People worth paying attention to

Saudis angrily attack US Senate vote against Crown Prince as ‘Blatant Interference’

Juan Cole - 1 hour 29 min ago

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia | AFP | –

Saudi Arabia on Monday slammed as “interference” US Senate resolutions over its war in Yemen and critic Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, warning that the move could have repercussions on its strategic ties with Washington.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted on Thursday to end American military support for a Riyadh-led war in Yemen, and separately held Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for Khashoggi’s killing.

The largely symbolic vote dealt a fresh warning to President Donald Trump, who has staunchly backed the Saudi regime in the face of intense global outrage that analysts say has left the kingdom diplomatically weakened.

“The kingdom condemns the latest position of the US Senate that was based on unsubstantiated allegations and rejects the blatant interference in its internal affairs,” the foreign ministry said in a statement released by the official Saudi Press Agency.

On the Yemen measure, which more broadly attacks the president’s prerogative to launch military action, 49 Democrats or their allies voted in favour, along with seven Republicans, while another three Republicans abstained.

The Senate also approved a resolution condemning Khashoggi’s murder and calling Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, “responsible” for it.

The Saudi ministry warned that the kingdom would not tolerate any “disrespect” of its rulers.

“This position by the US Senate sends the wrong messages to all those who want to cause a rift in Saudi-US relationship,” the ministry said.

“The kingdom hopes that it is not drawn into domestic political debates in the US to avoid any… significant negative impact on this important strategic relationship.”

– ‘Vulnerable to pressure’ –

A day after the Senate vote, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo again defended US ties with Saudi Arabia on national security grounds, saying the kingdom was a bulwark against common foe Iran.

The Senate resolution acknowledged the US-Saudi ties were “important” but called on Riyadh to “moderate its increasingly erratic foreign policy”.

“Prince Mohammed and Saudi Arabia, even prior to introduction of the Senate resolution, were discovering that the Khashoggi killing had weakened the kingdom internationally and had made it more vulnerable to pressure,” said James Dorsey, a Middle East expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

The resolutions cannot be debated in the House of Representatives before January, and would likely be vetoed in any case by Trump.

But the Senate votes send a strong message to the White House over anger on both sides of the aisle towards Riyadh.

Khashoggi, a Saudi contributor to the Washington Post, was killed on October 2 shortly after entering the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in what Riyadh called a “rogue” operation.

The murder has tarnished Riyadh’s international reputation, and Western countries including the United States, France and Canada have placed sanctions on nearly 20 Saudi nationals.

UN chief Antonio Guterres on Sunday called for a “credible” probe into the murder.

Anger at the human cost of the war in Yemen has also prompted a harder line in Congress about the US military’s role in backing Saudi-led coalition strikes against Huthi rebels.

Since the coalition launched its campaign in 2015, the conflict has killed nearly 10,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. But some rights groups believe the toll to be far higher.

© Agence France-Presse

Featured Photo: “A handout picture provided by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) on December 9, 2018, shows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman looking on during the meeting at the Diriya Palace in the Saudi capital Riyadh during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit. Bandar AL-JALOUD / SPA / AFP.

How the Right missed the Real Globalist Conspiracy, of Big Oil to Heat the Planet

Juan Cole - 1 hour 43 min ago

( – You know the story: the globalists want your guns. They want your democracy. They’re hovering just beyond the horizon in those black helicopters. They control the media and Wall Street. They’ve burrowed into a deep state that stretches like a vast tectonic plate beneath America’s fragile government institutions. They want to replace the United States with the United Nations, erase national borders, and create one huge, malevolent international order.

The only thing that stands in their way is — take your pick — the Second Amendment, Twitter, or Donald Trump.

Conspiracy theorists have, in fact, been warning about just such a New World Order for decades, going all the way back to the isolationist critics of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and to fears about the United Nations in the post-World War II moment. During the Cold War, the John Birch Society and fringe elements of the Republican Party nurtured just such anti-globalist sentiments, but they never made much headway in the mainstream world. As the Cold War ended, however, the anti-globalist virus began to spread again, this time more rapidly, and it’s threatening to become a pandemic.

The Agenda 21 Dystopia

On September 11, 1990, just after Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait and just before the reunification of Germany, George H.W. Bush spoke of a “new world order” that would unite all countries in defense of the rule of law and thwart the Iraqi autocrat’s regional ambitions. The phrase was meant as a rallying cry, not an actual plan, but that didn’t stop the president’s America First critics from reading all manner of mayhem into his speech.

The elder Bush, who had long toiled in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, was in some ways a curious target for those who feared the end of U.S. sovereignty. As recent posthumous assessments revealed, he was an early champion of states’ rights (against civil rights), supported prayer in school and the NRA, made a U-turn as a presidential candidate to oppose abortion, launched wars in Panama and the Persian Gulf, and presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union. Anti-globalists, however, focused on a different part of Bush’s résumé: he’d gone to Yale, later belonged to a wealthy elite of Texas oil barons, served as ambassador to the United Nations, and was a card-carrying member of both the Council on Foreign Relations and that most elite of global agenda-setting outfits, the Trilateral Commission.

Such characteristics made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from the far right. Preacher Pat Robertson, for instance, disliked Bush’s staid Episcopalianism and resented losing to the future president in the 1988 Republican primaries. In his 1991 bestseller, The New World Order, Robertson refocused all his ire on the president’s presumed global ambitions. “Is George Bush merely an idealist or are there now plans underway to merge the interests of the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the United Nations?” he asked rhetorically and then, of course, provided the answer:

“A single thread runs from the White House to the State Department to the Council on Foreign Relations to the Trilateral Commission to secret societies to extreme New Agers. There must be a new world order… There must be world government, a world police force, world courts, world banking and currency, and a world elite in charge of it all.”

Though that 1991 book is largely forgotten, the televangelist’s attacks on Bush’s “globalism” resurfaced again and again in different forms. Beginning in 1994, for instance, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series spun Robertson’s dire predictions of a one-world government into 16 novels and several dreadful movies. Just to ensure that readers wouldn’t miss their point, they even installed the anti-Christ as the head of the United Nations. More recently, Donald Trump’s attacks on Hillary Clinton’s elitism echoed some of the very themes Robertson had sounded almost three decades earlier.

Oddly, though, Bush and Robertson agreed on one thing, on which they even found common ground with former Vice President Al Gore: the importance of addressing climate change.

As president, Bush pushed a number of environmental initiatives related to air quality, ozone depletion, and climate change more generally. In 1992, his administration even endorsed a tepid “action plan,” Agenda 21, that came out of that year’s global environmental meeting in Rio de Janeiro. In reality, it was just another of an endless stream of documents produced by such environmental conferences. For some Americans, however, those two words came to evoke the most terrifying aspect of the Bush era, proof positive that he was covertly constructing the very New World Order that he had invoked.

Perhaps the leading proponent of Agenda 21 conspiracy theories has been TV and radio personality Glenn Beck. In 2012, he even published a dystopian novel called (you won’t be surprised to learn) Agenda 21. In it, he and co-author Harriet Parke fingered environmentalists as the true agents of the coming apocalypse and issued dire warnings about climate change becoming the lever a future global authority would use to eradicate national sovereignty and enslave Americans to a collective vision. “Just a generation ago, this place was called America,” Beck and Parke wrote. “Now, after the worldwide implementation of a UN-led program called Agenda 21, it’s simply known as ‘the Republic.’ There is no president. No Congress. No Supreme Court. No freedom.”

Once you start looking for Agenda 21, it pops up in all sorts of strange places. Newt Gingrich ran for president in 2012 with a pledge to rescind the “plan.” Ted Cruz linked it to — you guessed it — George Soros and warned that its implementation would deprive Americans of their right to play golf (no joke). Most recently, YouTube and Twitter have lit up with contrived reports that Agenda 21, not climate change, was somehow responsible for the latest California wildfires.

And here’s the truly bizarre part: while Glenn Beck, Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, and the rest of them were nattering on about an obscure, non-binding U.N. document, they were missing the real story. A nightmarish New World Order was indeed being constructed around them. It’s global, malevolent, aimed at destroying ever more American lives, and — according to a recent Trump administration report — getting worse by the minute.

The Real New World Order

A significant number of Americans believe that they’re still relatively safe behind the walls of Donald Trump’s Fortress America. Homeland Security protects them from international terrorists. Border patrol agents block caravans of refugees and asylum-seekers. By refusing to ratify membership in institutions like the International Criminal Court, Congress keeps the U.S. safe from foreign influences. President Trump has only reinforced such feelings by pulling the United States out of international pacts like the Paris climate accord and global bodies like the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Because the world keeps knocking on America’s door, the present wave of nationalist politicians has added a few more locks for safety’s sake. All such precautions, however, have done nothing to prevent the establishment of an actual New World Order on American soil. Yes, it’s happened, even if the conspiracy mongers haven’t cared to notice.

There is indeed a new global order. It’s called climate change and, unlike the scenarios imagined by the anti-globalists, it’s wreaking havoc not in some dystopian future but right in the here and now: the prairie fires that struck Oklahoma, Kansas, and the Texas panhandle in the spring of 2017, killing seven people and destroying an area equivalent to three Rhode Islands; Hurricane Maria that devastated large areas of Puerto Rico that fall, leaving nearly 3,000 people dead; Hurricane Michael that swept through Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia with unprecedented winds and flooding this October, killing 45 and causing $30 billion in damage; and the wildfires that raged across California in November, killing more than 80 people and destroying nearly 14,000 homes. And that’s just to begin a list of weather catastrophes in this country.

Global warming did not, of course, create the weather itself. It’s only intensifying it. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently put it, “A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events.” This summer, for instance, saw record-high temperatures in the United States and around the world. Large stretches of the South and West experienced near-record droughts in 2018, while other parts of the country suffered from historic levels of rainfall. (North Carolina recently endured an astounding years’ worth of snow in barely more than 24 hours. Both the number and the severity of Atlantic hurricanes are also on the rise.

And according to a Trump administration report released last month that the president himself rejects, it’s going to get a lot worse fast. That Fourth National Climate Assessment paints a dire picture of plummeting agricultural yields, declining dairy and seafood production, spreading wildfires, shrinking water resources in the interior of the country, and flooded areas on the coasts before century’s end. Extreme weather events since 1980 have already cost the United States more than $1 trillion. By 2100, the assessment projects, the costs of climate change will absorb as much as 10% of this country’s annual gross domestic product. Meanwhile, any hopes that global carbon emissions had begun to flatline in recent years, thanks to efforts to move toward renewable sources of energy, were dashed this month with reports that the output will actually grow by a projected 2.7% in 2018, a larger percentage than the previous year, on the way to the highest levels on record.

Americans can blame state governments or Washington for failing to respond in a timely manner to these disasters, but such intensifying weather patterns aren’t a local or even a national phenomenon. What’s happening in the United States is happening everywhere. The New World Order of climate change connects people abandoning their homes to rising tides in Florida and Bangladesh, dying from drought-related fires in California and Australia, being swept away by huge storms in the Carolinas and the Philippines, or losing their livelihoods in Nebraska and Honduras. It’s an order defined by a terrifying new rulebook in which more carbon emissions translate directly into less polar ice, an increase in sea levels, and more extreme weather.

Climate change doesn’t care about borders. It thumbs its nose at laws and legislation. It is unaffected by the size or destructive capabilities of even the mightiest militaries. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this particular New World Order, at least in the United States, is that many of those most affected by it refuse to acknowledge its existence.

Interviewing people affected by last year’s prairie fires in the Midwest, for instance, the New Yorker’s Ian Frazier encountered an extraordinary level of denial:

“No one I talked to in Kansas told me that he believed in climate change. Prevailing opinion holds that nothing about the recent extreme weather here is much different from what’s always been. People say that Native Americans sometimes used prairie fires as an environmental tool.”

Yet the recent fires were both unprecedented and part of a longer-term transformation of the Great Plains from irrigated farmland into what will someday be a spreading desert thanks to rising temperatures and extreme weather above ground and the disappearing Ogallala aquifer beneath it. And this time, the dispossessed Midwesterners are unlikely to be able to relocate to California, as they did when dust storms hit in the 1930s, because the West Coast will have major problems supporting even its existing agriculture.

If all the death and destruction connected to this New World Order were simply the result of periodic shifts in the life cycle of the planet — as some climate-change deniers maintain — then humans could just prepare for the inevitable, dinosaur-style extinction to come. But that’s hardly the case. Climate change is the direct result of human action — and some humans are so much more responsible than others.

Blame the Globalists

From 2006 through 2016, before he served briefly as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson was the head of ExxonMobil. He was supposed to be a cleaner, greener Big Energy CEO, but during his tenure he never altered the company’s basic DNA of drill, drill, drill. He entered into murky energy deals with Russia, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Saudi Arabia. Worse, he attempted to profit off climate change by, among other things, expanding operations into a rapidly warming Arctic. Even though he publicly acknowledged global warming — with plenty of caveats and misstatements — he also helped funnel millions of dollars to climate denial groups and suitably climate-denying politicians.

Not much changed when Tillerson became Trump’s first secretary of state. He failed to prevent the president from withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. He dutifully implemented new rules to facilitate the international funding of coal-fired power plants. And he presided over a gutting of the State Department meant to hamper its ability to address global issues like climate change.

Through it all, however, Rex Tillerson remained just the kind of globalist that Donald Trump had railed against as a presidential candidate. While head of Exxon, he had, for instance, been a regular participant at the World Economic Forum at Davos as well as in the Clinton Global Initiative. Ultimately, Trump criticized his secretary of state for having “totally establishment” views on foreign policy before unceremoniously firing him by tweet.

But there’s the establishment Trump likes and the establishment he doesn’t. Despite their very public falling out, the president has always admired establishment types in the Tillerson mold, those who belong to the international network of fossil fuel execs (oil, gas, and coal) chiefly responsible for building the New World Order of climate change. Rockefeller, Hunt, Getty, Mellon, Drake, Buffet, Koch, and Icahn: these are the globalists who set in motion the transformation of our world in which a growing dependency on fossil fuels morphed into an economic system geared to ever-expanding exploitation of such resources, and finally to an ecosystem on the verge of catastrophe.

Keep in mind that this is exactly what Donald Trump grew up with in fossil-fueled New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s what he’s still nostalgic for. Hence, his push for the United States to become “energy dominant” by extracting every last drop of fossil fuel from land, sea, and ice. Hence, his close relationships with petro-autocrats, especially Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This is, in short, his kind of globalism, and it’s now fully embedded in the White House, his administration, and Washington.

The U.N.? Environmentalists? George Soros? Peanuts compared to the real globalists, the ones who have controlled the supply and pricing of energy for more than a century and now have a representative sitting in the Oval Office. Think of it as a magician’s classic misdirection trick: look over there at Agenda 21 while the real globalists pick your pocket and poison your world. As environmentalist Bill McKibben has pointed out, the latest generation of fossil-fuel globalists knew exactly what they were doing (and what the consequences would be) when they devoted immense amounts of money to emphasizing “the uncertainty” of the science of climate change.

The magician David Copperfield once created the illusion that the Statue of Liberty had disappeared. The present crew of magical globalists have done him one better. They have been surprisingly successful in creating the illusion that the New World Order of climate change doesn’t exist when the proof is increasingly all around us.

There’s no conspiracy, no weather mafia, but the United States is nonetheless firmly in the grip of a New World Order. Many thousands have already lost their lives, their liberty, or their ability to pursue happiness thanks to the global forces now being loosed on our planet — and the more the United States has asserted its exceptionalism in recent years, the more it has proven to be no exception to the rules of climate change.

Here’s the rub: it’s long past the warning stage. Metaphorically speaking, the black helicopters have already landed on the White House lawn (and probably in your own backyard as well). A New World Order is indeed beginning to tyrannize America and Donald Trump is encouraging the globalists responsible to do even more of the same. The only way to address this ultimate threat is through the sort of international cooperation that the anti-globalists fear the most,a linking of arms across the rising seas to defeat a malign global force and the powerful elite that maintains it.

This challenge requires the equivalent of war against something as evil as totalitarianism. Anything less would be like trying to put out a wildfire with gasoline or like spitting into a (Category 5) hurricane. Anything less would be an epoch fail.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His new novel, Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original and book two of his Splinterlands series, has just been published. His podcast is available here.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2018 John Feffer



Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

The Oregonian: “7 reasons why Arctic sea ice matters”

What can I do about Global Heating?

Juan Cole - 2 hours 7 min ago

Generally, it seems, we are not supposed to do anything about the climate emergency producing global heating. It’s a Chinese plot. It doesn’t exist. It’s “libtard nonsense.”

Well, I don’t agree. I think it’s really serious. So, what can I DO about it? Well, there is one thing, for homeowners and building owners:

This is the Google Earth view of our house with its 73 solar panels, installed by Amy Strutz of AJ Leo Electric and Solar, in Ypsilanti. Aren’t they beautiful?? Solar panels, all busy making electricity!!

There is something I can do about global warming. Well, how much? you ask. On average, as of mid-October our panels had produced on average 55.25 kilowatt hours [kWh] per day this year. They produce the least on snowy days, especially if the panels are covered with snow. The best predictor of how much they will produce on any given day is the number of minutes of sunlight per day we have. Then it varies with cloud cover and other weather issues. This year, the highest production was 111.76 kWh on April 19.

We do still need our electric utility,DTE. We can’t produce power at night, and we don’t have storage batteries. But we often produce more in a day than we can use, and it goes into the grid to power your house. (DTE credits us a tiny amount for that excess.)

We have a big house, and we use a lot of electricity. But, before we installed the solar, we were paying approximately $11 per day for electricity from DTE. Last year, we paid $3.20 per day. In 2016, we paid $2.99 per day. That is a WIN.

But there is more. This year, to date, we have avoided producing 10,829 kilograms (=11.94 tons) of carbon. That is also a WIN, our contribution to fighting global warming. It warms me!

It was expensive to install. But with the savings I noted above, we will be even in about 6 years after installation. After that. . . it’s all gravy. This was possible in part because of the Federal solar tax credit of 30% of the installation costs (through 2019; after that it goes down over a few years to 10%, at least with current law).

Occasionally, I walk outside and down through the flower garden, and turn around to just LOOK at them. So so beautiful!!

Russia used every major social media platform to help elect, support Trump, report says

Minneapolis Star-Tribune - 4 hours 41 min ago
A report prepared for the Senate that provides the most sweeping analysis yet of Russia’s disinformation campaign around the 2016 election found the operation used every major social media platform to deliver content tailored to voters’ interests to help elect President Donald Trump — and worked even harder to support him while in office.

New Wisconsin laws likely to head to courts

Minneapolis Star-Tribune - 4 hours 44 min ago
Judiciary has tended to uphold Walker’s policies.

The National

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation - 5 hours 31 min ago

Welcome to The National, the flagship nightly newscast of CBC News

Irregularities in motorway contract award found: NAB

Dawn - 5 hours 31 min ago

ISLAMABAD: Confirming irregularities in the award of Rs148 billion Karachi-Lahore Motorway (KLM) project, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has completed an inquiry and decided to send the case to the next stage of investigation.

A source in NAB told Dawn on Sunday that the investigators had ascertained some gross violations of rules and irregularities in the award of the contract by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government in 2015.

In March this year, NAB had decided to conduct a formal inquiry into alleged Rs14bn losses to the national exchequer caused by illegal award of the contract for Abdul Hakeem section (230km) of KLM.

Inquiry negates Nawaz Sharif’s claim of zero corruption during his government

The contract was awarded to a joint venture of a local firm ZKB and the China Railway-20 Bureau Group Corporation in Aug 2015.

By deciding to convert the inquiry into advance stage of investigation, NAB negated a claim of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif that not a single corruption case has surfaced during his government’s tenure.

The NAB usually orders an inquiry into a case when it finds some credible evidence of corruption during the complaint verification process and if something is found wrong in the inquiry it allows investigation into the matter. After the investigation, it prepares a reference and file it in an accountability court for trial.

At present, the NAB Rawalpindi is investigating the case and the source said it will soon be presented before the regional board meeting and then to the executive board meeting for its formal conversion into an investigation.

It has been learnt that NAB has decided to summon former chairman of the National High Authority (NHA) Shahid Ashraf Tarar and contractors of the project.

According to NAB, the inquiry against the NHA officers and contractors was started on the basis of a complaint of Transparency International (TI) and some evidence collected during the complaint verification process.

“We decided to convert the inquiry into investigation after we found solid evidences of corruption,” a NAB official said.

He said the inquiry was ordered against the NHA management for awarding the contract on exorbitant rates in violations laws/rules.

TI had lodged a complaint two years ago, but former NAB chairman Qamar Zaman Chaudhry, who was reportedly quite close to Nawaz Sharif, did not take any action. But current NAB Chairman retired Justice Javed Iqbal ordered an inquiry into the case.

The NHA awarded the contract in Aug 2015 ignoring serious shortcomings in the successful bid.

It is believed that NHA could have saved Rs24bn if the project, which is being funded through Public Sector Deve­lopment Project, would have been awar­­­ded on merit and according to the instruc­tion of bidders or clauses of the contract.

NAB has also merged cases of Rs148bn KLM Abdul Hakeem section and Rs259bn Multan-Sukkur Motorway projects.

It received information that the Chinese company, which got the contract, was allowed to import duty-free machinery and cement. Similarly, the price of iron in Pakistan was Rs90,000 per tonne, but it was imported from China at Rs150,000 per tonne.

When contacted, Haji Zahir Khan, owner of ZKB, said he was not aware that NAB was converting the inquiry into investigation, claiming that his firm had not committed any irregularity.

He said he was confident that NAB will get nothing against his firm during the investigation. “We have saved over Rs200bn of the country by executing a number of important projects on low rates and the quality of our work speaks for tself,” he added.

Asked why most of the road contracts under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor were awarded to ZKB during the PML-N government, Mr Khan said his firm had won contracts because of its lowest bid and credibility.

Asked if he was accused of having close relations or even partnership with Shahbaz Sharif’s son Hamza, Mr Khan claimed that he had never met him.

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2018

Minister promises all-out support for PIA revival

Dawn - 5 hours 31 min ago

KARACHI: Federal Minister for Privatisation and Aviation Mohammadmian Soomro has said that the government is willing to extend all possible support to the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) to make it a viable entity.

“The PIA is moving in the right direction and the government will provide all-out support for its revival,” he said while speaking to senior officials of the national flag carrier.

Take a look: I want to see PIA dominate the skies again

According to a press release issued on Sunday, the minister visited the PIA head office and the airlines’ chief, Air Marshal Arshad Malik, briefed him on the performance of the national flag carrier.

He said the PIA had a lot of potential and it can regain its lost share in the market. “To compete in today’s market we must make best use of service and technology. Customer should be our main focus,” he said.

He also stressed upon austerity measures to be adopted in the PIA and appreciated the measures taken by the management.

Air Marshal Malik, the PIA president and CEO, apprised the minister of the current management initiatives such as reopening of routes, new destinations being planned to increase the airline’s network, improvement in food service, scheduling, and cost savings.

“Things are improving and we are working on convenience of schedule, opening of new destinations,” he added.

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2018

Saudi oil facility to ease pressure on rupee: SBP governor

Dawn - 5 hours 32 min ago

LAHORE: The pressure on rupee will ease as soon as dollars start flowing in and the Saudi oil facility of $3 billion becomes available, according to the governor of State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), Tariq Bajwa.

“The exchange rate has recently been under immense pressure because of the country’s dwindling foreign exchange reserves, which fell to just above $7bn on Dec 7 despite receipt of $1bn cash deposit from Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has since transferred $1bn more and is expected to deposit another $1bn next month as part of its assistance package for Pakistan,” he said on Sunday.

Mr Bajwa said that depreciation in the value of rupee was discussed with Finance Minister Asad Umar before the currency was last devalued. “The finance minister has himself clarified that the decision to devalue the rupee was in his knowledge as it was discussed with him beforehand,” he said.

Punjab’s finance minister says country ready to embrace ‘age of digitisation’

The government came under criticism over the sharp and abrupt devaluation of the rupee and initially Prime Minister Imran Khan came out with the explanation that he came to know about it through the media.

Mr Umar had also reportedly expressed reservations over the timing of SBP’s recent monetary policy and had told the SBP governor to take the government on board on such issues beforehand, adding that the government fully supported the concept of central bank’s independence.

Speaking to media personnel after a memorandum of understanding had been signed by the SBP, 1-Link and the Punjab government at the headquarters of Punjab Revenue Authority, Mr Bajwa said the rise and fall of dollar depended on macroeconomic fundamentals as well as market sentiment. “The rupee will get stronger when the market sentiment will be positive.”

He said the SBP had three priority sectors — low-cost housing, SMEs and agriculture — as well as two cross-cutting themes, Islamic banking and national financial inclusion.

“The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government has taken ownership of the national financial inclusion processes by according impetus to them,” he said.

Mr Bajwa said a milestone in this direction would be digitisation of all payments and receipts of the government, and added: “Digitisa­tion creates an eco(nomic) system that helps enhance national financial inclusion.”

Lauding the PRA for following in the footstep of the Federal Board of Revenue, he said the online facility to pay general sales tax on services would facilitate the taxpayers.

Answering a question, the SBP governor said the provinces were deprived of a major revenue stream, from tax on pre-paid phone cards, after a Supreme Court decision. “We are trying to find a way out.”

Speaking on the occasion, Punjab Finance Minister Hashim Jawan Bakht said the MoU signed by the SBP, 1-Link and the provincial government would help taxpayers pay their provincial taxes through alternative delivery channels, including online banking, ATM and phone banking. “This is a huge step towards the Punjab government’s vision of creating e-PRA,” he said.

Acknowledging that Pakistan’s rating with regard to ease of doing business was quite low, he said the provincial government was committed to attracting domestic as well as international investors, leading to improvement in the country’s rating.

Mr Bakht said the Punjab chief secretary was heading an “ease of doing business committee” to make processes simpler and easier to facilitate the masses.

Referring to the other countries’ evolution from agrarian to industrial economies and Pakistan’s failure to keep pace with the developments, he said the country was now ready to embrace the new age of digitisation. “We are committed to bridging the gap by digitising the economy.”

Chief Secretary Yousaf Naseem Khokhar said that digitisation provided the way forward by ensuring ease of doing business and improving the investment climate.

The committee on ease of doing business was actively working to achieve the milestones set for Dec 31, he added.

Finance Secretary H.Y. Sheikh was also present on the occasion.

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2018

Three of four sitting ECP members were appointed unconstitutionally

Dawn - 5 hours 32 min ago

ISLAMABAD: Three out of the four members of the Election Commission had been appointed in contravention of a constitutional provision that bars re-employment of judges of the superior judiciary within two years of their retirement, it has emerged.

Article 207 (2) of the Consti­tution reads: “A person who has held office as judge of the Supreme Court or of a high court shall not hold any office of profit in the service of Pakistan, not being a judicial or quasi judicial office or the office of Chief Election Commissioner or of Chairman or member of a law commission or of Chairman or member of the Council of Islamic Ideology, before the expiration of two years after he has ceased to hold that office”.

None of the three retired judges who had been appointed as ECP members had completed two years after their retirement.

ECP secretary says members’ appointment a past and closed transaction

The most glaring case was that of retired justice Shakeel Ahmad Baloch, who took oath as member of ECP from Balochistan five days after resigning as judge of the Balochistan High Court on July 21, 2016 - some ten days before his retirement date. Likewise, retired Justice Irshad Qaiser became the first-ever woman member of the ECP within 45 days of her retirement as judge of the Peshawar High Court on June 14, 2016.

The member from Punjab, retired Justice Altaf Ibrahim Qureshi, had retired as judge of the Lahore High Court on March 5, 2015, and thus had more than seven months to go before the completion of the two-year post-retirement period when he was appointed to the Election Commission in July 2016.

Analysts believe that Abdul Ghaffar, the first-ever retired bureaucrat to have been picked as member of the ECP, was also not a good choice as his name was on the exit control list (ECL) over a Rs 2 billion corruption scam.

Months after his appointment as ECP member he got a one-time permission to travel abroad with a delegation headed by the Chief Election Commissioner.

The commission’s secretary, Babar Yaqub Fateh Muhammad, refused to comment on the dictate and spirit of Article 207 of the Cons­titution, saying the appointment of ECP members was a past and closed transaction.

“Let bygones be bygones,” he remarked and pointed out that half the term of the members would be complete next month while two of them would be retiring on Jan 26.

Asked as to who was responsible for violation of the Constitution, he initially said the question should be put to senior members of the previous government, but then suggested that there was room in the Constitution for judicial and quasi-judicial employment of retired judges.

Some judgements of the Supreme Court have, however, made it clear that the Election Commission was not a judicial forum. An 11-member bench held in the Benazir Bhutto versus federation of Pakistan case that the Election Commission was not a judicial body.

In its judgement in a recent case, a three-member bench of the apex court, headed by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, said: “The ECP is an independent and autonomous body which exercises executive and regulatory powers derived from the Constitution.

“Although it has the power to appoint election tribunals [Article 219(c) of the Constitution] which exercise judicial powers under Article 225 of the Constitution, the ECP itself is a supervisory body which exercises regulatory and administrative powers under the Constitution and the law. Undoubtedly, the ECP is not a court or a tribunal, as argued by the learned counsel for PTI.”

The ECP members who are otherwise ineligible for appointment had been brought in under a covert understanding between the PML-N and the PPP. Although under the procedure, the prime minister, in consultation with the opposition leader, sends three names each for a position of ECP member for confirmation to a parliamentary panel, separate lists are sent in case they fail to reach a consensus.

While an impression had been created as if a consensus could not be reached, in both 12-name lists, all four successful nominees were mentioned by the PML-N as its second-choice candidates while two of the confirmed members were the PPP’s first-choice and two were its second-choice. So the panel picked all the four names that were common in the lists in an exercise that took less than two hours. This had only been done to defeat the spirit of the law, which otherwise required hearing by the parliamentary panel.

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2018

Blueprint for boosting economy formally submitted to IMF

Dawn - 5 hours 32 min ago

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has formally submitted to the Inter­national Monetary Fund (IMF) its Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies (MEFP) envisaging macroeconomic stabilisation graduating into growth strategy over the next three years.

“Yes, we have given it (MEFP) to the IMF,” confirmed Finance Minister Asad Umar when approached. “It’s under discussion” he told Dawn and declined to go into further details saying “they (IMF) may have something to add and come back to us”.

Sources said the government under the MEFP plans a fiscal adjustment of about 2.5per cent of GDP in three years — almost the same as the last Fund programme ending September 2016 — to bring down fiscal deficit to about 4pc at the end of 36-month programme. This time, however, the programme implementation would be front-loaded compared to relatively balanced implementation schedule of the last programme. “Most of the pain would be immediate this time in the form of revenue measures and energy pricing,” an official said.

Officials say the Fund has never proposed specific tax measures

In absolute terms, the adjustment would entail more than Rs1 trillion of additional fiscal space with a combination of increased revenues and reduced expenditures. Under the plan, the government will have to gradually reduce current addition of Rs30bn per month in the energy sector circular debt and bring it to zero within first two years of the programme besides addressing the bleeding of other public sector entities (PSEs). This will be followed by a long route to address the old debt stock of the PSEs.

On top of that, the government is also committing a series of taxation measures to increase revenues while the IMF wants new areas, like agriculture, real estate and others, to be brought under effective tax net to address the chronic problem of low tax to GDP ratio.

The sources said an IMF mission was expected to return to Islamabad after Christmas holidays for finalising the bailout package so that it could be taken up with the Fund executive board for approval. The mission had left Islamabad on November 20, leaving the talks inconclusive as Pakistan authorities were still unprepared to finalise the adjustment sequencing including circular debt capping plan, creation of Sarmaya Pakistan holding company to address structural reforms relating to PSEs.

In background discussions, officials said the IMF never proposed specific tax measures being reported in the media like increase in GST, income tax, etc., and highlighted broader issue of reducing budget deficit to about 3.5pc of GDP in three years, arguing that Pakistan’s tax to GDP ratio was the lowest among the peers and even lower than Bangladesh despite reasonable untapped potential and its existing tax system was regressive with minimal contribution from direct taxes.

The officials said IMF’s Resident Representative Teresa Daban Sanchez may remain in electronic contact with the government authorities and the IMF high-ups even during upcoming holidays even though the fund teams working on MEFP would not be available.

They said the two sides were in agreement that while tightening the fiscal and monetary policies, expenditure as percentage of GDP should be increased for social safety nets to ensure poor people remain unhurt as the tough fiscal adjustment comes into place.

The official said the authorities have been explained that they would have to navigate through changed geo-political circumstances for which they would have to produce bankable fiscal and monetary plans that could be advocated by the IMF mission and the teams on merit before the executive board for approval.

The authorities have been trying to gain time to see if the IMF’s insistence on upfront implementation of fiscal and monetary adjustment plans could be minimised through alternative financing plans but that was no more an option, the sources said, adding that they had to finally submit the MEFP to the Fund last week.

The sources said the Fund was tough this time on independent monetary policy but because of capacity constraints the monetary policy graduation to complete inflation targeting would be completed by 2020 in view of a major brain drain in recent years.

Difficulties have also stemmed from poor performance of the Federal Board of Revenue in the first five months of the current financial year that witnessed more than Rs110bn shortfall in revenue collection against the target. This necessitates not only steps to recuperate the lost ground in almost half of the year but also add on to that to meet tough targets being negotiated with the IMF.

This will be on top of an earlier adjustment of almost 2.1pc (about Rs800bn) introduced by the PTI government in September supplementary budget followed by about Rs120bn and Rs225bn additional adjustment in gas and electricity rates, respectively, together making almost 0.9pc of GDP.

Another round of energy price increase has to follow soon, beginning in January to ensure 100pc recovery of gas and electricity costs from consumers to reduce burden on the budget.

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2018

US praises Pakistan for promoting Afghan talks

Dawn - 5 hours 32 min ago

WASHINGTON: The United States has said that it welcomes Pakistan’s efforts to promote peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The acknowledgement came a day after Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that Pakistan had arranged another round of talks between the US and Taliban officials but he did not say when and where.

But Voice of America (VOA) radio’s Dari service reported on Sunday that US special representative Zal­may Khalilzad is likely to meet Taliban representatives in Islamabad on Mon­day (today). Previous talks were held in Doha, Qatar.

“The United States welcomes any actions by the Pakistani government to promote greater cooperation, including fostering negotiations between the Taliban, the Afghan government, and other Afghans,” a US embassy spokesperson in Kabul told VOA.

Mr Khalilzad, had met, and would continue to meet, all interested parties, including the Taliban, to support a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan, the spokesperson added.

VOA reported that two weeks ago Mr Khalilzad asked Pakistani authorities to facilitate the Afghan peace process.

And on Saturday, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi announced that Pakistan had asked the Taliban “to lay down their arms and prepare for talks”.

Mr Qureshi said that while “Pakistan can help with these talks, the Afghan government, the Taliban and other groups must begin their own compromises and dialogues”.

Mr Khalilzad — 14 days into an 18-day visit to the region — has travelled to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Belgium and plans to visit the UAE and Qatar.

This will not be the first time for Mr Khalilzad to meet the Taliban. He has already held two rounds of talks with them in Doha. The US media described these talks as “preliminary discussions”, adding that Washington hopes these contacts would pave the way for more substantial talks on a roadmap for peace in Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump wrote to Prime Minister Khan, seeking his help to bring the Taliban to the table for negotiations. A day later, Mr Khalilzad visited Islamabad where he met the prime minister and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, to follow-up on President Trump’s request, VOA added.

The prime minister told reporters in Peshawar on Friday that the US had changed its tune by requesting help instead of saying Islamabad was not doing enough, as US officials have previously insisted.

On Saturday, China also pledged to help Afghanistan and Pakistan overcome longstanding suspicions, as officials from the three nations met in Kabul to explore possibilities for engaging the Taliban.

The Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, met the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan in Kabul on Saturday to prepare a memorandum of understanding on how to support Afghanistan’s efforts to open talks with the Taliban.

“China approves of this, and is willing to provide support and help for Pakistan and Afghanistan to improve their ties,” Mr Wang told reporters after the meeting.

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2018