‘Vision 2030 offers companies myriad opportunities,’ says Saudi-French Business Council chief Mohamed Ben Laden

Ben Laden said CAFS’ aim is to develop, promote and support economic relations between the Kingdom and France. (FILE/SHUTTERSTOCK)
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Updated 29 July 2022
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‘Vision 2030 offers companies myriad opportunities,’ says Saudi-French Business Council chief Mohamed Ben Laden

  • Hundred of Saudis now work in French companies and partnerships across the Kingdom, Ben Laden tells Arab News
  • CAFS’s aim is to develop, promote and support economic relations between France and Saudi Arabia, says council president

PARIS: Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s social and economic reform agenda, has created tremendous opportunities for foreign direct investment from France and other major economies, Mohamed Ben Laden, president of the Saudi-French Business Council, told Arab News ahead of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to France.

After spending Tuesday and Wednesday in the Greek capital Athens holding talks, the crown prince was scheduled to arrve in Paris on Thursday to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron and representatives of the country’s business community.

Saudi Arabia and France enjoy robust economic ties. In 2021, France imported $3.8 billion worth of Saudi goods, while it exported $3.23 billion to the Kingdom, according to the UN’s Comtrade international trade database.




Mohamed Ben Laden, president of the Saudi-French Business Council, says French companies know investing in the Kingdom can be sometimes complex but never risky. (Supplied)

Furthermore, France is Saudi Arabia’s largest European investor, and the third largest in the world, representing nearly 10 percent of its foreign direct investments. “This number is likely to grow in the coming years since Vision 2030 offers so many opportunities,” Ben Laden told Arab News.

“French groups know that investing in the Kingdom is sometimes complex but never risky. They look forward to the opportunities and future privatizations that are perceived as growth drivers. Significant projects exist in tourism, transport, circular economy and oil, but it is not up to me to unveil ongoing negotiations.”

Ben Laden said Vision 2030 has been a game changer for foreign investment — something the Saudi-French Business Council, or CAFS, known in French as the Conseil d’Affaires Franco-Saoudien, has been eager to promote.

“Vision 2030 offers growing opportunities for French companies with the intention of developing in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “The evolution in trade and investment laws simplify the arrival of new foreign companies.

“France is already Saudi Arabia’s main European partner, ranking third after the UAE and USA. Industrial investments continue to grow as can be seen with the projects recently announced by Electricite de France’s EDF, Total and others.”

In addition, efforts to attract and streamline investment in Saudi Arabia under the Vision 2030 reform agenda have made the Kingdom a far more attractive destination for smaller French enterprises.

“We often think of the large groups that have been present in the Kingdom for some time now, namely Total, Engie, EDF, RATPDev, AirLiquide,” said Ben Laden. “However, Vision 2030 offers a myriad of opportunities to smaller French companies.”

One added benefit of this new investment is job creation. According to Ben Laden, several hundred Saudis now work for French companies and in partnerships across the Kingdom. And this number is growing, keeping pace with the process of Saudization facilitated by the presence of a quality workforce.

“Saudi youth are hardworking and buy into the values of Vision 2030,” he said.

As one of the first business councils founded by the Saudi Chamber of Commerce in 2003, CAFS has hosted dozens of sessions addressing bilateral trade and investments in both countries and played a major role in developing economic ties.

Ben Laden said CAFS’ aim is to develop, promote and support economic relations between the Kingdom and France. Therefore, regular visits to both countries are organized several times a year to discover new industrial sectors or regions and assess potential cooperation opportunities.




Efforts to streamline foreign investments under Vision 2030 have made Saudi Arabia an attractive destination for even smaller French enterprises. (FILE/AFP)

“Our primary role is to help the companies by supporting them and helping them discover the multiple existing opportunities. In parallel, we highlight the legal and competitive framework which holds many advantages,” he said.

“Similarly, if need be, we serve as an interface with the authorities to bypass small administrative difficulties and in rare cases, fortunately, to absorb tensions between companies in both countries.”

Ben Laden emphasized that CAFS is a body for facilitation and exchange. Rather than coaxing companies to come to Saudi Arabia, its role is to guide them in their choice of partners and targets.

“Our administrations — Saudi and French — are similar in their complexity, and being counseled helps to avoid costly errors, so with the help of our friends, the foreign trade advisers, we are here to share our experiences,” he said. “The council is an open structure which will gladly welcome new members in its ranks.”

Trust is at the heart of the development of trade relations between any two sides, said Ben Laden. Therefore CAFS helps companies from both countries to get acquainted and establish relationships. It also helps firms to obtain funding for projects so they can settle in either of the two countries.

Ben Laden believes the development of tourism in AlUla and on the Red Sea coast, as well as recent growth in the entertainment sector, are precious opportunities for French companies wishing to operate in the Kingdom.

“We are only at the beginning of an investment cycle of tens of billions of euros.” 

 

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Clean energy investments crucial for Africa’s sustainable economic growth: IEA

Updated 8 sec ago
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Clean energy investments crucial for Africa’s sustainable economic growth: IEA

RIYADH: Africa’s rising energy demand requires substantial investments in clean power projects, which is crucial for the continent’s sustainable economic growth, an analysis revealed.

In its latest report, the International Energy Agency said that Africa’s aspiration for greater economic and social development depends on access to a affordable, reliable, modern and sustainable supply of power. 

According to IEA, meeting the growing energy demand from African countries requires a more than doubling of annual investments to over $240 billion in the sector by 2030, of which three-quarters of the funds needs to be focused on clean technology. 

The organization also called for “swift action to tackle financial barriers so investment can reach the levels that are needed.”

IEA highlighted that $22 billion is required from 2023 to 2030 to connect all African homes and businesses to electricity, while $4 billion per year is needed to provide clean cooking solutions. 

“The lack of energy access in Africa is a great injustice, but increased spending on impactful projects could quickly turn the tide,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of IEA. 

Africa’s energy concerns

According to the agency, Africa remains energy-poor despite holding significant resources. 

The report highlighted that around 600 million Africans still lack access to electricity and more than 1 billion still cook their meals over open fires and traditional stoves using wood, charcoal, kerosene, coal and animal waste. 

The analysis suggested that the consequences of this lack of energy supply are dire in terms of health, education, climate, and economic and social development, with many of these impacts disproportionally affecting women and children in the continent. 

“There are also affordability challenges to consider; only half of households without electricity access today would be able to afford basic energy services without additional financial support, and even fewer would be able to afford modern cooking solutions,” said the report. 

It added: “A lack of reliable and affordable energy restrains Africa’s farmers from higher productivity; hinders industry, where energy prices and affordability remain key determinants in competitiveness; and limits the ability of countries to attract and cultivate new sectors of their economies.” 

Moreover, although Africa accounts for around 20 percent of the world’s population, it attracts less than 3 percent of energy spending. 

The study highlighted that investments in the energy sector on the continent have been falling since its peak in 2014 and are currently down 34 percent.

“Increasing investment in domestic energy systems faces hurdles, notably a shortage of bankable projects and the high cost of capital, which can be two to three times higher for renewable projects in Africa than in advanced economies,” said IEA.  

More than 1 billion Africans still cook their meals over open fires and traditional stoves. Shutterstock

Expansion of electricity holds the key

According to the report, around half of the energy funding required in Africa by 2030 is needed in electricity, where policies play a key role in attracting more investment. 

“Total electricity sector investment increases from just under $30 billion in 2022 to more than $120 billion in 2030 in the Sustainable Africa Scenario, with around 50 percent going toward renewable generation alone,” added the report. 

IEA further noted that Africa is home to the most cost-competitive green energy outlets in the world, with 60 percent of the best solar resources globally, and many countries on the continent have high-potential hydropower, geothermal, and wind resources.

The release noted that utility-scale renewable energy projects have found a foothold in African markets, where around 80 percent of clean projects by volume have reached investment decisions in the last five years. 

New industries to propel Africa’s energy sector 

The report projected that new industries, including those related to clean technologies, can support Africa’s growing energy sector. 

“Developing industry goes hand-in-hand with the expansion of Africa’s energy system. By 2030, Africa is projected to build more floor area than exists in Japan and Korea today,” said IEA. 

It added: “Accordingly, demand for steel and cement is set to grow considerably from today’s levels, alongside rising demand for irrigation pumps, cold chains, data centers and mining.” 

The analysis further highlighted that mineral exploration, and the manufacturing of clean energy technologies present practical opportunities to cultivate a growing industrial base in the continent. 

The report revealed that revenues from the production of copper and key battery metals in Africa are already estimated to be more than $20 billion annually, and with the current pipeline, the market value of this sector is expected to increase by 65 percent by the end of this decade. 

Additionally, if all initiatives under the pipeline come to fruition, low-emissions hydrogen production from announced electrolyzer projects in Africa could reach 2 tonnes by 2030. 

“Investments in these fast-growing sectors can help diversify global supply chains and reduce import burdens for Africa,” said IEA. 

It added: “If well-designed, these projects could also be powered by energy investments that serve Africa’s wider domestic energy needs and ensure their development creates jobs, supports local communities, and meets important health, safety, and labor criteria.” 

The analysis also underscored the importance of private sector involvement in ensuring Africa’s energy security. 

According to IEA, private sector spending needs to grow 2.5 times between 2022 and 2030 to meet Africa’s energy investment needs. 

“In the Sustainable Africa Scenario, $190 billion of private capital is required by 2030, growing from around $75 billion today,” said IEA. 

The study further noted that concessional capital from international sources will play a key role in mobilizing this increase, with an estimated $30 billion per year for clean energy projects required to mobilize commercial funding over the 2023 to 2030 period. 


Saudi banking sector fuels economic growth and inclusion via digital transformation 

Updated 17 June 2024
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Saudi banking sector fuels economic growth and inclusion via digital transformation 

RIYADH: The digital revolution within Saudi Arabia’s banking sphere has significantly enhanced the nation’s economic panorama, facilitating effortless financial transactions for customers, experts have told Arab News.

Situated in the heart of the Middle East, the Kingdom stands out not just for its deep-rooted history and cultural legacy but also for its swift embrace of digital advancements, notably within the banking domain.

In recent years, the nation has undergone a significant transformation in its banking sector, propelled by the ambitious Vision 2030 program led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

This visionary endeavor seeks to broaden the economic landscape, diminish reliance on oil income, and propel the country forward into a new age of prosperity. 

In an interview with Arab News, Saudi-based economist Talat Hafiz set out how the digital transformation has positively impacted the overall economic landscape of the country. 

Hafiz said: “It has allowed (customers) to perform financial transactions and conduct financial businesses related transactions real-time around the clock and year round, which has facilitated  doing business in the Kingdom and in turn have reflected positively on the overall economy, as it has saved time and efforts and ultimately cost reduction to businesses.”

Fabrice Franzen, partner at Bain & Co., told Arab News that the Kingdom has been one of the first countries to avail full digital banking licenses without the need for branches. 

“SAMA (Saudi Central Bank) has actively promoted the digital bank model, and three licenses were issued to local investors and companies, which should go live imminently,” he added.

Franzen anticipated that this should create healthy competition with the traditional players and drive further innovation and enhance customer experience.

Infrastructure and government support

The journey toward digitalization commenced with substantial investments in telecommunications infrastructure. 

This effort positioned Saudi Arabia as a frontrunner in digital regulatory maturity and network speed among G20 nations. 

According to the International Telecommunication Union’s Digital Regulatory Maturity Index, the Kingdom secured the top spot in the Middle East and Africa and ranked ninth among G20 countries. 

Notably, Saudi Arabia stood sixth globally in terms of the fastest data download speed in fifth-generation networks, showcasing its remarkable progress. 

The rise of digital banks and banking solutions

STC Bank was given the go-ahead in 2021. Screenshot

Demonstrating the government’s backing for digital transformation within the banking sphere, the Saudi Cabinet greenlit the licensing of two local digital banks in 2021: STC Bank and the Saudi Digital Bank.

This involved the conversion of stc pay into a local digital bank, now known as “STC Bank,” equipped to conduct banking operations in the Kingdom with a capital of SR2.5 billion ($670 million). 

Furthermore, an alliance of companies and investors spearheaded by Abdul Rahman bin Saad Al-Rashed and Sons Co. established another local facility named the Saudi Digital Bank, with a capital of SR1.5 billion. 

The introduction of the Saudi Arabian Riyal Interbank Express, also known as SARIE – which translates literally from Arabic as “fast” – marked a significant turning point for the digital banking sector in the Kingdom. 

This system not only boosts the efficiency of the national payment infrastructure but also aligns seamlessly with the ongoing developmental trajectory observed within the Kingdom’s payments sector.

According to Hafiz, this system provides the mechanism for all Saudi commercial banks to make and settle payments in riyals. 

The economist added: “It provides the basis for improved banking products and services and is the foundation for the payments system strategy of the Kingdom.” 

Hafiz asserted that SARIE is a “state-of-the-art payment,” as it provides the mechanism for banks to exchange funds transfer and direct debit messages safely and efficiently on behalf of their customers as well as for their own trading purposes. 

SAMA has consistently demonstrated a strong interest in promoting safety and enhancing efficiency within payment systems, aligning with its overarching focus on financial stability, according to the economist. 

As a result, the central bank plays a pivotal role in both the development and operation of payment systems in the Kingdom. 

SARIE, for Hafiz, has undoubtedly represented a significant milestone, profoundly impacting consumer behavior and the operational efficiency of financial institutions across the nation.

Saudi Arabia’s support for fintech companies

The rollout of accelerator programs aimed at bolstering the expansion of emerging fintech companies marked a significant catalyst for the sector’s advancement. 

This initiative was crafted to facilitate the transfer of best practices, tools, and resources to empower emerging firms in the financial technology domain, fostering their growth and amplifying their presence within the Kingdom.

SAMA has been actively supporting the emergence of the fertile fintech scene in Saudi Arabia, providing a wide range of licensing options, according to Bain and Co. 

“Local investors (institutional, family offices) are also actively investing in fintech, providing a healthy flow of seed capital and supporting subsequent capital raises,” the partner told AN.

He added that Saudi fintechs benefit from a sizable domestic market of over 30 million residents, enabling rapid scaling.

Hafiz noted the significance of this program particularly when it comes to supporting new startup fintech companies because such programs are carefully designed to help fintech companies accelerate their growth by providing different services that help them through a fast-track program to scale up their businesses. 

“The national Fintech Strategy goals and objectives are to create 525 Fintech companies in the Kingdom that create 18,000 Fintech job opportunities and contribute SR13.3 billion to the Kingdom’s Gross Domestic Product by 2030,” the economist highlighted.

The Saudi Central Bank has supported the growing fintech scene in the Kingdom. File

Rapid growth in electronic payments

By the end of 2021, the retail sector in the Kingdom witnessed a significant milestone in digital transformation: electronic payments accounted for 57 percent of total transactions, surpassing the target set by Vision 2030, according to data from the central bank. 

Additionally, Saudi Arabia achieved the highest adoption rate of Near Field Communication, NFC, payments, reaching 94 percent, outpacing even nations in the EU, as well as Hong Kong, Canada, and the Middle East and North Africa region.

Financial literacy and inclusion

Financial inclusion in Saudi Arabia aims to provide affordable financial services to all citizens, aligning with government efforts to enhance financial literacy and economic participation. 

This is becoming a major concern for the financial authorities in Saudi Arabia, according to Hafiz. 

He attributed it to the aim of making financial services available to all individuals in the Kingdom at affordable pricing, supporting the government’s efforts connected to raising the financial literacy in the society. 

One of the main goals and objectives of the Financial Sector Development Program – a Saudi Vision 2030 program – is to raise individuals’ financial literacy through proper financial planning and investment.

“Policymakers in Saudi Arabia have implemented robust policies that encourage and ensure the enhancement of financial inclusion, since it has been identified as imperative for economic growth,” Hafiz added.

According to Franzen, the Financial Services Development Program has set an ambitious trajectory to develop the sector as a way to support financial inclusion, literacy, and efficiencies.

“This is benefiting the economy and Saudi citizens as they have enhanced access to cheaper and more secure banking solutions,” he added.

Diverse digital banking ecosystem

The digital banking landscape in Saudi Arabia is vibrant, offering a range of services to cater to evolving consumer needs. 

“With three full digital banking licenses approved, Saudi Arabia is at the forefront of promoting full digital banking solutions – at par with the UAE and well ahead of other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries,” Franzen said.

He observed that the Kingdom could rely on advanced regulations for biometric customer identification and centralized databases, greatly easing digital onboarding and authentication.

Online banks, neo-banks, challenger banks, and Banking-as-a-Service all play roles in the digital revolution. 

“While neo-banks and challenger banks are still nascent in the market, one should expect that they will drive a higher speed of innovation and will put pressure on traditional players,” Bain and Co. partner emphasized.

“Similar trends have been observed in other markets such as the UK when new digital banks came to challenge the High Street incumbents,” he continued, adding: “This has led to cheaper and more reliable financial services becoming the norm in the UK market (no or very low fees, instant solutions), to the benefit of the customer.” 

According to a report by KPMG, a global network of professional firms providing financial services, neo-banks hold a 20 percent market share in Saudi Arabia’s digital banking sector.

Furthermore, online banks claim 30 percent, while the Banking-as-a-Service segment is projected to reach a market valuation of $7 trillion by 2030, with a yearly growth rate of 26 percent.

Enhanced customer experience

Banks are prioritizing improving customer experience through advanced technologies. AI-driven chatbots offer instant support, and data analytics enables personalized financial advice. These advancements streamline operations and cultivate customer loyalty.

“In Saudi Arabia, 95 percent of people who hold bank accounts and have access to the internet prefer digital over traditional banking channels, such as physical branches and phone banking,” according to a report by Backbase, a Dutch financial technology company.

Bain and Co. partner said that “while customers have grown accustomed to managing their lives from the comfort of their home on their phone (ride-hailing, food delivery, online shopping, home entertainment), they expect a similar service from the banks.”

Franzen added that mobile solutions offer an attractive alternative for those living in remote areas of the Kingdom where branch density is much lower than in the main urban hubs. It also offers cheaper banking solutions for those with lower income.

Future trends and projections

With the rise of pure digital banking entities intensifying their operations, a notable trend is emerging: a surge in account openings, both initially and for secondary accounts, as customers explore branch-less alternatives. 

Franzen said that as confidence in these digital-only players grows, a shift towards them serving as primary banks is anticipated, akin to the trajectory witnessed in countries like the UK, where neo-banks have secured over 25 percent of primary banking relationships.

“One key potential technology unlock to drive digital financial services would be increased flexibility on cloud usage and data residency rules,” he added.


US ready to reopen oil stockpile if petrol prices surge again, FT reports

Updated 17 June 2024
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US ready to reopen oil stockpile if petrol prices surge again, FT reports

BENGALURU: The Biden administration is ready to release more oil from the US strategic stockpile to stop any jump in petrol prices this summer, the Financial Times reported on Monday.

Senior Biden adviser Amos Hochstein told the newspaper that oil prices are “still too high for many Americans” and he would like to see them “cut down a little bit further.”

Hochstein, speaking to the FT said that the US would “continue to purchase into next year, until we think that the Strategic Petroleum Reserve has the volume that it needs again to serve its original purpose of energy security.”

The Energy Department this year has been buying about 3 million barrels of oil per month for the SPR after selling 180 million barrels in 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The move was an effort to curb gasoline prices that spiked to more than $5 a gallon, but it also reduced the reserve to its lowest level in 40 years.

Earlier this month, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told Reuters that the US could hasten the rate of replenishing the SPR as maintenance on the stockpile is completed by the end of the year.


China’s May industrial output misses forecasts, retail sales a bright spot

Updated 17 June 2024
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China’s May industrial output misses forecasts, retail sales a bright spot

BEIJING: China’s May industrial output lagged below expectations with the property sector still weak, adding pressure on Beijing for policy support to shore up growth, but retail sales beat forecasts thanks to a holiday boost, according to Reuters.

The industrial data released on Monday by the National Bureau of Statistics came in below expectations for a 6 percent increase in a Reuters poll of analysts.

However, retail sales, a gauge of consumption, in May rose 3.7 percent on year, accelerating from a 2.3 percent increase in April and marked the quickest growth since February. Analysts had expected retail sales to grow 3 percent due to the five-day public holiday earlier in the month.

Fixed asset investment expanded 4 percent in the first five months of 2024 from the same period a year earlier, versus expectations for a 4.2 percent rise. It grew 4.2 percent in the January to April period.

China’s property market downturn, high local government debt and deflation remain heavy drags on economic activity. The latest figures point to an uneven growth that reinforces calls for more fiscal and monetary policy support.

With narrowing interest margins and a weakening currency remaining key constraints limiting Beijing’s scope to ease monetary policy, China’s central bank left a key policy rate unchanged as expected on Monday.

The world’s second-largest economy grew faster than expected at 5.3 percent in the first quarter, but analysts say the government’s around 5 percent annual growth target is ambitious.

China’s exports grew faster than expected in May helped by improved global demand, but imports growth slowed significantly.

Tepid demand at home has also kept a lid on consumer prices as confidence remains low in the face of a protracted property sector crisis. New bank lending rebounded far less than expected in May and some key money gauges hit record lows.

Property investment fell 10.1 percent year-on-year in January-May, deepening from a decline of 9.8 percent in January-April.

China’s property sector has been hit by a regulatory crackdown and the government has slashed down payment requirements and canceled the floor rate for mortgage interest rate.

The central bank last month announced a relending program for affordable housing to accelerate sales of unsold housing stock.

The job market overall was steady. The nationwide survey-based jobless rate hit 5 percent in May, the same as that in April.

The government has vowed to create more jobs linked to major projects, roll out measures to promote domestic demand targeted at youths and has pledged greater fiscal stimulus to shore up growth. 


Oil Updates – prices slip on weaker US consumer demand, rise in China output

Updated 17 June 2024
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Oil Updates – prices slip on weaker US consumer demand, rise in China output

NEW DELHI: Oil prices slipped in Asian trading on Monday after a survey on Friday showed weaker US consumer demand and as May crude production rose in China, the world’s biggest crude importer, according to Reuters.

Global benchmark Brent crude futures for August delivery were down 40 cents, or 0.5 percent, at $82.22 per barrel at 9:31 a.m. Saudi time. US West Texas Intermediate crude futures for July delivery fell 36 cents to $78.09 a barrel.

The more-active August delivery WTI contract slipped 0.5 percent to $77.7 per barrel.

That followed prices slipping on Friday after a survey showed US consumer sentiment fell to a seven-month low in June, with households worried about their personal finances and inflation.

However, both benchmark contracts still gained nearly 4 percent last week, the highest weekly rise in percentage terms since April, on signs of stronger fuel demand.

“Last week’s robust rally was fueled by forecasts of strong 2024 demand from OPEC+ and the IEA. However, given OPEC’s vested interest in crude oil, there is some skepticism around OPEC’s forecasts,” said Tony Sycamore, a market analyst at IG in Singapore.

“Friday’s soft US consumer confidence numbers suggest that the resilience of the American consumer and the US economy will be tested as households run down their savings to combat higher interest rates and cost-of-living pressures,” he added.

Meanwhile, China’s May domestic crude oil production rose 0.6 percent on year to 18.15 million tonnes, according to data released by the National Bureau of Statistics on Monday.

Year-to-date output was 89.1 million tonnes, up 1.8 percent from a year earlier. National crude oil throughput fell 1.8 percent in May over the same year-ago level to 60.52 million tonnes, with year-to-date totalling 301.77 million tonnes, up 0.3 percent from a year ago.

The country’s May industrial output lagged expectations and a slowdown in the property sector showed no signs of easing, adding pressure on Beijing to shore up growth.

The flurry of data on Monday was largely downbeat, underscoring a bumpy recovery for the world’s second-largest economy.

On the geopolitical front, concerns of a wider Middle East war lingered after the Israeli military said on Sunday that intensified cross-border fire from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement into Israel could trigger serious escalation.

After the relatively heavy exchanges over the past week, Sunday saw a marked drop in Hezbollah fire, while the Israeli military said that it had carried out several airstrikes against the group in southern Lebanon.

Markets in key oil trading hub Singapore and other countries in the region were closed for a public holiday on Monday.