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Bahrain sovereign fund in talks to invest in SoftBank Vision Fund: CEO

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CEO of Softbank Group Masayoshi Son attending a news conference in Tokyo on February 8, 2017.

Alessandro Di Ciommo | NurPhoto | Getty Images

CEO of Softbank Group Masayoshi Son attending a news conference in Tokyo on February 8, 2017.

Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat is in early talks to invest in Softbank Group’s private equity fund that aims to target the technology sector, its chief executive said.

Mumtalakat could join other Gulf state funds such as the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s main sovereign wealth fund, and Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala, who have invested in SoftBank’s $93 billion private equity Vision Fund.

“We’re talking to them, we haven’t made any commitment yet,” Mahmood AlKooheji told Reuters in an interview. “I think it’s very interesting, and a lot of people have already put a lot of tickets.”

The Bahrain fund, which holds the state’s stakes in companies including Aluminium Bahrain (Alba) and telecoms company Batelco, has a portfolio valued at over $10 billion.

Mumtalakat, which has borrowed quite extensively in the past, is also looking at potential funding options, although it does not have debt due this year. In 2014 the fund issued a $600 million sukuk and raised a $500 million loan.

“This year we don’t need to borrow but we’re opportunistic if the conditions are good,” said the chief executive. “We have maturities coming next year and the year after, and we’re always engaging with our advisers.”

He said the potential new borrowing will be used to refinance existing debt rather than to add leverage to the fund’s balance sheet.

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U.S. intelligence concludes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the 2018 slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to an intelligence report released Friday by the Biden administration.

The CIA-led assessment, which until now had been classified, comes as President Joe Biden aims to reshape the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia after years in which the Trump administration ignored the kingdom’s human rights abuses despite condemnation in Congress and at the United Nations. 

Khashoggi, a 59-year-old U.S. resident and Washington Post contributor who had criticized the Saudi royal family, entered a Saudi consulate in Turkey on Oct. 2, 2018 and never left. He was killed by a group of assassins, who then dismembered his body. His remains were never recovered.

In a diplomatic rebuke to the crown prince, the White House made clear this week that Biden does not view 35-year-old bin Salman as his counterpart and will instead conduct relations through his aging father, King Salman. The younger bin Salman has been the public face of the kingdom since becoming crown prince in 2017.

“On Saudi Arabia I would say we’ve made clear from the beginning that we are going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Psaki said Tuesday from the White House.

On Thursday, Biden in his first call with the 85-year-old king “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law,” according to a readout from the White House.

Biden also told Salman that he would “work to make the bilateral relationship as strong and transparent as possible,” the White House said.

Khashoggi’s name was not mentioned in the readout.

Saudi authorities had at first denied any knowledge of Khashoggi’s death, and later claimed the journalist got into a fight inside the consulate and died in the clash. Saudi authorities eventually admitted Khashoggi was killed in a “rogue operation,” while denying that bin Salman was implicated.

A United Nations investigator concluded in a June 2019 report that Khashoggi was “the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law.”

Trump sought to cast doubt publicly about the crown prince’s involvement in Khashoggi’s death, even after multiple outlets reported that the CIA concluded bin Salman himself ordered the journalist’s killing. Trump said the CIA had “nothing definitive” while asserting that the oil-rich kingdom would remain a “steadfast partner” to the U.S.

“It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said less than two months after Khashoggi’s death. Trump’s conciliatory stance contrasted sharply with outrage from members of Congress and the media over the killing of Khashoggi.

The Trump administration conducted relations through the crown prince, who maintained close personal ties with members of the Trump family, particularly former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. 

Trump made Saudi Arabia his first stop in the Middle East when he made his debut visit to the region in 2017. The kingdom rolled out the red carpet for the former reality star.

The Trump administration leveraged its ties with Gulf monarchies to normalize relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

The former president also vetoed an effort by Congress to block billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates, and an attempt to end U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen.

Biden’s review of relations with Saudi Arabia is part of a broader U.S. foreign policy shift in the Middle East.
The president has ended U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen while seeking to return to the negotiating table with Iran, Riyadh’s enemy, over its nuclear program.

The U.S. president called Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, his first conversation with a Middle East leader since taking office. The Saudis and Israelis are de facto allies, though they have no formal diplomatic ties, in their efforts to counter Iranian influence in the region.

Biden on Thursday “discussed regional security” in his call with King Salman, noting his administration’s efforts to end the war in Yemen “and the U.S. commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups,” the White House readout said.

Biden and Salman also “affirmed the historic nature of the relationship and agreed to work together on mutual issues of concern and interest,” according to the White House.

This is breaking news. Please check back for updates.

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Israeli data suggest mass vaccinations led to drop in severe Covid cases, CDC study finds

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An Israeli health worker of the Maccabi Healthcare Services prepares to administer a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine on February 24, 2021 in Tel Aviv.

Jack Guez | AFP | Getty Images

Data from Israel, which has vaccinated the overwhelming majority of its elderly population with the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, suggests that mass vaccinations have prevented people from becoming severely sick, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While clinical trials have found the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to be 95% effective in preventing Covid-19, the Israeli data offers an early glimpse into how effective the vaccine is in an uncontrolled, real-world setting.

The study, which was published Friday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, found that among the part of the Israeli population that has been vaccinated the most, the percentage of patients requiring ventilation drastically dropped, suggesting a reduction in severe sickness.

“Taken together, these results suggest reduced rates of severe COVID-19 following vaccination,” wrote the researchers from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Tel-Aviv University and Maccabi Healthcare Services.

Israel launched its national vaccination campaign in December prioritizing people 60 and older, health-care workers, and people with comorbid conditions. By February, the researchers said, 84% of the population 70 and older had been fully immunized with the Pfizer-BioNTech two-shot vaccine. Only 10% of the population under 50 years old had been vaccinated by the same time, the researchers said.

The researchers compared the number of Covid-19 patients 70 and older who required a mechanical ventilator to those younger than 50 who need a ventilator. The researchers said they used the need for a ventilator, a medical instrument used to help patients breathe, to measure severe Covid-19.

Between October and February, the number of patients 70 and older who needed a ventilator fell. At the same time, the number of people under 50, a population that generally wasn’t vaccinated, who needed a ventilator rose, the study found. The country began administering shots to mostly older people Dec. 20, with a second round of shots following three weeks later.

The researchers noted a few limitations of the study. Israel implemented a strict national stay-at-home order on Jan. 8, weeks after the beginning of the vaccination campaign, that could have led to a decrease in severely sick patients who would have needed ventilators. The introduction of new variants of the coronavirus also could have affected the data, they said.

The researchers said their findings are preliminary, “important evidence of the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing severe cases of COVID-19 at the national level in Israel.”

“Receipt of COVID-19 vaccines by eligible persons can help limit spread of disease and potentially reduce the occurrence of severe disease,” they wrote.

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Human waste could soon be used to heat new homes in London

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New homes in London could soon be powered using excess heat recovered from sewage treatment in a project described as a “first of its kind” for England.

The collaboration between Thames Water and Kingston Council, toward the southwest of the U.K. capital, would see the heat captured and then funneled through a sealed network of pipes to the district heating system of a new housing estate in the area.

If all goes to plan, as much as 7 gigawatt hours of heat could be supplied, helping to power over 2,000 homes at the Cambridge Road Estate. 

According to an announcement from Thames Water on Friday, the network could eventually be expanded to supply commercial and public buildings in Kingston town center.

“Renewable heat from our sewer network is a fantastic resource, so it’s vital we are a leading player in energy transition and unlock the full potential of ‘poo power’,” Sarah Bentley, the company’s CEO, said in a statement. 

Feasibility studies and design work for the initiative have received funding from both the British government and Greater London Authority.

An application for more funding has now been made to authorities, with the outcome of this set to be announced in March.

The project was described as “ground-breaking” by Caroline Kerr, the leader of Kingston Council. “It’s a first for England and shows we are serious about reducing carbon in the borough,” she added.

The idea of using organic matter or waste to provide power to buildings and other services is not new.

Earlier this month, it was announced that a biogas facility off the south coast of England would provide electricity to a factory operated by Danish wind turbine maker Vestas.

The facility will generate energy using materials like grass and maize, which are grown on the Isle of Wight.

And back in 2014, a “Bio-Bus” powered by sewage, food waste and other commercial liquid wastes was used to transport passengers between Bristol Airport and the city of Bath, in southwest England.

Elsewhere, Reading, a large town west of London, is home to a fleet of more than 58 bio-gas buses using biomethane from cattle slurry and food waste.

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