Lebanese banks swallow at least $250m in UN aid

Palestinian children at Shatila refugee camp in Beirut.Over $250 million in U.N. humanitarian aid intended for refugees and poor communities has been lost to banks selling local currency at highly unfavourable rates. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 17 June 2021

Lebanese banks swallow at least $250m in UN aid

  • Officials from donor countries confirmed that banks swallowed between a third and half of all direct U.N. cash aid in Lebanon
  • An internal assessment in February estimated that up to half the UN assistance programme's value was absorbed by Lebanese banks

BEIRUT: At least $250 million in UN humanitarian aid intended for refugees and poor communities in Lebanon has been lost to banks selling the local currency at highly unfavorable rates, a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation has found.
The losses — described in an internal United Nations document as “staggering” and confirmed by multiple sources — come as Lebanon grapples with its worst ever economic crisis, with more than half the population living under the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
They stem from a plunge in the value of the Lebanese pound since the economy began to collapse in late 2019, sending prices soaring and forcing many Lebanese into poverty.
The unfavorable exchange rates offered by Lebanese banks have hit Syrian and Palestinian refugees and poor Lebanese particularly hard as they are able to buy far less with the cash handouts they receive from the UN
Pre-crisis, refugees and poor Lebanese received a monthly payout of $27, equal to about 40,500 Lebanese pounds, from the World Food Programme (WFP).
That has now risen to about 100,000 Lebanese pounds per person, but its real value is a fraction of what it was before — about $7 at the current rate.
“The buying power used to be very good, we could get an acceptable food basket,” said Abu Ahmad Saybaa, a Syrian refugee who runs a Facebook page that highlights the challenges faced by refugees in Lebanon.
“But now (the handouts) can’t get us more than a gallon of cooking oil. There’s a huge difference in purchasing power,” said the father of five, who has lived in a refugee camp in Lebanon’s rugged northeast since 2014.
“It’s weighing on all of our health — mental and physical.”
An aid official and two diplomats from donor countries confirmed that between a third and half of all direct UN cash aid in Lebanon had been swallowed up by banks since the outset of the crisis in 2019. All spoke on condition of anonymity.
During 2020 and the first four months of 2021, banks exchanged dollars for UN agencies at rates on average 40 percent lower than the market rate, the aid official said.
Lebanon maintains an official exchange rate of about 1,500 pounds to the dollar, but since the crisis has only been able to apply that rate to a handful of essential goods.
All other imports have to be bought at much higher exchange rates, resulting in soaring prices.
Most of the losses came from a 2020 UN assistance program worth about $400 million that provides around 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon with monthly funds for food, education, transport, and winter weather-proofing of shelters.
Lebanon is home to over 1 million Syrian refugees, nine in 10 of whom live in extreme poverty, according to UN data.
The country received at least $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid in 2020.
An internal UN assessment in February estimated that up to half the program’s value was absorbed by Lebanese banks used by the UN to convert donated US dollars.
The document, seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said that by July 2020 a “staggering 50 percent” of contributions were being lost through currency conversion.
The Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL), which represents the country’s commercial banks, denied using aid to raise capital.
It said the UN could have distributed in dollars, or negotiated a better rate with Lebanon’s central bank.
A central bank spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the rates provided to humanitarian organizations
The $400 million UN program, known as LOUISE, receives funding from the United States, the European Commission, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands and France among others, according to its website.
It comprises the WFP, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The Thomson Reuters Foundation compared the rates at which the banks converted US dollars in 2020 and 2021 with the concurrent market exchange rates to calculate the amount of aid lost.
The losses amounted to about $200 million in 2019 and 2020 and at least $40 million so far in 2021.
The figures are in line with the UN internal assessment and were independently verified by an aid official.
A UNICEF spokesperson said the agency was “very concerned that recipients receive the full value of cash transfers” and had recently renegotiated to obtain a rate close to the market rate.
It is also testing disbursement in dollars for some programs, the spokesperson said.
Banque Libano-Francaise (BLF), which was contracted by LOUISE agencies to give out aid, declined to comment on the unfavorable conversion rates, saying it was bound by a confidentiality agreement with them.
It also said the agencies could have distributed the money directly in dollars.
WFP funding of monthly cash assistance to 105,000 vulnerable Lebanese people, worth some $23 million last year, used the same unfavorable exchange rates, a WFP spokesperson said, meaning up to half of funds were lost to banks.
The WFP and UNHCR referred the Thomson Reuters Foundation to the UN humanitarian coordinator’s office, which declined to comment on the reasons for the massive losses.
A spokesperson for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said between a third and half of the aid it distributed since October 2020 – up to $7 million — was lost through currency conversion. The agency has repeatedly warned of funding shortfalls.
The documented losses from the LOUISE, WFP and UNRWA programs amount to at least $250 million since October 2019.
Following pressure by the UN agencies, the discrepancies between the average market exchange rate and the rate offered by the banks have shrunk, but not disappeared.
Confronted with a financial system keen on sucking in as many dollars as possible, donors and UN agencies have struggled to develop a cohesive approach that maintains the full value of aid.
In May, a top World Bank official said Lebanon had agreed to disburse the aid from a $246 million World Bank loan to poor Lebanese directly in dollars, but the payouts have been delayed.
Dollarization of aid, which was recommended in the February internal assessment and lobbied for by donor countries and independent analysts, would keep the full value of the donations for beneficiaries regardless of fluctuations in currency rates.
But Lebanese authorities have resisted efforts to dollarize aid inflows as they seek to maintain control over one of the few remaining sources of hard currency.
Meanwhile, donor nations have grown increasingly impatient and fearful of reputational damage tied to the millions in taxpayer money absorbed by banks.
“We’ve been more than ready to invest in helping people, but we need a credible counterpart that’s not going to pocket money that we are ultimately accountable for at home,” said one Western diplomat on condition of anonymity.
Jad Chaaban, a professor of economics at the American University of Beirut, said international organizations operating in Lebanon often walked a tight line between making compromises in a difficult political environment and holding to standards of accountability.
“In this case, it’s unacceptable and there must be much higher standards. We effectively see the same dynamics as contractors or crony businessmen siphoning off money that they received to build a school or infrastructure project,” Chaaban said.
“Right now, every cent counts for Lebanon.”


France’s OVHCloud takes first step toward IPO and hopes to raise around $470m

Updated 20 September 2021

France’s OVHCloud takes first step toward IPO and hopes to raise around $470m

  • OVHCloud hopes the IPO will “accelerate its growth trajectory and consolidate its European leadership position while continuing to expand in North America and Asia”

PARIS: French cloud computing services provider OVHcloud said it was hoping to raise 400 million euros ($468.64 million) via the issuance of new shares as part of a planned initial public offering (IPO) on the Paris stock market.
OVHCloud hopes the IPO will “accelerate its growth trajectory and consolidate its European leadership position while continuing to expand in North America and Asia,” the company said, as it released its IPO registration document.
The family-owned company added on Monday that it was targeting a revenue growth of 10-15 percent for 2022 and an organic revenue growth rate in the mid-twenties by 2025.
These growth targets would be achieved while maintaining an adjusted EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) margin in line with the fiscal 2020 level.
No dividend payments were anticipated in the mid-term with cash-flows expected to be re-invested in line with the company’s accelerating growth trajectory, it added.
Following the IPO, the Klaba family will retain a substantial majority stake in OVHcloud.
The company had initially announced its IPO plans in March, two days before a major blaze destroyed one of its data centers in eastern France — a disaster that had raised concerns about its capacity to go public.
In June, OVHCloud re-committed to an IPO but provided no timetable.


ACWA Power bets big on Uzbekistan growth

Updated 19 September 2021

ACWA Power bets big on Uzbekistan growth

  • ACWA has invested about $1.2 billion in Uzbekistan thus far
  • ACWA plans to contribute to $100 million Uzbekistan fund

MOSCOW/RIYADH: In the crowded corridors of the Hilton Tashkent City, ACWA Power Chairman Mohammad Abunayyan talks quietly with key delegates of the Islamic Development Bank’s annual meeting in Uzbekistan, who approach him one after another.

Abunayyan, a lean, middle-aged, intelligent-looking man is celebrating with the bank's officials the launch of the $100 million Economic Empowerment Fund for Uzbekistan earlier this month. 

ACWA Power is planning on becoming one of the Saudi investors that will make up 45 percent of the fund, which is also being financed with money from the Islamic Development Bank and the Uzbek government.

ACWA’s contribution would be the latest in a long line of investments in the Central Asian nation, where the utility now has assets worth $4.6 billion having invested about $1.2 billion, according to the prospectus for its initial public offering that was launched earlier this month.

Although that is less than one tenth of the SR248 billion ($66 billion) of assets ACWA has accumulated globally since it was established in 2004 with what Abunayaan describes as a small equity investment. Abunayaan joined the board in 2008.



Beyond its home market in Saudi Arabia, ACWA also owns assets in Oman, UAE, Bahrain and Jordan.

Still, Uzbekistan is an important market for ACWA Power.

In 2020, the company was awarded three projects: Sirdarya Combined-Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) independent power producer (IPP) with 1,500 MW of gross contracted power capacity; the 500 MW Bash Wind IPP; and the 500 MW Dzhankeldy Wind IPP.

The company’s fourth and largest Uzbek asset in Uzbekistan is the Karakalpakstan 1,500 MW Wind IPP project, valued at $2 billion. The Karakalpakstan, Bash and Dzhankeldy projects are at advanced stages of development and Sirdarya IPP is under construction.



ACWA Power’s investments in Uzbekistan represent a sizeable chunk of total foreign direct investment (FDI) that the country has received in recent years.

“Uzbekistan attracted $2 billion in FDI in 2020 and targets another $5 billion this year,” Atabek Nazirov, director general of the Direct Investment Fund of Uzbekistan, told Arab News on the sidelines of the IDB’s two-day conference on Sept. 3.

Such investments mean a long-term relationship between ACWA Power and Uzbekistan.

“[In our projects] we need to lay the foundation for a long-term partnership, this is a relationship that lasts for 20, 25, 30 years,” Tom Teerlynck, executive vice president of ACWA Power, said during a panel discussion organized by the Islamic Corporation for Insurance of Investments and Export Credits.

“The early years go very smoothly because everybody is happy — agreements signed, infrastructure is being built, the services being provided,” he said. “But problems come in later when people in ministries or private companies change. So, it’s very important to lay very robust foundations.”

Uzbekistan officials are confident that ongoing reforms will propel economic growth, despite the global shock caused by COVID-19.

“In 2020, Uzbekistan was the only economy in the Central Asia region that did not have a negative gross domestic product [GDP],” said Direct Investment Fund of Uzbekistan’s Nazirov. “We were able to achieve just above 1 percent growth.”

The government is forecasting economic growth of 6.5 percent this year although that is a conservative scenario and it is hoping for closer to 7 percent, Ilhom Norkulov, Uzbekistan’s deputy minister of economic development and poverty reduction, told Arab News at the IDB meeting.

“For the next five years our target is to increase GDP to $100 billion so we are working to create conditions for the economy to grow 6-7 percent a year,” he said.

However, Uzbekistan’s economy is facing tailwinds in the form of a high inflation rate – expected at 10-11 percent this year – unemployment of 10.5 percent in 2020 (up from 5.8 percent in 2017) and a decline in average monthly wages to a low of $226 in the fourth quarter of 2018 from a peak of $415 in 2016, but back to $280 in the second quarter 2021, according to official data.

Government officials say they are fully aware of the issues, and maintaining economic reforms and income growth should ease the employment and wage conditions over the long run.


Lebanon’s soaring inflation led by 250 percent jump in fuel costs amid currency slump

Updated 18 September 2021

Lebanon’s soaring inflation led by 250 percent jump in fuel costs amid currency slump

  • Lebanese CPI jumped 123 percent in the year to July 2021
  • Food and non-alcoholic beverages prices rose 248 percent

DUBAI: Lebanese residents were forced to pay more than double for consumer goods in July compared with a year earlier as prices soared amid a partial lifting of fuel subsidies and a record plunge in the local currency.

The latest data from Lebanon’s Central Administration of Statistics shows the consumer price index leaped 123 percent year-on-year last month as officials struggled to contain an economic meltdown the likes of which have not been seen since the end of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war.

The biggest contributor to surging prices has been the cost of transportation, which soared by 253 percent from July 2020, reflecting the rise in fuel costs after the previous government priced gasoline at the exchange rate of 3,900 pounds to the dollar in June. Two months later, the central bank began providing fuel importers with dollars at an exchange rate of 8,000 pounds to the dollar.

The Lebanese pound has been officially pegged at 1,507.5 pounds to the dollar since 1997, but is worth a lot less on the black market. Following the resignation of former Prime Minister-Designate Saad Hariri in July, it plummeted to a record 24,000 per dollar.

This pushed prices of food and non-alcoholic beverages up by 248 percent in the year to July 2021, while health care services rose by 178 percent. Prices at restaurants and hotels grew 246 percent and clothing and footwear prices almost doubled.

The formation of Najib Mikati’s government last week, following a 13-month political vacuum, provided Lebanese with slight reprieve.

The pound stabilized at around 14,000 to the dollar on Thursday amid the new government’s pledges for reforms and a resumption of talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which had hit a dead-end following bickering over the size of the banking sector’s losses.

Reforms demanded by the international community include a forensic audit of the central bank’s accounts and a restructuring of the banking sector.

On Thursday, a meeting took place at the Economy Ministry with the president of the syndicate of supermarket owners and the president of the syndicate of food importers to discuss lowering the prices of goods.

The meeting touched on a new pricing mechanism for goods in the wake of the Lebanese pound’s surge, with new economy minister Amine Salam saying that ” both unions have committed to start reducing the prices of commodities.”

“The ministry will not tolerate this issue and will be strict in monitoring price,” he said.


Saudi mining law will attract ‘incredible’ private investment to $1.3 trillion sector: Golden Compass CEO

Updated 19 September 2021

Saudi mining law will attract ‘incredible’ private investment to $1.3 trillion sector: Golden Compass CEO

  • The Saudi Industrial Development Fund is also offering 60 percent loans to investors in a bid to attract global players into the Kingdom
  • Alcoa Group, The Mosaic Co. and Barrick Gold have invested in the Kingdom's mining sector

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s new mining law will attract private investment from home and abroad as the Kingdom looks to exploit an estimated $1.3 trillion of potential value in the sector, according to Meshary Al-Ali, founder and CEO of mining consultancy Golden Compass.

In January, the Kingdom moved to capitalize on the vast wealth hidden below ground in Saudi Arabia with the establishment of a mining fund and support for geological surveys and exploration program activities.

The Saudi Industrial Development Fund is also offering 60 percent loans to investors in a bid to attract global players into the Kingdom, while the Ministry of Industry and Mineral Resources is investing $3.7 billion in the sector.

The deputy minister of Industry and Mineral Resources Khaled Al-Mudaifer talked up the potential riches beneath the Kingdom’s soil last month, telling CNBC that studies have estimated $1.3 trillion in reserves of phosphates, gold, copper, zinc, nickel, rare earth metals and other minerals.

Speaking to Arab News, Al-Ali was confident the Kingdom’s enthusiasm for the sector would attract worldwide attention.

FASTFACTS

Studies have estimated $1.3 trillion in reserves of phosphates, gold, copper, zinc, nickel, rare earth metals and other minerals in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi Geological Survey has announced 54 locations for exploration, with more to be revealed soon.

The Kingdom has already attracted major international investors.

“It’s a very flexible and very transparent system, and it’s one of the most powerful in mining around the world,” Al-Ali said. “The system is new and it can encourage investors to come to Saudi Arabia.”

Under Vision 2030, mining is the third pillar of Saudi Arabia’s economic development, after energy and petrochemicals, as it aims to diversify the country’s economy away from dependency on oil.

The Saudi Geological Survey has announced 54 locations for exploration, with more to be revealed in the coming months that will be auctioned to investors.

The National Geological Database is being created to allow investors to find the locations of mineral deposits in a bid to increase the transparency and competitiveness of the sector in Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom has already attracted major international investors, including US firm Alcoa Corp., which has a 25.1 percent stake in Ma’aden Bauxite and Alumina Co., and Ma’aden Aluminium Co., as part of $10.8 billion joint venture with Saudi miner Ma’aden, located in Ras Al-Khair Industrial City in the eastern province.

Fertilizer producer The Mosaic Co., another US company, has a 25 percent stake in the $8 billion Ma’aden Wa’ad Al-Shamal Fertilizer Production Complex located in Wa’ad Al-Shamal Minerals Industrial City in the northern province of Saud Arabia.

Canada’s Barrick Gold Corp. has a 50 percent stake with Ma’aden in the Jabal Sayid underground copper mine and plant.

“The private sector contribution will be incredible within the next couple of years,” said Al-Ali.

The mining sector is expected to create thousands of jobs in the Kingdom in the coming years with the goal of 256,000 geologists, engineers and others by 2030, he said.

“The ambitions will be reflected in a doubling of the sector’s contribution to GDP,” said Al-Ali.

“The income for the mining sector was above SR96 billion ($26 billion) in 2020 and we are targeting SR176 billion by 2030.”


Saudi military industry delegation meets investors in London defense show

Updated 17 September 2021

Saudi military industry delegation meets investors in London defense show

  • Officials from Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Military Industries (GAMI) and Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) met with a number of major international investors in the fields of defense and military security

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s military industry delegation concluded on Friday its participation in the four-day Defense and Security Equipment International (DSEI) trade fair held at the ExCel Center in London with meetings with investors.

Officials from Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Military Industries (GAMI) and Saudi Arabian Military Industries (SAMI) met with a number of major international investors in the fields of defense and military security from the United Kingdom and European countries, as well as a number of people from other countries interested in the defense and security military industries sector, GAMI said in a statement.

These meetings were attended GAMI Governor Eng. Ahmed bin Abdulaziz Al-Ohali, GAMI’s partners in the sector, as well as Saudi and British officials and stakeholders from the industry and investment sectors.

The UK Minister of defense Ben Wallace and a number of official delegations at the regional and international levels also inspected the Saudi pavilion, learning about the key targets of the military industry sector in the Kingdom, its promising investment opportunities and the pursuit of GAMI to reflect the ambitious vision of the wise leadership aiming at the Saudization of more than 50 percent of spending on military equipment and services by 2030.

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