Arab states warned against complacency over debt

Jihad Azour, director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, said higher oil prices should spur a change in the region’s fortunes. (AP)
Updated 02 May 2018

Arab states warned against complacency over debt

  • Oil prices have reached around $75 a barrel from under $30 a barrel in early 2016
  • After the GCC saw their economic growth shrink by 0.2 percent last year, their economy is expected to return to growth in 2018

DUBAI: The International Monetary Fund on Wednesday warned Arab states against complacency over a looming debt crisis, urging continued economic reforms despite a rise in oil prices.
Crude prices have rebounded in the region thanks to a deal by producers to trim production, but the IMF said such a change in fortunes should not get in the way of overhauling state spending.
“Required reforms include further steps toward full elimination of energy subsidies, and changes to pension and social security systems — including revisions to retirement age and benefits,” the IMF said in its Regional Economic Outlook for May.
Jihad Azour, director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, said higher oil prices should spur change.
“We should not be complacent ... oil prices are going up. That definitely does not mean that we should not introduce the reforms. On the contrary, the current environment offers the opportunity to accelerate some of these reforms,” Azour said.
Oil prices have reached around $75 a barrel from under $30 a barrel in early 2016.
Overall growth in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, which includes all Arab countries and Iran, was forecast by the IMF to reach 3.2 percent this year compared to just 2.2 percent in 2017.
The partial recovery in oil prices will be a boost for the Gulf Cooperation Council states — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE — which supply almost a fifth of global crude oil.
After the GCC saw their economic growth shrink by 0.2 percent last year, impacted by a 0.7 percent contraction by the Saudi economy, their economy is expected to return to growth in 2018.
The Council’s economy is forecast to grow by 2.2 percent this year and 2.6 percent in 2019, the IMF said.
Following the oil price slump in mid-2014, GCC members undertook fiscal measures and reforms to cut public spending and boost non-oil revenues.
Azour said that Saudi Arabia’s economic consolidation measures to cut a persistent budget deficit and diversify the economy away from oil remains the correct policy.
“The current strategy that is based on reaching a balanced budget by 2023 is the right one,” he said.
Despite the improved economic forecast, the IMF estimated cumulative overall fiscal deficits in the region to be $294 billion in 2018-22.
Around $71 billion of government debt is expected to mature during the same period.
“The rapid buildup of debt in many of them (MENA countries) is a cause for concern. Debt has increased by an average of 10 percentage points of GDP each year since 2013, with countries financing large fiscal deficits,” the IMF report said.
An impending increase in interest rates, making borrowing more expensive, will complicate the problem, it added.
According to the IMF, the economy of oil-importers should grow by 6.2 percent annually to maintain unemployment at the current rate of 10 percent.
MENA countries need to create 25 million new jobs over the next five years, Azour said, while warning of the negative consequences of unemployment coupled with rising debt levels.
“The average debt in the region for oil-importing countries exceeds 80 percent,” of gross domestic product (GDP), he said, stressing such a figure is “beyond what is acceptable.”


OPEC, allied nations extend nearly 10M barrel cut by a month

Updated 15 min 13 sec ago

OPEC, allied nations extend nearly 10M barrel cut by a month

  • The meeting, originally scheduled for next week, was brought forward to Saturday

VIENNA: OPEC and allied nations agreed on Saturday to extend a production cut of nearly 10 million barrels of oil a day through the end of July, hoping to boost energy prices hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Ministers of the group and outside nations like Russia met via video conference to adopt the measure, aimed at cutting out the excess production depressing prices as global aviation remains largely grounded due to the pandemic. It represents some 10% of the world's overall supply.
However, danger still lurks for the market. Algerian Oil Minister Mohamed Arkab, the current OPEC president, warned attendees that the global oil inventory would soar to 1.5 billion barrels by the mid-point of this year.
“Despite the progress to date, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels,” Arkab said. “The challenges we face remain daunting.”
That was a message echoed by Saudi Arabia's Oil Minister Abdul Aziz bin Salman, who acknowledged “we all have made sacrifices to make it where we are today.” He said he remained shocked by the day in April when U.S. oil futures plunged below zero.
“There are encouraging signs we are over the worst,” he said.
Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak similarly called April “the worst month in history” for the global oil market.
The decision came in a unanimous vote, Energy Minister Suhail al-Mazrouei of the United Arab Emirates wrote on Twitter. He called it “a courageous decision and a collective effort deserving praise from all participating producing countries.”
OPEC has 13 member states, including Saudi Arabia. The additional countries part of the plus-accord have been led by Russia, with Mexico under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador playing a considerable role at the last minute in the initial agreement.
Crude oil prices have been gaining in recent days, in part on hopes OPEC would continue the cut. International benchmark Brent crude traded Saturday at over $42 a barrel. Brent had crashed below $20 a barrel in April.
The oil market was already oversupplied when Russia and OPEC failed to agree on output cuts in early March. Analysts say Russia refused to back even a moderate cut because it would have only served to help US energy companies that were pumping at full capacity. Stalling would hurt American shale-oil producers and protect market share.
Prices collapsed as the coronavirus and the COVID-19 illness it causes largely halted global travel. That also hurt US shale production, drawing the ire of President Donald Trump. But Trump welcomed the earlier deal, as US Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette did on Saturday with the extension.
“I applaud OPEC-plus for reaching an important agreement today which comes at a pivotal time as oil demand continues to recover and economies reopen around the world,” Brouillette wrote on Twitter.
Under a deal reached in April, OPEC and allied countries were to cut nearly 10 million barrels per day until July, then 8 million barrels per day through the end of the year, and 6 million a day for 16 months beginning in 2021.
However, some countries produced beyond their quotas set by the deal. One of them was Iraq, which remains decimated after the yearslong war against the Islamic State group.
On Saturday, Iraq Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad said in statement that Baghdad had “renewed its full commitment” to the OPEC+ deal.
“Despite the economic and financial circumstances that Iraq is facing, the country remains committed to the agreement," Jihad said.
Analysts had expected OPEC and the other nations to extend the cuts of 10 million barrels per day by one more month, but not longer, since the level of demand is still fluctuating.
“If the demand is great, countries like Russia will want to produce more oil, so they probably won’t want to get locked into a longer-term deal that may not help them,” said Jacques Rousseau, managing director at Clearview Energy Partners.