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Brace yourselves: GCC prepares for the worst

Brace yourselves: GCC prepares for the worst

Analysts say the GCC's financial systems are stronger than they were during the first economic crash. But can it withstand a second wave of crisis?

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September 28, 2011 3:43 by



Meeting early this month, Gulf finance ministers insisted their economies could cope comfortably with the looming global slump. During the world’s last economic crisis, their optimism proved mistaken — but this time, they are on firmer ground.

Big programmes of government spending, launched for political as well as economic reasons, are likely to support growth. There is less room for asset price bubbles to burst than there was in the last crisis three years ago. And in some ways, financial systems are stronger.

“Countries in the region were caught off guard” by the 2008-2009 global crisis, said Fabio Scacciavillani, chief economist at Oman Investment Fund. “This time they’re better prepared — crisis management capabilities have improved.”

The 2008-2009 slump struck at the heart of the economies of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. A 75 percent slide in Brent oil prices over six months, as far as $36 a barrel, pushed growth off a cliff.

Gross domestic product shrank in Kuwait and the UAE during 2009; even Saudi Arabia only narrowly escaped recession, growing just 0.6 percent that year. Stock markets tumbled more than 50 percent, and plunging real estate prices forced Dubai World , one of the Dubai government’s flagship holding companies, into pledging to restructure $25 billion of debt.

Now, some investors are starting to hedge against the risk of a repeat performance in the Gulf as the global economic outlook darkens. The cost of insuring the debt of Gulf states rose last week with credit default swaps for Dubai climbing to their highest level in at least six months.

SPENDING

Economies have clearly started to slow considerably in the Gulf. The SABB HSBC Saudi Arabia Purchasing Managers’ Index, which measures activity in the country’s manufacturing and services sectors, hit an 18-month low in August; the index for the UAE reached a 15-month low. Air freight volume at Dubai International Airport dropped 7.9 percent from a year earlier in August, partly because of economic uncertainty in the United States and Europe, the airport operator said on Sunday.

This time, however, major Gulf economies are entering the crisis in a different position. Fiscal policy is more expansionary in many states; Saudi Arabia announced in February and March that it would spend an extra $130 billion, presumably over several years, on housing, bonuses for state employees, job creation and other projects.

Such policies were originally adopted to contain the threat of political unrest during Arab Spring protests around the Middle East. But they have turned out to be perfectly timed economically, coming on stream just as global growth slows.

Meanwhile, rich Gulf economies have over the past couple of years fashioned an informal fiscal safety net for the region; Saudi Arabia and other wealthy neighbours have pledged billions of dollars to improve housing and social welfare in Bahrain and Oman, and Abu Dhabi has given emergency financing to Dubai.

The safety net is limited in size and depends on political whim. But a principle of mutual assistance has been established that was less clear at the start of the last crisis.

Another plunge in the oil price could make it more difficult for Gulf states to spend their way out of trouble — as the price drops, to below $104 at the end of last week, markets are fixated on the minimum levels which countries need to balance their budgets. For Saudi Arabia, analysts estimate that level has risen to around $90 because of the growth in state spending.

But even a temporary oil price slide to the level hit during the last crisis would not necessarily spell disaster. Farouk Soussa, Middle East chief economist for Citi, noted the Saudi government could if it chose maintain spending by drawing on $280 billion of fiscal reserves. That sum is equivalent to over a year of total government expenditure. In addition, it could finance part of any budget deficit in domestic capital markets.

“If they decided they needed to, they could finance deficits for years. There is plenty of liquidity domestically,” Soussa said.

Since Saudi Arabia effectively controls the supply of oil, a fundamental change in its long-term economic outlook is only likely if there is a big demand shock, Soussa said. Such a shock would probably have to be…

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