Investors forgiving as Oman’s austerity drive hits bumps in the road

Oman may use government spending to dampen some of the social fallout from its efforts to diversify revenue. (Reuters)
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Updated 02 June 2021

Investors forgiving as Oman’s austerity drive hits bumps in the road

  • Oman’s austerity measures unveiled last year are seen as crucial for maintaining the cash-strapped country’s ability to access international debt markets ahead of debt redemptions worth about $11 billion this year and next

DUBAI: Oman may be rowing back on an austerity plan to fix its shaky finances in the face of protests over unemployment but investors are cutting the Gulf state’s new ruler some slack for now.
Sultan Haitham, who acceded to the throne in January 2020, promised last week on the third day of rare demonstrations in several towns and cities to create 32,000 jobs and subsidise private companies that take on Omanis.
But the move did not trigger any major drop in the price of Oman’s bonds, with investors saying some flexibility in its fiscal adjustment was expected to guarantee social stability in a country also hit by protests over jobs and corruption in 2011.
“The market reaction is reflecting an understanding that significant reform, particularly as it relates to taxation in a region that has limited precedence, will meet obstacles, but has not been materially derailed,” said Sharif Eid, a portfolio manager at Franklin Templeton Investments.
“Short term, measured adjustments are to be expected, particularly as they may impact social factors,” he said.
Oman’s government bonds due in 2047 yielded 6.9 percent at the end of last week, only slightly higher than 6.7 percent before the protests. In March last year, the yield hit nearly 12 percent as the coronavirus outbreak triggered a collapse in crude prices.
Oman’s austerity measures unveiled last year are seen as crucial for maintaining the cash-strapped country’s ability to access international debt markets ahead of debt redemptions worth about $11 billion this year and next.
Oman is among the weakest countries financially in the oil-rich region and more vulnerable to swings in the price of hydrocarbons, a sector that accounted for about a third of its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019.
Since the oil price crash in 2014, its debt to GDP ratio has leapt from about 15 percent in 2015 to 80 percent last year, while Oman’s plans to diversify revenue away from oil and to reduce spending on its bloated public sector have lagged.
Oman’s finance ministry and central bank did not respond to requests for comment about the country’s ability to prop up its economy in the face of financial constraints.
The medium-term fiscal plan announced in October, which included the introduction of a value-added tax (VAT) in April, has reassured investors, helping Oman to raise billions of dollars in bonds and loans this year.
“Oman provided comfortable levels of information since late last year that supported the market and are further supported by oil prices at $70 per barrel, which significantly reduced their funding gap,” said Zeina Rizk, executive director, fixed-income asset management, at Arqaam Capital.
“Also, Oman raised most of its budget funding needs this year, which is also supportive,” she said.
Oman plans to reduce its deficit from more than 4 billion rials ($10.4 billion) in 2020, or 15.8 percent of GDP, to 537 million rials in 2024, which would be equivalent to 1.7 percent of GDP.
Debt to GDP is expected to remain at about 80 percent by 2024, but in the absence of the medium-term fiscal plan it would have shot up to 128 percent, the ministry of finance has said.
Oman is also aiming to increase non-oil revenue to 35 percent of the overall total in the coming years from 28 percent last year.
The fiscal plan does allow for some time to launch particularly sensitive steps such as a personal income tax on high earners, which Oman said it was considering for 2022 in what would be a first for the Gulf region.
Still, while the unrest that erupted last week appears to have abated after a heavy security response, it is a sign that Oman’s efforts to contain state deficits and debts may slow down to accommodate job demands.
Oman’s unemployment rate spiked to a record 5 percent last year and youth unemployment is over 10 percent, according to World Bank data.
“The road to fiscal consolidation was unlikely to be smooth and the concessions made by the authorities will slow the rate of adjustment,” said Scott Livermore, Middle East chief economist at research group Oxford Economics.
Tariq Haq, senior employment policy specialist for Arab states at the International Labour Organization, said Oman needed to develop a medium- to long-term employment policy.
“The provision of government jobs as an emergency response is not a sustainable substitute for a more comprehensive reform of the labor market, which needs to accompany structural reform of the Omani economy more broadly,” he said.
In addition to introducing VAT and gradually raising water and electricity tariffs this year, Oman cut its civilian and military spending in 2020 and has budgeted for further declines this year.
However, an expectation that such ambitious reforms would have to be balanced against socio-economic pressures has been largely factored in by investors and credit ratings agencies.
Fitch said last month its outlook for Oman — which is rated sub-investment grade by all major agencies — was negative owing to “risks to sustained enactment of fiscal consolidation plans given the challenging economic and social context.”
Oman may use government spending to dampen some of the social fallout from its efforts to diversify revenue but the direction of reforms will not change, said Livermore.
“The Omani authorities have little choice but to remain committed to medium-term fiscal adjustment, although there may be some fine-tuning on how this is achieved.”
Still, some investors said how Oman reacts to any resurgence of social unrest and other economic challenges would need to be monitored closely.
“Investors evaluated the medium-term consolidation plan in Oman with relative relief as it provided some short-term relief for the fiscal figures,” said Sergey Dergachev, a fund manager at Union Investment.
“But Oman also faces other risks, including a challenging tourism sector outlook and inflationary pressures, all in parallel to the employment situation, which needs to be watched,” he said. ($1 = 0.3849 Omani rials)

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UK’s Liz Truss says defining mission will be reviving the economy

Updated 19 August 2022

UK’s Liz Truss says defining mission will be reviving the economy

LONDON: The frontrunner to be Britain’s next prime minister Liz Truss said her government’s defining mission would be to revive the economy as she set out a series of measures to help parts of northern England.
Britain’s economic performance has lagged behind those of the United States, Italy and France in recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. The economy is expected to enter a long downturn at the end of the year amid surging inflation and rising interest rates.
“The defining mission of my government will be to get our economy growing again, cutting taxes to put more money into the pockets of hardworking people,” Truss said.
Outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said reducing regional economic inequality was his main goal. But public spending in the north of England fell behind the national average in the first two years of his government, research by the Institute for Public Policy Research has shown.
Truss said she was committed to the current government’s goal of reducing economic inequalities but would do so in a “Conservative way,” interpreted as meaning a focus on tax cuts and deregulation.
Speaking ahead of election hustings in Manchester in northern England on Friday, Truss pledged to provide more devolution, to ensure poorer areas receive the government funding they need, and to build two new vocational colleges in the north of England that will be “the vocational equivalent of Oxford and Cambridge,” dubbed “Voxbridge.”
Truss has portrayed herself as a radical insurgent who would overturn the current failed orthodoxy and has proposed to reverse more than £30 billion ($36 billion) of tax rises.

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Dubai sees air travel surge, expects World Cup boost

Updated 17 August 2022

Dubai sees air travel surge, expects World Cup boost

  • The airport handled 160 percent more traffic over the past six months compared to the same period last year

DUBAI: Dubai International Airport saw a surge in passengers over the first half of 2022 as pandemic restrictions eased and the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Qatar will further boost traffic to the city-state’s second airfield, its chief executive said Wednesday.

Paul Griffiths, who oversees the world’s busiest airport for international travel, told The Associated Press that the airport handled 160 percent more traffic over the past six months compared to the same period last year, part of an air travel rebound around the world.

The nearly 28 million people who traveled through the airport over the past six months represent some 70 percent of the airport’s pre-pandemic levels, even as Dubai’s key source market of China remains closed due to severe pandemic restrictions. Griffiths said he expects the airport’s traffic to return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of next year.

“It’s a very, very welcome surge of traffic,” Griffiths said.

The first World Cup in the Middle East, he added, will send foreign soccer fans flocking to Al-Maktoum International Airport at Dubai World Central, or DWC. From there, they will travel daily to Qatar, a tiny neighbor that faces a hotel squeeze.

“We’ve actually seen a huge demand at DWC for slot filings for airlines wanting to operate a shuttle service,” he said. “I think the city has a lot to offer and a lot to gain from the World Cup.”

Among the airlines buying extra slots to shuttle soccer fans to the tournament from DWC are Qatar Airways, low-cost carrier FlyDubai and budget airline Wizz Air Abu Dhabi, he said.

During the first half of 2022, Dubai International Airport dealt with nearly 56 percent more flights than the same period in 2021, when contagious coronavirus variants clobbered the industry.

Now, in a sign of the health of the industry, Emirates said on Wednesday that it would pour billions of dollars into retrofitting much of its Airbus A380 and Boeing 777 fleet. At the height of the pandemic, the airline received a $4 billion government bailout.


Egypt’s central bank governor resigns as economic woes mount

Updated 17 August 2022

Egypt’s central bank governor resigns as economic woes mount

  • President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi accepted the resignation of Tarek Amer and named him a presidential adviser
  • The currency is under pressure, sliding in value to about 19 Egyptian pounds to the US dollar

CAIRO: Egypt’s central bank governor resigned Wednesday as the Middle East’s most populous nation struggles to curb inflation triggered by Russia’s war in Ukraine, high oil prices and a drop in tourism.
President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi accepted the resignation of Tarek Amer and named him a presidential adviser, the Egyptian leader’s office said in a statement. The brief statement offered no explanation for Amer’s resignation.
No replacement was immediately named for Amer, who had been appointed governor of the central bank in November 2015. He has been criticized for his handling of Egypt’s financial challenges.
The currency is under pressure, sliding in value to about 19 Egyptian pounds to the US dollar. That followed a central bank decision allowing the currency to depreciate by around 16 percent in March to try to stem a growing trade deficit.
“It seems there’s a lot of tensions within policymaking circles, and I think that’s ultimately what led to Mr. Amer’s resignation,” said Jason Tuvey, a senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics.
Tuvey said there are officials that oppose devaluing the pound and instead support measures like rationing gas consumption by curbing electricity usage, which could in turn harm business activity. Amer had traditionally been seen as in the camp that supported the pound’s depreciation as a way to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund.
The London-based Capital Economics research firm predicts that Egypt’s currency will continue to slide, reaching 25 pounds to the dollar by the end of 2024 amid sustained pressure.
The resignation of the central bank head comes after key ministries were reshuffled Saturday as the government faces mounting pressure from economic challenges. The Cabinet shake-up, which was approved by parliament in an emergency session, affected 13 ministries, including health, education, culture, local development and irrigation. The country’s minister of tourism and antiquities also was replaced.
Egypt’s expansive tourism industry, which employs millions, was hit hard by years of turmoil, the COVID-19 pandemic and then the war in Ukraine. Prior to the conflict, around a third of tourists to Egypt came from Russia.
Russia’s war has been deeply felt in other ways in Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer that sources around 80 percent of it from the Black Sea region.
In the first weeks after the invasion of Ukraine in late February, the price of wheat and other grains skyrocketed, as did the price of fuel. Although prices have come down somewhat, the cost of grains remains at least 50 percent higher than before the pandemic in early 2020. Furthermore, the cost of shipping to export those grains through the Black Sea is high.
Inflation in the country of 103 million people reached 14.6 percent in July, increasing pressure on lower-income households and everyday necessities. Around a third of Egyptians live in poverty, according to government figures.
The World Bank notes that Egypt’s government announced an assistance package worth 130 billion pounds (more than $8 billion) just before devaluing the pound in March to alleviate the impact of rising prices. The package aimed to increase public-sector wages and pensions, as well as expand direct cash assistance programs.
Egypt’s Gulf Arab allies have come to its assistance with multibillion-dollar investments buoyed by high oil prices that have helped their bottom line.
Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, known as the Public Investment Fund, recently established a division in Egypt that has already announced deals worth $1.3 billion with the aim of bringing in $10 billion into Egypt.

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Saudi-Uzbek trade exceeds $95m in the first half of 2022

Updated 17 August 2022

Saudi-Uzbek trade exceeds $95m in the first half of 2022

  • The two countries will bolster ties further with the signing of 12 new deals this week

RIYADH: The mutual trade between Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Uzbekistan reached $95 million in the first half of 2022, a substantial increase considering that bilateral trade barely exceeded $17 million last year.

According to a joint news statement, the value is expected to grow rapidly by the end of 2022. The numbers assume significance in the aftermath of the pandemic.

In fact, the number of Uzbek companies running on Saudi funds increased from about nine to 38 in the last five years. Of the 38, 19 are sole proprietors, and the rest are joint ventures.

The two nations will bolster the ties further by signing 12 new agreements on Wednesday and Thursday when Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev visits the Kingdom.

According to an Uzbek state agency, high-level talks will take place in Jeddah, where the two nations will discuss opportunities to enhance multilateral cooperation further.

The discussion will focus on the green economy, technology and digitalization, innovations, small business and entrepreneurship. 

Following the meeting, new agreements are expected to be signed in the energy, telecommunications, agriculture, chemical and petrochemical industries, besides encouraging ties in culture, sports and education.

The Kingdom has become one of the largest foreign investors in energy infrastructure and one of Uzbekistan’s most significant developers of green energy projects.

ACWA Power’s Uzbek interests

Recently, the Ministry of Energy of Uzbekistan and Saudi energy company ACWA Power signed several investment agreements for about $3 billion.

ACWA Power will develop and operate a wind energy project with a production capacity of 1,500 MW in the Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan.

When commissioned, the plant will become the largest of its kind in Central Asia and one of the largest wind power plants in the world. 

FASTFACTS

• The number of Uzbek companies running on Saudi funds increased from about nine to 38 in the last five years.

• Recently, the Ministry of Energy of Uzbekistan and Saudi energy company ACWA Power signed several investment agreements for about $3 billion.

• The Saudi Fund for Development has contributed to the implementation of many projects in Uzbekistan, including funding the Samarkand-Gozar Road project, with a total value of $30 million.

ACWA Power also signed an agreement to establish the 100MW Nokus wind farm project, the first renewable energy project to be implemented in partnership with Uzbekistan’s public and private sectors.

The power generating company also won a $108 million wind contract after proposing a tariff of 2.56 cents per kilowatt-hour, the lowest in Uzbekistan.

Additionally, the Ministry of Energy of Uzbekistan signed a 25-year power purchase agreement with ACWA Power to establish a combined-cycle gas turbine power plant in Shirin, located in Syrdarya, Uzbekistan. The deal amounts to $1.2 billion.

According to the statement, these projects will contribute to achieving Uzbekistan’s national goal of raising the total renewable energy generation capacity to 30 percent by 2030.

Saudi Fund for Development

Moreover, the Saudi Fund for Development has contributed to the implementation of many projects in Uzbekistan, including funding the Samarkand-Gozar Road project, with a total value of $30 million.

The fund also contributed to 20 projects in the republic, including building pumping stations and other projects involving sewage, chemicals, mining, building materials, water and agriculture.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture of Uzbekistan, the Saudi and Uzbek delegations have discussed issues of cooperation in agriculture, including the prospects for enhancing mutual trade in agricultural products.

Both parties will likely sign memorandums of cooperation in agriculture, veterinary medicine and livestock development at the meeting.

They also agreed to deepen cooperation in the agricultural sector to enhance trade in farming, livestock and other products between the countries.

After signing the memoranda, action plans will be prepared, including specific measures and areas for developing cooperation and joint projects.

The Saudi side invited the Uzbekistan delegation to attend its most prominent exhibition of the agro-industrial complex, which will be held at the end of October in Riyadh.


Saudi banks shut down 42 branches in 12 months, increase digital presence

Updated 15 August 2022

Saudi banks shut down 42 branches in 12 months, increase digital presence

  • More banks are switching to increased virtual interactions and digitalization, and new banks are opening entirely on that premise

CAIRO: Saudi banks shut down 42 branches over the year ending in June, revealed the Saudi Central Bank, also known as SAMA.

The number of bank branches in Saudi Arabia also inched lower to 1,927 in the second quarter this year from 1,932 in the same quarter last year.

So, what are the reasons behind this decreased number of bank branches, and when did this trend begin?

The most common assumption would be the COVID-19 pandemic and its prolonged effect on the entire economy, including the financial and banking sectors.

Between the fourth quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2021, which includes the peak of the pandemic, 68 branches were closed. 

Also, bank branches continued to decrease quarterly long after lifting COVID-19 restrictions, albeit there was no clear trend.

Between May 2020 and June this year, 137 bank branches in the Kingdom shut shop.

It is worth mentioning that branches that have closed are not second-tier or underperforming banks but some of the largest and well-performing ones. For instance, Al Rajhi Bank, which had 543 branches in the fourth quarter of 2020, reduced it to 515 by June this year.

While COVID-19 sparked the digital revolution, advanced and innovative technologies did the job.

The past three years of the pandemic slowly began the transformation toward digital banking, which can be seen closely in the Saudi banking sector.

More banks are switching to increased virtual interactions and digitalization, and new banks are opening entirely on that premise.

Last February, SAMA licensed and welcomed the Kingdom’s third digital bank D360 Bank, following the launch of STC and Saudi Digital Bank in June last year.

Similarly, according to SAMA, 19 Saudi fintech companies have been authorized to provide payment services, consumer microfinance and electronic insurance brokerage over the past few months.

So, what does the future of digital banking in the Kingdom hold and will the population accept this digital revolution?

In a survey conducted by Ipsos in the Kingdom in October 2021, the research major pointed out that 61 percent still trust traditional banks, while 47 percent counted on mobile service providers and 40 percent depended on popular digital brands to carry out financial transactions.

The report added: “63 percent said that they will be making all their financial transactions through digital banking in the future, and 58 percent believe that people would no longer use cash as a payment method.”