Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Arab Stocks On The Rise

Every time I meet my friend Charbel we remember the big mistake we made two years ago when we both planned to buy stocks in Lebanon construction company Solidere but never did. Then a Solidere share was being sold for 4 dollars while now it reached 25 dollars.
It is unbelievable how much people in the region are focusing on Arab stock markets especially when we see how much shares rose last year and how great they have been doing so far this month.
Many people, whether in countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain or Lebanon have for sure become rich because of buying and selling stocks. This business is spreading very quickly in the region with some people selling their property to buy shares.
During the day when I tune to Al-Arabiya television, most probably I will see Zeina Soufan, Seba Audi or Nadine Hany speaking about stocks. The Saudi Stock Market is by far the largest in the region and is also the most active. Its index rose in the past four weeks by nearly 1,500 points to reach 18,680 today. Petrochemicals company SABIC is one of the largest in the world and recently reported profit of about 20 billion riyals (some 5 billion dollars). There are several other giant companies like Saudi Telecom, Al Rajhi Bank, Saudi American Bank SAMBA not to mention cement companies or power stations.
There is no doubt that one of the main reasons behind this rise in stocks prices is the sharp increase in oil prices. An oil barrel that used to be sold for 10 dollars few years ago, today sells for more than 65 dollars. The Gulf has so much cash, some reports say half a trillion dollars, that were and are being invested in stocks, real estate and giant industrial projects.
Back to myself, although I am a strong believer that it is never too late, I will not buy stocks in the region because I believe stocks are over priced.
Not buying Solider was not the first time I miss such an opportunity to make money. In 2001, shortly before I moved back to Lebanon from Egypt where I lived for five years, a banker told me to buy some shares in Orascom Telecom. A share was being sold then for 13 Egyptian pounds (about 3 dollars). I did not buy fearing the company might not do well. Since then Orascom Telecom's business expanded quickly and the share rose to 30 times to 600 Egyptian pounds (about 100 dollar).
Today my friend Amer called me and said Solidere is expected to rise more in the coming weeks.
I don't think I will buy first because it is way too expensive for me and second because I worry, as I had been for years, about a drop in prices.
Maybe I have to be more courageous.
Bassem Mroue
Beirut January 25, 2006
11:30 p.m.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

A Hajj Experience

One of the most interesting assignments that I covered in my 14-year career as a journalist was the Hajj in Saudi Arabia five years ago. Luckily, that year was free of incidents such as what happened two days ago when more than 350 pilgrims were killed in a stampede as they were going to perform the ritual of stoning the devil.
I was living in Cairo then and with thousands of Egyptians going to the Hajj, I was not able to find a seat on a plane to Saudi Arabia so I flew to Dubai and from there back to Jiddah, a trip that took about seven hours of flying instead of two hours directly from Cairo.
Going to the Hajj, a person wonders how can more than two million people gather in the small area of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the adjacent areas of Muzdalifa, Mount Arafat and Mina, a small tent town that comes to life for few days every year during the Hajj.
Most of the stampedes occur when the ritual of stoning the devil is performed, when most Muslims say it should be done before the noon prayers. Usually tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, move in the direction of three pillars representing the Satan and throw seven stones at each one. Any mistake or fall could cause a disaster like the one we witnessed this week.
After several days in Saudi, of which I used to spend the day in Mecca and return to sleep in Jiddah, the Hajj officially began on the 8th of the Muslim month of Dhil-Hijjah. Most of us, journalists from around the world, put our Ihram, a seamless white uniform that all pilgrims wear, and were taken in information ministry buses to Mount Arafat where we spent the night. The next day was Yawm al-Wukuf or the Day of Standing when Muslims spend their day praying at the holy Mount Arafat.
After sunset of the 9th we headed to the nearby area of Muzdalifa where the sunset and night prayers were performed before we collected stones to be used in stoning the devil. On the 10th, which is the Feast of Sacrifice we headed very early in the morning to nearby Mina where we stoned the devil and later in the day I had a sheep slaughtered and shaved my head which meant I could end the state of Ihram, which is take off our white seamless uniforms and putting on our normal clothes.
For three days we were staying at a camp in Mina and we used to go back and forth for prayers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca where we had to circle the Kaaba, or walk around it, seven times. on the 13th of the month we headed back to Jiddah and from there paid a visit to Madina, where Prophet Muhammad's tomb is located, before heading back to Cairo but through Dubai.
Speaking on Thursday night after the death of 363 pilgrims and the injury of 289, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz called Muslim scholars around the world to issue new rules that would make it easier for pilgrims to perform the stoning of the devil that for years have led to the death of thousands of people.
At some points I felt the danger of being in the middle of hundreds of thousands of people in closed places such as inside the Grand Mosque or when we were on a bridge moving slowly to stone the devil. Still it was very emotional and impressive to be in such a holy place and also to see equality among human beings when you cannot tell who is rich or poor since everyone is wearing the same uniform.
Going to Hajj also shows how worldwide Islam is where I saw people of all colors and ethnic groups speaking different languages, but what was common is that they all felt at home.
Bassem Mroue
Beirut January 15, 2006
1:45 p.m.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Happy 2006

Most of the people who I asked where they spent New Year's Eve said they stayed at home. I don't know if it is related to the depression many Lebanese are suffering from these days because of the bad security and political situation in the country. What most of them are worried about is that 2006 be as bad, if not worse, than the previous year.

On January 1, many people were talking about astrologers who appeared on Lebanese television stations. Lebanon's most famous psychic, Michel Hayek appeared on LBC television but refused to say anything about what he expects to happen in the coming year. In previous years some of the things he expected did happen.

People who don't believe in astrology, and they don't appear to be many in Lebanon, say anyone can predict if he or she makes some analysis of the situation. That made me take the decision to make some predictions for 2006, maybe I can quit journalism and become a famous astrologer which for sure makes much more money.

What could happen in Lebanon in 2006:

-Lebanon will witness some bombings and assassinations of political figures and journalists. (everybody knows that)

-A leading religious figure will die (some of them are old and some suffer bad health.)

-More Arab mediations to try improve Syrian-Lebanese relations. (since relations are not expected to improve in the near future.)

-Israeli air raids. (since more Katayusha rockets could be fired from southern Lebanon.)

-Country's debt to reach about US$40 billion.

For Iraq.

-A new government will be headed by current Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

-More violence, mainly in central regions.

-U.S. troops will begin to pull out.

-Saddam Hussein to be sentenced to death in the Dujail trial.

In the Middle East.

-Hamas will win large number of seats in Palestinian parliamentary elections.

-An earthquake will kill thousands of people somewhere in Asia. (every year there is one in this continent).

-Major correction movement in Arab (mainly Gulf) stock markets.

In Africa.

-Eritrea and Ethipia go to war.


-Oil prices to go below US$50 a barrel.

Beirut January 3, 2005. 1 a.m.