Escalating violence ups pressure for Myanmar sanctions

The escalation of violence in Myanmar as authorities crack down on protests against the Feb. 1 coup is adding to pressure for more sanctions against the junta, as countries struggle over how to best confront military leaders inured to global condemnation. (AP)
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.”


Israel and Greece sign record defense deal

Updated 38 min 34 sec ago

Israel and Greece sign record defense deal

JERUSALEM: Israel and Greece have signed their biggest ever defense procurement deal, which Israel said on Sunday would strengthen political and economic ties between the countries.
The agreement includes a $1.65 billion contract for the establishment and operation of a training center for the Hellenic Air Force by Israeli defense contractor Elbit Systems over a 22-year period, Israel’s defense ministry said.
The training center will be modeled on Israel’s own flight academy and will be equipped with 10 M-346 training aircraft produced by Italian company Leonardo, the ministry said.
Elbit will supply kits to upgrade and operate Greece’s T-6 aircraft and also provide training, simulators and logistical support.
“I am certain that (this program) will upgrade the capabilities and strengthen the economies of Israel and Greece and thus the partnership between our two countries will deepen on the defense, economic and political levels,” said Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz.
The announcement follows a meeting in Cyprus on Friday between the UAE, Greek, Cypriot and Israeli foreign ministers, who agreed to deepen cooperation between their countries.

Bitcoin tumbles 7.7% to $55,408 on Sunday

Updated 18 April 2021

Bitcoin tumbles 7.7% to $55,408 on Sunday

  • Turkey central bank banned use of crypto last week
  • Ether also retreats on Sunday

DUBAI: Bitcoin fell 7.7 percent to $55,408.08 early Sunday, wiping more than $4,600 from the value of the world's biggest cryptocurrency.
Ether, the coin linked to the ethereum blockchain network, also dropped by about 6.5 percent to $2,165.91.
Bitcoin took an earlier tumble on Friday, losing 4 percent after Turkey's central bank banned the use of cryptocurrencies citing risks.
Turkey published the new law in its official gazette in which the central bank said cryptocurrencies and other similar digital assets would not not be used, directly or indirectly, to pay for goods and services.


Saudi insurance sector eyes more mergers and acquisitions

Updated 17 April 2021

Saudi insurance sector eyes more mergers and acquisitions

  • Government assistance shielded sector from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic’s impact

RIYADH: The Kingdom’s insurance sector closed the financial year 2020 on a high note with the aggregate net profit of local insurance firms, except for the Saudi Indian Company for Cooperative Insurance, rising to SR1.443 billion ($0.38 billion) in Q4, an increase of 47 percent year-on-year, according to data compiled by the financial news service Argaam.

There were 13 insurers recording higher profits in 2020, led by the Mediterranean and Gulf Insurance and Reinsurance Co., which surged 1,081 percent, the Saudi Arabian Cooperative Insurance Co., which increased 545 percent, and the Gulf General Cooperative Insurance Co. which saw net income up 397 percent.

The sector finished out the tough year on a high note mainly thanks to government support. 

KPMG said while the pandemic triggered disruption for most industries, the Saudi government intervened and provided relief by opting to pay for the treatment of all COVID-19 patients. 

The audit, tax and advisory services firm found that the cumulative net profit after zakat and tax touched a high of SR1.32 billion in the first nine months of 2020, an increase of 96.1 percent year-on-year. Argaam’s figures also found that the total gross written premiums (GWPs) of Saudi-listed insurance companies increased by 3 percent year-on-year to SR38.28 billion in 2020. 

There were 18 insurance firms out of 29 reporting an increase in GWPs last year, led by Aljazira Takaful Taawuni Co., which was up 80 percent year-on-year. 

Saudi insurers reported SR23.5 billion in net claims last year, down from SR24.7 billion a year previously. Net incurred claims accounted for around 76 percent of GWPs in 2020, the data showed.

Analysts said the Saudi insurance market was set to witness consolidation with mergers and acquisitions (M&A) gaining pace during 2021.  The Saudi Central Bank (SAMA) in January reiterated the need for insurance companies to look at M&A deals since the sector was a key driver of the Kingdom’s economy and a pillar of the Financial Sector Development Program, one of 12 executive programs launched by the Council of Economic and Development Affairs to achieve the objectives of Saudi Vision 2030.

HIGHLIGHTS

• The Kingdom’s insurance sector closed the financial year 2020 on a high note with the aggregate net profit of local insurance firms, except for the Saudi Indian Company for Cooperative Insurance, rising to SR1.443 billion($0.38 billion) in Q4.

• The total gross written premiums (GWPs) of Saudi-listed insurance companies increased by 3 percent year-on-year to SR38.28 billion in 2020.

• Saudi insurers reported SR23.5 billion in net claims last year, down from SR24.7 billion a year previously.

The recent mergers between insurance firms were positive indications that the central bank’s plans for the sector were moving in the right direction, said SAMA Gov. Fahad Al-Mubarak during the honoring of Aljazira Takaful Taawuni Co. and Solidarity Saudi Takaful Co. following their merger.

SAMA will continue to encourage insurance companies to look at potential mergers in order to achieve the goals set out as part of the Vision 2030 programs, Al-Mubarak said. 

The sector recently witnessed a number of agreements and mergers, including between Walaa Cooperative Insurance Co. and Metlife AIG ANB Cooperative Insurance Co., and between Al-Ahlia Insurance and Gulf Union National.

Talal Bahafi is chief market officer at Marsh Saudi Arabia, which is part of the global financial services group Marsh & McLennan. He said the Kingdom’s insurance sector was likely to see more consolidation in 2021, driven by insurers looking to streamline costs, boost efficiency and increase optimization.

“The last 12 months have brought about significant changes to the insurance market in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), in terms of capacity and pricing,” Bahafi told Arab News. “We expect these conditions to persist throughout 2021 and for organizations to continue to face more challenging trading conditions. It is important for organizations to adapt to these shifts by renewing their focus on building resiliency and rethinking their risk management strategies. This will, in turn, ensure they have an insurance program in place which matches the risk appetite of their business.” The Clyde & Co Insurance Growth Report 2021 said the Middle East insurance sector would see increased M&A activity this year.

According to the law firm’s report, M&A insurance deals in the Middle East and Africa rose by 166.7 percent in 2020, the biggest growth across all regions.

S&P Global Ratings, in its latest report on the GCC insurance sector, said it expected to see growth in Saudi Arabia due to regulatory initiatives. 

In the GCC it expected its ratings on insurers to remain broadly stable in 2021 owing to robust capital buffers, despite ongoing economic uncertainty relating to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the rate of Saudization in the insurance sector has reached 75 percent compared to 35 to 40 percent in the past, according to Abdullah Al-Tuwaijri, SAMA’s director general of insurance supervision.

Al-Tuwaijri, who made the remarks during a session of the Economic Growth Forum, added that the high Saudization rate indicated the sector was capable of creating more job opportunities for citizens.

Related


Brazilian renewable energy sector offers opportunities for Saudis

Updated 17 April 2021

Brazilian renewable energy sector offers opportunities for Saudis

  • The Kingdom imports several food products from Brazil, mostly in the form of meat and coffee

RIYADH: A new report by the Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce (ABCC) revealed several opportunities for Saudi investors looking to break into the Brazilian market by investing in key sectors.

The report identified four core industries that the Kingdom had previously invested in: Rubber and plastic manufacturing, food storage and other transport activities, chemical and machinery manufacturing, and vehicle manufacturing.

Rachel Andalaft, CEO of research and consultancy firm Mangifera Analytics, told Arab News that Saudi Arabia has traditionally seen Brazil as a “possible gateway to the rest of Latin America.”

“Brazil’s increased opportunities have opened the door for Saudi Arabians to invest in diverse Brazilian markets — not only in ongoing food markets but also oil and gas,” she said.

The Kingdom imports several food products from Brazil, mostly in the form of meat and coffee. Saudi Arabia was the premier Arab importer of poultry from Brazil in January, with 35,800 tons of poultry shipped to the Kingdom.

Also, in February of this year, the Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Co., a joint-stock company owned by the sovereign wealth fund the Public Investment Fund (PIF), entered into an agreement with Brazil’s Minerva Foods to acquire assets in Australia and set up a joint venture for the processing and export of beef and lamb produce.

Additionally, Andalaft stated that the PIF would be putting funds forward to be used in Ferrograo, a crucial railroad for Brazil. “This will go from Mato Grosso to Pará, spanning about 1,000 kilometers at an estimated cost of over $3 billion,” she said.

According to Andalaft, trade relations show great potential for growth given the productive complementarities between the two countries, particularly in Brazil’s emergent renewable energy market.

“Typical market opportunities are earmarked for double-digit returns, reaching beyond an 18-percent return on investment for those investors able to create smart financing structures,” she said of the opportunities in the wind and solar energy sector in Brazil.

Arab-Brazilian trade relations are expected to retain a strong growth trajectory in the future, particularly after the ABCC announced plans in February to set up an international office in the Saudi capital of Riyadh to capitalize on trade between the two countries.


Saudi Aramco part of $50 million funding for US software firm

Updated 17 April 2021

Saudi Aramco part of $50 million funding for US software firm

  • The extra $50 million brings Seeq’s total funding since its launch in 2013 to around $115 million

RIYADH: Saudi Aramco’s investment arm was among a group of investors who awarded SR187.5 million ($50 million) to a Seattle-based manufacturing and technology software company.

Seeq Corp. said it had raised the new funds as part of a Series C funding round as the group of investors backing the financing were Altira Group, Chevron Technology Ventures, Cisco Investments, Second Avenue Partners and Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures (SAEV).

The extra $50 million brings Seeq’s total funding since its launch in 2013 to around $115 million. While the breakdown of figures was not given, Seeq did say that SAEV was already an existing investor from previous funding rounds. Seeq enables engineers and scientists to rapidly analyze, predict, collaborate, and share insights to improve production and business outcomes for its products. It operates across many sectors, including oil and gas, pharmaceutical, chemical, energy and mining.

The Seattle-based company aims to use the new funds to develop its sales and marketing resources and expand its presence into international markets.

“By leveraging big data, machine learning and computer science innovations, Seeq is enabling a new generation of software-led insights,” Steve Sliwa, the CEO and co-founder of Seeq, said in a press statement.

According to its website, SAEV is described as the strategic technology venturing program of Saudi Aramco. Its mission is to invest globally into startup and high-growth companies with technologies of strategic importance to Aramco, to accelerate its development and its deployment in the company.