HSBC to axe 82 branches in UK, cut services in others

HSBC said it had begun trialing different branch formats and decided to provide fewer full-service branches focused in large cities and towns. (AFP)
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Updated 19 January 2021

HSBC to axe 82 branches in UK, cut services in others

  • The lender said it would be left with 511 branches in the UK following the closures

LONDON: HSBC said on Tuesday it planned to axe 82 branches in Britain this year after a drop in footfall across its retail network and a surge in digital banking.
The lender said it would be left with 511 branches in the UK following the closures, with many of the remaining branches set to be refurbished with some providing fewer services.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dented bank finances, putting pressure on lenders to cut costs, while more customers have opted to bank online as people have been encouraged to stay at home to combat the spread of the virus.
HSBC said it had begun trialing different branch formats and decided to provide fewer full-service branches focused in large cities and towns, with others providing cash or self-service technology.
The bank said ‘pop-up’ mobile branches would also be rolled out later this year.
“The direction of travel is really quite clear and this is borne out by the reduction in branch usage and increase in digital interaction that we are seeing first-hand,” said Jackie Uhi, HSBC UK’s head of network.


BNP Paribas appoints female Saudi country chief

Updated 12 min 50 sec ago

BNP Paribas appoints female Saudi country chief

  • Al-Asmari will oversee the bank’s national commercial strategy
  • She will also be responsible for expanding the bank’s product and service work in all CIB segments, including sustainable finance

JEDDAH: BNP Paribas has appointed Reema Al-Asmari as head of territory for Saudi Arabia, bolstering the French bank’s corporate and investment banking (CIB) presence in the Kingdom.
She will oversee the bank’s national commercial strategy, with a focus on strengthening relationships with strategic clients, multinational corporations and government-related entities.
She will also be responsible for expanding the bank’s product and service work in all CIB segments, including sustainable finance.
Amine Bel Hadj Soulami — head of BNP Paribas Middle East and Africa (MEA), and a member of the BNP Paribas MEA Executive Committee — said: “We are pleased to have Reema on board, strengthening our team with her in-depth knowledge of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Soulami added: “BNP Paribas has long recognized the Kingdom’s vital role in the overall development of the region, since the bank became operational there in 2005.”
Al-Asmari joins BNP Paribas from Natixis, where she was CEO for Saudi Arabia. She previously worked for JPMorgan Chase & Co. in the Kingdom for nine years, where she worked as treasury services country head.
Her appointment comes as a report by ratings agency Moody’s found that rising female participation in the labor force has the potential to boost Saudi Arabia’s non-oil growth and improve average household incomes.
The Kingdom published its latest labor market survey in February and showed that Saudi women’s workforce participation rose to 31.3 percent in the third quarter of 2020, up from 26 percent at the end of 2019. The figure is almost double what it was in 2016.
Under the Vision 2030 reform plan, Saudi Arabia aims for female participation in the labor force to be at 30 percent by 2030, a target it has now achieved ahead of schedule.
The elimination of the decades-old ban on women driving was the first big step. The government also created a subsidy program to help women with work-related commuting and childcare expenses.


Saudi Arabia’s rising female labor force defies global pandemic trend

Updated 07 March 2021

Saudi Arabia’s rising female labor force defies global pandemic trend

  • The Kingdom’s latest labor market survey in February showed that women’s participation rose to 31.3 percent in the third quarter of 2020
  • The figure is almost double what it was in 2016

JEDDAH: Rising female participation in Saudi Arabia’s labor force could boost non-oil growth and improve average household incomes in the country, according to a report by Moody’s rating agency.
The Kingdom’s latest labor market survey in February showed that women’s participation rose to 31.3 percent in the third quarter of 2020, up from 26 percent at the end of 2019. While the number is still one of the lowest in the world, the Kingdom is making progress as the figure is almost double what it was in 2016.
Last year’s increase came as a surprise given the pandemic, which has resulted in a decrease in female labor force participation in most parts of the world, with large numbers of women facing increased childcare responsibilities as a result of lockdowns and school closures.
This shows that the increase in female labor force participation in Saudi Arabia is likely to continue, the Moody’s report said.
Under the Vision 2030 goals, Saudi Arabia aims for female participation in the labor force to be at 30 percent by 2030, a target it has achieved ahead of schedule.
The elimination of the decades-old ban on women driving was the first big step, but the government also created a subsidy program to help women with work-related commuting and childcare expenses.
At the same time, global consultancy firm KPMG’s Female Leaders Outlook 2020 was published for the first time in the Kingdom. The survey, conducted in 2020, includes 675 female leaders from 52 countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Kholoud Mousa, partner and head of inclusion and diversity at KPMG in the Kingdom, said: “COVID-19 is an accelerator for digitalization and has ignited change in many areas, so it could be seen as a catalyst for gender diversity, especially in the mid to long term,” she added.
Forty-seven percent of Saudi female leaders in the survey said they do not expect the pandemic to slow progress on diversity and inclusion, and 23 percent of Saudi female leaders said introducing workplace quotas for women was a positive move — more than double the global average.
Looking to the future, 66 percent of female leaders in Saudi Arabia said they were confident about their company’s growth prospects over the next three years.

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Eastern Province Cement shrugs off pandemic with bumper dividend payout

Updated 07 March 2021

Eastern Province Cement shrugs off pandemic with bumper dividend payout

  • Cement sector benefits from mega projects
  • Shares rise as company agrees dividend

DUBAI: Eastern Province Cement shareholders are set to receive an SR215 million ($57.2 million) dividend payout after full-year profits jumped by a fifth last year.
Sales edged 1.8 percent higher in 2020 to SR742 million compared to a year earlier, the Dammam-based company said in a Tadawul stock exchange filing on Sunday. Net profit rose 19.9 percent to SR217 million.
It said that higher sales and lower expenses helped to drive earnings higher.
Cement producers across the Kingdom are benefiting from rising demand from the construction sector where a number of mega-projects linked to the emerging tourism sector have started to take shape.
The shares rose 1.24 percent on Sunday.

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With many vaccinated, Israel reopens economy before election

Updated 07 March 2021

With many vaccinated, Israel reopens economy before election

JERUSALEM: Israel reopened most of its economy Sunday as part of its final phase of lifting coronavirus lockdown restrictions, some of them in place since September.
The easing of restrictions comes after months of government-imposed shutdowns and less than three weeks before the country’s fourth parliamentary elections in two years. Israel, a world leader in vaccinations per capita, has surged forward with immunizing nearly 40% of its population in just over two months.
Bars and restaurants, event halls, sporting events, hotels and all primary and secondary schools that had been closed to the public for months could reopen with some restrictions in place on the number of people in attendance, and with certain places open to the vaccinated only.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government approved the easing of limitations Saturday night, including the reopening of the main international airport to a limited number of incoming passengers each day.
Netanyahu is campaigning for reelection as Israel’s coronavirus vaccine champion at the same time that he is on trial for corruption.
Israel has sped ahead with its immunization campaign. Over 52% of its population of 9.3 million has received one dose and almost 40% two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, one of the highest rates per capita in the world. After striking a deal to obtain large quantities of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines in exchange for medical data, Israel has distributed over 8.6 million doses since launching its vaccination campaign in late December.
While vaccination rates continue to steadily rise and the number of serious cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, drops, Israel’s unemployment rate remains high. As of January, 18.4% of the workforce was out of work because of the pandemic, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
At the same time that it has deployed vaccines to its own citizens, Israel has provided few vaccines for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a move that has underscored global disparities. It has faced criticism for not sharing significant quantities of its vaccine stockpiles with the Palestinians. On Friday, Israel postponed plans to vaccinate Palestinians who work inside the country and its West Bank settlements until further notice.
Israeli officials have said that its priority is vaccinating its own population first, while the Palestinian Authority has said it would fend for itself in obtaining vaccines from the WHO-led partnership with humanitarian organizations known as COVAX.
Israel has confirmed at least 800,000 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and 5,861 deaths, according to the Health Ministry.

Escalating violence ups pressure for Myanmar sanctions

Updated 07 March 2021

Escalating violence ups pressure for Myanmar sanctions

  • The UN special envoy urged the Security Council to act to quell junta violence that this week killed about 50 demonstrators
BANGKOK: The escalation of violence in Myanmar as authorities crack down on protests against the Feb. 1 coup is raising pressure for more sanctions against the junta, even as countries struggle over how to best sway military leaders inured to global condemnation.
The challenge is made doubly difficult by fears of harming ordinary citizens who were already suffering from an economic slump worsened by the pandemic but are braving risks of arrest and injury to voice outrage over the military takeover. Still, activists and experts say there are ways to ramp up pressure on the regime, especially by cutting off sources of funding and access to the tools of repression.
The UN special envoy on Friday urged the Security Council to act to quell junta violence that this week killed about 50 demonstrators and injured scores more.
“There is an urgency for collective action,” Christine Schraner Burgener told the meeting. “How much more can we allow the Myanmar military to get away with?“
Coordinated UN action is difficult, however, since permanent Security Council members China and Russia would almost certainly veto it. Myanmar’s neighbors, its biggest trading partners and sources of investment, are likewise reluctant to resort to sanctions.
Some piecemeal actions have already been taken. The US, Britain and Canada have tightened various restrictions on Myanmar’s army, their family members and other top leaders of the junta. The US blocked an attempt by the military to access more than $1 billion in Myanmar central bank funds being held in the US, the State Department confirmed Friday.
But most economic interests of the military remain “largely unchallenged,” Thomas Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on the rights situation in Myanmar, said in a report issued last week. Some governments have halted aid and the World Bank said it suspended funding and was reviewing its programs.
Its unclear whether the sanctions imposed so far, although symbolically important, will have much ímpact. Schraner Burgener told UN correspondents that the army shrugged off a warning of possible “huge strong measures” against the coup with the reply that, “‘We are used to sanctions and we survived those sanctions in the past.’”
Andrews and other experts and human rights activists are calling for a ban on dealings with the many Myanmar companies associated with the military and an embargo on arms and technology, products and services that can be used by the authorities for surveillance and violence.
The activist group Justice for Myanmar issued a list of dozens of foreign companies that it says have supplied such potential tools of repression to the government, which is now entirely under military control.
It cited budget documents for the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Transport and Communications that show purchases of forensic data, tracking, password recovery, drones and other equipment from the US, Israel, EU, Japan and other countries. Such technologies can have benign or even beneficial uses, such as fighting human trafficking. But they also are being used to track down protesters, both online and offline.
Restricting dealings with military-dominated conglomerates including Myanmar Economic Corp., Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. and Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise might also pack more punch, with a minimal impact on small, private companies and individuals.
One idea gaining support is to prevent the junta from accessing vital oil and gas revenues paid into and held in banks outside the country, Chris Sidoti, a former member of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, said in a news conference on Thursday.
Oil and gas are Myanmar’s biggest exports and a crucial source of foreign exchange needed to pay for imports. The country’s $1.4 billion oil and gas and mining industries account for more than a third of exports and a large share of tax revenue.
“The money supply has to be cut off. That’s the most urgent priority and the most direct step that can be taken,” said Sidoti, one of the founding members of a newly established international group called the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar.
Unfortunately, such measures can take commitment and time, and “time is not on the side of the people of Myanmar at a time when these atrocities are being committed,” he said.
Myanmar’s economy languished in isolation after a coup in 1962. Many of the sanctions imposed by Western governments in the decades that followed were lifted after the country began its troubled transition toward democracy in 2011. Some of those restrictions were restored after the army’s brutal operations in 2017 against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar’s northwest Rakhine state.
The European Union has said it is reviewing its policies and stands ready to adopt restrictive measures against those directly responsible for the coup. Japan, likewise, has said it is considering what to do.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, convened a virtual meeting on March 2 to discuss Myanmar. Its chairman later issued a statement calling for an end to violence and for talks to try to reach a peaceful settlement.
But ASEAN admitted Myanmar as a member in 1997, long before the military, known as the Tatmadaw, initiated reforms that helped elect a quasi-civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Most ASEAN governments have authoritarian leaders or one-party rule. By tradition, they are committed to consensus and non interference in each others’ internal affairs.
While they lack an appetite for sanctions, some ASEAN governments have vehemently condemned the coup and the ensuing arrests and killings.
Marzuki Darusman, an Indonesian lawyer and former chair of the Fact-Finding Mission that Sidoti joined, said he believes the spiraling, brutal violence against protesters has shaken ASEAN’s stance that the crisis is purely an internal matter.
“ASEAN considers it imperative that it play a role in resolving the crisis in Myanmar,” Darusman said.
Thailand, with a 2,400 kilometer (1,500-mile)-long border with Myanmar and more than 2 million Myanmar migrant workers, does not want more to flee into its territory, especially at a time when it is still battling the pandemic.
Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior fellow at Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies, also believes ASEAN wants to see a return to a civilian government in Myanmar and would be best off adopting a “carrot and stick” approach.
But the greatest hope, he said, is with the protesters.
On Saturday, some protesters expressed their disdain by pouring Myanmar Beer, a local brand made by a military-linked company whose Japanese partner Kirin Holdings is withdrawing from, on people’s feet — considered a grave insult in some parts of Asia.
“The Myanmar people are very brave. This is the No. 1 pressure on the country,” Chongkittavorn said in a seminar held by the East-West Center in Hawaii. “It’s very clear the junta also knows what they need to do to move ahead, otherwise sanctions will be much more severe.”