Fortnightly, 27 December 2017

Fortnightly, 27 December 2017

December 27, 2017


27 December 2017
9 Tevet 5778
9 Rabi A-Akbar 1439




1.1  Jerusalem Approves NIS 1.45 Billion Disability Benefits Increase
1.2  Bank of Israel Mulls Digital Shekel to Curb Tax Evasion


2.1  Israel Joins the IIASA
2.2  Leadspace Raises $21 Million Series C Funding to Fuel Growth
2.3  Vayyar Imaging Announces $45 Million Series C Financing
2.4  Upstream Security $9 Million Series A Revs Up Cloud-Based Cybersecurity for Car Fleets
2.5  Bizzabo Raises $15 Million Growth Round to Shape the Future of Professional Events
2.6  Ecoppia Completes $13 Million Funding Round
2.7  Israel & South Korea Launch Third Tech Collaboration Conference
2.8  Lemonade Raises $120 Million from SoftBank
2.9  Anodot Raises $23 Million, Triples Revenues
2.10  Valooto Raises $3 Million in Series-A Funding to Transform B2B Customer Engagement
2.11  Senior Citizens Technology Lab Opens in Beer Sheva
2.12  BGU and Mercedes-Benz Launch the “Next 100 Million” Challenge


3.1  Saab Starts Development and Production in the United Arab Emirates
3.2  Abu Dhabi Fund Launched to Support Indian Electronics Market
3.3  Boeing & flydubai Finalize Order for 175 737 MAX Airplanes
3.4  UAE’s Lulu Sad to Double Own Label Products by 2020
3.5  US Cinema Chain Signs First Deal to Operate in Saudi Arabia
3.6  SNC-Lavalin and Saudi Aramco Sign MoU Supporting In-Country Opportunities


4.1  Israel’s Yam Pro Energy Signs a $180 Million MOU With TATA’s Owners, Shapoorji Pallonji Group
4.2  Oman’s Glasspoint to Build Giant Solar Park in US
4.3  Oman Foresees Increase in Ecotourism with New Oryx Sanctuary
4.4  Khalladi Wind Farm Provides Its First Kilowatts in Morocco’s Electric Grid


5.1  Lebanon’s Average Inflation at 4.39% by November 2017
5.2  Lebanon’s Balance of Payments Registered a Deficit of $1 Billion by October 2017
5.3  Lebanon’s Trade Deficit Down by a Marginal 0.22% by October 2017
5.4  Jordan’s Inflation Rate for November 2017 Increases by 3.3% on Average
5.5  EU Grants €510 Million in Aid to Jordan
5.6  Amman Licenses Ride Hailing Apps

♦♦Arabian Gulf

5.7  UAE-China Trade Exceeds $35 Billion in First Nine Months of 2017
5.8  VAT Implementation in Oman Postponed Until 2019
5.9  Saudi Arabia Set to Issue First Tourist Visas in Early 2018

♦♦North Africa

5.10  Egypt Plans Power Link to Saudi Arabia in $1.6 Billion Project
5.11  Cairo Approves Comprehensive Health Insurance Bill
5.12  Egyptian Parliament Approves Law Establishing Country’s First Space Agency


6.1  Turkish Parliament Adopts Nation’s Budget for 2018
6.2  Turkish Automotive Sector Foresees $29 Billion in Exports Next Year
6.3  Greek Parliament Approves 2018 Budget After Fierce Debate
6.4  Greek Unemployment Rises 4.88% in November Compared to October
6.5  Construction on Greek Satellite “Hellas-Sat 4” Completed



7.1  Fast of the 10th of Tevet
7.2  Jerusalem Marathon Sees Registration Spike Following US Recognition of Capital
7.3  Record Breaking 20% Increase in Christmas Pilgrims to Israel
7.4  Immigration to Israel Bounces Back In 2017


7.5  Saudi Women Will Also be Allowed to Drive Trucks & Motorbikes
7.6  In Just Ten Years, Foreign Population in Morocco Increased by 63%
7.7  Morocco’s 14,000 Quranic Schools Teach 450,000 Students
7.8  Brief History of M’sid Schools in Morocco


8.1  Israel Sees Booming Demand from Farmers to Grow Cannabis
8.2  Femarelle Launches New Women’s Supplement Line in U.S.
8.3  BioSight Reports Favorable Phase I/II Results of its Cytarabine Pro-Drug BST-236 for Treatment of Acute Leukemia
8.4  Koch Disruptive Technologies to Lead $150 Million Investment in INSIGHTEC
8.5  Can-Fite Reports on the Progress of Its Phase II Liver Cancer Drug Namodenoson
8.6  NRGene Delivers First-ever Food Potato Genomes
8.7  BiomX Acquires RondinX to Boost Microbiome Discovery and Development Capabilities
8.8  DarioHealth Gains Regulatory Approval in Australia for Smart Glucose Meters
8.9  Kitov Announces Consensi as Brand Name for KIT-302
8.10  OWC Update on its Proprietary Medical Cannabis Sublingual Tablet


9.1  Lumus Announces Collaboration with Deep Optics
9.2  Mellanox Solutions Accelerates Tencent Cloud Artificial Intelligence Infrastructure
9.3  eToro Announces Partnership with CoinDash
9.4  Papaya Integrates Cryptocurrency Option to Leading Payroll Management Solution
9.5 Selects Mellanox Solutions to Accelerate its Artificial Intelligence Centers
9.6  Votiro Rolls Out Significant Product Enhancement for its Secure Email Gateway Solution
9.7  Rubidium Powers the First Voice-Triggered Headphones with Alexa Interface
9.8  mPrest & NYPA Announce Deployment of mPrest’s Asset Health Management System
9.9  AudioCodes Selected by Sunrise Communications for Skype for Business Online Services
9.10  OTI is Developing Bitcoin Capabilities in the Crypto-currency Marketplace
9.11  Nissan India Selects Pointer as Part of Their Connected Car Solution
9.12  Agent Vi & AWS Enable Any Surveillance Camera to Become a Smart Camera
9.13  Nova Unveils New Generation of Dimensional Metrology Solutions


10.1  Israel’s Building Starts Drop Sharply


11.1  MENA: Sovereign Outlook Negative on Political Risk, Slow Reform
11.2  ISRAEL: Local M&A Market Shows First Decline in Five Years
11.3  LEBANON: IMF Staff Concludes Visit to Lebanon
11.4  JORDAN: Congress Acts to Jump-Start Jordan’s Private Sector
11.5  UAE: UAE Education Begins a New Chapter
11.6  OMAN: Fitch Downgrades Oman to ‘BBB-‘; Outlook Negative
11.7  EGYPT: Egypt Takes Big Step Toward Financial Transparency and Inclusion
11.8  EGYPT: IMF Executive Board Concludes 2017 Article IV Consultation
11.9  TUNISIA: IMF Concludes 2017 Article IV Consultation & Second Review of Tunisia’s Extended Fund Facility
11.10  MOROCCO: IMF Executive Board Concludes 2017 Article IV Consultation
11.11  TURKEY: Turkey Economic Performance Review for 2017
11.12  CYPRUS: IMF Executive Board Concludes 2017 Article IV Consultation with Cyprus


1.1  Jerusalem Approves NIS 1.45 Billion Disability Benefits Increase

The Netanyahu government unanimously approved on 24 December a proposal by the Prime Minister, Finance Minister Kahlon and Welfare Minister Katz to allocate NIS 1.45 billion to raise disability pensions starting next month.  The decision still needs to pass in the Knesset’s Finance Committee, which needs to approve the additional funding.  The bill will also be brought to the Knesset for approval as a government legislative proposal.

This is the first stage of an agreement signed with representatives of some of the groups of disabled protesters.  The additional funds will allow the National Insurance Institute to prepare to pay out increased benefits starting January, in accordance with government commitments.  In addition, budgeting for the next stages of the agreement will be brought to the government’s approval in the coming month as part of overall discussions regarding the 2019 state budget.  Kahlon added the agreement was a “correction of a historical wrong to a population that deserves this money, a population whose benefits haven’t been updated in many years. It wasn’t an easy journey, but I’m glad we remedied it.”

The increase to disability benefits will be done as part of Welfare Minister Haim Katz’s government bill proposal, which will be adjusted to fit the current budgetary framework.  It will also include 75,000 elderly people with disabilities, who were not initially part of the agreement signed in September. In addition, NIS 50,000 will be added to disabilities for the blind.

Representatives of the handicapped objecting to new agreement claim they have worked out an alternative deal with Finance Ministry Kahlon, in a meeting he held with four of them recently.  They maintain Kahlon promised them as part of the new agreement to raise benefits to a higher sum than was approved by the government, and in a smaller number of increments than contained in the September agreement.  (Ynetnews 24.12)

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1.2  Bank of Israel Mulls Digital Shekel to Curb Tax Evasion

It was reported that the Bank of Israel is considering the launch of the digital shekel to wean the economy off the use of cash, which leads to a flourishing underground economy, as reported by TheMarker financial website.  The digital currency would not be the bitcoin, but a digital shekel, a currency supervised by the central bank.  TheMarker said that the Finance Ministry was planning to introduce a stipulation to its 2019 Arrangements Bill, to be presented alongside the budget, which would curtail the use of cash and make it harder to evade taxes.

The so-called black economy in Israel accounts for 22% of the nation’s GDP, causing Israel to lose some NIS 50 billion in tax revenues annually, the report said.  TheMarker explained that the digital shekel would be exactly like cash, but instead of a coin in your wallet it would be a code in your cellphone.  The Bank of Israel would issue the codes, just as it issues the coins.  The digital shekel would not be a bitcoin, which is a global currency that is issued by private entities using blockchain technology.  It would be issued by the central bank and have the same value as that of a physical shekel.  The Bank of Israel would have control over the currency and we’d use the currency by making via cellular payments to each other.

Today digital payments, the ones we already make via our cellphones or with our credit cards, all pass via the clearing systems of the banks or credit card companies. This would change, as digital shekels wouldn’t pass via the clearing system but directly from one cellular phone to the other, just like cash, avoiding fees to banks in these kinds of transactions.  (ToI 24.12)

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2.1  Israel Joins the IIASA

The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) announced on 14 December that Israel has become its newest member country.  Israel joins 24 other countries whose National Member Organization’s representatives constitute the IIASA Governing Council.

Israel has established the Israel Committee for IIASA (made up of representatives from Israeli universities, government ministries, and the public) to represent the Israeli membership of IIASA.  Together, IIASA, the Israel Committee for IIASA, Israeli researchers, and public planning authorities will develop international research collaborations to find solutions to the complex global challenges that impact Israel, the broader region, and the world.  These include projects to support a long-term sustainable energy strategy for Israel, a package of measures to reduce air pollution in the wider region, and scientific support for national socioeconomic strategic planning.

IIASA membership will also help develop the research base for systems analysis in Israel, through young scientists from Israel taking part in the IIASA Young Scientist Summer Program and the IIASA Postdoctoral Fellowship Program.  Systems analysis is one of the few research tools with the breadth and depth to explore complex problems across multiple sectors, countries, and timeframes—typical of many of the challenges facing countries in the Middle East.  (IIASA 14.12)

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2.2  Leadspace Raises $21 Million Series C Funding to Fuel Growth

Leadspace has raised $21 million in Series C funding, led by Arrowroot Capital and existing investor Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP).  Leadspace will use the funding to support its rapid customer growth, continue to develop its pioneering Audience Management Platform, and further entrench its position as the only end-to-end data and predictive intelligence solution for B2B Marketing and Sales.  With the increase in Account Based Marketing coupled with traditional content marketing, audiences are increasingly overwhelmed with marketing messages.  It is more critical than ever to engage B2B audiences with specific, relevant, aligned and valued interactions.  Leadspace’s Audience Management Platform, with its combination of unparalleled 3rd-party data sources and Artificial Intelligence (AI), enables Marketing and Sales teams to precisely find and target ideal customers, recommend how to best engage them, and enrich their internal databases with a single, consistent source of truth.  Over the last year, customers such as Microsoft, Marketo, AppDynamics, HP Enterprise and N3 have used Leadspace to transform their B2B Marketing efforts through data management and AI.

The Series C funding round will support additional investment and innovation in the Israel based AI platform and team, as well as growth in the customer team in San Francisco and Denver to support Leadspace’s continued growth.

Hod HaSharon’s Leadspace’s Audience Management Platform enables B2B companies to better engage customers and drive faster growth by allowing marketers to find and know their audiences.  As internal and external data multiplies, Leadspace uses AI to provide a single source of truth across all sales and marketing data, identify net new account and individuals, and recommend the best marketing activities.  Updated in real time, data and intelligence remains constantly accurate and actionable and can be consistently used across sales, marketing and advertising channels.  (Leadspace 19.12)

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2.3  Vayyar Imaging Announces $45 Million Series C Financing

Vayyar Imaging has closed a $45 million Series C financing round co-led by Walden Riverwood and ITI with additional funding from Claltech and follow-on investment from Battery Ventures, Bessemer Ventures, Israel Cleantech Ventures and Amiti, bringing total capital raised to date to $79 million.  Vayyar will use the funds to expand into new industries, grow its global team and diversify its sensing product offerings.

Vayyar’s sensors create a 3D image of everything happening around you in realtime, without the use of a camera.  These sensors can see through solid objects, map large areas and can be used in privacy-sensitive locations where optics cannot.  Providing a look beyond human vision, Vayyar’s sensors have expanded across industry sectors, including smart home, automotive, retail, robotics, medical, construction, agriculture and more.  Vayyar’s mission is to help people worldwide improve their health, safety, and quality of life.  Because of the high demand for Vayyar’s technology by a wide range of industries, the company and its investors predict the need for the company to rapidly scale non-linear growth opportunities.

Yehud’s Vayyar Imaging is changing the imaging and sensing market with its breakthrough 3D imaging sensor technology. Utilizing a state-of-the-art embedded chip and advanced imaging algorithms, Vayyar’s mission is to help people worldwide improve their health, safety and quality of life using mobile, low-cost, and safe 3D imaging sensors.  (Vayyar Imaging 13.12)

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2.4  Upstream Security $9 Million Series A Revs Up Cloud-Based Cybersecurity for Car Fleets

Upstream Security announced the closing of $9 million in Series A funding, led by CRV (Charles River Ventures).  The round included expanded investments from Israeli-based Glilot Capital Partners and Maniv Mobility.  Following a $2 million seed funding round in June, the company will use the latest investment to expand its R&D program and continue building out its world-class engineering and security research teams, and open marketing and sales offices in the United States and Europe.  The company is well-resourced to secure the 60 million connected cars on the road today that include commercial trucks, vans, buses and private vehicles, as well as take advantage of the imminent explosion in connected vehicles—Gartner expects there will be 250 million connected vehicles by 2020.

Upstream’s cloud-based approach to automotive cybersecurity leverages artificial intelligence and machine learning that is applied to the tremendous data sets continuously produced by vehicles.  This provides customers with data protection, anomaly detection and real-time analytics of cyber attacks and vehicle fleet health.  By centralizing cybersecurity in the cloud instead of in-vehicle, threats are detected and prevented before they even reach a vehicle’s network.

Herzliya’s Upstream Security is the first cloud-based cybersecurity solution that protects the technologies and applications of connected and autonomous vehicles.  Founded by cybersecurity veterans, Upstream leverages big data and machine learning to provide OEMs and vehicle fleets with unprecedented, comprehensive, and non-intrusive defense.  With application security, real-time data protection and anomaly detection, attacks are identified and blocked before they reach and harm the vehicle’s network.  (Upstream Security 13.12)

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2.5  Bizzabo Raises $15 Million Growth Round to Shape the Future of Professional Events

Bizzabo, the world’s leading holistic events cloud, announced the close of a $15 million round of equity funding, led by Pilot Growth Equity, and participated by European investment fund Maor and existing investors.  The investment brings Bizzabo’s total funding to $30 million, in support of its goal to revolutionize the industry with its unique Event Cloud technology.  Since launching in 2012, Bizzabo has enabled thousands of events globally to run seamlessly with a growing number of enterprise organizations, including WeWork, HubSpot, GitHub, EA Sports, Bank of Ireland, and many more.  Bizzabo’s annual revenue is in the millions and, in the past year alone, annual recurring revenue grew more than 200% and the team doubled in size.

Tel Aviv’s Bizzabo is an award-winning holistic event cloud providing marketers with a modern suite of tools to grow and manage their events.  Key features enable organizers to build websites, manage event registration, sell tickets, grow communities through onsite networking, and event apps – all within a cloud-based, user-friendly platform.  Bizzabo powers thousands of events around the world including those by WeWork, Hubspot, GitHub, EA Sports, CoinDesk, and Virgin.  (Bizzabo 13.12)

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2.6  Ecoppia Completes $13 Million Funding Round

Ecoppia announced the completion of a $13 million round of funding, led by both existing investors – Swarth Group, GlenRock and Gandyr, and Israel’s largest insurance group, Harel Group Insurance and Finance.  Ecoppia’s solutions gained unparalleled experience cleaning over 200 million solar panels worldwide working with some of the largest energy players in the world including Engie Group, EDF, NTPC, Actis Group, Adani Power, SunEdison/Terraform and more.  The Company’s pipeline is expected to top 2GW in 2018.  Ecoppia solves the challenge of solar panel soiling – one of the greatest impediments to solar energy production that can dramatically reduce energy output.  The closure of this most recent round of funding came on the heels of Ecoppia’s ranking in the top ten of Deloitte’s 2017 Technology Fast 50.  With a growth rate of over 1,600% in the past four years, Ecoppia is currently the fastest growing cleantech company in Israel.

Herzliya’s Ecoppia designs and produces innovative photovoltaic panel cleaning solutions to cost-effectively maximize the performance of utility-scale installations.  The company’s water-free, automated technology removes dust from panels on a daily basis to ensure peak output, even in the toughest desert conditions.  Supported by a robust control unit, systems can be remotely programmed and managed to minimize O&M costs.  Ecoppia is a privately held organization, backed by prominent and experienced international investment funds and led by a team of energy and robotics experts.  (Ecoppia 13.12)

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2.7  Israel & South Korea Launch Third Tech Collaboration Conference

Israeli and South Korean researchers from the Korea Association of Robot Industry signed an agreement for mutual cooperation in the fields of robotics and autonomous vehicles.  The agreement, a memorandum of understanding, came in the wake of the annual Korea-Israel Industrial Collaboration Conference in Seoul, sponsored by the Israeli and South Korean ministries of trade and industry.  The keynote speech was delivered by Grove Ventures CEO Dov Moran, an Israeli entrepreneur.  (NoCamels 18.12)

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2.8  Lemonade Raises $120 Million from SoftBank

Israeli-founded insurance startup Lemonade announced a $120 million series C funding round led by Japanese telecom giant SoftBank.  The round saw participation from some existing investors, which include big names such as GV (Google Ventures), Sequoia Capital, and Allianz.  Lemonade is a fully licensed insurance carrier that underwrites its own policies, unlike many other entrants into the growing insurtech space.  With a focus on homeowners and renters, Lemonade strives to differentiate itself in a number of ways, including by cutting bureaucracy and speeding up the application process.  However, the company also touts its morals through an annual “giveback” scheme through which it donates all unclaimed money to good causes.  Users choose a cause that they care about through the app, and those who select the same good cause are then penned into virtual groups of “peers,” or like-minded people.  Premiums generated from each group are used to cover claims by individuals, and then any money that’s left over is donated to their shared cause.  Lemonade takes a flat fee from each member.

For homeowners, policies start at $25 per month, while renters can obtain policies from $5 per month.  The whole process is optimized for smartphones, which could be a big selling point today.  Other notable facets of Lemonade include its chatbots, which are used to automate interactions between the company and its customers — a growing trend we’re seeing across the commercial spectrum.  SoftBank has deep pockets and an increasingly global reach through its investments — so Lemonade is in good company if it’s to launch its insurance platform outside the U.S.  (Lemonade 19.12)

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2.9  Anodot Raises $23 Million, Triples Revenues

Anodot announced a Series B round, bringing its B funding total to $23 million.  The additional $15 million investment was led by Redline Capital Management together with existing investors Aleph Venture Capital and Disruptive Technologies Venture Capital.  Over the past year, the company more than tripled its revenues, with customers such as Foursquare, Lyft, Microsoft, Upwork and Waze (Google), and is gearing up for further expansion in 2018.

Headline-making glitches that interrupted sales for major retailers on Black Friday and frustrated thousands of shoppers illustrate the severe damage to revenue and reputation that these often hidden issues cause.  Anodot’s patented solution enables businesses to track and correlate massive volumes of business and technical data in real time to identify these business incidents.  Anodot is saving its customers millions of dollars and increasing revenue opportunities for top-tier brands in ecommerce, retail, Internet, mobile and other industry segments.  The company is one of 17 globally to have achieved Amazon Web Services’ Machine Learning competency announced last month at its re:Invent conference.  It won Ventana Research’s “Digital Innovation Award in Analytics” and was recognized as a Cool Vendor in Analytics by Gartner.

With the new investment, Anodot will open offices in London and APAC, grow its US team, and invest significantly in sales, marketing and customer success, while continuing to innovate in its machine learning platform.

Ra’anana’s Anodot illuminates business blind spots with AI analytics, so companies will never miss another revenue leak or brand-damaging incident. Its automated machine learning algorithms continuously analyze all business data, detect the business incidents that matter, and identify why they are happening by correlating them across multiple data sources. Anodot customers in fintech, ad-tech, web and mobile apps, and other data-heavy industries use Anodot to drive real business benefits like significant cost savings, increased revenue and upturn in customer satisfaction.  (Anodot 19.12)

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2.10  Valooto Raises $3 Million in Series-A Funding to Transform B2B Customer Engagement

Valooto announced a $3 Million Series A round.  The round was led by Cornerstone Venture Partners and joined by Shaked Ventures.  With a rapidly growing customer base of thousands of salespeople, Valooto’s Customer Engagement Cloud has proven its ability to enhance sales execution and accelerate revenue growth for some of Silicon Valley’s leading tech firms, while providing a richer, more personalized buying experience for their end customers.

Valooto provides a platform to personalize and manage all prospect engagements and interactions, from top of funnel sales development to contract negotiations.  Using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, Valooto analyzes thousands of buyer actions and digital engagement touchpoints to present salespeople with a true picture of deal progress, along with insights and sales guidance on how to keep deals on track.  Opportunity scoring, derived from actual customer engagement metrics, add further value for sales leaders by increasing the accuracy of sales forecasts.

Tel Aviv’s Valooto is redefining the way sales and customers interact in today’s digital sales environment. Valooto’s Customer Engagement Cloud provides a single platform to manage all sales-buyer interactions throughout the entire sales process, resulting in a richer customer experience, enhanced deal management and increased forecast accuracy derived from actual customer engagement insights.  (Valooto 21.12)

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2.11  Senior Citizens Technology Lab Opens in Beer Sheva

The Center for Digital Innovation (CDI) is launching what it claims is the world’s first innovation laboratory designed to meet the challenges facing today’s senior citizens.  The laboratory is on CDI’s premises in Beer Sheva.  It was established at an investment of NIS 5 million, in collaboration with the National Insurance Institute of Israel, the Beer Sheva Municipality, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, JDC and Amal & Beyond Group.

The lab will take on the increasingly complex challenges of today’s elderly population, and those resulting from the prolongation of our lives.  Among the startup companies, already active within the lab are: TV platforms designed to improve the communication process between the elderly and their families, a wireless monitoring platform for those requiring nursing care, alerting care givers when the patients may have fallen down or if they are experiencing such symptoms as depression or infections.

The lab will operate according to an innovative, integrated methodology developed at CDI, which allows for an ecosystem of partners to find new, innovative solutions, whether technological, methodological or social.  These solutions will be tested in the lab and piloted in the city of Beer Sheva.  Depending on their level of their success, the newly created solutions will be further implemented on a municipal and on a state level.  Among the startups and innovative projects already operating in the lab are:

UniperCare – a TV platform designed to improve the communication process between the elderly and their families.

BetterCare – an application designed to provide caregivers at nursing homes and centers precise information and a means of monitoring the quality of the care they provide.

Vitalerter – a wireless, monitoring platform which monitors heart rate and the respiratory system. The system provides alerts when it identifies potential falls, infections, depression, anxiety, and general deterioration in the patient’s state.

HEALTHYIO- A home urine testing kit that produces test results within minutes and provides the results to the patient’s physician using a smartphone camera.

Story- a digital timeline platform, designed to let senior citizens tell their life stories and share them with their loved ones.  (CDI 21.12)

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2.12  BGU and Mercedes-Benz Launch the “Next 100 Million” Challenge

BGU’s Bengis Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation in the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management has launched its new Challenge platform, featuring a collaboration with Mercedes-Benz to find the “Next 100 Million” as the challenge.  Defining just what constitutes the “100 million” is part of the challenge.  All Israeli students from every field are invited to develop ideas over the next month.

The Challenge innovation platform connects the competitors to real-world opportunities, and offers global organizations a way to present their current challenges and gain access to the new and innovative thinking of students from a variety of fields and backgrounds.  The platform gives students practical experience tackling real-world challenges, which they can transform into important knowledge, tools and experience for the future.  Mercedes-Benz is challenging students to envision the “Next 100 Million.”  Is it about digitization?  Driving experience?  Number of customers?  Hours of charging?  Number of hours driven by an autonomous car?

Bengis Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation’s mission is to create tools to teach entrepreneurship and connect students to cutting-edge innovation and original thinking.  The Challenge platform joins their many projects and events designed to promote the spirit of entrepreneurship among students and faculty of Ben-Gurion University, as well as the wider public.

Mercedes-Benz recently inaugurated its R&D Center in Israel and Ben-Gurion University is proud to be one of the first to collaborate.  Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz runs 25 R&D centers across the globe, which work together synergistically to provide new products, services, technologies and ideas with the potential to change the future of the automotive industry and people’s driving habits.  The R&D Center recently opened in Israel is the newest addition to Daimler’s worldwide R&D network, which has main centers in Germany, California, India and China that employ 16,000 people.  (BGU 20.12)

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3.1  Saab Starts Development and Production in the United Arab Emirates

Swedish defense and security company Saab has grown its presence in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by establishing development and production in Abu Dhabi.  Saab inaugurated a capability center for development and production of a variety of defense and security products with an initial focus on sensor systems.  Saab will develop and manufacture products for both UAE and the international market.  Other examples of product areas that may be applicable in addition to sensor systems are civil security, vehicle protection and training.  The business will be located to Tawazun Industrial Park, Abu Dhabi.  TIP has a capacity to accommodate 37,000 workers and is equipped with specialized ammunition production and storage facilities, staff and on-site services designed to ease the process of setting up production facilities.  (Saab 14.12)

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3.2  Abu Dhabi Fund Launched to Support Indian Electronics Market

Next Orbit Ventures (NOVF), the newly launched Abu Dhabi-based fund established under the Abu Dhabi Global Markets (ADGM) jurisdiction, has announced the launch of $2 billion fund for building semiconductors and electronics fab ecosystem in India.  While $1.5 billion will be raised from this region as feeder fund by NOVF, the remaining $500 million has already been secured by Next Orbit Ventures Fund-II from a consortium of investors involving both the Indian government and UHNIs.

During the past year, NOVF has signed MoUs with leading technology providers UMC (Taiwan), AMD (US), TowerJazz (US) and Centrotherm PV (Germany) as technology licensees for its projects.  Ajay Jalan, founder and managing partner, NOVF II, said discussions are being held with the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat to secure the land for the project.

The project aims at building the required infrastructure to cater to India’s fast-growing market for electronic goods and components.  India imported nearly $45 billion worth of electronic goods and components in 2016.  By 2022, India’s demand for electronics is estimated to touch $400 billion on the back of rapid penetration of electronic devices and internet connectivity.  For the past decade, the Government of India has been trying its best to attract investments and promote the semiconductor sector to reduce the risk of trade imbalance and cybersecurity.  (AB 13.12)

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3.3  Boeing & flydubai Finalize Order for 175 737 MAX Airplanes

Boeing and flydubai finalized the purchase of 175 737 MAX airplanes in the largest single-aisle jet order in Middle East history.  The deal – which includes options for an additional 50 jets – is valued at $27 billion at current list prices.   Announced as a commitment at the 2017 Dubai Airshow, the deal allows flydubai to take advantage of the 737 MAX family’s flexibility and commonality, while using the unique size and range of the MAX 8, MAX 9 and MAX 10 to suit its growing network.  flydubai, an all-Boeing operator, first ordered the 737 MAX in 2013 with a purchase of 75 jets.  The carrier has taken delivery of five MAX airplanes from that order.  (Boeing 21.12)

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3.4  UAE’s Lulu Sad to Double Own Label Products by 2020

UAE-based retail giant Lulu has launched its newly rebranded Private Label products which now total nearly 2,500 products and are expected to double by 2020.  Lulu products, which were introduced 10 years ago, are now a top seller across 140 stores in the Middle East and North Africa, India and the Far East.  The retailer said the rebranded range of Lulu products are sourced from best companies in more than 40 countries and tested and certified by some of the top global regulatory authorities.  Currently Lulu sells almost 2,500 products under its own label, from fresh food to dairy, packed food, confectionary and frozen food as well as hygiene and home care products.

Separately, Lulu has also signed a licensing agreement with Warner Brothers to sell a range of products with famous cartoon characters such as Looney Toons, Tom & Jerry and Superman.  These products will be exclusively targeting children with a range of confectionary, biscuits and juices.  (AB 16.12)

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3.5  US Cinema Chain Signs First Deal to Operate in Saudi Arabia

Giant US cinema chain AMC Entertainment has signed a deal to build and operate movie theatres in Saudi Arabia after the conservative kingdom lifted a decades-old ban.  The deal will see the company form a joint venture with Saudi Arabia’s vast Public Investment Fund.  No further details of the deal, including its financial conditions, were disclosed.

The Kansas-based company is the biggest cinema operator in the world, with 11,000 screens concentrated in the United States and Europe, many operating under its Odeon brand.  It will face stiff competition from regional heavyweights, namely Dubai-based VOX Cinemas, which is the leading operator in the Gulf and Middle East with more than 300 screens.  The Saudi government said it would begin licensing cinemas immediately and the first movie theatres are expected to open in March.  The country is expected to have more than 300 cinemas — with over 2,000 screens — by 2030, giving rise to an industry that would contribute $24 billion to the economy, according to the Saudi culture ministry.  (AB 12.12)

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3.6  SNC-Lavalin and Saudi Aramco Sign MoU Supporting In-Country Opportunities

Montréal’s SNC-Lavalin and Saudi Aramco signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on 13 December signaling SNC-Lavalin’s continued commitment to creating and accelerating opportunities for local workforces in Saudi Arabia.  The MoU supports Saudi Aramco’s In-Kingdom Total Value Add (IKTVA) program, which applies to Saudi Aramco suppliers and drives the localization of oilfield services and equipment value chain, to strengthen and diversify the Saudi economy; transfer technologies, skill and knowledge through training and development; and create thousands of new jobs for the growing Saudi population.

Founded in 1911, SNC-Lavalin is a global fully integrated professional services and project management company and a major player in the ownership of infrastructure.  Their teams provide comprehensive end-to-end project solutions – including capital investment, consulting, design, engineering, construction, sustaining capital and operations and maintenance – to clients in oil and gas, mining and metallurgy, infrastructure and power.  (SNC-Lavalin 14.12)

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4.1  Israel’s Yam Pro Energy Signs a $180 Million MOU With TATA’s Owners, Shapoorji Pallonji Group

Yam Pro Energy signed an MOU with India’s Shapoorji Pallonji Group, the owners of the TATA Group, to build a wave energy power station in Ghana.  To be completed in the upcoming three years at a scope of 150 MW generation ($180,000,000).  The initial phase will be 10 MW and expanding thereafter.  The partnership will be between Yam Pro, a local partner and SP with the responsibility to raise the finances.

SP Group is an Indian business conglomerate in India with a turnover of $4.2 billion and has a workforce of 60,000.  The promoters of the group are the largest individual shareholders in Tata Sons, the holding company of the Tata Group.

Kfar Saba’s Yam Pro Energy (YPE) is an Israeli-based renewable-energy company.  The company have patented ocean wave energy technology that convert wave energy to electric energy.  It is a proven technology and the system run as pilot system for over a year in Jaffa port.  The company have strong management with experience in industry, energy production, and international business.  The company has a subsidiary in Scotland with local partners.  The Scottish company has secured agreements with a number of ports to build projects on the ports docks and started Front End Engineering studies.  (YPE 20.12)

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4.2  Oman’s Glasspoint to Build Giant Solar Park in US

Oman-based GlassPoint Solar has partnered with oil and gas producer, Aera Energy, to build one of the largest solar energy projects in the United States.  The integrated solar project will be the first of its kind in the world to use solar steam and solar electricity to power oilfield operations, efficiently reducing the field’s carbon emissions.  Located at the Belridge oilfield in California, the solar plant will deliver the largest peak energy output of any solar plant in the state once complete, it added.

The Belridge Solar project will consist of an 850 MWt solar thermal facility, producing 12 million barrels of steam per year, and a 26.5 MWe photovoltaic facility that will generate electricity.  The solar-generated steam and electricity will reduce natural gas currently used onsite in oilfield operations.  The facility is projected to save more than 376,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, offsetting the equivalent of 80,000 cars.

GlassPoint said its solar technology provides low-cost renewable energy for extracting heavy oil.  Heavy oil is produced by injecting steam in to the reservoir to heat the oil so it can be pumped to the surface.  Aera and GlassPoint plan to break ground on the Belridge solar plant in the first half of 2019.  The project is expected to start producing steam and electricity as early as 2020.  GlassPoint established its regional headquarters in Oman in early 2012.  The company’s shareholders include Royal Dutch Shell and State General Reserve Fund (SGRF), the largest sovereign wealth fund in Oman.  (AB 14.12)

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4.3  Oman Foresees Increase in Ecotourism with New Oryx Sanctuary

Oman is looking to carve itself a new niche in ecotourism by opening up a sanctuary for one of the desert’s most fabled creatures – the Arabian oryx.  Once extinct in the wild, the rare member of the antelope family famed for its elegant horns has been saved in a sprawling reserve fenced off for decades from the public.  That changed last month when authorities for the first time officially opened the sanctuary to visitors – part of a broader bid by Oman to boost tourism as oil revenues decline.

For years, the main goal has been a basic one — ensuring the oryx can survive by focusing on helping the animals here reproduce and multiply.  But now, as numbers have ticked up from just 100 some two decades ago to almost 750 today, the authorities began eyeing another role for the reserve.

The story of the Arabian oryx is one of miraculous survival.  Hunted prolifically, the last wild member of the species was killed in Oman by suspected poachers in 1972.  The species only clung to existence thanks to a program to breed them in captivity and in the early 1980s a batch of 10 were released into Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary.  Since then, regenerating the oryx has been an often precarious process.  The Omani sanctuary sprawls over 2,824 square kilometer (1,100 sq. miles) of diverse terrain – from flat plains to rocky slopes and sandy dunes.

Its own fate has been nearly as tortured as that of the oryx it houses.  In 2007, the sanctuary became the first place ever to be removed from UNESCO’s World Heritage list as the government of Oman turned most of it over to oil drilling.  Now, as oil prices have plunged over the past few years, it is the wildlife once again that has become an increasing priority for the authorities.  In addition to the animals, there are 12 species of trees that provide a habitat for diverse birds.  Oman has been on a push to transform itself into a tourist draw – pitching its beach resorts to luxury travelers and desert wilderness to the more adventurous.   (AB 23.12)

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4.4  Khalladi Wind Farm Provides Its First Kilowatts in Morocco’s Electric Grid

Production at Morocco’s Khalladi wind farm is finally starting.  Its first ever produced kilowatts have been injected into the high voltage network, directly feeding the industrials electric needs.  Located in Jbel Sendouq, 30 kilometers from Tangier, this farm built by the Saudi owned company Acwa Power for a MAD 1.7 billion has a capacity of 120 MW.  The wind farm is composed of 40 wind turbines, each one of them is installed on a tower of 80 meters and equipped with three blades of 45 meters each.  The startup of the first turbines will immediately provide the supply of high voltage electricity.

The first project developed by ACWA Power in collaboration with the ARIF investment fund, the Khalladi wind farm is financed by a contribution from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, in collaboration with the Clean Technology Fund and the BMCE bank.  ACWA Power is a developer, investor and operator of a fleet of power plants and water desalination units in 10 countries throughout the Middle East, North Africa, South Africa, and Southeast Asia.  ACWA Power’s fleet, with an investment of more than $30 billion, generates a capacity of more than 22 gigawatts and a water desalination capacity of 2.5 million cubic meters per day.  (MWN 19.12)

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5.1  Lebanon’s Average Inflation at 4.39% by November 2017

According to the Central Administration of Statistics (CAS), Lebanon’s average consumer prices increased by 4.39% y-o-y by November 2017 as reflected by the average Consumer Price Index (CPI) which rose from 96  points by November 2016 to an average of 100 points in the same period of 2017, with all sub sections recording yearly escalations.  Specifically, average prices of food and non-alcoholic beverages (20% of CPI) increased 3.67% y-o-y by November 2017.

The average costs of Housing and utilities (including: water, electricity, gas and other fuels), which grasped a combined 28.4% of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), rose by 5.28% year-on-year (y-o-y) by November 2017.  Specifically, Owner-occupied rental costs constituted 13.6% of this category and increased by 3.85% y-o-y, and the average prices of Water, electricity, gas, and other fuels constituting 11.8% of the same category rose by an annual 11.03% over the same period.

Also, the average price of transportation grasping 13.1% of the CPI, gained an annual 5.51% which can be explained by the increase of the average international price of oil to $59.93/barrel by November 2017 compared to $45.26/barrel by November 2016.  Education costs weighed 6.6% of the CPI, increased by 2.73% y-o-y by November 2017.

In November 2017, the CPI grew at a rate of 4.79% compared to November last year.  The increase was driven by the recorded annual upticks in the two largest CPI components Housing and utilities and Food and non-alcoholic beverages of 5.28% and 3.67% respectively. The resulting inflation rate is of 4.79% in November 2017.  (CAS 24.12)

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5.2  Lebanon’s Balance of Payments Registered a Deficit of $1 Billion by October 2017

Lebanon’s Balance of Payments (BoP) registered an $887.8M deficit in October 2017 and a $1.08B deficit during the first 10 months of the year, compared to a deficit of $125.3M by October 2016.  By October 2017, BDL’s Net Foreign Assets (NFA) recorded an increase of $2.50B this year and that of commercial banks dropped by $3.57B, compared to the same period.  In October alone, BDL and commercial banks’ NFAs witnessed respective monthly drops of $459.9M and $427.9M.  (Blominvest 19.12)

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5.3  Lebanon’s Trade Deficit Down by a Marginal 0.22% by October 2017

According to the Lebanese Customs, Lebanon’s trade deficit slipped by a marginal 0.22% year-on-year (y-o-y) to stand at $13.21B by October 2017, as exports shrank by a yearly 4.56% to $2.37B, while imports incrementally narrowed by 0.91% y-o-y to $15.58B.  On the imports’ side, the value of total imported mineral products (constituting 23.44% of the total value of imports by Oct. 2017) declined by an annual 11.03% to stand at $2.95B, on the back of a drop in volume from 7.7M tons by October 2016 to 7.11M tons, in the same period this year.  Moreover, products of the chemical or allied industries (13.9% of total imports’ value), increased by a yearly 2.97% to $1.75B.  As for machinery and electrical instruments, they grasped a share of 12.78% of the total value of imports and increased by 4.13% y-o-y to $1.61B by October 2017.

The top countries Lebanon imported from during the first ten months of the year were: China and Italy with respective shares of 10% and 9%, followed by, Greece and Germany, each with a share of 7%.  As for exports, pearls, precious stones and metals products, grasping the largest share of exported goods (20.68%), plunged by 32.51% by October 2017, to $489.5M despite an increase in volumes exported from 46 tons by Oct. 2016 to 76 tons by Oct. 2017.  As for prepared foodstuffs, beverages and tobacco, they constituted 16.06% of the exported goods’ value and they went up by 4.03% y-o-y to $380.16M by Oct. 2017.  Moreover, Base metals and articles of base metal, which take up to 11.65% of the total exports, rose from $198.17M by Oct. 2016 to $275.75M by Oct.2017.  The top export destinations for the same period were South Africa, UAE and Saudi Arabia, with respective shares of 12%, and 8 % for the last two Gulf states.  (LC 14.12)

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5.4  Jordan’s Inflation Rate for November 2017 Increases by 3.3% on Average

Jordan’s Department of Statistics announced that the Consumer Price Index reached 120.4 in Nov 2017 against 116.6 for Nov 2016 recorded an increase of 3.3%.  The main commodities groups, which contributed to this increase, were Transport – 10.0%, Rents – 2.9%, vegetables, canned and dries legumes by 9.6%, Tobacco and cigarettes 6.9%, and meats & poultry by 2.3%.  Meanwhile, the main commodities groups which witnessed a decrease in their prices were clothes 2.6%, Fruits and nuts 2.4%, Shoes 1.7% and fish and sea products by 0.9%.

The report also shows that the Consumer Price Average for the 1st eleven months of 2017 has increased by 3.3% while it was (0.9%) in 2016.  The main commodities groups which contributed to this increase were Transport 13%, rents 2.5%, Tobacco & cigarettes by 8%, vegetables, canned and dries legumes by 5.2% and health by 8.7%.  Meanwhile, the main commodities groups which witnessed a decrease in their prices were meat & poultry 5.5%, Fruits and nuts 3.2%, clothes 2.9%, and cereals 0.2%.  (14.12 DOS)

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5.5  EU Grants €510 Million in Aid to Jordan

Jordan and the European Union on 18 December signed a joint declaration on the assistance for the period 2017-2020 for €410 million under the European Neighbourhood Policy.  They also signed a grant agreement for a program of €100 million to support the implementation of the National Strategy for the Solid Waste Management SWM.  Planning and International Cooperation Minister Fakhoury and EU Ambassador Fontana signed the agreements.

During the ceremony, Fakhoury said that the assistance is to support the efforts of the government in the various development and reform areas through the implementation of a package of development programs and projects during the period 2017-2020, including programs of sector support through the budget.  He said that the joint declaration included priorities in line with the partnership reached between Jordan and the EU during the meeting of the Jordanian-European partnership committee held in Amman on 19 July 2016.

The priorities, he said, include promoting social and economic development in Jordan, which will focus on supporting the achievement of the Jordan 2025 by supporting the priorities of the Executive Development Program 2018-2020, strengthening the rule of law and improving border management and preventing violent extremism, as well as complementary support for institutional building and capacity building.  The grant includes €50 million from pledges made during the London conference 2016, €20 million from EU bilateral assistance for 2016 and €30 million from EU bilateral assistance for 2017.

Forty million euros of the grant will be transferred to support the general budget and €60 million will be used for the implementation of infrastructure projects including construction and initial operation of sanitary landfills in the Northern and Central Regions, and construction and/or rehabilitation of transfer stations in the waste catchment areas.  The grant aims to gradually improve solid waste facilities and strengthen the existing legal and regulatory framework to meet the objectives set out in the National Municipal Solid Waste Strategy, strengthen monitoring and control capabilities, improve the collection, transport and disposal system in the northern and central regions, social and economic welfare and health status of collectors of recyclable materials from landfills.

The value of the first agreement signed under the new EU program is €55.3 million that are made immediately available for the building or rehabilitation of several infrastructures, including Al Ekeider landfill and to build the capacity of entities responsible for Municipal Solid Waste.  (Petra 18.12)

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5.6  Amman Licenses Ride Hailing Apps

On 24 December, the Jordanian cabinet endorsed a new regulation allowing the licensing of ride hailing applications.  The regulation aims at improving the level of services provided to citizens and benefiting from smart applications in the transportation sector.  Under the new system, passenger transportation companies are prohibited from using smart applications unless they first obtain the necessary licenses and permits from the Land Transport Regulatory Commission (LTRC) and after submitting the registration certificate of the company to the Companies Control Department.  (Petra 24.12)

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►►Arabian Gulf

5.7  UAE-China Trade Exceeds $35 Billion in First Nine Months of 2017

Two-way trade between the UAE and China has already crossed $35 billion in the first nine months of the 2017 as the global powerhouse looks to boost trade links with the country.  The two countries are looking to build on bilateral economic relations which totaled $46.3 billion in the whole of 2016.  China’s Cosco is set to build and operate a container terminal at Khalifa Port and Hutchison Port’s new concession to operate terminals in Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain.

In 2013, China launched One Belt One Road initiative, connecting 60 countries in various regions located along the Belt and Road Initiative, with a combined inward FDI stock of nearly $6 trillion and outward FDI stock above $3 trillion, according to World Investment Report published by the United Nation’s Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).  The UAE received $9 billion foreign direct investment in 2016 – when the country also witnessed outward investment to the tune of $15.71 billion – making the country a net capital exporter.  The UAE has been actively participating in trade and investment events in China, including the Belt and Road Summit and the China-Arab States Expo.  (AB 16.12)

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5.8  VAT Implementation in Oman Postponed Until 2019

Oman’s Ministry of Finance has postponed the decision to implementation of Value-Added Tax (VAT) until 2019.  The application of the selective tax on certain products will start by the middle of 2018, the ministry said.  No further details have been given about the postponement by the Omani authorities.

In November, 2016, Oman announced that it will implement value-added tax (VAT) by the beginning of 2018 in a move to diversify its revenues amid the decline in oil prices.  The selective tax includes those harmful to health such as alcohol, tobacco and fizzy and energy drinks.

The estimated income from VAT, Oman could add between $520 million and $779 million every year.  The revenue generated will help diversify the country’s economy and provide a new source of income for the government coffers.  Levying VAT is the outcome of joint efforts between Oman and other GCC states, according to the Ministry of Finance.  Since 2015, Oman has been cutting state subsidies and introducing other austerity measures to curb a budget deficit that has totaled OR 3 billion in the first nine months of 2017.  (GN 25.12)

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5.9  Saudi Arabia Set to Issue First Tourist Visas in Early 2018

Saudi Arabia will begin issuing tourist visas in the first quarter of 2018, its top tourism official said, a first for the kingdom as it undergoes major economic and social reforms.  Saudi Arabia is now just preparing the regulations — who is eligible for the visas and how to obtain them.  The move to open up its tourism sector is a major shift for Saudi Arabia as powerful Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman seeks to radically overhaul the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy and shed its ultra-conservative image.  Apart from the millions of Muslims who travel to Saudi Arabia annually for the Hajj pilgrimage, most visitors face an arduous process and steep fees to enter the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia currently grants tourist visas for a limited number of countries, but even those applications involve a range of restrictions, including requirements to travel through an accredited company and stay at designated hotels.  The cost of the new tourist visa had not yet been settled, but sources stressed that it would be “as low as possible, because we believe the cumulative economic impact is greater than the cash from the visa”.

In recent months, Saudi has broken with some of its most rigid rules — lifting a cinema ban, allowing genders to mix at a national celebration and announcing that women will be allowed to drive next June.  Prince Mohammed in August announced a massive tourism project to turn 50 islands and a string of sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.  (Various 20.12)

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►►North Africa

5.10  Egypt Plans Power Link to Saudi Arabia in $1.6 Billion Project

Egypt will connect its electricity network to Saudi Arabia, joining a system in the Middle East that has allowed neighbors to share power.  The link will cost about $1.6 billion, with Egypt paying about $600 million, Egypt’s Electricity Minister Mohamed Shaker said at a conference in Cairo.  Contracts to build the network will be signed in March or April, and construction is expected to take about two years, he said.  In times of surplus, Egypt can export electricity and then import power during shortages.

Transmissions of electricity across borders in the Gulf became possible in 2009, when a power grid connected Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.  The aim of the grid is to ensure that member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council can import power in an emergency.  Egypt, which is not in the GCC, may have been able to avert an electricity shortage it suffered in 2014 if the link with Saudi Arabia existed at the time.  The link with Saudi Arabia should have a capacity of 3,000 MW.  Egypt has a 450MW link with Jordan and one with Libya at 200MW.  Egypt will seek to use its strategic location to connect power grids in Asia and elsewhere in Africa.  (Various 16.12)

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5.11  Cairo Approves Comprehensive Health Insurance Bill

On 18 December, the Egyptian parliament approved the controversial and long-awaited Comprehensive Health Insurance Law, which is expected to be implemented in six stages, each comprising a number of governorates.  The final stage will include Cairo, Giza and Qalyubia.  According to state media outlets, only three MPs refused the law, while more than two thirds voted in its favor.

Amid fears that the bill will allow the privatization of already existing public hospitals, the Egyptian Doctor’s Syndicate has called for amending some of the articles of the law, and has announced that it will host a general assembly to discuss it.  It also called upon parliament not to approve it unless a consensus has been reached among various segments of society.

The government set the price of insurance per person in the draft of the Comprehensive Health Insurance Law at 1% of income for workers insured under Law No. 79 of 1975.  The rate will be 5% of income for employees and freelancers who are not subject to Law No. 108 of 1976.  The rate would also be 5% for individuals under Law No. 112 of 1980, 2% for widows and pensioners, 3% for working women, 1% for couples’ first and second children, and 1.5% for children thereafter.  Government plans to supply 10% of tobacco tax to the new health insurance and 10% of health treatment will be paid for by the recipient under the new system.

The government has identified resources to finance the new comprehensive health insurance system, including private contributions, payments received through government services, and funding from the State Treasury for the needy.  (DNE 18.12)

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5.12  Egyptian Parliament Approves Law Establishing Country’s First Space Agency

On 24 December, the Egyptian parliament approved a government-drafted law to create the country’s first space agency.  The measure aims to push Egypt forward in the vital area of space and satellite technology in a way that should serve the country’s national security and development objectives.  The Egyptian Space Agency (ESA) will be a Cairo-based public organization that will have branches in different parts of Egypt.  To meet its objectives, the agency will seek to attract domestic and foreign investments.  A higher council of the ESA will be mandated with formulating the agency’s policies and supervising the implementation of its activities.

In 2000, the first Egyptian space program was forged to design, manufacture and launch the country’s first satellite for peaceful objectives.  In 2007 Egypt, in collaboration with the Ukraine, was able to launch its first satellite for scientific research, albeit unfortunately in 2010 Egypt lost control of this satellite (SAT1) because Egyptian engineers who were responsible for operating it decide to leave in favor of building space technology programs in some Arab countries.

Articles 23 and 31 of the law mandate the government to allocate 1% of the GDP to spending on scientific research, information technology and the sponsoring of inventors and researchers, and that cyber technology should be reinforced to become an integral part of the country’s national security and economy.  (Ahram 23.12)

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6.1  Turkish Parliament Adopts Nation’s Budget for 2018

The Turkish Parliament has approved the government’s 2018 budget, which includes increased spending on defense and projects a rise in the fiscal deficit to TL 65.9 billion ($17.28 billion).  The 2018 budget, approved by parliament late on 22 December, after a 12-day marathon session, introduces changes in tax regulations, such as tax increases for companies and motor vehicles, to help pay for increased security.  The budget was backed by 305 lawmakers, while 124 voted against it in the 550 seat chamber.

In 2017, Turkey’s budget is expected to show a deficit of TL 61.7 billion, more than twice the 2016 budget deficit of around TL 30 billion.  Turkey’s 2018 budget also projects a tax income of TL 599.4 billion, up 15% from estimates for 2017, and a TL 5.8 billion primary surplus.  Next year’s budget deficit to gross domestic product ratio is expected to be 1.9%.

Around TL 85 billion ($22.2 billion) are earmarked for public investment, with nearly 30% to be spent on transportation. Ten percent of investment will be directed to the health care sector, while agriculture will receive 12%.

Turkey’s economy has rebounded from a downturn that followed the supposed coup last year, helped by a series of government stimulus measures.  The GDP grew 11.1% year-on-year in the third quarter, its fastest expansion in six years.  Ankara is targeting a growth of 5.5% for 2017. It hopes to carry through to 2020, according to a medium-term economic program announced in September.  (HDN 23.12)

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6.2  Turkish Automotive Sector Foresees $29 Billion in Exports Next Year

The Turkish automotive sector, which achieved all-time high export figures before the end of the year, is preparing to close 2017 with $28 billion in exports and aiming to reach $29 billion in 2018, according to the Uludag Automotive Industry Exporters Association (OIB).  The OIB stressed that the 11 months of the year have been quite remunerative for automotive exports.  The automotive industry reached an average export figure of $2.4 billion per month, from January 2017 to November 2017, while its exports reached $26 billion with a 21% upsurge.  The automotive sector achieved the highest export figures ever on a monthly basis, with an export figure of $2.7 billion in March.  Also in May, June, October and November, over $2.5 billion worth of exports were carried out.  Exports exceeded $2 billion in all months, with the exception of August.  However, the $1.8 billion achieved in August is the highest ever for the month.  As such, the targeted export figure of $27 billion for 2017 will be surpassed. It is expected that production and exports on a piece basis will also be a record high.

Germany became the Turkish automotive industry’s largest market with $4.3 billion worth of exports in the same period.  Exports to major markets such as Italy, France, the U.K., Spain and the U.S. skyrocketed by 16%, 19%, 25%, 26% and 104%, respectively.  However, exports to Egypt plunged by 23%.  A total of nine out of the largest 10 export markets were EU countries.  The share of EU countries in the Turkish automotive sector’s exports was $20.1 billion, corresponding to 77% of overall exports.  (AA 24.12)

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6.3  Greek Parliament Approves 2018 Budget After Fierce Debate

After a fierce parliamentary debate, Greek lawmakers on 19 December approved by majority the country’s 2018 budget, which the government said would be the last under bailout terms.  It was approved with 153 votes in favor and 144 against at the end of a five-day debate in parliament.  A total of 297 lawmakers participated in the roll-call vote.  The budget was approved by 152 MPs of the SYRIZA-ANEL governing coalition and one independent MP.  All opposition lawmakers voted against.

The budget forecasts an expansion in output of 2.5% in 2018, compared to a projected 1.6% this year. It is expected to generate a primary surplus, which excludes debt servicing, of 3.82% of gross domestic output, higher than that set by lenders.  As part of measures to offset the impact of austerity, the finance ministry said that value added tax would not be increased on five islands which have received thousands of asylum seekers since Europe’s migrant crisis erupted in 2015.  (Various 20.12)

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6.4  Greek Unemployment Rises 4.88% in November Compared to October

Registered unemployment climbed by 4.88% in November compared to October, according to the Greek Employment Manpower Organization (OAED), adding 40,261 people to the ranks of the unemployed.  Overall, November’s registered unemployed came to 864,778 in November, compared to 824,517 in October.  Of these 495,195 (or 57%) have been unemployed for 12 months or longer, and the remaining 369,583 (or 43%) have been unemployed for less than 12 months.

Of the unemployed, around 63% are women, the same percentage as the unemployed of both sexes aged 30-54.  Also, about 78% of the total have completed the obligatory basic education or are high school graduates, and 91% are Greek nationals.  In terms of unemployed registered at OAED but not looking for work, their number had climbed by 44.83% in November compared to October, while the unemployed receiving benefits for the same time climbed by 26.59% to a total of 123,132 people.  (AMNA 20.12)

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6.5  Construction on Greek Satellite “Hellas-Sat 4” Completed

The new Hellas-Sat was completed and was already sent to California, USA, from Lockheed Martin premises for environmental testing before it is sent to the site where it will be launched into space in 2018.  Hellas Sat 4 was built in cooperation with the Royal Institute of Technology of Saudi Arabia.  It will offer additional capacity for television and data to their clients in Europe, South Africa and the Middle East and support to the already existing satellite.  The new, technically advanced satellite will offer innovative services as: quicker internet to airplanes and governmental organizations as well as to other providers like mobile telephone.  Hellas Sat 4 which is expected to be ready for launch in the summer of 2018 is one of the most modern satellites in the world.  (AMNA 24.12)

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7.1  Fast of the 10th of Tevet

The tenth of Tevet (Asarah BeTevet), the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tevet, is a fast day in Judaism.  Falling this year on 28 December, it is one of the minor fasts observed from before dawn to nightfall.  The fasting commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon, an event that eventually culminated in the destruction of Solomon’s Temple (the First Temple) and the conquest of the Kingdom of Judah (today in southern Israel).

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7.2  Jerusalem Marathon Sees Registration Spike Following US Recognition of Capital

U.S. President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital may have led to a rise in foreign registration to the Jerusalem Marathon.  Some 100 foreign runners have signed up since Trump’s 6 December declaration, representing some 12% of the overall registration from abroad.  Moreover, according to municipality officials, registration from outside Israel is 30% higher than in the equivalent period last year.  The marathon will take place on 9 March 2018.  Some 900 runners from 47 countries have registered for the marathon so far and officials expect the final number of competitors to total some 3,500.

Officials say the number of African participants has increased by some 50% compared to the equivalent period in 2017.  The U.S. has led the pack so far, with 123 registered participants, followed by Germany, Poland and China.  The upcoming marathon will comprise six different races, with the over-arching theme being the 70th anniversary of the city’s reunification in the 1967 Six-Day War.  (Various 17.12)

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7.3  Record Breaking 20% Increase in Christmas Pilgrims to Israel

ens of thousands of Christian pilgrims were expected to arrive in Israel over the Christmas holiday, capping a record-breaking year that included 3.5 million tourists, the Tourism Ministry announced.  Noting that a 20% increase of Christian visitors is expected over Christmas compared to last year, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin expressed pride in the record numbers of annual visitors.  Levin attributed the record growth to the ministry’s ongoing international tourism campaign.

According to the ministry’s statistics, more than half of the 2.9 million tourists in 2016 were Christian, and approximately 120,000 of the tourists who visited last December were Christian pilgrims.  The vast majority of Christian tourists visit Jerusalem, with about 40% visiting Tel Aviv-Jaffa.  The most visited sites by Christians included the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jewish Quarter, Western Wall, Via Dolorosa, Mount of Olives, Capernaum, Church of the Annunciation and City of David.  (JP 20.12)

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7.4  Immigration to Israel Bounces Back In 2017

Aliyah (Immigration to Israel) has picked up again in 2017 thanks to the rise in the number of new arrivals from the former Soviet bloc countries, especially Ukraine.  However, the number of migrants from France continued to decline, after a reaching an all all-time high two years ago.  Ministry of Immigrant Absorption data says that by the end of 2017, the number of immigrants arriving in Israel would number some 28,400, an increase of five% compared to 2016.

Immigration fell by 13% in 2016 owing to a sudden slump in the number of Jewish people entering the country from France.  Earlier, increased inflow of Jews from France was seen for quite a few years, owing to an economic slump and anti-Semitic sentiments in that country.  Although the Israeli government had expected that French Jews would continue to enter the country, it did not happen.  In fact, a lot of Jews of French descent who relocated to Israel in the recent past had gone back, citing difficulties in adjusting to life in Israel.  It was estimated that 3,400 immigrants from France would come to Israel by the end of 2017, around 28% less than the previous year. In 2015, around 7,500 immigrants arrived from France.

But the immigrant numbers arriving from Ukraine is estimated to touch 6,700 by the end of 2017, a rise of 14% compared to the previous year.  The number of Russian immigrants to Israel, however, is expected to be stable at around 7,000 this year.  If it happens, the largest source country of immigrants to the Holy Land would be Russia for the second consecutive year.  The number of Brazilian immigrants also increased as these people too were relocating to Israel to escape from the increasing crime rate and economic problems.  About 670 Jews are said to be arriving in Israel from the South American country by the end of this year.  Last year and 2015 saw 630 and 460 Jews arriving from Brazil, respectively.  Some 2,900 Jews from the US migrated to Israel this year.  (JTA 24.12)

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7.5  Saudi Women Will Also be Allowed to Drive Trucks & Motorbikes

Saudi Arabian women will be able to drive trucks and motorcycles, officials have said three months after the kingdom announced a historic decision to end a ban on women driving.  In September, King Salman issued a decree saying women will be able to drive from next June as part of an ambitious reform push in the conservative kingdom.  The Saudi General Directorate of Traffic gave details of the new regulations that will follow the lifting of the ban.  They will authorize women to drive motorcycles and trucks, but there will be no special license plate numbers for female-driven cars.  However, women involved in road accidents or who commit traffic violations will be dealt with at special centers that will be established and run by women.  (AB 16.12)

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7.6  In Just Ten Years, Foreign Population in Morocco Increased by 63%

Previously heeded as a traditional pole of emigration towards Europe and a country of transit, Morocco moved beyond being a temporary host to becoming a home for thousands of migrants.  Over a ten years span, from 2004-2014, the foreign population in Moroccan exponentially grew by a 63% rate.  Out of a population of 33.8 million registered in 2014, the number of foreigners residing in Morocco has reached 84,001 inhabitants.  They represent 0.25% of the total Moroccan population and an increase of 32,566 foreigners compared to 2004, said the High Commission for Planning in a recent report.  The overwhelming majority, or 95.2% of foreigners settle in urban areas, against a minority of 4.8% living in rural areas.

They are concentrated in six major cities, mainly Casablanca at 28.6%, followed by Rabat at 14.8%, Marrakech at 8%, Tangier-Assilah at 6.1%, Agadir-Ida-Ou-Tanane at 4.4% and Fez at 4.2%.  More than half of these migrants are married at 57.5%, with a slight domination of male presence at 56.5% against 43.5% for women.  The foreign population is relatively older than the Moroccan population. 17.8% are under 15 years of age compared to 28.2% of the Moroccan population.  66.5% of foreigners are between 15 and 59 against 62.4% of the Moroccans, and 15.7% of expatriates are over 60 against 9.4 of the Moroccan population.

At 95.1%, HCP found that foreigners living in Morocco are highly literate.  84% of foreigners aged 15 and over have at least secondary education and 51% of them have university degrees.  (HCP 19.12)

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7.7  Morocco’s 14,000 Quranic Schools Teach 450,000 Students

Ahmed Toufiq, Minister of Endowment and Islamic Affairs, revealed on the eve of Eid Mawlid celebration, that Morocco is home to more than 14,000 Quranic schools, which teach the Holy Quran to 450,000 beneficiaries, 40% of whom are women.  During his presentation on the annual report on the balance sheet of activities of the Higher Council and Local Councils of Oulemas before the King Mohammed VI, Toufiq highlighted the role of Quranic schools in Morocco.  He added that authorizations were granted for the opening of 300 new Quranic schools, which continue to benefit from the financial and educational support to all levels.

Many Quranic schools have been rehabilitated or newly built in Morocco to strengthen its strategy to combat extremism, as the Moroccan government considers them to be a bulwark against the spread of religious radicalism.  In addition, Morocco has gained religious leadership in the region owing to the country’s promotion of a moderate Islam under the Sunni Maliki School of thought, to Quran reciters and common Muslims in international competitions.

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7.8  Brief History of M’sid Schools in Morocco

Throughout the history of Islam, mosques have played a dual role as a place of worship and learning.  In Morocco, whenever a mosque was built, a large hall, called M’sid, was built next to it to teach the Holy Quran to children from the age of five, as well as the Arabic language, calligraphy, and other disciplines.  Quranic schools provides young children, regardless of their social background, with training based on the memorization of the Quranic verses.

At the age of 12 or 13, the most talented and deserving pupils can enter the second stage of learning in a mosque or zawiya, where they learn the fundamental principles of grammar and Islamic law, or Sharia.

Quranic schools are known by different regional names: in Libya they go under the name of zawia, while in Somalia the dox, in Senegal the daara, in Yemen the milama, in Egypt the kuttab, in Mauritania the mahadra, and elsewhere still some are known under the name of maktab or madrasa.

Classes in the Quranic school are always taught by a master called taleb, fqih, or sheikh, who leads the students in a mechanical and collective recitation of the alphabet and Quranic verses.  In the collective imagination, the M’sid remains not only a place of teaching Quran, but it is undeniably a place of punishment.  Raising one foot for an hour without putting it down, Falaqa, Tahmila or even shots with a metal ruler on the tips of the fingers were usually on the menu of classic punishments, which only few could escape.  Today, this institution, which once had an important spiritual place among Muslims, is beginning to become marginalized and forgotten as the majority of families have opted for modern schools.  (MWN 02.12)

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8.1  Israel Sees Booming Demand from Farmers to Grow Cannabis

Nearly 400 Israeli farmers have recently applied for permits to grow cannabis following the government’s decision last year to ease restrictions on medical marijuana.  The number marks a sharp increase in demand as Israel positions itself to be a top medical cannabis exporter with hopes of $1 billion worth of annual sales.

Health Ministry officials also told the Knesset members on the Knesset’s Special Committee on Drug and Alcohol Abuse that the agency received over 250 applications for cannabis nurseries seeking to distribute the plants, 95 requests to set up cannabis pharmacies, 60 applications for processing facilities and 44 requests to set up stores selling cannabis products.  The officials said that of the 383 requests from farmers, 242 have already received preliminary approval, with the majority of the other applications also getting the okay.  Currently, there are only eight farms growing marijuana in Israel, according to Cannabis Magazine.

Earlier this year, the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture officially classified the growing of medical cannabis as a “farming sector,” paving the way for marijuana growers to receive government aid, grants, training and water quotas, just like any other eligible farmer.  The government also announced this year that it would invest $2.13 million in 13 research projects on cannabis, making Israel one of three countries with a government-sponsored cannabis program.  The developments in the Israeli cannabis industry has attracted international attention with foreign investors pouring $100 million last year into Israeli cannabis startups.  (NoCamels 20.12)

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8.2  Femarelle Launches New Women’s Supplement Line in U.S.

Se-cure Pharmaceuticals announced its U.S. launch of Femarelle, a premium supplement line for women over 40.  The Femarelle line includes three products, each one formulated for a different stage of estrogen decline, before, during and after menopause.  Femarelle is developed from a proprietary extract, DT56a, which has been shown in clinical studies to support healthy management of menopause symptoms.  Because the symptoms of estrogen decline vary from ages 40-70+, each product provides a targeted solution with additional ingredients to address the needs of the individual.  Femarelle products are guaranteed to be drug and estrogen free, as well as Non-GMO certified, Kosher, Halal and gluten free.  Femarelle can be purchased online, and in local California and Florida health food stores.

Founded in 1997, Airport City’s Se-cure Pharmaceuticals is a clinical stage technology-driven pharmaceutical company focused on developing safe and effective therapeutic solutions, derived from botanical sources.  Implementing proprietary botanical drug development and scaling technologies, Se-cure is able to introduce novel biochemical agents characterized by functionally selective mechanisms of action in the target tissues.  (Se-cure Pharmaceuticals 15.12)

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8.3  BioSight Reports Favorable Phase I/II Results of its Cytarabine Pro-Drug BST-236 for Treatment of Acute Leukemia

Airport City’s BioSight reports positive final results in a Phase I/II multi-center, open label, dose-escalating study of its lead product BST-236, a novel cytarabine pro-drug, as a single agent for induction therapy in acute leukemia patients.  The results demonstrated safety and efficacy of BST-236 as a single agent in treatment of newly-diagnosed acute leukemia patients, unfit for standard induction therapy.  The results found that BST-236 was safe and well tolerated at all doses.  Adverse events included mainly “on-target” hematological events and related infections.  No cerebellar toxicity, no mucositis, no renal failure, and no alopecia events were reported.  Based on these encouraging results, BioSight intends to launch a multi-center Phase IIb study in the US and Israel in the coming months.

BST-236, a novel proprietary compound under development for the treatment of hematological malignancies, is composed of cytarabine covalently bound to asparagine.  BST-236 acts as a cytarabine pro-drug, releasing cytarabine inside target cells with reduced non-specific systemic toxicity, thus enabling delivery of high cytarabine doses to leukemia cells with relative sparing of normal tissues.  (BioSight 14.12)

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8.4  Koch Disruptive Technologies to Lead $150 Million Investment in INSIGHTEC

Koch Disruptive Technologies, a subsidiary of Koch Industries focused on finding and funding innovative and emerging companies, is the lead investor in a $150 million Series E funding round for INSIGHTEC, a commercial-stage medical device company revolutionizing surgery with MRI-guided focused ultrasound.

The investment will allow the company to further commercialize its approved indications, as well as continue research in areas such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and brain tumors, using the company’s breakthrough technology to deliver treatment in a non-invasive way.  It is also the first investment for Koch Disruptive Technologies since the business group commenced operations in November.

INSIGHTEC’s Exablate Neuro is the first focused ultrasound device approved by the FDA to treat essential tremor that has not responded to medication and recently received the Best Medical Technology award by Prix Galien.  The company surpassed the 1,000th patient milestone earlier this year, as essential tremor patients are routinely being treated with focused ultrasound at 40 medical centers around the world.

Tirat Carmel’s INSIGHTEC is the world leader and innovator of MR-guided Focused Ultrasound.  The company’s non-invasive therapy platforms, Exablate and Exablate Neuro, are proven technology based on sound clinical evidence for treating essential tremor, painful bone metastases and uterine fibroids.  The company is dedicated to improving patient lives by collaborating with physicians, medical institutions, academic researchers and regulatory bodies around the world.  (INSIGHTEC 14.12)

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8.5  Can-Fite Reports on the Progress of Its Phase II Liver Cancer Drug Namodenoson

Can-Fite BioPharma provided an update on its Phase II clinical trial with drug candidate Namodenoson (CF102) in the treatment of advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).  Ongoing close observation of enrolled subjects indicates a potentially favorable drug safety profile.  The Company previously announced in August that it had successfully completed enrollment of 78 patients.  Although the trial remains blinded to the Company, accumulated safety data to date indicate a potentially favorable drug safety profile without hepatotoxicity and possible positive clinical effects.  There are now subjects treated for more than one year and in some cases, two years.  To date, 15 subjects have completed at least 12 cycles of treatment (each cycle is 28 days of treatment) of which two completed 24 cycles. The Company anticipates data release to occur in 2H2018.

Can-Fite received Orphan Drug Designation for Namodenoson in Europe and the U.S., as well as Fast Track Status in the U.S. as a second line treatment for HCC.

Petah Tikva’s Can-Fite BioPharma is an advanced clinical stage drug development Company with a platform technology that is designed to address multibillion-dollar markets in the treatment of cancer, inflammatory disease and sexual dysfunction.  The Company’s lead drug candidate, Piclidenoson, is currently in a Phase III trial for rheumatoid arthritis and is expected to enter a Phase III trial for psoriasis in early 2018.  Can-Fite’s liver cancer drug, Namodenoson, is in Phase II trials for hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common form of liver cancer, and for the treatment of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).  Namodenoson has also shown proof of concept to potentially treat other cancers, including colon, prostate and melanoma.  CF602, the Company’s third drug candidate, has shown efficacy in the treatment of erectile dysfunction in preclinical studies, and the Company is investigating additional compounds, targeting A3AR, for the treatment of sexual dysfunction.  (Can-Fite 18.12)

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8.6  NRGene Delivers First-ever Food Potato Genomes

NRGene is working with a team of researchers from Wageningen University & Research (WUR) in the Netherlands and leading commercial partners to create multi-genome mapping of commercial food potatoes.

The potato genome is complex.  It’s an auto-tetraploid, which means that each potato cell contains four nearly identical copies of each chromosome and gene, making the assembly and phasing of the four copies extremely difficult for traditional technologies.  NRGene has completed the phased assembly of three commercial potato varieties.  The assembly is built of scaffolds with an N50 of 1.19 Mbp, less than 0.89% unfilled gaps, and BUSCO results of 96.25%, 86% of which are found in more than one copy.

The potato breeding and research community, in which the Netherlands is leading, is continuously seeking improved genomic infrastructures to allow more efficient molecular breeding, and NRGene technologies provide the solution: DenovoMAGIC delivers the initial assemblies, while PanMAGIC compares the genomes all-to-all to get the best view of local differences and polymorphism such as SNPs, as well as global changes, such as gene PAVs and CNVs, translocations, and duplications of different sizes and whole chromosomic regions.

Ness Tziona’s NRGene is a genomic big data company delivering cutting-edge software and algorithms to reveal the complexity and diversity of humans, plants, and animals and support the most advanced and sophisticated breeding and research programs. NRGene tools have already been employed by some of the leading seed companies worldwide as well as the most influential research teams in academia.  (NRGene 19.12)

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8.7  BiomX Acquires RondinX to Boost Microbiome Discovery and Development Capabilities

BiomX announced the acquisition of RondinX.  The acquisition fortifies BiomX’s bacterial target discovery capabilities and supports its product development pipeline.  In addition, through the acquisition, BiomX will expand its therapeutic pipeline with novel microbial targets for a chronic liver disease. Financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.

In parallel, San Francisco-based 8VC, an angel investor in RondinX, made an undisclosed equity investment in BiomX.  Earlier this year, BiomX announced the completion of a $24 million series A financing.

The RondinX technology is based on the pioneering research established at the Weizmann Institute of Science and exclusively licensed to RondinX from its commercial arm YEDA Research and Development Company.  Ness Ziona’s BiomX is a microbiome drug discovery company developing customized phage therapies that target and destroy harmful bacteria in chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and cancer.  They discover and validate proprietary bacterial targets and customize our natural and engineered phage compositions against these targets.  (BiomX 19.12)

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8.8  DarioHealth Gains Regulatory Approval in Australia for Smart Glucose Meters

DarioHealth Corp. received the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) Mark for its Lightning-enabled version of the acclaimed Dario Blood Glucose Monitoring System in Australia.  The regulatory approval ensures that consumers in the Australian market will be able to receive the same quality user experience with DarioHealth on the latest Apple devices, including the brand-new iPhone 8 and iPhone X.  The launch of Apple’s smartphones with only a Lightning connector posed a unique challenge to the entire mobile ecosystem.  With today’s announcement, DarioHealth can now successfully offer its proprietary glucose meter with either a 3.5mm headphone jack or Lightning connector to users in Australia.

In addition to the TGA approval, users in the U.K. will be able to purchase the Lightning-enabled Dario device at the end of this month while sales of the device will begin in Australia by January 2018.  DarioHealth is still waiting on approval from regulatory agencies in the U.S. and Canada, which is expected in the coming months.

Caesarea’s DarioHealth Corp. is a leading global digital health company serving tens of thousands of users with dynamic mobile health solutions.  They believe people deserve the best tools to manage their treatment and harnessing big data, they have developed a unique way for their users to analyze and personalize their diabetes management.  With their smart diabetes solution, users have direct access to track and monitor all facets of diabetes, without having the disease slow them down.  (DarioHealth 18.12)

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8.9  Kitov Announces Consensi as Brand Name for KIT-302

Kitov Pharmaceuticals announced that the U.S. FDA has granted permission to Kitov to use the brand name Consensi for marketing KIT-302, subject to receipt of marketing approval from the FDA.  Consensi is a combination drug that is intended to simultaneously treat pain caused by osteoarthritis, as well as hypertension, which is a common side effect of stand-alone drugs that treat osteoarthritis pain.  Consensi is comprised of two FDA approved drugs, celecoxib (Celebrex), a COX-2 inhibitor, for the treatment of pain caused by osteoarthritis, and amlodipine besylate (Norvasc), a calcium channel blocker for lowering blood pressure.

Jerusalem’s Kitov Pharmaceuticals is an innovative biopharmaceutical drug development company.  Leveraging deep regulatory and clinical-trial expertise, Kitov’s veteran team of healthcare professionals maintains a proven track record in streamlined end-to-end drug development and approval.  Kitov’s flagship combination drug, Consensi (previously referred to as KIT-302), intended to treat osteoarthritis pain and hypertension simultaneously, achieved the primary efficacy endpoints for its Phase III and Phase III/IV clinical trials.  (Kitov Pharmaceuticals 14.12)

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8.10  OWC Update on its Proprietary Medical Cannabis Sublingual Tablet

In December 2017, OWC Pharmaceutical Research Corp. received a new permit from the Israel Medical Cannabis Agency [MCA] to proceed with the safety study of their oral disintegrating tablet.  The study protocol will be submitted to the Institutional Review Board [IRB] at a leading Israeli academic hospital in the coming weeks.  The study is scheduled to start in Q2/18.  In October of 2016 OWC announced that it had completed the development of a proprietary cannabinoid-enriched sublingual tablet (the Tablet) for the administration of medical cannabis.  The Tablet constitutes a smoke-free alternative for patients using medical cannabis.

The technology behind the Tablet is protected and provides for the ingestion of virtually any dosage of medical cannabis with a sublingual delivery mechanism, whereby the compounds are absorbed directly into the patient’s blood through the oral epithelial tissue.  The Tablet also enables physicians to safely and accurately gauge and monitor the dosage and treatment of each individual patient, something that is essentially impossible to do for patients who administer cannabis by smoking.

OWC Pharmaceutical Research Corp., through its wholly-owned Petah Tikva. Israel subsidiary, One Word Cannabis, conducts medical research and clinical trials to develop cannabis-based pharmaceuticals and treatments for conditions including multiple myeloma, psoriasis, fibromyalgia, PTSD and migraines.  OWC is also developing unique delivery systems for the effective delivery and dosage of medical cannabis.  All OWC research is conducted at leading Israeli hospitals and scientific institutions, and led by internationally renowned investigators.  (OWC 21.12)

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9.1  Lumus Announces Collaboration with Deep Optics

Lumus announced a new collaboration that will demonstrate dynamic focus technology in Lumus AR optics.  By layering the Deep Optics lens over its own lens, Lumus will enable AR glasses to seamlessly deliver an equally clear view of both close and far content, without compromising its wide field of view, without image distortion and without significantly changing the size and weight of smart eyeglasses.  Augmented reality eyewear displays a transparent overlay over the user’s environment, with the AR digital data typically viewed at a fixed focal plane; the viewer can focus on faraway content, but not closer objects.  The new strategic partnership eliminates that limitation by combining industry-leading optical technology from Lumus with dynamic, LC-based lens technology developed by Deep Optics, enabling smart eyewear that automatically provides a sharp, clear view of both near and far objects from any distance or angle at all times.

Ness Tziona’s Lumus believes the future is looking up, and is working with today’s leading augmented reality (AR) and smart eyewear manufacturers to free the world from the limitations of screen-based living.  Lumus develops and produces exceptional transparent AR displays that fuse digital and physical worlds like never before.  Lumus optics are the core foundational technology on which top global OEM brands are basing their products.

Petah Tikva’s Deep Optics is the inventor and pioneer of novel electronic lenses technology, with a mission to transform the world of vision correction and lead it to the era of dynamic optics.  The company has developed a cutting-edge liquid-crystal (LC) based lenses technology, addressing the growing need for dynamic vision correction, primarily in the markets of progressive eye-glasses and augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) headsets.  (Lumus 13.12)

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9.2  Mellanox Solutions Accelerates Tencent Cloud Artificial Intelligence Infrastructure

Mellanox Technologies announced that California’s Tencent Cloud has adopted Mellanox interconnect solutions for its high-performance computing (HPC) and artificial intelligence (AI) public cloud offering.  Tencent Cloud is a secure, reliable and high-performance public cloud service that integrates Tencent’s infrastructure capabilities with the advantages of a massive-user platform and ecosystem.  The Tencent Cloud infrastructure leverages Mellanox Ethernet and InfiniBand adapters, switches and cables to deliver advanced public cloud services.  By taking advantage of Mellanox RDMA, in-network computing and other interconnect acceleration engines, Tencent Cloud can now offer high-performance computing services, as required by its users, to develop advanced applications and offer new services.

Yokneam’s Mellanox Technologies is a leading supplier of end-to-end InfiniBand and Ethernet smart interconnect solutions and services for servers and storage.  Mellanox interconnect solutions increase data center efficiency by providing the highest throughput and lowest latency, delivering data faster to applications and unlocking system performance capability.  Mellanox offers a choice of fast interconnect products: adapters, switches, software and silicon that accelerate application runtime and maximize business results for a wide range of markets including high-performance computing, enterprise data centers, Web 2.0, cloud, storage and financial services.  (Mellanox Technologies 12.12)

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9.3  eToro Announces Partnership with CoinDash

The UK’s eToro, the global social trading and investment platform, announced a partnership with CoinDash, the platform for crypto portfolio management, to develop an array of blockchain-based social trading products.  The eToro team will assist CoinDash in the development and implementation of key features including Portfolio Tracking Tools – enabling the platform to appeal to both veteran and novice crypto investor audiences.  eToro is CoinDash’s largest investor, incubating the platform in its offices in China and Israel.  The intra-office setup enables both teams to extract value from proximity as they continue to co-develop the platform.

Kochav Yair’s CoinDash is a crypto based social trading platform, removing investment entry barriers by providing tools and services that make handling and tracking Crypto Assets easy and accessible for everyone. CoinDash will offer its products through a platform designed with the mainstream user in mind.  (eToro 14.12)

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9.4  Papaya Integrates Cryptocurrency Option to Leading Payroll Management Solution

Papaya Global announced the latest update to their global workforce management solution; integration of virtual currencies as supported payment method for global employees.  With the new support of cryptocurrencies, companies can now offer partial salary payment (up to 30%) of net salary in BitCoin, Ethereum and other leading Cryptocurrencies.  The addition of such a supported payment method is a huge employee benefit as cryptocurrency popularity and value continues to rise.  Companies looking to improve talent acquisition can offer the unique payment alternative thanks to Papaya Global. Employees in areas where the local currency fluctuates rapidly, such as Turkey, China, Russia, Brazil and more, particularly benefit from the new payment model and it may ease global expansion plans for companies into those countries.

While the popularity of cryptocurrencies continues to rise, few companies have offered cryptocurrency as a payment method due to regulation and compliance concerns.  Papaya is able to solve this issue by limiting the Cryptocurrency payment to 30% of the employee’s net salary. In doing so, Papaya is able to ensure that organizations stay compliant with local tax and reporting regulation while also regulating employee’s salary allocation to such a volatile and new currency.  The addition of cryptocurrency payments improves the already robust Papaya Global solution which simplifies and enhances transparency between companies, global employees and local providers.

Tel Aviv’s Papaya strives to simplify the perplexing global payroll process from paperwork, spreadsheets, confusion, and non-compliance risk into one automated global platform.  By harnessing technologies such as cloud management, artificial intelligence and business intelligence, Papaya is able to seamlessly automate the entire payroll lifecycle for salaries and PEO managed employees, all while ensuring full compliance with local regulations.  (Papaya Global 12.12)

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9.5 Selects Mellanox Solutions to Accelerate its Artificial Intelligence Centers

Mellanox Technologies announced that has selected Mellanox Spectrum Ethernet switches, ConnectX adapters and LinkX cables to accelerate its multi-thousand servers for their artificial intelligence, big data analytics and cloud data centers. is the world’s leading online and on-demand delivery platform, supporting 280 million mobile users and 5 million merchants across 2,180 cities in China, and processing up to 21 million orders a day during peak times.  Utilizing Mellanox 25 Gigabit and 100 Gigabit smart interconnect solutions and RDMA technology, can better analyze and match user needs to merchant online offers, faster and more accurately, while lowering data center operational costs.

Yokneam’s Mellanox Technologies is a leading supplier of end-to-end InfiniBand and Ethernet smart interconnect solutions and services for servers and storage.  Mellanox interconnect solutions increase data center efficiency by providing the highest throughput and lowest latency, delivering data faster to applications and unlocking system performance capability.  Mellanox offers a choice of fast interconnect products: adapters, switches, software and silicon that accelerate application runtime and maximize business results for a wide range of markets including high performance computing, enterprise data centers, Web 2.0, cloud, storage and financial services.  (Mellanox 18.12)

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9.6  Votiro Rolls Out Significant Product Enhancement for its Secure Email Gateway Solution

Votiro announced a new product update for its secure email gateway and API solutions.  Version 7.2 will have the ability to block suspicious macros (computer code that automates frequently-used tasks) allowing organizations to enjoy the proficiencies that macros offer in Microsoft Office suite.

Votiro’s Advanced CDR technology is a signature-less technology that supports a wide range of file formats that are most commonly exploited via spear phishing, other advanced persistent threats, and cyber-attacks.  CDR involves disarming suspicious files by extracting from them all malicious content and reconstructing them as a clean, safe to use copy of the original file – keeping all functionality intact.  Currently Votiro supports mobile and desktop editions of many file formats including the following; Microsoft Office files, RTF files, AutoCAD, Adobe PDF files, Images, Archives, Ichitaro files (which occupy the second share in Japanese word-processing software just behind Microsoft Word) among others.  Votiro continues to add and protect new file types using its CDR technology, most recently with its support Visio, a diagramming and vector graphics application, which has become a new attack vector gaining traction and popularity among businesses across the globe.

Tel Aviv’s Votiro delivers organizations with essential zero-day protection against unknown and ongoing cyber-threats.  The company’s Secure Data Sanitization solution provides a robust process and patent-pending technology for cleansing all incoming files from potential cyber-threats.  Customers include banks and other financial institutions, government agencies, energy and utilities companies, telecommunications service providers and large enterprises, who are relying on Votiro solutions to protect their critical IT infrastructure and sensitive data.  (Votiro 20.12)

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9.7  Rubidium Powers the First Voice-Triggered Headphones with Alexa Interface

Rubidium announced that its voice trigger was integrated into the 66 Audio PRO Voice wireless headphones, essentially the world’s first voice-triggered Bluetooth headphones with built-in Amazon Alexa.  Users can simply say “Alexa” to start interacting with Amazon’s cloud-based voice service.  Using Rubidium’s voice trigger, headphones, headsets, speakers and other devices listen to users at all times.  However, while always-on voice-activated AI assistants are ubiquitous in smartphones and smart speakers, their implementation in mobile, battery-powered wearables without direct connection to the cloud has been a long–time challenge.  Rubidium ported its always-on speech recognition engine to the Qualcomm® Bluetooth chip series as well as to other chips and cores, offering a tiny footprint, highly robust voice wakeup and speech recognition for mobile and wearable applications.  It can even run while a headset is playing music, including support for Qualcomm aptX and AAC world-class music codecs.

Ra’anana’s Rubidium covers the entire scope of embedded Voice User Interface: speech recognition, always-on Voice Trigger, text-to-speech, speech compression and more.  Rubidium’s industry leading speech processing solutions are optimized for low-resource, low-power applications in mobile, wireless, wearable, automotive and home appliances.  Rubidium’s multi-lingual solutions run standalone or combined with cloud-based voice assistants and provide customers with a totally hands-free, safe and productive user experience.  Rubidium’s technology is available for a large selection of processors, chips and software environments.  (Rubidium 19.12)

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9.8  mPrest & NYPA Announce Deployment of mPrest’s Asset Health Management System

mPrest and the New York Power Authority (NYPA), the largest state public power organization in the U.S, announced the release of an updated version of the award-winning asset health management software that they co-developed.  The software helps to predict failures in electricity generation transformers before they occur.  The updated version streamlines and automates how power utilities maintain critical assets on the smart grid to prevent power outages and reduce costs.  After contributing significantly to mPrest’s Transformer Health Management product and its successful implementation at NYPA’s Robert Moses Niagara Power Project earlier this year, NYPA has installed the application at its Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Project in Schoharie County and its 500 MW Combined-Cycle Power Plant in Queens.  The system is currently rolling out to the St. Lawrence Power Project in New York State’s North Country and other sites.

Version 2.0 enhances mPrest’s asset health product with new analytics tools and support for new assets and new sensors.  This version introduces, among other functions, lube-oil monitoring within generation and transmission elements, as well as aggregation of trend data on lubricating oils with other data types.  The product combines sensor data with data from commonly-used dissolved gas analysis (DGA) to create a comprehensive picture of transformer health in real time.

The Israel-U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) Foundation, which supports research and development cooperation between the U.S. and Israel, contributed to the product’s development.

Petah Tikva’s mPrest is a global provider of mission-critical monitoring, control and big data analytics software. Leveraging the power of the Industrial IoT, mPrest’s integrative “system of systems” is a proven catalyst for digital business transformation.  Their management solution has been deployed in next-gen IoE (Internet of Energy) applications for power utilities, as well as innovative management applications and IT/OT integration for water utilities, smart cities, defense and HLS.  (mPrest 19.12)

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9.9  AudioCodes Selected by Sunrise Communications for Skype for Business Online Services

AudioCodes announced that its One Voice portfolio of products and solution has been selected by Sunrise Communications, a leading service provider and system integrator in Switzerland.  Sunrise, an AudioCodes platinum status channel partner, is deploying AudioCodes’ solutions to deliver robust and cost-effective voice infrastructure for business customers using Microsoft Skype for Business unified communications.  Sunrise offers its customers Microsoft unified communications both as an on-premises and a cloud-based solution (in conjunction with Skype for Business Online).  Fully aligned with Microsoft’s current and future voice strategies, AudioCodes solutions are suitable for both scenarios.

Lod’s AudioCodes is a leading vendor of advanced voice networking and media processing solutions for the digital workplace.  AudioCodes enables enterprises and service providers to build and operate all-IP voice networks for unified communications, contact centers, and hosted business services.  AudioCodes offers a broad range of innovative products, solutions and services that are used by large multi-national enterprises and leading tier-1 operators around the world.  (AudioCodes 18.12)

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9.10  OTI is Developing Bitcoin Capabilities in the Crypto-currency Marketplace

On Track Innovations announced that it is developing capabilities to implement the use of Bitcoins in its cashless payment solutions.  Bitcoin usage is growing in the e-payment marketplace, with many establishments accepting online Bitcoins transactions.  Bitcoin usage has benefited from a growing acceptance of its ongoing facilitation of transfers. It’s fast becoming the prominent digital Internet transaction currency.

Rosh Pinna’s On Track Innovations (OTI) is a global leader in the design, manufacture and sale of secure cashless payment solutions using contactless NFC technology with an extensive patent and IP portfolio.  OTI’s field-proven innovations have been deployed around the world to address cashless payment and management requirements for the Internet of Payment Things (IoPT), wearables, automated retail and petroleum markets.  (OTI 18.12)

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9.11  Nissan India Selects Pointer as Part of Their Connected Car Solution

Pointer Telocation announced that Nissan India, the Indian subsidiary of a leading global car manufacturer, selected Pointer to provide part of the technological solution of the NissanConnect platform, in cooperation with InfoTrack Telematics.  Nissan’s connected car solution is an integrated information and communications platform that connects with the customer’s smartphone, offering a variety of in-car convenience services, navigation and safety features.

NissanConnect is a factory fitted connected car technology solution. It has an embedded telematics control unit, based on hardware from Pointer and a comprehensive software solution from InfoTrack Telematics, paired with an inbuilt SIM for every car and a dedicated host server.  The connected car features will be available throughout Nissan India’s full range of new cars.  Pointer’s Cello-CANiQ unit, which was chosen for this project is an intelligent fleet management solution, utilizing a smart algorithm to combine data from various vehicle sensors and interfaces.  The Cello-CANiQ features include, among others, OBD connection, vehicle diagnostics, advanced driver behavior capabilities, accident reconstruction and more.

Rosh HaAyin’s Pointer has rewritten the rules for the Mobile Resource Management (MRM) market and is a pioneer in the Connected Car segment.  Pointer has in-depth knowledge of the needs of this market and has developed a full suite of tools, technology and services to respond to them.  The vehicles of the future will be intimately networked with the outside world, enhancing and optimizing the in-car experience.  (Pointer 18.12)

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9.12  Agent Vi & AWS Enable Any Surveillance Camera to Become a Smart Camera

Agent Video Intelligence (Agent Vi) announced that its innoVi cloud-based video analytics Software as a Service (SaaS) is integrated with Amazon Kinesis Video Streams, AWS’s newly-launched service to capture, process, and store video streams for analytics and machine learning.  Together, the solution will enable any surveillance camera to become “smart” within seconds.  Officially announced at AWS re:Invent 2017, Amazon Kinesis Video Streams makes it easy to securely stream video from connected devices to AWS for analytics, machine learning, and other processing.  Agent Vi’s innoVi is the first fully cloud-based video analytics SaaS integrated with Amazon Kinesis Video Streams, allowing the camera owner to add smart security analytics functionalities that can automatically detect and alert to events of interest.  The integration of Agent Vi’s innoVi with Amazon Kinesis Video Streams brings a first of its kind end-to-end SaaS solution that is applicable to any IP camera, regardless of brand, and that does not require installation of any dedicated hardware or software.

Rosh HaAyin’s Agent Video Intelligence (Agent Vi) is a leading global provider of open architecture, video analytics solutions.  Agent Vi’s comprehensive video analytics offering includes software products for on-premise installations as well as cloud-based SaaS, with capabilities ranging from real-time video analysis and alerts to video search and business intelligence applications.  Solutions are fully integrated with 3rd party cameras, encoders, VMSs and alarm automation software.  (AVI 20.12)

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9.13  Nova Unveils New Generation of Dimensional Metrology Solutions

Nova launched two new optical metrology solutions as part of its advanced dimensional metrology portfolio.  The new platforms, which include Nova i550 integrated metrology and Nova T600MMSR stand-alone metrology, are targeted to enhance Nova’s OCD capabilities in the most advanced Memory and Logic production lines.

The new i550 integrated platform extends metrology performance by using newly designed optical metrology head to enable better precision and accuracy when measuring complex 3D devices.  The newly designed integrated platform also delivers a significant boost in productivity to support the growing needs for high sampling multi-site measurement schemes required in the most advanced production lines, while enabling new disruptive modeling that incorporates machine learning and training capabilities.

The new T600MMSR (Multi-Measurement Spectral Reflectometry) enhances Nova’s stand-alone metrology performance by adding unique channels of information to its newly designed optical unit.  The new platform is complemented with unique software algorithms for smart channels optimization to enable more accurate and faster solutions.  The newly introduced system has demonstrated superior precision and accuracy that delivers breakthrough metrology capabilities for 3D devices and contributes to significant reduction in time-to-solution.

Rehovot’s Nova delivers continuous innovation by providing advanced metrology solutions for the semiconductor manufacturing industry.  Deployed with the world’s largest integrated-circuit manufacturers, Nova’s products deliver state-of-the-art, high-performance metrology solutions for effective process control throughout the semiconductor fabrication lifecycle.  Nova’s technical innovation and market leadership enable customers to improve process performance, enhance products’ yields and accelerate time to market.  (Nova 20.12)

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10.1  Israel’s Building Starts Drop Sharply

Construction began on just 35,800 new homes in Israel in the first three quarters of 2017, a long way behind the Finance Ministry’s 50,000-60,000 annual target.  The small number both of residential real estate deals and of building starts under the buyer fixed price plan have caused a drop in the number of building starts in Israel in the third quarter, the second straight quarter in which housing starts have fallen, according to figures published on 19 December by the Central Bureau of Statistics.  The figures show that building starts totaled 10,796 nationwide in the third quarter, 3.6% fewer than the 11,203 building starts in the preceding quarter and 20% fewer than the 13,552 building starts in Q3/16.

The figures pose a problem to the Ministry of Finance, which announced that it would take action to increase the number of building starts to over 50,000 a year, or even 60,000 a year.  Construction began on 35,800 new housing units in the first three quarters of 2017, compared with 41,100 in the first three quarters of 2016.  The number of building starts in October 2016-September 2017 was 49,745, 6.3% fewer than the 53,099 building starts in October 2015-September 2016.  Segmenting by districts shows that the steepest drop in building starts during this period was 25.6% in Judea and Samaria, followed by 16.6% in the Jerusalem district, 14.5% in the central district, 9.6% in the Tel Aviv district, and 4.9% in the northern district. Housing starts were up in the Haifa (15.7%) and southern (2.6%) districts.

The Central Bureau of Statistics also published figures for housing units completed in the third quarter of 2017. Construction of 12,108 housing units was completed in the third quarter, more than the 11,547 housing completions in the second quarter and 11,121 in the third quarter of 2016. The number of housing units under active construction in the third quarter was 114,000, slightly fewer than the 115,300 housing units under active construction in the second quarter.  Building starts were down strongly in Beit Shemesh, Beer Sheva, Herzliya, and Netanya.

The decline in building starts can be attributed to a number of causes.  The first is a shortage of land available for construction, because state-owned land has been marketed exclusively for the buyer fixed price plan for over two years.  At the same time, deals on private land have become more expensive and combination deals more complicated.  This has pushed down the number of land deals, which has reduced the supply of plots on which construction of housing units can begin.  (Globes 19.12)

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11.1  MENA:  Sovereign Outlook Negative on Political Risk, Slow Reform

On 14 December, Fitch Ratings said heightened geopolitical risks in the once-stable Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), combined with the inability of some oil exporters to adjust their budgets to a new oil price reality, result in a negative 2018 outlook for sovereign ratings in Middle East North Africa (MENA) in a new report.

Three of the 13 MENA sovereigns rated by Fitch (more than 20%) are on a Negative Outlook.  None are on a Positive Outlook.

Budget deficits will persist across the GCC and will stay in double digits in Bahrain and Oman, despite the oil price recovery.  For the majority of sovereigns, fiscal break-even oil prices are still considerably above current or expected actual oil price levels.  This is resulting in worsening sovereign debt and external asset ratios. We expect gross foreign and local market GCC issuance of $110 billion in 2018, in tandem with drawdowns of around $50 billion from wealth funds and external reserves.

Price reforms have been scaled down and delayed in some parts of the GCC.  Only Saudi Arabia and the UAE have introduced excise tax and are likely to implement VAT at the beginning of 2018.  Implementation of taxation, privatization and broader public-sector reform is taking time, even as the potential for spending cuts is being exhausted.

In the rest of the MENA, we expect a mixed scorecard for fiscal and structural reforms. IMF programs are helping to varying degrees in Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia, but political risks, fragile economic performance and governance weaknesses continue to act as constraints on economic reform.

We expect growth to firm in a number of countries but to generally remain subdued owing to limited structural reform, political risk and still relatively low oil prices.  We expect growth of 4% – 5% in Egypt and Ras Al Khaimah and around 3% in Israel and Morocco, but elsewhere we project growth closer to 2% or below.

The GCC has lost some of its reputation for stability and predictability in a troubled region.  We do not expect an imminent resolution of the Saudi/UAE dispute with Qatar.  Saudi Arabia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is contributing to heightened tensions with Iran, while the threat remains of domestic challenges to his consolidation of power and reforms.  Political risk has been a persistent feature of Fitch’s ratings of GCC sovereigns, but further shocks remain a significant risk factor in 2018.

Regional and domestic political developments pose a downside risk to ratings in 2018.  A weaker commitment to fiscal consolidation would put pressure on ratings, particularly for sovereigns with large deficits.  Reforms to strengthen the business environment and private sector could lead to positive rating actions.  Substantial oil price deviation from our baseline forecast could have an impact on ratings, for both oil exporters and oil importers.  (Fitch 14.12)

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11.2  ISRAEL:  Local M&A Market Shows First Decline in Five Years

The average price of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) deals involving Israeli companies was down 27% in 2017, the first decline in five years, while the number of deals increased, according to figures from a report on 2017 issued by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Israel and reported by Globes.

According to PwC Israel, the monetary value of M&A deals in 2012, totaled $12.2 billion, compared with $16.8 billion in 2016 (the figures for the $15 billion Mobileye acquisition by Intel and the $40 billion acquisition of Allergan’s generic division Actavis by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries were excluded).  The number of deals in 2017 grew 9% to 131, while the average price dropped 38% to $142 million.  PwC Israel noted, however, that the number of deals with a value of over $100 million rose again in 2017.  Nine percent of the deals carried out were closed at a value of $400 million – $1 billion, compared with 5% in 2016.

“We are seeing another fall in the proportion of deals with a value less than $100 million, from 85% in 2012 to 68% in 2016 to 66% in 2017,” the report stated.  The number of deals with a value of over $1 billion (including Mobileye) fell to three, compared with five in 2016 (including Allergan), and the same in 2015.

“Deals of this type are already not as exceptional in the Israeli market as they once were, which shows the continued development and reinforcement of the M&A market in Israel,” says PwC Israel partner and transaction services leader Liat Enzel-Aviel.  She also believes that the fall in the average price per deal in 2017 does not necessarily indicate a change in trend.

PwC says that 45% of all deals closed by foreign investors were at prices of over $100 million per deal, and 34% of them were at a value of over $200 million.  Five deal closed by foreigners in 2017 were in the $400 million – $1 billion price range, compared with only one deal in 2016.  PwC regards this as evidence of the Israeli market’s strength and a vote of confidence by global players in the local economy.

On the other hand, the prices of acquisitions by Israeli players fell.  There was no deal in 2017 in which a local company party acquired a company with a value of over $1 billion.  PwC attributed this to the fact that Teva, which previously acquired many companies, is now selling assets and activities.  The biggest deals this year were Delek Group’s acquisition of a controlling interest in Ithaca and the acquisition of ABM Italia by Keter, both for $500 million.  (Globes 25.12)

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11.3  LEBANON:  IMF Staff Concludes Visit to Lebanon

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) team visited Beirut from 6 – 13 December 2017 to take stock of recent economic and financial developments in Lebanon, assess the economic outlook, and discuss policy priorities.  At the conclusion of the visit, the IMF made the following statement:

“Lebanon is emerging from the political crisis of November 2017.  There are signs that financial markets appear to be returning to normal.  The measures taken by the Banque Du Liban have helped support financial stability.  The resumption of the government’s work following the return of Prime Minister Saad Hariri offers an opportunity to address important economic challenges.

“The underlying economic conditions in Lebanon remain difficult.  Economic growth continues to be subdued, public debt is projected to reach about 150% of GDP in 2017, while the current account deficit stands at about 20% of GDP.  In addition, Lebanon also continues to bear the economic costs of providing a safe haven for over a million registered Syrian refugees—estimated to be about a quarter of the population.

“To preserve confidence there is an urgent need to place the economy on a sustainable path and halt the rise in public debt. In particular, the reform agenda needs to focus on three areas.  First, fiscal policy should be immediately anchored in a fiscal consolidation plan to put debt as a share of GDP on a downward path.  This will also reduce the need for high interest rates to attract deposits in the banking system.  Second, the BDL should use standard monetary instruments as needed to influence market interest rates, while efforts should continue to strengthen buffers in the banking system in light of the risks carried by the banks.  Third, to promote sustainable growth, reforming the electricity sector and addressing governance issues remain priorities.

“The authorities are considering a scaling up of public investment.  Any such scaling up must be embedded in a fiscal consolidation plan that ensures debt sustainability.  It will also be important that as much as possible of the financing for increased investment be on grant or concessional terms.  Domestic financing of public investment should be avoided.  There is also a need to contain potential fiscal costs and risks arising from any public-private partnership projects.  Lastly, the institutional framework for managing public investments should be strengthened before the envisaged scaling up of public investment.

The next Article IV consultation mission is expected to take place in the first quarter of 2018.  (IMF 13.12)

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11.4  JORDAN:  Congress Acts to Jump-Start Jordan’s Private Sector

Bryan Harris wrote in Al-Monitor on 15 December that Congress is using a defense cooperation bill with Jordan to encourage investment in the country’s private sector.

The House Foreign Affairs panel advanced legislation encouraging the Donald Trump administration to establish an enterprise fund for small- and medium-sized Jordanian businesses.  The goal of the United States-Jordan Defense Cooperation Extension Act is “to jump-start the kingdom’s private sector as well as help our economy,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the bill’s sponsor, said ahead of the markup.

Congress first authorized the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to create enterprise funds for Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia in a 2012 spending bill.  The agency subsequently enacted funds for Egypt and Tunisia, but not for Jordan.

Multiple USAID officials told Al-Monitor that Jordanian officials did not want an enterprise fund in 2012 because they feared it would divert US foreign assistance funding from other economic development programs.  Enterprise funds typically require initial US investment from economic support accounts over several years, but proponents of the effort argue that Congress can always appropriate additional economic support to offset any potential loses.

Jordan’s ambassador to Washington, Dina Kawar, attended the markup.  She said Jordan now openly welcomes the establishment of a US enterprise fund.  “This resolution reaffirms the importance of authorizing a new and expanded assistance package that would efficiently address Jordan’s economic needs, including job creation and supporting entrepreneurship and small businesses to achieve sustainable growth and development,” Kawar told Al-Monitor.

The United States began establishing enterprise funds in the early 1990s to help former communist countries in Eastern Europe bolster their private sectors as they sought to transition to a market economy.  In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Congress sought to apply the same solution to Arab countries whose economies are often dominated by the public sector.  After initial US government investment, enterprise funds are expected to sustain themselves and generate returns on investment by attracting private investors.  “While enterprise funds should not be looked upon as a panacea, it is clear that they can be powerful drivers of economic growth and spur the necessary development of sustainable private sectors and turn a profit at the same time,” Ros-Lehtinen said at a June hearing on the topic.

As of June, Egypt’s enterprise fund had garnered $98 million in US and private sector investment and $110 million in foreign investment, according to testimony offered at the hearing.  The Tunisian enterprise fund, meanwhile, had received $100 million in US government investments as of this year.

While the leaders of those two enterprise funds hailed the model as a means of job creation, they both stressed the need for more local buy-in on the funds’ boards of directors to attract more investment.  “Legislation calls for three Egyptians and six American citizens,” said the chairman of the Egyptian enterprise fund, James Harmon, at a panel this week hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  “We modified it to three Egyptian-Americans, three Egyptians and three Americans.”

Although the original bill, introduced in June, would have required six Americans and three Jordanians to sit on the board, the markup altered the bill to give the future chairman of the fund greater flexibility to put more Jordanians on the board.  While the majority of board members still would have to be private US citizens, the bill does not specify how many people would have to sit on the board.  In addition to creating the enterprise fund, the bill would ensure that current US and Jordanian defense arrangements, set to expire next year, extend through 2022.

Typically, the administration must notify Congress of any foreign military sales worth more than $14 million. However, 2015 legislation from Ros-Lehtinen raised that threshold to $25 million for Jordan.  That bill, which expires next year, also paved the way for a faster congressional review process for sales above $25 million.  The new bill also encourages the Trump administration to negotiate a new memorandum of understanding with Jordan running through 2022.  The current memorandum resulted in at least $1 billion per year in US assistance to Jordan from 2016 through 2018. It is also set to expire next year.  “The United States is in ongoing discussions with Jordanian officials regarding Jordan’s request for a new memorandum of understanding, and we look forward to continuing our extraordinary partnership with Jordan,” a State Department spokesman told Al-Monitor in October.

Kawar praised both the arms sale extension and the call for a new, five-year memorandum of understanding between the two countries.  “The United States-Jordan Defense Cooperation Extension Act is a testament to the strong strategic partnership between our two countries,” Kawar told Al-Monitor.  “[Thursday’s] markup builds on this robust relationship and allows us to pursue our common vision for peace and stability in the region.”

Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor’s congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco.   (Al-Monitor 15.12)

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11.5  UAE:  UAE Education Begins a New Chapter

The past year was an eventful one for education in the UAE, marked by curriculum changes and strategies, new courses and regulations, and greater focus on student wellbeing.  With school fees always on the minds of parents, it was announced as early as February that private schools could hike fees ranging from 2.4% to 4.8% for the 2017-18 academic year (which began in September), depending on their inspection rating.  Of the 159 schools inspected this academic year, 16 schools were rated ‘outstanding’, 14 ‘very good’, 69 ‘good’, 50 ‘acceptable’ and 10 ‘weak’.  None was rated ‘very weak’.

Apparently, at the start of the current school year, of the 159 schools that were eligible to increase fees, 22 decided to freeze fees.

By June, shortly before the summer break, the first batch of teachers obtained the UAE teacher’s license.  The 106 newly-licensed teachers represented 15 private schools in Dubai that had participated in the pilot project of the Teacher and Educational Leadership Standards (TELS) and licensing program.  Schools have till 2021 to ensure all teachers are licensed.  The National Qualifications Authority (NQA) has said TELS aims to meet targets of the UAE National Agenda, aligned to the UAE Vision 2021.

Teacher licensing will be overseen across the UAE by the NQA and Ministry of Education, in coordination with Abu Dhabi’s Department of Education and Knowledge (Adek), Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) and other relevant entities.

Moral Education

At the start of the new school year, in September, schools started teaching moral education as a subject.  The subject is mandatory from grades one through nine this academic year.  In the next academic year, schools will teach Moral Education in all grades.  Moral Education is a national initiative announced in 2016 by Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.  The program broke new ground in that it is not limited to textbooks, classrooms or exams. Schools are free to implement whatever steps they want to achieve the goals of the new subject, which will be monitored by authorities as part of overall student development evaluations, which are already included in official school inspections.

Unified Model

September saw the unification of schooling into new common education system all where government schools and private schools that follow the government curriculum will adopt the ‘Emirati School Model’ to lift standards.  The change was also part of the directives of the President and UAE leadership.

Wellbeing Census

Also for the first time, in November Dubai students began participating in a massive census about their welfare, the results of which will be used to improve their well-being.  The Dubai Student Wellbeing Census 2017 will be held every year for five years, polling 70,000 students in grades six to nine.  The first edition of the census concludes by the end of this year.

Mainstreaming Inclusiveness

Also in November, authorities announced the Dubai Inclusive Education Policy Framework, launched by the Inclusive Education Taskforce headed by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), with the mandate to transform all Dubai private education providers to be fully inclusive by 2020.  It came in line with the Dubai Disabilities Strategy and part of a larger citywide goal of making Dubai a disability-friendly city by 2020 through the ‘My community … a city for everyone’ initiative.

Towards the end of the year, in December, the Cabinet announced a National Higher Education Strategy 2030, which will see, among other developments, the Ministry of Education issuing a star rating to all licensed colleges and universities in the country.  It will also aim to boost the number of PhD candidates, while slashing the rate of school drop-outs in the UAE.  Another target is to closely align the degrees and skills of graduates with the demands of the job market.

What’s in Store for 2018?

As early as January or February next year, the results of the first-ever Dubai Student Wellbeing Census will be out.  Polling 70,000 students in grades six to nine, the census will reveal their concerns and aspirations at school, any bullying issues, how they spend time with family at home and engagement with friends and peers.  Dubai parents will also be waiting to hear the latest Education Cost Index, which, together with government inspection results, sets the rates of school fee increases.  The ECI is usually announced in February for the next academic year.

In numbers:

-More than 139,500 students study in more than 70 licensed higher education institutions

-There are over 12,800 graduate students in the UAE

-840 students are pursuing their PhD in the UAE

-Dubai will need an estimated 74,500 additional seats in 50 new private schools by 2020

-On average, UAE parents spend around Dh365,000 on a child’s education from primary school to university

-More than 1.1 million children attend public and private schools in country

-There are around 17 different national curricula taught in Dubai’s private schools, including Japanese and German

-University students in Dubai can hold paid part-time jobs in thousands of companies in nine free zone clusters

-UAE schools teach mandatory Moral Education lessons in class, focusing on ethics, respect, tolerance and culture. (Gulf News 25.12)

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11.6  OMAN:  Fitch Downgrades Oman to ‘BBB-‘; Outlook Negative

On 11 December, Fitch Ratings downgraded Oman’s Long-Term Foreign-Currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) to ‘BBB-‘ from ‘BBB’.  The Outlook is Negative. Oman’s Country Ceiling has also been downgraded to ‘BBB’ from ‘A-‘

Key Rating Drivers

The downgrade and Negative Outlook reflect the following key rating drivers:

Oman’s budget deficit will remain one of the largest among Fitch-rated sovereigns at an expected 12.8% of GDP in 2017.  Although a recovery in oil prices has helped reduce the deficit from 21.4% of GDP in 2016, Fitch expects spending will again be higher than budgeted and will only show a low-single-digit decline.  According to preliminary 10M17 outturns the deficit was already higher than budgeted for the full year, despite oil prices averaging higher than the government’s assumption of $45 a barrel (bbl).  Fitch estimates Oman’s fiscal break-even Brent oil price at around $83/bbl in 2017.

Fitch expects the budget deficit to narrow only gradually, to 10.2% of GDP by 2019, under a baseline Brent price assumption of $52.5/bbl in 2018 and $55/bbl in 2019.  Fitch forecasts broadly flat government expenditure in 2018-2019, after a 15% decline in 2015-2017.  Fiscal consolidation efforts will remain constrained by the government’s desire to safeguard social stability.  Modest reductions in defense and capital spending, enabled by the completion of long-running projects, will be largely offset by higher outlays on hydrocarbon projects (associated with future production increases) and a rising interest bill (as a result of higher debt levels).The government projects the deficit to fall to 8.3% of GDP by 2019, on the back of 3% higher revenue and 4% lower spending than in Fitch’s forecasts.

Oman’s sovereign balance sheet strengths are dwindling.  Fitch forecasts government debt will hit nearly 55% of GDP by end-2019, from 41% of GDP at end-2017 and just 13% of GDP at end-2015.  Sovereign net foreign assets (SNFA) will deteriorate to -4% of GDP by end-2019, from 16% of GDP at end-2017 and a peak of 58% of GDP at end-2015.  Both indicators will become worse than the medians for ‘BBB’ category sovereigns.  This reflects government external borrowing and the use of the State General Reserve Fund (SGRF) for financing.

Under conservative return assumptions, Fitch projects the foreign assets of the SGRF to decline to $16.1 billion (20% of GDP) by 2019 from $18.1 billion in Q3/17, excluding assets held at the Central Bank of Oman (CBO) and local commercial banks.  Continued strong asset market returns could offset projected draw-downs, as has been the case in 2017 YTD. Conversely, a correction in global asset markets would reduce the government’s fiscal cushion.

The country’s broader external position is also deteriorating.  Double-digit current account deficits and the draw-down of non-resident deposits at the CBO will continue to erode gross foreign-exchange reserves, which are separate from SGRF assets but are included in SNFA.  Fitch forecasts that CBO reserves will fall to $13.4 billion (3.4 months of current external payments) at end-2019, from $16.9 billion (4.3 months) at end-2017.  Fitch projects Oman’s net external debt to rise to 40% of GDP by end-2019, from 19% of GDP at end-2017.

The downgrade of Oman’s Country Ceiling to ‘BBB’ reflects the downgrade of Oman’s Long-Term Foreign-Currency IDR and the reduction of the rating uplift provided in Fitch’s Country Ceiling Model as a result of Oman’s worsening external balance sheet.

Oman’s ‘BBB-‘ rating also reflects the following key rating drivers:

Fitch expects the government’s overall balance sheet to remain stronger than peers’ in 2018-2019.  The government’s net asset position will remain positive, supported by its deposits in domestic banks and by the local investments of its wealth funds.  However, potential contingent liabilities are increasing, as the government has been encouraging SOEs to rely less on government equity funding.  Fitch expects SOE debt to reach 21% of GDP in 2017, from 18% of GDP in 2016.

Oman is able to fund its fiscal and external deficits from a diverse range of sources.  This year, the government of Oman has borrowed just over $11 billion (15% of GDP) externally through a mix of conventional bonds, sukuk, syndicated loans and export credits.  It has also refinanced maturing domestic debt to the value of around $1.2 billion, increased the stock of domestic short-term debt to about $1 billion and budgeted a $1.3 billion draw-down from the SGRF.  The total of about $14.5 billion (20% of GDP) is more than our estimate of Oman’s deficit and maturities of $13 billion in 2017 (18% of GDP).

Deficit reduction will be helped by measures to boost non-hydrocarbon revenue, from a low base.  Fitch expects non-hydrocarbon revenue to grow by 5% in 2017 and 10% in 2018, supported by increases in various government fees and levies, the introduction of excise tax and an earlier corporate income tax increase.  Although VAT implementation is behind schedule, Fitch expects it to take place at the end of 2018, which will raise non-oil revenue by a further 14% in 2019.  Combined, these measures will boost non-oil revenue by about 1% of GDP.

Fitch forecasts real GDP growth of 0.4% in 2017, held down by a reduction in oil output in line with Oman’s voluntary commitment to OPEC.  Government spending restraint has dented economic sentiment, but H1/17 data points to continued expansion in the non-oil economy.  Fitch forecasts a pick-up in growth, to 2.4% in 2018 (led by an expansion of LNG output related to gas production at the Khazzan field) and 2.2% in 2019.  Further oil and gas expansion, investments in the country’s capital stock, such as ports and roads, and continued population growth support Oman’s long-term growth potential.

The economy and government budget revenues are still not diversified, despite some efforts underway to address this.  Hydrocarbon production accounts for more than 30% of GDP, more than 50% of goods exports and nearly 70% of government revenues.  This has resulted in very high volatility of revenues/GDP.

Oman scores in line with the ‘BBB’ median on World Bank governance indicators, while GDP per capita is well above the median.  Fitch views the banking system as relatively strong with a Viability Rating of ‘bbb’.  The employment rate of young Omanis is low, creating economic and social pressure.  The domestic political scene remains stable, but uncertainty continues to surround the eventual succession to 77-year old Sultan Qaboos, who has not publicly designated a successor.  The constitution stipulates that the ruling family must choose a new Sultan within three days of the post becoming vacant; otherwise a letter containing the sultan’s recommendation is opened.

Rating Sensitivities

The main factors that could lead to a downgrade are:

-Failure to narrow the budget deficit sufficiently to slow the increase in government debt/GDP or slow the drawdown in assets, for example as a result of a failure to implement fiscal consolidation measures or due to a renewed fall in oil prices.

-Failure to narrow the current account deficit and stabilize net external debt/GDP.

The main factors that could lead to a revision of the Outlook to Stable are:

-Narrowing of the budget deficit allowing stabilization of the government debt/GDP, either through active fiscal measures or a sustained increase in oil prices.

-Narrowing of the current account deficit and stabilization of net external debt/GDP.

Key Assumptions

Fitch assumes that Brent crude will average $55/bbl in 2017, $52.5/bbl in 2018 and $55/bbl in 2019.

Fitch assumes that an eventual transition of power from Sultan Qaboos will be smooth and ensure broad policy continuity.

Fitch assumes no change to the peg of the Omani rial to the US dollar.  (Fitch 11.12)

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11.7  EGYPT:  Egypt Takes Big Step Toward Financial Transparency and Inclusion

Rami Galal wrote in Al-Monitor on 14 December that the Egyptian government ceased financial transactions by paper checks this month and implemented a new electronic payment and collection system, although only 10% of citizens have relationships with banks.

On 26 November, the Egyptian Ministry of Finance issued a statement reiterating that after 29 November, all government institutions would stop processing paper checks drawn on the Central Bank of Egypt.  Instead, as of 1 December, all state financial transactions would be carried out using electronic payment and collection through the Government Fiscal Management Information System (GFMIS).

The shift, which will significantly enhance transparency and counter corruption, represents a major step toward financial inclusion, which the World Bank defines as “individuals and businesses hav[ing] access to useful and affordable financial products and services that meet their needs — transactions, payments, savings, credit and insurance — delivered in a responsible and sustainable way.”

Salah Eddin Fahmy, a professor of economics at Al-Azhar University, told Al-Monitor, “The Ministry of Finance issued orders in August to all ministries and government agencies to stop dealing with paper checks as of 1 ember.  In turn, these ministries and agencies called on all of their stakeholders in the private sector to adjust their structures, according to the new orders.”

Fahmy added, “The Ministry of Finance’s decision aims to achieve financial inclusion required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, had called on Egyptian officials to disseminate banking culture among citizens.  According to the report of the IMF mission to Egypt, only 10% of citizens have relationships with banks, which means that the culture of financial inclusion does not exist in Egypt.”  The shift in payment and collecting methods is one of the IMF’s conditions for a $12 billion loan package for Egypt.

According to Fahmy, use of the GFMIS will significantly improve transparency and curb corruption by tracking electronic transfers to reveal the identity of those taking advantage of the government sector for unlawful enrichment.  “This method will prevent government employers from asking suppliers for bribes in return for completing transactions to pay suppliers their entitlements in due time,” Fahmy said.  “The system’s database will show the dates of invoices sent by the suppliers and the amounts due to them without any official having to write a paper check by hand.”

Ayman Fathi, general manager and board member of the Rosa el-Youssef Foundation, a major book supplier for the Ministry of Education, told Al-Monitor that the new system has greatly facilitated financial transactions.  “The ministry now transfers the amounts due to a bank account specified by the foundation,” he said.  Fathi explained that the foundation still sends a representative to the ministry to obtain a paper record of the payment orders the ministry sends to the banks.  The foundation also of course receives statements of accounts from its bank.  Fathi said the new system saves time and effort and ensures safer financial transactions.

He also argues that the security of the electronic system can increase government revenue by encouraging industries and companies in the informal sector to regularize their situation — i.e., obtain a commercial registration number and bank account — perhaps take advantage of government services and benefits or providing services.  Fathi stated, “This will increase tax revenues, and consequently state revenues, and reduce the Egyptian budget deficit, which hit around EGP 320 billion [around $18 billion] in 2016/2017.”

This system improves the government’s control of financial accounts, prevents withdrawals exceeding budget allocations, and saves time and effort in drafting profit and loss accounts.  In this regard, the Ministry of Finance can be informed daily of the expenses of each government institution, intervene and issue corrective directives when necessary, assemble an accurate historical database on expenses and incomes for all public administrative units and facilitate the process of drafting the performance-based budget and program budgeting.

Former Finance Minister Fayyad Abdel-Moneim told Al-Monitor that he is optimistic that this long overdue shift will be a success, noting the preliminary steps taken by the ministry to support the system’s implementation.  He noted that a remarkable 61,000 government accounts with the Central Bank had been closed.  “This step aims to achieve fiscal consolidation and to have one account per ministry,” Abdel-Moneim explained.  “The new system will allow establishing a unified account chart.  All this will lead to the integration of the financial information management system within the electronic payment orders system.”

Abdel-Moneim added, “A large number of computers required to implement the system were procured along with programs to train employees in this regard.  Additional landlines were also provided to secure internet connections.  The system was implemented as a first step in revenues-related departments, such as the departments of general taxes, customs, and property taxes.”

With the implementation of the new payment system, Amru al-Gohari, undersecretary of the parliament’s economic affairs committee, is calling on banks to reduce their fees and commissions, such as account opening expenses, transfer fees, statements of account fees, cash withdrawals, collection commissions, and so on.  According to him, banks in Egypt charge high commissions compared to those in other countries that have implemented electronic systems.  All entities and individuals are now only able to conduct financial transactions with the government through bank accounts.

“To attract the informal sector, valued at an estimated 1.6 trillion EGP [around $89 billion], the government should simplify procedures for obtaining business permits and licenses and reduce the cost,” Gohari said.  “[Financial inclusion and ease of financial oversight] also requires a number of tax exemptions and facilitation, and not only the application of an electronic payment and collection system,” Gohari said.

MP Basant Fahmi, a member of the parliament’s Economic Committee, told Al-Monitor, “The use of paper checks between government institutions and companies and individuals has generated major problems.  In case the check is lost, the owner must file a report with the police department and then resort to the judiciary to get another check in place of the lost one.  It is a long journey of suffering for suppliers working with government facilities.  In some cases, the signature of the check is not fully identical to the signature authenticated by the bank.  This forces the supplier to go back to the government agency to have another check issued.  This process wastes the efforts and time of suppliers working with the public sector, causing many of them to refrain from dealing with the government.”  Fahmi explained that owners of checks with maturity dates after Nov. 30 must approach the concerned government authority to have their checks cashed on the due dates.

On 29 November, the Ministry of Finance issued Periodic Letter no. 119 of 2017, which along with prohibiting officials from signing paper checks, effective 1 December, provided for forming committees to destroy all unused checkbooks in government institutions as of 30 November.

Rami Galal is a contributor for Al-Monitor’s Egypt Pulse and works as an investigative reporter for the Rosa el-Youssef website.  (Al-Monitor 14.12)

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11.8  EGYPT:  IMF Executive Board Concludes 2017 Article IV Consultation

On 20 December, the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) completed the second review of Egypt’s economic reform program supported by an arrangement under the Extended Fund Facility (EFF).  The completion of the review allows the authorities to draw the equivalent of SDR 1,432.76 million (about $2.03 billion), bringing total disbursements to SDR 4,298.29 million about $6.08 billion.

The three-year EFF arrangement in the amount equivalent to SDR 8.597 billion (about $12 billion at the time of approval, or 422% of quota) was approved by the Executive Board on 11 November 2016 to support the authorities’ economic reform program.

In completing the review, the Executive Board approved the authorities’ request for modifications of the end-December 2017 and end-June 2018 performance criterion for net domestic assets and the end-June 2018 performance criterion for the primary fiscal balance.

The Executive Board also concluded the 2017 Article IV consultation with Egypt.  Following the Executive Board discussion, Mr. David Lipton, First Deputy Managing Director and Acting Chair, made the following statement:

“Egypt’s reform program is yielding encouraging results.  The economy is showing welcome signs of stabilization, with GDP growth recovering, inflation moderating, fiscal consolidation remaining on track, and international reserves reaching their highest level since 2011.  The banking system has also remained resilient to moderate shocks.  The outlook is favorable, but will require sustained efforts to maintain prudent policies and advance structural reforms to support the authorities’ medium-term objective of inclusive growth and job creation.

“By tightening monetary policy early in the year, the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) has managed to reverse high inflation, which was the main risk to macroeconomic stability.  The continuation of this disinflationary trend could open the door to a gradual easing of interest rates, but the CBE should remain vigilant and be prepared to tighten the monetary stance if demand pressures reemerge.  In the medium term, the CBE is planning to move to an inflation-targeting framework, which will help achieve low and stable inflation.  The authorities are committed to a floating exchange rate regime, which serves as a buffer for external shocks, and the CBE’s decision to introduce a fee upon entry for the repatriation mechanism could help enhance flexibility of the pound.

“The authorities’ fiscal consolidation plans aim at placing government debt on a declining trajectory.  The primary surplus targets for 2017/18 and 2018/19 are achievable, but are subject to risks, including from higher oil prices.  Therefore, continued reform of energy subsidies is critical for achieving the program’s fiscal objectives.  Over the medium term, the authorities need to implement tax policy reforms and modernize tax and customs administration to create fiscal space for much-needed investment in human capital and infrastructure.  Making further progress on moving away from product subsidies to better targeted cash transfers would strengthen the social safety net.

“Macroeconomic stabilization provides a solid basis for broadening the scope of structural reforms to attract investment, raise the growth potential, and create employment.  The reform efforts should aim to improve allocation of resources in the economy and enhance the business climate for private sector development.  Egypt’s priorities in this regard are to reform the regulatory framework, strengthen competition, improve access to finance and land, strengthen the governance and transparency of state-owned enterprises, fight corruption, and better integrate women and young people in the labor market.”  (IMF 20.12)

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11.9  TUNISIA:  IMF Concludes 2017 Article IV Consultation & Second Review of Tunisia’s Extended Fund Facility

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission visited Tunis from 30 November 30 to 13 December 2017, to complete the 2017 Article IV consultation and conduct the second review of Tunisia’s economic program supported by the four-year IMF Extended Fund Facility (EFF) approved in May 2016.

At the conclusion of the mission, the IMF issued the following statement:

“Following frank and focused talks, the IMF team and the Tunisian authorities reached a staff-level agreement on the policies needed to complete the second review of Tunisia’s EFF.  The main challenge for the months ahead is to make-up for the significant delays in lifting long-standing obstacles to growth and addressing large fiscal and external deficits.  Building on their ambitious budget law for 2018, the Tunisian authorities have expressed their commitment to take decisive action before the consideration of the Second Review by the IMF’s Executive Board and the remainder of the program period.  Completion of the review would make available about $320 million, bringing total disbursements under the EFF to about $1 billion.

“Two opposing trends characterize the Tunisian economy at the end of this year.  Growth has firmed up to reach about 2% due to the sustained improvements in security.  Tourism arrivals rose by 30%, phosphate production rebounded strongly, and investment (foreign and domestic) shows early signs of picking up.  Yet on the other hand, macroeconomic vulnerabilities have become more accentuated and require urgent action.  Public debt will reach 70% of GDP by the end of the year, the record current account deficit will be in double digits, and the international reserves of the Central Bank of Tunisia have fallen.

“The economic recovery opens a window of opportunity for taking decisive action.  The Tunisian authorities have already taken an important step in adopting a bold budget law for 2018, which aims at reducing the fiscal deficit to below 5% of GDP.  Achieving this ambitious fiscal target will require putting into effect the government’s tax strategy and implementing the comprehensive civil service reform strategy.  Reducing energy subsidies, which disproportionately benefit the rich, and pressing ahead with the reform of the social security system are additional steps towards stabilizing public deficits and debt.

“Rising inflationary pressures require a strong response.  Inflation moved above 6% in November, driven by significant increases in food prices.  At this level, inflation negatively affects disposable income and long-term investment.  Continuing the Central Bank of Tunisia’s strategy to tighten monetary policy, including by containing bank refinancing, will help anchor inflation expectations and provide support for the dinar in the foreign exchange market.  Exchange rate flexibility will continue to contribute to making the Tunisian economy more competitive.

“To allow the Tunisian economy to fulfill its promise to the Tunisian people, accelerating longstanding reforms is indispensable.  The overhaul of the regulatory framework for the resolution of non-performing loans and of the governance of public banks will help small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to gain more access to bank finance.  By making the overall banking sector more efficient, public bank reform will directly ease one of the most important constraints on growth and jobs in Tunisia.  The imminent appointment of the executive board of the High Anti-Corruption Agency will be an important milestone in the government’s fight against corruption.

“The IMF supports the objective of the Tunisian government to be removed as soon as possible from the EU’s list of non-cooperative tax jurisdictions.  In this context, the gradual convergence between the on- and off-shore tax regimes and the ongoing modernization of tax administration with a view to improve tax compliance are reform commitments supported by the EFF.  Making full use of the recently created Large Taxpayers Unit will help display the authorities’ commitment to improving the fairness and transparency of the Tunisian tax system.  Tunisia’s ongoing participation in the G20 initiative Compact with Africa also attests to the country’s strong commitment to international trade and seizing the opportunities from foreign investment and economic integration.  (IMF 13.12)

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11.10  MOROCCO:  IMF Executive Board Concludes 2017 Article IV Consultation

On 13 December 2017, the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) concluded the Article IV Consultation with Morocco.

Following last year’s drought, economic growth has picked up in 2017 and is expected to reach 4.4%, mostly driven by a significant rebound in agricultural activity while non-agricultural activity remains subdued.  The unemployment rate increased to 10.6% in Q3/17 (year-on-year) while youth unemployment remains high at 29.3%.  Headline inflation (year-on-year) is expected to decline to 0.6% in 2017, reflecting lower food prices.

Following a marked deterioration in 2016, the current account deficit is projected to improve in 2017 to 3.9% of GDP.  This primarily reflects Morocco’s global environment, particularly the stronger recovery in Europe and strong export growth (6.5%), mostly due to the good performance of food product and phosphate and derivatives exports. International reserves are expected to remain comfortable, at about six months of imports.

On the fiscal side, the consolidation process continues and developments as of end-October 2017 were broadly positive.  Tax revenues performed better than projected, but grant revenues were lower than anticipated.  Public spending on wages and interest payments was below expectations and capital expenditures decelerated (by 2% year-on-year).

Banks are well capitalized and the risks to financial stability are limited.  Nonperforming loans remain relatively high but they are closely monitored and are well provisioned.  Regulatory limits to reduce credit concentration as well as collaboration with cross-border supervisory bodies to contain risks related to Moroccan banks’ expansion in Africa are being strengthened.

Morocco’s medium-term prospects remain favorable, with growth expected to reach 4.5% by 2021.  However, risks remain elevated, and relate mainly to growth in advanced and emerging countries, geopolitical tensions in the region, world energy prices, and global financial market volatility.  Stronger medium-term growth will hinge on continued implementation of comprehensive reforms regarding labor market efficiency, access to finance, quality of education, public spending efficiency and further improvements to the business environment.  Strengthening the social safety nets system will also be crucial to achieve more inclusive growth.

Executive Board Assessment

Executive Directors commended the authorities for the sound macroeconomic policies and reform implementation that have helped improve the resilience of the Moroccan economy, upgrade the fiscal and financial policy frameworks, and increase economic diversification.  To consolidate the gains achieved and promote higher and more inclusive growth, Directors underscored the need to maintain sound fiscal and monetary policies and to step up structural reform efforts, supported by measures to strengthen the social safety net.

Directors welcomed the resumption of fiscal consolidation to ensure debt sustainability.  They supported efforts to control spending on wages and goods and services to create fiscal space for priority spending in the medium term.  Directors agreed that continued fiscal consolidation should benefit from a comprehensive approach to tax reforms, aiming to broaden the tax base and promote greater equity and simplicity.  They supported a careful implementation of fiscal decentralization, a comprehensive civil service reform, strengthened state-owned enterprise (SOE) oversight, and steps to improve the targeting of social spending to protect vulnerable segments of the population.

Directors noted that inflation was likely to remain moderate while the accommodative monetary policy allowed for continued credit recovery.  Directors supported the authorities’ intention to move to a more flexible exchange rate regime and a new monetary policy framework, which will help the economy to absorb external shocks and remain competitive.

Directors noted that the banking sector remains sound and well capitalized, but stressed the need to remain vigilant.  They welcomed Bank Al Maghrib’s continued efforts to increase supervisory capacity in line with 2015 Financial Sector Assessment Program recommendations, including more risk-based and forward looking supervision and tighter provisioning requirements.

Directors emphasized the importance of sustained implementation of broad-based structural reforms. Continued efforts to strengthen the business environment, including through better governance, improved education and vocational training, will be key to reduce unemployment, especially among the youth, and to increase women’s participation in the labor force.  Directors looked forward to further progress in implementing the national strategy against corruption and in making the Competition Council operational.  (IMF 14.12)

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11.11  TURKEY:  Turkey Economic Performance Review for 2017

Bank Audi surveyed the Turkish economy and its 2017 performance, surmising that despite its sound economic rebound, persistent risks challenge the outlook.

Relative pick up in real economic activity

Turkey’s economy has shown resilience during past bouts of political instability, security drifts and global financial market volatility, owing largely to the country’s solid public finances, its well-regulated banking sector and its dynamic and diversified private business sector.  Within this environment, the Turkish economy rebounded in 2017, with growth set to reach 5.1% as per the IMF, bolstered by strong economic momentum in the first half of this year and a base effect in Q3/17 from a 2016 low base amid the supposed coup attempt.  Growth has been domestic driven, thanks to a Credit Guarantee Fund-induced credit impulse, a fiscal stimulus that reflected in strong construction growth, higher exports amid strong Euro Area growth and a rise in tourism.

Widening current account deficit mostly led by surging trade deficit

The rapid acceleration of domestic demand-driven output growth has widened the current account deficit by 27.1% in the first nine months of 2017, due to a surge in trade deficit by 31.7%.  Turkish exports posted a 10.9% rise on a yearly basis, as the Turkish lira/US$ exchange rate has depreciated by some 22% over the first nine months of 2017 relative to the previous year’s same period, boosting export competitiveness.  At the same time, Turkish imports reported a 15.5% year-on-year increase over the first nine months of 2017 to reach $162.5 billion, following the rapid acceleration of domestic demand-driven output growth and the energy bill rising faster than the pick-up in energy prices.

Rise in budget deficit, yet with persisting favorable debt dynamics

Turkey’s fiscal deficit widened relatively over the first ten months of 2017, mainly due to an increase in expenditures combined with a continued slowdown in non-tax and tax revenues, the latter being the main source of government revenue.  However, the primary balance remained in surplus, spotting light on favorable debt dynamics.  Central government revenues grew by 13.8% during the first ten months of 2017, while expenditures went up by 18.4%.  As such, the central government deficit reached circa TL 31 billion over the first ten months of 2017 as compared to a deficit of TL 15 billion during the same period of 2016.  That being said, the government debt stock is estimated to register 27.9% of GDP in 2017, one of the low debt ratios around the world.

Aggressive monetary tightening amid elevated inflation

Turkey’s monetary conditions were marked in 2017 by extended losses in the value of the Turkish lira and a continuous elevated level of consumer price inflation.  This prompted the Central Bank of Turkey to adopt an aggressive monetary tightening, while relying more heavily on the late liquidity window facility to meet system’s funding requirement. It is worth mentioning that consumer price inflation reached a 14 year peak of 13.0% year-on-year in November 2017.

Surging lending activity coupled with healthy deposit inflows amid buoyant economic Performances

Turkey’s banking sector has had a good year in 2017, after withstanding currency-related pressures in the previous year and benefiting from a pick-up in economic activity throughout this year.  In parallel, asset quality, liquidity and capitalization metrics have proven relatively resilient to recent shocks and continue to display adequate levels.  Total assets grew by 16.0% in local currency terms in the first ten months of 2017 according to the latest official statistics available, or by 7.8% in US dollar terms, to reach the equivalent of $838.9 billion at end-October 2017.  The major driver of banks’ surging activity proved to be none other than credit growth, as loans progressed by 17.9% in local currency terms between December 2016 and October 2017, or by 9.5% in US dollar terms over the period.

Healthy price gains in Turkish equity and bond markets

Turkish securities registered healthy price gains during the first eleven months of 2017, supported by tempting valuations and yields.  Turkish stocks posted double-digit increases amid rising trading volumes, and Turkish bonds saw a price rebound, while Turkey’s five-year CDS spreads witnessed decent contractions amid improved market perception of sovereign risks at large.  (Bank Audi 14.12)

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11.12  CYPRUS:  IMF Executive Board Concludes 2017 Article IV Consultation with Cyprus

On 13 December 2017, the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) concluded the Article IV consultation with Cyprus.

The Cypriot economy has achieved an impressive turnaround since the 2012–13 banking crisis. GDP growth has been accelerating for three consecutive years on strong foreign demand, reaching 3.8% (year-on-year) during the first nine months of 2017.  Rising labor demand has sharply lowered the unemployment rate to 10.3% as of September.  Emergency liquidity assistance to banks has been fully repaid. Gains in cost competitiveness and strong foreign demand have narrowed the underlying current account deficit (excluding large one-off imports).  The fiscal primary balance has swung from a large deficit to a surplus of 3.0% of GDP in 2016, supported by earlier reforms and revenue from the robust recovery, and is expected to increase further this year.  However, crisis legacies in the form of extremely high private sector debt and nonperforming loans (NPLs) and elevated public debt have yet to be eliminated.

The current strong growth momentum is expected to persist for the next several years, underpinned by ongoing large construction projects and (albeit undesirable) weak payment discipline alongside slow progress with NPLs that will support consumption.  Rising import intensity of activity is expected to re-widen the current account deficit, while output is forecast to grow above capacity and give rise to a positive output gap.  Continued primary surpluses will help to reduce public debt.

This strong growth cycle could be threatened by excessive concentration of activity into construction and real estate and by potentially-volatile capital flows.  Persistently slow resolution of NPLs would keep financial sector vulnerabilities elevated. Growth prospects could be significantly boosted if development of offshore hydrocarbon deposits proves financially viable.

Executive Board Assessment

Executive Directors commended the authorities for the Cypriot economy’s impressive recovery from the 2012–13 banking crisis, facilitated by prudent macroeconomic policies and progress on structural reforms, together with strong foreign demand.  Directors observed, however, that progress on reducing nonperforming loans has been tepid and that private and public debt remain high.  They urged the authorities to take advantage of the current strong growth momentum to resolve legacy problems and generate a broader basis for future growth.

Directors urged the prompt implementation of a comprehensive deleveraging plan, supported by measures to improve payment discipline. Simultaneously reducing excessive private debt and banks’ weak loan portfolios would help protect macro-financial stability. Directors recommended using an array of restructuring tools, in combination with burden-sharing, to limit the short-term dampening effect on GDP growth. They also called for improving payment discipline through a strengthening of the legal framework for resolving problem loans.

Directors stressed the need for banks to adopt ambitious and credible strategies to reduce nonperforming loans, underpinned by long-term capital plans and realistic assumptions on recovery rates and the required provisioning.  They cautioned banks against warehousing properties on their balance sheets that were acquired through debt-to-asset swaps and underscored the need to preserve prudent standards for new lending and loan classification.

Directors welcomed the significantly improved fiscal position and urged safeguarding these gains to achieve a rapid reduction in public debt.  They agreed that the authorities’ plan to set a ceiling on fiscal spending that increases in step with medium-term GDP growth would help contain spending pressures and limit the risk that cyclical or one-off revenue is spent.  To help keep spending within the ceiling, Directors recommended adopting the civil service reform law and closely monitoring the cost of the planned National Health Scheme.  Completing pending revenue administration and public expenditure reforms would also create space for growth-enhancing spending.

Directors called for reinvigorating the structural reform agenda.  They advised a tightening of lending standards to avoid excessive concentration of economic activity and to protect financial stability.  They stressed in this context the need to safeguard the integrity of the citizenship-by-investment program by ensuring compliance with AML/CFT standards.  Directors also called for strengthening competition and productivity to attract investment and help diversify the economy.  Restarting the privatization program and undertaking governance reforms in the public and private sectors will also be important.  In this regard, Directors recommended establishing a dedicated commercial court to strengthen the enforcement of commercial claims.  (IMF 14.12)

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