2019: A challenging year for Mideast economies

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JEDDAH — The Middle Eastern economy is expected to slow down from an estimated 1.5% last year to about 0.6% in 2019, the slowest in almost a decade. According to ICAEW’s latest Economic Insight report, the Middle East GDP growth forecast slowdown is primarily driven by a deeper-than-expected recession in Iran, one of the region’s largest economies. In the GCC, the burden of generating economic growth and employment is expected to fall more on the non-oil sector in 2019. Lower oil prices pose a challenge for a number of GCC countries that rely heavily on hydrocarbon receipts to balance their budgets, notably Bahrain and Oman.

Economic Insight: Middle East Q2 2019, produced in partnership by ICAEW and Oxford Economics, said the downward revision to Middle East GDP growth is because the Iranian economy is expected to contract by 7% in 2019. Weighed down by tougher American sanctions and the US administration’s recent decision to stop granting waivers to Iran’s oil import partners, which took effect earlier in May this year, Iran’s economic outlook is now particularly dire.

According to the report, oil producers in the Middle East will also see limited growth in the oil sector, the traditional engine of economic growth and a primary source of government revenues, given the anticipated extension of the output cuts by OPEC+ to balance the international oil markets. Oil prices are forecast to average around $67/b in 2019, down by some 5.6% from the average of $71pb last year.

In 2019, the non-oil sector will continue to be supported by various pro-growth government initiatives, expansionary budgets and fiscal stimulus plans, especially in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two largest GCC economies. The non-oil sector in the GCC is expected to accelerate from an estimated 2.3% last year to 2.6% in 2019. Indeed, several proxy indicators of economic activity paint a positive picture, with the credit to the private sector trending up in most GCC countries, while the quarterly average of the Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI), a gauge of the health of the private sector, continued to show some improvements in Q1 2019 in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE compared to Q4 2018.

Michael Armstrong, FCA and ICAEW Regional Director for the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA), said: “The outlook for Middle Eastern economies remains challenging for the rest of 2019 as global developments continue to be of crucial importance to the region. Growth prospects for the Middle Eastern economy have deteriorated as geopolitical risks, involving Iran especially, have risen in the last year. Continued uncertainty in the global oil market means increasing non-oil revenues is vital for regional economies – governments in the region have been proactive, but they must continue to support their economies with pro-growth initiatives.”

Oman’s economy remains largely driven by the oil sector and government spending

The economic outlook for Oman looks challenging in 2019, with oil production curbs and oil price volatility weighing on incomes and sentiment. Oman’s economy is still in the early stages of recovery and is expected to experience modestly weaker growth of 2.8% this year, down from an estimated 3.3% in 2018 but up from the 0.9% drop in 2017.

Both domestic demand and the external sector face persistent headwinds, the latter reinforced by the fractious US-China trade relations. Renewed pressure on oil prices complicates fiscal adjustment, as the overall thrust of policy remains expansionary. Additionally, the ramp-up in gas output over the past 18 months has partly compensated for lower oil production, cushioning oil sector performance.

Mohamed Bardastani, ICAEW Economic Advisor and Senior Economist for Middle East at Oxford Economics, said: “The slump in oil prices has put significant pressure on Oman in the last year – oil revenue still amounts to 60% of the nation’s total budget revenue. There is a dire need for an improvement in the non-oil sector and delaying the introduction of VAT has a had significant effect on the fiscal deficit. Oman must continue with its economic diversification efforts to drive growth in its economy.”

According to ICAEW, non-oil activity in Oman remains tepid, though it should improve, anchored by economic diversification efforts and infrastructure spending under the country’s Vision 2020 plan.

However, the public sector budget’s heavy reliance on energy receipts will continue to limit the authorities’ room to support spending and activity. The report forecasts slower GDP growth but wider fiscal shortfall this year, entrenching accumulation of external debt further above 50% of GDP. Despite increased state spending, domestic demand remains under pressure, reflected in slowing private sector credit uptake.

Running large deficits has done little to strengthen employment prospects for the local population. Notwithstanding the expat hiring freeze, now extended to a larger number of professions, the private sector created just 13,444 jobs for Omanis in 2018, short of the 25,000 target, and a further 5,780 in January-April. Coupled with slow progress on addressing the underlying skill mismatch, labour market dynamics will continue to constrain consumption and the overall outlook in the coming months.

Bahrain’s economic growth to decelerate further

The outlook for Bahrain’s economy remains clouded by persistent weakness in government finances, evident by significant fiscal deficits and rising public debt levels, large external financing needs, a general slowdown in non-oil activity and limited prospects for oil sector growth. Indeed, the economy expanded by its slowest pace in more than two decades last year at only 1.8%. The outlook for this year is similarly challenging as the economy is expected to decelerate further to 1.6%, weighed down by fiscal consolidation measures, lower oil prices and only a modest rise in oil production. But continued project spending, supported by the GCC US$10bn financial package, is expected to balance out the overall impact.

The economic slowdown last year was felt across a range of sectors. The non-oil sector, which comprises over 80% of total economic activity, almost halved to 2.5% in 2018 from 4.9% in 2017. The slowdown was broad-based, but notably in the services sector, where all sub-sectors slowed from 2017 rates. The report expects growth in 2019 in the non-oil sector slowing further to 1.5%, notably below the 4.4% average between 2014 and 2017, weighed down by several fiscal consolidation measures, including the introduction of the 5% VAT earlier this year.

The oil sector on the other hand contracted by 1.1% in 2018, reflecting pre-scheduled maintenance in the first half of last year and the gradual erosion in the overall production capacity in Bahrain. On a more positive note, following Bahrain’s discovery of its largest oil field since 1932 in April last year, the country is likely to start shale oil production by the end of this year, with well-drilling reportedly started a few months ago. However, production is likely to remain slow and gradual, so only a modest 1% rise in oil activity is predicted this year.

Mohamed Bardastani, ICAEW Economic Advisor and Senior Economist for Middle East at Oxford Economics, said: “Despite Bahrain having the most diversified economy in the GCC, 2019 has proven to be a challenging year amid low oil prices and a government financial overhaul. The government’s ongoing efforts to address the fiscal deficit is crucial for the future development of the economy. We expect the introduction of VAT, paired with the $10bn support package from the GCC, should help increase non-oil revenues and better the nation’s economic prospects.”

Though the Bahraini economy is the most diversified of the GCC countries, where oil’s share of GDP is less than 20%, oil revenues still disproportionately dominate government finances, comprising more than 70% of government revenues. The forecast for oil prices now stands at US$67pb in 2018, some 5.6% lower than the 2018 average of $71bp. This remains substantially below Bahrain’s estimated fiscal break-even point of $113, the highest among GCC peers.

The $10 billion support package from the GCC is expected to help the government address its financial shortcomings and support certain infrastructure projects, balancing the overall economic trajectory over the medium term. The government has already received the first installment of $2.3 billion late last year and is expecting another $2.3 billion this year. — SG


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