Middle East will see ballooning deficits tumble as oil prices rise, IMF says

Reporting by Hadley Gamble; Writing by Abid Ali
Higher oil prices have helped reduce deficits: IMF director

Oil exporters in the Middle East and North Africa will see their budget deficits shrink as austerity, taxes and stable oil prices begin to take effect, a director at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) told CNBC.

"Sizeable adjustments were made in the last two years and yesterday (Sunday) the Saudi government reemphasized commitment to bring the deficit down to balance the budget by 2020," Jihad Azour, the IMF's director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department, told CNBC in Dubai on Monday.

As oil prices began their slump in mid 2014, oil exporters dipped into international reserves to fund their budgets. Saudi Arabia, like many of its neighbors, introduced austerity measures, slashing energy and utility subsidies, introducing a value-added tax, and announced plans to diversify its economy.

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Last month, to soften the impact of austerity measures and curtail a public backlash, the Saudi government restored some perks and bonuses for government employees.

"When you have a massive or sizeable adjustment on the public finances sometimes you have to fine tune it. And those adjustments or those reductions in the cuts are about 1 percent of the budget. Therefore, I think they will be compensated by other measures," Azour added.

For the oil exporting nations of the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (MENAP) region, the cumulative overall budget deficits for the five-year period between 2016 and 2021 are estimated at $375 billion, down from a 2016 projection of $565 billion, the IMF said in its latest Regional Economic Outlook. The average fiscal deficits soared to about 10 percent of GDP (gross domestic product) in 2015 and 2016, the IMF said, adding that the deficit could fall below 1 percent in 2022.

Saudi Arabia's budget deficit shrank to 297 billion riyals ($79 billion) in 2016. That was well below a record 367 billion gap in 2015, and below the government's projection in its original 2016 budget plan of a deficit of 326 billion riyals, according to Reuters.

"What has been happening is two fronts, one is, to reduce the level of the budget deficit, and on the other hand, the diversification program through structural reforms in order to allow the economy to grow faster and the private sector to reach growth," Azour said.

"Bringing down the level of budget deficit will allow the Saudi government to have additional fiscal space that can be used for more investment and more specific social programs."

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"The improvement of (the) oil price helped reduce the level of budget deficit this year. And there are a certain number of fiscal reforms planned going forward. On the revenue side, the value added tax is to be implemented in 2018 and this will, in fact, be a very important fiscal reform. On the expenditure side, a continuation of the removal of subsidies on energy and oil will help reduce the current level of expenditures."

To preserve those reserves and to finance deficits, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait tapped international investors to raise money. External sovereign issuance reached $50 billion in 2016, more than five times the 2015 amount, the IMF said.

"The level of indebtedness of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) nations is low," Azour said.

"They have very good access to the international capital markets and they are able to finance their deficit at a very low rate. Which is, in fact, giving the level of liquidity that exists in the markets. This is something that they are resorting to that is better for them than to use their reserves to finance their deficit."

The International Monetary Fund also said MENAP oil exporters can expect gross domestic product to expand 1.9 percent in 2017 and 2.9 percent in 2018, but that remains well below the economic growth registered in 2016 of 4 percent.

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