First comes love,
Then comes marriage,
Then comes bickering over money.
Qatar and Egypt are turning out to be a predictable couple.
Qatar, the sugar daddy in the relationship, has provided more money to Egypt than any other Arab ally. With $8 billion in loans, grants and deposits, it is by far the biggest financial backer of the Islamist-led government.
As a bonus, it’s also thrown in gas supplies to cover any shortages over the summer period.
This gives the Qataris power and easy access to the Arab world’s most populous country, even if Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani insists that Qatar “did not ask for anything in return”.
Meanwhile, the aid strengthens Egypt, the damsel in distress, in her time of need.
But the relationship is doomed to fail.
Egypt is asking for more for less, while Qatar is not getting much in return as it sees that its cash is merely sustaining a costly budget that needs restructuring and allowing Egypt to delay its economic plans.
So the tables have turned. Qatar, previously quiet on its demands, is asking for 5% interest on $3 billion of bonds it wants to buy from Egypt.
This is not a generous deal and is in line with normal market rates (for instance, look in comparison at the $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund and the meagre 1.1% rate attached).
What’s more, if Egypt goes to the debt markets to raise more money for its deficit, it will likely pay more than 5%. The yield on the Egyptian government’s $1 billion of benchmark 5.75 percent dollar-denominated bonds is around 7.1% in secondary markets, for example.
Egypt should consider Qatar a temporary donor, and one that is not looking out for its best interests.
It would be best served to expend its time negotiating energy contracts with Qatar because this is where Egypt is mostly struggling (energy subsidies are a huge weight on the budget and the inefficient system has led to fuel shortages that threaten livelihoods, cause nationwide electricity blackouts and miles-long queues for diesel).
Agreeing preferential rates on energy contracts with countries including Qatar, Libya and Iraq would be a huge boon for Egypt which spends almost two billion dollars every couple of months buying fuel, on top of the normal allocated amount in the budget.
Focusing on cash to buy Egypt’s debt and prop up its reserves is expensive and will only have to be re-paid later.
Egypt has the advantage with its Arab allies, who want a slice of Egypt more than it wants a slice of them. It’s time Egypt negotiated with this in mind.