MOSCOW/RIYADH: In the crowded corridors of the Hilton Tashkent City, ACWA Power Chairman Mohammad Abunayyan talks quietly with key delegates of the Islamic Development Bank’s annual meeting in Uzbekistan, who approach him one after another.
Abunayyan, a lean, middle-aged, intelligent-looking man is celebrating with the bank's officials the launch of the $100 million Economic Empowerment Fund for Uzbekistan earlier this month.
ACWA Power is planning on becoming one of the Saudi investors that will make up 45 percent of the fund, which is also being financed with money from the Islamic Development Bank and the Uzbek government.
ACWA’s contribution would be the latest in a long line of investments in the Central Asian nation, where the utility now has assets worth $4.6 billion having invested about $1.2 billion, according to the prospectus for its initial public offering that was launched earlier this month.
Although that is less than one tenth of the SR248 billion ($66 billion) of assets ACWA has accumulated globally since it was established in 2004 with what Abunayaan describes as a small equity investment. Abunayaan joined the board in 2008.
Beyond its home market in Saudi Arabia, ACWA also owns assets in Oman, UAE, Bahrain and Jordan.
Still, Uzbekistan is an important market for ACWA Power.
In 2020, the company was awarded three projects: Sirdarya Combined-Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) independent power producer (IPP) with 1,500 MW of gross contracted power capacity; the 500 MW Bash Wind IPP; and the 500 MW Dzhankeldy Wind IPP.
The company’s fourth and largest Uzbek asset in Uzbekistan is the Karakalpakstan 1,500 MW Wind IPP project, valued at $2 billion. The Karakalpakstan, Bash and Dzhankeldy projects are at advanced stages of development and Sirdarya IPP is under construction.
ACWA Power’s investments in Uzbekistan represent a sizeable chunk of total foreign direct investment (FDI) that the country has received in recent years.
“Uzbekistan attracted $2 billion in FDI in 2020 and targets another $5 billion this year,” Atabek Nazirov, director general of the Direct Investment Fund of Uzbekistan, told Arab News on the sidelines of the IDB’s two-day conference on Sept. 3.
Such investments mean a long-term relationship between ACWA Power and Uzbekistan.
“[In our projects] we need to lay the foundation for a long-term partnership, this is a relationship that lasts for 20, 25, 30 years,” Tom Teerlynck, executive vice president of ACWA Power, said during a panel discussion organized by the Islamic Corporation for Insurance of Investments and Export Credits.
“The early years go very smoothly because everybody is happy — agreements signed, infrastructure is being built, the services being provided,” he said. “But problems come in later when people in ministries or private companies change. So, it’s very important to lay very robust foundations.”
Uzbekistan officials are confident that ongoing reforms will propel economic growth, despite the global shock caused by COVID-19.
“In 2020, Uzbekistan was the only economy in the Central Asia region that did not have a negative gross domestic product [GDP],” said Direct Investment Fund of Uzbekistan’s Nazirov. “We were able to achieve just above 1 percent growth.”
The government is forecasting economic growth of 6.5 percent this year although that is a conservative scenario and it is hoping for closer to 7 percent, Ilhom Norkulov, Uzbekistan’s deputy minister of economic development and poverty reduction, told Arab News at the IDB meeting.
“For the next five years our target is to increase GDP to $100 billion so we are working to create conditions for the economy to grow 6-7 percent a year,” he said.
However, Uzbekistan’s economy is facing tailwinds in the form of a high inflation rate – expected at 10-11 percent this year – unemployment of 10.5 percent in 2020 (up from 5.8 percent in 2017) and a decline in average monthly wages to a low of $226 in the fourth quarter of 2018 from a peak of $415 in 2016, but back to $280 in the second quarter 2021, according to official data.
Government officials say they are fully aware of the issues, and maintaining economic reforms and income growth should ease the employment and wage conditions over the long run.