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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Ahmadinejad: Iran wants to help Iraq

TEHRAN,Iran (AP) — Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says his country wants to use its experience to help neighboring Iraq make progress.

Ahmadinejad's comments, which were reported by the presidential news website, came during a Friday meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

The two countries have had close relations after the 2003 overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who fought an eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s. The war left some one million casualties on both sides.

The United States has repeatedly accused overwhelmingly-Shiite Iran of using its influence in the majority-Shiite Iraq to fight U.S-led forces. Iran has denied the charge, saying the U.S occupation has caused security concerns there.

King lauds Palestinian unity

P.K. Abdul Ghafour, Arab News

EDDAH: Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah yesterday congratulated Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for his success in achieving reconciliation between Palestinian factions. He also called on people all over the world to end their differences through dialogue and promote peace.

“I am extremely pleased over the news that Your Excellency and our brothers in the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Palestinian factions have reached a sound method for reconciliation,” King Abdullah said in a message to President Mubarak.

He said the methodology adopted to settle conflicts among the Palestinian groups would be in the interests of the Palestinians as well as Arab and Islamic nations. He praised Mubarak for his determination to find a solution to the conflict.

“I seize this opportunity to commend my brothers in the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, in Hamas and all Palestinian factions, without exception, on this achievement,” the message said, adding that it was achieved as a result of their strong faith in God and unity.

The king’s message came after a dozen Palestinian groups, who met in Cairo on Thursday, laid out a plan to tackle key issues to settle their differences and strengthen unity. They said the dialogue would lead to the formation of a national unity government.

King Abdullah emphasized the importance of using sound reasoning to overcome Satan’s temptations. “It is time that they say to the Arab and Islamic nations and the whole world that they are far away from disagreement and are capable of reconciliation,” King Abdullah told the Palestinian leaders.

He urged the Palestinians to stand united like a concrete structure inspired by the message of God. “And hold fast, altogether, by the rope which God (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude God’s favor on you; for you were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His Grace you became brethren,” he said quoting a Qur’anic verse.

“We convey to them all our love and the happiness of their brothers in Saudi Arabia ... All should unite to reach a final solution that will take us to new horizons of our joint Arab march,” the message said, emphasizing the roles of wisdom and reason in ending conflicts.

King Abdullah called also on world leaders to settle conflicts and differences among peoples through dialogue, good reasoning and wisdom, getting inspiration from the message of God and teachings of His Prophets (peace be upon them). “These teachings call for the dominance of dialogue over discord, logic over whims, and reason over ignorance. They do not exclude anyone, and indeed they are directed to all humanity,” he said. “We hope that this call will find its repercussions all over the world so that peoples will unite on a message that renounces evil, fights crime and terrorism, and promotes love and tolerance so that humanity awakens to witness a bright future enjoying safety, security, peace and coexistence between nations and peoples,” the king said.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, meanwhile, toured the war-shattered Gaza Strip yesterday, his first such trip since Hamas seized power in the Palestinian territory in June 2007.

“I came to Gaza to see for myself the situation and the destruction and to show the solidarity to the good people of Gaza who have suffered so much,” he said at a news conference.

“I wanted to see with my eyes the level of destruction,” he said of the devastation wrought by Israel’s 22-day military offensive that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians. He viewed the ruins of the American International School and the wasteland of Ezbet Abed Rabbo, where scores of Palestinians huddle in shanties erected on mounds of rubble that used to be their homes.

His visit came ahead of an international conference in Egypt on the rebuilding of Gaza. “I hope the meeting that will take place on Monday will be a good meeting with good consequences for people here,” said Solana. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere was on a similar visit to Gaza yesterday, touring areas hard hit by the Israeli offensive that ended Jan. 18. Neither Solana nor Stoere met any representative of Hamas, which the European Union, Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization.

The European Commission announced yesterday it would donate 436 million euros ($553 million) in aid to Gaza at the Cairo conference. “By offering a substantial aid package we confirm our generosity and commitment toward the Palestinians,” EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said in a statement in Brussels.

Indonesia has just sold $3b in dollar bond

Aditya Suharmoko and Mustaqim Adamrah , The Jakarta Post

Indonesia has just sold US$3 billion in medium-term notes, the country’s largest ever dollar-denominated bond sale, to help plug the growing state budget deficit.

The Southeast Asia’s largest economy has sold $2 billion of 10-year bonds, with a yield of 11.75 percent, and $1 billion of five-year bonds, with a yield of 10.5 percent, according to a Finance Ministry statement Friday.

The yields of 10-year notes and five-year notes are 8.759 percentage points and 8.474 points respectively, higher than similar-maturity US Treasuries, Bloomberg reported.

Anggito Abimanyu, the ministry’s head of fiscal policy, said the bonds would help cover the budget deficit of Rp 139.5 trillion, equal to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and increase forex reserves.

“Our trade surplus has declined;, while there has been a capital outflow from our investment portfolio. The source from where we can maintain our forex reserves is foreign debts,” said Anggito.

He added the yields were within the government’s “benchmark”.

Finance Ministry director general of debt management Rahmat Waluyanto said the yields rose due to a “repricing of risk” as the perception of global economic risks rose.

“Yields rise not only for Indonesia’s bonds; but also Brazil’s, between 300 basis points and 400 basis points,” he said.

He added the government decided to go on with the sale to plug the deficit and to develop market confidence in Indonesia’s bonds.

“We are maintaining investors’ confidence. They have a high enthusiasm, we don’t want to disappoint them.”

The notes triggered total orders of $7.25 billion from 200 investors.

Anggito said the government initially wanted to sell between $1.5 billion and $2 billion of bonds, but decided to sell $3 billion as the market situation would likely become worse later this year, thus increasing bond yields.

The bonds are expected to be settled within a week, increasing Indonesia’s forex reserves, which stood at $50.87 billion as of January.

The government also plans to issue dollar sukuk (Islamic bonds). No details have been announced yet.

“For a while, we won’t issue global bonds anymore. But in our pipeline, there are global sukuk, samurai bonds and drawdown options, which we can use,” said Rahmat.

“The global medium-term notes were issued at the right time. Samurai bonds will be issued in June, considering those need preparation for the first issuance,” he added.

In the 2009 budget, the gross amount allocated to issue of bonds is Rp 99.7 trillion — but the government should look for another Rp 44.5 trillion in loans after the budget was adjusted earlier this week to accommodate extra efforts to shield the economy from the global crisis.
Under the budget adjustment, the government will allocate Rp 73.3 trillion to the stimulus package.

Rahmat said the government had so far issued Rp 56 trillion in bonds.

Bank Indonesia (BI) governor Boediono said the bonds would add to the central bank’s forex reserves, increasing the amount of dollars available to strengthen the rupiah.

“The bilateral swaps and government borrowings will strengthen our ammunition,” he said.

Separately, economist-turned-lawmaker Dradjad H. Wibowo said the bond yields were too high.
The Philippines recently sold $1.5 billion of 10-year notes with a 8.5 percent yield, Bloomberg reported, 3.25 percent lower than Indonesia’s 10-year bonds.

“When the global market is bearish, the government shouldn’t have insisted to issue global medium-term notes,” said Dradjad.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Hundreds barred from prayers at Al-Aqsa

Mohammed Mar’i, Arab News

RAMALLAH, West Bank: Israeli police barred hundreds of Palestinians from entering Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem for prayers yesterday.

Palestinian sources said that thousands of police and Border Guard officers were deployed in the Old City, despite the stormy weather, to prevent worshipers from entering A-Aqsa. The Israeli police said that the decision followed intelligence indicating a possible riot following protests against the Jewish-dominated Jerusalem municipality orders to hundreds of Palestinians to leave their homes in East Jerusalem’s Al-Bustan neighborhood.

The Israeli police have allowed Palestinian men over age 45 and Palestinians woman over age 35 to enter the site for prayers.

The national and religious movements in Jerusalem called for the organization of events to protest the Israeli decision to “demolish dozens of houses in the historical neighborhoods of Jerusalem and the displacement of thousands of citizens to Judize the city and the targeting of Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

The Jerusalem municipality last Sunday ordered owners of 80 houses in Al-Bustan neighborhood to leave their “illegal” homes.

For its part, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) called on Palestinians to launch “a national general strike” today to protest the “new Israeli massacre that aims to Judize Jerusalem.”

Malaysia and Indonesia to voice out Rohingyas issue

Hua Hin, BANGKOK (ANTARA News/Bernama-OANA) - Malaysia and Indonesia will raise the issue of stateless Rohingyas Myanmar at the Asean Summit, said Foreign Minister Dr Rais Yatim Thursday.

He said Myanmar must understand that the issue was not only their problem, but also that of the other Asean member countries who were at the receiving end.

"I am myself will be very inclined to discuss this matter when we have the discussion on matters pertaining to Asean. Having said that, the difficulty is immense as no specific authority is in charge of this exodus," Rais told Malaysian reporters at a press conference here, Thursday. He is here for the 14th Asean Summit.

Rais said there were not less than 14,000 registered Rohingyas in Malaysia and expected the actual number to be more.

"We are made to understand that this people are encouraged to leave the shores within a situation that is questionable," he said.

Hence, the issue needed to be raised, especially at the foreign ministers level discussion and "perhaps at a later date we will resume other forms of cooperation (on the matter)," said Rais.

He said it would be better for Myanmar to be open about it, especially on how the matter could be dealt since these people were coming from Myanmar.

Rais said some form of assistance also needed to be set up by the United Nations to handle the issue, especially if Myanmar did not own up to the community which would than become a worldwide problem.

"So, it is pertinent for us to engage with the UN in this matter," he said.

Rais also said Malaysia, which will be represented by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi at the Asean Summit, wanted the human rights issue to be discussed in the spirit of Asean.

He said Malaysia felt that the human rights aspect in the Asean region should be slightly different from the universal aspect which was currently being structured according to the United Nations schedule.

Malaysia was also endeavouring to raise the Palestinian issue at the Summit although it was not related to Asean, he said.

Rais said the Prime Minister was expected to play an active role in discussions on the world economic and financial crisis, and the Asean leaders were also expected to sign several important documents at the Summit.

The documents included the Blueprint On Asean Security Community, Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint, and the Asean Integrating Workplan.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Indonesia's Matahari plans sukuk, conventional bonds

JAKARTA, Feb 25 (Reuters) - Indonesian retailer PT Matahari Putra Prima Tbk (MPPA.JK) said on Wednesday it plans to raise a total of 500 billion rupiah ($42 million) from the sale of Islamic and conventional bonds in April.

The world's most populous Muslim nation is trying to tap its huge market for Islamic-compliant products. The government recently raised 5.55 trillion rupiah from its first retail sukuk issue, well above the 1.7 trillion rupiah targetted.

In a prospectus published in a newspaper, Matahari said it plans to sell 200 billion rupiah of ijarah sale-and-leaseback sukuk and 300 billion rupiah of conventional bonds.

It has appointed PT HSBC Securities Indonesia, PT Indo Premier Securities, and PT Ciptadana Securities as underwriters.

Islamic bonds do not pay interest, which is banned as usury under Islamic law, and are structured as profit-sharing or rental agreements underpinned by physical assets. ($1 = 11,930 rupiah) (Reporting by Dicky Kristanto, editing by Sara Webb)

Tourism project on Obhur gets royal nod

P.K. Abdul Ghafour, Arab News

JEDDAH: Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah has given instructions to transform the Obhur Corniche into a cultural and tourist center. Spread over 140,000 square meters, the site will be developed into a permanent center for festivities. It will also include a heritage village, an open stage and a site for fireworks.

Sami Nawar, head of tourism and culture at Jeddah municipality, said the site had previously been used to stage a major exhibition of mega-projects in Makkah province and was opened by King Abdullah last year.

“This site will be converted into a permanent center for festivals,” he said. “It will be similar to the King Abdul Aziz Cultural Center in Abrug Al-Righama. The only difference is that it will be located on the sea front, north of Golden Sands beach,” he pointed out.

Nawar said the municipality had already prepared preliminary designs for the multibillion-riyal project, which was presented to Prince Miteb, minister of municipal and rural affairs, when he visited the municipality recently.

“We’ll conduct further studies before finalizing the designs,” Nawar said, adding that tenders would be called within six months from engineering offices to study the project before awarding the project to a specialized company for implementation.

He said the site would be a window to the sea and would be away from traffic. “There is a proposal to establish an open-air auditorium that can accommodate 10,000 people.” The project will also include a closed-door theater and a gallery for people to watch marine sports and activities, he said.

“This area will become a permanent place for festivities and public recreation. It will also be used to hold public awareness programs in accordance with our culture and traditions,” he said. There will be a vast expanse of greenery where people can rest. A hotel will also be constructed in the area and its revenues will be used for maintaining the center.

Nawar refused to give the estimated cost of the project. However, he said it would be huge. He said the final designs would determine the area required for the project, including parking facilities. “We’ll allocate an area beside the sea for fireworks,” he said. The project would be carried out in several phases.

The Council of Ministers has already approved plans to carry out a number of new tourism projects on the Red Sea coast. According to statistics made public by officials of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, the new projects will attract SR150 billion in investment. They further estimated annual tourist spending at new Red Sea tourist resorts to be valued at SR9.9 billion.

The Red Sea projects will be established in Ras Humaid, Sharma, Qayyal and Dhaffat Al-Wajh in Tabuk province, Arrayes in Yanbu, Ras Muhaisen in Makkah province, Haridha in Asir and Farasan in Jizan.

The resorts will have a total of 557,000 rooms and create 413,000 jobs, including 165,000 direct jobs in the first five years, SCTA officials said.

Prince Sultan bin Salman, chairman of SCTA, has spoken about a long-term plan for tourism development on the Red Sea coast and islands -- which have a total coastline of 1,800 km. He also spoke about a government strategy to increase the tourism industry’s share in the country’s gross domestic product from six to 16 percent by 2020.

Malaysia, Indonesia agree to strengthen commodity prices

Kuala Lumpur (ANTARA News) - Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to work together to strengthen commodity prices in particular palm oil and rubber prices amid the current sagging world prices.

Malaysia and Indonesia jointly account for 85 percent of global palm oil production and 40 percent of natural rubber production.

Both countries in a joint statement released here Wednesday said they have also agreed to take appropriate measures to ensure stable prices in particular for palm oil.

"These measures include managing palm oil stocks and reducing supply through
replanting programmes," said the statement.

Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Peter Chin Fah Kui and Minister of Agriculture of the Republic of Indonesia Dr. Ir. Anton Apriyanto met Wednesday to discuss bilateral cooperation on the matter.

The Indonesian Minister is in the city to attend the Developing-Eight (D-8) Ministers Meeting.

For palm oil, the ministers have agreed to accelerate replanting of oil palm trees which are above 25-years old, implementation of biofuel programme, increasing domestic demand for crude palm oil and jointly engage major importing countries of palm based methyl ester in addressing non-tariff barriers for the exports of biofuel.

Malaysia has implemented the blending of five percent palm based methyl ester with fossil diesel.

Indonesia implemented a minimum of one percent blending programme in the public transportation sector and a minimum of 2.5 percent blending in the industry and commercial sector. These minimum percentages will be increased to 2.5 percent in the public transportation sector and five percent in the industrial and commercial sectors.

Both ministers also want to exchange production and stock level data on a regular basis to facilitate stock management and promote palm oil through engaging the related legislators of importing countries.

As for rubber, both countries will accelerate replanting of rubber trees aimed at managing the supply of natural rubber.

"Malaysia has revised upwards the original target of replanting rubber areas to 50,000 hectares in 2009 from 32,000 hectares. Indonesia is replanting 55,000 hectares with rubber in 2009," the statement was quoted by Bernama as saying.

Meanwhile, both countries also agreed to control the expansion of new planted area for rubber, encouraging the reduction of tapping frequency.

The ministers hope that these measures will reduce price volatility and contribute towards stability of both palm oil and natural rubber prices in the longer term.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Islamic lender Bank Asya 2008 net profit up 11.4 pct


ISTANBUL, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Leading Turkish Islamic lender Bank Asya (ASYAB.IS) said its unconsolidated net profit rose 11.4 percent in 2008 to 246.5 million lira ($146 million) from 221.3 million lira a year earlier.

Bank Asya, which does not pay or charge interest but shares out part of its profit among depositors, said in a filing with the Istanbul Stock Exchange that its assets grew 29.5 percent to 8.109 billion lira from 6.260 billion a year earlier.

Bank Asya, with the determination and guidance of its founders, was established on October 24, 1996 as the sixth private finance house in Turkey. Business operations began with the opening of its head office and main branch in Altunizade. Establishment capital was TL 2 Million and current paid-up capital is TL 900 Million.

Bank Asya was established in accordance with the principles of interest-free banking and with an emphasis on product development based on this idea. Our most important goal is to incorporate a customer-oriented approach, offering our clients the best customer service possible along with the most advanced technology available to us, thus being able to bring interest-free banking to the masses. In this direction, as of May 2008 Bank Asya has 124 domestic branches and 2 domestic correspondent relationships. In addition to this, Asya is proud to conduct business activities and have correspondent relations with over 1000 foreign banks.

Bank Asya is the first Private Finance House to be awarded the ISO 9001 Quality Management System Certificate. Asya provides its individual, small business, and corporate banking clients with all their banking needs while meeting and exceeding their expectations. Besides the traditional access channels that are our branches, Bank Asya provides internet banking, ALO ASYA telephone banking, ATM and POS terminals all with no restraints on time. All methods are fast and effective with no interruption.

In addition to the preceding, Asya is the forerunner in several other areas as well. Bank Asya was honored to be the first participation bank in Turkey to be assigned to act as an intermediary bank for the GSM 102 and GSM 103 programs of the Commodity Credit Corporation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Furthermore, Asya is authorized to conduct international trade activities under ECA coverage such as US-Exim, Hermes, Ducroire, etc. In addition to this, VISA international accepted Bank Asya as a principal member. Finally, Asya was the first participation bank in Turkey to receive a rating from Fitch Ratings as a part of its effort for full transparency.

The following two fundamental principles are what Bank Asya strives for. They are what Asya feels is necessary for its development and to be able to reach its target market share.

* To develop new interest free banking products and to offer our customers new derivative products.

* To take products that are already being offered at conventional banks and adapt them in such a way as to fit into the system of interest-free banking.

Bank Asya' regularly reinforces its work principles, vision, and mission to its employees. Asya believes strongly that working together as a team and that believing in oneself as an individual are two components that our employees must possess. As a result, these ideas have become main elements of our corporate culture.

The Islamic banking sector has been in recent years growing fast in mainly Muslim, European Union candidate Turkey. (Writing by Daren Butler)

Kingdom will attend Cairo meet on Gaza

Arab News

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia will participate in an international conference to be held in Cairo on March 2 to mobilize fund for the reconstruction of Gaza.

Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal will lead the Saudi delegation, which will include Finance Minister Ibrahim Al-Assaf and Yousuf Al-Bassam, deputy chairman and managing director of Saudi Fund for Development.

“The Kingdom’s participation in the conference comes in line with its continuous support for the Palestinian cause,” an official source told the Saudi Press Agency. Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah has offered $1 billion for Gaza reconstruction.

Meanwhile, the US government plans to offer some $900 million to help rebuild the Gaza strip following Israel’s December-January military incursion, the New York Times reported yesterday.

The aid will be provided through United Nations and nongovernmental organizations, the Times reported, citing unnamed administration officials.

Washington considers Hamas, the group which has ruled Gaza since June 2007, a terrorist organization, and avoids any direct contact with them.

Retail sukuk bonds a hit with investors


By Aditya Suharmoko , THE JAKARTA POST

The volume of the new government retail sukuk (Islamic bonds) absorbed by individual investors is exceeding government expectations.

That was according to official figures released by the Finance Ministry on Monday.

The government managed to book orders of up to Rp 5.56 trillion (US$ 496.4 million) of retail sukuk in less than a month, or about 3 times its initial target of Rp 1.77 trillion as originally submitted by 13 designated selling agents.

“It’s an example of how dynamic the financial market conditions are ... “ Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati said in a press conference.

It was the first retail sukuk bond ever issued by the government.

The selling agents are .

They had set a low target taking into account potential concerns of investors over financial instruments during a financial downturn.

“We’ll sell our bonds as long as the price is rational, and the profile won’t burden the state budget. We’ll always cope with the dynamic market conditions,” Mul-yani added.

The retail sukuk is part of the government’s effort to plug the budget deficit, which is forecast to reach Rp 136.9 trillion, or 2.6 percent of the gross domestic product, this year.

According to the Finance Ministry, 14,295 investors have so far ordered retail sukuk, 42 percent of whom are residing in Jakarta.

A large proportion of these investors, 46 percent of them, ordered a retail sukuk purchase of less than Rp 100 million in total.

The retail sukuk is sold at Rp 1 million per unit, with a minimum purchase of Rp 5 million. The yield is 12 percent, maturing on Feb. 25, 2012.

Most of the investors are working as civil servants, private employees, housewives and entrepreneurs. Private employees ordered the largest bulk of purchases, equivalent to about 39 percent of the total volume of the retail sukuk, so far.

Mulyani said the largest single purchase of retail sukuk amounted to Rp 35.3 billion, while the lowest single purchase was Rp 5 million.

The Finance Ministry named Mandiri and HSBC as the best selling banking outlets, and then Trimegah and Andalan Artha as the best securities outlets.

The retail sukuk will be on offer until Feb. 25. It can then be traded after being listed on the
Indonesian stock exchange as of Feb. 26.

The government is still also considering selling international sukuk bonds and medium term notes (MTN) in the coming months.

Bond issues are a government option for securing funds to help cover the state budget deficit.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Moody's-Dubai bond cld bode well for corp. ratings


DUBAI, Feb 23 (Reuters) - Moody's Investors Service said on Monday the Dubai's government's $20 billion bond programme could support debt ratings of six Dubai companies that were placed under review for a downgrade earlier this month.

Moody's said on Feb. 2 it was considering downgrading its debt ratings of six Dubai companies, including DP World (DPW.DI) and Emaar Properties EMAR.DU, due to the escalating global financial crisis.

On Sunday, Dubai said it had sold $10 billion in five-year unsecured bonds to the United Arab Emirates central bank, carrying a fixed interest rate of 4 percent per year.

If there are no restrictions on how Dubai uses bond proceeds this could support Moody's ratings of Emaar, DP World, DIFC Investments, Dubai Holding Commercial Operations Group, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority and the Jebel Ali Free Zone.

"Assuming that there are no such restrictions, this news is clearly supportive for the ratings of the six Dubai Inc. companies that are rated by Moody's," Moody's said in a statement.

"Our ongoing ratings review ... will consider to what degree the erosion of Dubai's intrinsic economic strength and the fundamental creditworthiness of each of the six ... is offset by the materialisation of financial support from the federal government."

Moody's had said it could lower its debt and Islamic bond, or sukuk, ratings for the six firms, all linked to the Dubai government, by as much as two notches each. The review is due to be completed "shortly", it said.

Citing a deterioration in the regional macroeconomic outlook, Moody's said Dubai had been hit harder than other economies in the oil-exporting Gulf region. Oil prices have slumped more than $100 a barrel since a peak last July.

Moody's current ratings for all of the Dubai companies except Emaar is A1. Its rating for Emaar is A3. (Reporting by Daliah Merzaban; Editing by Chris Pizzey)

Source : Reuters

Syrian FM to Saudi as relations warm


by AFP

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in another sign of warming ties between the two countries, the official Saudi SPA agency reported.

An Arab diplomat said Moallem was bringing a message to King Abdullah from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

He said Moallem would discuss with his counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal, means to bridge bilateral differences, including efforts to reconcile rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas.

Ties between Damascus and Riyadh nosedived after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, a Saudi citizen and protege, in a bombing widely blamed on Syria but denied by Damascus.

The two sides began mending fences last month with a meeting between Assad and King Abdullah on the sidelines of an Arab summit in Kuwait.

And earlier this month, Assad received Saudi intelligence chief Prince Meqrin bin Abdul Aziz with a message from the king on improving relations.

Source : ArabianBusiness.com

Iran minister plans fence-mending visit to Bahrain

TEHRAN: Iranian Interior Minister Sadeq Mahsouli will visit Bahrain today in a bid to defuse a row that has threatened relations between the two Gulf neighbors.

He will carry a message from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for King Hamad, state-run media said, amid Bahraini anger at reported comments by a senior Iranian official saying that the island state was once the 14th province of Iran.

“Meeting and talking to the Bahraini king and delivering a message from our president tops the agenda for Mahsouli’s trip to Bahrain,” the state IRNA news agency said.

It said the minister would also take part in a security conference in Manama.

The ISNA student news agency said Mahsouli would meet senior Bahraini officials in a bid “to elevate cooperation between the two countries.”

Bahrain protested after Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, a prominent conservative member of Iran’s powerful Expediency Council, reportedly said the kingdom used to be Iran’s 14th province and had a representative in its Parliament.

Iran has since moved to defuse the spat, which has also threatened a major gas deal between the two nations, saying it respects Bahrain’s sovereignty.

Gulf states called on Iran on Sunday to condemn the remarks.

“That was a speech which caused misunderstanding and there were some misinterpretations,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi told a news conference, without elaborating.

Iran’s relations with Bahrain are “based on mutual respect,” Qashqavi said.

Manama has halted talks with Tehran over natural gas imports over the reported comments. Bahrain’s foreign minister also summoned the Iranian ambassador to protest the remarks earlier in February.

Qashqavi said the gas contract would be valuable for both Iran and Bahrain and both sides wanted to see it implemented.

He said Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki “insisted on the improvement of mutual relations” in talks with his Bahraini counterpart Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa.

He did not say when they had held talks.

Source : Arab News

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Oscars Winning Movie : Between Slums and Underdogs?


By Deepa A.

It has now become almost impossible to view Slumdog Millionaire as just another movie. It arrived on a wave of critical acclaim, wowing film festival audiences and critics, and went onto snap up every award worth its name across the world.

Currently, it has been nominated for 10 Oscars and 11 British Academy of Film and Television Awards. Some have called Slumdog Millionaire a crossover film, in that it pays tribute to India’s Hindi film industry in many ways. Others have called it a realistic portrayal of contemporary India, a claim that has been much contested by those who perceive the film as an outsider’s inaccurate if lovingly captured depiction of poverty.

But it is worth putting aside such claims and counter-claims for the moment to focus on the film itself.

A Life Story of One Person

Based on Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup’s book Q&A, Slumdog narrates the rags-to-riches story of Jamal Malik, who grew up in the slums of Mumbai.

Malik becomes a contestant in the Indian version of the quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, around which the movie is constructed.

Malik’s life unfolds before the viewer in a series of flashbacks as the ‘slumdog’ uses his own experiences to answer each of the questions correctly. That an uneducated “chai-wallah” – Malik earns a living by making tea at a call centre – is within reach of the ultimate prize that any quiz show can offer bothers its host, who unceremoniously dispatches him to the custody of the local police.

After being subjected to third-degree at the police station, Malik tells the police officer in charge how he knew each and every one of the answers. We see that each question nudges a painful memory in Malik’s mindscape; we see the poverty, violence, crime and love in Malik’s life, all of which ultimately conspire to bring him to the contestant’s chair in the quiz show.

Danny Boyle, the movie’s director, and Simon Beaufoy, who adapted the book, give us a movie that is competent in many ways. It is entertaining in parts, and taken separately, each of Malik’s flashbacks portray what is very much the reality for most of India’s poor.

But the controversy over its authenticity perhaps stems from the fact that all these vignettes are knitted together to form the life story of one person. While the quiz show is used in this movie as an excellent cinematic device to weave together the manifold experiences Malik has had in his life, it is not without its pitfalls.

Why would the show feature only questions that are in some way connected to Malik’s life? And why would these questions appear in a chronological manner, corresponding with Malik’s growth from a mischievous child to a teenager who has seen unimaginable violence and crime?

One could say that filmmakers have the cinematic licence to use plot devices in any manner that they find suitable but that hasn’t stopped most critics and columnists, not only in the West but also in India, from calling the movie "realistic".

The movie features clichés about India in general and Mumbai slums in particular, be it about the lack of toilets and sheer physical space, the differences between Hindu and Muslim communities which has resulted in communal violence or the influence of the underworld.

By linking these together, often in an implausible and superficial manner clearly meant to shock the audience, the director offers us something akin to a "Dummy’s Guide to Mumbai Slums". It is surprising that this guide is being touted as the gospel by so many critics and columnists.

Reality Is Sometimes Missing

Slumdog Millionaire is best watched without paying heed to such affectations, for there are several aspects that might rankle the viewer concerned with authenticity. One understands that though the characters in the movie speak English (the writer watched the English version of the movie), in real life they would be speaking either Marathi (the language spoken in the Indian state Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital) or Hindi (India’s national language). But the unmistakable British accent of the actor Dev Patel, who plays Malik, is particularly jarring.

The book The Three Musketeers is an important component of the film; the movie’s protagonists become familiar with the book during the brief time they were in school. It is extremely unlikely that the book, in English, was ever part of the primary school curriculum in Mumbai. The manner in which Malik is shown to know the answers to some of the questions is farcical; for instance, he apparently knows the answer to a query on cricket because he was standing adjacent to a room where the match in question was being viewed on television. Equally fanciful is the notion that a child blinded by a beggar’s cartel would know the name of the US President whose face is on the American 100 dollar bill.

The movie is defined not by the moments that portray aspects of India’s poverty but by Malik’s love for Latika (Frieda Pinto) and to a great extent, his tumultuous relationship with his elder brother Salim (Madhur Mittal). It is to reach Latika, with who he has been in love since he was a child, that Malik appears on the quiz show.

His capers with Salim in their childhood years, set in fast-moving trains and against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal (the most clichéd of India), are some of the most vivacious – as also the most improbable – scenes in the movie.

Yet, walking away from the film, one is confronted with the unpleasant truth that the only semblance of reality it offers comes from Salim. After they are orphaned by the riots, Salim becomes a gangster, eventually finding himself in a situation that he cannot escape from. In a movie that has been called a "fairy-tale", Salim’s story stands out as one of despair. There is no redemption ahead for him and this much we guess even as we watch him as a child.

Unfortunately for most of India’s poor, it is Salim who can hold up a mirror to their lives and not a certain Malik.

GCC warns Iran against making hostile remarks


By Ghazanfar Ali Khan, Arab News

RIYADH: The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) yesterday called on Iran to refrain from hostile remarks against its Arab neighbors, while also proposing a joint fund for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip.

The recent provocative statement from a prominent Iranian conservative and high-level adviser, Ali Akber Nateq Nouri, who called Bahrain Iran’s 14th province, and the situation in war-ravaged Gaza Strip, especially in the light of the election victory of right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu, were the focus of discussions among GCC foreign and finance ministers who met here yesterday.

“Statements made from time to time by Iranian officials infringe on the sovereignty and independence of the Gulf states, especially Bahrain, and represent a flagrant aggression on the Arab identity of Bahrain,” said the GCC statement.

“The GCC is looking forward to the Iranian government to condemn and prevent the repetition of such odd voices, which increase tension and do not help to restore security and stability in the region,” the statement added.

Iran moved late last week to defuse the row, saying it respects the sovereignty of Bahrain. Bahrain has halted negotiations with Iran over a major gas import deal following Nateq Nouri’s comments. The deal, however, has not officially been canceled.

The GCC ministers also discussed the efforts required to rebuild the war-torn Gaza Strip and also ways to promote the Middle East peace process after Netanyahu forms Israel’s next government.

The ministers called on all Arab states to come together to help the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip — a densely populated urban area of 1.5 million people — rebuild after the recent Israeli offensive. Officials said $1.25 billion has been pledged by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “The membership of this common program for the reconstruction of Gaza shall be open to all Arab countries and operated by a panel of the member nations,” it said.

The program, which seeks to mobilize efforts and generate funds for the reconstruction of Palestine, will be operated in cooperation with the Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank.

“The goal is for the program to be implemented fast and minutely planned and also for it to respond to the needs of our Palestinian brethren in Gaza as soon as possible,” Oman’s minister in charge of foreign affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, told reporters.

Ex-Guantanamo inmate returns to UK


Binyam Mohamed, an ex-UK resident held at Guantanamo Bay, has arrived back in Britain amid calls for an independent inquiry into allegations he was tortured by captors working in collusion with British intelligence agents.

Ethiopian-born Mohamed, 30, arrived at RAF Northolt in London on Monday after spending seven years in US captivity without charge, more than four of them at the US prison camp in Cuba.

He claims he was tortured in custody after being arrested in Pakistan in 2002 on suspicion of attending an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and plotting to build a radioactive "dirty" bomb.

Mohamed said he was tortured and abused by foreign agents while in Pakistan and later in Morocco, before being transferred to Guantanamo in 2004.

'Medieval torture'

Mohamed said in a statement: "I have been through an experience that I never thought to encounter in my darkest nightmares.

"It is difficult for me to believe that I was abducted, hauled from one country to the next, and tortured in medieval ways, all orchestrated by the United States government."

"The very worst moment came when I realised in Morocco that the people who were torturing me were receiving questions and materials from British intelligence," he said.

"I had met with British intelligence in Pakistan. I had been open with them. Yet the very people who I had hoped would come to my rescue, I later realised, had allied themselves with my abusers."

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Ahmed Ghappour, a human rights lawyer from Reprieve, a UK-based legal action charity, said Mohamed was suffering mental instability after having had razor blades taken to his penis at least once a week and being threatened with rape and electrocution in Morocco.

He said that Mohamed, who had recently been on hunger strike, was 50 pounds underweight.

'Powerful' probe call

David Miliband, Britain's foreign minister, said: "I am pleased that Binyam Mohamed has today returned to the UK following his release from Guantanamo Bay.

"This is the direct result of our request for his release and return, and follows intensive negotiations with the US government."

Ghappour said the UK government should initiate "an independent investigation to get behind what's gone on so that it can never happen again".

"I'm confident that the UK government will acquiesce to all of these conditions and do what's right," he said.

Welcoming the British government's statement that it was glad to see Mohamed released, Ghappour said: "We hope there's 100 per cent truth to it."

Mark Seddon, Al Jazeera's correspondent at RAF Northolt, said: "Binyam says questions were being supplied to his Moroccan torturers by British intelligence officers.

"The big question is was this a freelance operation, or did people know further up in the food chain? That's why [there is] this very powerful call ... for an independent inquiry."

'Criminal wrongdoing'

British and American lawyers are suing to have access to what they claim are secret documents proving the US sent Mohamed to Morocco where he was tortured and also proving that Britain knew of the mistreatment - a violation under the 1994 UN Convention Against Torture.

Britain's attorney general has opened an investigation into whether there was criminal wrongdoing on the part of Britain or a British security agent from MI5 who interrogated Mohamed in Pakistan, where he was arrested in 2002.

Clive Stafford Smith, Mohamed's lawyer and the founder of Reprieve, said he hoped the British government would "allow Binyam's immediate release".

Stafford Smith said: "He is a victim who has suffered more than any human being should ever suffer.

"He just wants to go somewhere very quiet and try to recover. Every moment that he is held compounds the abuse he has endured."

Washington has denied that Mohamed was subjected to "extraordinary rendition", and Morocco said it never held him.

'Glad and happy'

In a statement, Reprieve said Mohamed said he wished to thank "all those in Britain who have worked for his freedom, including many members of the British government".

Binyam's sister Zuhra said she was "so glad and so happy ... [and] thankful for everything that was done for Binyam to make this day come true".

Mohamed originally entered the UK as an Ethiopian refugee when he was a teenager and British authorities say they will review his immigration status following his return.

The decision to release Mohamed follows a formal request by London to Washington in August 2007, asking for the remaining five British residents held at the camp on Cuba to be released.

The transfer is the first of a Guantanamo prisoner since Barack Obama, the US president, who has pledged to close the camp, took office last month.

Ghappour, who represents clients in Guantanamo, said the abuse there had got worse since the Obama administration had come to power.

Eric Holder, the US attorney general, travelled to Guantanamo Bay on Monday, as the Obama administration weighed what was needed to shut the facility.

Meanwhile, two senior British judges have reopened a case into whether 42 secret US intelligence documents shared with Britain should be made public.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Friday, February 20, 2009

DIFC chief economist urges Gulf gov'ts on sukuks


by Soren Billing

There has never been a better time for Gulf governments to start issuing Islamic bonds (sukuks), despite existing issues trading at “outlandish” prices, the chief economist of Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) has said.

“This is the time for governments to start introducing sukuks as part of public finance,” Dr Nasser Saidi told reporters at a press conference.

By using sukuks to finance major projects such as power plants, roads and ports, GCC governments would help the region consolidate its position as an international centre for Islamic .

“This is the time at which governments should be active with their central banks to create money markets in Shariah compliant instruments that the central banks can then use for assisting and providing liquidity to Shariah compliant institutions,” he said.

By simply running down the surpluses accumulated during the six year oil boom governments would risk losing investments that could continue to earn them an income, he noted.

Dr Saidi estimated the total size of that surplus to be around $950 billion.

"As governments develop the debt market, it will encourage the private sector to start issuing debt again," Dr Saidi said.

Asked about the low price of Gulf sukuks in the secondary market, he said prices are likely to return to more reasonable levels within the near future.

“I think this is a temporary phenomenon. I think the pricing is unrelated to the fundamentals,” he said.

“It doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me that you are pricing UAE debt as being more risky than Iceland…. This current pricing is outlandish.”

The amount raised globally from sukuk issuance decreased by 54.5 percent in 2008 from the year before to $15.1 billion, while the number of issues rose to 165 from 129, Global Investment House said in a research note on Thursday.

“The decline in sukuk issuance is due to the credit crunch that forced investors to step aside from the fixed income market, including the Islamic one,” the investment bank said.

“As evident of the credit crunch effect on sukuks, issuances in the fourth quarter of 2008 were weak when compared with other quarters in the same year.”

In the first three quarters of last year, the amount raised from sukuks averaged $4.8 billion per quarter, compared with only $0.8 billion in the fourth quarter.

GCC countries and Malaysia continued to be the largest markets, accounting for 55.5 percent and 36.3 percent respectively of the dollar amount issued.

Source : ArabianBusiness.com

Iran says it respects sovereignty of Bahrain

TEHRAN: Iran yesterday moved to defuse a row with Bahrain, saying it respects the sovereignty of the neighboring Gulf kingdom, which has halted talks on a natural gas imports deal with Tehran.

“Our position on Bahrain is clear. We have repeatedly said that we respect the sovereignty and independence of all neighboring countries and the region, especially Bahrain,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Ghashghavi told Arabic language state television Al-Alam.

Bahrain has strongly protested recent comments of Ali Akber Nateq Noori, a prominent conservative leader and member of Iran’s expediency council — the top arbitration body — that the Gulf kingdom used to be Iran’s 14th governorate and had a representative in its Parliament.

“We do not have eyes on any country. This is a storm created by the media. Nateq Noori did not refer to Bahrain,” Ghashghavi said in his statement to Al-Alam. “In his speech in Mashhad he talked about the achievement of the Islamic revolution and compared them to the era of the hated monarchy. He did not talk at all of current global, regional and political issues.”

On Feb. 11, a day after Nateq Noori’s speech, Iran’s Khorasan newspaper quoted him as saying in his address that “under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, this useless king, one of our provinces which has now become a country named Bahrain was taken away from us.

“At that time Bahrain was our 14th province and had a representative in Parliament.”

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa said the Iranian remark was an “infringement of sovereignty” and a “distortion of historical fact.” He spoke to reporters in Manama following meetings yesterday with visiting foreign ministers of Turkey and Russia.

“We will never accept distortion of historical facts about the history of the Kingdom of Bahrain,” Sheikh Khalid said. “We are hurt by ... Iranian statements,” he added. “These remarks must be silenced.”

The minister confirmed yesterday that negotiations over a gas import deal following the signing of an agreement during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit in 2007 have stopped.

Russia and Turkey came out in support of Bahrain. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Ali Babacan both expressed their countries’ support for Manama in separate press conferences with Sheikh Khalid.

“It’s important to accept the international legitimacy and sovereignty of all countries and refrain from questioning and harming them,” Lavrov said when asked about his country’s stance on Iran’s recent claims.

An hour earlier, Babacan said Turkey fully supports Bahrain and would not accept any questioning of its sovereignty. “The sovereignty of Bahrain and its safety is not something to be questioned. It’s sovereignty must be respected,” he said.

Source : Arab News

Clinton ends visit with charm offensive


By Erwida Maulia , THE JAKARTA POST , JAKARTA

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looked to waste no time during her tightly arranged visit to Indonesia, which wound up Thursday.

Her mission to put a new face on US foreign policy, one that was friendlier and willing to be a “better listener” than ever, has seemingly been accomplished.

The new US secretary of state did everything from holding serious talks with Indonesian leaders, to sharing her fancy for classical music in front of a local TV audience.

After meeting with Indonesia Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, visiting the ASEAN Secretariat and having dinner with civil society figures on Wednesday, Clinton appeared on a local TV show, paid a courtesy call on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and visited a slum area in Jakarta on Thursday before departing to South Korea later in the afternoon.

On Thursday morning, Clinton, her face wreathed in smiles, appeared in music program Dahsyat on local broadcaster RCTI, in which the relaxed former first lady shared with the audience her love of classical music.

“I like listening to classical music while working. It's soothing... My husband usually listens to jazz and rock and roll,” Clinton said when model-cum-presenter Luna Maya asked her about her favorite music.

Clinton also said she enjoyed the Beatles and the Rolling Stones when she was younger.
However, she turned down a request to sing, saying, “The problem is people will leave when I sing.”

The TV show also presented famous local singers Melly Goeslaw and Agnes Monica, who asked for a photograph with Clinton.

RCTI corporate secretary Gilang Iskandar told newsportal okezone.com that Clinton enjoyed the talk about music so much that she forgot the interview should have lasted for only 10 minutes instead of 20.

Gilang said RCTI had worked hard to secure Clinton’s approval to appear on the TV show.

During the meeting with President Yudhoyono, Clinton reiterated Washington's willingness to build a “comprehensive partnership” with Indonesia, while praising the latter’s “leading roles” in a number of environmental issues.

She also said predominantly Muslim Indonesia could serve as a model of how Islam, democracy, modernization and the fulfillment of women’s rights could all grow in harmony, according to presidential spokesman Dino Patti Djalal.

Yudhoyono, in return, asked the US to play a bigger role in resolving the Palestine-Israel conflict and to take the lead in global environmental issues.

The President called his meeting with Clinton a “wonderful” and “productive” meeting.

Also present at the 45-minute talk were Acting Coordinating Minister for the Economy Sri Mulyani, Coordinating Minister for the People's Welfare Aburizal Bakrie, State Secretary Hatta Rajasa and Cabinet Secretary Sudi Silalahi.

Through Clinton, the President renewed his invitation to US President Barack Obama to come to Indonesia on the sidelines of the upcoming APEC meeting in Singapore.

Obama has said he would visit a major Muslim nation, in a move aimed at reconciling the US and the Islamic world.

After bidding farewell to Yudho-yono and before stepping into a waiting car, Clinton greeted enthusiastic journalists lined up nearby and shook hands with the lucky ones, leaving others disappointed.

She then paid a visit to Petojo Utara, a residential area in Central Jakarta, where USAID has built a public toilet equipped with a waste treatment facility.

Clinton walked on foot to reach the toilet, during which dozens of neighborhood school students, who had been watching, waved at her. She waved back at them.

However, Clinton missed the chance to have a taste of fried bananas and fried tempe prepared by local housewives.

She stayed only around 15 minutes in Petojo before heading to the airport.

During a press conference at the neighborhood state junior high school SMPN 38, Clinton said she had planned this brief visit as part of her people-to-people approach to diplomacy.

“Through this kind of interaction, I can find out what the public feels and can encourage them to better their quality of life,” she said.

Due to her tight schedule, Clinton failed to attend a cooking demonstration that local housewives had organized.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Swat’s Shariah rule ‘only after peace’

Azhar Masood, Arab News

ISLAMABAD: A day after the Pakistan government agreed to apply Shariah and suspend a military offensive across much of the country’s northwest region, the government, in order to counter the growing criticism of the deal, said President Asif Ali Zardari would not initial the Shariah Ordinance until a sustainable peace in Swat Valley was achieved.

Information Minister Sherry Rehman, who was asked whether the concessions aimed at pacifying the Taleban in the country’s troubled northwest would lead to similar concessions in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to militants, could only say: “We have not enacted any law or allowed a parallel legal and judicial system.” Later, the president’s spokesman Farhatullah Babar, while giving several arguments in favor of the peace deal, too said: “We are adopting a wait-and-watch policy to see if peace will return to the area.”

The truce announcement came Monday after government representatives held talks with local leaders including Sufi Muhammad. North West Frontier Province Chief Minister Amir Haider Khan Hoti announced that authorities would apply Islamic law in the Malakand region, which includes the Swat Valley.

Yesterday, Muhammad went in a caravan of some 300 vehicles to Swat Valley’s main city of Mingora. “We will soon open dialogue with the Taleban. We will ask them to lay down their weapons. We are hopeful that they will not let us down,” Muhammad told reporters. “We will stay here in the valley until peace is restored.” As part of the deal Muhammad agreed to travel to Swat and discuss peace with Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Swat Taleban and Muhammad’s son-in-law.

Extremists in Swat have beheaded opponents and torched scores of girls’ schools in recent months, while gunbattles between security forces and militants have killed hundreds. Up to a third of the valley’s 1.5 million people have fled and the scenic area is now believed to be mostly under militant control.

NATO, which heads an international force battling Taleban in Pakistan’s neighbor Afghanistan, expressed concern over the deal. “We would all be concerned by a situation in which extremists would have safe haven,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai told a news briefing in Brussels.

Indonesian Muslim leader snubs Clinton

The Jakarta Post

An Indonesian Islamic leader rejected Wednesday an invitation to dine with Hillary Clinton, as she seeks to rebuild ties with the Muslim world on her first trip abroad as US secretary of state, Antara news agency reported.

The snub came as Clinton was set to arrive later Wednesday in the world's most populous Muslim country as part of a four-nation swing through Asia.

But her plans to open a new chapter with the Islamic world as promised by President Barack Obama received an early setback when local Muslim leader Din Syamsuddin, representing some 30 million Muslims, rejected her dinner invite.

"If it's only a dinner without a dialogue it won't be useful," the chairman of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second-largest Islamic organisation, told AFP.

He said he would prefer to attend an inter-faith meeting in Australia rather than waste time discussing local delicacies with the new US secretary of state.

"That kind of meeting won't be effective," he said.

Obama spent part of his early childhood in Muslim-majority Indonesia and has promised rapprochement with the Islamic world after the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan under George W. Bush.

"We have a responsibility to speak out and to work with the Muslim world on behalf of positive change and to enlist the help of Muslims around the world against the extremists," Clinton told students at Tokyo University on Tuesday.

Majority of Americans Support Direct Diplomacy With Iran

by Lymari Morales

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans appear to support the Obama administration's push for "face-to-face" dialogue with Iran: 56% say the United States should engage in direct diplomacy with Iran, while 38% say it should not.

In his first press conference since taking office, President Barack Obama reiterated his commitment to seeking a new, more diplomatic approach to dealing with Iran, focused on "constructive dialogue, where we can directly engage with them." At the same time, President Obama was clear to detail the United States' dissatisfaction with Iran on several fronts -- namely its financing of terrorism, its hostility toward Israel, and its pursuit or development of a nuclear weapon. Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad quickly responded, saying that Iran is "ready to hold up talks, but talks in a fair atmosphere with mutual respect."

Gallup Polls conducted this year and in the past reveal that Americans' opinions about Iran tend to fall in line with the new president's approach. Last year, 73% said they prefer that the United States employ economic and diplomatic strategies to compel Iran to end its nuclear weapons program, and 67% said they support the U.S. president meeting with leaders of foreign countries considered enemies of the United States. Americans last year also named Iran as the country that poses the single greatest threat to stability in the world.

A new Gallup Poll completed this week finds that currently, 80% of Americans say they hold an unfavorable opinion of Iran -- more than say the same about any other country.

The Diplomacy-Ready Demographics

Certain subgroups of the U.S. population are more ready than others to support forging ahead with direct diplomacy with Iran. At 74%, those with post-graduate educations are the most likely to favor this approach. Moderates, Democrats, liberals, college graduates, and middle-aged Americans also express solid support at or just below two-thirds.

More Cautious Constituencies

Interestingly, younger Americans are the most resistant to direct diplomacy with Iran, with 38% in favor and 56% opposed. Keeping them company among the most cautious constituencies are conservatives, Republicans, and the less educated, though it is worth noting that levels of support among these groups still hover at or near 50%.

Sandwiched between these groups with levels of support near the national average are Americans aged 65 and older (56%), independents (54%), and those with some college education (51%).

Implications

Americans' support for direct diplomacy with Iran should be encouraging for the Obama administration as it pursues that approach, reiterated at this week's news conference. Although there are the expected differences in support for the idea among partisan and ideological groups, few demographic groups show decided opposition to direct diplomacy. At the same time, it is interesting to note that younger Americans --- a group that overwhelmingly supported Obama's candidacy for president -- are the most resistant. This may be due to having lived all or most their adult years in a post 9/11-era in which former President Bush constantly reiterated the threats posed by the "axis of evil." With such low ratings for Iran overall, there remains much room for improvement in Americans' views of the country -- and a new way forward appears to be exactly what many would embrace.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,027 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2009 and with 1,022 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 9-12, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Source : Gallup.com

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Saudi finance minister confirms new mortgage law

by Souhail Karam

Saudi Arabia's first mortgage law is expected to be implemented this year and its provisions will protect all parties involved, Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf said on Tuesday.

"It should be in 2009, definitely," Assaf told Reuters in an interview. "I agree that it has taken us much longer than we had hoped at the beginning".

A draft law, which has been in the works for almost a decade, was approved last year by the advisory Shura Council and is now being examined by the council of ministers, Assaf said.

"If there are no major changes then it should be approved with no further delays. But if there are major changes from ... that which was approved by the Shura, then it has to go back to the Shura Council again," Assaf said.

"Hopefully any changes and adjustments will be minimal and not major," he added.

Realtors say the percentage of home ownership barely reaches 25 percent, making it the lowest among the oil-driven economies in the Gulf Arab region.

A surge in construction costs, land speculation coupled with a lack of bank financing and poor government assistance have aggravated a housing deficit estimated at some 1 million homes and driven rents higher.

The low home-ownership ratio has for a long time exposed some of the weaknesses of Saudi Arabia's wealth distribution policies, at least on a regional scale.

Local banks have been looking forward for the mortgage law to be enacted because of the huge business potential that it is set to unlock.

Assaf said the law will "protect all players" noting that it also covers eviction procedures in case of payment defaults.

The current global crisis should not have an impact on the approval of the law because the local banking system has been largely immune to the effects of the global crisis, he said.

"We need this law regardless of ... the temporary situation of the financial sector, whether it is in a very healthy situation or in a bad situation," he said.

"It should be good for all times ... It will be a good one even with the current market (conditions)," he added.

Hopes, raised over the past six years by the oil price surge, suffered after a stock market crash in 2006 wiped out savings of tens of thousands and forced many to abandon plans to own a house.

The Saudi property market now fits more with the needs of high-income households than those with middle-income and below, investment bank Rana Investment said in a report in August.

The government already provides an annual 5 billion riyals to state-owned Real Estate Development Fund which provides housing loans to poorer Saudis.

Source : Reuters

Kingdom works to unify Arab ranks


P.K. Abdul Ghafour, Arab News

JEDDAH: Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah yesterday told the Council of Ministers that Saudi Arabia was making intensive efforts to unify Arab ranks and mobilize support for Arab causes.

“Our objective is to remove all obstacles that stand in the way of Arab unity,” the Saudi Press Agency quoted the king as telling the first meeting of the new Cabinet.

King Abdullah initiated reconciliation among Arab leaders by holding talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad on the sidelines of the Arab economic summit in Kuwait last month.

During the summit, King Abdullah called upon Arab leaders to end their differences and open a new era of unity and solidarity.

“Allow me to announce in all our names that we have overcome the period of disunity, opening the door of Arab brotherhood, and that of unity for all Arabs without exception or reservation, and that we will face the future with total unity and without any discord,” the king told the summit in his keynote speech.

While addressing the Cabinet meeting, King Abdullah praised the efforts of Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa for the achievement of reconciliation among Arab leaders. “The king also praised Arab foreign ministers for their efforts to translate his unity initiative into a reality,” said Abdul Aziz Khoja, the newly appointed minister of culture and information.

While praising the positive response of Arab leaders to his unity call, King Abdullah said: “We have to make more efforts in this direction.” He briefed the ministers on the content of messages he had sent to President Bashar, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the emir of Qatar.

He said the recent contacts with Arab leaders were aimed at not only strengthening Arab unity but also the success of Arab causes, most importantly the Palestinian cause. The king stressed the need to reconcile Palestinian factions. King Abdullah lauded Egypt’s efforts to achieve a permanent truce in Palestine and achieve Palestinian unity.

Before the Cabinet meeting, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, the newly appointed minister of education, Khoja, and Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah, health minister, took the oath in the presence of the king.

King Abdullah congratulated the new ministers and wished them every success in their efforts to serve the Kingdom and its people. The ministers thanked the king for bestowing his confidence in them.

King Abdullah thanked former ministers and officials for their services and urged the new ones to double their efforts for the country’s development. “Citizens are expecting greater efforts from your side to facilitate their interests,” he told the new ministers.

Before leaving for Khoraim Gardens outside Riyadh, King Abdullah received Abdullah Al-Asheikh, the newly appointed chairman of the Shoura Council, as well as Abdullah bin Munie, Abdullah Al-Mutlak and Abdul Mohsen Al-Obaikan, the newly appointed advisers at the royal court.

Khoja said the Cabinet took a number of important decisions. It approved changes to Article 3 of an aviation agreement between Saudi Arabia and India. According to the changed article, each party will have the right to operate one or more air carriers to provide air transport services. However, the carriers should obtain transport rights in accordance with the operation schedules and quotas.

The Cabinet authorized the minister of culture and information to hold talks with his Indian counterpart to sign a memorandum of understanding for cultural cooperation.

Ahmadinejad: Iran waiting for changes in US policy


Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Iran is waiting to see "real changes" in U.S. foreign policy.

Speaking in an interview aired on state television Tuesday night, Ahmadinejad warned that ties between Tehran and Washington won't improve if fundamental changes do not occur in U.S. policies.

The comments Tuesday echo similar statements made recently by Ahmadinejad.

Last week, he said Iran is ready for talks with the U.S. - but only if there is mutual respect.

Officials have said that means the U.S. has to stop accusing Iran of supporting terrorism and seeking to build nuclear weapons.

President Barack Obama has pledged to rethink Washington's relationship with Tehran.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Kingdom offers aid to Lankan charity

Mohammed Rasooldeen, Arab News

RIYADH: The Kingdom has donated SR75,000 to the Islamic Center for the Physically Handicapped (ICPH) in Sri Lanka.

Saudi Ambassador in Colombo Abdulaziz Al-Jammaz handed the check to ICPH Director Jiffry Haniffa at a simple function held at the Saudi mission in Colombo. The handing over was also attended by Omar Hashim, director of the Independent Television Network and adviser to the IPCH.

Al-Jammaz said the Ministry of Islamic Affairs made the donation in recognition of the center’s work among disabled children. He added that the money would go toward the center’s newly opened wing for mentally challenged children.

Thanking the Kingdom’s generosity, Haniffa said the wing hosts 34 mentally challenged children, including 15 girls. “The donation will be used to upgrade the section and to take more inmates from a waiting list of 150,” he said, adding that the lack of funds has prevented the center from taking in more children.

The IPCH is the only center in the island serving Sri Lanka’s 1.6 million Muslim population. It currently cares for 174 children, including 98 boys. Children who pass from this center find lucrative jobs in the private and public sectors. “Some of them have attained excellent results in public examinations,” said Haniffa, adding that the center runs solely on donations from Muslim philanthropists and Islamic organizations from all parts of the world.

A major chunk of the donations comes from Saudi Arabia, said Haniffa. “We also get a sizable amount annually from Sri Lankan Muslims living in the country and abroad during the holy month of Ramadan,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Saudi Embassy in Colombo has been shifted to a spacious location in Horton Place, Colombo’s diplomatic area.

Riyadh Al-Kheneini, deputy chief of mission, told Arab News that the move was long awaited to offer speedy services to visitors.

The embassy on an average issues 200 visas each day. These include visas for Umrah, Haj, employment, business and visit.

“A good number of Sri Lankan expatriates in the Kingdom also make use of the online facility to obtain visas for their close relatives,” he said.

Islamic Finance is Booming

Edited by Elisabeth Eaves and Michael Noer

At least $500 billion in assets around the world are managed in accordance with Sharia, or Islamic law, and the sector is growing at more than 10% per year.

In spirit, Islamic finance seeks to promote social justice by banning exploitative practices. In reality, this boils down to a set of prohibitions--on paying interest, on gambling with derivatives and options, and on investing in firms that make pornography or pork.

No one can say for sure how many of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims will demand Sharia-compliant financial products, but if even a fraction do, the world's largest banks will be happy to oblige.

But just 20 men (and, yes, they are all men) are the gatekeepers to this lucrative realm. These are the top-tier Islamic scholars whose stamp of approval is required before the world's banks can market a new financial product as being consistent with Islamic law.

Why so few? First of all, it can take 15 years of studying Islamic law--and years more of financial training--before one can make a ruling with any authority. There are probably no more than 260 scholars, worldwide, that have the necessary knowledge. And only a handful of these have the combination of business savvy and linguistic skills needed to work with top-tier financial institutions like Citigroup (nyse: C - news - people ), Barclays (nyse: BCS - news - people ) or HSBC (nyse: HBC - news - people ).

"It's a limited specialization with limited practitioners, and even among the people with the specialization only a handful are suitable for working with international financial institutions," said Yusuf Talal DeLorenzo, a U.S.-based scholar who is one of the chosen few. "A passing knowledge of English is generally not enough when a scholar has to wade through hundreds of pages of a prospectus or legal documents."

Additionally, major banks prefer to--and in some cases are required to--turn to people who are already well established.

"Western institutions tend to go with big names who have been working with them and have built up a reputation over the past 15 or 20 years partly because their risk management systems require them to do so," explained Humayon Dar, chief executive of BMB Islamic, a London-based consultancy.

As a result, the top scholars can sit on anywhere from 10 to 40 "Sharia compliance" boards each. The limited supply of experts is reflected in their outsized compensation. Estimates of compensation for each board seat range from between $10,000 to $1 million annually, meaning top-tier scholars are likely earning eight-figure incomes.

"They are certainly pricey by reputation but they never talk about remuneration," said Joseph Connolly, professor of Islamic finance at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chausées in Paris.

The scarcity of scholars poses major ethical challenges, argues Connolly. While it is not entirely unusual in the U.S. for prominent corporate executives to sit on multiple boards, they are not spread nearly as thin as their Islamic scholar colleagues. By way of comparison, there are more than 50,000 directors of public companies in the U.S. Just over 200, or less than one-half of 1%, sit on six or more boards.

"If you are on the board of the bank that is bidding on a multibillion-dollar banking deal, which is being financed according to Sharia law, and you sit on the board of a competitor that is also bidding, there is a real concern about insider information," said Connolly.

So far the dearth of scholars doesn't seem to have held back growth of the industry. "The banks are using these scholars very effectively," said Connolly.

Specialized consultancies such as BMB Islamic and Sharia Capital have sprung up, which do a large part of the groundwork on the products and help banks liaise with the scholars.

But with Islamic finance projected to grow to up to $1 trillion within the next few years, according to McKinsey & Company, an American consultancy, banks are very aware of the importance of bringing in new scholars. "Banks would like to see the number of scholars double within the next year or two," said Connolly.

Rather than training new students in Islamic law, banks are pushing for finance programs targeted at existing Sharia scholars. Connolly will be launching a course in capital markets and treasury products, at the American University in Cairo, specifically targeted at Islamic scholars. The one-week intensive course will be held in Europe, most likely in Switzerland, this summer, with sponsoring banks putting up their own candidates. Connolly is expecting around 25 scholars to take part.

"We will explain complex financial instruments to them and we can leave it up to them to decide whether these are sinful or not," he said.

Source : Forbes.com

Pakistan to allow sharia in Swat


Pakistan's government has agreed to restore sharia, or Islamic law, in the Swat Valley and neighbouring areas of the country's northwest as part of a peace deal with local pro-Taliban fighters.

The agreement was reached after talks in Peshawar between members of Tahrik-e-Nafiz Shariat Muhammadi and officials of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) government on Monday.

Announcing the decision to restore sharia, a spokesman for the NWFP government said Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, had already agreed in principle to this concession to the region's religious conservatives.

"All un-Islamic laws related to the judicial system, those against the Quran and Sunnah, would be subject to cancellation and considered null and void," a NWFP spokesman said in a statement following the talks.
Officials gave few details of the kind of sharia they were planning to implement in the Malakand region, which includes Swat Valley, but said that laws that fail to comply with Islamic texts would be suspended.

The Pakistani government has also agreed its troops will refrain from launching military operations in Swat as part of the deal.

Religious conservatives

The Tahrik-e-Nafiz Shariat Muhammadi, or the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, has long demanded the implementation of sharia in the region.

"This is not the first time Sharia law has been imposed in this area," Al Jazeera's Kamal Hyder said, reporting from Pakistan.

"In the mid 90s it was imposed following violent protests by the movement for the implementation of sharia law there.

"The majority of people in that area are very conservative. They have been demanding the implementation of sharia law because they say the other law takes far too long to dispense justice, and the demand is for swift justice.

"However, this will not mean that the groups opposed to the government will be dispensing that justice. The government of Pakistan will appoint the judges."

Shuja Nawaz, a strategic analyst with the South Asia Centre , told Al Jazeera that the agreement could prove problematic for Pakistan in future.

"It will mean that the government is ceding territory to the Taliban, which will be a repeat of what happened when prime minister Benazir Bhutto was in power in 1994 and a number of districts in Swat and Malakand were handed over to essentially the same group so they could impose their rather convoluted view of sharia on those districts.

"The moment you cede space to them, the Taliban will want to extend that control and then the government will have to go through this business of sending in the military yet again to clear and hold the territory."

Necessary negotiations

The agreement is likely to draw criticism from the US, which is battling Taliban and al-Qaeda groups in the area. The US has said that such deals only serve to allow fighters to regroup.

But Pakistan says that force alone cannot defeat all opposition groups and that talks must take place, although several past deals have failed.
Unlike regions under tribal rule in the northwest, where al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters have found safe havens to launch attacks both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Pakistani government has typically controlled the Swat Valley.

Conservative groups aiming to introduce sharia have been fighting government troops in the region since 2007.

The groups took control there after a 2008 peace deal collapsed within months of being signed.

Much of the violence, which has left hundreds of thousands of people homeless, has been blamed on the Taliban in Swat, headed by Mullah Fazlullah, the son-in-law of Maulana Sufi Muhammad, the leader of Tahrik-e-Nafiz Shariat Muhammadi.

Government struggle

Regaining control of the Swat Valley - which was formerly a popular tourist destination - is a significant test for Pakistan's civilian leadership.

Separately on Monday, 16 people were killed when a suspected US drone fired two missiles at a target on Pakistan's border region with Afghanistan.

A security official in Pakistan's Kurram tribal region said that a building used by the Taliban was destroyed in the attack.

"Afghan Taliban were holding an important meeting there when the missiles were fired," an intelligence official in the area said.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Minister: Iran, Russia to boost military cooperation

TEHRAN, Feb. 15 (Xinhua) -- Iran's Defense Minister Brigadier General Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said that Iran and Russia are to boost military cooperation, the semi-official Fars news agency reported on Sunday.

"Tehran and Moscow are to review ways to enhance military cooperation during an upcoming visit to Russia by Iranian defense minister," Fars said.

Najjar is scheduled to travel to Moscow on Monday to discuss military and technical cooperation and review implementation of agreements inked by the two countries, according to Iran's defense ministry.

He is also slated to pay a visit to Russian defense industries.

In December, Deputy Director of the Russian Federal Organization for Military and Technical Cooperation Alexander Foumin said that his country intended to expand joint cooperation with Iran, which would have a positive impact on stability in the Middle East region.

Such a cooperation has raised concerns about the rising military capabilities of Iran, as the Western observers has elaborated.

However, earlier this month, Iranian ambassador to Russia Seyed Mahmoud Reza Sajjadi played down such concerns.

"Probably, there will be some changes, but generally the scale of this cooperation is not that large as (the media) allege," Sajjadi told a news conference in Moscow, adding that "We think that Iran-Russia military-technical cooperation is slightly exaggerated."  

Source : Chinaview.cn

Egypt's Ghabbour could make $180m buy

by Will Rasmussen

Ghabbour Auto, Egypt's largest listed auto maker and assembler, could spend as much as 1 billion Egyptian pounds ($180 million) on acquisitions to take advantage of low prices, its chief executive said on Sunday.

Ghabbour was looking to buy auto distributors or auto parts manufacturers in the Middle East and North Africa region, Raouf Ghabbour told Reuters.

"We are ready and now is the time to make an acquisition," Ghabbour said. "There are many businesses under very high pressure to be acquired."

"We are underleveraged and our balance sheet would allow us to invest 1 billion pounds," he added.

Ghabbour also said the company, which has an exclusive licence from South Korea's Hyundai Motor Company to sell Hyundai cars in Egypt, could also make acquisitions to expand its product line, without giving further details.

He said the company was not currently in talks about any potential purchases.

Ghabbour, who has warned of a "volatile" 2009, said the company would likely sell at least as many vehicles this year as last year, helped by lower inflation and a new Egyptian law requiring aging cars to be replaced.

"This year, despite all the pessimism, Ghabbour Auto should maintain or improve its sales in terms of the number of vehicles," he said.

Ghabbour, which sold about 80,000 vehicles in the first nine months of 2008, has not yet disclosed its earnings or sales for the fourth quarter of 2008.

Ghabbour said the firm was aiming to win 50 percent of replacement sales for approximately 37,400 passenger cars that would likely be forced off the streets this year under a new law forbidding new licences for taxis over 20 years old.

Falling inflation, which hit its lowest in nearly a year in January, would also help vehicle sales, Ghabbour said.

Sales had begun to improve in the first two weeks of February after dropping off sharply in the fourth quarter of 2008, when the global financial crisis hit, Ghabbour said.

"The first half of February has been completely different than November, December, and January, when people were waiting for lower prices," he said.

Sales in the beginning of February were still down about 10 percent from their average level of 2008, he said, declining to give exact figures.

Overall demand for passenger cars in the most populous Arab country would likely fall about 10 percent this year to about 180,000 units as a result of the financial crisis, Ghabbour said.

Ghabbour's market share could climb to above 30 percent in 2009, its highest ever, as a higher yen dampens competition from Japanese cars, Ghabbour said. Ghabbour's market share in 2008 was about 26 percent.

Source :Reuters

First woman minister ignites hopes

Hassna’a Mokhtar, Arab News

JEDDAH: History was made yesterday with the appointment by royal decree of a Saudi woman, Nora bint Abdullah Al-Fayez, as the deputy education minister for girls’ affairs.

“This is an honor not only for me, but for all Saudi women. In the presence of a comprehensive operational team, I believe I’ll be able to face challenges and create positive change,” Al-Fayez told Arab News.

Al-Fayez began her career as a schoolteacher in 1982 working her way up to become in 2001 the director general of the women’s section at the Institute of Public Administration. Her long experience in the educational sector and her husband’s encouragement and support paved the way for her to reach this position.

Many Saudis welcomed the new deputy minister expressing hope in her appointment. A woman educator working in a supervisory position said this was a wise decision to serve and develop the Kingdom’s educational sector.

“This is a successful step. We’ve always suffered from having a man occupy the position. A woman knows what problems and challenges her peers face. It’s a change for the better,” said the educator.

Ali Al-Twati, a Saudi academic and writer, said having a woman occupy the position of deputy minister is a must. “It is compulsory, not optional, to have women occupy leadership positions. Since the number of schools in Saudi Arabia exceeds 10,000, girls need a reference in the ministry to listen to their issues and understand them,” said Al-Twati.

He also said that segregation makes it easier for women in the Kingdom to reach high leadership positions. There are more women in key positions in the country than in developed countries, he added.

Haifa Jamal Al-Lail, dean of Effat College, expressed her delight, adding that the appointment serves as an impetus for women to get into leading positions to contribute to the development of Saudi society.

“This is not just about having the first woman deputy minister. It’s about having more women in important positions. Al-Fayez’s presence in the Ministry of Education will make women’s voices heard,” said Al-Lail.

Despite optimism for a better future, Khaled Al-Radihan, assistant professor of anthropology at King Saud University in Riyadh, said it would not be easy. “There is a conservative stream of people who won’t accept the situation easily. If the deputy minister proves herself and succeeds, then things might take a different turn. However, it’s a positive change and a good opportunity for a better future,” said Al-Radihan.

Asma Siddiki, associate dean for development at the Dubai School of Government, congratulated Al-Fayez, describing her appointment as a milestone for women in Saudi Arabia.

“Our government is to be commended for recognizing women’s achievements. Given the remarkable progress women are making in the Kingdom, and the investment the government is making in education, I don’t doubt there’ll be many such senior appointments in the future,” said Siddiki.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Investors monitor US stimulus plan

Khalil Hanware, Arab News

JEDDAH/AMMAN: The Saudi stock market remained volatile last week, led by the petrochemical, banking and telecom sectors.

The Tadawul All-Share Index (TASI) gained 1.11 percent last week, closing at 4,847.62 points.

The Riyadh-based Bakheet Investment Group (BIG) expected the attention of investors to focus in the coming week on the performance of US and other global stocks and their reaction to the US stimulus plan. “In case the reactions turn out to be negative, the impact will put down pressure on oil prices and consequently on the Saudi stock market,” the BIG weekly report said.

The stock market turnover increased to SR33.4 billion last week compared to SR25.7 billion in the previous week.

Qassim Agriculture shares jumped by 22.47 percent to SR10.90 and Hail Agriculture by 17.75percent to SR27.20.

Al-Baha Investment and Development Co. was the top loser last week as its shares plunged 12.81 percent to SR13.95.

Arab stock markets are expected to be “relatively stable” in the coming few weeks, financial analysts said yesterday.

The all-share price index of the Amman Stock Exchange gained 1.78 percent last week, closing at 2,704 points from 2,656 points previous week, according to the ASE weekly report.

Kuwait’s KSE all-share price index shed 4.38 percent last week to close at 6,614 points.

The benchmark price of the United Arab Emirates stock exchanges of Dubai and Abu Dhabi gained 4.1 percent to close at 2,392 points. Egypt’s CASE-30 index climbed 6.2 percent last week, closing at 3,601 points.

The GulfBase GCC Index increased by 1.12 percent to 2,957.91 points last week. The value of GCC traded shares also surged by 25.16 percent to $11.29 billion and volume by 33.17 percent to 6 billion of shares last week.

Positive territory

The BMG Saudi Index, which comprises the top 30 active companies in Saudi Arabia based on their market capitalization after removing government ownership, witnessed a rise of 2.1 percent over the week. The index gained 4.87 points to 237.07.

The number of shares traded over the week appreciated by 29.3 percent to 933.4 million shares compared to 721.7 million shares during the previous week. The average price-earnings (P/E) ratio for 2007’s earnings was 12.06 times, while the price-to-book ratio (P/BV) was 2.56 times.