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Mideast turmoil leaves experts, markets struggling

Mideast turmoil leaves experts, markets struggling

Egyptian, Tunisian uprisings overturn previous assumptions; Analysts see potential positives, worry over dangers; Investors pricing in heightened risk premiums; Oil-rich Saudi seen most in focus for global impact.

February 3, 2011 11:39 by

The Middle East is headed into the unknown, on that everyone agrees — but the speed of events in Egypt and elsewhere has left analysts and financial markets struggling to find their bearings.

The sheer range of potential near-term scenarios, from benign reforms that relieve social tensions and promote growth to the collapse of order and all-out wars, means that the simplest forecast for investors is to expect more volatility.

Seeking templates, 1990s eastern Europe may offer some. But, again, the key lesson may be how diverse the changes may be.

Some experts predict the past month’s largely unexpected dramas — the fall of Tunisia’s strongman, impending departure of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and political shifts in Yemen, Jordan and elsewhere — may presage seismic change across the Arab world.

Some see that as ultimately leaving the region a more stable place to invest. Others are alarmed, fearing heightened risk of conflict, militancy, extremism and oil supply interruptions.

“There are clearly some very different scenarios out there,” said Lars Christensen, head of emerging markets analysis at Danske Bank. “There are those whereby you get liberalisation across the Middle East that could be very market positive.

“But you also have the low probability-high impact scenarios whereby you get disaster in countries like Saudi Arabia.”

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 opened up trade and brought political reform and prosperity to dozens of economies. But it also heralded a decade of civil war in the Balkans as well as new regimes where investors struggle to secure returns.

Realising the diversity of outcomes is crucial.

“Could you have predicted in 1989 that the Czech Republic would do well and Ukraine less so?” said Christensen. “Perhaps.

“But you might still have been surprised by the unexpectedly good performance of Poland — and it was not a good time to be in Yugoslavia.”

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