Anxious Lebanese turn to property amid banking crisis

An anti-government demonstrator holds a Lebanese flag in Beirut. (Reuters/File)
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Updated 24 June 2020

Anxious Lebanese turn to property amid banking crisis

  • New class of investor emerges as people in the country seek to protect savings

BEIRUT: The Lebanese real estate sector has witnessed a spike in activity in the past three months despite an economic crisis that has seen the exchange rate of the dollar reach 6,000 lira, four times the official price.

Raja Makarem, a property expert and director of Ramco Real Estate, said that sales over the past three months amounts to over $2 billion. He told Arab News that the real estate rush “will continue as long as the Lebanese banks agree to give bank checks to their depositors.”

The decline of the real estate sector was one of the major signs of the economic crisis that began in 2012.

The crisis peaked after the end of subsidized housing loans and the decline of foreign investment in the Lebanese real estate market.

With Lebanon entering the stage of financial collapse in the second half of last year, real estate sector indicators recorded dire results for property value and sales numbers on top of a notable decline in new building licenses.

Property sales fell by up to 70 percent and the prices of apartments, especially larger ones, fell in value by 25 percent on average.

In light of banking restrictions on personal savings pushed through last November, and rumors of further measures, many Lebanese have used property as a vehicle to retain personal savings.

Jamal Shamas, a property expert, said: “During the last three months, depositors, especially those with large amounts, have been rushing to buy apartments in Solidere, in the heart of Beirut, and apartments on the Beirut waterfront, as these areas maintain their value due to their unique locations.”

He added: “I now receive 20 calls per day to procure apartments as an accredited expert for real estate appraisal.

“This phenomenon reached its climax when the banks announced that the depositors can withdraw small amounts from their dollar-based savings in Lebanese pounds, with a generous fixed exchange rate, so depositors rushed to real estate to save their deposits.”

“These depositors are not all Lebanese; there are Syrians, Iraqis, and Gulf nationals who have accounts in Lebanese banks. Most of the Lebanese are expatriates in Africa or those who work in Arab countries.”

Raja Makarem agreed, adding: “This reality created a great demand for vacant apartments, which experienced flexibility in prices. The buyer is trying to take advantage of the decline in real estate prices and the seller, which is usually a real estate developer, accepts a small loss in order to pay off a loan to the bank.”

“Over the past three months, many developers have sold a stock of apartments that they have been unable to sell for years.

“This rush on real estate has revived the strained market again, with prices increasing by 20 to 30 percent compared with six or seven months ago, and returning to their 2010 level.”

Jamal Shamas said there is no property remaining in the Solidere area to sell.

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Israel launches official probe into deadly festival stampede

Updated 20 June 2021

Israel launches official probe into deadly festival stampede

  • Some 100,000 people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gathered for the April 29 holiday festival despite coronavirus restrictions
  • Experts had long warned the Mount Meron complex was inadequately equipped to handle the enormous crowds
JERUSALEM: Israel’s government approved Sunday the establishment of an independent state commission of inquiry into a deadly disaster at a Jewish holy site in April that left 45 people dead.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the commission would investigate major safety shortcomings that led to a deadly stampede at Lag Baomer celebrations on Mount Meron.
It will be headed by a current or former senior judge, and its members selected by the country’s chief Supreme Court justice.
Some 100,000 people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gathered for the April 29 holiday festival in northern Israel despite coronavirus restrictions limiting outdoor assemblies to 500 people, and longstanding warnings about the safety of such gatherings. The state comptroller’s office had previously issued a pair of reports in 2008 and 2011 warning that the conditions at Mount Meron were dangerous.
Hundreds of people funneled through a narrow passageway descending the mountain’s holy site during the festival. A slippery slope caused people to stumble and fall, precipitating a human avalanche that killed 45 people and injured at least 150.
The police launched an investigation into the disaster, but to date have yet to make any arrests.
The government said the commission would investigate the officials “who made the decisions that led to approving the event and determining the framework that was approved and its terms.”
Powerful ultra-Orthodox politicians reportedly pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government officials to lift attendance restrictions at the religious festival.
Experts had long warned the Mount Meron complex was inadequately equipped to handle the enormous crowds that flock there during the springtime holiday, and that existing infrastructure was a safety risk.
Netanyahu’s political allies, including ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, walked out on a Knesset committee hearing that discussed forming an investigation last month. Families of the mostly ultra-Orthodox victims of the disaster had called on Netanyahu to take action and form an independent state commission to investigate the incident.
Bennett said at the start of his newly formed government’s first Cabinet meeting that “the responsibility is on our shoulders to learn the lessons to prevent the disaster to come.”
“The commission cannot bring back those who died, but the government can do everything to prevent an unnecessary loss in the future,” he said.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, one of the ministers who advanced the motion to launch the commission, said in a statement: “We must make sure that a tragedy of this nature never repeats itself. The taskforce’s purpose is, above anything else, to save human life.”

New compensation offer made over Suez Canal blockage — lawyer

Updated 20 June 2021

New compensation offer made over Suez Canal blockage — lawyer

  • The Ever Given container ship has been anchored in a lake between two stretches since it was dislodged on March 29
  • The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) demanded $916 million in compensation before lowering it to $550 million

ISMAILIA: The owners of a giant container ship that blocked the Suez Canal in March have made a new offer in a compensation dispute with the canal authority, a lawyer for the authority said on Sunday.
The Ever Given container ship has been anchored in a lake between two stretches of the canal since it was dislodged on March 29. It had been grounded across the canal for six days, blocking hundreds of ships and disrupting global trade.
The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) demanded $916 million in compensation to cover salvage efforts, reputational damage and lost revenue, before publicly lowering the request to $550 million.
The Ever Given’s Japanese owners Shoei Kisen and its insurers have disputed the claim and the ship’s detention under an Egyptian court order.
Negotiations had been continuing until Saturday, SCA lawyer Khaled Abu Bakr told a court hearing in Ismailia over the ship’s detention.
The ship’s owners had put in a new offer, he said, without giving details. The SCA’s chairman previously said Shoei Kisen had offered to pay $150 million.
The court had been due to rule on the case on Sunday but Shoei Kisen’s legal team asked for a postponement to allow more time for negotiations, one of their lawyers said.
This week UK Club, one of the ship’s insurers, said it was engaged in “serious and constructive negotiations” with the SCA, and was “hopeful of a positive resolution to these negotiations in the near future.”

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Lebanon’s Hezbollah hails Raisi’s election win in Iran

Updated 20 June 2021

Lebanon’s Hezbollah hails Raisi’s election win in Iran

  • Raisi, a former judiciary chief, won nearly 62 percent of the vote in Friday’s election

BEIRUT: The head of Lebanon’s powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah on Sunday congratulated ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi on winning Iran’s presidential election, describing him as a “shield” against Israel and other “aggressors.”

Raisi, a former judiciary chief, won nearly 62 percent of the vote in Friday’s election on turnout of 48.8 percent, after his most prominent rivals were either disqualified or pulled out of the race.

“Your victory has renewed the hopes of the Iranian people and the people of the region who see you as a shield and a strong supporter... for the resistance against aggressors,” Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in a statement.

Hezbollah, long designated a terrorist organization by the United States, forms an “axis of resistance” against Israel together with Iran and Syria.

The Lebanese movement fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006, and its fighters have also battled against rebels trying to oust the regime of Syria’s President Bashar Assad.

Assad, whose government counts Iran as one of its top allies, wished Raisi “success in his new responsibilities... and steering the country in the face of external pressure.”

Hezbollah, a powerful force in Lebanese politics, also has close ties with the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas which rules the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said “Iran has always been a main, strong and real supporter of the Palestinian resistance and our national cause” as he congratulated Raisi.


Bassil attacks attempts to form the Lebanese govt

A demonstrator carries a national flag during a protest against mounting economic hardships, in Beirut. (Reuters/File)
Updated 21 June 2021

Bassil attacks attempts to form the Lebanese govt

  • The politician criticizes Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and the head of the Lebanese Forces Party, Samir Geagea

BEIRUT: The head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Lebanese MP Gebran Bassil made a speech on Sunday attacking all attempts to form a government. He declared his rejection of the “three-eight formula that is being worked on to form a government of 24 ministers.”

Bassil, an ally of Hezbollah, said that “actual parity between Muslims and Christians is through having 12 ministers named by Christians and 12 ministers named by Muslims, not eight ministers named by Christians and 16 ministers named by Muslims.”
Bassil, who was described by the British newspaper The Times as “the most hated man in Lebanon,” strongly criticized Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Hezbollah’s main ally, as well as the head of the Lebanese Forces (LF) Party, Samir Geagea, the rival Christian party on the Lebanese political scene, accusing him of failing to defend the Christian interests.
Bassil said he had decided “to seek help from his friend Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hezbollah,” as he accepts what Nasrallah believes about forming a government.
“Bassil seemed to open the battle for the parliamentary and possibly presidential elections by presenting himself as a sole defender of the Christian community’s rights.”
The coordinator of the Rally for Sovereignty, Naufal Daou, said that “Bassil’s request for Nasrallah’s assistance is ... rather an attempt to bully through weapons and a recognition of Nasrallah’s authority in exchange for some positions and quotas.”

FASTFACT

Hezbollah activists celebrated on social media the victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the Iranian presidential elections.

Daou addressed Bassil by saying: “Isn’t it better ... to seek the assistance of the Lebanese constitution and Lebanon’s true Arab friends in the interests of the Lebanese people instead of resorting to arms? The constitution is a reference, not a party that owns weapons.”
A member of the parliamentary Strong Republic bloc, MP Wehbe Qatisha, said that Bassil “has entrenched himself in sectarianism.”
Former MP Fadi Karam said that Bassil and his team “ruined the country, destroyed the state, and devastated the people through their alliances with the enemies of freedom and with the axis of humiliation and backwardness.”
Bassil affirmed that “our intention is to restore the role they took from us between 1990 and 2005,” referring to reducing the powers of the presidency in accordance with the Taif Agreement for the benefit of the Council of Ministers. He accused the other parties of not respecting the text of the agreement.
A few hours before Bassil’s speech, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi in his Sunday sermon called on “the Lebanese people to be vigilant.”
He strongly criticized “the ruling political group ... for its inability to rule the people and the country. Officials are blocking the formation of the government under the pretext of powers. What powers are you looking for? ... Our problem is not a lack of powers, but a lack of responsibility,” he said.
Al-Rahi stressed that “our army is always ready to confront any breach of security, and the time has come for the state to clarify its position and recognize the army as the sole legitimate party that is responsible for Lebanon’s security, sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.”
Meanwhile, Hezbollah activists celebrated on social media the victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the Iranian presidential elections.


Libya’s Haftar closes border with Algeria

Updated 20 June 2021

Libya’s Haftar closes border with Algeria

  • The armed forces has closed the Libyan-Algerian border and declared it a military zone
  • Most of the country is still controlled by armed groups

TRIPOLI: Forces loyal to Libya’s eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar have closed the border with Algeria, they said on Sunday, after major deployments of his forces to the south underscored his continued role despite efforts to unify the country.

Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) last week sent troops into the southern city of Sebha, which was already allied to eastern forces, and then on Saturday to a southern border crossing with Algeria.

“The armed forces has closed the Libyan-Algerian border and declared it a military zone in which movement is prohibited,” said the Moral Guidance Department, an LNA media unit.

The nearly 1,000-kilometer (620 miles) border between Algeria and Libya cuts through mostly uninhabited desert and has few crossings.

Haftar was put onto the back foot last year after the collapse of his 14-month offensive against Tripoli, while a new unity government backed by a UN-facilitated peace process has called into question his political position.

However, despite progress toward a political solution for Libya after a decade of violence and chaos, most of the country is still controlled by armed groups, corruption is rampant and the outside powers involved in the conflict have not withdrawn.

Progress is expected on Sunday in implementing the terms of a military cease-fire in place since September, with the planned reopening of the main coast road across front lines, and foreign powers will convene in Berlin this week for Libya talks.

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