Thursday, June 24, 2010

Uzbekistan eyes $ 55 bn investment by 2014 for economic growth

Uzbekistan plans investments totalling more than $ 55 bn by 2014 and expects to maintain annual economic growth in excess of 8 % after avoiding the worst of the global financial crisis, officials said. Uzbek Finance Minister Rustam Azimov said his government would welcome foreign investors to Central Asia's most populous nation, which holds large reserves of gas, oil and metals and says has kept annual inflation below 8 % in recent years.

"This year, we expect economic growth of 8.5 % and next year it will be 9.0 %," Azimov said during the Asian Development Bank's 43rd annual meeting in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. The government says 2009 growth was 8.1 %.

Uzbekistan's economy has been run along Soviet-style command lines by President Islam Karimov since the country gained its independence two decades ago. Officials say these policies have allowed the economy to withstand the global financial crisis.

"We never allow uncontrolled growth of the banking sector and the financial market," Azimov said.
Every investor who subsequently addressed the event thanked Karimov, who did not attend, for welcoming their company to Uzbekistan. One investor mentioned the president at least five times in his speech.

Uzbekistan, with a population of around 28 mm, ranks among the world's top 10 producers of gold and uranium. China and other Asian economies vie with Soviet-era master Russia for influence in a country that also borders Afghanistan.

First Deputy Economy Minister Galina Saidova told the meeting that Uzbekistan had a programme of investment projects worth $ 55.4 bn between 2009 and 2014. Oil and gas projects worth $ 15.3 bn, or 27.6 % of the total investment, were the largest contributor, followed by petrochemicals, with $ 12.1 bn or 21.8 %, she said.

Foreign firms are supplying some of this funding. Foreign direct investment accounted for 27.8 % of all investment into Uzbekistan in 2009, compared with only 5.3 % in 2002.

At a meeting where politics were off the agenda, Saidova reeled off a succession of impressive figures to an audience of several hundred at the ADB meeting's Uzbekistan Day seminar.

"Tight monetary policy has kept inflation at no more than 7 % to 8 %," she said. Official inflation in Uzbekistan was 7.4 % in 2009 and 7.8 % in 2008.

Industrial production has grown by an average 10.3 % annually over the past five years, she said, while small businesses -- those employing less than 100 people -- have grown to contribute slightly over half of GDP.

The state budget has been in surplus since 2005, Saidova said, while gold and foreign exchange reserves grew over six times in the last five years.

Foreign investors
Uzbekistan exported goods worth $ 11.8 bn in 2009 and ended the year with a trade surplus of $ 2.3 bn.

"The annual growth rate for exports over the last five years has averaged 19 %," Saidova said. Uzbekistan also secured $ 1.2 bn in loans from the Asian Development Bank in a deal that doubled the total amount it has borrowed from the bank since joining in 1995. ADB President Haruhiko Kuroda said the funds would support projects to supply electricity and a rail link to Afghanistan, as well as construction of a gas turbine southwest of Tashkent.

Auto makers are among the most visible foreign investors in Uzbekistan. Chevrolet cars that roll off the production line at the General Motors Uzbekistan joint venture are now ubiquitous on the streets of Tashkent.

Michele Arcamone, president and chief executive of GM Daewoo Auto and Technology Company, told the joint venture was making about 200,000 vehicles per year, which would soon rise to 250,000 vehicles after the launch of the new Spark model. German truck maker MAN plans to produce 700 units this year at its 49 %-owned joint venture in the city of Samarkand. This will rise to 1,150 units by 2013, said Per Gustav Nilsson, general director of MAN Automobiles.

Saidova said the tax regime had helped to encourage investment. Corporate income tax in Uzbekistan has fallen to 9 % from 35 %in 1998, while personal income tax has fallen to 11 %-22 % from 25 %-45 % in the same period.

"The aggregate tax burden has decreased almost three times since independence," she said.

Natural resources have also attracted some investors, such as Malaysian state oil and gas firm Petronas and LUKoil, Russia's largest non-state oil producer.

Eelasegeran Nadarajah, who heads the Petronas representative office in Uzbekistan, said the company was leading a $ 2-$ 3 bn project to build a plant that will convert gas into diesel, naphtha, jet kerosene and liquefied petroleum gas. It is also exploring on the former bed of the retreating Aral Sea in a five-way project with state-run Uzbekneftegaz, China National Petroleum Corp, Korea National Oil Corp and LUKoil.

CIA hires notorious Xe in Afghanistan

A report indicates that the US has hired a notorious private security contractor to guard its facilities in Afghanistan and elsewhere despite Washington's rejection of the claim.

An unnamed source told the Washington Post on Thursday the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) signed a USD 100 million contract with Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide.

"It's for protective services... guard services, in multiple regions," the source said.

According to the daily, two other security contractors, Triple Canopy and DynCorp International, put in losing bids for CIA's business.

The new contract was awarded after members of a federal commission investigating war-zone contractors blasted the US State Department for granting Xe a new USD 120 million contract to guard US consulates under construction in Afghanistan.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said that Xe personnel would not be involved in operations. "We've also made it clear that personnel from Xe do not serve with the CIA in any operational roles," he said.

Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Erik Prince, chairman of the board at Xe and owner of Prince Group, said the North Carolina-based firm had no comment.

The firm was thrown into the spotlight after a September 2007 incident in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, when its guards opened fire in a city square, allegedly killing 17 unarmed civilians and wounding 24 others.

Fashion show in Christian village outrages Muslims

Hamas figure calls event ‘immoral,' denounces PA for sponsorship and attendance.

A fashion show for Palestinian girls held this week in the Christian town of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority has drawn strong condemnations from Hamas and other Palestinian factions.

Sheikh Hamed Bittawi, a top Hamas political figure in the West Bank, condemned the show as "immoral" and said it violated Islamic values and laws.

Bittawi called it "unsuitable for a people that lives under occupation, has 12,000 prisoners [in Israeli prisons] and has sacrificed tens of thousands of people," and ruled that such events were considered by Islam to be a fahisha, or major sin.

He also condemned the PA government for allowing the event to take place and for sponsoring it.

The PA was represented at fashion show, which was part of a graduation ceremony for fashion designers, by Tourism Minister Kholoud Daibes. The event was also attended by Majeda al- Masri, minister for social welfare, and Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh.

Several other Hamas officials launched a scathing attack on PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad for supporting the fashion show, and accused them of spreading "moral corruption" in the West Bank.

A Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip noted that the show coincided with the Jerusalem Municipality's decision to demolish more than 20 Arab-owned houses in the city's Silwan section.

Late last year, the PA called off a Miss Palestine beauty contest that was supposed to be held in Ramallah following strong protests from Hamas and many Palestinians. About 60 young women were supposed to participate in the contest, half of them Israeli Arabs.

The women who appeared in the Beit Sahour fashion show did not wear swim suits or bikinis, but that did not prevent Hamas and many Palestinian groups and individuals from condemning the event as "morally corrupt." Palestinian Web sites have since been flooded with talkbacks denouncing the show and attacking both the PA and the Bethlehem- area Christian community for holding it.

"Wherever there are Christians there's moral decline," charged a reader from the Gaza Strip on one of the sites.

"Were it not for the presence of Muslims in Palestine, Palestine would have become like Paris - one big brothel."

Another reader from the Gaza Strip complained: "Shame on you Muslims and Christians in the West Bank. In the Gaza Strip we are sacrificing our best men [against Israel] while your daughters are appearing in such a disgraceful manner."

Writing in defense of the controversial show, a man who identified himself as Mohammed from Nablus barked at the critics in the Gaza Strip: "We forgot about the intifada and the martyrs. We left them to the people of the Gaza Strip; to hell with you and your intifada!"

Saudi's Shia Muslims mount campaign to win over suspicious Sunni

By Abeer Allam in Qatif
Aziza Abdullah had always regarded Saudi Arabia's Shia minority with suspicion and curiosity.

Like many Saudis, she considered the Shia, primarily present in the oil-rich Eastern province, as potential traitors, loyal to their brethren in Iran and busy plotting against Sunni Muslims. Many question whether the Shia, who comprise between 1.5m and 2m of Saudi Arabia's 25m people, are even Muslims at all.

So for Ms Abdullah, a visit to the largely Shia coastal region of Qatif was an eye-opening experience. She was surprised to learn that Saudi Shia speak Arabic not Farsi and revere the Koran, rather than "texts sent from Iran".

Ms Abdullah said: "My friends told me not to go, and said they might poison me. We hear all kinds of stories, but I wanted to see for myself and I think we are not that different.''

Ms Abdullah's visit to Qatif was organised by Shia activists seeking to challenge myths and stereotypes about their religious rituals and social norms.

Radical Shia and Sunni leaders often stoke sectarian isolationism, mainly to guard against conversion. Anti-Shia prejudice extends throughout the religious establishment, with publicly subsidised mosques, television shows and school textbooks used to decry the Shia as "heretics".

In particular, radical Wahhabi clerics suggest the Shia have a religious and political affiliation with Iran, the kingdom's key regional rival.

"The state still deals with the Shia as a security issue, not as citizens who have issues,'' says Mohamed Mahfouz, a Shia writer. "Iran has a regional political agenda and it is using a sectarian cover."

Saudi Shia note the irony that even though radical Sunni formed al-Qaeda, pledged to topple the royal family and carried out domestic terrorist attacks, the state questions the loyalty of the Shia.

Yet Saudi Shia say matters have improved since violent protests broke out in Eastern province in support of the Iranian revolution in 1979.

In 1993, most Shia opposition members returned to the Saudi kingdom after the late King Fahd promised to relax political restrictions in return for moderation.

As Crown Prince, King Abdullah began a "national dialogue" in 2003, partly to address Shia concerns. Shia leaders say access to jobs and education has expan-ded since then. Municipal elections in Qatif saw Shia victories, and the king has allowed open observance of the Shia festival of Ashura.

But many school textbooks still refer to Shia rituals as idolatrous, and Shia are banned from teaching religion, serving as general judges or holding senior military or security positions, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

Even after a broad reshuffle in February 2009, no Shia was given a senior ministerial, diplomatic or bureaucratic post.

"The government and the state media ignore us as if we do not exist,'' said Sheikh Fawzy Al-Saif, a Shia religious leader.

"We have more liberty than our parents but people do not feel grateful because the government grants rights unofficially and sporadically. People need to have a clear signal from the government that they are part of this country.''

Shia complain about the glacial pace of reform, but experts say King Abdullah, who is to visit the US for talks with Barack Obama, US president, on Tuesday, has to balance change with the hostility of the religious establishment.

Sheikh Hassan Al-Saffar, an eloquent Shia leader, advocates hope and non-violent resistance to discrimination. But young Saudi Shia, inspired by the growing power of their brethren in Iraq and Lebanon, wait in frustration for equality.

"Sheikh Hassan is a positive soft power who reins in Shia extremists,'' says a western observer in Riyadh, the capital. "But if the government does not give the community tangible rights, they will make him lose his credibility.''

Pakistan court again orders websites blocked

A Pakistani court ordered restrictions re-imposed on video sharing network YouTube and eight more websites blocked for showing material deemed offensive to Muslims, a lawyer said on Wednesday.

The other websites are Yahoo, MSN, Hotmail, Google, Islam Exposed, In The Name Of Allah, Amazon and Bing.

If enforced, all major web-based email services, every major search engine and the top shopping site on the Internet would be blocked in Pakistan.

" The court issued the orders after I placed blasphemous material recorded on compact discs from these websites before the court "

Latif ur RehmanAny representation of the Prophet Mohammad is deemed un-Islamic and blasphemous by Muslims, who constitute the overwhelming majority in Pakistan

A judge in the eastern city of Bahawalpur directed authorities on Tuesday to impose the latest restrictions because the sites contained "blasphemous material against Allah, Prophet Mohammad and the Quran", said Latif ur Rehman, a lawyer who filed the petition seeking the measures.

"The court issued the orders after I placed blasphemous material recorded on compact discs from these websites before the court," he told Reuters by telephone.

Rehman said the judge, Mazhar Iqbal Sidhu, ordered officials of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to appear before him with all "relevant records" on June 28.

"The Ministry of Information and Technology, through its secretary, is directed to issue direction to the chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority ... to block the websites mentioned," Rehman said, reading from the court's order.

A spokesman for PTA said they had not yet received any instructions from the government to block the sites. An official at the Information Technology ministry said they would comply with the court's written order once they received it.

"It's like blocking the highway, cutting Pakistan off from the rest of the world," Wahaj-us-Siraj, convener of Pakistan's Internet Service Provider Association, told Reuters.

"Such a decision should have been taken by a technical authority, not by a court which is not trained for that."

Last month, authorities acting on a court decision blocked social network Facebook, YouTube and several other sites for almost two weeks amid anger over a page that encouraged users to post images of the Prophet Mohammad to protest against threats made by a militant Muslim group.

Five people were killed in protests in Pakistan in 2006 over publication of cartoons deemed blasphemous by Muslims in Danish newspapers a year earlier.

King Abdullah unveils first Saudi-made car

RIYADH (AlArabiya)
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz unveiled Saudi Arabia's first car, which was manufactured by engineers at King Saud University (KSU) in Riyadh, the Saudi Arab News reported on Monday. The car is named Ghazal 1.

King Abdullah watched pictures of the various phases of the car's manufacturing before pressing an electronic button to mark its inauguration. He congratulated all those who worked to make the project a reality.

"What is achieved today is a clear proof of the ability of Saudi youth to make innovations and inventions ... if they are provided with adequate facilities and given opportunities," Saudi Higher Education Minister Khaled al-Anqari said, pointing out that students of the university's Faculty of Engineering had been working on the project for the last two years.

KSU President Abdullah al-Othman described the making of Ghazal 1 as a turning point in the Kingdom. "It also shows that we have capable people who can transform ideas into products of high economic value," he said. "This is a national strategic product and KSUholds its patent rights and intellectual property rights," he added.

Professor Said Darwish of KSU's industrial engineering department said the car model was based on tests of category development (wheelbase) in collaboration with several major companies such as Motorola, Mercedes and Magna Canada.

The students were given full freedom to design. Ghazal 1 is 4.8 meter-long with a width of about 1.9 meter.

"This car is designed for use on all roads and terrain, even in difficult conditions, while the car interior is designed to provide comfort for passengers," Darwish said.

He disclosed plans for the production of 20,000 cars annually. Ghazal 1 is a desert deer, which is one of the fastest animals that can combine elegance with life in a harsh environment.

UK says Iran gas pipeline Pakistan's internal matter

By Baqir Sajjad Syed
ISLAMABAD: Iran continued to dominate the political and diplomatic scene on Wednesday as Pakistan cautioned British Foreign Secretary William Hague that sanctions against the Gulf country beyond the ones mandated by the United Nations could have serious repercussions for Afghanistan and the Middle East.

The warning, Dawn has learnt, was conveyed by Pakistani diplomats during their talks with Mr Hague, who is in Pakistan on his first visit as foreign secretary.

According to Foreign Office sources, a significant part of the talks focussed on the latest UN sanctions on Iran and the subsequent efforts by the US and EU to take punitive measures against Tehran's oil and gas sector.

Pakistan had on June 14 finalised a $7.6 billion gas pipeline deal with Iran, which is considered crucial for averting the energy crisis Pakistan is currently confronting. "Mr Hague was told that the US and EU sanctions could prove counter-productive and may force Iran to react," a senior foreign ministry official informed Dawn.

Pakistan fears that a cornered Iran could affect the situation in Middle East and the peace and reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan.

According to the official, Mr Hague patiently listened to the Pakistani point of view.

Iran also figured at the press conference which followed the talks, though the guarded remarks of the British foreign secretary did not indicate that he had been won over by the persuasions of the Pakistan officials.

At the media briefing, which Mr Hague addressed with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi, he reiterated that Britain supported "the additional measures within the EU to increase peaceful and legitimate pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme".

His words merely offered the reassurance that Britain would not support use of force against Iran, in case anyone in the audience feared another military adventure by the West.

The only consolation that Mr Hague was willing to offer was to reiterate what US Special Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke had said days earlier that the pipeline was Islamabad's internal matter.

Mr Hague, too, clarified that his country would not interfere in the "sovereign decision of Pakistan (on the gas pipeline project)".

Diplomacy dominated the mood during the press conference as Mr Qureshi also weighed his words carefully while speaking on the issue.

According to him, the Iran-Pakistan pipeline was one of the options (for addressing the country's energy crisis) that was "doable and made perfect economic sense", though he added that Pakistan, being a responsible country, would fulfil its international obligations.

The fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran, tightening punitive measures against Iranian military, industrial and shipping firms, were last week followed by European Union restrictions that barred new investments and technical cooperation with Iran's oil and gas sector.

The European Union said its sanctions were necessary to force Tehran to resume negotiations over its controversial nuclear programme.

Separately, the US Senate is expected to vote this week on a bill barring energy and financial firms from doing business with Iran.

The US and EU contend that their additional restrictions were meant to compensate for the watered down version of Security Council resolution mandating the new restrictions. Russia, which backed the fourth round of UN sanctions in the Security Council, has also opposed additional US and EU punitive measures, saying they were unacceptable and weakened the foundations for dialogue and interaction.

Pakistan has all along supported a negotiated settlement of the dispute over Iran's nuclear programme. However, over the weekend, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani caused a mini-storm in the cup when he hinted that Pakistan would abide by US restrictions though he retracted his words a day later by saying the country would only abide by UN measures.

At the media briefing, the British foreign secretary made it clear that the new Conservative-Lib Dem government would continue to keep a safe distance from the messy relationship between India and Pakistan.

He said India was one of the countries with which Britain sought to elevate its ties because of the realisation that it was one of the fastest growing economies. But, at the same time, he said: "We want an equally strong relationship with Pakistan. We'll be sufficiently strong friends with both India and Pakistan to not to tell them how to resolve their bilateral problems and not to lecture them about those issues; so it is not for UK to lay down solutions for them."

Good news for Pakistani citizens followed Mr Hague's meeting with Prime Minister Gilani, where the former agreed to work with Pakistani authorities to resolve contentious issues in bilateral relations, including delays in visa issuance.

"It was agreed during the meeting that the British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and Pakistan's Minister of Interior in their meeting later in the afternoon would find ways and means to address contentious issues like expeditious issuance of visa to Pakistani nationals, curtailing the period of processing visa applications and issuance of visas to Pakistani businessmen by the British High Commission in Islamabad, directly, rather than forwarding their cases to the British regional hub in Abu Dhabi," a statement issued by the prime minister's office said.

The British foreign secretary told Mr Gilani that the new British government wanted a new momentum in Pak-UK relations by focussing on the areas of trade, investment and economic cooperation.

Mr Hague also met PML-N chief Mian Nawaz Sharif.

Mossad hit men targeted Erdogan

The Israeli intelligence agency Mossad has failed in an attempt to assassinate Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a Jordanian weekly says.

Informed sources in Turkey say that the Mossad plot has been foiled by the country's security forces, al-Manar quoted a report in the most recent edition of the Al-Majd weekly as saying.

There are also reports that Israel has been trying to incite violence inside Turkey by lending support to the militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Earlier in June, Sedat Laciner, the head of the International Strategic Research Organization - a Turkish think tank - said Mossad agents and Israeli military retirees had been sighted providing training to PKK militants in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Laciner said Tel Aviv does not have a positive perception of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, which is led by Erdogan.

After an Israeli attack on a Gaza-bound flotilla that leftnine Turkish citizens dead on May 31, Ankara drew up a roadmap to "completely" cut its ties with Israel.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul had earlier announced that a roadmap would be prepared on the issue of sanctions against Israel.

"The roadmap details a process through which Turkey will completely cut its ties with Israel" in several stages, Turkish daily Today's Zaman reported on June 17.

According to the roadmap, the first step would be that Turkey's ambassador to Tel Aviv, who had previously been recalled, would not be sent back unless Israel sends a member to a UN investigatory commission that aims to look into the Israeli attack on the Gaza-bound Freedom Flotilla.

The roadmap would also require all military training and cooperation with Israel to be halted and states that an internal Israeli inquiry into the attack would in no way be recognized by Turkey.

US Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal fired by Obama

The top US military commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, has been dismissed by President Barack Obama after critical comments about senior US officials in a magazine.

He will be replaced by Gen David Petraeus, who led the "surge" strategy in Iraq.

Mr Obama insisted it was "a change in personnel but not a change in policy".

Gen McChrystal said in a statement he had resigned out of a "desire to see the mission succeed".

The announcement that Gen McChrystal was standing down came after he had met Mr Obama at the White House on Wednesday to discuss the content of the Rolling Stone magazine article.

Mr Obama said he had made the decision to replace Gen McChrystal "with considerable regret" but added that he had failed to "meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general".

"I believe it is the right decision for our national security," Mr Obama said.

"I don't make this decision based on any difference in policy with General McChrystal... nor do I make this decision out of any sense of personal insult."

He said that the general's conduct "undermines the civilian control of the military that's at the core of our democratic system".

'Sincerest apology'

Gen McChrystal said in his statement: "I strongly support the president's strategy in Afghanistan and am deeply committed to our coalition forces, our partner nations, and the Afghan people.

Paul Adams,
BBC News, Washington

This was not a clash over strategy. In the now infamous Rolling Stone profile, Gen McChrystal did not question the policy he himself helped to devise.

But it was a matter of authority - in their dismissive remarks about members of the administration, Stanley McChrystal and his unnamed colleagues fatally compromised their relationship with the commander-in-chief.

Not to get rid of him would have looked like weakness.

If the past year has turned Gen McChrystal into something of a legend, then his replacement is an even bigger and more celebrated figure.

As the head of Central Command, David Petraeus is Gen McChrystal's boss. His military, diplomatic and political skills are hugely admired here in Washington.

"It was out of respect for this commitment - and a desire to see the mission succeed - that I tendered my resignation."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai had indicated he did not want Gen McChrystal replaced, describing him as the best commander in nine years of US military operations in Afghanistan.

Speaking after the announcement, a spokesman for Mr Karzai said: "General McChrystal was an important and trusted partner for the Afghan government and Afghan people and we hoped this wouldn't happen. However, this is an internal matter for the US government and we respect the decision of President Obama.

"We are looking forward to working with General Petraeus, a very experienced soldier, who President Karzai knows well."

The secretary general of Nato said the Western military alliance's Afghan war strategy remained unchanged after Gen McChrystal's replacement.

Gen McChrystal had quickly apologised for the magazine article, The Runaway General, written by freelance journalist Michael Hastings, extending his "sincerest apology" and saying it showed a lack of integrity.

"It was a mistake reflecting poor judgement and should never have happened," he said.

The wide-ranging article quoted Gen McChrystal and his aides openly criticising senior members of the Obama administration.

The officials included:
•Joe Biden. Gen McChrystal had mocked the vice-president when asked a question about him. "Are you asking about Vice-President Biden? Who's that?"

•Karl Eikenberry. Gen McChrystal said he felt "betrayed" by the US ambassador to Kabul during the long 2009 White House debate on troop requests for Afghanistan

•James Jones. One of Gen McChrystal's aides says the national security adviser is a "clown... stuck in 1985"

•Richard Holbrooke. Gen McChrystal says of an e-mail from the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan: "Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke... I don't even want to open it."
The article also appeared to be critical of the president himself.

Referring to a key Oval Office meeting with Mr Obama a year ago, an aide of Gen McChrystal says it was "a 10-minute photo-op".

"Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was... he didn't seem very engaged. The boss was pretty disappointed," the aide says.

Duncan Boothby, a special assistant to Gen McChrystal who organised the Rolling Stone journalist's access to the commander, has also resigned as a result of the article.