3,000 bankers in Lebanon have lost their jobs since 2019 crisis

A view of Lebanon's Central Bank building in Beirut. (Reuters)
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Updated 17 June 2021

3,000 bankers in Lebanon have lost their jobs since 2019 crisis

  • Banks are facing their biggest challenge since the 1975-1990 civil war
  • De facto capital controls are in place with depositors locked out of most of their savings

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s banks, which once powered the economy by sucking in billions of dollars of deposits from abroad, are shedding staff, watching loan books shrink and chasing liquidity to stay afloat.
About 3,000 bankers, or more than 10 percent of the banking industry workforce, have resigned or lost their jobs so far since a financial crisis flared up in late 2019 — and the numbers keep rising, four senior bankers told Reuters.
De facto capital controls are in place, depositors are locked out of most of their savings and lending to the private sector has plummeted. In April, bank loans had fallen by 25 percent year on year to $33 billion, according to a Byblos Bank note.
“The sector is dead. It doesn’t lend, it doesn’t make profits,” said one of the bankers, who requested anonymity.
Banks are facing their biggest challenge since a 1975-1990 civil war, a conflict which by some measures gave the lenders a smaller hangover. This crisis has left the industry nursing losses worth $83 billion, according to a government report last year, dwarfing Lebanon’s 2019 economic output of $55 billion.
“The crisis in Lebanon essentially is first of all a banking collapse,” said Toufic Gaspard, an economist who has worked as an adviser at the IMF and as an adviser to a former finance minister.
The financial services sector in Lebanon, which once fashioned itself as the Switzerland of the Middle East, accounted for nearly 9 percent of gross domestic product in 2018.
Supported by a central bank that offered attractive interest rates for fresh dollars to service the nation’s exploding debt, banks drew in deposits, particularly from Lebanon’s diaspora. When that financial house of cards collapsed in 2019, the economy imploded, hammering the banking system.
Salim Sfeir, chairman of the Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL), said banks were now surviving partly thanks to liquidity generated by “deleveraging,” as many Lebanese moved money out of banks to repay individual and corporate debt.
“In normal circumstances lending is banks’ business, but in such circumstances this gives us liquidity, it gives us fresh air to continue surviving during the crisis,” said Sfeir, who is also chief executive of Bank of Beirut.
The industry, which had employed about 28,000 before the crisis, now had about 25,000, he estimated.
The three other senior bankers gave similar numbers for job losses in the sector, adding that the figure continued to grow.
Most job losses were in retail banking, serving what were traditionally core banking businesses such as attracting deposits or selling loans to small and medium enterprises that have lost steam or simply collapsed, the sources said.
Job losses have accumulated amid a political deadlock which has left Lebanon without a new government, after the cabinet resigned in the aftermath of a massive Beirut port blast last year that ripped through a swathe of the capital.
Political sclerosis has delayed a deal with the International Monetary Fund, a vital element in a wider rescue plan to fix Lebanon’s broken financial and economic system.
Bankers and analysts said any restructuring of Lebanon’s 40 or so banks should be part of such a comprehensive plan.
“There’s no strategy for the banking sector. We’re operating at zero visibility,” another of the senior bankers said, adding that banks were only able to function in “continuity mode.”
The full extent of bank losses would only become clear when the government restructures its mountain of debt, ratings agency S&P said, after the government defaulted last year.
S&P said the cost of restructuring the banking system could range from $23 billion to $102 billion.
The central bank instructed banks to raise their capital defenses by 20 percent by the end of February and requested banks to boost liquidity by 3 percent with their corresponding banks.
ABL’s Sfeir said banks had completed the increase.
“The other guideline was to increase foreign liquidity,” he said, adding that this was “more difficult because you have to liquidate some of your foreign assets, your depositors will have to repatriate some of their overseas deposits.”
“This is why it’s taking some time,” he said.

Changan sees boom in demand as Saudis fall in love with Chinese car brands

Updated 28 July 2021

Changan sees boom in demand as Saudis fall in love with Chinese car brands

  • ‘Prices and technology are among the factors behind rise in popularity’

DUBAI, RIYADH, JEDDAH: A decade ago, if you would have asked a Saudi whether he would consider buying a Chinese car, the answer most likely would have been no, but this has now changed.

Saudi Arabia is emerging as one of the most attractive markets overseas for Chinese car brands as they grab the attention of dealers and drivers in the Kingdom.

Car sales in China, the world’s biggest market, were down 3 percent year-on-year to 2.13 million in May, ending a streak of 13 months of growth, mainly due to a global chip shortage and increased raw material prices. Last year, despite the coronavirus disease (COVID-10) pandemic, the data showed that sales continued to surge, and at the end of 2020, Changan’s share of the market had risen to 4.3 percent, moving it two places up in the annual car brand rankings to eighth most popular.

Mohammed Ramady, an independent economist and former professor of finance and economics at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, believes Chinese cars are proving popular because they appeal to medium- and lower-income families. He said the data showed that last year, around one in 10 Chinese cars were shipped to Saudi Arabia. A clear example of the growing popularity of Chinese cars in the Kingdom is the experience of the Changan brand. According to sales data compiled by Bestsellingcarsblog.com, the carmaker, which is owned by the Chinese state, captured 2.3 percent of the Saudi market in 2019, making it the 10th most popular car brand in the Kingdom just a few years after it was introduced to Saudi drivers.

Similarly, data from Google showed that searches for the term Changan increased nearly 50 percent year-on-year in the first half of 2021, peaking in January when the brand opened its service center in Riyadh. 

Riyadh-based Wafi Al-Ghanim, marketing communication manager at Almajdouie Changan, the official distributor of the brand in Saudi Arabia, told Arab News there are three reasons the brand has quickly proved so successful: “Prices, quality, and warranty periods.”

“When you think about quality and specifications compared to the price in the car sector, you will definitely find that Chinese cars are far ahead of their counterparts in general, Japanese and Korean cars in particular,” Al-Ghanim said.

Looking to the future, he believes that Chinese cars across the board will continue to see strong growth and by 2022 will have captured 15 percent of the Saudi market, which “in a huge regional market is very good.”

One of the ways to boost sales is physical visibility. In January, Almajdouie built a 2,640-square-meter service center in Riyadh.

“We have had to raise the level of our services to match the high level of Changan cars, as well as to enhance the growing demand for Changan cars in the local market,” Yousef bin Ali Almajdouie, president of Almajdouie Group, said in a press statement at the time.

A report by the China Daily newspaper estimated that around 55,000 Changan cars have been sold in Saudi Arabia up to May this year, but it is not the only Chinese brand that has captured the attention of drivers in the Kingdom.


• Last year, despite the coronavirus disease (COVID-10) pandemic, the data showed that sales continued to surge, and at the end of 2020, Changan’s share of the market had risen to 4.3 percent, moving it two places up in the annual car brand rankings to eighth most popular.

• According to data, the carmaker, which is owned by the Chinese state, captured 2.3 percent of the Saudi market in 2019, making it the 10th most popular car brand in the Kingdom just a few years after it was introduced to Saudi drivers.

• An example of the growing popularity of Chinese cars in the Kingdom is the experience of the Changan brand.

Hongqi, one of China’s oldest luxury car brands, this month opened its first sales center in Riyadh, with plans to expand the network to Jeddah and Dammam.

“The market in the Middle East is key for Hongqi. And the Saudi market is crucial in the region,” Ma Zhenduo, general manager of Hongqi’s Middle East division, told Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency. “The sales have exceeded all our expectations across all the models,” said Mohammed Abduljawad, chairman of Universal Motors Agencies, Hongqi’s local partner in Saudi Arabia.

Hatem Khattab, the first marketing manager for FAW Bestune in Saudi Arabia, which sells the Chinese brands FAW, Bestune and Hongqi, told Arab News that the secret to the success of Chinese brands was the combination of price and technology.

“The manufacturers are very good at incorporating the latest technology in their cars. These are economic cars with state-of-the-art technology,” Khattab said. “The reason behind their popularity is their features, and now that they are seen more commonly on the streets, it has had a domino effect. Seeing the cars makes people think they are more reliable. They are affordable as well; we recently had a customer who bought 10 cars just for his family,” he added.

In addition to increased visibility on the roads, Khattab pointed out that Chinese brands also offer more options in terms of the range of models on offer.

“The competition in the automotive market here is huge, and I feel like the Chinese brands stepped up their game to meet the requirement of this cut-throat market. Currently, in Saudi Arabia, we have almost 20-25 Chinese brands as compared to brands of other countries that offer up to 10,” he said. Ramady said engine size was another big catalyst. Western, American, Japanese and South Korean models in the 2,500 to 3,000 cc engine sector still dominate the market, Chinese brands have positioned themselves in the 1,000 to 2,000 cc engine range, which is a growing segment in Saudi Arabia. He believes these models appeal “to a low to middle-income Saudi consumer market, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and economic uncertainties, as well as a new niche market for Saudi female drivers owning their first cars.”

The statistics also back this up, according to Motory.com, one of the largest specialized car websites in Saudi Arabia. “Over the last few years, we have seen Chinese cars become increasingly popular with consumers, especially in Saudi Arabia. Online searches for Chinese cars on our Motory.com website have increased by around 400 percent between 2018 and 2020,” a spokesperson told Arab News.

Chinese carmakers saw exports increase by 103 percent year-on-year in the first five months of this year, according to a report by the South China Morning Post, citing data from the China Passenger Car Association. The way trends are going, many will find their way into Saudi garages and carparks, as the Kingdom continues to be a dominant source market. Fahad Al-Arjani, a member of the Saudi Chinese Business Council, echoed the view that technology was at the key factor, as Chinese brands have been “injecting investments in clean energy cars supported by the smartest technologies.” He pointed to the partnership between technology giant Huawei and the state-owned Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Co., Ltd. (BAIC) as an example.

“In addition to developing a highly efficient battery system, as well as emerging technologies, Huawei and BAIC’s first car will offer level three autonomous driving and will include 5G connectivity, which isn’t necessarily surprising given the Chinese company is a leader when it comes to the rollout of this new standard, which will make Chinese cars highly likely to lead the future of this sector for ages,” he told Arab News.

Lucid is ‘key step’ in PIF’s strategy after market debut

Updated 28 July 2021

Lucid is ‘key step’ in PIF’s strategy after market debut

  • PIF is believed to hold more than 60 percent of the stock after its 2018 cash injection into the start-up, giving it a paper profit of at least $15 billion

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) has already made billions of dollars in profit on its investment in Lucid Motors, the California upmarket electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer, and could earn many billions more over the next five years.

PIF announced its first investment of SR3.75 billion ($1 billion) in Lucid in September 2018.

The sovereign wealth fund congratulated Lucid on its market debut and said on Twitter: “Our investment in Lucid Motors and the production of Lucid Air is a key step in the strategy for long term growth opportunities, supporting innovation and technology development, and doing revenue and sectoral diversification in Saudi Arabia.” Shares in Lucid raced to an 11 percent premium on the opening day of trading on New York’s Nasdaq Global Select Market on Monday, valuing it at more than $24 billion.  

PIF is believed to hold more than 60 percent of the stock after its 2018 cash injection into the start-up, giving it a paper profit of at least $15 billion.

This could go significantly higher if Lucid follows the model of rival EV maker Tesla. Elon Musk’s high-flying company reported better than forecast profits earlier this week, and saw its share price leap 2 percent, giving it a market value of $633 billion.

Lucid is at a much earlier stage of the EV road, but projections made by its management foresee a big rise in sales and profits ahead.

The company sees revenues of $2.2 billion next year after it has begun selling cars in substantial numbers, rising to $22.8 billion in 2026. By then, it will be selling 250,000 cars a year, making a profit of nearly $3 billion and generating free cash of $1.5 billion, according to the forecasts.

Peter Rawlinson, CEO and CTO of Lucid Group, who was a former chief engineer at Tesla, said that the company was “on track” to meet its projections after the Nasdaq debut.

“Lucid Air (the launch model) represents the next generation of electric vehicles and creates new standards for interior comfort, range, efficiency, and power,” Rawlinson said. 

“We are on track to meet our projected deliveries for the next two years, and we look forward to delighting our customers around the world with the best electric vehicles ever created.”

Lucid is likely to face more intense competition in the EV space than Tesla did when it launched its first model more than a decade ago, with other “legacy” manufacturers across the world launching electric products.

But Rawlinson is confident that superior design will give it an edge in the premium market segment. 

“We have got the best car in the world,” he told Arab News earlier this year.

Success for Lucid will be a big boost for PIF’s investment strategy, but it could also have significant industrial and commercial implications for the Kingdom. Lucid is likely to open a showroom in Saudi Arabia and there has been intensifying speculation that it will eventually build a production plant in the Kingdom, too.

Rawlinson said of PIF: “They put their faith in us, that is why we are here today thriving.”

Amazon denies plans to accept bitcoin payments

Updated 27 July 2021

Amazon denies plans to accept bitcoin payments

  • The electric carmaker’s balance sheet for the second quarter of 2021 showed a net digital asset value of $1.311 billion as of June 30

RIYADH: Bitcoin traded higher on Tuesday, rising 0.55 percent to $38,379.02 at 5:02 p.m. Riyadh time. Ether, the second most traded cryptocurrency, was down 1.3 percent to $2,298.85, according to data from CoinDesk.

Below is the latest cryptocurrency news:

Amazon has denied a British newspaper report that it plans to accept bitcoin payments this year. “Notwithstanding our interest in the space, the speculation that has ensued around our specific plans for cryptocurrencies is not true,” an Amazon spokesperson said on Monday. “We remain focused on exploring what this could look like for customers shopping on Amazon.”

According to a report from Bloomberg, the popular stablecoin Tether is under criminal investigation by the US Justice Department. Prosecutors are looking into whether Tether’s executives committed bank fraud, a development with potentially seismic consequences for the broader crypto market. Tether released a statement saying that the Bloomberg report follows a pattern of repackaging old claims as news, but did not deny awareness of the pending charges, according to CoinDesk.

Goldman Sachs is liquidating and settling cryptocurrency traded products for some of its hedge fund clients in Europe, it was reported last week. The investment banking giant has submitted an application to the US Securities and Exchange Commission for an exchange-traded fund (ETF) that would showcase public companies in decentralized finance and blockchain around the world. The filing indicated that the fund plans to invest at least 80 percent of its assets in companies that are developing blockchain technology and digitizing funding. The Securities and Exchange Commission is currently reviewing more than a dozen Bitcoin ETF applications and has approved decisions on several of them, CoinDesk reported.

Tesla released its second quarter earnings report on Monday. The electric carmaker’s balance sheet for the second quarter of 2021 showed a net digital asset value of $1.311 billion as of June 30. It also showed that Tesla owns $1.311 billion in bitcoin. The company did not buy or sell any bitcoin during the second quarter, but it did report a bitcoin depreciation of $23 million. Tesla’s action reaffirms Musk’s prior statement that neither he nor Tesla had sold their coins, according to Bitcoin News.

A survey conducted by the cryptocurrency exchange of the Independent Reserve Asia Pacific found that 43 percent of respondents said they own cryptocurrency, while 46 percent plan to purchase digital assets in the next 12 months.

The survey of 1,000 Singaporeans from a representative background of gender, age and location, also found that two-thirds of respondents in the 26-45 age group said they own cryptocurrency. Nearly 40 percent of respondents described bitcoin as an investment asset and 25 percent described it as a store of value. Three-quarters of respondents aged between 26 and 35 said they believe that cryptocurrency will become more widely accepted. Singapore’s financial authorities have confirmed that they are working with their French counterparts to explore cross-border applications of central bank digital currencies, according to a report by Cointelegraph.

Amazon to rebrand Souq.com Egypt site this year

Updated 27 July 2021

Amazon to rebrand Souq.com Egypt site this year

  • Souq.com sellers in Egypt encouraged to set up on Amazon.eg

CAIRO: Amazon said it plans to rebrand the Egyptian version of Souq.com as Amazon.eg this year, following similar moves in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Sales partners previously registered on Amazon’s Souq.com affiliate can access their accounts through the Amazon Seller Center in preparation for selling their products on the Amazon Egypt website immediately after its launch.

Amazon acquired Middle East etailer Souq.com in 2017 from Syrian entrepreneur Ronaldo Mouchawar.

On May 1, 2019, Souq.com UAE became known as Amazon.ae. On June 17 last year, Amazon launched its dedicated Saudi website Amazon.sa, rebranding the old Souq.com website.

Amazon announced plans in March to hire 1,500 new employees in Saudi Arabia and add 11 buildings to its network. The expansion will boost storage capacity in the Kingdom by 89 percent and its geographical delivery network by 58 percent.

The company operates an extensive logistics network and local operations across Egypt, which includes the main warehouse supported by 15 delivery stations across the country.

Sawiris launches billion-dollar gold mining investment fund

Updated 28 July 2021

Sawiris launches billion-dollar gold mining investment fund

  • The company said the fund will manage assets worth more than $1.4 billion and is studying new opportunities

CAIRO: La Mancha Holding S.a.r.l, owned by the Sawiris family, has announced the creation of La Mancha Fund SCSp, a Luxembourg-based billiom-dollar investment fund primarily focused on gold mining.

The company said the fund will manage assets worth more than $1.4 billion and is studying new opportunities.

The company indicated that the first closure of the fund was completed with the receipt of all the gold mining assets of La Mancha, in addition to an investment of $100 million from a partner who will invest alongside the Sawiris family.

The fund will be available to other investors at a later time.

“The step to establish an investment fund is the result of what we have been doing since 2015 when we sold our operating assets to Endeavour Mining in exchange for capital shares ... We anticipate many opportunities in the gold mining sector, which is still fragmented and needs more consolidation,” Naguib Sawiris, chairman of the board of directors of La Mancha, said.

“The fund ... will include a number of well-known personalities in the mining sector, many of whom have a long history of working with and providing advisory services to La Mancha,” he added.

“The fund’s primary investment objective is to create investment resources for the gold and precious metals mining sector. It will also have the flexibility to invest in electric car battery metals. It will invest primarily in a specific portfolio focused on long-term listed stocks, but it may consider investing a smaller portion of its assets are in private equity,” Sawiris said.

He said the fund will seek to acquire large stakes in small and startup mineral resource companies with strong management and geological capabilities that will enable them to create value within three to five years.

The strategy plans to unlock organic growth opportunities, launch value creation opportunities by developing long-term exploration plans, develop assets, and establish new mines and increase factory productivity.

The strategy includes enhancing and supporting accumulated external growth opportunities through acquisitions, regional mergers and exploring mergers with larger players.

One of the fund’s objectives is for its management to seek to improve environmental, social and governance standards within its portfolio companies during the investment period.