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Saturday, February 23, 2013

United Arab Emirates spends $1.4 billion at arms show in Abu Dhabi


- Sales at the IDEX arms show in Abu Dhabi have been brisk as in total about $2.7 billion in defence contracts have been signed by a number of different countries.
The International Defence Exhibition or IDEX is the largest arms exhibition in the Middle East. For the past several years the exhibition has been held in the capital of the UAE Abu Dhabi. Sheikh Khalifa Al Nahyan who is President of the UAE and also Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed forces is benefactor of the show.
The UAE expenditure of $1.4 billion includes drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's)The largest deals, which were announced on Tuesday February 19, were for 750 mine-resistant, ambush-protected, all-terrain vehicles from Oshkosh Corp worth $380 million.
The number of drones purchased was not announced. The unarmed Predator drones were bought from the privately-owned US firm, General Atomics, and had a price tag of $197 million. The drones are said to be designed so that armaments cannot be added. This is the first sale of the unarmed drones by General Atomics in the Middle East. The UAE awarded the contract to buy the drones to a local group International Golden Group for the purchase from the US firm. Major General Obeid al-Ketbi told reporters: "UAVs are significant for any armed forces in present times. There is a lot of demand for these,"
According to Wikileaks cables the UAE and Saudi Arabia had asked the US to sell them armed drones but the US has always refused. The US claims that it is committed to an international agreement to limit the spread of long range precision weapons and this would include drone exports. The unarmed Predator approved for export has no "hard points" where missiles could be attached and is said to be engineered so that adding weaponry would be impossible according to General Atomics.
General Ketbi also said that the contracts included a $117.2 million deal with US firm Raytheon for materials used in the GBU12 as well as GBU58 bombs. The total number of deals signed as of Tuesday came to $2.76 billion.
The UAE is a federation of seven emirates, each ruled by a hereditary emir. The emirs choose a president of the UAE from among their memgers. The following belong to the UAE: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras-al-Khaima, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain. Abu Dhabi, where IDEX took place, is the capital.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Bolivia nationalizes Spanish firm that operates Bolivian airports


Bolivia nationalized the company that runs the three largest airports in Bolivia because the government claims the company did not invest in improving the airports.
Servicios de Aeropuertos Bollivianos SA (Sabsa) is a division of Spain's Abertis Infraestructure SA but Sabsa is also partly owned by Aena Aeropuertos SA based in Madrid. Bolivian president Evo Morales said that the privatization of Sabsa in 1997 was equivalent to "robbery" and "looting". He claimed that since that time the company's profits have been exorbitant and investments "ridiculous".
Since taking office in 2006 Morales has moved to put telecommunication, energy and water industries in the hands of the state. As reported in Digital Journal he took over Spanish power companies the end of last year.
The parent company of Sabsa says that it respects the government's decision but trusts it will receive adequate compensation. The company claims that the government had frozen the fees that Sabsa can collect a decade ago. This new decree marks the third time in the space of a year that Morales has nationalized Spanish companies that operate in Bolivia. In 2006 he took over oil and gas fields, and refineries owned by by Brazil's own state-run Petroleo Brasileiro.
Spain's Foreign Ministry was more negative than the company nationalized:“The Spanish government deeply regrets the Bolivian government’s decision to nationalize Sabsa, and particularly the police occupation of its headquarters. Spain does not consider this a friendly act.”
While foreign investors may be wary of investing in Bolivia, the economy is estimated to have grown by at least 5% in 2012 according to the International Monetary Fund. Finance Minister Luis Arce told reporters that he expected the economy to grow by 5.5% in 2013. As the appended video explains, nationalization is sometimes used as a threat to get companies to provide more for Bolivians rather than risk being taken over. Obviously, it is not an idle threat.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A rare protest in Singapore against new population plan


On February 16, a rare protest of about 3,000 people took place in Singapore. They were protesting government plans to increase the population of the city state.
Protesters worry that a government plan that would raise the current population from 5.3 million to a high as 6.9 million by 2030 will make already strained public services worse and also push up the cost of living.
Singapore has an image of political stability and efficient governance but also is known for attempts by the long-ruling People's Action Party to try to stifle opposition. The party has ruled since 1959. There are also strict regulations on public protests. The main organizer of the protest, Gilbert Goh, said the protest is meant to show the public's displeasure with the population plan that was endorsed by the parliament on February 8 :"They want to tell the government, please reconsider this policy. The turnout is a testimony that this policy is flawed and unpopular on the ground."
The government plan calls for bolstering infrastructure and social programs to serve the more than one million new residents. By 2030 non-foreigners would form between 3.6 and 3.8 million somewhat more than half the entire population. Despite some opposition in parliament the plan was approved by a wide majority.
Singapore has a falling birthrate and an aging population. The Prime Minister Lee Loong said in parliament:"In my view in 2030, I think 6 million will not be enough to meet Singaporeans' needs as our population ages because of this problem of the baby boomers and bulge of aging people,"Loong also claimed that 6.9 million was not a target but a figure to be used to plan infrastructure development and social programs. The present birth rate in Singapore is below the replacement value of two babies per mother. In 2010, the World Bank estimated Singapore's fertility rate to be just 1.2 births per woman one of the lowest birth rates in the world.
Singapore attracts many immigrant workers from other Asian neighbours such as China and Indonesia who work as maids and construction workers. At the same time it attracts foreign high-income earners who are attracted by Singapore's political stability and high standard of living. However, this influx of people has caused public transport to be overcrowded and property prices to go extremely high. The result is resentment against foreigners.
Samantha Chia, one of the rally speakers, said :"Immigrants come at such a fast pace that they're not able to assimilate. It's unfair for them as well and a lose-lose situation."Singapore is touted as a beacon of capitalist development and prosperity but critics complain that the government has pursued growth at any cost.
Vincent Wijeysingha, a university lecturer and a member of an opposition party said:
"We want the government to put the vast resources that are at their disposal at the service of us, the people. Because we are not machines and our neighborhoods are not factories, and our island is not a hotel."
A native Singaporean Hayatt Shah is one among many who have left Singapore because of the skyrocketing cost of living. He has moved to Japan where he also pays a high price for accommodation but not as high he claims as in Singapore. Shah said:"I refuse to pay such a high price to live in a box that I have a lease on for 99 years. It's crazy that property prices here in Saitama [in Japan] are more affordable than properties in Singapore."Shah is a musician and English instructor but found it more and more difficult to maintain his accustomed lifestyle in Singapore, where he was born and lived all his life. He claimed that he did not feel at home in Singapore any longer.
Singapore boasts that it grew from a small island nation to a rich country with a booming economy, that is sustained by foreign investment and migrant workers. Many think that the increasing problems Singapore faces will erode support for the ruling party and perhaps eventually lead to its defeat.


Monday, February 18, 2013

Facebook earns over a billion but ends up with net tax benefits of over $400 million


Facebook manages to get a $429 million net tax refund. The refund is not because Facebook had a loss. Facebook earned almost $1.1 billion in profits during 2012.
Corporations are able to claim deductions that are not available to individual filers. In Facebook's case the company is able to deduct executive stock options that are used as part of their compensation:"That tax break reduced Facebook’s federal and state income taxes by $1,033 million in 2012, including refunds of earlier years’ taxes of $451 million."
This situation is not unique to Facebook. Many large corporations use stock options to compensate not just executives but other employees. The options allow the holders to buy stocks at favorable prices in the future. When the options are exercised the corporations are able to deduct the difference between what the employee paid for the stock and what it is worth. The employee is required to report this difference as a taxable wage. This article reports that 185 other large corporations also use this tax deduction.
There is nothing illegal about what Facebook and the other corporations are doing. The conceptual basis for the deduction is that the non-cash compensation such as these stock options can be thought of as equivalent to a certain cash compensation and hence an expense just as salary, that reduces profit and thus taxes.
Facebook relies more on stock options and restricted stock units as a form of compensation than many corporations. A lot of these were paid out when it was a private company and are now being exercised and so appear on the company books as a deduction.
In Facebook financial statements you won't actually find any $429 million tax refund. In fact the company claims that it had a $559 billion tax liability for 2012. Yet, in a footnote the records point out that Facebook had a $1.03 billion "excess tax benefit" last year that was related to “stock option exercises and other equity awards.” Factoring this amount in turns the over half a billion tax liability into a refund!
Facebook has even more of these offsetting amounts in the bank for future use to the tune of $2.7 billion that it can carry forward. A spokesperson for Facebook Ashley Zandy would not discuss the tax break but referred to Chief Financial Officer, David Ebersman's conference call with analysts. Ebersman said in the call that the company ended the year with nearly $10 billion in cash as well as the accumulated tax benefits. He said that this gave the company great flexibility and risk protection.
Facebook was a private company until an Initial Public Offering (IPO) was offered on May 17, 2012. The share price was $38 a share. The company was valued at $104 billion. The share value soon dropped, as shares were grossly overvalued. The latest stock value on February 15 was $28.52 still well below its initial value.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Environmentalists press Obama to reject Keystone XL pipeline


While Obama stressed the importance of the environment in his State of the Union speech, environmentalists are pressing him to prove it by rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline..
Already this week, 50 people were arrested while demonstrating against the XL pipeline outside the White House in Washington DC.
An even larger rally is planned for this Sunday, Febrruary 17th, in Washington. The rally is billed as being the largest environmental rally in history.
The upcoming rally is designed to convince Obama to reject construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry oil from the Alberta tar sands to a port in Texas. While on one side Obama is under pressure from environmentalists to not approve construction, he is under pressure to approve the project from many in Congress and his own party, as well as business interests and big oil companies in particular.
Just last month, the Democratic-controlled Senate urged approval, after what was said to be an exhaustive environmental review. The senators said that it was in the US national interest to build the pipeline because it would cut dependence on foreign oil. Note that the US senate does not seem to count Canadian oil as foreign oil. There is good reason for that, since were are bound by NAFTA to share our oil with the US even in times of shortages: Despite the fact that we are running out of natural gas, and that we import 49% of the oil we consume, NAFTA dictates that Canada’s government cannot reduce the percentage of oil and gas we now export to the United States even in times of domestic shortages.
NAFTA also prohibits Canada from selling oil at lower prices in Canada than it does to the US. Many countries that have large oil supplies give their own citizens a break on costs but not Canada: NAFTA also prohibits Canada from charging a lower price to domestic oil consumers than to those purchasing exports. It's common practice for countries that are self-sufficient in oil to give domestic oil consumers a discount from the world price, in essence, to control domestic prices. Back in March of this year when vaulting oil prices pushed up the cost of refined products such as gasoline, residents in some oil-rich countries hardly noticed. Kuwaitis were paying 81 cents per gallon for gasoline. Saudis paid 45 cents. And, Venezuelans were paying just 6 cents.It is not surprising then that US senators do not see Canadian oil as foreign oil since our oil policy regulated through NAFTA is designed to supply the US market at favorable prices. The market in eastern Canada is supplied not by western Canada but by expensive imported oil. We are not even self-sufficient in oil supplies in spite of our resources.
Nebraska, which had rejected the original route, now approves a revised route. Dave Heineman, the governor of Nebraska, approved a new route that avoids the Sandhills region of the state. Heineman claimed the project would bring $418.1 million in economic benefits to the state, as well as $16.5 million in taxes from construction materials. Charles Ebinger of the Brookings Institution said:"Any pipeline can have an accident but if one looks at all the pipelines in the country that cross the Ogallala reservoir for many, many years - both oil and natural gas pipelines - I think without great environmental havoc occurring, on balance I think it makes sense to approve the pipeline and get that oil into the market. "
Many environmental critics of the Keystone XL are really against development of tar sands oil per se, since even the extraction of the heavy oil produces much more in the way of emissions than for conventional oil and it can cause serious problems in the local environment particularly on first nations territory.
While some claim that a "yes" by Obama would entrench the oil sands fuel as a major source of energy and a "no"' would make the extraction unprofitable for oil majors, this seems to me too simplistic a view. There are other alternatives. While a pipeline to the Canadian west coast may be even more contested than the Keystone XL project, a pipeline to eastern Canada would not be out of the question. It would make sense too, if the pipeline is blocked, to consider more refining capacity in Alberta or adjacent provinces to create a move valuable product to be transported by rail or truck to markets. Environmentalists might not have the power to block these developments within Canada. We will see soon which pressure on Obama has the greatest force. My own guess is that he will give in to those who want the project to go forward but he will attempt to negotiate a quid pro quo in return.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

US Senators considering secret court to rule on additions to kill list


The idea is that a secret court would consider evidence that a suspect should be on a targeted killing list and hence could be attacked by a drone. The court would issue what might be called a "death warrant".
The secret drone court would be modeled on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court that was created in 1978. This court approves national security surveillance on US soil. Earlier these decisions had been the prerogative of the president. The court has almost never rejected requests for surveillance warrants although at times they have modified them. The court has also complained at times that evidence presented to the court was not well verified. George Bush carried out surveillance without bothering to go to the court on a number of occasions..
The suggestion of such a court is obviously an attempt to establish some type of legal legitimacy for the drone program by providing judicial oversight that could then be touted as due process. As of now, the due process is simply the operation of the hidden group that advises the president on who should be added to the kill list. The president makes the ultimate decision. Usually, due process is understood as the accused being charged and brought before a court with legal representation, where he or she can know the charges and the evidence against him or her and have his lawyer question that evidence. Such a model does not fit with the prevalent view of the US administration which considers the globe a battlefield between the US and Al Qaeda. Suspected terrorists are not criminals accused of a crime but unprivileged combatants in a battle. Given this conceptualisation of the status of the suspected terrorist due process, as understood in charges against cirminals, does not really enter into the situation. The stark contradiction between the legal framework of the war on terror and normal legal processes should be emphasized more.
People are rightly horrified at the idea that the President,in effect, becomes judge, jury, and executioner. The processes by which the decision to kill are made have no input from the accused and involve no formal charges, simply an assessment that the suspect is an imminent threat to the US, where "imminent" could mean as little as that the person is thought to be planning attacks against the US or its forces. No one from outside the closed system is allowed input into the process.
The situation is little changed if a secret court were to be involved. The evidence presented would be from those who want a suspect declared a legitimate target. No one is present to argue against that evidence except the judge. The court would end up being for the most part a rubber stamp for administrations requests. If there was some resistance or if the process seemed to slow and cumbersome, the administration would probably simply go ahead on its own, as happened with the FISA court under Bush. However, in politics perception is probably at least 80% of reality so the court idea could come to fruition.
Robert M Chesney a law professor at the University of Texas said:“We’ve gone from people scoffing at this to it becoming a fit subject for polite conversation." Chesney said court approval for adding names to a kill list is not beyond the realm of political possibility, at least for US citizens. Chesney noted further:“People in Washington need to wake up and realize the legal foundations are crumbling by the day,”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California and chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, promised to review proposals to establish a secret court. She was supported by Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine. King said:“Having the executive being the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner all in one is very contrary to the traditions and the laws of this country." His remarks suggest the conventional idea of due process, which is never going to have a place with respect to terror suspects unless the war conceptualisation is changed to a view of the terrorist as a criminal.
Brennan disclosed that the Obama administration had actually held talks internally about the feasibility of such a court. Brennan said:“I think it’s certainly worthy of discussion. What’s that appropriate balance between the executive, legislative and judicial branch responsibilities in this area?”
If such a court were to be formed its jurisdiction would likely be limited to approving names for a kill list rather than approving drone strikes. Many believe though that extending the court's review to foreign suspects would infringe on the role of the president as commander in chief. Senator King felt that the court would be constitutional only if limited to ruling on names of American suspects to be placed on the kill list. Apparently, there is concern about judicial oversight only if US citizens are involved.
Of course all this does nothing to dampen concerns about civilian deaths in the strikes, how decisions are made on targeting foreign suspects, or about public disclosure about the strike rules and procedures. As William Banks, a national security law expert at Syracuse University put it:“In terms of the politics and the optics, aren’t you in the same position that you are now? It’s still secret. The target wouldn’t be represented. It’s a mechanism that wouldn’t satisfy critics or advance the due process cause much.”
Hina Shamsi of the ACLU's national security project said that the drone court would actually represent a step backward. A better approach would be extradition and criminal prosecution of suspected terrorists. However this misses the point. This is conceptually a war. In a war you do not charge your opponent with a crime. If you apprehend an opponent he or she is held in effect as a prisoner until hostilities end. Of course in the war on terror, hostilities never end and so the logical extension of that is indefinite confinement without charge as happens in Guantanamo, for the most part.
Shamsi continues: “I strongly agree that judicial review is crucial. But judicial review in a new secret court is both unnecessary and un-American.”But FISA does exactly the same type of thing and has been in place since 1978. In the war on terror, secrecy is as American as apple pie.


Friday, February 8, 2013

Ultra-conservative Egyptian cleric defends sexual attacks on female protesters


Egypt is in turmoil today after a hard-line Muslim cleric on an Egyptian TV station justified sexual assaults against women protesters. Other ultra-conservatives issued fatwas to kill opposition leaders.
Cleric Ahmed Mohammed Abdullah on his TV show claimed that attacking women was not a "red line" as some opposition members claim. He asked rhetorically: “Does that apply to these naked women? Nine out of 10 of them are Crusaders (Christians) and the rest are ... widows with no one to rein them in to ensure they remain modest."The cleric continued with a classic blame the victim rant:“They are going there to get raped ....these are devils named women ... They speak with no femininity, no morals, no fear ... Learn from Muslim women, be Muslims.”
Views such as this go a long way to explain the violent attacks against women protesters recently. At protests on January 25 to mark the two-year-anniversary of the revolution, at least 19 women were attacked. One had to have surgery after her genitals had been sliced with a knife. Women of all ages have been attacked on Tahrir square. The appended video gives more detail.
While the President Morsi's office and the prime minister have denounced the edicts and one cleric is under investigation, both aides to Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood officials have depicted protesters as thugs and criminals and accused opposition politicians as fueling the violence in an attempt to overthrow Morsi. Many of the more conservative Salafists have gone further still.
Hard-line clerics say that under Islamic law, those who try to overthrow the ruler or cause chaos should face such punishments as death or amputation of limbs. These statements alarmed the opposition, especially after the recent killing of a secular opposition figure in Tunisia, Chokri Belaid.
The National Salvation Front said that Belaid's killing should sound danger alarms in Cairo and shows that terrorist groups are growing under the cloak of religion. They plot to eliminate the opposition morally and physically. The leader of the Front,Mohamed ElBaradei, complained that the government's silence on the clerical edicts gave the fundamentalists a licence to kill in the name of Islam. However since then Morsi's office issued a statement that rejects hate speech cloaked by religion and called for all leaders to stand together against unacceptable inciteful language. No doubt much opposition criticism of Morsi will probably fall under this rubric. The Prime Minister also criticized the edicts.
Security officials have also put ElBaradei's home and those of several other leaders under observation for their protection.Opposition leader Hamdeen Sabahy claimed death threats against him and other members of the National Salvation Front would not deter him or his supporters from continuing peaceful protests.
The edicts against the opposition leaders have been particularly virulent. On a recent talk show cleric Mahmoud Shaaban claimed that the leaders of the National Salvation Front were "setting Egyp on fire to gain power". He continued: “The verdict against them under God’s law is death." However, he added that the government not private citizens should carry out the verdict.
Another cleric, Wagdi Ghoneim, issued a video statement encouraging Morsi to crack down on this protesting around the presidential palace:“The verdict under Shariah for those who seek corruption on earth is to be fought, or crucified, or have their arms or legs cut off or be exiled from earth. Strike with an iron fist. Otherwise, the country will be lost at your hand and they’ll say it is your fault. They’ll say Islam doesn’t know how to rule and that it’s the Islamists who wrecked the country.”
Ghoneim said that if Morsi refused to act then private citizens would:“We will kill the criminals, the thugs, the thieves and those who give them money and those who help them with words. No mercy with them."