Authors: Dr. Matthew Crosston , Andy Deahn
Russian President Vladimir Putin has loudly projected that his nation and the other Caspian nations will leave the dollar behind. Mr. Putin has exclaimed that the United States runs a “Dollar dictatorship” when it comes to global market oil prices and affirms that his nation’s currency will not become a victim subjected to its rule.
In order to combat this “dictatorship” attempts have been made to enhance relations with China in order to integrate both the ruble and the yuan into the global market more dominantly. His belief is that in doing so he will weaken the dollar while strengthening both national currencies. However, Mr. Putin is potentially committing a mistake, as he is generally associating a strong currency with national strength and views the decline in the ruble’s value as an offense against Russia’s prowess. These are clearly political statements used to project an aura of strength that disregard the economic realities facing the Kremlin. Rather than take meaningful counter-actions so as to create positive momentum and strong economic stimuli, Putin sometimes seems more focused on capitalizing on his celebrity status to ‘tweak the American eagle’ as it were. Putin’s “projection” as stated above can thus be observed as an attempt to manufacture a sense of Russian exceptionalism that will counter the ‘insult’ that he considers as a constant American exceptionalism on the global stage. However, these geopolitical playground battles do not outweigh the realities of the world economy and how Russia needs to create serious policies to deal with sanctions and weak oil prices.
While China is Russia’s largest trading partner and has become the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels — a vital aspect to Russian economic health — the Chinese financial crisis that occurred in August 2015 has weakened the Yuan, consequently placing increased pressure on the Russian economy as well. The Chinese economic meltdown and the resultant devaluation of the Yuan held global implications. From Wall Street to Venezuela to Saudi Arabia, economic downturns were observed. On Wall Street the drop in the stock market created panic among brokers/investors and in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela a drop in oil prices impacted their economies rather severely, given both have bet some of their financial futures on China’s continual thirst for commodity imports. Russia, however, which exports approximately 14 percent of its annual oil production to China, has a lot more to lose from the Chinese economic decline. This is because oil and natural gas are at the heart of the Russian economy. These commodities account for over 75 percent of export revenues and over 50 percent of government budgetary resources. The Russian ruble, which is directly linked to global oil prices, has been steadily decreasing in value throughout the last 12 months. This direct link is identified through the correlating data of the market price for oil and the value of the ruble to the U.S. dollar. For example, the market price for oil dropped from $104 USD per barrel to around $50 USD per barrel from September 2014 to September 2015. At the same time the value of the ruble, which in the beginning of September 2014 was 36 RUB to 1 USD, had slipped by September 2015 to 68 RUB to 1 USD—a steep devaluation rate not seen since the 1997 global financial recession.
In addition to having the value of its currency decline, for every dollar that global oil prices drop Russia loses an estimated $2 billion a year in revenues. When combined with other harmful realities like Western sanctions, Russia’s relative dependence upon a singular commodity market, and lavish spending rather than modernizing its energy sector during high oil prices, it is clear that Russia pontificating about a ‘dollar dictatorship’ should not be its focus. Indeed, there is something of a flawed logic in the premise: why does President Putin believe he can leave the dollar behind by tying the punished ruble with the declining Chinese yuan? In the near-term at least this strategy is destined to fail.
One regional influence Russia is also somewhat disregarding (or making too many positive assumptions) in this endeavor and that will potentially become of greater geopolitical importance is the Islamic Republic of Iran, now that the new nuclear accord has been struck and many sanctions lifted. By hedging their bets too heavily on China and disregarding up-to-the-minute regional economic shifts, Russia is possibly inflicting its own monetary wounds while uselessly blame-shifting on America for its economic woes. The lifting of Iranian sanctions would mean that Russia could face a newly invigorated, oil-producing, heavyweight regional competitor, one that could reshape the power balance in the Caspian Sea Region and may not necessarily be willing to be as close an ally to Russia as Russia assumes it will be.
A more economically and politically independent Iran, and its ability to influence regional power shifts, would allow for the other Caspian states to modernize and diversify their economies. This would mean that Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan may finally be able to break free of the Russian influence that has basically engulfed them since the Soviet era by building the Trans-Caspian pipeline. Likewise Kazakhstan, a nation whose economy is also built upon the same commodity market as Russia, may finally be able to lessen the havoc that the Russian currency decline is playing within its own borders. Right now there are few analysts seriously considering these potentialities, both here in the West and within Russia. This is an error. Russia clearly thinks the new nuclear accord will lead only to improved ties and deeper economic prosperity for both itself and Iran. But there is ample historical evidence to consider that an emboldened and newly stabilized Iran simply might not need Russia as much as Russia needs it. This future reality could signal a dramatic change in the Russian-Iranian relationship, and not to Russia’s favor. The longer Moscow assumes this is a geostrategic impossibility and that its only concern is battling the ‘dollar dictatorship,’ then the Kremlin only creates more danger for itself.
We already know that a devalued yuan is further assisting oil prices to drop on a global scale, placing great strain on the Russian economy as well as on some bordering Caspian states. Historically, when the Kremlin feels threatened, it shifts blame to other scapegoats rather than seriously tackling its problems. The current sharp slowdown of Chinese economic growth has already impacted multiple Russian economic sectors, including energy, metallurgy, timber, and agriculture. The future alliance with Iran is not an automatic guarantee. Western sanctions still grind along. The Caspian littorals may see opportunities to loosen Russia’s economic grip over their local economic standings. Clearly, plenty of ‘real’ problems exist. So it would behoove Russia to stop spending time on economic fantasies of ‘dethroning the dollar dictatorship.’ That seems to be the least of its real problems.
E-commerce: Helping Djiboutian Women Entrepreneurs Reach the World
Look around any café, bus, doctor’s waiting room or university campus and you will see heads down, fingers tapping as people immerse themselves into their screens. Increasingly, people are using their devices for shopping, with retail sales via e-commerce set to triple between 2004-2021.
Although significant gender gaps exist with internet use, and although online sales are currently dominated by US-based tech giants, this growing e-commerce trend presents an interesting opportunity for small businesses, and more specifically women’s businesses in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
This is a region where women’s economic empowerment is a significant challenge. With a female labor force participation rate of 19 percent, women’s participation in firm ownership at only 23 percent, and a rate of only 5 percent women top managers of firms across MENA’s non-high-income countries, there is significant scope for improving women’s participation in business and employment.
Access to finance also remains a problem, where 53 percent of women-led small and medium enterprises (SMEs) do not have access to credit and 70 percent of surveyed MENA female entrepreneurs agree that lending conditions in their economy are too restrictive and do not allow them to secure the financing needed for growth.
Several obstacles stand in the way of women’s entrepreneurship and access to markets, such as social norms, family care duties, and transportation issues. Not being able to physically access markets to sell their goods or to participate in international trade fairs to market their products is also a challenge.
This is where e-commerce can play a role, allowing women to circumvent these obstacles and sell their products online. For this, they need to rely on e-commerce platforms connecting them to clients around the world, on performant and affordable logistics, and on reliable payment systems. Building the e-commerce ecosystem will be key to allowing women entrepreneurs to access markets and grow their business, thereby employing more women, as data shows that firms run by women tend to employ more women.
The situation for women in Djibouti is no different. Gender inequality in the labor market remains substantial, with less than a third of women between the ages of 15 to 64 active in the labor market. Unemployment among both genders is high, with a rate of 34 percent for men but it is considerably higher for women at close to 50 percent.
Djiboutian women are also at a disadvantage in terms of education and skills to access economic opportunities. Women in Djibouti typically run small and informal firms in lower value-added sectors, which are less attractive to creditors, thus impeding their access to finance. Women entrepreneurs face difficulties accessing finance and launching formal enterprises.
There are, however, opportunities to increase women’s economic empowerment. Over 57 percent of inactive women in Djibouti say that they do not work because of family and household responsibilities. However, they also indicated they are generally not discouraged or prevented from accessing training or work opportunities by male family members, and there are no legal barriers against women’s entrepreneurship.
Years of research have shown, that when women do well, everyone benefits. Research has found women tend to spend more of the income they earn on child welfare, school fees, health care, and food for their families. Empowering women is an important path to ending poverty.
It’s vital to enable women to participate constructively in economic activities in Djibouti. More entrepreneurship will allow Djibouti to benefit from the talents, energy, and ideas that women bring to the labor market.
To help address this issue, on November 13, 2018, the World Bank launched a $3.82 million regional project called “E-commerce for Women-led SMEs.” The project targets small and medium enterprises run or managed by women that produce goods marketable via e-commerce.
This project is at the crossroads of women’s entrepreneurship and the digital economy, which are two levers for the economic transformation of the region, and that it was very opportune to be able to launch it at the digital economy days of Djibouti.
The launch event took place with the participation of the Minister of Women and Family, the Minister of Economy, the Minister of Communication, the Head of the Women Business Association, and several Djiboutian women entrepreneurs.
The project will contribute to development of women’s entrepreneurship, digital commerce, and the economy in Djibouti and across the region. It will facilitate access for women-led SMEs to domestic and export markets through better access to e-commerce platforms. This will be done by training e-commerce consultants who, in turn, will train and help women-led SME’s access e-commerce platforms.
The project will also aim to ease access to finance for these SMEs by connecting them to financial institutions lending to women, particularly the IFC’s Banking on Women network. It will also work to create an ecosystem conducive to e-commerce by diagnosing regulatory, logistical, and e-payment constraints and supporting governments to lift them.
This launch comes following a successful pilot program in Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan where women entrepreneurs were enabled to export handicrafts, organic cosmetics, and garments to several overseas destinations including Australia, Europe, and the United States.
The development of women’s entrepreneurship and the digital economy—including better access to domestic markets and exports—are essential levers for the development and economic diversification of the MENA region that the Women Entrepreneurs and Finance Initiative (We-Fi) e-commerce project strives to support. The Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi) is a collaborative partnership launched in October 2017 that seeks to unlock billions of dollars in financing to tackle the full range of barriers facing women entrepreneurs.
Getting around sanctions with crypto-rial
In April 2018, the Central Bank of Iran banned domestic banks and people from dealing in foreign cryptocurrency because of money laundering and financing risks.
However, the CBI decided to take a more moderate stance toward the digital money and blockchain technology following the imposition of a new round of U.S. sanctions, hoping that the digital technology would facilitate Iran’s international money transfers and let the country evade the sanctions.
Meanwhile, as an oil producer with an oil-reliant economy dominated by petrodollars, Iran settled on the plan to utilize cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology to make up for any drop in oil revenues due to the economic sanctions designed to cut its oil sales.
Moving on the same track as China, Russia and Venezuela, Iran also hopes that blockchainization of state-backed fiats would lead to the demise of the dollar and put an end to the tyrant U.S. policies.
Under the toughest U.S. sanctions ever and blacklisting of Iran from the Belgium-based international financial messaging system (SWIFT), the country’s plan to create an indigenous cryptocurrency is improving incrementally and thanks to highly dynamic nature of the cryptocurrency, it can act as a good means for Iran to skirt certain sanctions through untraceable banking operations.
The CBI has been working with domestic knowledge-based companies to develop a digital currency, called crypto-rial, supported by HyperLedger Fabric technology.
As reported, the Informatics Services Corporation, affiliated to the CBI but run by the private sector, has accomplished development of rial-based national cryptocurrency and when the CBI approves the uses of national cryptocurrency, it will be issued to financial institutions such as banks to test payments and internal and interbank settlements.
Transactions at the state-backed virtual currency are carried out on an online ledger called a blockchain, just the same as Bitcoin, but since the infrastructure is privately-owned it will not be possible for people to mine it.
In fact, Iran is mainly aimed at testing the potentials of blockchain and crypto technology in running its financial system, making banks able to use the tokens as a payment instrument in transactions and banking settlement at the first phase of the blockchain banking infrastructure. The country seems inclined to enjoy the new virtual currency businesses which includes little notice or footprint and has also prepared the required infrastructure for trading cryptocurrency in its stock exchange.
However, in spite of the CBI’s prohibition from trading cryptocurrencies, Iranians had commenced using cryptocurrency and Bitcoin mining for transactions with the rest of the world before its use was banned by the CBI in the country.
Individuals and businesses in Iran have had access to virtual currency platforms through “Iran-located, internet-based virtual currency exchanges; U.S. or other third country-based virtual currency exchanges; and peer-to-peer (P2P) exchangers,” according to reports.
But the U.S. embargo on a number of cryptocurrency exchange platforms, including Binance and Bittrex, restricted Iran from receiving services, however, no assets belonging to Iranians were blocked. U.S. sanctions have also ensnared Iranian bitcoin traders.
Furthermore, in December, the U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as Fincen, issued a warning in an advisory to assist U.S. banks and other financial actors such as cryptocurrency exchanges in identifying “potentially illicit transactions related to the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Bitcoin.com reported.
Fincen claimed that since 2013 Iran’s use of virtual currency includes at least $3.8 million worth of bitcoin-denominated transactions per year. The organization noted that “while the use of virtual currency in Iran is comparatively small, virtual currency is an emerging payment system that may provide potential avenues for individuals and entities to evade sanctions.”
Fincen believes that P2P cryptocurrency exchangers are a significant means through which Iran can dodge economic sanctions.
Following the Fincen’s announcement, the United States lawmakers introduced a bill (HR 7321) to impose more sanctions on Iranian financial institutions and the development and use of the national digital currency, Cointelegeraph reported.
The act prohibits transactions, financing or other dealings related to an Iranian digital currency, and introduces sanctions on foreign individuals engaged in the sale, supply, holding or transfer of the digital currency.
In the wake of the U.S. restrictions, thus, cryptocurrency trades are limited into Iran’s domestic market and not possible at the international level and Bitcoin is sold at a significant premium relative to the global average price in Iran.
Unfortunately, the basic and premier regulations of using cryptocurrencies have not been ratified in Iran and Iranians are obliged to refer to stock exchange shops abroad to do their crypto-transactions, most of which are American obedient to U.S. regulations and of course, sanctions.
To make using cryptocurrency and blockchain technology legal and official in the country, the Iranian government is drafting a policy framework by the help of the CBI and the Stock Exchange Organization which clarifies all its regulations and policies over cryptocurrency and mining.
Being legislated, it is believed that SWIFT can be replaced by the digital money, i.e. the rial-pegged national currency, and transactions would be done faster and at lower prices.
Due to a lack of required regulations, cargos of equipment for mining cryptocurrency are seized by the customs administration. They are said to be released as soon as the government legalizes cryptocurrency use in the country.
First published in our partner Tehran Times
How to build your entrepreneurial mindset today
An entrepreneurial mindset is a way of life. Even if you aren’t starting your own business, an entrepreneurial mindset teaches you that no problem is insurmountable: you can overcome challenges through perseverance and resilience.
Here are five things you can remember to build an entrepreneurial mindset today. If you’re aged between 18-30, why not start by applying to be a Young Champion of the Earth in 2019? Stay tuned—the competition is opening soon!
Transform problems into opportunities
There are so many clues in everyday life. Is there anything that you experience daily that frustrates you? Perhaps it is the prominence of unsustainable materials in your local shop and restaurants, such as plastic straws or unnecessary food packaging? Often, alternatives to problems do exist, but no one has thought of connecting them in specific circumstances. A good example is supplying restaurants and bars with paper straws. Entrepreneurial mindsets apply a lens which identifies problems not as negative issues but as opportunities to be solved, towards creating value in our economy.
Dare to dream and believe in yourself
If you can dream it and believe it, you are halfway there. How big you can dream is a component of your potential for success. Everyone has ideas—but daring to dream big, and then believing in yourself to apply an entrepreneurial mindset and bring them to reality, takes effort. This year, why not push yourself to think creatively? You could come up with a problem once a week, and each week, come up with one matching solution, for example. The key is to think outside the box, to think of a problem as a potential solution.
Know yourself and discover what you are passionate about
Solving problems, especially those associated with the environment, can be daunting. You will constantly be faced with challenges in your journey to change the world. Some environmental challenges feel so large—like those brought about by climate change. But helping to break down large issues into smaller ones which everyone can take steps to solve, is part of the entrepreneurial journey. Remember that you are capable. Find problems that you are passionate about solving and connect with others passionate about solving them too. This will help you through the tough times to stay motivated.
Go for it and don’t take no for an answer
We all have the foundations of an entrepreneurial mindset. We can all identify problems and think up ideas about how to solve them. Being an entrepreneur pushes you to go out there and take actions to achieve them. Often, this process forces you to think through a specific problem in more detail. It helps you to truly understand pathways towards a solution which others might not have thought about. An idea does not have application in the real world if it is not hammered out in real situations. Part of being an entrepreneur requires following this process, identifying real experiences which can be made better or more efficient, and talking with other people who experience similar challenges to find solutions. Using the resources you have at your disposal will force you to be creative. Keep improving your solution. As you go on, you will eventually gain traction and interest. From there, the possibilities are endless.
Learn, embrace uncertainty and accept failure
Eric Ries from the lean startup says that entrepreneurship is “management under conditions of extreme uncertainty”. Forging your own path to solve a problem that no one has solved before is scary—things change constantly. There will be many obstacles and there will be failure. But an entrepreneurial mindset teaches you that failures are opportunities to learn in disguise. An entrepreneurial mindset embraces uncertainty and learning, to leverage the opportunities that emerge from the space between them.
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