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July 16 - 22, 2001

Egypt, Gulf Arabs review strategic cooperation

Egypt and its Gulf Arab allies are studying a plan for possible strategic defense cooperation across the oil-rich Gulf, the Middle East and parts of Africa, officials said on Monday.

"It is an idea for military cooperation not (an Egyptian) military presence in the Gulf," an Arab defense official said of the plan which could eventually involve the exchange of information and integration of some defense systems.

Kuwait's Defense Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Hamad Al-Sabah told Al-Rai Al-Aam newspaper he "does not rule out" an Egyptian role in a recent Gulf Arab joint defense pact.

Egypt "could directly participate in implementing the joint Gulf defense pact," he said following a trip to Egypt.

The move follows the failure of a plan after the 1991 Gulf War for close military cooperation between the six Gulf Arab states and regional military powers Egypt and Syria which helped end a seven-month-long Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.

Sheikh Jaber did not give further details of Cairo's possible role in the Gulf Arab defense plan but stressed "the need to benefit from Egypt's military experience."

Defense experts said the new idea involves linking some Gulf systems, like command and control operations, to Egypt across the Red Sea to widen the range of coverage of a planned defense shield for the oil-rich region.

The six Gulf Arab states are already integrating their military command and control structures to set up an early-warning network to cover the Arabian Peninsula and allow them to coordinate a swift response in case of a threat.

It could eventually involve downlinks to retrieve information from several systems such as Saudi Arabia's AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft. Their range extend to parts of Egypt and non-Arab Iran.

The plan, experts said, calls for linking Gulf Arab systems, including data from the AWACS, to Egyptian command and control operations.

Jordan announces major petrol price hike

Jordanian Prime Minister Ali Abu Ragheb on Tuesday announced the kingdom's first major petrol hike in over a decade, with new prices affecting gasoline, gas cannisters and diesel for heating.

He said the move will help shore up the country's ailing economy in line with recommendations by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and bring in to the economy 45 million dinars annually (63 million dollars), and 23 million dinars (32 million dollars) by the end of the year.

The price of gasoline regular, premium and unleaded will go up by 14 to 15 per cent, while gas will increase by 15 per cent and diesel for heating by 3.8 per cent. The cost of public transport will also be raised, Abu Ragheb said, although he was not immediately able to say by how much.

According to government officials, the petrol hikes are still well below demands made by the IMF to raise petrol prices by 30 to 40 per cent as part of efforts to maintain the budget deficit within a target of six per cent of the Gross Domestic Product.

Jordan faces a budget deficit of 253 million dollars for 2001.

"We had tough negotiations with the IMF and over the past three days we had more discussions with them and yesterday we agreed to increase some petroleum product," Abu Ragheb said.

Six per cent of the revenues that the government will earn from the increased petrol prices will be used to fund the desert kingdom's debt-ridden municipalities which face a budget deficit of 70 million dinars (100 million dollars), Abu Ragheb said.

Abu Ragheb insisted that the government decided against increasing fuel oil and other heavy duty petroleum products so as not to burden the industrial sector. The government also ruled out imposing increases on bread and electricity.

"The increases will not affect the economy of Jordan because it will not affect the price of bread, electricity, water, the trucking industry and therefore will not affect the lives of the limited income people," Abu Ragheb said.

Japan to back Iran's bid for WTO

Japan has promised its support for Iran's bid to become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Japanese sources in Teheran said on Monday.

Japanese trade minister Takeo Hiranuma gave the assurance on Sunday during a visit to Teheran to arrange a joint oil project, sources said. It is expected that Iran's WTO bid will be opposed by the United States.

Hiranuma signed with the Iranian oil ministry initial agreements on a joint project to develop the Azadegan oil fields in the south-western Khuzestan province close to the Iraqi border. Tokyo hopes to involve European and the United States firms in the project. Meanwhile, Japan's Energy Minister Takeo Hiranuma on Monday wound up what he termed a 'successful' tour of the Gulf during which oil agreements were signed in Iran and Kuwait.

Hiranuma also held talks with officials in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia on a four-nation tour. "Japan relies on this region for about 86 per cent of its oil supplies and this region is important to Japan."

Syria's communist parties torn by internal strife

Syria's communists are experiencing internal strife again, with growing discontent over succession issues in one of their two authorized parties, and an ideological struggle in the other.

The Syrian Communist Party (SCP), allied to the ruling pan-Arab Baath party, split in 1986 over Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms in the USSR, and the two parties which were subsequently formed kept the same name.

The Stalinist branch is led by Wissal Farha, the widow of Khaled Bakdash a historic leader of the party founded in 1924 and the other is headed by Yussef Faysal.

Farha's party has recently been torn by protest from members who accuse her of paving the way for her own son, Ammar Bakdash, to succeed her as secretary general.

Arab League spokeswoman

The Arab League has put media-savvy Palestinian former minister Hanan Ashrawi, 54, in charge of its media relations, league secretary general Amr Mussa said Wednesday. Immediately after her appointment, Ashrawi slammed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government for their ethnic cleansing in Palestine.

"Israel has not declared a war, but is waging a daily war... through premeditated murder, the destruction of homes and ethnic cleansing," Ashrawi told reporters.

"All these acts are in line with Sharon's point of view, showing that he wants to purge Palestinian territory...

By making life impossible for Palestinian people in the land of Palestine," Ashrawi said.

Her job as commissioner for information will include "refuting and explaining to Arab and world opinion, particularly American and European, the challenges and distortions which the Palestinian cause is confronting," Mussa said after an overnight meeting with Ashrawi.

Israeli tank fire kills two Palestinian policemen

Israeli tank shells killed two Palestinian policemen in their outpost in the West Bank city of Nablus on Thursday, Palestinian security and hospital officials said.

The officials said four policemen and a 12-year-old boy were wounded in the same attack. The Israeli army was checking the report.

At least 20 Palestinians and 10 Israelis have been killed since Israel and the Palestinians adopted in mid-June a US-brokered ceasefire to end nine months of violence.

Iraq, UN extend oil-for-food program

Iraq and the United Nations on Monday signed an agreement extending for five months the oil-for-food humanitarian program, which will allow Iraq to export oil until Nov. 30, the United Nations announced.

The deal was another hurdle to surmount before Iraqi oil exports, suspended on June 4, can resume. Baghdad had cut off oil flows to protest discussions of a US-British plan to revamp sanctions.

"Letters were exchanged between Iraq and the United Nations extending the oil-for-food program for 150 days from July 4," UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

Iraqi ambassador Mohammed Aldouri said that the resumption of oil exports was imminent. "Oil will flow soon.

The oil-for-food program allows Iraq to sell oil, an exception to sanctions imposed in August 1990, and use the funds to purchase food, medicine and a host of other civilian goods. But the United Nations controls the oil revenues and pays the suppliers from a special escrow fund.

IDB releases $54 Mln aid

The Islamic Development Bank (IDB) announced Tuesday it had released 54 million dollars in new aid for the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The IDB said 30 million dollars of the aid represented the fourth of the six monthly instalments worth 180 million dollars pledged in March during the latest Arab summit in Amman.

The aid was delivered in the form of a "loan" paid directly into the treasury of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's PA to "help it respond to the fundamental needs of the Palestinian people in resisting Israel." The instalments are taken from the two Jeddah-based Arab funds which were created at the Arab summit in Cairo in October 2000 and placed under IDB management to support the Palestinians.

Gulf states give nod to regional gas network

The six Gulf monarchies on Tuesday approved the first phase of a one-billion-dollar regional natural gas network, a Bahraini oil official said.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) "approved the first phase of the feasibility study for a regional natural gas network, whose cost is estimated at one billion dollars," said Mohammad Saleh Al-Sheikh, undersecretary of Bahrain's oil ministry.

Sheikh, speaking after a meeting with GCC counterparts in Manama, said the second phase of the study by the Gulf Organisation for Industrial Consultancy (GOIC) will be completed before the next Gulf summit in Muscat in December.

He added that GCC member states had still not settled on how to finance the project.

The project calls for establishing a gas grid among the GCC members of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in an effort to benefit all six economies.

Saudi to hire expert teachers

The Saudi education ministry is to hire 3,000 male Arab teachers to offset an acute shortage of language and science teachers, a newspaper reported Thursday.

The ministry has sent selection committees to several Arab countries including Egypt, Sudan and Syria to recruit male teachers of English, mathematics and special education, Arab News said.

It announced in April plans to replace all foreign women teachers at girls' state schools with its own nationals by the end of the seventh five-year development plan in 2004.

Tanks to Lebanon

Jordan is awaiting US approval to donate 50 US-made tanks to Lebanon, Information Minister Saleh Kallab said on Monday in reaction to press reports from Beirut.

"American laws stipulate that US approval must be given to any country that wishes to sell or donate any of its weapons to a third country," Kallab told Al-Rai newspaper.

He said authorization must be forthcoming from Washington because the tanks, which he did not identify, are US-made.

The Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir reported on Sunday that Jordan promised to give Lebanon tanks, Al-Rai newspaper said.

A similar donation to Beirut was made in the 1950s, when Jordan offered British-made tanks to Lebanon.

Syria to provide Jordan with water

Syria will provide Jordan with two million cubic meters (70 million cubic feet) of water to help the drought-stricken kingdom fend off a 50 per cent water deficit, the water minister said Wednesday.

Minister Hazem Al-Nasser said the water will be pumped to Jordan from theYarmuk River which has its source in Syria and flows into the kingdom.

Nasser thanked Syria for this measure and "for not growing summer crops on both sides of the Yarmuk River to increase the water flow to Jordan," Petra news agency reported.

Water ministry sources said they except Syria to begin pumping the water later this week.

Iraq won't favour French firms for business

Iraq said on Monday it would not favour French firms for business in the country because of French backing for a US-British plan to revamp 11-year-old sanctions against Baghdad, the official news agency INA said.

"France will not be given priority in trade dealings with Iraq in the future because of its support for the stupid sanctions plan against Iraq," INA quoted Trade Minister Mohammed Mehdi Saleh as saying.

"Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Russia will have priority in trade dealings in the coming period in appreciation of their opposition to the wicked American-British plan."

Saudi banks report double-digit profit rises

Two major Saudi banks, National Commercial Bank (NCB) and Saudi American Bank (Samba), on Monday announced double-digit profit increases in the first half of 2001.

NCB's profits rose to 1.184 billion riyals (315.7 million dollars), up 28.2 per cent compared to the first six months of 2000. Its assets stand at 97.7 billion riyals (26.05 billion dollars), the bank said in a statement.

The first-half profits of Samba reached 1.109 billion riyals (295.7 million dollars), an increase of 13 per cent over the same period last year. Assets fell to 20.2 billion dollars from 21.6 billion dollars at the end of 2000.