Saudi Aramco Plans $25.6B Share Sale in Biggest IPO Ever

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Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company, on Thursday set a share price for its initial public stock offering — expected to be the biggest ever — that puts the value of the company at $1.7 trillion, more than Apple or Microsoft. 
 
The company said it would sell its shares at 32 riyals ($8.53) each, putting the overall value of the stake being sold at $25.6 billion. 
 
Aramco is floating a 1.5% stake in the company, or 3 billion shares. Trading is expected to happen on the Saudi Tadawul stock exchange as early as December 11. 
 
The company is selling 0.5% to individuals who are Saudi citizens and residents  and 1% to institutional investors, which can be sovereign wealth funds, asset managers or government-run pension programs. 
 
The pricing of the shares was at the top of the range Aramco had sought. The company had priced its shares ranging from 30 to 32 riyals each, or $8 to $8.53 a share. 
 
In the announcement Thursday, Aramco said the offering drew heavy demand.

Most orders from Saudis

The company’s financial advisers had said earlier that most orders came from Saudi funds or companies, with foreign investors, including from neighboring Persian Gulf Arab states, accounting for 10.5% of the bids. It was not immediately known what the final figures released Thursday represented and how much of that was generated by foreign investment. 
 
The highly anticipated sale of a sliver of the company had generated global buzz since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced plans for it more than two years ago. That’s in part because it would clock in as the world’s biggest IPO, surpassing record holder Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., the Chinese conglomerate and e-commerce company, which raised about $25 billion in 2014. 
 
The kingdom’s plan to sell part of the company is part of a wider economic overhaul aimed at raising new streams of revenue for the oil-dependent country. It came as oil prices have struggled to reach the $75-$80-per-barrel range that analysts say is needed to balance Saudi Arabia’s budget. Brent crude is trading at just over $63 a barrel. 
 
Prince Mohammed has said listing Aramco is one way for the kingdom to raise capital for the country’s sovereign wealth fund, which would then use that money to develop new cities and lucrative projects across Saudi Arabia. 
 
Despite the mammoth figures involved in the IPO, they are not quite what the prince had envisioned based on his remarks over the past two years. He’d previously talked about a valuation for Aramco of $2 trillion and a flotation of 5% of the company involving a listing on a foreign stock exchange. There are no immediate plans for an international listing. 

Another sale?
 
Aramco said Thursday that it would retain the option of an even bigger offering of a 3.45 billion-share sale, representing $29.4 billion. 
 
Despite Aramco’s profitability, the state’s control of the company carries risks for investors. Two key Aramco processing sites were targeted by drones and missiles in September, an attack that was claimed by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen but that the U.S. blamed on Iran. Iran denies the allegation. 
 
The Saudi government also stipulates oil production levels, which directly affects Aramco’s output. 
 
On Thursday, the countries that make up the OPEC oil-producing cartel, led by Saudi Arabia, were meeting in Vienna to decide whether to cut production and push up prices of fuel and energy around the world. 

Tiny Analyzer Promises Boost for Coffee Growers, Their Soil

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A piece of paper no bigger than a business card could enrich struggling coffee farmers and their soil, a growing challenge as temperatures rise and prices fluctuate. 
 
Enveritas, a U.S. nonprofit, signed an agreement with International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) on Thursday to pilot the AgroPad, which analyzes soil samples remotely and quickly. 
 
Powered by artificial intelligence, the AgroPad can perform a chemical analysis in 10 seconds, reading nitrate or chloride levels from a drop of water or small soil sample, said IBM. 
 
Enveritas plans to provide the devices for free to farmers in coffee-growing regions of Latin America and Africa, and IBM said it aims to make them affordable for everyone. Its target production cost: less than 25 cents. 
 
The nonprofit, which works with 100,000 farms, mills and estates in Latin America and Africa, did not say how many would be in the pilot but, if successful, “the plan is to scale it out,” CEO David Browning told Reuters. 
 
Coffee farmers have been struggling with a slump in global prices while climate change is threatening vast swaths of land in Latin America, Asia and Africa. 
 
Enveritas, which verifies the sustainability of coffee farmers, said most of its growers live on less than $2 a day. 
 
Chemical analysis of soil is vital to improve yields but is complicated, expensive and time-consuming because it requires laboratory equipment, said Mathias Steiner from IBM Research-Brazil. 
 
AgroPad costs less and could reduce the use of fertilizers, which would save money and help the environment, said Steiner, one of its inventors. 
 
Last week, engineers from Britain’s Brunel University also unveiled an AI device for farming: small red pods, costing £92 ($118) each, that could be planted into the soil. The pods collect data hourly and would show farmers what the soil needs. 

Trump Threatens Trade Action to Spur NATO Contributions

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President Donald Trump said on Thursday the United States may take action on trade with countries that are not contributing enough to NATO.

Trump, fresh from a trip to London for a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has been pushing member countries to contribute more to the organization.

The U.S. president said a lot of countries were getting close to the goal of 2 percent of the Gross Domestic Product for NATO contributions.

“A lot of countries are close and getting closer. And some are really not close, and we may do things having to do with trade. It’s not fair that they get U.S. protection and they’re not putting up their money,” he said.

Trump and French leader Emmanuel Macron clashed over the future of NATO on Tuesday before a summit intended to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Western military alliance.

In sharp exchanges underlining discord in a transatlantic bloc hailed by many as the most successful military pact in history, Trump demanded that Europe pay more for its collective defense and make concessions to U.S. interests on trade.

He also was upbeat about the alliance on Thursday, saying his meetings went well and that “NATO is in very, very good shape and the relationships with other countries are really extraordinary.”

Uganda’s Museveni Criticized for Leading March Against Corruption

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Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Wednesday led hundreds of people in a march against corruption, calling corrupt people parasites who steal public wealth.

Museveni said to end corruption, leaders must develop the economy.

“Commercial agriculture, industry services and ICT, because that’s how we can create jobs and wealth and income so that our people do not have a material basis for acute need, which forces them to be corrupt,” Museveni said.

President Yoweri Museveni addresses a gathering that had participated in the anti-corruption walk in Kampala, Uganda, Dec. 4, 20
President Yoweri Museveni addresses a gathering that had participated in the anti-corruption walk in Kampala, Uganda, Dec. 4, 2019. (Halima Athumani/VOA News)

Critics note that last year, Transparency International ranked Uganda as one of the most corrupt countries in Africa, below Kenya, Mauritania and Nigeria.

Action Aid International-Uganda says Museveni marching against corruption is ironic, because his government is to blame for much of it.

Nickson Ogwal is the director of programs and policy at Action Aid International-Uganda.

“He is the chief law enforcement officer of Uganda,” Ogwal said. “He’s therefore the one [to] whom the citizens are supposed to walk and show and demonstrate that they are angry about corruption. Now, to whom is he angry? So, we really think that he is playing politics.”

Critics accuse Uganda’s inspector general of holding only lower level officials or private citizens to account for corruption.

The inspector, Irene Mulyagonja, acknowledges that some top government officials hide behind Museveni but argues the president is sincere in tackling corruption.

“You see when he says, ‘I am ready to fight,’ it means he’s ready to give them up. So that if you start looking for them, and to be true to him, if you are investigating a person who is near him, he doesn’t say stop investigating. He says, ‘bring me the evidence,’” Mulyagonja said.

WATCH: Uganda’s Museveni Criticized for Leading March Against Corruption


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But, Uganda’s deputy speaker of parliament, Jacob Oulanyah, says he is not convinced that corruption is now at the top of Museveni’s agenda.

“Unless we take this from our own frontline and extend the frontier to cover other areas, it’s a waste of time,” Oulanyah said. “It’s a public show for nothing. I come because it’s a public show, but deep down I know. We are going right back to practice the same damn corruption that we claim to fight.”

Nonetheless, Uganda’s lawmakers and judges Wednesday renewed public vows to be honest and not accept bribes.

The anti-corruption events blocked all roads leading to central Kampala, forcing many skeptical passers-by to walk for more than 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) to get to work.

‘It’s Bittersweet’: Leia has Key Role As ‘Star Wars’ Wraps Skywalker Saga

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The highly anticipated final chapter in the Skywalker film saga will feature a significant role for Princess Leia, the beloved “Star Wars” character played by late actress Carrie Fisher.

Writer and director J.J. Abrams said he had enough unused footage of Fisher from the filming of 2015 movie “The Force Awakens” to make Leia a key player in “The Rise of Skywalker,” the “Star Wars” film that debuts in theaters on Dec. 20.

Fisher died in 2016 at age 60.

“We couldn’t tell the story without Leia,” Abrams said in an interview on Wednesday. “She’s the mother of the villain of the piece. She’s in a sense the mother of the resistance, the rebellion, the leader, the general.”

“Her role is, I would say, integral,” he added. “This is not just a cosmetic thing where we’re sort of inserting Leia.”

“The Rise of Skywalker” is the ninth movie in the celebrated space franchise that debuted in 1977 and is now owned by Walt Disney Co.

In recent films, Leia had risen to general leading the fight against the evil First Order in the galaxy far, far away. Her son is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the warrior who took over as ruler of the First Order at the end of 2017 film “The Last Jedi.”

If Fisher had been alive, “there is no question we would have done, I’m sure, additional and other things,” Abrams said. “But the fact we had the material to do what we did is incredibly gratifying.”

Daisy Ridley, who portrays resistance fighter Rey, recorded scenes for “Rise of Skywalker” in which her character interacted with the previously recorded images of Fisher.

“I was basically reacting to footage I had seen of her, so it was quite emotional, very strange,” Ridley said. “But I do think you feel a real sense of love between Leia and Rey in this one, and Leia is a big part of the story.”

Pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and maintenance worker Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) also have scenes that include dialogue with Leia, cast members said.

Abrams said Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, who will appear for the third time as a lieutenant in the resistance forces, also will be seen on screen with her mother.

Anthony Daniels, who plays the droid C-3PO, said the scenes with Fisher looked “totally believable, quite wonderful, quite respectful” in the final cut of the film, which was shown to some cast members this week.

Isaac said he felt “a real melancholy” when he watched Fisher on screen in “Rise of Skywalker.”

“You see her right there, and she’s so vital and alive, and to think she’s not there anymore, and she won’t get to see how we say goodbye to Princess Leia,” he said. “It’s bittersweet.”

Iran President Calls For Release Of ‘Innocent’ Unarmed Protesters

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Iran’s President Hassan Rohani has called for the release of protesters who were arrested in recent demonstrations against a sharp hike in gas prices if they were unarmed and simply voicing their opinion.

“Religious and Islamic clemency should be shown and those innocent people who protested against petrol price hikes and were not armed…should be released,” Rohani said in a televised speech on December 4.

Protests erupted on November 15 after the government announced a fuel price hike of up to 200 % but were quickly stifled by security forces who also imposed a week-long near-total Internet blackout.

Earlier this week rights group Amnesty International said at least 208 people were killed in the crackdown, a number that is “evidence that Iran’s security forces went on a horrific killing spree.”

Iranian judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili rejected the high death toll estimates on December 3, calling them “utter lies.”

On December 3, Rohani ordered a panel to investigate possible compensation for civilians who suffered personal or property damages during the protests.

NATO Leaders Present United Front Amid Bitter Differences

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NATO leaders are gathering at a golf resort outside of London Wednesday to present a united front amid bitter differences over terrorism, Turkey and increased burden sharing with the United States.

The 29 leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump, posed for a traditional “family” photograph before retreating for the planned three-hour meeting.  The leaders are expected to release a statement afterwards promising to focus more attention on the challenges posed by Russia and rising superpower China.  

On the sidelines of the meeting Wednesday, Trump met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  The White House said “the  two Presidents discussed the importance of Turkey fulfilling its alliance commitments, further strengthening commerce through boosting bilateral trade by $100 billion, regional security challenges, and energy security.”

A day earlier, leaders had gathered for informal meetings to mark the 70th anniversary of the alliance’s founding, but the day was overshadowed when tensions between President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron broke out in full public display.

Macron vs Trump

In an almost 40-minute session with journalists the two leaders clashed on a number of issues including burden sharing within NATO, terrorism, Turkey’s invasion in northern Syria, and the U.S. withdrawal from an arms treaty with Russia.

The two leaders met hours after Trump criticized Macron for his recent statement describing NATO as experiencing a “brain death,” due to diminished U.S. leadership.  Trump called it a “nasty statement.”  

President Donald Trump, right, listens as French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at their meeting at Winfield House during the NATO summit, in London, Dec. 3, 2019.
President Donald Trump, right, listens as French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at their meeting at Winfield House during the NATO summit, in London, Dec. 3, 2019.

As the two sat down for talks, Trump warned NATO member countries who do not meet NATO’s guideline of spending 2% of GDP on collective defense could be dealt with “from a trade standpoint” referring to tariffs on products, including French wine.

This prompted Macron, who is currently contributing 1.9% of France’s GDB towards NATO’s defense, to push back.

“It’s not just about money,” Macron said. “What about peace in Europe?” he asked Trump.

“It’s impossible just to say we have to put money, we have to put soldiers, without being clear on the fundamentals of what NATO should be,” Macron said.

Macron said he supports a stronger European component in NATO but points out that after the end of the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty, European countries are faced with the new threat of Russian missiles.

The Trump administration withdrew from the 1987 arms control treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union in August after what it says were Moscow’s repeated violations of the agreement.

Trump and Macron argued about how to deal with Islamic State after the October withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, a move Trump made without consulting the alliance. The withdrawal paved the way for Turkey to launch an offensive against the U.S.-allied Kurdish militia in northern Syria and triggered fear among allies of a potential IS resurgence.

In response to a question on whether France should do more to take Islamic State fighters captured in the Middle East, Trump asked Macron if he would like “some nice ISIS fighters”.

Macron countered that the main problem is IS fighters in the region. Referring to the abrupt U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria, Macron said “you have more and more of these fighters due to the situation today”.

Macron is “more on the side of those who wants to actually face up to the crisis and talk about it,” said Hans Kundnani of Chatham House. He is the sort of “disruptive factor” compared to other leaders who may choose to paper over disagreements, Kundnani said.

U.S. President Donald Trump, center left, speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center right, during a ceremony event.
U.S. President Donald Trump, center left, speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center right, during a ceremony event at a NATO leaders meeting at The Grove hotel and resort in Watford, Hertfordshire, England, Dec. 4, 2019.

NATO chief meeting

Earlier Tuesday, as Trump met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the U.S. president said Macron’s “brain death” comments regarding NATO were “insulting” to other members.

In the past Trump has repeatedly criticized the alliance as “obsolete” and expressed his desire to leave it. But the president seemed to have changed his tune, saying that NATO “serves a great purpose”.

The French leader warned in a recent interview with The Economist that European countries can no longer rely on the United States to defend NATO allies and need to start taking care of their own security.

“As Emmanuel Macron considers complacency as the most pressing danger facing Europe and European security, he is likely to reaffirm his comments and continue to push for all allies to clarify their position in this debate,” said Martin Quencez, Deputy Director of the Paris Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“It is also France’s role to show that the president’s disruptive method can foster constructive reforms, and that his harsh criticisms can be followed by a more positive agenda for the transatlantic partnership,” said Quencez.

Burden sharing

The dispute between two leaders was precisely the kind of flare-up that summit organizers have desperately tried to avoid, as it overshadowed discussions of substance in the summit, including the idea of a more equitable burden-sharing touted by Trump.

Stoltenberg praised Trump on Tuesday, saying his leadership on the issue is “having a real impact.”  He cited a $130 billion increase in defense budgets among the non-U.S. NATO members and said that would go to $400 billion by 2024.

Only 9 out of 29 member countries currently meet NATO’s guideline of spending 2% of GDP on collective defense.

What NATO countries spend on defense (nato.org)
Source – nato.org

In addition to budget discussions, NATO’s secretary general said leaders would be talking about counterterrorism efforts, arms control, relations with Russia and the rise of China.

Stoltenberg also rejected the suggestion that NATO is “brain-dead” saying that the alliance is active, agile and adapting. “We have just implemented the largest reinforcements of collective defense since the end of the Cold War,” he added.

The issue of member countries being delinquent was brought up again in Trump’s meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

When asked about whether he would defend a country that does not meet its defense spending target, Trump appeared non-committal.

“I would look at it as a group, but I think it’s very unfair when a country doesn’t pay,” Trump said.

The principle of collective defense is enshrined in NATO’s Article 5, that an attack on one member is an attack on all of its members. The alliance has only invoked the article once in its history—in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the U.S.

Cloud of impeachment

The summit comes as Trump faces an impeachment investigation back home.  He repeated his criticism Tuesday of Democrats who control the House of Representatives, saying it is unfair to hold hearings while he is attending the summit.

Trump is not the first U.S. president to attend a NATO summit under the cloud of impeachment. In 1974 Richard Nixon went to NATO’s 25th anniversary meeting in Brussels while the U.S. House of Representatives was concluding its impeachment inquiry. Nixon stepped down a few weeks later.

 

US House Approves Bill Denouncing China’s Crackdown of Uighur Muslims

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China has expressed anger over passage of a bill by the U.S. House of Representatives that calls for official actions against Beijing over its crackdown on millions of ethnic Muslims.  

By a vote of 407-to-1, the Democratic-led chamber approved the Uighur Act of 2019 Tuesday which condemns the detention of an estimated one million Uighurs, Kazahks and other ethnic Muslims in so-called “re-education camps” in the remote western province of Xinjiang.  The bill directs various U.S. government agencies to prepare reports on China’s treatment of the Muslim minorities, and calls on President Donald Trump to impose sanctions on Chinese officials deemed responsible for the mass detentions, specifically Chen Quanguo, the ruling Communist Party’s chief in Xinjiang.

Beijing has denied that it is detaining the Uighurs against their will, maintaining that the camps are “vocational training centers” designed to combat terrorism and extremism and to teach new skills.  

The Republican-controlled Senate passed a similar bill back in September.  The two measures will have to be reconciled and approved by both the House and Senate before they go to Trump for his signature.  

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters that any nation that seeks to interfere in China’s internal affairs will pay a price.

The U.S., the United Nations and various human rights groups have accused China of detaining ethnic Muslims in Xinjiang in an attempt to force them to renounce their religion and heritage. The State Department has imposed visa restrictions against Chinese government and Communist Party officials it believes are behind the detentions, while the Trump administration has created of list of nearly 30 Chinese organization that are barred from doing business with U.S. companies.  

China is already seething over a bill signed last week by President Trump that expresses support for pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.  The government retaliated by slapping sanctions on U.S.-based non-governmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, and suspended future visits to the semi-autonomous city by U.S. warships.  

Powerful Union to Host Biden, Warren, Sanders in Nevada

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Nevada’s powerful casino workers’ Culinary Union will hold a series of town halls next week with Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, the group said Tuesday.

The town halls in Las Vegas on Dec. 9-11 are designed to give the White House hopefuls a chance to pitch themselves to the bartenders, housekeepers and other workers in the city’s famed casinos.

Their Culinary Workers Union Local 226 is considered one of the most influential endorsements in Nevada, the third state to weigh in on the Democratic presidential race.

The union’s secretary-treasurer Geoconda Arguello-Kline said the group has not yet decided if it will endorse anyone in the primary but is listening to candidates and telling them what workers want.

The union’s 60,000 members are mostly women and immigrants and cite health care, immigration reform and workers’ issues among their top priorities.

Health care

Health care, a hot topic of debate in the Democratic primary, is expected to be a main focus of the town halls. Many of the union’s members and leaders have said they have concerns about Medicare for All plans backed by Sanders and Warren that eliminate private insurance.

Culinary’s workers have fought and bargained hard over the years for comprehensive health plans that boast no monthly premiums and no deductibles, and members don’t want to give up that coverage.

The union’s leaders have had private meetings with most of the presidential candidates, but their town hall forums with the members offer 2020 contenders a platform to speak to the group’s rank-and-file.

The union says only top Democratic candidates have received an invite. Several other candidates were invited to participate but unable to make the scheduling work.

Warren’s town hall is scheduled for the evening of Dec. 9, followed by Sanders the next morning and Biden midmorning on Dec. 11.