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July 23 - 29, 2001

Jordan trade deal hits snag in US Congress

A landmark US-Jordan free trade deal hit a snag in Congress on Tuesday, as a prominent Republican senator threatened to block a vote on ratification, objecting to the pact's labor and environmental provisions.

Senator Phil Gramm of Texas said he could use procedural means to stop the bill from reaching the Senate floor as his amendment targeting the two clauses was voted down by the Senate Finance Committee.

Heated debate over Gramm's objections stalled plans for a vote, which would have sent the deal reached by the Clinton administration last year to the Senate floor for ratification.

The pact is seen as a model for future US free trade pacts, but that worries some Republican senators, as it is the first such deal to carry specific labor and environmental guarantees measures long sought by trade unions.

Gramm claimed the US-Jordan deal would allow an international dispute panel to adjudicate whether future US environmental and labor standards deteriorate and then allow Jordan to impose punitive sanctions.

Such a panel could preclude Congress from changing US law for instance, to authorise the opening of nature reserves for oil exploration and so dilute US sovereignty, he argued.

"I don't take a back seat to any living human being in my commitment to trade. I am for it," said Gramm.

"But we are in a situation where we could literally pass a portion of American sovereignty over lawmaking to an international tribunal." But Democrats say Gramm's objections are immaterial, arguing that the dispute panel provided for under the deal would be appointed only by Jordan and the United States and is therefore not a remote international body.

OPEC may cut supply

OPEC is considering cutting crude output again, its hand forced by a fall in oil prices and the deteriorating outlook for world oil demand, Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said Thursday.

The Saudi minister, OPEC's most influential, said cartel ministers were in contact and were "very serious" about new supply curbs before the group's next scheduled meeting at the end of September.

"The way prices are behaving and the way the projections are looking, we have no choice," Naimi said.

Oil prices rallied on the comments, with London Brent jumping 49 cents to $24.71 a barrel after eight straight days of losses. U.S. light crude was up 59 cents at $25.52 a barrel.

Brent remains nearly $5 below a mid-June peak, and OPEC's reference basket of crudes was valued Wednesday at $22.64, near the bottom of the group's preferred $22-to-$28 range.

On the defensive, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries thinks it might need to slice output for the third time this year to protect its central $25 a barrel price target.

A Saudi official said Wednesday that Riyadh believed something more than 500,000 barrels a day could be withdrawn to keep prices afloat.

"The Saudis have said they would do what's needed to support prices, and their track record over the past 2-1/2 years lends credence to these claims," said Adam Sieminski of Deutsche Bank.

OPEC has an informal agreement that output will be adjusted by 500,000 barrels per day if prices stray outside the $22-to-$28 range, but the Saudi camp is keen that ministers not be strictly bound by the mechanism, which has only been used once before.

Jordan approves controversial electoral law

Jordan's cabinet has approved a controversial election law ahead of an expected delay to November's parliamentary poll until next year, officials said on Wednesday.

They said the cabinet approved the amended legislation, which leaves intact an electoral system unpopular with the powerful Islamist opposition, on Tuesday night and submitted it to King Abdullah to enact as law.

Jordan's political scene has over the last few months been rife with speculation about the fate of the November election, the fourth since Jordan revived parliamentary life in 1989 in the wake of civil unrest.

Senior officials say the monarch will announce in the next few days a delay to the next four-year parliamentary term by up to one year.

Saudi, Bahrain suspend imports of Asian soya

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday suspended imports of soya sauce products from five Asian countries over reports that it could contain carcinogenic substances.

The commerce ministry also ordered the withdrawal from local markets of all soya sauce products from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand until samples had been tested in government laboratories.

The ministry was acting on reports that soya sauce from those countries contained high per centages of a chemical substance, Mepd-3, which is known to be carcinogenic.

Similar fears caused Bahrain's health ministry to announce a similar ban on soya products from Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand late Monday.

The Gulf Cooperation Council Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates suspended imports of Spanish olive oil earlier this month over fears it contained a carcinogenic substance called benzopyrene.

Oil price to slip to $21

World oil prices are set to fall to 21 dollars per barrel on average in the autumn, a key OPEC official told the Austrian daily Kurier on Monday.

"The price of oil is undoubtedly under pressure and could slip to 21-22 dollars in the autumn," said Shokri Ghanem, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) deputy secretary general.

Oil prices fell heavily late last week, slipping below 25 dollars a barrel for the first time since early April, as market reacted to a slump in US demand and the resumption of Iraqi exports, suspended for five weeks due to a row over proposed modifications of UN sanctions against Baghdad.

OPEC`s benchmark average price of seven world crude blends, to which Ghanem was referring in his price forecast, stood at 23.53 according to OPEC calculations on Monday.

The 11-member oil-producing organisation held two meetings in quick succession in June and July to respond to the Iraqi oil suspension, but left its output levels unchanged at both meetings.

Palestinian woman, two children injured

A Palestinian woman and her two children were injured in a West Bank village on Wednesday when an Israeli personnel carrier slammed into her house, witnesses said.

They said Israeli troops were moving through Abu Nujeim, which is under Palestinian control, when the carrier hit the house, pieces of which fell on the woman and children.

The Israeli army beefed up its presence in the West Bank overnight after two mortar bombs were fired from the West Bank on Jerusalem, the first such incident since the Palestinian Intifada against Israeli occupation began more than 10 months ago.

The mortar bombs were fired after four Palestinians were killed in an Israeli helicopter strike on Bethlehem Tuesday that the Palestinian Authority said amounted to an act of war.

Assad must shed old guard

A prominent Syrian dissident on Monday said President Bashar Al-Assad needed to break free of old guard powerbrokers loyal to his late father and give rein to his reformist beliefs.

Nizar Nayyouf, a journalist released in May after nine years in jail in Syria, said the 35-year-old leader remained under the influence of hardliners loyal to Hafez Al-Assad.

"Assad can be considered as weaker and more susceptible to pressure," Nayyouf said through a translator at a news conference in Paris, where he arrived on Sunday for medical treatment.

"I still maintain there is a chance to get out of this situation if he appeals to Syrian public opinion and if he rids himself of the old guard, which restricts his movements."

Moroccan rights groups ask CIA to open files

Two Moroccan independent human rights groups asked the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on Tuesday to release files related to Morocco's alleged repression of political dissidents over the past decades.

The groups AMDH and OMDH, in an open letter addressed to President George W. Bush, said information revealed by a Moroccan former secret agent showed the CIA had a hand in what has become known in Morocco as the country's "dark past."

The agent, Ahmed Boukhari, told France's Le Monde newspaper and the Moroccan weekly Le Journal of the circumstances surrounding the death of Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka in Paris in 1965 and specifically mentioned the CIA.

Saddam invites Kurds

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invited Kurdish rebel foes on Sunday to open dialogue with Baghdad, Iraqi state-run television said.

"We want any solution with as few losses as possible, when the solution is among our people," the television quoted Saddam as saying.

The remote mountainous enclave of northern Iraq, controlled by two rival Iraqi Kurdish groups, has been outside Baghdad's control since the end of the 1991 Gulf War to end its occupation of Kuwait.

US and British jets patrol no-fly zones set up after the expulsion of Iraqi troops from Kuwait to protect Kurd dissidents in northern Iraq from attack by Baghdad forces.

Arab Bank H1 net profit up 11.85%

Arab Bank Group's net profit increased by 11.85 per cent in the first half of this year to $167.184 million compared to $149.468 million in the same period last year, the bank said on Tuesday.

Jordan's leading bank and one of the Middle East's largest financial institutions said in a statement that its pre-tax profits rose by 13.3 per cent to $208.085 million compared to $183.612 in the same period last year.

Iraq gives priority to Russia, Syria in import contracts

Iraq will give priority to Russia and Syria in import contracts under the UN oil-for-food programme rather than France which has won the lion's share of deals since 1996, an Iraqi official said Sunday.

"Iraq will intensify (commercial) ties with friendly countries, notably Russia and Syria, for having supported Iraq" in opposing US and British proposals to impose "smart" sanctions on Baghdad, the official told AFP.

The official, asking not to be named, said priority would in future also go to Jordan, Egypt and Malaysia.

On July 4, the UN Security Council extended the oil-for-food deal for five months after shelving plans to impose the revised sanctions proposed by Washington and London due to Russian opposition.

Egypt's Orascom wins Algerian phone license

Egypt's mobile phone company, Orascom Telecom (OT), has landed the second license to install a mobile phone grid in Algeria with a 737-million-dollar bid, the company announced in a statement Saturday.

OT is expected to set up and operate the country's second mobile phone network within six months, the company said.

Orascom Telecom Algeria is a company with 51 per cent of the stock owned by OT.

Mashreq bank

Following the success of MashreqInvestments series products in the last few months, Mashreqbank is launching (Saturday 14 July) another capital guaranteed investment fund that offers an unprecedented minimum return of 15 per cent at maturity, and also the possibility of higher returns linked to the performance of the US, UK & European stock markets.

Iran takes its time over Caspian carve up

Others may be rushing to carve up the Caspian Sea's resources, but Iran is biding its time as it seeks to maximise its stake in the energy-rich region and win business as a transit route for oil and gas, analysts say.

They say Iran has been a stubborn negotiator in talks with Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan as the debate about dividing up the area has rumbled on between the five littoral states.

Yet, analysts say Iran's resolve had yet to be tested by any increased pressure from Russia, which is keen to secure investment in the area, while its aims to be a key oil and gas export route have been hampered by US sanctions.

Iran, already one of the world's biggest oil producers, has been slow to join the race to develop the Caspian, while Western oil majors have pumped in investment elsewhere on the coast.

Kuwaiti bourse surges, Lebanon's BLOM down

Kuwait's bourse surged 3.2 per cent higher and a recovery in Oman stalled on profit-taking in a negative week for most Arab stock markets, Bakheet Financial Advisors (BFA) reported Saturday.

The KSE in Kuwait closed on 1,761.20 points, its highest level in two and a half years, driven by high liquidity and strong financial results for the first six months of 2001.

The Kuwaiti bourse is the best performer in the Arab world so far this year, notching up gains of 29.6 per cent since the end of December, said the Riyadh-based BFA.

The biggest loser of the work was the BLOM index in Lebanon which fell 2.9 per cent to 479.24 points, as market leader Solidere in charge of Beirut's reconstruction lost 4.7 per cent.