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Voices from the Arab press: What are the Syrian deposits in Lebanon?


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WHAT’S THE STORY OF THE SYRIAN DEPOSITS IN LEBANON?

Al-Joumhouria, Lebanon, July 21

Last week, Syrian President Bashar Assad blamed his country’s deteriorating economic situation on Lebanon by claiming that some $40 billion to $60 billion deposited by Syrian citizens in Lebanese bank accounts have been tied up. The accusation begs the question: Is it true that Syrian citizens hold such large deposits in Lebanon? 

A look at the data might reveal a different picture than the one painted by the Syrian regime. First, the total volume of deposits made by nonresidents in Lebanese banks before the financial crisis didn’t exceed $28 billion. Furthermore, Lebanese expatriates, who preferred to register their accounts under the nonresident category, have made a large portion of these deposits. Second, a look at the breakdown of nationalities to which these accounts belong reveals that the vast majority of them belong to individuals with Gulf and Iraqi passports, not Syrian ones. Finally, of those foreign accounts that do belong to Syrian nationals, it would be fair to assume that not all belong to regime officials. 

Indeed, the accounts are likely divided between Syrian citizens who opposed the Assad regime and therefore took their money outside of Syria with the onset of the civil war, and those who are associated with the regime who wanted to store their money in Lebanon for safety purposes. However, following the outbreak of Syrian war, the United States put the Central Bank of Syria on its blacklist, in addition to a number of Syrian figures affiliated with the regime. After it became clear that banks in Lebanon were committed to complying with the American sanctions, many of the accounts in the latter category were shut down, and the money stored in them was withdrawn. 

Therefore, there is no doubt that the Syrian accounts Assad spoke about actually belong to wealthy Syrian individuals who do not support the Assad regime and will therefore refuse to invest in Syria today. Indeed, most of them have chosen to target their investments in other countries, including Egypt and Turkey. Accordingly, it can be estimated that the Syrian money remaining in Lebanese bank accounts is far smaller than the amount cited by Assad and likely doesn’t exceed $5 billion. Any other allegation is simply baseless and untrue. – Antoine Farah

DIGITIZING THE HAJJ

Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, July 23

Saudi Arabia is witnessing a great leap at all levels in the process of organizing the hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, while hosting Muslims from all over the world to perform their sacred duty. 

Through the use of cutting-edge technology, Saudi authorities are enabling pilgrims to overcome many of the hurdles that used to be a part of the pilgrimage, while making access to the holy sites easier and smoother than ever before. Many different solutions have been implemented this hajj season, which is limited to 60,000 pilgrims due to the onset of COVID-19. One of the most helpful inventions is the Hajj Card: an electronic card that contains all of the pilgrim’s personal, medical and residential information and allows him to access the religious sites and facilities around Saudi Arabia. The card relies on NFC technology that enables the pilgrim to enter and exit different sites through self-service kiosks, without having to rely on local personnel or a tour guide. 

This year’s hajj season also saw the introduction of the Smart Bracelet, which will be distributed to and worn by 5,000 pilgrims. By scanning the bracelet, Saudi authorities can gain access to all relevant information pertaining to the pilgrim’s health status, including vaccination status and date of vaccine administration. Moreover, the bracelet tracks the pilgrim’s heart rate and oxygen level and can be used to request immediate medical assistance. 

In preparation for the hajj season, the kingdom also released an updated version of the Naqel mobile application, which allows visitors to book rides to and from holy sites, thereby making it easier for pilgrims – especially those with limited mobility or disabilities – to perform their religious duties. There is also the Al-Maqsad application, which allows pilgrims to search for any location inside the Grand Mosque through real-time GPS location. 

In order to facilitate the performance of rituals and to introduce pilgrims to the holy sites, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah launched the upgraded version of its Manasikana (Our Rituals) application for smartphones. The app is designed to educate pilgrims on the rituals of hajj while offering them a wide host of electronic services available in seven languages, including Arabic, English, French, Urdu, Turkish, Malay and Bengali. 

This extensive digitization of the hajj experience is not coincidental. Rather, it is a result of a direct plan to implement the kingdom’s Vision 2030, which seeks to improve and streamline the services offered to residents and visitors alike. It represents a new era of public service, in which everyone can gain easy and intuitive access to transportation, healthcare, education, employment and worship opportunities throughout the kingdom. – Mohammed Al-Hamza

THE BILLIONAIRES’ RACE FOR SPACE

Al-Arabiya, Saudi Arabia, July 22

Jeff Bezos’s journey to space took 10 minutes and 10 seconds and cost about $550 million per minute. The flight came only nine days after British billionaire Richard Branson took his own flight to space aboard a spacecraft designed by his company, Virgin Galactic. Billionaire Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and CEO of Tesla, also announced his upcoming plan to fly to space. 
 Jeff Bezos poses with crewmates in front of the rocket that launched him briefly into space, West Texas, July 2021 (photographer: JOE SKIPPER/REUTERS) Jeff Bezos poses with crewmates in front of the rocket that launched him briefly into space, West Texas, July 2021 (photographer: JOE SKIPPER/REUTERS)

Branson’s and Bezos’s trips onboard their spacecraft, designed by their respective companies, sparked wide interest and controversy. Of course, there were those who shared the two men’s sense of adventure and considered their flights a pivotal step in mankind’s progress toward space tourism. But there were also many voices who spoke up against the move and cited it as a waste of money that would have served a much worthier cause had it been spent on treating disease, hunger, poverty, or climate change, or funding scientific research and study. 

US Congressman Earl Blumenauer criticized the environmental impact of these space flights and demanded that Bezos’s and Bronson’s tickets be taxed the same way that regular airfare is taxed. Blumenauer said he would promote legislation that would impose a tax to offset the pollution caused by these flights, which are expected to increase over the next two years. 

Other critics claimed that the companies that made these two men billionaires and allowed them to take these trips, have evaded taxes and exploited their workers. Bezos’s Amazon generates hundreds of billions of dollars in revenues yet pays very little, or nothing, in taxes. For example, the tech giant generated sales income of €44 billion in Europe last year but didn’t pay business taxes on any of these earnings on the grounds that it posted losses. 

In America, too, the company faced criticism for not paying sufficient taxes in the past few years, and for two consecutive years, it has paid zero federal taxes to the US government. This led to an agreement last month between G7 states to impose taxes of no less than 15% on giant companies, a step directed mainly at companies like Amazon.

But this criticism is unlikely to prevent these billionaires from implementing their crazy ideas and fantasies of space travel. They look at things in a different way, and they have an adventurous spirit, which makes them talk with excessive confidence about their projects. Following his nearly 50-minute flight in space, Branson said, “We’re here to make space accessible to everyone, and we’re going to turn the next generation of dreamers into the next generation of astronauts.” 

But will these billionaires really put space within everyone’s reach? How many people can afford $250,000 or more for a ticket? Bezos, Branson, and Musk speak of space exploration as a potential solution for the disasters facing Earth. They’re promoting a wild fantasy of human settlement in space. But the question remains: What is easier and more realistic: escaping our problems by fleeing to outer space or addressing the crises we’ve caused on Earth and ensuring the survival of our planet? – Osman Mirghani

THE SAUDI-EMIRATI ALLIANCE AND ATTEMPTS TO WREAK HAVOC IN THE REGION

Al-Etihad, UAE, July 20

From time to time, allegations that promote a dispute, crisis, or tension between the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia come to the surface. 

Any follower of Gulf and Arab affairs realizes that there are many actors who seek to sabotage the Emirati-Saudi alliance. This alliance serves as the only stumbling block that stands in the way of Iran’s expansionist and conspiratorial project in the region. The regimes, states and terrorist organizations that try to wreak havoc around us would have undoubtedly succeeded in doing so had it not been for the vigilance and strength of the Emirati-Saudi alliance. 

The two sister countries are currently working to support international efforts aimed at restoring security and peace in all Arab countries. The truth is that, despite the efforts to undermine this alliance, the ties between UAE and Saudi Arabia are becoming stronger and tighter with each passing day. They are strengthened by close cooperation and security coordination, political dialogue, and ongoing consultation between members of both governments. 

This unshakeable bond was confirmed by His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, during his visit last week to Riyadh, where he said, “The partnership between the UAE and Saudi Arabia is growing stronger and stronger and continues to promote the common good for both countries and the region at large.” The growing strategic relations between the UAE and Saudi Arabia are based on solid and rooted foundations that consist of brotherhood, solidarity, a common destiny, respect, and mutual appreciation. 

The UAE is aware that the sisterly Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the main pillar of the region’s security, stability and safety due to its great weight and influence on the regional and international arenas. Therefore, the relations between the two countries were, are, and will continue to remain strong. The UAE and Saudi Arabia stand together with resilience and determination against the forces that threaten the security of the region. – Youssef Al-Haddad

Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.





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