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Arab world risks losing 1.7 million jobs due to coronavirus: UN

By AFP

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A pharmacist works at a drugstore while wearing a face mask in Iraq's southern city of Basra on March 18th, 2020. Seeking to stem an outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of Iraq's 18 provinces have declared curfews of several days. [Hussein Faleh/AFP]

The coronavirus pandemic threatens to wipe out more than 1.7 million jobs across the Arab world this year, the UN Economic Commission for Western Asia warned Wednesday (March 18th).

Arab nations' gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to shrink by at least $42 billion in 2020, hit by plunging oil prices and virus-linked shutdowns, it said.

"More than 1.7 million jobs could be lost in 2020, with the unemployment rate increasing by 1.2 percentage points," the report said.

"Unlike in the aftermath of the global 2008 financial crisis, employment is expected to be affected across all sectors."

The International Labour Organisation warned Wednesday that globally the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to leave up to 25 million more people out of work.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) urged Middle Eastern governments Wednesday to be more forthcoming with information about new coronavirus infections in order to effectively combat the global pandemic.

"We can only control this disease if we have access to information that allows us to understand its dynamic in the region," Ahmed al-Mandhari, WHO's Eastern Mediterranean director, told an online press conference from Cairo.

"We have an opportunity to contain this pandemic in our region," he added.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases have reached over 18,000 across the Middle East, with more than 1,000 deaths recorded in seven countries, mostly in Iran.

Iranian authorities on Thursday announced 149 new deaths from the virus, raising the toll to 1,284.

While Thursday's death toll surpassed that of the previous day's, the number of new cases has fallen, according to figures provided by Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi.

A total of 18,407 people have contracted the disease in Iran, with 1,046 new cases confirmed in the last 24 hours.

"In 11 provinces" out of 31, "the number of infections has decreased because people have followed our guidelines", Raisi said, renewing the call for Iranians to stay home.

Iraq faces financial calamity

Brent oil prices tanked this week to $26 per barrel, the lowest since 2003, following a hit to global oil demand from the outbreak and a price war between major producers Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Iraq, which relies on oil revenues for more than 90% of its revenues, was set to face "vast economic pressures", said Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Iraq is the second-biggest crude producer in the OPEC oil cartel, and typically exports around 3.5 million barrels per day. Its draft 2020 budget was based on a projected price of $56 per barrel.

With prices slashed, Iraq's net income would drop 65% in 2020 compared to last year, incurring a monthly deficit of $4 billion just to pay salaries and keep the government running.

Top officials told AFP the finance and oil ministries, Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) and state-owned banks were exploring ways to trim costs and find financing.

"There is some anxiety, but it is not acute," CBI governor Ali Allaq told AFP.

"Oil prices will not stay at this level. We don't expect them to go up a lot, but enough to secure the required amount," he said.

Still, Allaq said, officials were closely reviewing the 2020 draft budget, one of Iraq's largest ever at around 164 trillion Iraqi dinar ($137 billion).

More than 75% had been set aside for salaries and other running costs, with the rest spent on capital investments.

Salaries jumped from $36 billion in 2019 to $47 billion for 2020, after 500,000 new employees were hired to appease months of anti-government rallies.

UK pulls troops from Iraq

On Thursday, the British defence ministry announced Britain is withdrawing some of its troops from a global training mission in Iraq because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The decision to redeploy was made because there had been a "reduced requirement for training" from the Iraqi security forces and a pause in coalition and NATO training missions.

"The Ministry of Defence has therefore decided to redeploy some of its personnel back to the UK," it said in a statement.

Britain has been working alongside coalition partners in Iraq since 2014 to train Iraqi security forces but the programme has been "paused" for 60 days as a precaution because of COVID-19.

Key UK military personnel will remain in Iraq supporting the government in Baghdad, the coalition and UK interests, the ministry said.

"There remains a significant footprint of UK Armed Forces within the coalition and elsewhere," defence minister Ben Wallace said, promising London would remain committed to the "complete defeat" of remnants of the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).

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