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Dec 20, 1999

  1. International
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  6. Gulf

Israeli-Syrian peace talks

Israel and Syria began a second day of historic negotiations under U.S. auspices on Thursday on setting a course toward a deal to end a half-century of conflict, a U.S. official said.

Negotiators, headed by Israeli leader Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Al-Shara, entered Blair House, the official guest residence across the street from the White House, to resume discussions on the last day of two-day talks.

Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq Al-Shara said Thursday his delegation was "very satisfied" by ongoing peace negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak here.

"The Syrian delegation is very satisfied," Shara told reporters as he left his hotel to begin the second day of US-mediated peace talks with Israel.

He declined to reveal details of the talks, which opened Wednesday and were scheduled to end later Thursday.

After a rocky start, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq Al-Shara on Wednesday launched the first high-level talks between their two countries in four years.

US President Bill Clinton, who worked hard to bring the two men together and who is the key mediator in the talks, said the meeting was a big step in the right direction.

Qatar debt 'relatively high' despite oil prices

Qatar's domestic and foreign debt remains "relatively high" despite a rise in oil prices, but the government is improving its fiscal and debt management, credit ratings firm Moody's said Thursday.

"While this year's rebound in oil prices has eased pressure on the fiscal accounts, the underlying vulnerabilities remain," the agency said in a statement.

"Large cumulative budget deficits over the years have led to the depletion of the foreign assets ... and to an increasing public sector debt burden," Moody's added.

"Total public sector indebtedness in both domestic and foreign currency terms ... is relatively high at about 95 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)," the agency said.

Moroccan tourism on road to recovery

Morocco's tourism industry is recovering rapidly and the government sees a 28 percent rise in the number of foreign visitors this year, compared to 1998.

"We expect up to 2.3 million foreign tourists this year from 1.8 million last year and we hope the number will rise to four million by 2003 or 2004," Tourism Minister Hassan Sebbar told Reuters in an interview on Monday.

The 1999 tourism receipts, one of the North African country's main sources of hard currencies, would also increase to $1.8 billion from last year's $1.6 billion, the minister said. "We are actively trying to encourage investments and the government is aware of the need to resolve problems facing the tourism sector, such as providing tax incentives, allocation of real-estate for tourism projects and reducing red tape," he said.

US welcomes long-awaited Kuwait copyright law

The United States on Wednesday welcomed a new Kuwaiti copyright law, describing it as a good first step in the oil-rich state's fight against rampant piracy.

"We welcome vote by Kuwait's National Assembly (parliament) to pass a copyright law," a US embassy spokesperson told Reuters.

Washington has been the most vociferous on the copyright issue among Kuwait's key Western allies.

According to US figures, Kuwait is among the worst copyrights offenders in the Gulf region with illegal copies of American movies and computer software readily available despite some measures in recent months to crack down on pirates.

Saudia, Al-Alamiah sign internet deal

Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) and Al-Alamiah Internet and Communication Company (Alamiah.net) inked in Jeddah a one-year contract to operate and maintain the national carrier's web site, in a move that spells better online services and customer relations, according to a press release.

Under the terms of the agreement, Alamiah.net, a leading Internet service provider in the Kingdom, will use its technology resources and management capabilities to upgrade Saudia's online services and improve the company's web services.

Mr. Abdallah Al-Jihani, VP for Marketing at Saudia, said the contract would further strengthen the airline's communication channels across the world, emphasizing its stature as an organization in tune with the latest international technology.

Khatami submits budget to Iranian parliament

Iranian President Mahammad Khatami submitted a balanced budget Wednesday with revenue and expenditure 29 percent higher than last year.

"It is a balanced budget which is within the country's means," the reformist president said in a speech to the conservative-dominated parliament.

The budget, the third since Khatami was elected in 1997, will run from March next year, corresponding to the first year of the president's ambitious five-year economic plan.

Revenue and expenditure are both set at 110,395 billion rials (around 36 billion dollars at the official rate and 13 billion at the market rate).

"The concern of the government was to have a budget without a deficit and reduce the dependence of the country on oil receipts," the president said, adding that only 49 percent of revenue would derive from oil.

Khatami's five-year plan, approved with relatively few amendments by parliament last month, is based on an oil price of 14 dollars a barrel. The price currently stands at almost 25 dollars, after OPEC and other production cuts in March.

Khatami's five-year plan provides for wholesale privatisations of the railways and telecommunications, and an end to state monopolies in tobacco, sugar and tea which go back more than 60 years.

The head of state said Wednesday in presenting his budget that the government wanted to reduce the role of the state in the Iranian economy and increase that of the private sector.

The plan seeks to slash Iran's 15 per cent unemployment rate to 10.5 per cent, creating 750,000 jobs annually.

It foresees an investment rate of five per cent in the public sector, 8.5 per cent in the private sector and an annual growth rate of six per cent, as opposed to an average of 3.2 percent in the Islamic republic's previous two economic plans.

Jordan telecom sale to net state $610 mln

Jordan is set to earn 610 million dollars from the sale of 48 per cent of the state-owned telecommunications company when the deal is sealed next week, Communications Minister Jamal Sarayreh said.

An international consortium led by France Telecom is to buy a 40 per cent stake in the Jordan Telecommunication Company for a total of 508 million dollars, Sarayreh told.

The deal with France Telecom and its partners, the Amman-based Arab Bank and the National Bank of Kuwait, is expected to be sealed later this month, the minister said.

A second group composed of US telecommunications giant GTE Corp. and the Emirati company Al-Ain offered the same amount but has not followed up on the bid.

A third team of US Southern Bell Corp. and a Saudi investment company made a 279-million-dollar offer.

Sudanese party sacks Beshir

The Sudanese National Congress has sacked President Omar al-Beshir and a number of his aides in the wake of Beshir's ousting of its leader as speaker of parliament, an official told journalists Tuesday.

NC Popular Organisations Secretary Mohamed al-Hassan al-Amin, a close aide to party Secretary General Hassan al-Turabi, said the NC executive on Monday decided that Beshir and his aides "are no longer members in the National Congress." Amin said the executive considered that Beshir had excluded himself from its ranks by his action on Monday in declaring a state of emergency and dissolving parliament, of which his rival Turabi was the speaker, and the NC was no longer a ruling party.

"The National Congress is no longer a ruling party after the president of the republic and his deputies opted to pull out of the party by carrying out a coup against the ruling institutions," he said.

Iran would back OPEC production rise

Giant producer Iran said on Tuesday that it would back lifting the OPEC oil production ceiling if the world market needed additional supplies and prices climbed above current strong levels.

"If all market criteria are sound and there is an additional call on producers and prices go higher, OPEC would be responsible and raise production," Iran's OPEC Governor, Hossein Kazempour Ardebili, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Syrians look for a modern economy

Syria's search for peace with Israel may look stiff but there are signs of life in its desire to modernise its economy.

From plans to introduce mobile phones and the Internet to a renewed focus on the economy by the leadership, Syria appears to have made the decision that economic reform can — and must — be carried out regardless of progress on ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"There is no doubt the government recognises the need for an economic policy separate from the political situation the government is immersed in," said a senior business figure.

"There is a general recognition of that by the top leadership." With Syria's economy suffering the twin blows earlier this year of low prices for its oil exports and the worst drought in decades, President Assad has called for new efforts to reform an economy that still suffers from the straight jacket of Soviet-style central planning.

Saudi approves $57 mln in loans to farmers

Saudi Arabia has approved 216 million riyals ($57.6 million) in loans to wheat and barley farmers for the current season, Saudi newspapers reported.

The London-based Al-Hayat newspaper quoted the Saudi Agriculture Bank director as saying that 1997 crops at the state Grain Silos and Flour Mills Organisation (GSFMO) would be used as collateral for the loans, which had been approved by the Ministry of Finance and National Economy.

Algeria sees 99 energy exports rising to $11.5 bln

Algerian Finance Minister Abdelkrim Harchaoui on Monday forecast oil and gas export earnings to rise by nearly 18 percent to $11.5 billion in 1999 due to higher oil prices since March.

"The value of the hydrocarbon exports for 1999 are expected to reach $11.500 billion compared to $9.750 billion in 1998 when oil and gas earnings fell $3.5 billion from their 1997 level," he told the Council of the Nation (parliament's Upper House) during a debate of the 2000 draft budget.

Harchaoui, whose address was broadcast by the state-run television, said he expected energy exports to rise further to about $12 billion in 2000.

Economic task force

Jordan's King Abduilah II issued a royal decree announcing the creation of a 20-member economic task force aimed at reviewing the country's economic policies for the new millennium.

Petra news agency said the new body, named the "consultative economic council" will operate underthe personal supervision of Abdullah.

Its members will be top private and public financial sector experts and it will meet in the presence of Prime Minister Abdel Rauf Rawabdeh and key cabinet ministers.

"The new millennium will bring many economic challenges. That is why we must review our national policies ... in order to enter the new century with greater confidence," Abdullah said in a letter to Rawabdeh.

Saudi budget gap slashed to $2.7b

Oil price rises have slashed the Saudi budget deficit for 1999 to $2.7 billion, down from a government projection of $11.8 billion, Saudi British Bank said in a report published.

It gave an estimate of $32 billion for oil revenues, based on an export price of between $15 and $20 a barrel rather than the $10 price estimated by the government at the start of the year.

Non-oil revenues amounted to $13.3 billion, including more than $2 billion from new measures such as an airport tax and hike in prices at Saudi petrol stations, according to the bank's fourth quarter report.

"With greater revenues the Saudi government can afford to allow expenditures to rise" to $48 billion. It said, referring to oil prices which have more tnan doubled this year thanks to output cuts.

Overall spending in the 1999 budget was projected at $44 billion, against revenues of $32.2 billion. In 1998 the budget deficit hit $12.2 biliion as the Saudi economy contracted by 10.8 per cent.

Iran set to export gas to Turkey

Iran said it will start natural gas exports to Turkey in two weeks in defiance of U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran, but Ankara cast doubt on the timetable for the new deliveries.

Turkey and Iran agreed a landmark $23 billion deal in 1996 that Turkey would initially buy three billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas from Iran through a pipeline from Iran's Tabriz to Turkey's capital Ankara.