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Sep 25 - Oct 01, 2000

Oil rages to 10 year peak on winter fears

Oil prices revisited a 10-year peak on Wednesday after fresh data showing a renewed fall in US crude stocks offered little relief to fears of possible fuel shortages in the coming winter.

US benchmark crude futures traded 64 cents higher to $37.15 a barrel, equalling a post-Gulf War high set earlier this week.

Prices, which had taken a breather on Tuesday after a recent bull run, gained fresh momentum on weekly figures from the American Petroleum Institute (API) showing US crude stocks were once again on the decline.

The API industry group said crude stocks fell two million barrels in the week to September 15 to almost 287 million barrels, more than 22 million barrels below year-ago levels.

Oil's recent rally to highs not seen since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 had been partly driven by concerns that world inventories were too low to cope with any early cold snap in the upcoming Northern Hemisphere winter, especially in the United States, which consumes a quarter of all petroleum supplies.

The API estimated that US distillate inventories, which include the key heating oil product, rose a modest 1.25 million barrels to just over 116 million barrels and remained 28 million barrels under 1999 levels.

Analysts said the data could prompt a new assault on recent highs, although Wednesday's expiry of the October futures contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) might spark volatility.

"The market will take (API figures) in stride and go along its merry bullish way," said Tom Knight with Redmeteor.com. "This is like giving a drunk another drink."

Mistrust fuels Kuwait-Iraq oil dispute

A mere few months of geological work could unearth the facts in a row between Iraq and Kuwait about alleged theft of oil from beneath the Gulf War desert.

But mutual mistrust means the two countries will find it hard to agree terms for an independent probe into the sands of one of the world's most sensitive frontiers, analysts say.

"You need a high level of trust between countries to tackle issues like these. You don't have that here," said Manouchehr Takin of London's Centre for Global Energy Studies.

Without an expert ruling, the issue is set to remain a political football.

Iraq has accused its small neighbour of stealing oil by drilling in a field straddling the border, reviving uneasy memories of the turbulent prelude to Iraq's 1990-91 occupation.

The charge dates back to mid-July 1990 when Iraq brought up the issue just two weeks before it invaded Kuwait, saying Kuwait had stolen Iraqi oil worth over $2 billion during the 1980s.

Iraq now appears to be using the issue to raise pressure for a cut in a big Kuwaiti compensation claim for oil lost in the occupation and the Gulf War that ended it, analysts say.

Baghdad last week said it would take unspecified steps to stop the alleged theft, prompting Kuwait to call for allied support and declare its welcome for any impartial probe.

"The accusations of Kuwaiti theft will agitate Iraqi public opinion, especially since rising prices make oil increasingly valuable," said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi analyst.

The irony is that a tried and trusted method exists to solve such disputes provided politics are kept at a distance.

Border rows, a common feature of the global oil industry, are normally solved by independent experts allocating each party a share of oil under a formula called a unitisation agreement.

Foreign investment falters in Syria

Foreign investment in Syria totalled only 47.6 million dollars last year, Al-Baath's economic weekly edition reported Tuesday, quoting an official report.

The projects approved by the state investment bureau represented only 17 per cent of the total value during the year, and only 0.77 per cent of the 6.2 billion dollars of foreign investment in all Arab countries.

State Planning Minister Issam Zaim said last week he was pessimistic about foreign investment in Syria where industry is not competitive.

France headed the list of foreign investors last year with 36.4 per cent of the total value, followed by Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and Japan. The projects cover processing industries (32.8 per cent), agriculture (27.6 per cent), transport (22.7 per cent) and construction (16.9 per cent).

Foreign firms get five projects in Saudi

The Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority is to allow foreign companies to fully own five industrial projects in the kingdom, Al-Iqtissadiya newspaper said Tuesday.

The five projects have been awarded to Indian, Iranian, Kuwaiti and Syrian companies, the paper added, without disclosing the value of the investments.

Saudi Arabia has since last year announced a package of legal reforms to encourage foreign investment and diversify sources of revenue.

The reforms will allow foreign investors to own industrial companies and property and amend the system of local sponsorship for foreigners doing business in Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter.

Spain pledges $90 m in Morocco aid

Spain on Tuesday agreed to $50 million in development projects for Morocco and to forgive $40 million in Moroccan debt to help lift its southern neighbour out of poverty and stem the flow of illegal immigration.

The plan to build infrastructure, telecommunications and water projects which will benefit Spanish contractors was signed during Moroccan King Mohammed's first official visit to Spain.

The European and African neighbors, separated by 15 km (nine miles) of water at the Strait of Gibraltar, also agreed to study bolstering power connections between the two countries.

Egypt to press Africa's case for debt relief

Egypt, fresh from hosting a conference of African trade ministers, said Wednesday it would press Africa's case for deeper debt relief at IMF-World Bank meetings opening this week in Prague.

Yusef Boutros-Ghali, Egypt's economy and foreign trade minister, told reporters he would present an African request for more "support in reducing the per centage of debt or cancelling debts completely" at the meeting opening Thursday.

Boutros-Ghali expressed what amounts to growing African calls for relief from an estimated 350 billion dollars in debt after a reporter asked what message he would take to Prague as current chairman of African trade ministers.

Kuwaiti think-tank warns OPEC

Kuwait's Al-Shall Economic Consultants warned OPEC states Saturday of "adverse consequences" from oil prices which have hit the highest level since Iraq invaded the emirate in 1990.

"The most serious consequence is a major obstruction for the current world economic growth. It will also open the door for the search of substitute energy sources," the specialists said in a weekly economic report.

G7 countries to warn OPEC

Finance ministers from the Group of Seven industrial nations will warn the oil exporters' cartel OPEC about the dangers of high oil prices, a British newspaper said on Sunday.

The Sunday Times newspaper quoted sources in Britain's Treasury as saying the warning will be issued when G7 leaders meet in the Czech capital, Prague, next weekend.

Chancellor Gordon Brown will push his fellow G7 finance ministers to send a tough message to oil producing nations at the meeting, according to the Sunday Times.

Islamic ratings agency

The Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank (IDB) and Islamic institutions around the world are to set up a ratings agency to rank the performance of Islamic banks, a senior banker said on Sunday.

Abdullatif Abdulrahim Janahi, managing director of Bahrain Islamic Bank, said the new ratings agency would be needed to give Islamic banks standards, like other conventional international firms, that show investors their reliability.

Oman to award $750 m refinery deal soon

Oman is studying bids by several firms to build a $750 million oil refinery in the northern city Sohar and a winner was expected to be picked before the end of the year, a government official said on Sunday.

"We are planning to award the engineering, procurement and construction contract for the Sohar refinery sometime this year," the official told Reuters, without giving a specific date.

Merge deal

Commercial Bank of Oman and Bank Muscat on Sunday signed a final agreement to complete the merger of the two institutions to create a 1.3 billion rial ($3.38 billion) bank.

Saudi considers highway tax

Saudi Arabia is considering tolls on the kingdom's major highways, Transportation Minister Nasser al-Sallum said Sunday.

"The taxes would be accompanied by additional services for motorists," he told the press, without being more specific.

Under the plan that is being studied, motorists who do not want to pay would be able to choose free secondary roads.

Saudi Arabia, which has 4.5 million vehicles on the road, said in December that it had invested 51 billion dollars in highway construction at a cost of 213 million dollars a year.

Kuwait devises new strategy

The oil-rich emirate of Kuwait said Monday it planned to reappraise multi-billion-dollar foreign investments in light of a huge increase in oil revenues on the back of rocketing crude prices.

The new strategy will aim to "boost performance of Kuwaiti investments in some markets, restructure it in others and enter into new investments," Saleh al-Falah, managing director of Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA), told Al-Watan newspaper.

Falah said the strategy's "main guidelines" would be ready in November.

Saddam warns OPEC

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has warned fellow OPEC member states against pressure mounted by "super powers" on producers to bring down soaring oil prices.

"The super powers will fasten the grip on oil producing countries," the Iraqi press on Monday quoting Saddam as telling a cabinet meeting held late on Sunday.

Saddam accused super powers, a clear reference to the United States and other Western nations, of using the issue of oil prices against producing countries.

Iraq-South Africa

An Iraqi delegation left Baghdad for South Africa Monday to examine cooperation plans to rebuild Iraq's electricity sector, the INA agency reported. Delegation chief Saleh Yussef Qazir, who heads up the Iraqi electricity office, said he would be talk with South African electricity officials about "the basis for cooperation over production and distribution of electric energy."

British-UAE venture

A British-United Arab Emirates venture is planning to build two oil refineries worth 2.8 billion dollars in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and West Nusa Tenggara (NTB), a report said Thursday.

PT Mits Indonesia has asked for government approval to build the refineries in Weh island, Aceh and in Taliwang on Lombok island, an official of the Investment Board, Yus'an was quoted by the Bisnis Indonesia daily as saying.

Sudan to open power industry

The Sudanese government is moving toward opening its state-run electrical power industry to private investors, including those from abroad, newspapers reported Thursday.

A cabinet body passed a draft law Wednesday allowing national and foreign investors to enter the business of generating and distributing electricity, a business which has hitherto been a government monopoly.

The proposal submitted by Energy and Mining Minister Awad Ahmed Al-Jaz was passed by the cabinet's economic council in a meeting chaired by Finance Minister Mohamed Khair Al-Zubair.

Women break

Driving sports cars as a symbol of their success in a male-oriented society, a new breed of energetic young women has broken the mould of business life in the conservative Gulf sultanate of Oman.

"I work harder than they (men) do," said Assilah Al Harthy, the only woman member of Oman's chamber of commerce and chief executive of the family-owned Al Harthy shopping complex, to explain her success.

Women now hold senior management posts in more than half the top 10 trading families of Oman.

Syria-Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia and Syria held talks on the stalled Middle East peace process and ways of promoting bilateral cooperation, participants said on Thursday.

Saudi Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, Emir of the Riyadh region, held separate meetings with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Foreign Minister Farouq Al-Shara on Wednesday evening.

Lebanon protests

President Bashar Al-Assad seems keen to ease Syria's stranglehold over Lebanon, where a spate of anti-Syrian protests shows that he is giving his neighbour a bit more political slack, analysts said on Thursday.

Israel's May 24 withdrawal from southern Lebanon after 22 years of occupation, and the June 10 death of Syria's president of 30 years, Hafez Al-Assad, succeeded by his son Bashar, have radically altered the picture.