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As a result of the oil price plunge, the major oil-exporting countries are facing budget deficits for the first time in years. The growth in the assets of their sovereign wealth funds, which were rising at a rapid rate until recently, is now slowing; some have started drawing on their buffers.
In the short run, this phenomenon is not cause for alarm. Most oil exporters have enough buffers to withstand a temporary drop in oil prices. But what will happen if low oil prices persist, and how will policymakers react?
(Versions in عربي)
Two days ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Kuwait, a member country of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It was a whirlwind visit, with many places to see and people to meet, in a thriving corner of the global economy. Kuwait has extended to me its emblematic tradition of hospitality— a testament to its ancient and noble culture. I was awed by the magnificent artifacts of the al-Sabah collection, which I saw in the beautifully restored Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah cultural center.
Back to economics. The member countries of the council—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—have some of world’s highest living standards. The region has also become a major destination for foreign workers and a source of remittances for their families back home. And it is a financial center and a hub for international trade and business services.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region suffers significant shortcoming in data, which are particularly problematic at a time economic transition. There are important data gaps, poor data quality and in many cases, internationally agreed standards of statistical methodologies, compilation periodicity and timeliness, and data dissemination practices are not followed.
The issue of how to create more jobs is high on the minds of policymakers everywhere. The economies of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—are no exception. By many measures, these economies are doing very well. However, economic activity is dominated by the oil/gas sector and that sector creates relatively few jobs directly—less than 3 percent of the region’s labor force. Diversification strategies are in place, and the non-oil sector has grown fairly rapidly over the past decade. But can it deliver enough jobs for GCC nationals?
My core takeaway from all these events is that the underlying sense of optimism in the promise of the Arab Spring is very much there, but there is also a growing recognition that managing the short-term transition will be even more difficult with the persistence of economic pressures and rising social expectations.
Sluggish credit growth in the post-crisis period was hardly a unique development, as indicated in our latest Regional Economic Outlook for the Middle East and Central Asia region. But while there are clearer signs of recovery in some countries, credit to the private sector is still barely growing in the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, notwithstanding policy efforts to revive it. It might seem easy to ring the alarm bells. But there are a number of reasons why we are not as concerned about the slowdown in credit growth—among them that the adjustment reflects a much needed correction from very high—perhaps unsustainable—rates of credit growth witnessed during the boom years.
By Masood Ahmed
The IMF’s latest regional economic outlook for the Middle East compares the performance of Islamic banks in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with conventional ones during the global financial crisis.
Islamic banks were less affected during the initial phase of the crisis, reflecting a stronger first-round impact on conventional banks through mark-to-market valuations on securities in 2008. But, in 2009, data for the first half of the year indicate somewhat larger declines in profitability for Islamic banks, revealing the second-round effect of the crisis on the real economy, especially real estate.
Going forward, Islamic banks overall are better poised to withstand additional stress, according to the IMF analysis.
Islamic banks have grown substantially in recent years, with their assets currently estimated at close to $850 billion. Overall, the risk profile of Islamic banks is similar to conventional banks in that the risk profile of Shariah-compliant contracts is largely similar to that in conventional contracts, and credit risk is the main risk for both types of banks.
Unlike conventional banks, however, Islamic banks are not permitted to have any direct exposure to financial derivatives or conventional financial institutions’ securities—which were hit most during the global crisis.