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One Area of the Middle East You Should Bet On: Economist

Civil unrest and conflict in Syria has spilt over into neighboring countries recently, but despite this the Middle East is very much a place for growth and a good place for investment opportunities according to Simon Williams, HSBC's chief economist for the Middle East and North Africa.

Source: Wikipedia.com

Williams told CNBC it's been easy to miss the positive signs of growth in the region because of all the negative headlines in the media but he said the Persian Gulf area remained a good bet.

"I think in the Gulf you have a story which is unique in the current global environment and you have governments which are solvent, something of a rarity right now," he told CNBC Monday.

Williams told CNBC he liked Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

"Their debt levels are low and unlike the rest of the world they cheer, they celebrate, they wave their flags, their oil has got three digits rather than two - they're in good shape right now."

Investors have been growing concerned about the Middle East in recent weeks. On Sunday, clashes escalated in Lebanon after a car bomb in Beirut on Friday killed a top Lebanese official as well as two others. Opposition figures have blamed Syria for the attack.

Ongoing tensions caused Brent crude to edge up towards $111 a barrel on Monday, with continuing sanctions with Iran also affecting prices.

"What's left of the middle east economies is still oil, while the rest of the oil has been strangled by oil prices running at $110-115 a barrel, my region is being lifted," Williams said referring to the Gulf states he likes.

"Not only is my region getting richer it's also spending, and spending quite aggressively. We have a domestically driven, oil-funded growth story playing itself out across the (Gulf Cooperation Council) region."

Rising oil prices have had a knock-on effect on these economies on the whole, Williams said. The Purchasing Managers Index - a reflection of non-oil producing private sector companies - remains in the region of 60 for Saudi Arabia, whereas for many emerging markets PMI readings have been in the region of 50.

Williams does accept that there are key political risks being played out in the Middle East right now and countries in the area are carefully watching the Syrian situation unfold. He also admits that inflation could also be a threat as government policy hasn't been well managed in past periods of growth.

"Oil exporting states are passing through a window, they have the opportunity to not just drive on growth but to transform their domestic economies," he said, adding that they now have the opportunity to spend on infrastructure and not just wages.

"I guess it'll be two, three, five years from now when we'll be able to gauge just how well the judge of spending has been this time around. But in the short term there is, without a doubt, a pick-up in the pace of economic growth."

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