus, claiming the project would open the convention to discussion and result in Turkey’s loss of absolute sovereignty over the Sea of Marmara.  
Erdogan said on April 5 that his government had no “intention to leave the Montreux Convention,” but added that it could be reviewed in the future in case of necessity.  
For Dr. Emre Ersen, an expert on Turkey-Russia relations from Marmara University in Istanbul, the latest developments in the Black Sea should be alarming for Ankara considering that Turkish foreign policy in this region has traditionally been based on striking a perfect balance between the West and Russia. 
“Even though it has become more difficult to maintain this balance after the developments in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Montreux Convention still provides Ankara with the opportunity to implement the same policy,” he told Arab News. 
Ersen added that the Biden administration will exert more pressure on Turkey to actively cooperate with NATO in the Black Sea, considering the US president’s personal interest in Ukraine. 
“However, if Turkey decides to take action outside the framework of the Montreux Convention, this would inevitably create significant tensions with Russia which could spill over into vital issues like Syria and bilateral economic relations,” he said.