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Feb 26 -Mar 04, 2001

Syria, Saudi sign sign free trade accord

Saudi Arabia and Syria signed an accord Tuesday to set up a free trade area between the two countries, the official SANA news agency reported.

The deal, signed by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal and his Syrian counterpart, Faruq Al-Shara, envisions the agreement coming into force on January 1, 2003. SANA said.

Syria has already signed free trade accords with several Arab countries, most recently with Iraq in late January.

A joint statement said afterwards that the accord will provide reciprocal exemption from customs duties and all other taxes goods produced in Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Syrian Economy and Foreign Trade Minister Mohammed Al-Imadi told journalists that the accord would also result in an increase in joint investments, cultural and tourism exchanges and "open up the possibility of a common market."

For his part, Rateb Shallah, president of the Syrian union of chambers of commerce, said the deal would cut tariffs immediately by half, dropping them to zero in 2003.

A meeting of the Saudi-Syrian commission, to be co-chaired by Shara and Prince Saud, was also to discuss agreements to facilitate road transport, and cooperation in agriculture, tourism, oil and banking, Syrian Vice Minister for Economy and Foreign Trade Shebli Abu Fakher said.

He said the agreement will increase significantly bilateral trade, which stood at 300 million dollars in 1999.

Syria exports food and textiles to Saudi Arabia and imports petroleum and petrochemical products.

The government newspaper Syria Times last week said the joint commission would also discuss joint industrial projects worth 800 million dollars to be set up in Syria.

US, British jets attack sites in northern Iraq

US and British warplanes attacked Iraqi air defences in a northern "no fly" zone on Thursday, the first such raids since they struck radar and communications sites near Baghdad last week, the US military said.

The raids, which the US European Command said were launched in response to Iraqi anti-aircraft fire and radar targeting near Mosul, came as Washington and London struggled under criticism around the world to develop a new policy toward Baghdad.

All aircraft returned safely to their base in Turkey following Thursday's raids, the European Command claimed.

US and British jets, which have repeatedly attacked sites in no-fly zones of northern and southern Iraq over the past decade, last Friday targeted some 25 air defence targets outside of the southern zone near Baghdad in an attempt to disrupt the effectiveness of improving Iraqi defences.

But Pentagon and Navy officials on Thursday said fewer than half of US "smart" bombs launched from afar struck their targets in that raid.

Meanwhile, the United States and Britain, the only members of the 1991 Gulf War alliance still militarily engaged against Iraq, are leading a search for "smart sanctions" that would avoid the shortcomings of a punishing system put in place when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

US and British officials met in Washington on Wednesday as part of consultations on a new approach to sanctions. That meeting came ahead of a visit by British Prime Minister Tony Blair for talks with President George W. Bush.

Their dilemma is to find an approach that stops the Iraqi government from developing weapons of mass destruction while allaying concerns voiced by critical Arab countries and many European allies that Iraqis are short of food and medicine.

Islamic leaders to forge ahead with economic bloc

Leaders from eight developing Muslim countries are to gather in Egypt Sunday for a summit aimed at promoting trade, economic and technological cooperation in their grouping of 800 million people.

Spanning Africa, Asia and Europe, the so-called D-8 group comprises Egypt, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan as well as Turkey, which has one foot in Europe.

"We just want to share our experience. We want to make trade partnerships," Imtiaz Ahmed, counsellor at the Bangladeshi embassy in Cairo, told AFP when asked about the goals of the one-day summit.

Since the last summit was held in Dhaka in 1999, Bangladesh and its prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, have had the task of organizing the gathering in Cairo, preceded by a foreign ministers meeting.

The D-8's goal is to forge ahead with building an economic bloc through reducing trade barriers, enhancing cooperation in trade and economics, technical assistance, as well as alleviating poverty, Ahmed said.

OPEC faces an unfamiliar challenge

New political alliances are helping oil cartel OPEC reap successes which eluded it for most of its stormy 40-year history.

There was the time its ministers were kidnapped by Carlos the Jackal in Vienna. Bitter wars were fought between Iraq and its neighbours Iran and then Kuwait.

It survived these crises although years of cheating on its self-imposed production quotas and squabbling over output capacity left it powerless to control the volatile oil market.

Now OPEC faces an unfamiliar challenge — managing success.

Founded in 1960, the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries aimed to defend the price of crude. With prices double those of a slump in 1998, it appears OPEC is finally delivering.

"OPEC has had a good run over the last two years. They have cracked it," said Mike Barry of London's Energy Market Consultants.

IDB gives $19 mln

The Islamic Development Bank (IDB) has approved $19 million in aid for Palestinians facing economic hardships under a four-month-old uprising against Israeli occupation.

The IDB said in a statement received by Reuters on Tuesday that the funds were part of $300 million in financing approved by a meeting of the bank's council of executive directors in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea city of Jeddah on Monday.

The statement said the council approved $19 million "in grants and loans with no interest for the benefit of the Palestinian people in support of its blessed Intifada (uprising) against the Zionist usurpers".

The council also authorised bank president, Ahmed Mohammed Ali, to approve projects worth up to $10 million from a $55-million package allocated to Palestinians in November in support of the uprising, the statement added.

Egypt budgetary pressures may spill gas into Israel

Foreign firms in Egypt can sell gas to whoever they please, Egyptian Oil Minister Sameh Fahmi said on Monday when quizzed over recent contradictory reports on a possible agreement to sell Egyptian gas to Israel.

"Yes of course they have the right to sell the gas to anybody," he told Reuters when asked if there was a possibility that foreign firms might sell Egyptian gas to Israel.

"According to the concessions, this gas is their gas and they can sell it to anybody they want to," he added.

But the minister, who had been attending a presentation by BG International, part of British gas giant BG Group, at its processing plant at Idku near the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, gave no details of the identity of any party that might be in talks with Israel over the sale of Egyptian gas.

Asked about a report last month stating that an agreement had already been sealed, Fahmi merely asked where the report had come from and then suggested asking that party about the report.

Bahrain grants nationality

Bahrain is to grant nationality to a first batch of more than 1,000 stateless inhabitants of the Gulf Arab country, newspapers reported on Wednesday.

The prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa, ordered the interior ministry to issue more than 1,000 Bahraini passports, "as a first batch to be followed by others in the near future," the reports said.

Syria: Democracy but with conditions

Syria's vice-president, speaking a day after the effective suspension of outspoken civil forums, said on Monday the country would preserve freedom of opinion but without harming stability and unity, officials said.

Vice-President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, speaking at a meeting with the leaders of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, led by its chief Joubran Oraijey, said democracy should protect the nation and its foundations rather than harm them.

Participants in the forums, set up under young President Bashar Al-Assad's political reforms, have called for greater democracy, the suspension of almost four decades of martial law and the end of the ruling Baath party's domination of power.

Bahrainis to invest in Syria

Bahraini businessmen are in discussions with Syrian officials on investment proposals worth $2 billion, including an aluminium smelter and a private bank, a senior Syrian official said on Monday.

Mohammad Sarakbi, director of the Syrian investment office, said mining sector projects under discussion included a $1.3 billion aluminium smelter with an attached electricity generation unit.

Bahraini investors were also seeking to open a private bank with Syrian partners after a recent government decision by the Syrian authorities to permit private banks in Syria after nearly four decades of state monopoly of the banking sector.

Saudi unemployment set to rise to 15%

Unemployment among Saudi males is set to rise to 15 per cent this year, challenging the oil-rich kingdom's economy, a leading bank said in a report issued on Monday.

"We estimate that unemployment among Saudi males stands at 14 per cent," said the Saudi American Bank (Samba) report drawn up by its chief economist Brad Bourland, who predicted a one-per cent increase in 2001.

Germany up bid

Germany is stepping up its bid for the Middle East hardware market, currently estimated to be growing at around three per cent a year, with a bigger-than-ever planned export drive at the sector's main regional trade showcase — Hardware & Tools.

Under the umbrella of the Dusseldorf-based Association of Iron, Sheet Metal and Metalprocessing Industries (EBM), Germany will mount a 500 square metre pavilion at the show, which will be held at the Dubai World Trade Centre from March 19-22.

Kuwait fund resumes Yemen aid

Yemen said on Sunday that a Kuwaiti fund will resume its financial aid to the impoverished Arab state after a 12-year freeze over differences during the 1990-91 Gulf crisis.

The official Saba news agency said Yemen and the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KFAED), Kuwait's main lending arm, also signed a memorandum of understanding to reschedule loans worth 44 million Kuwaiti dinars ($143.6 million).

A Yemeni official told Reuters that Yemen and the Kuwait-based Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development signed an agreement on Sunday on a 28-million dinar soft loan to expand Sanaa airport. He did not give the terms of the loan.

Bahrain abolishes emergency laws

Bahrain's Amir, Sheikh Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, on Sunday abolished the emergency laws in force in the Gulf state for more than 25 years, the official news agency GNA reported.

Under a decree, the ministries of justice and Islamic affairs as well as the interior ministry were ordered to implement the new law abolishing the state security court and the state security law, it said.

AI calls on Israel to stop killing Palestinians

The Amnesty International on Tuesday condemned Israel's policy of killing Palestinians suspected of plotting against its troops as "state assassination".

In a report drafted after a visit to the region by its delegates, Amnesty International called on the Israeli army to stop killing Palestinians in cold blood and to investigate "all unlawful killings" of Palestinians.

The report also alleged that troops were "reckless" in the methods used to kill or detain suspects, often using "disproportionate force" which endangered the lives of bystanders.

It claimed that a total of six Palestinians had been killed when they were hit by stray gunfire during arrests by Israeli troops.

Oil prices

The price of oil drifted lower on Tuesday despite growing signs that the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) may be planning another output cutback.

A barrel of Brent North Sea crude for April delivery fell back six cents to $27.25 in early trading. The New York market was closed on Monday, and March light sweet crude futures remained at $29.13 a barrel. London futures rose slightly on Monday after the US-British raids on Iraqi sites near Baghdad that prompted mild concerns of a regional stand-off drawing in other Arab oil exporters.