Category Archives: Syria

Naguib Sawiris’s Fiefdom

Naguib Sawiris wants to plop hundreds and thousands of Syrian refugees on isolated islands for sale off the coast of Italy or Greece, and use this manpower to build a new country that he would own. Almost at the same time as the billionaire philanthropist was giving an interview to CNN, saying he “cannot just sit … and do nothing…and pretend it’s not my problem,” Egyptian security forces gunned down at least 12 tourists and guides in Egypt’s White Desert.  It was an accident, of course.

For a telecoms magnate worth approximately $3 billion, it is hard to dismiss Sawiris, especially as the UN call this the worst global refugee crisis since World War II. But the motive behind this plan is questionable when Sawiris’ agenda in one country – his home in Egypt – does not align with his interests elsewhere.

In Cairo, the Sawiris family, who control the Orascom conglomerate spanning telecommunications, construction, tourism, industries and technology, have turned a blind eye to the ruthless crackdown of their fellow countrymen and women, thousands of whom are political prisoners, in exchange for a favourable business environment, where big corporations are rewarded while small business is plagued by red tape. Egypt still ranks 112th on the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business index, trailing behind Zambia and Swaziland. But the disappearing of people and the silencing of dissent is not a worthy cause.

Sawiris told CNN (taken from a rough transcript):

I would build temporary housing and temporary school and temporary hospital, you know. And then we will use these people and provide them jobs to build a new city on the island, to build this island, you know. Because this war is not going to end in weeks or in months. It may be years even.

The exodus of millions of Syrians is devastating, and perhaps solutions should be unconventional,  but is Sawiris the right person to be proposing and controlling such a project, when he is politically implicated in Egypt’s own disastrous government? And then there’s this fantastical promise of a haven for Syrians, that in reality, will become a massive refugee camp, lacking in infrastructure, on an island cut off from society. This is a temporary solution, at best, and at worst, it is an over-populated, under-served fiefdom controlled by a telecoms magnate. This is not how cities and societies are built.

 

 

 



How the Arab Spring Shook Up Oil Markets

Among the first reactors to the Arab Spring back in January 2011 were the oil markets. The oil price, already volatile in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, became even more unstable as concerns that the oil supply would be choked off if the political problems of the Middle East affected global oil production.

Now, the world is dependant on a few Gulf countries, namely Saudi Arabia, to fill the supply gap. But should the Arab Spring countries, the majority of whom are not big oil producers, be a primary concern for unstable oil markets? Indeed, sometimes the oil market can be wrong, like it was on Egypt. Sometimes the oil market can prepare for the worst case scenario as it did on Syria.

Rebel Economy asked Justin Dargin, an energy and Middle East scholar at the University of Oxford, to break down the misconceptions we have about the oil market and its relation to Arab countries in transition.

dargin

Dargin has advised some of the largest oil companies in the world and worked in the legal department at the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries also advising on multilateral initiatives.

  • The oil market has been at one of its most unstable points since World War Two. Many have linked the risks from the countries of the Arab Spring to this tumultuous period. Is this a fair assumption?

There was a chain reaction in the global economy. After the protests began in Tunisia and spread to other MENA countries, for a period of time, investors speculated that the instability would reach the major oil producing Arab countries. The trepidation that the major Arab oil producing countries were at risk for sustained political unrest caused the global oil market to react.

But, what is problematic for the global economy is not elevated oil prices, per se, rather it is that the oil market is much more volatile because of the tenuous political situation in the MENA region. Additionally, the Arab Spring began at an already delicate time for the global economy that was still reeling from the global financial crisis.

Much of the fluctuation in the global oil market is driven by what is known as the “fear premium.”

The fear premium is basically a rise in the price of a commodity, such as oil, that is based on the expectation that a certain event will happen that would significantly impact the market in a negative way. This relates to the Arab Spring as there was a fear that several events could potentially happen. Global investors speculated that in the beginning months of the Arab Spring, there could be oil production disruption in the oil producing Gulf countries.

There was also the fear that perhaps several important sea-lanes and canals, such as the Strait of Hormuz or the Suez Canal, could be blocked. Furthermore, a bit later on during the Arab Spring, terrorism fears grew and it was thought that the regional power vacuum could encourage militant groups to launch attacks on MENA energy infrastructure.

While these fears have largely subsided (although not completely), the international price of oil still remains extremely unstable because of this uncertainty.

So when we examine global energy price instability because of political instability in the MENA region, we must realize that this is “political risk” premium that keeps oil prices artificially high.

The oil market fundamentals are relatively sound at the moment, with increased oil and natural gas production occurring in North America due to the shale oil production boom and increased production in Iraq and other areas around the world.

Nonetheless, when we assess the actual impact of the Arab Spring, the oil producing country of note that had notable disruption was Libya. And, when viewed in context, Libya supplies a minor amount of the global oil supply, while Syria, Egypt, Yemen and other Arab countries that had their own “Arab Springs” are not major oil producers of any note.

The fear premium is based on the fear that the major oil producing Arab countries of Algeria and the Gulf (and perhaps Iraq) will have their production disrupted which would significantly reduce available oil on the market.

  • But the perception that the oil supply could be affected, even if it is incorrect, can still make more impact than real pressures. What is the long-term impact of this on oil markets? 

The oil market is uniquely vulnerable to fluctuation based on fears, whether justifiable or not. This is because most oil exports hail from regions whereby state formation occurred relatively recently and nation-state legitimacy is still being constructed.

Because many of the nation-states in the MENA region are relatively recent creations, political stability is still evolving. The primary perception in most commodity markets especially that of oil, is that the region is prone to wars, coups, terrorism and civil disturbances in ways that can definitively disrupt production of the lifeblood of the global economy.

Ultimately, the long-term impact of investor perception in the oil market, or in other words, the fear premium, is that the oil price will become increasingly divorced from the supply fundamentals thereby leading to a much more volatile market. And, as commodity markets in general become more computerized and investors are able to make split second decisions regarding investments, this problem will be exacerbated.



The Wrap: Egypt Wheat Stocks Politicised, Libya Allies Gather To Plug Oil Gap

  • EGYPT 

Unemployment: Arab Spring Not Springing Back – NPR 

An interesting podcast from NPR on the problem of unemployment in the Arab Spring, particularly among young Arabs.

The Wall Street Journal economics reporter Sudeep Reddy and Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, discuss why jobless rates are so high in the Arab world, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, and why political will is so crucial to alleviating unemployment pressures.

I’ve written extensively on this topic and the reasons why Arab youth can’t (and sometimes won’t) find employment. 

Wheat stocks sufficient until February: Supply Minister – Daily News Egypt 

Another never ending conundrum for Egypt is how to keep up with demand for wheat, especially as dwindling foreign reserves and a falling currency has made imports more costly.

It’s also a topic that is highly politicised. In an attempt to put any concerns about supply to rest, Egypt’s supply minister, Mohamed Abu Shadi, has insisted that the country has enough wheat stocks to last until midway through February 2014. 

The country was forced to import 80,000 tons of wheat to make up for shortages that the interim government say were exacerbated during Mohammed Morsi’s tenure, Abu Shadi said. At the time of Morsi’s ouster, interim officials blamed the Islamist president for mismanaging wheat imports and stopping supplies.

(In reality, Egypt has a long history of addiction to bread subsidies, and one year under Morsi wasn’t going to make the situation much worse than it already was).

Yet, despite the government’s confidence, Egypt is said to still be looking to receive offers of French, Russian, Ukrainian wheatBloomberg has reported.

Ezz Steel Jumps as Egypt Mulls Punishing Turkish Steel – Bloomberg 

Did you ever expect, in the “New” Egypt, for a senior official in Mubarak’s National Democratic Party to be acquitted of financial crimes after very little investigation? Ahmed Ezz, steel tycoon and head of the Ezz Steel company, was in June acquitted after being charged with monopolising the country’s steel market.

Despite his conflict of interest, and his dodgy links to the old guard, Ezz is back to business and being protected by the interim government. Egyptian officials are considering taking actions against an increase in Turkish imports at low prices to protect local industry. By local industry, I mean Ezz Steel.

Shares in the steel company rose the most in two months and no doubt company officials are delighted.

A new gas producer in Egypt – Daily News Egypt 

At a time of uncertainty, it is reassuring to find a new company willing to enter the oil and gas industry.

RWE Dea, an international oil and gas company headquartered in Germany, will launch gas production in Egypt, Daily News Egypt reported. The project includes the development of seven gas fields in the Egyptian Nile Delta.

  • LIBYA 

Saudi, US, Iraq step in to plug Libya oil gap – Wall Street Journal 

Countries around the globe are gathering to protect the oil price at any cost. The WSJ reports:

Saudi Arabia has been pumping oil at its highest level in decades to offset a global shortfall fueled by another hot spot besides Syria: Libya, where unrest has slashed output.

A tumble in Libyan production to depths not seen since a civil war toppled the Gadhafi regime in 2011, combined with fears of a possible U.S.-led military strike against Syria, have sent oil prices sharply higher in recent weeks.

To counter this, soaring Saudi Arabian, US and Iraqi output is helping cushion the blow, OPEC has said. Libya, which holds Africa’s largest oil reserves, has suffered from strikes by armed guards, shutting down most of the country’s terminals.

Output fell to a post-revolution low of 150,000 barrels a day last week.

But while Saudi Arabia is pumping the highest level of oil into the market for decades to offset a global shortfall, the Kingdom is consuming more of its own oil every year and a reliance on costly energy subsidies is making it’s budget more vulnerable.

Still, that niggling worry is not enough for Saudi officials to reduce output, so for now Libya will see its allies rally around it.

Security update – Libya Business news 

For those interested in the minutiae of Libya’s security situation, Libya Business News has a useful weekly update and map of incidents highlighting risk:

[caption id="attachment_1970" align="aligncenter" width="593"]Libya Business News Libya Business News[/caption]


The Wrap: Egypt Labour Disputes Threaten Recovery, Syria Tries to Close Import Gap

  • EGYPT

– This morning the government statistics agency, CAPMAS, published figures that show annual consumer inflation slowed to 9.7% in August, from 10.3% in July reflecting easing pressure on the currency. The pound has actually been appreciating slowly in the last month but as Rebel Economy has signalled before, that doesn’t mean the currency is strong.

– BG Group Drops Most in 10 months on Egypt Delays Bloomberg 

Remember that good news yesterday on BP’s gas discovery in Egypt? Well news that another British oil company, BG Group, is suffering project delays in Egypt shows how fragile the country’s energy sector can be.

Here’s an excerpt from the Bloomberg story covering BG’s announcement:

BG Group Plc fell the most in 10 months in London trading after saying project delays in Egypt [and Norway, but cut that bit out here] will curb oil and natural-gas output next year.

The company was the worst performer on the FTSE 100 Index. Political turmoil in Egypt has forced BG to delay its West Delta Deep Marine project, it said today in a statement.

Though this is bad news for BG’s stock, it’s even worse for Egypt which relies on the oil and gas sector as one of the backbones of the economy. The last two and half years have seen Egypt’s debts to oil companies mushroom partly because of costly energy subsidies putting a burden on the government’s finances, and partly because of increased reliance on imports, that has depleted foreign reserves.

That has put many big oil investors in a quandary over whether to continue pouring money into Egypt. Apache, on the of the largest foreign investors in Egypt, has already agreed to sell a 33% interest in its Egypt operations

– Dismissed trade union members threaten to file complaint with ILO  Egypt Independent 

Meanwhile, discontent is brewing in Egypt’s labour sector, where the new manpower minister Kamal Abu Eita has kicked up a storm by firing members of the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions, including its head Gebali El-Maraghi.

Media reports suggest the dismissals happened because some members were part of the Muslim Brotherhood and continued to support the former Islamist president Mohammed Morsi. Others say a new amendment to a law meant the board had to be dissolved.

What is clear is that these internal tussles do not bode well for the labour movement, which is a critical element of a transitioning Egypt. 

– Qatar agrees to convert $2 billion into Egypt bonds: Reports – Ahram Online 

In a sign that Qatar will continue to support Egypt, it has agreed to convert another $2 billion into Egypt bonds, after converting $1 billion into three-year bonds in July, and $2.5 billion into 18-month bonds in May.

The bond purchase is one way of supporting Egypt’s widening budget deficit, which is close to 14% of GDP. With Qatar a strong supporter of the Brotherhood, it looked like it may withdraw aid after the ouster of Morsi, however, it also has close to $8 billion invested in Egypt, and that doesn’t include several corporate deals worth much more. In June of last year, Qatar agreed to back Citadel Capital’s subsidiary, Egyptian Refinery Company in a deal worth $3.7 billion.

  • LIBYA 

OMV “Halts Libyan Flows” – Libya Business News 

Protests in Libya have reportedly forced Austrian oil company, OMV to halt production. A company spokesman told Reuters:

OMV’s production in Libya, which was largely unaffected by the events of the last few weeks, has now been shut in as events have spread to the west of the country … OMV is closely monitoring the situation.

It is estimated that protests has led to a 30% decline in oil production, which is massive for a country that is so reliant on its oil. The government has been forced to import fuel to keep power stations running while queues grow at petrol stations.

Protestors are asking for more pay and calling for greater regional autonomy, which is difficult considering the government’s monopoly over oil.

But there could be some solution at a hearing this week…

– Libya Congress to hear proposals on oil deadlockReuters 

The crisis committee tasked with resolving Libya’s oil paralysis will brief the 200-member General National Congress by Wednesday with proposals on how to end the confrontation, Reuters reports.

A solution to the stalemate between the government and tribal mediators is becoming more critical. Last week, Libya’s oil output hit a post-war low of just 150,000 barrels per day compared to its capacity of 1.6 million bpd. 

  • SYRIA 

Syrian pound depreciates as talk of US strike grows – Syria Observer 

Unsurprisingly, this story, translated from Syria’s economic magazine, Iqtissad, indicates that traders expect a “dramatic rise of the US dollar against the pound if the US Congress votes  ‘yes’ to military action”.

With indications from Obama this morning that the US could pause any plans for attack on Syria, the pound could see some short-term respite.

A black market dealer said the Dollar could be worth as much as 350 Syrian pounds if Congress agreed to strike. But even without a strike, inflation is still plaguing Syrians who are now spending four times as much on staple goods. Syria’s official inflation rate has continued to increase though it still remains below unofficial estimates.

Syria looks to buy 135 thousand tons of rice after August tender closed without a deal – Syria News 

Syria’s Foreign Trade Organisation has opened another tender for rice as it struggles to keep up with demand. Sanctions and soaring inflation has hit the country’s economy. 

It needs at least 140,000 tons of rice a year to cover demand, according to the report.

Even as this report came out, Jordan announced that it would cancel agricultural imports to Syria due to the escalating violence.

Radi Tawarneh, Secretary General of the Jordanian Ministry of Agriculture, said Jordan had already made significant losses in its agricultural sector as a result of the Syrian crisis in the range of 80 million Jordanian dinars.

This will deprive Syria of about 180 thousand tons of fruit and vegetables, according to the report. 



The Wrap: Morsi Wealth Investigated, Libya Public Sector Wages Up 20%

  • EGYPT 

– Egyptian authorities examine Morsi family wealth – Ahram Online 

The ousted Islamist president is accused of taking advantage of his position, as well as squandering LE2 billion ($285.7 million) during his election campaign. Egypt’s Illicit Gains Authority, the organisation that has thus far failed to follow through on most of its investigations against Mubarak-era politicians and businessmen, is among the entities leading the investigation.

Unfortunately, the IGA along with Public Funds investigator and the half a dozen or so other “investigation committees” have demonstrated that they are driven more by politics rather than a genuine desire to crackdown on illegal transactions and wipe out corruption. Many former officials of the old guard linked to corrupt dealings have got away with dismissals, retrials and prolonged case hearings.

This investigation will probably cost as much as Morsi is thought to be worth. Even so, it is small fry compared to the billions of dollars lost in Egypt’s deep web of corruption. 

– BP Egypt announces new gas finding in North Damietta – Egypt Independent 

Finding gas is different to developing it. At the moment, it is costing energy companies more to retrieve oil and gas because the oil ministry is behind on payments to companies like BP.

It’s possible that even if this gas was developed, BP would sell it off to a third party, depriving Egypt of much-needed gas. 

– Global Competitiveness Ranking 2013-14 – Egypt comes 115th – World Bank 

It’s no surprise Egypt is among the least competitive countries in the world considering the difficulty in doing business right now (and it was difficult before the revolution!).

Egypt’s competitiveness ranking was worse than Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal, but it managed to squeeze past Yemen and Pakistan, which isn’t saying much.

But it’s not all bad news….

– Is Egypt at risk to a freeze in capital inflows? – Economist 

This useful Economist chart linked to above shows that Egypt is, quite remarkably, not among those emerging markets most at risk of a sudden freeze in capital inflows, unlike Turkey (at Number 1 risk) and Brazil.

That’s probably because foreign direct investment to Egypt has been low for some time, and because of billions of dollars of Gulf funding that has somewhat kept the current account deficit at the same level. Plus Egypt’s external debt hasn’t skyrocketed as much as expected (again due to “gifts” from the Gulf and favourable loan terms), meaning the risk of default is lower.

  • LIBYA 

Public sector wages to rise 20% – Libya Herald 

This is part of the Libyan government’s plan to remove the subsidies on commodities, so that individuals can afford higher prices for fuel. But it’s also an attempt to crackdown on employees with multiple salaries in public sector positions.

Now that may look positive at the outset, but ultimately, spending more on salaries to cut salaries doesn’t make much sense. In a way, this is really a way to appease citizens, at a time of a lot of strikes, by handing out more cash. But, as we have seen in other Arab countries going through transition, people will not settle for money until long-term problems are solved.

The government should for instance focus on diversifying the economy and creating jobs away from oil.



The Wrap: Egypt Factories Shutdown, Syria War Economy Thrives

  • EGYPT 

– Egypt’s central bank held a bumper auction on Wednesday, selling $1.3 billion from its foreign reserves to cover strategic imports such as wheat, meat and cooking oil.  As the country grapples with an economic crisis, the central bank’s foreign currency sales are an attempt to keep the pound strong and reassure the nation that the government can afford basic commodities.

But as Patrick Werr, economics reporter at Reuters writes:

Despite the sales and a more expensive dollar, businesses have racked up hundreds of millions in unfulfilled requests for foreign currency, forcing them to turn to a black market that has mushroomed in recent months.

The pound has depreciated on the black market, showing that a strengthening pound on the official market isn’t as accurate as the central bank may want to convey. 

More than 600 factories have shut down in Egypt in recent months, the country’s trade minister said in an attempt to correct a statement from the minister of manpower Kamal Abu-Eita, who announced a few weeks ago that more than 4,500 factories had closed in Egypt. The latter figure had come from a Centre for Trade Union and Worker Services report released earlier this year, but the methodology was questioned.

The fact that the new trade minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour is trying to downplay the number of closures is not a very good sign, but it’s an even worse signal that he’s questioning the figures of his colleague. 

Either way, even at just 613 factories, that is a big blow to Egypt’s industrial sector, one of the major backbones for the economy. Though the Morsi administration and the caretaker government before that had discussed investing money to re-open factories, nothing ever came to fruition.

Many of these factories are hit by multiple problems including power cuts, strikes, poor security, and difficulty securing loans in credit markets where they are squeezed out by an indebted government.

  • SYRIA 

– Syria’s war economy has created a thriving underground black market, this fascinating Reuters report explains.

As state buyers face growing problems trying to purchase food from foreign suppliers because funds are frozen in bank accounts abroad, middlemen and small companies working with shipping agents are finding ways to do profitable business, operating from neighbouring countries such as Lebanon.

That is even more important at a time when Damascus has had to cancel a number of tenders to buy wheat, sugar and rice. It’s part of a growing shift in the way Syria trades with neighbouring economies, especially rewarding for those willing to take the risk. 

– 400 litres of mazut (or heating oil) are promised for each Syrian citizen as regime insists it has enough fuel to cover domestic demand, Syrian News reports. 

Though Syria doesn’t produce a lot of oil, it relies on imports to keep up with demand. But the war has severed ties with many of its fuel providers including oil traders in the European Union and dramatically impaired the ability to buy fuel because of dwindling reserves. Rolling power cuts and oil shortages now plague Syrians, forcing many to turn to the expensive black market.

Unfortunately, promises by the Assad regime that it will provide more fuel to Syrians are rarely fulfilled.



The Wrap: Cairo Bomb Shows Stability Elusive, Libya Oil Production Down 30%

  • EGYPT 

Egypt’s Brotherhood under legal threat as bomb hits central Cairo – Reuters 

Nothing has damaged Egypt’s economy more than the threat to security and stability. The perception of risk is enough to derail an entire economy and it will continue to keep investors away. The killings of hundreds of innocent civilians in a bloody crackdown a few weeks ago only compounded this perception and made it reality.

The fear that a jihadist and extremist element may have been borne out of the military coup is materialising. An attack on a police station in central Cairo and plans for new mass protests by the Brotherhood on Tuesday shows how elusive stability is.

Though a state of emergency and a curfew has to some extent successfully shrunk the number and intensity of protests, the interim government has yet to show that it is in control (and not the army).

Egypt boosts Suez security as foiled attack shows risks – Bloomberg

Security problems this week at the Suez Canal the waterway which handles about 8% of world trade, is among the only areas in Egypt that highlights just how damaging the new threats that are emerging after Islamist president Mohammed Morsi’s ouster.  

Half our petroleum products are gifts from Arab countries, says authority –  Egypt Independent 

This would be funny if it wasn’t so damaging for Egypt’s deficit and the wider economy. The head of the state oil company, the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation, admitted that 50% of the petroleum products that the authority needs to import come in the form of gifts from Arab countries as part of the aid they provide to help the Egyptian economy.

I’ve said it before and will say it again: Rather than depend on the GCC for plugging a gap that will always reappear, Egypt should try to renegotiate real investment from these countries and seek technical expertise on how to restructure energy subsidies. The welfare on energy is the biggest drain on the budget and will continue to be so until the price of fuel is raised for those who can afford it.

Speaking of which:

UAE to shower Egypt with additional $2 billionAhram Online 

  • SYRIA 

Syrian government backtracks on plans to charge customers for plastic bags for bread Syria News (Arabic)

Probably wise considering Syrians are struggling to buy bread in the first place. The government was going to charge consumers 4 Syrian pounds a bag after bakeries and manufacturing plants financial losses mounted.

The price of most products has increased as the currency depreciates against the dollar.

Tenders for food commodities fail to draw interest – Reuters 

Syria has cancelled two tenders for food commodities in recent weeksReuters has reported, threatening food supplies to the population.

  • LIBYA 

Libya imports fuel to keep power onWorld Bulletin 

Libya has begun importing diesel and fuel oil to keep power plants operating after protests closed most of the gas fields in its eastern region which usually supply them, the World Bulletin reports.

Analysts told me last week that protests around oil fields have caused a 30% drop in production this year, a massive amount for a country that owes its post-revolution revival on oil.

In the meantime:

Libya and Malta agree oil deal, will collaborate on exploration – Libya Herald 

Under the agreement, Libya will supply energy products to Malta at preferential rates. That will include crude and refined oil, jet fuel and LPG, the Libya Herald reports. In return, Malta will be aid Libya in transport and civil aviation.

However, the agreement won’t be in place until Libya resumes normal production. Considering the country is struggling with its own oil exports and supply (Oil exports are down to 160,000 barrels a day), this doesn’t seem like it will happen for some time.

And another critical part of the arrangement is for Libyan oil and gas workers to learn English in Malta.



The Wrap

1) Egypt and TurkeyBloomberg 

It’s amazing how fickle Egypt’s government can be when it drops an old friend.

Egypt’s new government has made it clear it is not prepared to cooperate with Turkey, an ally and donor of the Muslim Brotherhood. Tensions have grown between the two countries since the army toppled Islamist president Mohammed Morsi and Turkey is suffering for it, with exports dropping as much as 30% since July 3, the day of the coup.

The Federation of the Egyptian Chambers of Commerce this week announced they will suspend all official trade relations with the Turkey after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described Morsi’s ouster as an “unacceptable military coup”.

But with the volume of trade between the two countries estimated at about $5 billion, excluding tourism and joint investment projects, Egypt will also end up paying a price for its bad diplomacy. 

2) With Brotherhood out, old order shapes Egypt’s future – Reuters 

Not so much an economic story, but one that alludes to the growing influence of Egypt’s “old guard”, symbolically represented by the release of Hosni Mubarak.

The evidence is clear: the army has marshalled support from Egyptians as the country becomes exhausted by two and a half years of turmoil.   Investigations against the January 25 killings and politically corrupt individuals during the Mubarak era have been put on hold. Censorship is back, with propaganda infiltrating most TV channels and even some state-run newspapers calling the January 25 revolution a “setback”.

This story makes very clear that Egypt has turned a worrying corner in the quest for democracy and therefore equality, which is really what the revolution was all about. 

3) Apache – Wall Street Journal 

The oil and gas company, Apache has agreed to sell 33% of its Egypt business to China’s Sinopec Group. It will continue to be an operator on the projects.

Though this story may, on first reading, look like Egypt’s oil sector is vulnerable to asset sales because of increasing debt to oil companies and mismanagement on the part of the Egyptian government, it’s not that simple.

The operations are located in the Western Desert, far from any political unrest that would impact exploration. In fact, this transaction reflects more of Apache’s goal to use the proceeds to reduce debt, buy back shares and fund the company’s capital spending.

What it does highlight is the value of Egypt’s oil and gas sector, which will always be attractive to companies, even despite such political risk. 

4) Egyptian government temporarily halts IMF negotiations – Egypt Independent 

This story is misleading for a number of reasons. Egypt didn’t halt IMF negotiations, rather the IMF stopped communicating with Egypt partly because of the way the Brotherhood have been almost banished from not just the political sphere but from daily life in Egypt. Most Brotherhood members are in hiding now.

The story also refers to the Gulf as a kind of saviour that will tackle the deficit, but none of the $12 billion will be used to cut the deficit. It will be used to keep the pound afloat and imports flowing. In other words, it’s a running tap that is wasting cash that could be used more shrewdly.

What about making a deal with Saudi Arabia to invest in projects in Egypt? Wouldn’t that be more helpful than throwing billions of dollars into the Central Bank to support a currency that many consider is overvalued? 

5) Libya oil – Economist 

One of the biggest issues standing in the way of Libya’s economic success is the government’s control over key sectors, especially oil. Now a port that allows the trade of Libyan oil has been shut off and its closure is representative of the power the state wields over the energy sector.

Basically the state believes that a large amount of oil is being “smuggled” out of Egypt. But the party responsible for the potential sale, the Petroleum Facilities Guard, say it is a valid transaction.

The stand-off is part of a bigger political agenda between various factions in Libya, but as this Economist article concludes, if the state-owned “National Oil Company cannot keep its legal monopoly on oil exports it will be taken as yet another sign of the increasing level of political risk in Libya”. 

5) Economic Challenges and Opportunities in Post-Qaddafi Libya

This report, from the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, evaluates the Libyan economy and progress since popular uprisings in February 2011 and the eventual ouster of the Muammar Qaddafi regime.

On the surface, it appears Libya’s economy is back to pre-revolution levels with oil production and GDP at comfortable levels. But this report sets out how the government has failed to come up with a single economic plan. 

In this useful read, three main priorities are laid out for Libya’s government including diversifying the economy away from oil, reducing youth unemployment and modernising the financial system. 

 

 

 

 



The Wrap

After several months hiatus (and readers saying they are having sleepless nights without it) the daily wrap is back!

I’ll be linking to a handful of the most important economic stories from the transitioning countries of the Arab world, namely Egypt, Syria and Libya, and to a lesser extent Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan and Morocco. (The Gulf is there in the background too, but only because of its connections to these countries).

1) Energy groups rethink commitment to Egypt Financial Times

This story has become evergreen for Egypt and it seems like every couple of months a new story crops up to remind us that debts to oil companies are not going to disappear anytime soon.

The story repeats much of what has already been reported, mentioning companies owed millions of dollars including BG group, ENI and the Dana Gas. However the premise of the story may be unfounded. Although oil companies may be acting cautiously at the moment, and holding off any expansion plans, it’s very unlikely that these companies will pull out of Egypt altogether. Not only would this prove costly for these companies to pull out their equipment and human resources, but those firms would miss out on costs they are making at the moment. Because, as the FT story says:

Egypt’s oil and gasfields continued to produce as if nothing had happened.

2) Egyptian cabinet approves $3.2 billion economic stimulus plan Reuters

Reading this story made my blood boil.

The government has already introduced some stimulus measures including lowering interest rates (and more controversially printing money, though that’s more rumour than fact). But increasing spending at a time when the budget is reeling from over-expenditure on wasteful subsidies (for both energy and food) masks a difficult truth: the government doesn’t actually want to make any cuts, or raise taxes to keep its own reputation in tact and avoid any public backlash. Essentially, it’s a cowardly move that will mostly benefit the current interim government who has so far been completely ineffective after the killings of hundreds of Egyptians.

And that perception that $12 billion of Gulf money will save Egypt is very naive. That money is not being targeted at the budget. At best it may be used for some investments, but really it will be used to keep the pound afloat and the country’s imports flowing.

Capital Economics, the London-based consultancy elaborates. This is their bottom line:

Egypt’s newly-announced stimulus package stands a chance of boosting the beleaguered economy in the near-term. But with the package being funded by Gulf aid, over the longer-term, it could actually take the country further away from making much-needed reforms to improve the business environment. 

3) Energy stocks rise over SyriaReuters

I will be writing on the economic impacts of US intervention in Syria later but for now, there are some gems hidden in this stock market story. Capital markets have been responding wildly to this. Gulf stock markets suffered record losses. Though it’s not clear that any escalation of the Syrian civil war would have a pronounced effect on Gulf economies, these same countries have been supporting Syrian rebels for some time.

As a result, investor rushed to the safest commodity around (well it was safe until a few months ago when the gold price plunged…). Gold prices rose to three and a half month highs above $1,430 per ounce as Syria tensions raised its appeal as a safe-haven asset.

 



Syria’s Troubled Currency

Syrian state TV this morning broadcast images of a nervous-looking Bashar al-Assad as he prayed alongside Syria’s grand mufti to mark the start of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that ends the holy month of Ramadan.

Though this is Assad’s third public appearance in just over a week as the regime tries to capitalise on recent gains against rebels fighting to oust him from power, the president’s eyes, darting back and forth, told a different story.

The reality is that Syria’s economy is deteriorating fast and there is little the regime can do to stop it.

As Anne Barnard, the New York Times’ Beirut bureau chief summarised:

Two years of war have quintupled unemployment, reduced the Syrian currency to one-sixth of its prewar value, cost the public sector $15 billion in losses and damage to public buildings, slashed personal savings, and shrunk the economy 35%.

And desperate times call for desperate measures. The government is now implementing measures to try to slow the rate of economic deterioration. It banned food exports, launched a crackdown on black market traders and measures to tighten state control of the economy.

Earlier this week, the government also forbid the use of foreign currencies for any type of commercial transaction or settlement. Anyone found violating the decree could face anywhere from three to 10 years in jail, with hard labour, depending on the level of the “crime”.

It’s no surprise that the regime is putting in place stricter measures to stem the volatility of the exchange rate. After all, the Syrian pound now changes hands at around 200 pounds to the dollar in the black market, from just 47 pounds before the conflict erupted in March 2011.

But there’s a more sinister impact of these harsh rules. Economists say the stiff penalties are a throw back to a more draconian era where economic courts handed out harsh sentences and loomed heavy over Syrian businesspeople. 

Ironically this was phased out as Bashar al-Assad moved in favour of a more economically liberal approach.

But as the country now moves to rein in some of the modest economic liberalisation and support for private business that the president introduced early on in his tenure, the prospect of more state control and less economic freedom is real.

Still, despite the fact reserves are perceived to be close to zero, sanctions against the government, a depreciating currency and a growing black market, Syria has still managed to avoid hyperinflation by relying on credit from its allies (namely Iran and Russia). 

For a country to experience hyperinflation, it has to have monthly inflation rates of 50% or more. Syria’s rates are more in the region of 10% to 14%, according to Steve H. Hanke, a professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University and one of the only economists investigating Syria’s economy.

Annual inflation is estimated to be running at about 200%, Prof. Hanke told Rebel Economy, with most food prices now tripled, but that still doesn’t mean total collapse:

My experience with situations like this, for example in the former Yugoslavia in 1991 [where Prof. Hanke was an advisor to the government], is that it really can take some time for an economy to collapse.

Even in the case of Yugoslavia it took quite a number of years before Milosevic’s regime actually collapsed. But then they had the third highest hyperinflation in history in January 1994, and in one month registered a rate of 313 million%.

It’s much, much higher than anything they’re experiencing in Syria.

But that’s not to downplay Syria’s economic situation.

This table, from Prof. Hanke’s “Troubled Currencies” project, shows the level that Syria’s annual inflation rate has reached compared to other countries with currency pressures:

As people’s purchasing power is eroded and the Syrian pound loses value, the economic impact of the civil war will become painfully clear.

Syrians, knowing the country is on the brink of hyperinflation, will be forced to depend on increasingly informal methods of payment, more akin to bartering than to a financial transaction.

Even though Iran announced a $3.6 billion credit line to the Syrian government earlier this month that could help with fuel and other products, there is no guarantee that this deal will materialise. The prospect of hyperinflation, and the subsequent additional trauma on civilians, is nearing.