Oil hovers near 13-month highs as storm dents US output

Barclays, which raised its oil price forecasts on Thursday, said it is seeing staying power in the recent oil price rally on a weaker-than-expected supply response by US tight oil operators to higher prices. (Reuters )
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Updated 26 February 2021

Oil hovers near 13-month highs as storm dents US output

  • Severe winter storm in Texas caused US crude production to drop by more than 10 percent

LONDON: Oil prices extended gains for a fourth session on Thursday to reach the highest levels in more than 13 months, underpinned by an assurance that US interest rates will stay low, and a sharp drop in US crude output last week due to the storm in Texas.

Brent crude futures for April gained 33 cents, 0.49 percent, to $67.37 a barrel by 0925 GMT, while US West Texas Intermediate crude for April was at $63.45 a barrel, up 23 cents, 0.36 percent.

Both contracts hit their highest since Jan. 8, 2020, earlier in the session with Brent at $67.70 and WTI at $63.79. The April Brent contract expires on Friday.

An assurance from the US Federal Reserve that interest rates would stay low for a while weakened the US dollar, while boosting investors’ risk appetite and global equity markets.

A severe winter storm in Texas has caused US crude production to drop by more than 10 percent, or 1 million barrels per day (bpd) last week, the Energy Information Administration said on Wednesday.

“Combined with a dovish Jerome Powell and an already tight physical market, oil prices exploded higher,” Jeffrey Halley, senior market analyst for Asia Pacific at OANDA said.

Combined with a dovish Jerome Powell and an already tight physical market, oil prices exploded higher.

Jeffrey Halle, senior market analyst at OANDA

Fuel supplies in the world’s largest oil consumer could also tighten as its refinery crude inputs had dropped to the lowest since September 2008, EIA’s data showed.

ING analysts said US crude stocks could rise in weeks ahead as production has recovered fairly quickly while refinery capacity is expected to take longer to return to normal.

Barclays, which raised its oil price forecasts on Thursday, said it is seeing staying power in the recent oil price rally on a weaker-than-expected supply response by US tight oil operators to higher prices.

“However, we remain cautious over the near term on easing OPEC+ support, risks from more transmissible COVID-19 variants and elevated positioning,” Barclays said.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and their allies including Russia, a group known as OPEC+, is due to meet on March 4.

The group will discuss a modest easing of oil supply curbs from April given a recovery in prices, OPEC+ sources said, although some suggest holding steady for now given the risk of new setbacks in the battle against the pandemic.

Extra voluntary cuts by Saudi Arabia in February and March have tightened global supplies and supported prices.


Saudi Public Transport Authority launches 15 business centers across the Kingdom

Updated 23 min 29 sec ago

Saudi Public Transport Authority launches 15 business centers across the Kingdom

  • Cities served will include Riyadh, Jeddah, Makkah and Dammam

RIYADH: Saudi Public Transport Authority has launched business centers in 15 cities across the Kingdom, to provide licensing and customer support services.
The cities include Riyadh, Makkah, Madinah, Jeddah, Dammam and Al-Ahsa, as well as Qassim, Tabuk, Hail, Arar, Al-Jouf, Al-Baha, Asir, Najran and Jizan, SPA reported.
The Authority seeks to enhance the logistics sector in the Kingdom in line with Vision 2030 goals, said General Supervisor of Operations at the Public Transport Authority Fahad Albadah.
The business centers will allow clients to implement multiple services through the digital package provided by the Naql gateway, Albadah said.


Saudi inflation slows to 4.9% in March as VAT effect lingers

Updated 16 April 2021

Saudi inflation slows to 4.9% in March as VAT effect lingers

  • Saudi inflation jumped to 6.1% after VAT was increased last July
  • Food and beverages were the biggest contributors to inflation in March

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s annual inflation rate fell marginally in March as last July’s increase in value-added tax (VAT) continued to assert an effect on prices.

The consumer price index rose an annual 4.9 percent in March, compared with a 5.2 percent increase in February, the General Authority of Statistics (GASTAT) said in a statement on Thursday.

The inflation rate jumped to 6.1 percent in July 2020 from 0.5 percent in June as the VAT rate was increased from 5 percent to 15 percent and has mainly been drifting lower since.

The biggest contributors to March’s reading were food and beverage prices, which increased 10.2 percent from a year earlier, driven by a 12 percent increase in the cost of meat and 10.9 percent higher prices for vegetables, GASTAT said.

Transport costs rose 10.5% as vehicle prices rose 9.6%, while tobacco gained 13.1 percent and communication added 13.2 percent.

The cost of education fell 9.5 percent year over year, while housing, water, electricity, gas and other fuels declined 2.7 percent, driven by a 3.9% drop in housing rentals.

Saudi Arabia’s acting information minister said in November last year the kingdom could review its VAT increase once the coronavirus pandemic ends. Analysts at Al Rajhi Capital predicted the higher VAT rate would generate SR28 billion ($7.5 billion) in 2020 and SR88 billion in 2021 if maintained.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia and the UAE became the first two countries in the Arabian Gulf to introduce VAT.


Amazon conciliatory as US eyes regulation

Updated 16 April 2021

Amazon conciliatory as US eyes regulation

  • Founder Jeff Bezos tells investors his e-commerce empire needs a better “vision” for its workers
  • Before stepping down as CEO, he laid out a new goal for the company to be “Earth’s best employer”

SAN FRANCISCO, USA: US tech giant Amazon on Thursday sounded conciliatory notes as the US government considers stricter regulatory measures against America’s largest digital platforms.
Founder Jeff Bezos told investors his e-commerce empire needs a better “vision” for its workers, just days after an effort to create the company’s first labor union was defeated.
Some Amazon executives had fired off snappy comments at various politicians who supported the labor campaign, but their chief executive took a more circumspect approach to the anti-union victory at its plant in Bessemer, Alabama.
“Does your chair take comfort in the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer?” Bezos asked rhetorically in an annual letter to shareholders.
“No, he doesn’t. I think we need to do a better job for our employees.”
In the letter, which was his final before stepping down as chief executive, Bezos laid out a new goal for the company to be “Earth’s best employer and Earth’s safest place to work.”
“Despite what we’ve accomplished, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for our employees’ success,” Bezos said.
The vote count in the contentious unionization drive at the warehouse in the southern state of Alabama last week showed a wide majority of workers rejecting the move.
“Bezos’s admission today demonstrates that what we have been saying about workplace conditions is correct,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the union that vied to represent Amazon workers.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. (AP/file photo)

“But his admission won’t change anything, workers need a union — not just another Amazon public relations effort in damage control.”
Bezos rejected news reports that he said unfairly portray Amazon workers as “desperate souls and treated as robots.”
“That’s not accurate,” Bezos said.
“They’re sophisticated and thoughtful people who have options for where to work.”
Unions and political leaders have argued that Amazon employees face constant pressure and monitoring, with little job protection, highlighting the need for collective bargaining.
Amazon has held firm that most of its workers don’t want or need a union and that the company already provides more than most other employers, with a minimum $15 hourly wage and other benefits.
Bezos had already shown deference to political momentum, announcing support for an increase in corporate taxes sought by US President Joe Biden to help finance a $2 trillion infrastructure plan.
Bezos embraced the move just days after Biden singled out Amazon for avoiding federal income taxes while proposing to boost the corporate tax rate to 28 percent.
“We support the Biden administration’s focus on making bold investments in American infrastructure,” Bezos said.
“We recognize this investment will require concessions from all sides — both on the specifics of what’s included as well as how it gets paid for (we’re supportive of a rise in the corporate tax rate).”
Amazon has been the target of critics for years who claim it pays little or no corporate taxes. The company has defended its policies, saying that its investments offset taxes as intended by the tax code.
Last month, Biden cited a 2019 study showing 91 Fortune 500 companies, “the biggest companies in the world, including Amazon... pay not a single, solitary penny of federal income tax,” adding, “that is just wrong.”
Bezos’s support for raising corporate taxes was echoed Thursday by the Chamber of Progress, a self-described “center-left” tech industry coalition whose roster of members includes Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter.
“Many tech industry leaders view corporate taxes as a patriotic duty and a wise investment in a well-functioning society,” chamber chief Adam Kovacevich said in message posted online.
“President Biden’s proposal to raise corporate tax rates to make major investments in infrastructure is a tradeoff that many in the tech industry can support.”
Meanwhile, political will to regulate Internet giants whose power has grown dramatically during the pandemic has seemed to increase.
US House Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline said Thursday that a 16-month investigation makes it clear that Congress must act.
“Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook each hold monopoly power over significant sectors of our economy,” Cicilline said in a statement.
“This monopoly moment must end.”

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Sanctioned Russian IT company partners with Microsoft, IBM

Updated 16 April 2021

Sanctioned Russian IT company partners with Microsoft, IBM

  • Positive Technologies' website boasts of a number of accomplishments, such as providing cybersecurity for the 2018 soccer World Cup hosted by Russia
  • The US said big conventions hosted by Positive Tech are “used as recruiting events” by the FSB and the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.

The US Treasury Department on Thursday slapped six Russian technology companies with sanctions for supporting Kremlin intelligence agencies engaged in “dangerous and disruptive cyberattacks.”
But only one of them stands out for its international footprint and partnerships with such IT heavyweights as Microsoft and IBM.
That company, Positive Technologies, claims more than 2,000 customers in 30 countries, including major European banks Societe Generale and ING, as well as Samsung, SK Telecom of South Korea and BT, the British telecommunications giant.
Its clients also include the FSB, a successor to the KGB that “cultivates and co-opts criminal hackers” who carry out ransomware and phishing attacks, the Treasury Department said. The US said big conventions hosted by Positive Technologies are “used as recruiting events” by the FSB and the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.
GRU agents are the swashbucklers of Russian intelligence. The agency stands accused of spearheading the hack-and-leak operation that interfered in the 2016 US presidential election to favor Donald Trump. Its agents also conducted the most damaging cyberattack on record, the runaway 2017 NotPetya virus that did more than $10 billion in global damage, its victims including the shipping giant Maersk and pharmaceutical company Merck.
The CEO of the software industry-supported Internet Research Institute in Moscow, Karen Kazaryan, said he was not familiar with most of the Russian IT companies sanctioned on Thursday. But Positive Tech is well-known in the industry for its annual Hack Days conference, which is scheduled for May 20-21 at a Moscow hotel.
Former CIA analyst Michael van Landingham applauded the naming and sanctioning of Russian IT companies known to have aided and abetted malign government activity.
“Naming specific companies can create incentives for educated and skilled Russians who might be able to obtain jobs elsewhere where they don’t support Russian state hacking,” he said.
Positive Tech’s specialty is identifying vulnerabilities in popular software such as Microsoft’s Windows operating system. The world’s intelligence agencies regularly lean on companies like it not to disclose potent vulnerabilities publicly when they find them but to instead quietly share them for hacking adversaries’ networks.
The US did not accuse Positive Technologies of any such behavior and the Treasury Department declined to answer questions about the company’s activities beyond a press release.
Nor would a Microsoft spokesperson discuss the company’s business relationship with Positive Tech. On its website, Microsoft names the company as one of among more than 80 security software providers to which it gives early access to vulnerability information so they can make sure their customers get patches quickly. IBM also lists Positive Technologies as a security partner, offering customers one of its scanning tools.
IBM didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday. Neither did other US tech companies HP and VMware, which Positive Technologies lists as technology partners.
On its website, Positive Technologies lists Russia’s Defense Ministry as among its first major clients, in 2004 when it was two years old with just 11 employees. It claimed more than 800 employees in 2018.
Russia’s biggest business database lists the company’s CEO and founder as Yury Maximov, about whom little is known other than he graduated from Moscow State University. The company did not respond to questions sent to press contacts on its website.
Positive Tech’s website boasts of a number of accomplishments, such as providing cybersecurity for the 2018 soccer World Cup hosted by Russia and publishing data that same year on 30 high-risk vulnerabilities. It said it opened its first international office in London in 2010 and its first US office in 2012.
The company has sometimes used Framingham, Massachusetts, as its US location in news releases, though it’s not recorded in city or state records as a business by that name. An office building with an address linked to the company is a co-working space that can be rented on flexible terms for “one person or more.”
Market research firm IDC listed Positive Technologies as one of the fastest-growing companies in security and vulnerability management in 2012, in part because it was so small at the time, growing nearly 82% year-over-year to $30 million in worldwide revenue. Nearly all that revenue came from assessing vulnerabilities. But by 2015, its worldwide revenues fell 37.6% to $26.5 million, according to IDC, which eventually stopped tracking the company.


Makkah sees surge in real estate offices as work progresses on major projects

Updated 16 April 2021

Makkah sees surge in real estate offices as work progresses on major projects

  • Value of real estate transactions in 2020 rose 4.31% to $240.39 million

RIYADH: The number of real estate offices in the Makkah Al-Mukarramah area surged by nearly a third last year, as the number of transactions increased and work on some of the city’s biggest projects kept pace despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

The number of real estate offices in Makkah reached 154 in 2020, a 32.76 percent increase from the 116 registered at the end of 2019.

The increase in manpower comes as figures from the Ministry of Justice showed that the total value of real estate transactions during 2020 in Makkah amounted to SR 901.48 million ($240.39 million).

This was an increase of 4.31 percent compared to the SR 864.24 million in transactions registered in 2019.

The number of real estate transactions in the entire Kingdom last year amounted to 277,924 deals, of which 9,333 — or 3.36 percent — were in Makkah.

The increased activity is a result of the government’s Vision 2030 initiatives, among which is the goal to host a greater number of Umrah pilgrims from abroad — specifically 30 million by 2030.

Work is currently underway on a number of high-profile projects in Makkah Al-Mukarramah to accommodate this increase in pilgrims and to raise the quality of life for residents.

The most prominent of Makkah’s developments is the Thakher Makkah project, which is considered one of the Kingdom’s largest real estate projects. The land area of the project amounts to 320,000 square meters, while the built-up area is around 3.4 million square meters.

Thakher Makkah consists of 85 hotel towers, 10 hotel apartment towers and eight residential towers, accommodating about 200,000 guests. The project is distinguished by its proximity to the Holy Mosque in Makkah Al-Mukarramah, which is located just 1,300 meters away.

Another mega project is the Jabal Omar project, which is being built on a total area of 230,000 square meters. The mixed-use project includes 40 hotel towers that host apartments, luxury residential units, international hotels and commercial markets.

Makkah Gate is the first suburban project owned by the Holy Capital’s Municipality through its investment subsidiary. The project provides an ambitious and practical vision for the development of the western suburb of Makkah, which is the main gateway to enter Makkah.

The project is located on a land area of approximately 8,300 square meters and upon completion will accommodate more than half a million people by 2022. It includes several residential neighborhoods, a university, a medical city, a complex for government departments, museums and a large wild park.

Jabal Khandama is another addition to the development boom in Makkah. The total built-up area is estimated at 910,000 square meters and is expected to be completed by the end of 2030. The project is expected to reach 88 floors, with an estimated height of 450 meters.

The Jabal Al-Sharashef development project, which has a built-up area of 1.6 million square meters, aims to reconfigure the urban neighborhood environment and will address issues such as urban formation, housing, transportation networks, utilities and public services. It will accommodate around 190,000 seasonal hotel residents and 650,000 permanent residents.

Work is underway on the Kudai Towers project, which is located around 1.7 kilometers from the Holy Mosque. Kudai Towers is comprised of 12 hotel towers, 10 of which will be four-star hotels consisting of 30 floors, while two will be five-star hotels consisting of 45 floors. The project’s capacity is 10,000 luxury hotel rooms. It will boast four helipads, 70 restaurants and the largest dome in the world, sitting at the top of the project.

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