27 August 2009

* Number of swine flu cases 'likely to be in thousands'

The number of people in Lebanon diagnosed with the A(H1N1) virus has risen to 600, Health Minister Mohammad Jawad Khalifeh said on Wednesday, adding the real number of cases was probably much higher. The real figure was likely closer to 2,000-3,000 but had not been diagnosed “because not everybody gets a laboratory test,” Khalifeh told reporters after a meeting with Education Minister Bahia Hariri to discuss swine flu prevention in schools. 
The minister said schools would still open as planned this fall, with teachers receiving training on general health and flu symptoms. 
“It is not possible to delay or cancel school terms and no one in the world has taken these measures,” Khalifeh said, although Kuwait on Tuesday decided to delay the opening of foreign schools by two weeks until September 13. “This is a disease we live with, like all countries,” he added. 
Khalifeh said the Health Ministry had joined with officials from the World Health Organization and doctors across the country to monitor and respond to any outbreak of the virus in schools. Maternity units would also be monitored, he said, adding health officials were not anticipating a major national outbreak. 
Rather than examining students during the first semester, school doctors will instead check students on their first day back, Hariri said. 
When asked about a state of panic among parents, Khalifeh said fear of swine flu was “exaggerated” in Lebanon. “The issue doesn’t stir up chaos in other countries such as the US, France or Britain,” Khalifeh said, adding Lebanon would “take all the necessary precautions without having to bring the country to a halt.” 
The Health Ministry has previously warned against swine flu hysteria, saying most patients with swine flu fully recovered without requiring treatment or hospitalization. Khalifeh has nonetheless advised the Lebanese to uphold rigorous standards of hygiene, to avoid greeting each other with the traditional three kisses, and to wash hands frequently. “We hope that no child will be sent to school if they show flu symptoms,” Hariri said. 

Khalifeh said that while other countries in the world had ceased to conduct laboratory tests for swine flu, Lebanon was continuing “for statistical purposes.” No further deaths from the virus have been reported after a young man died on July 30. Elias Antoine Nihmatallah, 20, from Sighar village in Batroun, was Lebanon’s first swine flu victim, but already suffered from poor health as a result of Lymphoma cancer. 
In July, Khalifeh said swine flu vaccinations were expected to arrive in Lebanon by November or December, when the minister believes dropping temperatures will lead to a spike in infections. Health experts have also said the virus could mutate as winter and the ordinary flu season begin. So far, however, no mutation has taken place, Khalifeh said. 
Over half of all swine flu fatalities worldwide have been among young adults, a survey published by Eurosurveillance, the monitoring arm of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, found this week. The study of 574 virus deaths in 28 countries also deduced that obesity or diabetes further increased likelihood of death. 
“Most deaths [51 percent] occurred in the age group of 20 to 49 year olds, but there is considerable variation depending on country or continent,” the survey said, adding that children and the elderly were not as vulnerable to the disease as originally reported. 
Swine flu has killed over 1,800 people out of 182,166 diagnosed infections in 177 countries and territories worldwide, the World Health Organization said in its last update on August 21. 
The UN agency declared the virus a pandemic in June. Lebanon reported its first three swine flu cases on May. The Health and Education Ministries will meet again next Monday to follow up on swine flu prevention measures in schools.


20 August 2009

* Sin city of the Middle East

From nudist beach parties and wild bashes hosted by the likes of Paris Hilton, to gay clubs, gambling and showgirls, Beirut is rapidly earning a reputation as the sin city of the Middle East.

Clubbers don't bat an eye in popping $1000 for a bottle of champagne to guarantee attention at a trendy nightspot, where less is more as far as women's wear is concerned, and fireworks displays regularly light up the skies.
Lebanon has seen it all: a bloody 1975-1990 civil war, military occupation, high-profile assassinations, and unending political instability.

Four years ago, Beirut's seaside Riviera Hotel saw an assassination attempt targeting a leading anti-Syrian minister. Today it is keeping the neighbourhood awake as partygoers drink and dance the night away.

"We have clubs in Cairo," said 26-year-old Wafiq, as he swayed to the beat on a hot August night holding a glass of whiskey and puffing on a Cuban cigar.
"But nothing beats this," said the Egyptian, a financial consultant. "I need to come here to unwind."

A record one million-plus tourists visited Lebanon last month alone, according to the tourism ministry, which is expecting more than two million tourists by the end of 2009, a figure roughly equivalent to half the country's population.
Many of those flocking to Beirut are Lebanese expatriates, but Arab nationals have also arrived en masse to take advantage of Lebanon's glamorous nightlife and glitzy shows like

"Hot Legs" at the Casino du Liban, featuring "striptease-style dances", according to the casino's website.

While Lebanon often flirts with the borderline of civil war -- sectarian strife in May 2008 resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people -- any sign of a political detente is quickly followed by a boom in tourism.
Sami, 30, flew in from Germany for a brief reprieve this summer, which he says turned out to be more exhausting than he had anticipated.

Nursing sunburn, he described how he had negotiated his way past scowling bouncers into Sky Bar, dubbed the hottest club in Beirut, before stopping at a 24-hour eatery for breakfast at 3:00 am and hitting the beach a few hours later.
-- 'I'm on three hours of sleep' --

"I'm on three hours of sleep," he said. "I had barely started on my coffee when I got to the beach and my friends threw my coffee away and replaced it with vodka in a plastic cup."
"It's pretty much been downhill since then," said the architect, grinning.
"This city is just so diverse," chimed in his girlfriend Yasmine, a 24-year-old graphic designer. "There's something for everyone. It's just one big non-stop party."
Prices for a bottle of champagne at some clubs run from $200 (A$243) to a staggering $15,000 ($18,250), but regulars at places like Palais Crystal -- modelled after the famed Palais Club in Cannes -- say it is worth it.

While Yasmine and Sami represent an emerging face of Beirut -- a hedonists' haven where spirits run as high as the heels -- others are less enthusiastic.
"It's really fun to go out and see all these people and enjoy the music, but I don't understand the hassle, having to reserve months in advance to go to the same places over and over again," said Rana, 28.

"It's as if this is some social obligation that you have to fulfill or you've committed the ultimate sin of not being 'in'," the Beirut-based stockbroker said.
Some Lebanese proudly retell the story of how during the devastating 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, the parties went on, merely relocating their venues to mainly Christian mountain suburbs like Faraya and Brummana.

"It was the same as in Beirut but in a cooler area -- I mean weather-wise," 28-year-old Rania said.

A doctoral candidate in New York, Rania made her reservations at her favourite clubs well before she even landed in Beirut.
But while some Lebanese believe the worst is over and their country has shed its reputation for political turbulence, 25-year-old Ziad, a Lebanese engineer based in Qatar, believes the summer of 2009 is merely a breathing space.

"I think they want us to have our summer before they get back to business," he said, referring to the country's rival factions.


* Resilient Lebanon Defies Odds In Face of Global Crisis

In mid-2008, few would have predicted that 2009 would be a good year for Lebanon.
But while many emerging market countries are deeply embroiled in the global economic crisis, the Lebanese economy could this year grow substantially faster than our recent conservative projection of 4 percent.

Twelve months ago, this rosy scenario seemed unlikely. A fragile national unity government was focusing mainly on maintaining short-term macroeconomic stability and preparing for parliamentary elections—which many saw a possible source of domestic violence—and was in no position to implement major reforms. Then the global financial crisis erupted, and the storm sent Lebanese Eurobond spreads briefly to above 1,200 basis points in October 2008.
With one of the highest government debt-to-GDP ratios in the world, a large and highly dollarized banking system with a significant exposure to the government, and a peg to the dollar, Lebanon has long looked highly vulnerable, and by the time the U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers failed, Lebanon seemed a prime candidate for a textbook emerging market financial crisis.

Economic resilience
But once more, Lebanon has mocked the doomsayers. Lebanon’s ongoing economic resilience bolstered the banking system, with deposit inflows now growing at nearly 20 percent annually (see Chart 1), and the central bank quickly accumulated international reserves, up 60 percent within a year to the equivalent of almost 70 percent of GDP.

While this resilience is remarkable, it is not the first time in recent years that Lebanon has defied the odds in the face of a severe shock. In 2005, former prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated, triggering civil unrest that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops. In 2006, Hezbollah engaged in a brief but bloody war with Israel. In 2007–08, the country was paralyzed by a political crisis that involved a Hezbollah tent city in downtown Beirut surrounded by armed soldiers, tanks, and barbed wire.

The country was left without a functioning parliament for more than a year. Brief but intense street fighting among opposing militias in May 2008 took the country to the brink of another civil war. And yet Lebanon managed to thrive, an astonishing resilience explained by a combination of structural and contingent factors.

At 160 percent of GDP, Lebanese government debt is staggering, but the government’s structural relationship with the commercial banks bolsters its financing (see Chart 2). Lebanese banks hold the lion’s share of the government’s debt, and have been able for years to increase their exposure thanks to remarkably stable deposit inflows, mostly from the large Lebanese diaspora and foreign investors—typically from the Persian Gulf.

Deposits are also attractive because of high returns made possible by the banks’ portfolio of high-yielding Lebanese government bonds, the professionalism of Lebanese bankers, and Lebanon’s excellent debt service record of no default, even during the civil war of 1975–90. In addition, in difficult times, the international community has helped Lebanon financially to avert crises, thereby also bolstering confidence in the Lebanese banking system.

Liquidity buffers
The banks’ exposure to government clearly increases the system’s structural vulnerabilities, but in the short term also acts as a stabilizing buffer for government financing. During some episodes of political turmoil, deposit withdrawals have been witnessed, even in significant amounts.

But a full-blown debt crisis was averted because banks could resort to their large liquidity buffers to hold on to government debt, and had every incentive to do so as their financial success is closely tied to that of the government. Compared with typical emerging market debt crises where an investor run triggers a downward spiral of government bond prices, this setup has helped soften the impact of confidence losses and has bought time for the situation to turn around and liquidity to resume.

The global crisis
Two additional factors came into play during the current global crisis. First, the crisis coincided with a sustained improvement in domestic security conditions. Following the street fighting in May 2008, a peace agreement brokered in Doha restored calm on the streets and paved the way for the formation of a new government and for parliament to reconvene.
While many observers saw a risk of renewed strife in the runup to parliamentary elections last June, the streets of Beirut have remained reasonably quiet, and many Lebanese are now hopeful that this momentum can be maintained through the critical period of the ongoing negotiations to form a new national unity government.

Looking at Beirut today, the contrast to the pre-Doha situation could not be more striking. Beirut is once again a vibrant city in which people move and spend freely. The tourism industry is quickly recovering from years of domestic security problems, and Arab visitors are now returning in spite of lower crude oil prices affecting many Arabs’ incomes.

Small export base
The second factor that plays relatively in favor of Lebanon lies in its economic structure and policies. The export base is small at 17 percent of GDP, so the downturn in exports as a result of the slump in global demand has not had a major impact on growth.
Remittances have been affected by the global downturn, but so far the negative effect has been small, as relatively few Lebanese expatriates have been laid off and returned home from the Gulf. Bank deposits continue to grow given attractive interest rates and the improved perception of Lebanese banks relative to their Western competitors since the Lehman failure.

Partnership with IMF
The IMF has maintained a close policy dialogue with the Lebanese government, providing policy advice and technical assistance tailored to Lebanon’s needs. Following the 2006 war, the IMF also became part of a concerted international effort to provide financial assistance to Lebanon. Last year, the IMF approved about $37.6 million in Emergency Post-Conflict Assistance (EPCA) to Lebanon in support of the authorities' economic program for 2008–09.
An additional $76.7 million in EPCA was provided to Lebanon in 2007. Lebanon’s IMF-supported program aims to further reduce the government debt-to-GDP ratio, build up the international reserve buffer, and start implementation of key reforms.

The way forward
While Lebanon has once more escaped what many saw as inevitable, there is no guarantee that the country will not fare worse one day if and when the next shock hits. Despite Lebanon’s success in recent years, the wrong set of circumstances could easily translate into severe financial troubles. Hence the case for a decisive reduction of Lebanon’s large vulnerabilities.

Reduction of public debt remains the top priority. This will require many years of sustained fiscal discipline, and will require fixing the electricity sector, a perennial drain on the budget. Maintaining the currency peg will be made easier over time by lower fiscal deficits and public debt.

To maintain financial stability, it is also important to safeguard the health of the large banking sector, by exercising particularly rigorous supervision. This would minimize the likelihood of shocks coming from the banks’ portfolio and the possible propagation to the public debt.


11 August 2009

* Summer friction with Israel

Officials from Hizballah and Israel have been exchanging hostile words recently. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak indicated that all of Lebanon would pay the price for any Hizballah transgressions against Israel. Hizballah representatives indicated that the guerrilla group is more than prepared for another confrontation with Israel, and is suspected of possessing over 40,000 rockets.

In 2006, Hizballah and Israel fought a destructive 34 day war that caused billions of dollars in damage and cost hundreds of lives, mostly Lebanese. Israel received a lot of criticism for targeting Lebanon’s infrastructure in areas outside of Hizballah control. However, Mr. Barak said that in 2006 Israel operated with restraint, but the next time they fought Hizballah, this would not be the case.

“What happened in the second Lebanon war will not happen again … at the time a message from the United States indicated we must spare Lebanon’s infrastructure,” he said.

According to Beirut’s Daily Star, “on Tuesday, Barak warned that Israel would not differentiate between the Lebanese government and military action carried out by Hizbullah. He called for the group to surrender its arms and accused the Lebanese Army of tacitly supporting its military operations.”

Hizballah has made strong political gains in Lebanon recently and it seems unlikely that they would risk another- possibly more devastating- engagement with Israel. Also, Lebanon has been spared from some of the more damaging aspects of the current financial crisis and its economy, particularly the banking and tourism sectors, continues to grow. It seems Hizballah has a lot to lose and little to gain from another war with their neighbors to the south.

The verbal hostilities between Israel and Hizballah come as US President Barack Obama is expected to release a comprehensive plan for stability in the region in the coming weeks. The sweeping plan is expected to involve multiple nations, not just Lebanon and Israel or Israel and Palestine. Many experts believe that any effective Middle East peace plan would require multilateral participation from everyone involved, including Egypt, Syria, Iran, and the Gulf states.

As tensions between Israel and Hizballah heat up this summer, it will be interesting to see how each proceeds. Israel clearly feels threatened by Hizballah, but an all out attack on Lebanon would be extremely costly politically, especially as President Obama has made it clear that long lasting stability in the Middle East is one of the cornerstones of his administration’s agenda.

President Obama is already “at odds” with the conservative government in Israel. Any move on Israel’s behalf that was percieved as overly agressive towards Lebanon would represent not just a break in US-Israel relations, but a chasm. For now, this confrontational rhetoric may be just poltical fodder for both sides, but it could escalate quickly if they are not careful.



* Lebanon army on alert after reported IDF build-up on border

Tension mounted Monday in southern Lebanon after Israeli forces reportedly advanced to the area of the Shaba farms, forcing the Lebanese army on alert, a Lebanese army source said.

The source said three armored Israeli vehicles, accompanied by a civilian car, advanced towards Shaba Farms, located at the junction of south-east Lebanon, south-west Syria and northern Israel.

Israel seized the 25-square-kilometre swath of land rich in water resources from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war when it captured the neighboring Golan Heights, which it later annexed. 
 Since then, the Shaba Farms have been caught in a tug-of-war between the three nations. Lebanon claims, with the backing of Syria, that Shaba is Lebanese. Meanwhile, Israel says the area is part of Syria and that their fate should be discussed in future peace talks with Israel.

The Lebanese army, stationed on its side of the border, has been placed on high alert, deploying tanks and positioning soldiers inside fortifications, the Lebanese military source added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday denied reports that tensions were increasing between Israel and Lebanon, but stressed that the government in Beirut would be seen as responsible for any attacks on Israeli targets, including attacks perpetrated by Hezbollah.

Hezbollah's official entry into the Lebanese government takes away any line between the state and the militant group with that regard, Netanyahu said. "The government of Lebanon cannot just say 'that's Hezbollah,' and hide behind them," said the prime minister. "The government of Lebanon is in power and responsible."

Netanyahu's comments came a day after the exchange of rhetoric between Hezbollah and Israel escalated further Sunday, as a senior official for the organization, Hashem Safi a-Din, predicted that the "war of 2006 will seem like a joke" next to Hezbollah's reaction if Israel should attack.

Deputy foreign minister Daniel Ayalon said in response that, "if one hair on the head of an Israeli representative or tourist is harmed, we will see Hezbollah as responsible and it will bear the most dire consequences."

Israel's northern border has seen a rise in tensions since mid-July, when an explosion occurred in a Hezbollah munitions dump in the south of Lebanon. Commenting on Israel Radio on the arrest of a group in Cairo suspected of plotting to assassinate Israel's ambassador to Egypt, Ayalon said that "we know it's not just Egypt ... we know that Hezbollah has tried and is trying to collect intelligence and to carry out some actions ... it has had its failures but it keeps trying. So it's important to put things on the table and send this warning to Lebanon, which is eventually responsible for Hezbollah, that it will also be responsible for any harm it may suffer if Israelis are targeted."

A-Din said that while Hezbollah was not interested in war, the organization was on alert and prepared for any eventuality, including conflict. He was commenting on Ehud Barak's statements last Wednesday, in which the defense minister said that Israel was "not ready to accept a situation in which a neighboring country has in its government and parliament a milita that has its own policy and 40,000 rockets aimed at Israel."

Ayalon hinted that the Israel defense establishment believes Hezbollah intends to carry out soon its revenge attack for the death of Imad Mughniyeh, a top commander in the organization, who was killed when his car was blown up in Damascus in early 2008. Hezbollah believes Israel to be responsible for the assassination, a claim that Israel denies. Defense sources said they believe the organization would be especially motivated to carry out an attack to compensate for the embarrassment caused by munitions dump explosion.

According to Defense Ministry warnings, tourists and Israeli representatives abroad are thought to be likely targets. A bomb attack on Israel's embassy in Baku was foiled by Azerbaijani security forces in 2008.

Other comments by Israeli officials, including a senior commander in the Israel Defense Forces' Northern Command, who told The Times of London last week that the northern border "could explode at any minute," appear to indicate that Israel was preparing for a scenario in which a Hezbollah attack against an Israeli target abroad provokes a forceful Israeli reaction and, possibly, a new war.

Defense sources said, however, they believed the Hezbollah would try and calibrate an attack that, while effective, will not be able to serve as a casus belli. They noted the organization has not yet recovered from damages suffered in the war in 2006.

Also in recent weeks, Lebanese civilians continued staging protests near the border. Two weeks ago, several Lebanese civilians briefly infiltrated the Shebaa Farms.

Despite the warnings, some 330,000 Israelis departed the country for holidays abroad in the first week of August, while hundreds of thousands more are expected to leave during the holiday season of September-October. Most Israeli tourists will be traveling to Western Europe, North America and the Far East. The most popular destinations are Turkey, France, Germany and Italy.

Tourism industry sources also indicated a recovery of travel to Sinai. The first week of August saw 40,000 Israelis passing through the Taba crossing to the peninsula and onward to Egypt. Last year, 50,000 travelers passed through the crossing during the entire month.

Oren Amir, of the Sinai Peninsula Hotels company, said that his company had reservations for hotels close to the Israeli border, but no bookings for hotels south of the Taba Heights compound.

Ofer Heilig, of Nofar travel agents, also reported increased interest in proper hotels in Sinai, which appear to be replacing the traditional beach huts. "We've learned from experience, all of us - Egyptians and Israelis. There's an extremely high level of security in the hotels today. You can't even come close to any of them in private vehicles," he said. "Also, Israelis booked at hotels are taken by special shuttles to their destinations, accompanied by security guards." 


07 August 2009

Israeli Tanks Upgrade

Israeli tanks drive along the Israel-Lebanon border after arriving from south Lebanon, in 2006.The Israeli army will begin equipping its tanks with a new anti-missile system, following stinging losses due to missiles fired by Hezbollah militants in the 2006 Lebanon war, officials said.

02 August 2009

* Jumblatt: Alliance with “March 14” was a Necessity and Must Be Terminated

And once again, the head of the “Democratic Gathering” MP Walid Jumblatt turns on his “temporary necessary alliance” and “alliances of yesterday” and launches a severe attack against the so-called “March 14” saying that the alliance with this bloc was driven by an urgent necessity yet it must not continue.   During his speech at the opening of the General Assembly of the Progressive Socialist Party’s conference (PSP).

01 August 2009

* New Naval Base in Jask

Iran’s Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habiballah Sayari in a ceremony held on Wednesday opened a new naval base in Jask. The new base is strategically located on Gulf of Oman near Strait of Hormuz.


* Lebanese Army Day

* Ghada Eid Surrounded for Apprehension

Pal: Judicial Police members surrounded New TV (al-Jadeed) in Beirut on Friday to arrest al-Fassad [Corruption] talk show presenter Ghada Eid.
Eid has a warrant for her arrest for slandering Judge Shaheed Salameh, following a verbal exchange on air over the assassination case of Nasri Marouni [Eid's cousin] in Zahle and following Salameh's decision to release those arrested in the case.

Police and security forces did not enter the television station while Eid was on the air.

However, the daily An-Nahar reported on Saturday that followed police procedures for entering into media stations are between the hours of 8:00 am to 5:00pm 


Pal: I guess Ghada eid spent the night at the tv station since if she leaves to home, they'll be able to arrest her.

Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.