Silver Linings Playbook: Gulfside

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PROMISE OF A UNION: The forthcoming merger of firms in the UAE, IPIC and Mubadala may offer promise.

Brexit’s rocked the boat. But for Gulf investors, there are other promising events on the horizon

BY Tarek Fadlallah 

So much for the traditional summer lull. The news flow over the past few weeks has been relentless and dramatic, with the potential to be epoch making.

From an economic perspective and for those in the Middle East, Brexit is probably the biggest story of the summer so far. The U.K. equity markets have rallied in Sterling terms so far, but they are expected to fall down for the year in U.S. dollars. Moreover, the full economic effect will become clear only after a few months, as the U.K. economy is expected to slows and the twin trade and budget deficits grow.

The ramifications of Brexit extend beyond the country’s borders, and threaten more than just the value of foreign investments in the U.K.

GCC investors have also suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in paper losses— but Brexit also affects the prospects for the European Union’s survival, the outlook for global growth, interest rates and, crucially for the GCC, oil prices.

While the U.K. accounts only for around 3 percent of global Gross Domestic Product, the fallout from Brexit should result in a slightly slower global economy—and interest rates that will probably stay lower for longer.

For now the assumption is that oil prices are consolidating after a strong first half rally and will trend higher into the year end. The growth in demand may be muted but production constraints and potential supply disruptions indicate that the downside should be limited.

In the aftermath of Brexit, there is broad recognition of a general hunger for a new political economy that benefits the wider population and not just the wealthy. It is perhaps no coincidence that an EU report on the subject last year identified the U.K. as the most unequal society in Europe.

The agenda across many elections worldwide, is being framed by income inequality, welfare, minimum wage, access to healthcare and affordable education; it evokes striking images from the 1970s when class struggle was at the heart of the ideological divide in politics.

The political left and populist right have become emboldened by the perceived failure of the free market since the global financial crisis, and blasted ‘trickle down’ economics as a discredited idea that benefits the privileged few and relies on continuously rising asset prices and systemically risky leverage.

Such secular shifts in political thinking pose serious threats to financial markets, if the tide continues to drift towards fringe political movements with radical agendas.

Modern capitalism has been built on free markets, financial liberalization and securitization, and reversing these pillars through higher taxes, regulations and trade barriers would be hugely deflationary and risks years, even decades, of adjustment.
Socio-economic discontent is a global phenomenon that has spurred activism on every continent, and governments around the world are being compelled to be more active in addressing perceived policy deficiencies and considering higher public spending even as they face fiscal constraints.

Whatever the specific tools used, Brexit suggests that the window for governments, including those in the GCC, to implement appropriate growth strategies and execute far-reaching and overdue reforms is narrowing. Investor patience may be shorter than many had hoped.

Fortunately there is plenty of ammunition at the disposal of policy makers in the Arabian Gulf and a growing willingness, it seems, to make difficult decisions.

Improving regional economic integration and pursuing free trade alliances is among the easier options available. The U.N. report, Arab Integration: a 21st Century Development Imperative estimated that deepening economic integration would generate $760 billion in additional revenue and create six million new jobs by 2020. It would also make it more attractive for trading partners, including an economically independent U.K., to negotiate Free Trade Agreements.

In the meantime, governments across the Arabian Gulf have been working to allocate resources towards education and increasing employment opportunities, but the speed of implementation and the lag in visible benefit, suggests that supplementary strategies are required.

A framework to encourage greater economic efficiencies, promote mergers within key sectors and improve collaboration across national borders would raise growth, profits and create employment opportunities more effectively than any individual national program or policy.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, the proposed mergers of The International Petroleum Investment Company, Mubadala, National Bank of Abu Dhabi and First Gulf Bank in the UAE, offer promise but there is so much to do across the region, and it must start now.

Tarek Fadlallah is the CEO of Nomura Asset Management’s Middle East operations.

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