RIYADH: Despite persistent efforts in the Gulf Cooperation Council to pursue reforms in the times of economic expansion, more work needs to be done to achieve a sustainable growth model with low hydrocarbon dependence, said a senior World Bank official.
“The GCC has been very successful in the past couple of years in enduring a twin shock of COVID-19 pandemic and dropping oil prices. The reforms, together with a competent health system, helped contain the number of COVID-19 cases and expedited the opening of these economies compared to other parts of the world,” Issam Abou Sleiman, regional director of the GCC for the World Bank, told Arab News.
According to Abou Sleiman, more work needs to be done to make the GCC resilient to the price fluctuations in the hydrocarbon industry, even though it is the primary source of revenue in this region. This can be achieved by balancing revenue and expenditure.
In 2021, the GCC nations picked up from a GDP contraction of 4.9 percent and rebounded to an expansion of 3 percent, and the World Bank expects the expansion to go up to 5.9 percent this year.
There is also a better way to reach the lower-income population than subsidizing or redistributing the income of the wealth in the GCC.
Issam Abou Sleiman, regional director of the GCC for the World Bank
What they are up against
“Four of the six GCC countries have taken some measures by introducing the value-added tax. Saudi Arabia has even increased the VAT during the pandemic, but more needs to be done on the revenue side,” he said.
As for the expenditure side, Abou Sleiman said that the wage bill and the subsidy scheme are both areas for improvement.
“The wage bill in the GCC is very high compared to similar countries around the world, and it is coming from the public sector that the region is looking to right-size,” he added.
The wage bill came from a social contract that existed for decades, but with a growing population, this formula no longer serves the purpose and has increased the fiscal deficit.
“There is also a better way to reach the lower-income population than subsidizing or redistributing the income of the wealth in the GCC,” said Abou Sleiman.
The subsidy schemes must be substituted with a more effective social safety net targeted toward the lower 40 percent of the income pyramid.
For example, Saudi Arabia in January introduced a modern social safety net that will have a much more significant impact on the low-income population than the traditional subsidy schemes.
“A balance between the revenue and expenditure sides, together with the governments’ vision of economic diversification, will allow these economies to become less and less dependent on the fluctuations of oil prices,” Abou Sleiman said.
GCC growth in 2022 will be mainly driven by the hydrocarbon market
Hydrocarbon sector is likely to expand by 12 percent
In 2021, the GCC nations picked up from a GDP contraction of 4.9 percent and rebounded to 3 percent
The World Bank expects the expansion to go up to 5.9 percent this year.
The growth in 2022 will be mainly driven by the hydrocarbon market, which is likely to expand by 12 percent.
“The GCC benefited from the supply chain shocks and rising oil prices. However, despite the reigning fuel prices, the countries broke historical trends by carrying on its economic reform,” said Abou Sleiman.
Four countries in the GCC — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman — have witnessed noticeable transformations in the past couple of years to change the fabric of the economy and make it less driven by the government.
“The move toward an economy reliant on the private sector is focused on diversifying into non-oil sectors, and it is expected to continue in the coming years and cause a spillover within the GCC and the MENA region,” he said.
Preparing for the future
Abou Sleiman also tackles a vital topic focused on job creation among the young generation, especially women. “In an economy like Saudi Arabia, where the focus is on growing the tourism, entertainment and digital sectors, the focus should be on those young people who are much more educated today than years ago,” Abou Sleiman said.
The country only started incentivizing women to go into the labor market in 2019; however, seeing women flood into the labor job market in a short period brings a huge wave of optimism, according to Abou Sleiman.
“Statistically speaking, women are more educated than men, and when proper laws are put into place to drive them to the job market, this will bring a higher level of income for the Saudi and the GCC families,” he added.
Abou Sleiman also addressed the need to move the GCC infrastructure from state-owned enterprises to the private sector. “This will bring foreign investment, foster cost efficiencies, and encourage competitiveness in the region.”
Despite showing great optimism, Abou Sleiman only fears the reform needed for this kind of transformation would be halted in periods when oil prices go up. The other risk factor is the dependence of the monetary policy on the US dollar.
“While this could be good to tame inflation from a demand perspective, it will also impact the investments in the region,” added Abou Sleiman.
China’s 2022 smartphone sales fall 13%, says report
Android handset maker Vivo was the top-selling brand over the year, with a market share of 18.6 percent
Updated 10 sec ago
SHANGHAI: China’s smartphone sales fell 13 percent year-on-year in 2022, the largest plunge for the sector in a decade as consumers spent cautiously, market research firm IDC said on Sunday.
The total number of devices shipped was 286 million. That meant total 2022 sales volume was the lowest since 2013 and the first time since then that annual sales have dropped below 300 million, IDC said in a report.
Android handset maker Vivo was the top-selling brand over the year, with a market share of 18.6 percent. Its total shipments fell 25.1 percent year-on-year, however.
Honor ranked as the second best-selling brand, with shipments growing more than 34 percent, albeit from a low base.
Apple Inc. was the third best-selling phone brand in 2022, tied with Oppo.
In Q4, despite being the top-selling brand in the three-month period, year-on-year sales for iPhones were still down, as supply chain issues caused by worker unrest at manufacturer Foxconn’s plant in the city of Zhengzhou compounded worse-than expected demand, researchers wrote. Strict COVID-19 controls in China, which ramped up in the spring of 2022 across several cities, weighed heavily on its economy which slumped to one of its worst levels in nearly half-a-century last year.
The plunge in smartphone sales in China reflected the sector’s performance globally. In 2022, global smartphone shipments hit 1.2 billion, the lowest since 2013 and a year-on-year fall of more than 11 percent, according to IDC.
GCC can be a ‘latter-day Venice,’ says former UK government adviser
European trade policy expert Paul McGrade explains why now is the time for a GCC-UK free trade agreement
Domestic politics rules out UK-US FTA while India wrestles with divisions over protectionism and politics, he asserts
McGrade says British public feel Brexit was a mistake, bringing costs and “very, very few benefits”
Updated 5 min 19 sec ago
DUBAI: The GCC bloc, with its strategic location and fast-growing economies, can be a latter-day Venice, balancing between East and West, according to Paul McGrade, a former UK government adviser and an expert on UK and European trade policy, who was speaking as the GCC and the UK prepare to launch the third round of their free trade talks.
He predicts that the UK’s attempts to forge free-trade agreements with the US and India will meet with failure, in contrast with an FTA deal with the GCC, which could work despite the two sides’ policy differences over China and Russia.
He also asserts, citing opinion surveys, that the British public now feel that “Brexit was a mistake and has brought costs and very, very few benefits.”
McGrade made the comments during an appearance on “Frankly Speaking,” the Arab News current affairs talk show that dives deep into regional headlines by speaking with leading policymakers and business leaders.
He discussed what a GCC-UK trade deal would entail, whether an agreement could materialize before the end of this year and, given the political upheaval of the last 12 months, whether GCC leaders could really trust the British government’s trade promises.
“The GCC region will still have strong links with China. Energy needs there are huge and growing. (But I hope) the region will continue to have strong links with the West,” he said.
“There’s a difficult balancing act that’s going to get harder in the decades ahead. But the region is very strongly placed and, you (can) already see with the UK, and Europe more broadly, a stronger recognition that this is a strategic partnership, or a set of strategic partnerships, that they can’t afford to ignore.”
Last month, the UK government said it was committed to signing a significant trade deal with the GCC. However, given the political roller-coaster ride that the UK went on in 2022 and the fact that it is no longer the manufacturing giant of the last century, many wonder why GCC countries should still be interested and whether they can trust that the UK will deliver.
“It’s a fair question after six years really of instability in the UK, a country that always prided itself and partly sold itself on its political stability and its business-friendly regulation. It has been a bit of a roller-coaster, but I think that the high tide of Brexit disruption has passed,” McGrade said.
He said although the Tory government and the main opposition Labour Party claim they are committed to making Brexit work, what they really mean is sound public finances, a more stable regulatory relationship with Europe, a more predictable one where essentially the UK will broadly follow what the EU is doing in big areas like net-zero.
“This gives investors some confidence,” he told Katie Jensen, the host of “Frankly Speaking.”
“The UK is not going to be towing itself off into mid-Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean. It’s going to be geographically, obviously and in regulatory terms, very firmly anchored in the European neighborhood. That gives a bit of confidence and a bit of stability going forward. And the UK needs investment, which has dropped off sharply since the 2016 vote.”
As the West decouples from China, experts say it will need strong relationships with the Gulf states. McGrade believes the war in Ukraine has refocused minds on the importance of the strategic partnership with the Gulf countries. “Not just through the trade deal, which could help in some areas, but it’s a broader picture,” he said.
“There’s a huge opportunity here for Gulf states and their investors to kind of reshape this relationship in the sectors that they might want to draw into their own economies in terms of building sustainable, high-skilled models for the future.”
The Conservative government in the post-Brexit era had promised that Britain would be able to make trade deals all over the world. However, they missed their targets last year. The UK has only signed trade agreements with about 60 percent of their global trade partners and talks with the US and India have stalled.
“Some of those (trade) talks have stalled, but some of them probably weren’t very realistic anyway,” McGrade said. “The domestic politics on both sides of the Atlantic probably ruled out the kind of deep trade deal with the US that some Brexiteers said they wanted.”
As for India, he said the country does not “really have a modern ambitious free trade deal with (any entity). It is an economy that is wrestling with its own internal divisions over degrees of protecting its domestic industry. And there are politics at play on things like visas.”
He continued: “It’s a different picture when you look at the Arab world and especially the GCC, because there’s a very strong historic relationship. There are obviously difficult issues in any trade deal about market access, but the relationship is probably more positive and the politics less difficult around the content of that trade deal.”
Elaborating on the potential for cross-border investments, McGrade said: “A lot of the UK’s economic sectors are in a weak position. (But) some of the fundamentals are pretty strong in areas like health tech, digital health. We have got Arab Health Week, of course, and creative industries, net-zero technology, the traditional strengths and areas like banking, other professional services.
“These are sectors that matter to Gulf economies and may matter increasingly, as we look to kind of building a sustainable net-, post-net-zero economy. So, there’s a lot on offer in the UK and probably some of it is underpriced because of the economic hit that the country has taken over the last few years. This probably is a very good time to invest, whether or not we have a trade deal quickly. But this trade deal potentially is an easier one to do than, say, US or India in political terms.”
The Gulf states are strong strategically but the relationship with the UK will need to be two-way, experts say, with British innovation holding the promise of helping the former to become high-skilled, high-tech economies.
McGrade, for one, is confident that as the UK seeks to diversify its trade and investment relationships, the Gulf states would be important in providing access to new markets, energy sources and other areas.
“(They are) going to be vital, (when) you see a Europe cutting itself off from traditional Russian supplies of oil and gas, and is also recalibrating the relationship with China,” he said. “The US talks openly about decoupling from Chinese supply chains. The UK talks a similar kind of language. The UK is probably a bit closer to the US than some of the big European powers on this.
“If that’s the kind of world that we’re going to, then the Gulf states become more important than ever, not just for energy, but for the markets that they represent, the investment and the partnerships that they’re looking to build.”
“Look at the scale of the ambition in the Gulf, not just for sort of investment for return, but for the huge long-term sustainability project that (Gulf) governments, sovereign wealth funds and other investors are aiming for. There’s a huge opportunity for genuine partnerships where some of those innovative technologies that the UK still excels at could be a part of building up that sustainable skills base in Gulf economies.”
The UK estimates that an FTA with the GCC would add about £1.6 billion ($1.98 billion) to its economy. So, where does McGrade see the most gains for countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE?
“A trade deal is nice to have, but it’s not essential. These are already quite open economies in global terms. They already have strong trading relationships with the UK. A trade deal could help reduce some of the barriers, but it’s not the biggest game in town,” he said.
“The broader picture is looking at the sectors where UK innovation in particular can help achieve the long-term strategic aims of countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. If you look at some of the real strengths, in medical technology, health technology, digital health, we have a lot of innovation in the UK market, which is often underpinned by the fact that you have this almost unique data set because you have a huge national health service covering sort of 60 million people.”
McGrade believes the creative sector is another big source of the UK’s global strength, which can be important for areas like tourism and culture, in which some Gulf states have made a big investment. “There are areas like education that are traditional strengths and where there’s already a presence in the region from the UK,” he said.
“The professional services, banking and financial services is an obvious one. But we increasingly see legal and accounting services as well as sort of management consultancy establishing and growing their presences in the region.”
He next turned to what he called another big area, “which is the technology around net-zero, getting to net-zero, but helping make that sustainable and build economies that will be fast growing and rich, and high skilled beyond the dependence on hydrocarbons.”
“There’s a lot there. Sovereign wealth funds in the region are already investing in some of these sectors. In some cases, what they’re looking for in a partnership is to bring some of those skills back home to the region so that they can be used to help build up the domestic high skills and high tech that will be needed (in the) longer term into the century to keep high-growing rich economies in the Gulf region.”
But what happens if the UK fails to sign a specific deal with the GCC as a whole? Does it then have the option to look at single individual trade deals with, say, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar?
McGrade says this has been happening in fact. “It’s been signing individual agreements across some sectors with some of the GCC members. That would continue,” he said.
“Whatever the governments do, those economic fundamentals ought to be attractive to Gulf investors, whether that’s at the state, kind of sovereign wealth fund level or kind of business level, because some of those strengths of the UK economy, innovation across several sectors, can really be part of the answer to what Gulf economies need to do and know they need to do to build sustainable, high-skilled, post-net-zero economies for the 21st century.”
As for the GCC countries’ less hawkish approach to Russia, McGrade does not see that as a hindrance to talks with the UK. “For two reasons,” he said. “There is a greater recognition of the strategic importance of the Gulf region, for the UK and for the West generally because of the war in Russia. Because of what that means for energy prices and long-term energy needs.
“The other point is that if the West is going to decouple from China, then it needs the Gulf. The Gulf states are well placed. They are in a strong position economically.”
To be sure, McGrade said, “the UK and Western governments generally always wrestle with some public opinion and campaigning groups at home on some of the values agenda. They always worry about if that can be squared off with the needs of the strategic relationship with the Gulf. That will continue to be an issue.”
Alluding to technical and political barriers to reaching a trade deal, he acknowledged that the two sides have different opinions on certain issues but said: “They are not showstoppers. The deal is doable. It’s probably more about political will in London. It would be a failure of political will if that deal isn’t done.”
McGrade was forthright about his opinions on British voters’ decision to leave the EU three years ago. “Pretty consistent polling over time suggests that an ever-growing number of the British public feel that Brexit was a mistake and has brought costs and very, very few benefits,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said, both the Conservative and Labour parties have concluded that they cannot revisit the trade deal in a fundamental way. “There is a review of the trade deal at the five-year point, which comes in 2025,” he said. “If Labour wins the election, they will want to improve the terms of the trade deal without changing its fundamental character.”
Quizzed about his personal opinion on Brexit’s costs — a weakened pound, higher inflation, trade and investment disruption, political uncertainty, loss of access to the EU single market — McGrade said it was clear that the downsides were huge and not just economic.
“The hit to Britain’s reputation for political stability, which is sort of the core of its soft power, has been in some ways even worse than the economic hit from loss of market access,” he said.
Qatar replaces Russian company in Lebanon’s gas exploration
Country hopes discoveries of commercial quantities of fuel will help reverse economic crisis
Updated 29 January 2023
BEIRUT: Lebanon announced on Sunday that Qatar has entered a consortium to explore for offshore gas in the Mediterranean Sea off the Lebanese coast.
The country is also counting on the participation of some other Gulf states in the consortium, a political observer said.
Lebanon is hoping the exploration and discovery of commercial quantities of oil and gas will help it overcome its current economic crisis.
The deal will see QatarEnergy receive a minority 30 percent stake in the two blocks of Lebanon’s exclusive economic zone.
QatarEnergy joins the consortium of TotalEnergies of France and Italy’s Eni company for oil and gas exploration in the two Lebanese blocks following the withdrawal of Russia from the agreement.
Lebanon’s share would range from 54 to 63 percent after the deduction of operational and capital costs, in any instance of oil and gas discovery.
Russian company Novatek withdrew from the exploration consortium in the wake of tensions resulting from the Ukraine conflict.
It announced its withdrawal last summer due to US sanctions as the company was no longer able to make any financial transfers outside Russia.
The new agreement was signed by Walid Fayad, Lebanon’s energy minister; Saad bin Sherida Al-Kaabi, Qatar’s energy minister and president and CEO of QatarEnergy; Patrick Pouyanne, CEO of TotalEnergies; and Claudio Descalzi, CEO of Eni.
The ceremony was held at the headquarters of the Lebanese prime minister and in the presence of the ambassadors of Qatar, France and Italy.
The agreement was the result of months-long talks and coincided with practical procedures initiated by the operator to carry out exploration and drilling activities during this year.
Najib Mikati, Lebanese caretaker prime minister, paid tribute to US mediator Amos Hochstein and his team for their handling of the indirect negotiation process between Lebanon and Israel to demarcate the maritime borders at the end of last year, which resulted in an agreement.
Fayad said he hoped the deal would initiate “the beginning of a new phase that would contribute to placing Lebanon on the petroleum map in the region, and boosting its role as an investment destination.”
He added that the deal demonstrates that “[countries] still trust Lebanon, despite all the crises it is going through.”
Al-Kaabi said: “It’s not the first exploration attempt in Lebanon, but it is a serious attempt for a promising exploration in the eastern Mediterranean basin.”
He added: “We are actually present in this region and not far from here, as we have discovered gas in the Glaucus well offshore Cyprus.
"There are many elements that make this agreement important for both Lebanon and QatarEnergy. One of these elements is that it came after the maritime border demarcation agreement, which paved the way for us to begin this ambitious effort.”
The Qatari minister sent the greetings of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, who gave his hopes for a better future for Lebanon and its people.
Pouyanne said that “the maritime border demarcation resulted in a new momentum to explore the country’s hydrocarbon potential.”
He added: “We are determined, along with our partners, to drill an exploration well in Block 9 as soon as possible in 2023, and our teams are being fully equipped to carry out these operations.”
Pouyanne pointed out that the new deal between TotalEnergies and QatarEnergy expanded the scope of international cooperation in the exploration field, and raised the number of countries in which the two companies operate to nine.
Descalzi said: “This deal comes at a crucial time, as energy constitutes the basis of relations between the countries, and the Russian gas supply to Europe has been halted.
“I am very optimistic, especially since we are working with the best teams in this field and with the best international companies, QatarEnergy and TotalEnergies.
“We hope we will be able to achieve the desired commercial explorations for the benefit of the Lebanese people.”
Jeddah Islamic Port receives 3 ship-to-shore cranes
Updated 29 January 2023
RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Islamic Port has received a new batch of three ship-to-shore cranes amid efforts to boost operational efficiency of the port, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
The new cranes have been procured by the Red Sea Gateway Terminal, which is a strategic partner of the Jeddah port and the operator of its North Container Terminal.
The cranes cement the Red Sea Gateway Terminal’s commitment to upscale the terminal’s operations and modernize its logistics infrastructure.
Earlier this month, the Saudi Ports Authority , also known as Mawani, announced that Geneva-based international liner operator Mediterranean Shipping Co. has added Jeddah Islamic Port to its new India-West Mediterranean route.
The new service falls in line with the objectives of the National Strategy for Transport and Logistics Services that aims to consolidate the Kingdom’s position as a global logistics hub connecting three continents.
Industries between India and the Mediterranean such as clothing, automotive, and pharmaceutical are set to benefit from the new direct communication between the two regions.
Last year, in October, Mawani inked a deal with Globe Group to establish a fully integrated logistics zone at the Jeddah port to enhance its competitive edge and support logistics-related companies on the ground.
Saudi Arabia’s benchmark index inches up 0.16% to close at 10,839.49
Updated 29 January 2023
RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul All Share Index on Sunday inched up 17.84 points — or 0.16 percent — to close at 10,839.49.
While MSCI Tadawul 30 Index ended flat at 1,499.46, the parallel market Nomu fell 73.53 points to 19,252.34.
TASI’s total trading turnover of the benchmark index on Sunday was SR3.24 billion ($860 million), with 104 stocks of the listed 223 advancing and 101 retreating.
Fawaz Abdulaziz Alhokair Co., also known as Cenomi Retail, was the topmost gainer of the day, rising 9.98 percent to SR17.64. Cenomi Retail on Sunday informed the exchange of its plans to divest 26 non-strategic brands to rationalize its brand portfolio.
In the first phase of its transformation program, the franchise retailer has decided to divest three brands under Azal restaurant and Shawarma Almuhalhl for SR25 million.
The company said it wants to focus on “champion brands” occupying the No. 1 or No. 2 positions in their sectors.
The other top gainers were Abdulmohsen Alhokair Group for Tourism and Development, Halwani Bros. Co., Knowledge Economic City and Al Sagr Cooperative Insurance Co.
The worst performer on Sunday was Development Works Food Co., which fell 3.27 percent to SR165.80. The other stocks that performed poorly included ACWA Power Co., Saudi Industrial Investment Group, Tihama Advertising and Public Relations Co. and Maharah Human Resources Co.
Among sectoral indices, nine of the 21 listed on the stock exchange declined while the rest advanced.
The Utilities Index was the worst-performing sector as it fell 2 percent to 7,152.92, weighed down by ACWA Power which stumbled 3.08 percent to SR150.80.
While Alkhorayef Water and Power Technologies Co. dropped 2.04 percent to SR144.20, National Gas and Industrialization Co. slipped 0.39 percent to SR51.60.
The Insurance Index was the best-performing index thanks to Al Sagr Cooperative Insurance Co., which jumped 5.35 percent to SR16.14. On the other hand, Arabia Insurance Cooperative Co. moved up 3.95 percent to SR11.06. The other gainers were Alinma Tokio Marine Co., Aljazira Takaful Taawuni Co. and Salama Cooperative Insurance Co.
On the announcements front, Saudi Arabian Amiantit Co. on Sunday reported net losses after zakat and tax to SR8.8mn in 2022 from SR171.3mn in the previous year.
Net losses fell due to the continued sales growth as revenues increased 16 percent from SR438.91 in 2021 to SR508.82 in 2022. Its share price rose 4.51 percent to SR44.
Arabia Insurance Cooperative Co. on Jan. 27 informed the exchange that the Saudi Central Bank issued a final approval on its insurance product for corporate business. In a filing to Tadawul, the insurer said the approved product is a professional indemnity insurance policy for auditors of the entities supervised by the Capital Market Authority. AICC’s share price increased by 3.95 percent to SR11.06.
The Saudi Exchange also announced that Alqemam for Computer System Co. would be listed and start trading on Nomu-Parallel Market on Tuesday, Jan. 31, as a direct listing with the symbol 9558. In addition, the company set its price guidance at SR80 per share.