Middle East

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Gulf to drive a pick-up in regional growth in 2022

The recovery across the Middle East and North Africa is likely to gather pace this year, due in large part to the Gulf where rising oil output will cause GDP growth to pick up to rates well above current consensus expectations. Recoveries elsewhere are likely to lag behind amid a slow return of tourists and fiscal austerity. In Tunisia, though, fiscal consolidation is unlikely to be enough to avoid a sovereign default. Elsewhere, we think that concerns about Dubai’s corporate debt could resurface this year too.

25 January 2022

Oil prices, UAE drone attack, Gulf monetary tightening

The recent upwards revision to our oil price forecast means that the window for looser fiscal policy in the Gulf will remain open for a little longer than we anticipated. One of the factors driving oil higher this week was the Houthi drone strike in the UAE, which highlighted the risks to the Emirates’ recovery – particularly the tourism sector. Finally, central banks in the Gulf will have to follow the Fed in tightening monetary policy – which now seems likely to start in March. That will add a headwind to non-oil sectors.

20 January 2022

OPEC+ meeting, Gulf tightens restrictions, Egypt budget

This week’s OPEC+ meeting turned into a fairly straightforward affair with the group raising output as planned, but if we’re right in expecting oil prices to drop back, the window for governments in the Gulf to loosen fiscal policy will shut. Meanwhile, the emergence of the Omicron variant has prompted the Gulf to tighten restrictions, although South Africa’s experience suggests the ensuing economic impact may be short lived. Elsewhere, Egypt’s budget for FY2022/23 showed officials are set to keep policy tight which will weigh on the recovery.

6 January 2022
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Gulf governments to keep fiscal policy tight

Governments across the Gulf have begun to unveil their 2022 budgets and tight fiscal policy remains the order of the day. Saudi Arabia outlined a 6% cut in spending next year that is expected to push the budget into surplus for the first since 2013. And while Oman and Qatar both project small increases in expenditure in 2022, these are set to be more than offset by stronger revenues. The emergence of the Omicron variant has weighed on oil prices in recent weeks and, if we’re right in expecting them to fall further next year, the window that had opened up to loosen the purse strings will close. Tight fiscal policy will hold back recoveries in non-oil sectors, and we suspect that Oman and Bahrain will have to rely on financial assistance from the rest of the Gulf to avoid devaluations and defaults.

MENA and the Omicron risks

The Middle East and North African economies are potentially among the most vulnerable to the fallout from the Omicron strain of COVID-19. The North African economies as well as Lebanon and Jordan have low vaccination rates and large tourism sectors, leaving them exposed to the risk of tighter restrictions and curbs on international travel. In the Gulf, vaccination rates are much higher and, Dubai aside, tourism sectors are relatively small. But the fall in energy prices could prompt governments to hold off loosening fiscal policy. And producers may raise oil output more slowly, which would weigh on economic growth.

What do higher oil prices mean outside of the Gulf?

The Gulf countries will be among the biggest winners globally from the recent rally in energy prices but most other parts of the Middle East and North Africa are net oil importers and are likely to be negatively affected. Higher energy prices will push up inflation or, in those countries with subsidy systems, add to pressures on public finances. Meanwhile, all else being equal, current account deficits could widen by an average of nearly 2%-pts of GDP next year if oil were to remain at $85pb. This could lead to downward pressure on currencies and make it more costly to service external debts – this could prove to be the most damaging in Tunisia and force the government to default on its debts.

Gulf to outperform

Economic recoveries in the Gulf will continue to gather pace over the coming year on the back of successful vaccine rollouts and higher oil output, and our GDP growth forecasts lie above the consensus. Outside the Gulf, though, recoveries are likely to be slower, particularly in the more tourism-dependent economies. We think a sovereign default in Tunisia is more likely than not, and we have long-standing worries about public debt in Bahrain and Oman as well as Dubai’s corporate debts.

Rise in inflation to prove short-lived

Inflation in many economies in the region has risen to multi-year highs in recent months. In general, this has been driven higher by a combination of unfavourable base effects from the pandemic, as well as some re-opening inflation and the effects of rising global commodity prices. In Oman, those effects have been compounded by the introduction of VAT in April. Most of the drivers appear to be transient and inflation is likely to slow again over 2022-23 and, in Egypt, this is likely to bring interest rate cuts back on to the agenda. One key exception is Lebanon, where inflation is already running at over 100% and will remain elevated amid the effects of the collapse in the pound and the repeal of subsidies.

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