Oil crunch forces Middle East funds to hunt for alternative assets

Gold is a favorite choice for Middle East sovereign investment funds seeking a cushion against falling oil prices. (Reuters)
Updated 21 February 2018
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Oil crunch forces Middle East funds to hunt for alternative assets

LONDON: Middle Eastern sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) are buying more alternative assets, such as private equity, real estate, gold and infrastructure, to lift returns in an era of lower oil prices.
The move by SWFs to tilt their investment portfolios more toward alternative assets is a worldwide trend, a direct result of the crash in the oil price four years ago, according to a report by the global consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
SWFs now allocate almost a quarter of their assets under management to alternative investments, with “lower oil prices for longer” driving the funds to broaden their investment strategies. Investment in fixed income instruments, such as government bonds, had dropped from a peak of 40 percent in 2013 to 30 percent in 2016, PwC said.
The report, titled “The rising attractiveness of alternative asset classes for sovereign wealth funds,” said that although the funds faced adverse conditions in recent years when asset growth began to stall as a result of falling oil prices, total assets under management still grew to $7.4 trillion in 2016, albeit at a slower pace than in earlier years.
PwC said it expected the growth rate of assets under management to increase in the coming years as SWFs invested in non-fossil sources and diversified their portfolios to include alternative investments.
Laurent Depolla, PwC Middle East sovereign investment funds leader, said: “Middle East SWFs, in general, have been following the global trend by allocating more capital toward alternatives. Over the five-year period their average allocation to the alternatives asset class has increased from 3.7 percent to 6.1 percent of total assets, while their average target allocation rose from 6.5 percent to 8.6 percent.  
“This can be attributed to new sovereign wealth funds entering the asset class as well as continued appetite from those already active.”
Infrastructure was also a large focus of SWFs in the region. The data firm Preqin
said that European infrastructure deals were particularly attractive for Middle Eastern SWFs, with some “possibly looking to deploy capital at even lower preferred rates of return.”
Commenting on the key influences facing investors in the Middle East, Tarek Shoukri, PwC sovereign investment fund director, said: “Middle East SWFs seeking to generate superior returns under challenging economic conditions have started to adjust their investment strategies. Due to the drop in the oil price in recent years, there have been less inflows from their traditional revenue sources.”
However, the funds’ attempts to maintain return objectives by investing in certain alternative asset classes was not without risks as most alternatives were highly illiquid, the PwC report warned. One exception was gold, an asset with “one of the highest rates of daily volumes exchanged and one that can provide protection against short and medium-term market corrections.”
Will Jackson-Moore, PwC’s global head of sovereign investment funds and private equity, said: “SWFs play an important role helping governments stabilize the economy and exchange rates. We expect alternatives to be prominent in SWF portfolios in the future as they can offer increased diversification, principal protection, a hedge against inflation, and an increase in portfolio performance.”  
But Jackson-Moore cautioned that finding the right allocation strategy for these asset classes was crucial. Monitoring of portfolios and investments was essential, he said, and capital would sometimes have to be reallocated to reflect economic developments.
“Overall, though, the benefits seem to outweigh the costs, as the varied nature of alternatives provides SWFs with the ability to select an asset class specific to their investment needs,” he said.


Mideast plays key role in Chinese export of armed drones, report says

Updated 17 December 2018
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Mideast plays key role in Chinese export of armed drones, report says

  • China has exploited America’s selective drone export policy to become an increasingly influential player in meeting demand
  • The report is entitled “Armed Drones in the Middle East: Proliferation and Norms in the Region”

BEIRUT: The use of armed drones in the Middle East, driven largely by sales from China, has grown significantly in the past few years with an increasing number of countries and other parties using them in regional conflicts to lethal effects, a new report said Monday.
The report by the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, found that more and more Mideast countries have acquired armed drones, either by importing them, such as Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, or by building them domestically like Israel, Iran and Turkey.
China has won sales in the Middle East and elsewhere by offering drones — otherwise known as UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles — at lower prices and without the political conditions attached by the United States.
The report , entitled “Armed Drones in the Middle East: Proliferation and Norms in the Region,” said that by capitalizing on the gap in the market over the past few years, Beijing has supplied armed drones to several countries that are not authorized to purchase them from the US, and at a dramatically cheaper price.
“China, a no-questions-asked exporter of drones, has played and is likely to continue playing a key role as a supplier of armed UAVs to the Middle East,” it said.
The report explored where and how each of the states have used their armed drones and whether they have changed the way these countries approach air power. It found that Iran, the UAE and Turkey all changed the way they employ airpower after they acquired armed drones.
For Turkey and the UAE, armed drones enabled them to conduct strikes in situations where they would not have risked using conventional aircraft, it said. Iran developed armed drones from the outset specifically to enable to project power beyond the reach of its air force, which is hamstrung by obsolete aircraft and sanctions, the report added.
The report said it remains to be seen whether and how the loosening of restrictions on the exportation of armed drones by the Trump administration will alter dynamics in the region.
“Nonetheless, proliferation in armed UAVs in the Middle East is unlikely to stop and could, in fact, even accelerate,” the report said.