Lebanon workers go on strike over escalating crisis

A demonstrator carries a national flag during a protest against mounting economic hardships, near the Central Bank building, in Beirut. (Reuters)
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Updated 18 June 2021

Lebanon workers go on strike over escalating crisis

  • Lebanon has been without a fully functioning government since August
  • The crisis, festering since 2019, has reached new heights in recent weeks

BEIRUT: The trade unions affiliated with the General Labor Union in Lebanon carried out a general strike on Thursday to protest the country’s deteriorating economic conditions as they also pressed for a new government.

The strike paralyzed the state’s official departments and the banking sector as the private institutions stopped working for one hour in solidarity.

Protesters demanding the formation of a government did not, however, bother the ruling political authority, which also participated in the strike alongside private banks, making it impossible to know whom the workers were protesting against.

Short roadblocks were reported in Beirut and other areas before security forces quickly reopened the roads.

Lebanon has been without a functioning government since August while Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, named to the post in October, has failed to gain support from Lebanese President Michel Aoun over his Cabinet picks.

All mediations to resolve the issues facing the formation of a new government have been halted because of prolonged political bickering. Hezbollah’s two allies — the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri — cannot come to terms with Aoun, who insists on naming Christian ministers and, according to Berri, wants to obtain the blocking third in the government.

Aoun says Berri is seeking to “marginalize the role of the president, limit his powers, obstruct and exclude him.”

In light of the political stalemate, Anne Grillo, France’s ambassador to Lebanon, met with FPM lawmaker Gebran Bassil at his home. Bassil’s media office said their discussion focused on “the importance of forming the government despite all obstacles impeding it.”

Thursday’s strike in and around Beirut received mixed reactions.

Activists in the protest not affiliated with any party in power believed the General Labor Union’s strike had actually turned into a “movement against the people” after the FPM and the Future Movement joined the strike.

Other protesters, who refrained from participating in Thursday’s movement, said the “oppressor has assumed the identity of the oppressed.”

Halima Qaqour, a specialist in public international law, who was active in previous protests, told Arab News: “The civil society’s reluctance to participate in the General Labor Union strike is due to the fact that this union represents the ruling parties and we will not engage in this game. We say everyone must be held accountable and pay the price.”

There were a few reasons why people did not respond to the strike.

“The General Labor Union cannot mobilize people to protest. The people have become politically aware and they simply do not want to take to the streets,” Qaqour said.

“People are divided into three groups: A group awaiting the parliamentary elections to see some accountability, a group that has lost all hope and is trying to leave Lebanon, and another that is gathering under non-sectarian parties and preparing political projects for the upcoming stage."

Thursday’s strike could just be the beginning as those who participated said it was only a trial run for future protests “that may be more painful.”

Qaqour said the timing was not right for this protest but predicted more strikes.

“The people are the ones who decide when it is time to take to the streets again, and that time is yet to come,” she said.

In front of the General Labor Union headquarters in Beirut, several union representatives and trade unions gathered. Bechara Al-Asmar, head of the General Labor Union, defended the strike, saying the labor union is “the only unifying force in Lebanon without any bias and was able to gather both loyalists and opponents.”

Al-Asmar rejected “all accusations claiming that the union always gives in to politicians,” saying that the movements that accompanied the strike were “civilized” as there was no attack on public and private property.

He added that the union operates under one slogan, which is to save what is left of Lebanon by forming a new government and preserving institutions.

Al-Asmar addressed the politicians by saying: “Stop leaving your people for dead and form a salvation government. If you do not take this initiative, chaos will prevail.”

He also addressed those who criticize the General Labor Union and urged those who want to change this authority “should do so at the polls.”


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.

FASTFACTS

• 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.