Financial losses during pandemic deepen Palestinian woes

COVID-19 has compounded the dire economic conditions of Palestinians, which were moving from bad to worse before the pandemic, according to the UN. (AFP)
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Updated 01 January 2021

Financial losses during pandemic deepen Palestinian woes

  • Minister of National Economy Khaled Al-Osaily estimated the financial losses at about $3 billion

GAZA CITY: At the beginning of 2020, Palestine's GDP was projected to grow by 2.4 percent, compared with nearly 1 percent in 2019 — the lowest growth since 2014. However, the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the Palestinian Authority’s decision to refused to accept tax revenues from Israel, meant those expectations were not met.

In March, the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, declared a state of emergency in an attempt to control the spread of COVID-19. Hamas was much slower to accept the reality of the situation, finally imposing even stricter measures in August following the outbreak of COVID-19 in the Gaza Strip.

Minister of National Economy Khaled Al-Osaily estimated the financial losses at about $3 billion, deepening the PA’s financial woes stemming from a deficit in the public budget estimated at $1.4 billion.

Al-Osaily told Arab News that preventive measures had been necessary for the health of the community, but at the same time constituted a “heavy burden” on the economy.

Al-Osaily expected growth to decline by more than 11 percent, a rate forecast by the World Bank’s Economic Monitoring Report issued in June.

According to the World Bank report, more than 121,000 workers had lost their jobs. Palestinian estimates indicate that 300,000 workers have now lost their jobs, either totally or partially, and that the reality in Gaza is even bleaker. The Businessmen Association in Gaza estimated the economic losses due to the pandemic at more than $1 billion.

The General Federation of Palestinian Trade Unions chairman Sami Al-Amsi told Arab News: “The state of emergency imposed by the pandemic has led to the enrolment of between 100,000 and 160,000 workers in the army of the unemployed.”

According to the Federation’s monitoring, the unemployment rate in 2020 exceeded 80 percent. “Coronavirus has killed workers, and I am not exaggerating if I say that there is no worker left at his job,” said Al-Amsi.

The fact that the pandemic coincided with the tax-revenue crisis, which began with the PA’s decision to sever its relations with Israel in May, exacerbated the situation. The latter crisis ended abruptly when, at the end of November, the PA decided to restore its relationship with Israel and receive the money. The PA requires between $120-150 million monthly for operating expenses.

The taxes Israel collects on goods and commodities imported to the Palestinian territories from abroad constitute about 60 percent of the PA’s general budget, with a monthly value in excess of 700 million shekels. Israel charges 3 percent as a commission for collection, as approved by the Paris Economic Protocol.

Experts say the PA reversed its decision to cut ties with Israel for two reasons: Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election, and its inability to fulfill its economic obligations.

Receiving 2.5 billion shekels in taxes from Israel helped to revive the fragile Palestinian economy following an 80 percent decrease in the financial revenues of the PA, according to Nasr Abdel Kareem, professor of economics at Birzeit University.

“Israel has been aware from the beginning of the importance of the economy, so kept its keys in its hands to place political pressure on the Palestinian Authority,” he told Arab News

Economist Osama Nofal said that improvement is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

“The economic reality before the outbreak of the pandemic was deteriorating and almost collapsing, with unprecedented rates of poverty and unemployment, and the pandemic worsened this reality,” Nofal told Arab News.

“It will take at least three years for the economy to recover even to 2019 levels,” Nofal added. “Even if the world overtakes coronavirus at the beginning of the new year, the economic cycle will (still need) time to recover.”
 


Egypt has given $9.87bn to low-income families

Updated 28 min 36 sec ago

Egypt has given $9.87bn to low-income families

  • The National Bank of Egypt topped the list of banks that provided the most funding for low-income people

CAIRO: Egyptian banks and mortgage finance companies have provided a total of EGP37.02 billion ($9.87 billion) in real estate financing to 364,900 low-income customers since the government launched the initiative seven years ago.

The Central Bank of Egypt launched a mortgage finance initiative in February 2014, offering subsidized low-interest mortgages to low-income citizens. Interest ranged from 5 to 7 percent, with the price of the homes provided to customers set by the Mortgage Finance Fund.

In total, EGP35.2 billion was provided by 22 banks to 348,700 customers, and EGP1.83 billion was given by eight mortgage finance companies to around 16,200 customers.

The National Bank of Egypt topped the list of banks that provided the most funding for low-income people, with a total of EGP9.85 billion given to 95,900 customers. Second on the list was Banque Misr with total financing amounting to EGP7.7 billion given to around 74,800 clients.

In third place was the Housing and Development Bank with EGP5.74 billion given to 63,700 customers, followed by Banque du Caire in fourth place with total financings amounting to EGP2.7 billion and 30,900 customers. Rounding out the top five was the Commercial International Bank with EGP2.04 billion and 17,700 customers. The Industrial Development Bank came in sixth, with total financing of EGP1.48 billion and around 14,000 customers, followed by the United Bank of Egypt with EGP967.5 million for about 7,900 customers and the Arab African Bank with EGP939.2 million for about 8,600 customers.

Qatar National Bank Al-Ahli contributed funds amounting to EGP881.8 million for 7,800 customers, followed by BLOM Bank Egypt in 10th place with total funds of EGP483.9 million provided to more than 4,600 customers.


Saudi Arabia’s female-only rival to Uber sees growth in first year of operations

Updated 35 min 23 sec ago

Saudi Arabia’s female-only rival to Uber sees growth in first year of operations

  • Leena started business June 2020 and has already seen average monthly growth of 25 percent

JEDDAH: June 24, 2018 was a changing point in Saudi Arabia. As the ban on women driving was lifted, and female drivers got behind the wheel, it was one of the standout moments for the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 program.

Female-only car showrooms followed; thousands of women signed up for lessons and driving licenses, Saudi women competed in professional racing competitions and American carmaker General Motors told Arab News last month that 65 percent of the buyers for one of its models were all women.

Therefore, with the advent of disruptive digital platforms like Uber and Careem, it was only a matter of time before a female-only version, with female drivers for passengers, was born.

Leena was officially granted a license by the Saudi government in April 2019 and began operations in June last year.

The company provides taxi services for women, and the drivers — named “Captainahs” — are, like global rival Uber, all freelance operators. However, the difference here is the passengers are all exclusively women as well.

Despite launching at the height of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, demand has been high, with the company reporting average month-on-month growth of over 25 percent.

Leena was founded by a small group of young colleagues whose primary objective was to offer women a comfortable alternative, while also maintaining their independence. 

“We came up with the idea in 2018, around the time women were granted the right to drive,” the CEO and co-founder of Leena, Mohammed Al-Aqeel, told Arab News. “We were debating all the pros and cons of creating an organization centered around women and driving, and found an overwhelming amount of pros — one of which would be to contribute in decreasing the percentage of unemployment among women.”

Despite all the positives, Al-Aqeel’s research found that common negatives from women were complaints about harassment, a lack of privacy and, at worst, even violence, when they took regular taxis.

While everything was ready to launch in 2019, Al-Aqeel said the pandemic did create a lot challenges, but the team has addressed them.

“Every registered ‘Captainah’ is immediately informed of the new regulations and terms related to COVID-19 that they must adhere to,” he said, adding that while the authorities have not made it mandatory for drivers to be vaccinated, Leena has encouraged all “Captainahs” to do so, and the majority have had their injections.

HIGHLIGHT

Leena provides taxi services for women, and the drivers — named ‘Captainahs’ — are, like global rival Uber, all freelance operators. However, the difference here is the passengers are all exclusively women as well.

Initial demand has proved positive, to the extent that the company often does not have enough drivers to meet the number of ride requests. “Our demographic of drivers are women and we have to understand that a lot of them have familial responsibilities which they will prioritize, and since ‘Captainahs’ are freelance workers, they have the freedom to choose their own working hours to help accommodate their personal lives,” Al-Aqeel said, adding that the company is working on this issue, and has a backlog of new drivers waiting approval to receive their licenses and join the team.

Leena is also planning to launch a marketing recruitment campaign soon to attract more drivers. “We expected to do well just based on the surveys and studies we did when Leena was only an idea, and we found an overwhelming majority of people like the idea and are in support of it,” Al-Aqeel said.

Leena has been self-financed but in order to expand to the next level it will need to look at external options. “As of today, all finances that have gone into Leena are from our own initial capital. The team and I are about to embark on an investment round to find investors to sell shares to,” Al-Aqeel said.

Looking to the future, regional rival Careem was bought by Uber for $3.1 billion. Al-Aqeel said he would be interested in an approach, but he is reluctant to sell Leena outright.

“Of course, if we had an offer we would consider it and discuss it as a team, but we won’t compromise or dispense Leena’s initial mission and cause.

We will have conditions, one of them being that Leena stays exclusive to women,” he said. “We have thought of an exit strategy, but we will preserve some shares in the company. We won’t sell the entire company.”


UAE’s RAW Coffee Co. expands to Saudi Arabia

Updated 44 min ago

UAE’s RAW Coffee Co. expands to Saudi Arabia

  • The company is not planning to distribute through supermarkets but instead plans to replicate its business model in the UAE

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia is the fastest-growing coffee market in the Middle East, expanding at an annual rate of 9.6 percent, according to research in late 2019 carried out by the organizers of the Middle East Coffee Conference held in Riyadh.

As a result, UAE-based RAW Coffee Co. has expanded its distribution network to Saudi Arabia and is eventually hoping to set up a physical presence in the Kingdom.

“We would say that the KSA specialty coffee scene is catching up to the more established UAE industry both in quality and knowledge, which is a very exciting time,” Kim Thompson, the co-owner and managing director of RAW Coffee Co., told Arab News. The company has teamed up with DHL to process its orders in the Kingdom.

“We have completed establishing our KSA business licensing and are currently exploring opportunities based out of Riyadh. At the moment, we roast and deliver fresh from our roastery in Dubai to the commercial customers in KSA that we supply, one of which is L’ETO Cafe, which has branches in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam,” Thompson said.

The company is not planning to distribute through supermarkets but instead plans to replicate its business model in the UAE, where it will distribute directly to customers and through third-party cafes, before eventually setting up its own operations in the Kingdom and potentially a chain of branded cafes.

RAW is not the first UAE-based coffee brand to announce expansion plans in the Kingdom this year. Emirati Coffee in April told Arab News it plans to open its first Saudi branch in July. CEO Mohammed Ali Al-Madfai reported that the company had seen a 3,135 percent increase in online sales in 2020.


Startup of the Week: Botola Meals offers healthy diets

Updated 48 min 52 sec ago

Startup of the Week: Botola Meals offers healthy diets

JEDDAH: Obesity is a growing issue in Saudi Arabia. A study by the Sharik Association for Health Research found that the rate of obesity among Saudi adults totaled 35.6 percent in 2020.

Besides health issues, another study by the US-based University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in collaboration with Saudi Health Council and the World Bank, found that obesity increases the risk of death by COVID-19 by 48 percent, and may make vaccines against the disease less effective.

In a bid to help those suffering with their weight, entrepreneurs Mohammad Faden, Nofal Al-Jefri and Mohammad Al-Harthi in November 2019 set up Botola Meals, a healthy meal-prepping service. 

Botola is the Arabic word for heroism. “It may directly symbolize athletes and achievements, but in fact it is a deep philosophy,” Faden told Arab News. “Whatever the individual’s ambition to reach that goal is, it is in itself an achievement and a mark of heroism,” he added. Al-Jefri highlighted the fact that consumers are prone to purchasing meals that are quick to prepare. “We believe that the market needs and lacks this type of project specialized in healthy fast food, and when you specialize in a particular field, it enhances consumer confidence in your product,” Al-Jefri said. “Clean Eating Matters” is the restaurant’s slogan. Al-Harthi said that Botola Meals offers healthy diets that are not about depriving yourself, but about balance. “We also want to educate people about the importance of investing in themselves and their health in an easy and convenient way,” he said. Botola Meals also prepares customized plans to cater to the specific needs of customers, such as monitoring ingredients that cause allergies and eliminating carbohydrates if a customer is following a paleo diet.

“We sit down with the customer and cooperate as much as possible in providing what suits them,” Faden said.

The startup meal service sold about 45,000 meals in 2020 — roughly 120 meals a day.Botola Meals has one branch in Jeddah’s Al-Salama district, and is planning to open a second branch in Riyadh in 2023. The startup’s long-term plan is to expand across the Gulf and beyond.


Saudi Arabia aims to be Egypt’s top trading partner

Updated 14 June 2021

Saudi Arabia aims to be Egypt’s top trading partner

  • Saudi investors are especially interested in the water desalination and water treatment sector, says Egyptian Trade Minister

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia plans to be Egypt’s top trading partner within five years, said Saudi Commerce Minister Majid Al-Qasabi.

He made the pledge at the Egyptian-Saudi Joint Trade Committee on Monday.

The minister highlighted the presence of 6,225 Saudi companies operating in Egypt with investments amounting to some $30 billion.

At the same time, 518 Egyptian are estimated to operate in the Saudi market, with 285 Egyptian brands in the Kingdom.

Saudi investors are especially interested in the water desalination and water treatment sector, Egyptian Trade Minister Nevine Gamea told Asharq Business.

She added that the cooperation between the two countries was reflected in the trade volume, which exceeded $5.5 billion in 2020.

The volume of Egyptian investments in the Kingdom reached $1.4 billion at the end of last year, she added.