IMF warns Gulf countries of spending squeeze

Oil exporters in the crude-rich Gulf need to rationalize spending amid a deteriorating global economic outlook, the International Monetary Fund has warned.

"In the GCC (Gulf Co-operation Council), years of fast growth since the global financial crisis, rising asset prices, rapid credit growth in some countries, and accommodative global monetary conditions call for a return to fiscal consolidation," the IMF said in its biannual economic outlook for the Middle East and Central Asia.

But the fund also cautioned against immediate policy responses, especially given that GCC exporters were were well-placed to handle the current volatility in global energy markets.

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Iraq oil
Essam Al-Sudani | Reuters

"It is not likely to have an effect on economic activity this year or the next. We don't think that it would make sense to have a knee-jerk reaction," Masood Ahmed, Director, Middle East and Central Asia Department at the IMF, told CNBC. "It's important to gradually moderate the base of fiscal spending".

The fund expected the GCC oil exporters' economies to grow by 4.4 percent in 2014, accelerating to 4.5 percent in 2015.

A sharp decline in oil prices over the past month has prompted fierce debate about potential policy responses from Gulf governments. Over the weekend, Kuwaiti Finance Minister Anas Al-Saleh Gulf Arab joined those calling for cuts in spending to cover the shortfall in income.

Global prices fell to four-year lows earlier this month, putting at risk abundant fiscal surpluses and savings generated in recent years. OPEC members are due to meet on November 27 in Vienna.

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According to Mohamed Lahouel, Chief Economist at the Department of Economic Development in Dubai, current or lower oil prices for a period of around four months would elicit spark fiscal decisions on the part of regional government as they scramble to safeguard capital gains.

Not all industry experts agree that low oil prices are here to stay. Mohamed Al-Mady, CEO of Saudi Basic Industries (SABIC), one of the world's largest petrochemical companies, told reporters on Sunday in Riyadh the recent declines would prove to be temporary, and that demand growth was firmly underpinned.

Ashok Aram, CEO, Middle East & North Africa at Deutsche Bank, had a different view. "I don't see the declines as temporary," he said during a panel discussion moderated by CNBC in Dubai on Monday, underscoring market indicators had been suggesting a corrections for some time.

Meanwhile, for non-GCC oil exporters, compared to six months earlier, deteriorating security conditions in Iraq and Libya have translated into curtailed economic growth, with the forecast revised lower to a contraction of 2.7 percent and 19.8 percent respectively this year. Both countries were likely to rebound to positive expansion in 2015.

The report also noted a return to positive economic growth in Iran, where risks remained in the event of a breakdown of nuclear negotiations.

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