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Jan 01 - 14, 2001

GCC agrees single currency

Leaders of six oil-rich Gulf Arab states on Sunday approved steps to issue a unified currency but failed to agree on an earlier timetable for the introduction of common tariffs.

The move to create common tariffs is part of a wider plan by the group for a regional currency and a unified trade zone, and designed to speed up free trade talks with the region's biggest trading partner, the European Union.

A free trade agreement has eluded the two blocs for several years.

GCC officials said leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had discussed a plan to introduce the common tariffs in 2003, two years earlier than originally agreed.

But a final communique at the end of a two-day summit said the unified tariffs would be implemented "at the originally agreed time".

"It has been decided to keep the date for introduction the common tariffs in 2005.

Each member state can speed up implementing the agreement on its own," Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Mubarak al-Khalifa told a news conference after the summit.

Sheikh Mohammed did not say which countries had objected to the plan that would unify the tariffs within the targeted range of between 5.5 per cent and 7.5 per cent.

Bahrain last week said it would go ahead with the plan and would cut tariffs on consumer goods and imported cars by 2003.

"The higher (GCC) council has agreed a currency denomination for the currencies of council states as a first step to achieve this target," said a final communique.

The leaders also asked central banks in the member states to agree on a programme with a timetable for the unified currency that would be discussed at the next summit in Muscat, Oman in 2001.

Gulf Arabs efforts to end Iran-UAE dispute

Gulf Arab states will step up diplomatic efforts to end a territorial dispute between Iran and the UAE, despite being angered by Iran's refusal to accept their mediation.

Iran and the United Arab Emirates are at odds over three small but strategic islands Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs located near key oil shipping lanes at the mouth of the Gulf.

They are held by Iran but claimed by the UAE.

A Saudi Foreign Ministry official, quoted by the UAE's Gulf News and Al-Ittihad dailies, did not rule out a Gulf Arab economic and diplomatic boycott of Iran, but he said Saudi Arabia hoped "matters will not reach this stage because we have strong links with Iran in all fields".

UAE Information Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zaid Al-Nahayan said on Sunday that Iran had refused to meet a high-level Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) tripartite committee.

The GCC issued a statement at the end of summit in Bahrain on Sunday that backed the UAE's rights to the three islands and urged Tehran to agree to refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.

"If Iran continues not to respond and refuses to sit at the negotiating table, we will resort to the ICJ," the Saudi official was quoted as saying.

His comments were the strongest on the issue by Saudi Arabia, which has moved faster than most other Gulf Arab states to improve relations with non-Arab Iran.

A UAE official said the six GCC states were not seeking to escalate the row and would use all means to find a solution.

"What has changed is that the dispute is no longer a bilateral issue between the UAE and Iran. It has become an issue between Iran and the GCC as a whole," he told Reuters.

Mideast peace deal

Israel and the Palestinians have all but ruled out any chance of securing a peace deal before US President Bill Clinton leaves office on January 20, despite glimmers of hope following talks in Washington.

The White House says Palestinian President Yasser Arafat broadly accepted a US peace blueprint with reservations at a meeting with Clinton. Israel has sent an envoy to Washington for talks and a Palestinian negotiator may also go there.

Arafat hopes to reach a final peace agreement with Israel Clinton leaves office on January 20.

"We hope so. We hope for that, according to the promise by President Clinton to make every possible effort before the period ends," Arafat told reporters on his return to Palestinian-ruled Gaza from Egypt. Arafat declined to answer directly a question about his final word on Clinton's proposals.

Arafat had briefed Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on Clinton's peace ideas.

Chevron pulls out of gas project in Iran

US oil giant Chevron pulled out of an investment bid for the South Pars gas fields in the Persian gulf, following "political pressure" from Washington, the daily Entekhab newspaper reported Wednesday.

"Chevron recently returned the documents of an invitation to tender for the last four geographical zones in the exploitation of the South Pars fields", which cover an area of 1,430 square miles (3,700 square kilometres) in the Iranian and Qatari territorial waters, the newspaper said.

Entekhab added that the fourth largest oil company in the world withdrew because of "political pressure" from Washington. Chevron and 28 other foreign companies had been due to submit their proposals by the end of 2000.

Tehran is under a US embargo which bans investments exceeding 40 million dollars in Iran's oil industry.

In September, Iran invited bids for the development of the last zones in the South Pars gas project, including zones nine and ten, considered to be the biggest fields in the world.

Damascus to commercialize state enterprises

The Syrian government decided Tuesday to have its industrial state enterprises run on the basis of commercial viability, the official SANA news agency reported.

The government "has approved a certain number of principles concerning the running of the industrial public sector," said SANA in a summary of a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa Miro.

The agency said the government will hand public sector industrial enterprises "economic and financial independence" and "subject them to commercial law."

According to SANA, the cabinet will "remove state overseeing of their operations," which means giving them administrative autonomy and limiting the role of the state to that of a shareholder.

The government has also decided to encourage the private sector to invest in industry, to create industrial zones likely to attract investment, and to "change the laws which restrict the devlopment and export of industry," the agency continued.

Oil output (Box)

Leading OPEC producer Saudi Arabia on Tuesday called for hefty supply curbs when the cartel meets this month to prevent a further slide in world oil prices.

A Saudi official said that Riyadh believed the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries needed to cut production by 1.5 million barrels a day to keep crude near $25 a barrel.

Kuwait wants OPEC to cut production by between 1.5-2.0 million barrels per day (bpd) at the group's January 17 meeting, a Kuwaiti oil source said on Tuesday.

If OPEC's automatic price band mechanism is not triggered ahead of the Vienna meeting, OPEC's overall cutback should be at least 1.5 million bpd, the Kuwaiti source said.

Telecoms privatisation to be delayed

Oman has delayed the privatisation of its state-owned Oman Telecommunication Company (Omantel) until March to allow for the restructuring of the firm, the economy minister said.

"Our consultants advised us to delay the Omantel privatisation to allow for the restructuring of the company and the setting up of a regulatory body," Economy Minister Ahmed bin Abdulnabi Mekki said late on Wednesday.

He said the privatisation of the telecommunications company would start in March this year. He did not elaborate. In June, officials said Omantel's privatisation would be completed by the end of 2000. Oman, which depends on oil sales for most of its income, has embarked on a privatisation drive and is trying to diversify its economy.

Aqaba trade zone

Jordan will launch a low-tariff economic zone in the Red Sea port of Aqaba at the end of January, officials said on Wednesday.

The Aqaba Special Economic Zone (SEZ), set up to attract investment into the kingdom, had been widely expected to start operation at the beginning of the year but delays in passing legislation in parliament forced a few weeks' delay, they said.

Kuwaiti stocks fell

Kuwaiti stocks fell 1.45 per cent in the week to Wednesday to near five-year lows.

The Kuwait Stock Exchange (KSE) index ended the shortened trading week at 1,328.5 points, down from its close of 1,348.1 at the year end. The index fell 6.5 per cent in 2000 after falling 8.8 per cent in 1999.

Iraq, Turkey to establish rail link

Iraq and Turkey have agreed to open a rail link, running through Syria, from as early as next week, an Iraqi transport ministry official said Monday.

The weekly Nabdh al-Shabab newspaper quoted the official as saying that the opening of the link for the transport of passengers had been agreed by the Iraqi Railways Co. and the relevant Turkish authorities.

Iran stocks soar 44.8%

Iranian stocks surged 44.8 per cent in 2000 as an oil windfall boosted the local currency and the government increased spending to help revive the stagnant economy, traders said.

The Tehran Stock Exchange all-share index closed at 2,880.68 points on Sunday, up from 1,989.73 at the start of the year, the state news agency IRNA reported. The index had risen 30 per cent in 1999, after registering losses in the two previous years.

Jordan to launch first nuclear power plant

Jordan will start operating a small nuclear power reactor in early 2002 for scientific research and other non-military purposes, Jordan's energy minister was quoted Sunday as saying.

"The energy ministry, in cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), began construction in 2000" of the reactor in Amman's northern suburbs, "which will be operational in 2002," said Energy Minister Wael Sabri, cited by the independent Al-Arab Al-Youm newspaper.

The 1.7 million-dollar reactor, financed by the IAEA, will have a capacity of 27 kilowatts, Sabri said.

EU gives Syria 2 mln euro heritage grant

The European Union on Saturday signed an agreement with Syria through which the EU will provide two million euros ($1.86 million) to support a cultural heritage training programme, EU and Syrian officials said.

The programme aims to train Syrians specialising in the restoration and preservation of archaeological sites and will run for three-years, an EU official said.

Libya is open to globalisation

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, whose country has suffered many years of economic isolation, said in an interview published on Saturday that Libya would embrace globalisation.

"Experience has taught us the lesson that globalisation forces us to open up," he told the Berlin-based Tagesspiegel daily. "Those who do not accept this change will be considered reactionary." Libya has recently stepped up efforts to open up its long-isolated economy to the free market and has encouraged foreign investors to play a larger role in a five-year, $35 billion development plan.

Impotence ads stir controversy in Egypt

An advertisement in a local paper advises men seeking a cure for impotence to visit a local dermatologist. Another promises a quick fix to get "Mr Willy" back into service.

However, the Egyptian Doctors Syndicate is not taking the misleading advertisements lying down. Just recently, the Syndicate called on more than 30 doctors to answer for advertisements placed in local newspapers that claim to have medicinal or mechanical cures for male impotence.

The doctors, claiming to be experts in the field of male fertility, are definitely not, argues Hamed Ibrahim, the Syndicate's legal advisor. "These advertisements are misleading and usually violate the ethics of society and the profession," he says.

Iraq: Ready to take on Israel

The Iraqi army is ready to take on Israel in case of a Middle East war, Defence Minister General Sultan Hashem Ahmad said Thursday, while not ruling out a new confrontation with the United States.

"We have a clear idea of all the eventualities, and we do not exclude a new military confrontation" with Washington, Ahmad said, quoted by the weekly Al-Zawra, ahead of Iraq's army day which falls on January 6.

He said "a surprise attack is possible at any time," especially as Iraq was embroiled in almost daily clashes with US and British warplanes which enforce "no-fly" zones over most of the country.

Egyptian ship detained

Port authorities have detained an Egyptian cargo vessel and arrested 20 people on board for suspected human trafficking.

The owner of a local shipping agency, Abdul Malek, representing the detained Saint Vincent-flagged ship "MV Samara" was also arrested in an overnight police sweep just before it was due to sail for Yangon, officials say.

Chittagong Port's director for seamen immigration, Kamal Uddin, said 20 Bangladeshis were taken on board the ship shortly before it was due to sail raising suspicions they were being illegally trafficked.

Sudan welcomes Algeria's help

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika wound up a three-day visit to Sudan Tuesday, with his counterpart host, Omar Al-Beshir, inviting him to continue playing a role in resolving the conflict in Sudan.

At a joint news conference, Beshir praised the "great role President Bouteflika is playing for the sake of African unity" and said he trusted the Algerian leader "will play a greater role in solving the conflict in Sudan, using his strong relations with all the parties in the conflict."

Bouteflika said there was no Algerian initiative for ending the Sudanese civil war, but expressed his readiness to support and strengthen all the moves already made in that regard, while stressing that Algiers was against a north-south division of the country.