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Saudi fights to lead ‘saturated’ MidEast aviation market

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The Future Aviation Forum in the Saudi capital Riyadh heard of the kingdom's aviation goals that include more than tripling annual passenger traffic and building a new "mega airport"
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Saudi Arabia on Monday pitched aviation industry leaders on its plans to become a global travel hub, drawing scepticism from analysts who questioned how it could compete against regional heavyweights. 

The conservative kingdom’s aviation goals, part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s wide-ranging “Vision 2030” reforms, include more than tripling annual traffic to 330 million passengers by the end of the decade. 

It also wants to draw $100 billion in investments to the sector by 2030, establish a new national flag carrier, construct a new “mega airport” in Riyadh and move up to five million tonnes of cargo each year. 

Officials outlined how they intend to hit those targets during a global aviation forum that began Monday in Riyadh. Organisers said 2,000 delegates are trying to chart the airline industry’s post-pandemic recovery. 

“Over the next 10 years the kingdom will emerge as the Middle East’s leading aviation hub,” Transport Minister Saleh Al-Jasser told the forum’s opening session. 

The strategy hinges on tapping Saudi Arabia’s large domestic market, he told AFP in an interview, citing what analysts described as a major advantage for Saudi carriers over regional rivals Emirates and Qatar Airways. 

“We are very focused on building connectivity to Saudi Arabia, in helping the tourism industry to grow in Saudi Arabia and helping the Saudi people connect to the world… That’s what we are focused on,” he said. 

But steep competition raises questions about how feasible the Saudi plans are. 

“They’re fighting multiple headwinds on the aviation front,” said Robert Mogielnicki with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. 

“You have established regional players that have great brand recognition and are already important parts of the economies of Qatar and Dubai.” 

In Saudi Arabia, by contrast, “the air transport sector is not as central to the economy so that urgency is not there, though the Saudis do have big ambitions for the sector. It’s a new entity, so they’re going to have to play catch-up.” 

Henrik Hololei, the European Commission’s Director-General for Mobility and Transport, told AFP that the regional aviation market is “rather saturated”.

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No progress at Russia-Turkey talks on Ukraine grain exports

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ussian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu made little progress in efforts to secure Ukrainian grain exports
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Russia and Turkey made little headway on Wednesday in talks aimed at securing safe passage for Ukrainian grain exports, as a Russian sea blockade triggered new warnings of deadly famine.

Prior to the war, Ukraine was a major exporter of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but shipments have been blocked since Russia invaded its neighbour in late February, causing food prices to soar worldwide.

Countries in the Middle East and Africa depend on Ukraine’s exports, raising fears of hunger in those countries.

At the request of the United Nations, Turkey has offered its services to escort maritime convoys from Ukrainian ports, despite the presence of mines — some of which have been detected near the Turkish coast.

“We are ready to ensure the safety of ships that leave Ukrainian ports,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference with Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu after talks in Ankara.

Ukraine, which was not part of the talks in Turkey, has said it is ready to create conditions to resume exports from its ports, but it seeks security guarantees not to be attacked by Russia. 

But Russia’s chief diplomat blamed Ukraine for the situation.

“Grain can be freely transported to destinations, there are no obstacles from Russia,” Lavrov said. 

Referring to Ukraine’s president, he said “it is necessary that Mr (Volodymyr) Zelensky give an order, if he is still in charge of something there, to allow foreign and Ukrainian ships to enter the Black Sea.”

Lavrov also said Russia was ready to provide guarantees it would not launch any attacks if Ukraine de-mined ports.

“We are ready to do this in cooperation with our Turkish colleagues.”

– ‘Condemning millions to death’ –

Cavusoglu said the UN plan was “reasonable” and “implementable”, and he offered to host a meeting in Istanbul to discuss the details of the scheme.

“We prepared a plan for food corridors,” a Turkish diplomatic source said. 

“We presented it to Russia but as you see during the press conference, Russia sends the ball into the court of Ukraine,” added the source, who declined to be named.

Zelensky said this week that the amount of grain blocked by the war could triple within several months.

At separate talks on the global food crisis, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio warned that millions of people could die of hunger unless Russia lifted its blockade.

“The next few weeks will be crucial to resolving the situation,” he said after a virtual meeting involving Turkey and Lebanon among other Mediterranean countries, alongside G7 president Germany and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

“I want to say clearly, we expect clear and concrete signals from Russia, because blocking grain exports means holding hostage and condemning to death millions of children, women and men.”

– Russian exports –

Turkey, which hosted talks between Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers in March aimed at ending the war, has positioned itself as a neutral mediator as it maintains a delicate balancing act between its two Black Sea neighbours. 

At the press conference, Cavusoglu said it was also important to export Russian goods as much as the Ukrainians, calling Moscow’s demands for an end to sanctions to help grain onto the world market “legitimate.”

“If we need to open up the international market to Ukrainian grain, we see the removal of obstacles standing in the way of Russia’s exports as a legitimate demand,” he said.

Soner Cagaptay, a specialist on Turkey for the Washington Institute think tank, said the UN-led plan that would allow Russia to trade with the outside world “could work.”

“Because ultimately this is about food security. Yes, people don’t want Russia to make money but at the same time nobody wants famine,” he told AFP.

Russia and Ukraine produce 30 percent of the global wheat supply.

Cagaptay said some progress could be made in the future, but it might require Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to meet Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the Russian southwestern city of Sochi, “where there’s nobody around to eavesdrop.” 

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Disney pulls blockbuster from French cinemas in streaming row

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Jake Gyllenhaal leads the cast in the English version of 'Strange World', due for release in November
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Disney will not release blockbuster animation “Strange World” in French cinemas, it said Wednesday, in protest against the country’s strict streaming rules.

Under French law, the company’s streaming platform, Disney+, would have to wait 17 months to show the movie after its release in cinemas, which had been due in November.

Disney told AFP it would instead send “Strange World” straight to streaming and skip cinemas entirely, confirming reports by movie website Deadline and French paper Les Echos.

Helene Etzi, Disney France president, told Les Echos that France’s rules were “unfair, constraining and poorly adapted to audience demands.”

“Strange World” is one of its most-anticipated releases of the year, with Jake Gyllenhaal voicing the lead character in the English version of the fantasy adventure tale. 

France has tried to prevent streaming platforms from undermining its large cinema network and the TV stations — notably Canal Plus — that finance many of its films and get a shorter wait for prime releases.

The National Federation of French Cinemas said it “protested with the greatest vigour against Disney’s desire to deprive the French of its Christmas animated film.”

The debate over how long to wait between cinema and streaming releases has also been fierce in Hollywood — though with much shorter delays being considered. 

After trying various strategies at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the US industry has settled on 45 days as the optimum gap. 

Scarlett Johansson sued Disney last year for loss of earnings after it released “Black Widow” simultaneously to cinemas and streamers. 

Director Denis Villeneuve said the same move by Warner Bros for his sci-fi blockbuster “Dune” showed “absolutely no love for cinema”. 

Even a 45-day window was reportedly not enough for Tom Cruise, who is rumoured to have launched legal action against Paramount to get a longer delay for his next “Mission: Impossible” instalment next year. 

So far, Disney has no plans to pull “Lightyear” from French cinemas — the “Toy Story” spin-off is due later this month. 

But the fate of other massive productions — including sequels to “Black Panther” and “Avatar” — rests in the balance. 

“We continue to evaluate the situation film by film and country by country,” said Disney’s Etzi.

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Zara owner Inditex profits up despite Ukraine war

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Spanish clothing giant Inditex, which owns Zara, is the world's biggest fashion retailer
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Global clothing giant Inditex, which owns Zara, posted Wednesday a surge in its first-quarter profits despite closing its stores in Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.

The world’s biggest fashion retailer said its net profit increased by 80 percent in the first three months of its financial year to April 31, compared to the same period last year.

It said it made 760 million euros ($812 million) in profit, against 440 million euros ($470 million) during the first quarter of the 2021 financial year, which was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

The hike in profits came despite a 216-million-euro provision for estimated costs arising from the impact of the Ukraine war, without which its income would have risen to almost “940 million euros”, it said.

The group, which since April has been led by Marta Ortega, daughter of its multi-billionaire founder Amancio Ortega, reported sales of 6.74 billion euros, up 36 percent from the same period in 2021. 

The fashion group, which owns eight brands including upmarket Massimo Dutti and teen label Stradivarius, had warned that 2022 sales would be impacted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

After Russia sent in troops in late February, Inditex closed all its stores in Ukraine and on March 5 suspended all retail activity in Russia, its biggest market after Spain, shutting its 502 shops and suspending all online transactions. 

Inditex said that stopping sales activity in Russia had been offset by “strong growth” in other regions, notably the United States.

Analysts had expected the Spanish retail giant to be hard hit by its Russian pullout decision given that it generates 10 percent of its turnover and 8.5 percent of its operating profit in the country. 

Wednesday’s results were broadly in line with analysts’ expectations, with Factset seeing profits of 770 million euros against a turnover of 6.27 billion euros. 

Online sales, which had surged during the pandemic, fell by 6.0 percent, although Inditex said it expected the figure to reach “30 percent of total sales” by 2024.

Shares in the world’s biggest fashion retailer were trading 4.23 percent higher in late morning trade on the Madrid stock exchange. 

When the pandemic first took hold two years ago, the group saw its profits nosedive as the virus forced it to shutter most of its shops in the first half of 2020. 

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