Children were taken home early from schools in Beirut yesterday after gatherings of black-clad men in the morning raised fears of violence.
Children were taken home early from schools in Beirut yesterday after gatherings of black-clad men in the morning raised fears of violence.

Lebanon wary as Hariri indictments raise fears of violence



BEIRUT // Lebanese security forces spread across central Beirut yesterday and several schools closed in response to tensions surrounding draft indictments issued over the killing of the country's prime minister, Rafiq al Hariri, in 2005.

The deployment took place after Shi'ite citizens took to the streets in a half dozen neighbourhoods in the early morning across the capital. Among them were groups of men dressed in black, which alarmed Sunni Muslim residents, who said they were supporters of Hizbollah or its Shi'ite ally Amal.

At least four gatherings of up to 30 people each took place with the men carrying hand-held radios, the Associated Press reported. One gathering was about 400 metres from the Grand Serail, the seat of government in central Beirut, and security officials closed the roads leading to the building.

Lebanese security officials confirmed the gatherings, which dispersed by late morning and appeared to be a protest in the hours after a long-awaited indictment was released on Monday evening in the assassination of Hariri, which killed 22 others.

Both Hizbollah and Amal, the two main Shi'ite political groups in Lebanon, denied that the street actions were organised by their parties.

The prosecutor for the United Nations-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon filed the indictments, which are expected to implicate Hizbollah members in Hariri's death, on Monday. The indictments' contents were not revealed.

Lebanon's government was toppled last week by the Hizbollah-dominated opposition, over the government's backing for the tribunal, which the Shiite group says is a US-Israeli instrument to harm it.

Since rumours surfaced months ago that the probe would indict members of Hizbollah the Shi'ite group and its opposition allies have been eager to discredit the process. Judge Daniel Fansen, the pre-trial judge who is examining the viability of the indictments confidentially, could take months to approve any indictments.

Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, said: "Hizbollah has committed itself to stay off the streets. There is no question in my mind that the people who gathered were Hizbollah sympathisers, but Hizbollah were very quick to disclaim it... The country has been going through conflict since the late 1960s so people react quickly to rumours and the semblance of violence.

"The names [of the indictees] have still to be revealed by the tribunal. Real demonstrations will not take place before then but what happened [yesterday] morning serves as an indicator [of what is to come]."

Yesterday, security in Beirut was increased. Roads leading to and near the parliament building were closed to traffic.

"Rumours start very fast and people react very fast and pull their kids from school," said 47-year-old Mazen, who declined to give his surname: "I took my kids to school in the morning and I had to go take them home at 12, because all the parents had come and taken their kids home."

Parents pulled their children from school yesterday as word spread of the gatherings.

The education minister, Hassan Mneimneh, told Lebanese TV stations that the situation in the capital had "returned to normal" by late morning and that today would be "a normal school day".

Lebanon's interim prime minster, Saad Hariri, Rafiq Hariri's son, and his government alliance refused to bend to the opposition's demands to sever Lebanon's ties with the tribunal.

Now, Lebanon is faced with the task of forming a new government. President Michel Suleiman planned to consult parliament this week on the nomination of a new prime minister, but he postponed the talks until January 24 so as to enable regional and world powers to help broker a solution to the impasse.

After a summit on the Lebanese crisis with the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, in Damascus on Monday, the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and the Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, arrived in Beirut yesterday in a bid to mediate a solution. They met Mr Suleiman, the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri and Mr Hariri, as well as officials from Hizbollah. On the agenda was a bid to revive a compromise initiative that was being developed for months by Syria and Saudi Arabia - patrons to opposing sides of the Lebanese political divide - which came to a halt early last week, just prior to the government collapse.

Turkey and France are also working on creating an international "contact group" through which to mediate a solution between Lebanon's rival camps.

The heady international diplomacy and domestic political statecraft seemed an abstraction from the goings-on of Beirut's Hamra Street yesterday afternoon. Many passersby said they were not worried, or that they simply did not care any more.

"I just care about my life, how to get money, how to live," said Hassan Mdallal, 23, on a cigarette break from his job at an H&M clothing store. "Every four to five years, there's a war or something. So this is the same story again."

* With additional reporting by Associated Press and Reuters

Mercer, the investment consulting arm of US services company Marsh & McLennan, expects its wealth division to at least double its assets under management (AUM) in the Middle East as wealth in the region continues to grow despite economic headwinds, a company official said.

Mercer Wealth, which globally has $160 billion in AUM, plans to boost its AUM in the region to $2-$3bn in the next 2-3 years from the present $1bn, said Yasir AbuShaban, a Dubai-based principal with Mercer Wealth.

Within the next two to three years, we are looking at reaching $2 to $3 billion as a conservative estimate and we do see an opportunity to do so,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Mercer does not directly make investments, but allocates clients’ money they have discretion to, to professional asset managers. They also provide advice to clients.

“We have buying power. We can negotiate on their (client’s) behalf with asset managers to provide them lower fees than they otherwise would have to get on their own,” he added.

Mercer Wealth’s clients include sovereign wealth funds, family offices, and insurance companies among others.

From its office in Dubai, Mercer also looks after Africa, India and Turkey, where they also see opportunity for growth.

Wealth creation in Middle East and Africa (MEA) grew 8.5 per cent to $8.1 trillion last year from $7.5tn in 2015, higher than last year’s global average of 6 per cent and the second-highest growth in a region after Asia-Pacific which grew 9.9 per cent, according to consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG). In the region, where wealth grew just 1.9 per cent in 2015 compared with 2014, a pickup in oil prices has helped in wealth generation.

BCG is forecasting MEA wealth will rise to $12tn by 2021, growing at an annual average of 8 per cent.

Drivers of wealth generation in the region will be split evenly between new wealth creation and growth of performance of existing assets, according to BCG.

Another general trend in the region is clients’ looking for a comprehensive approach to investing, according to Mr AbuShaban.

“Institutional investors or some of the families are seeing a slowdown in the available capital they have to invest and in that sense they are looking at optimizing the way they manage their portfolios and making sure they are not investing haphazardly and different parts of their investment are working together,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Some clients also have a higher appetite for risk, given the low interest-rate environment that does not provide enough yield for some institutional investors. These clients are keen to invest in illiquid assets, such as private equity and infrastructure.

“What we have seen is a desire for higher returns in what has been a low-return environment specifically in various fixed income or bonds,” he said.

“In this environment, we have seen a de facto increase in the risk that clients are taking in things like illiquid investments, private equity investments, infrastructure and private debt, those kind of investments were higher illiquidity results in incrementally higher returns.”

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, said in its 2016 report that has gradually increased its exposure in direct private equity and private credit transactions, mainly in Asian markets and especially in China and India. The authority’s private equity department focused on structured equities owing to “their defensive characteristics.”

UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
Kandahar

Director: Ric Roman Waugh

Stars: Gerard Butler, Navid Negahban, Ali Fazal

Rating: 2.5/5

COMPANY PROFILE

Name: Haltia.ai
Started: 2023
Co-founders: Arto Bendiken and Talal Thabet
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: AI
Number of employees: 41
Funding: About $1.7 million
Investors: Self, family and friends

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1998: Amazon acquires IMDb, its first major acquisition. It also starts selling CDs and DVDs

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