IMF: Volatile politics and oil prices hinder Mideast growth

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Political uncertainty and volatile oil prices are hindering economic growth in the Middle East this year, but trends should reverse next year, according to a new report released yesterday by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The IMF’s regional outlook report projects growth to rise just 0.5 per cent in 2019, compared to 1.6 per cent in 2018. Increased activity in the oil and gas sectors is expected to generate a rebound to 2.7 per cent growth in 2020, though this figure too falls shorter than previous projections. The report, which looks at the economies of 23 countries spanning North Africa, the Levant, the Persian Gulf, but also Djibouti, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the drops were linked in part to the performance of the oil exporting countries, whose economies are expected to retract 1.3 per cent this year. The hardest hit has been Iran and Libya.

The IMF expects a 9.5 per cent retraction in Iran’s economic growth in 2019, primarily because of United States (US) sanctions against it, and in Libya a 19.1 per cent drop because of that country’s prolonged conflict. Recent months have also seen a series of mysterious oil tanker attacks the US blames on Iran, something Tehran denies. Iran, which has seen its main export of oil severely restricted, also shot down a US military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers.

“Of course, any increase in tension will have an impact,” IMF’s Mideast and Central Asia Department Director Jihad Azour told The Associated Press. “I think what is important is that all these developments are showing that there is a need for countries in the region to do the structural reforms that will allow them to have higher levels of growth.”

Last month’s attack on the world’s largest oil processor in Saudi Arabia caused prices to spike by the biggest percentage since the 1991 Gulf War. However, Azour said prices have since settled and the attacks have not had a lasting effect.

“They had an immediate impact but a very short impact because very quickly it was reported that production went back to normal and it didn’t have a supply shock in the market,” said Azour, a former Lebanese finance minister. “The market is witnessing more volatility in the oil prices especially in the short term. Yet, when you look at the medium term the trends are showing a slow and steady decline in prices.”

Overall, the IMF said oil prices have swung from USD55 to USD75 a barrel since the start of the year. The price for benchmark Brent crude stood at over USD62 a barrel.

For oil importing countries like Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and others in the region, the growth drop was less steep, falling from 4.3 per cent in 2018 to an expected 3.6 per cent this year. Mauritania bucked the trend, rising from 3.6 per cent to 6.6 per cent.

US President Donald Trump holds up a signed executive order to increase sanctions on Iran, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Vice President Mike Pence. PHOTO: AP