What is the MENA countries’ Soft Power Ranking? According to the latest Global Soft Power Index 2022, a nation’s ability to influence, whether through attraction or persuasion, the behaviour and preferences of different actors on the international scene, including political regimes, businesses, and communities. That is nowadays labelled “Soft Power.”
So, here is the MENA countries’ soft power ranking
Certain countries of the MENA suffer from a loss of influence on the international stage. They are dangerously retreating in favour of several small countries that manage to acquire a much more powerful brand image.
The assessment of the strength of the national brand is based, among other things, on data from the “Soft Power Index” as compiled by Brand Finance.
Fifty-five thousand people from more than 100 countries were asked about the reputation of countries and their influence on the international scene.
According to Brand Finance, countries with high overall ratings are suitable for investment. They also have an easier time marketing their brands and products.
Founded in 1996, Brand Finance, an accounting firm touted as the world’s leading independent brand valuation and brand strategy consulting group, is present in more than 20 countries and is at the service of Marketing, Finance, Tax & Legal departments as well as Business Leaders. It is the first brand valuation US consultancy to join the International Valuation Standards Council, an independent, not-for-profit, U.S.- incorporated, private sector standards organization headquartered in the United States with its social headquarters in London, United Kingdom.
For several years, the Global Soft Power Index (GSPI) has measured the power and influence of all countries worldwide. For this 2022 edition, Algeria has retreated on the international scene to find itself in the 75th position out of 120 countries.
The GSPI considered Algeria less influential than countries such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jamaica and Malta.
According to the GSPI, Morocco is considered much more influential, ranking 46th globally. Algeria is also far from being able to compete with Egypt, which ranked first in Africa (31st), followed by South Africa (34th).
In the MENA region, Algeria ranked barely 8th among the 15 listed countries, after the United Arab Emirates (15th globally), Israel (23rd), Saudi Arabia (24th), Egypt (31st), Kuwait (36th), and Morocco (46th). Algeria (75th) is only better than Tunisia (76th).
The GSPI 2022 does, at the same time, not include Mauritania and Libya because of their chronic weaknesses that exclude them from this world ranking of the most influential countries.
The UAE is ranked as the top country in the MENA region in terms of global influence; as a small country of fewer than 10 million people located along the Arabian Gulf, it rose to tenth in this new ranking of 120 countries in the world. The UAE is one of the ten most influential and powerful countries worldwide.
The above image is of Executive director of Dubai Holding Real Estate, Jassim al Abdool (left), managing director of Dubai Holding, Khalid al Malik (centre) and managing director of three subsidiary companies under the umbrella of TECOM Group, Majed al Suwaidi.
Wealthy sheikhs behind Smart City leave trail of failed projects
Smart City Malta isn’t the only project masterminded by Dubai Holding, a subsidiary company of the UAE crown’s real estate arm, that has departed from its original terms, according to research conducted by The Shift following the Maltese government’s recent decision to change the parameters of the deal.
Similar projects in India and Morocco have also suffered the same fate – incomplete, then turned into residential projects yielding more personal profits instead of the investment in the economy and the creation of jobs promised.
The three Emirati nationals on Smart City (Malta) Ltd’s board of directors are Khalid al Malik, Jassim al Abdool, and Majed Mohammed Khamis Sabt Al Suwaidi. Dubai Holding’s subsidiary company, SmartCity Dubai FZ-LLC, owns a majority of the shares of SmartCity (Malta) Ltd.
The new terms of the deal for Smart City Malta ratified by the Labour government mean the three wealthy businessmen have been granted a much freer rein over what happens with the massive tract of land they purchased in Kalkara in 2007.
Al Malik is listed as the managing director of Dubai Holding, while Abdool is the executive director of Dubai Holding Real Estate.
Al Suwaidi is the managing director of three subsidiary companies under the umbrella of TECOM Group. TECOM Group also forms part of Dubai Holding’s portfolio of companies.
The Smart City project in Malta amounts to almost a fifth (17.55%) of Kalkara’s entire surface area – 316,000sqm from a total of 1,800,000sqm of land.
In 2007, the Maltese government first signed the deal which was supposed to lead to the creation of an ICT city, a project backed by a €300 million investment that was supposed to create 5,600 jobs, which never materialised.
From Kalkara to Kakkanad
That same year, Dubai Holding announced an almost identical Smart City pitch for an area in India known as Kakkanad.
Smart City Kochi, as the project is known, bears striking similarities with the one in Malta, albeit on a larger scale – in 10 years, the project was supposed to convert over 800,000sqm of land into an ICT city, creating 90,000 jobs in the process.
Like Smart City Malta, Smart City Kochi also lists Malik and Abdool as directors.
In 2020, the New Indian Express published an article describing how a state government representative sitting on Smart City Kochi’s board had allegedly attempted to sell off over 120,000sqm of land meant for IT development as residential real estate instead.
The attempt to sell off this land mirrors what happened in Malta with the Shoreline residential development – even though the original agreement stipulated specific parameters for ICT-related development.
Two years later, the same news portal published another article comparing Smart City Kochi with an IT hub located across the street known as Infopark, with the portal describing the promised Smart City hub as a project that “failed to live up to all the initial hype even 11 years after its launch”.
An analysis of the concept art originally showcased for Smart City Kochi compared to satellite imagery of the area on Google Maps shows that while some of the proposed projects are under construction, ten years later, the project is far from what was advertised as the end stage of the project.
The conceptualisation of the Smart City Kochi project.
A Google maps view of the region in which the Kochi project was supposed to be built (the box in red marks the location of Infopark).
The Rabat-Salé connection
Al Malik’s biography on Dubai Holding’s website states that the managing director “is also responsible for the company’s international real estate investments in places such as Malta, Kochi and Morocco as well as managing its strategic relations with local and international investors, and its government affairs”.
The Shift’s research indicates that Dubai Holding had, in 2005, announced a $2 billion project in an area known as Bouregreg, nestled between the cities of Rabat and Salé in Morocco.
Similar to the project in Kakkanad and Kalkara, the ambitious plans announced initially by the then-king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, do not match what is seen in Bouregreg today.
A conceptualisation of the urban development between Rabat and Salé.
A Google maps screenshot showing the same area between Rabat and Salé as it currently stands.
The project was originally supposed to convert a massive 40 million sqm area into an entirely new urban district featuring 2,000 apartments, 300 retail outlets and adjacent malls, parks and theatres.
The only visible structure in the area is the Grand Théâtre de Rabat, the construction of which was completed last year, two years past its deadline.
The Business Times in its section Global Enterprise tells us how opportunities arising from Middle East’s Asian pivot are moving up the ladder of development in both regions. Or could it be mainly about Leveraging Asean’s strengths Let us see what by Mindy Tan.
The Middle East has always been considered an energy exporter to Asean, but this relationship has become more nuanced in recent years, especially as the former has shifted its focus to boosting non-oil exports.
Notably, countries such as Indonesia and Singapore have benefited.
Late last year, the Indonesian government announced they had secured US$32.7 billion worth of investment commitments from United Arab Emirates (UAE) businesses in various sectors, such as vaccine manufacturing and distribution.
“Indonesia is a very typical case of how I think Asean is becoming a magnet for foreign direct investment (FDI) from the Gulf countries,” said Gyorgy Busztin, a visiting research professor at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore.
Dr Busztin cited Asean’s political stability (outside of Myanmar) as well as a general lack of labour unrest as key factors that draw these Gulf countries to the region, even as he qualified that these countries have to be looked on a case-by-case basis.
“Compatibility, stability, and predictability, which are, of course, combined with the presence of a large, young, and highly trained workforce – it all comes together very nicely.”
Singapore too has benefited from the relationship.
A spokesperson from the Singapore Business Council, Qatar, noted that with Qatar is diversifying its economy away from oil and gas as part of its National Vision 2030, some of the key sectors they are looking at include sustainability and technology.
These are sectors in which Singapore has strong capabilities, he said.
“This makes businesses that wish to expand outside of the Middle East region look to Singapore as one of the key destinations to explore opportunities and use it as a base to springboard into the wider region due to its strategic location and easy access from the Middle East,” he said.
Alessandro Arduino, principal research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, added: “Expertise from Singapore will be beneficial to development in the Gulf and at the same time, can increase profitable cooperation between the Gulf and South-east Asia in areas ranging from artificial intelligence to Internet of Things, and smart cities.”
Leveraging Asean’s strengths
Economic ties between the Middle East and Asean have strengthened significantly since the first Asean-GCC Joint Vision was adopted in 2009.
In 2019, the two blocs further agreed to finalise the Asean-GCC Framework of Cooperation for 2020-2024 to advance collaboration in multiple sectors including smart cities, energy, connectivity, agriculture and halal products. Bilateral partnerships between individual countries have also risen.
The Singapore-UAE Comprehensive Partnership (2019) and the Malaysian Investment Development Authority’s (MIDA) MoU with the Investment Promotion Agency of Qatar (2019) are notable examples.
Heidi Toribio, Regional Co-head, Client Coverage, Asia, Corporate, Commercial and Institutional Banking at Standard Chartered
Heidi Toribio, regional co-head, client coverage, Asia, corporate, commercial and institutional banking at Standard Chartered, said: “As countries across the Middle East diversify into new non-oil sectors, Asean is emerging as an important trade and investment destination.”
In 2020, investments from the Middle East into Asean reached US$700 million, a three-fold growth from 2017. In the first three quarters in 2021 alone, merchandise imports to Asean from the Middle East grew more than 30 percent year-on-year, reaching US$52 billion in value, she noted.
According to a survey of Middle Eastern companies commissioned by Standard Chartered and prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 82 per cent of Middle East respondents expect more than 10 per cent growth in their Asean business revenues this year.
They identified access to the large and growing Asean consumer market (60 per cent); access to a global market (from Asean) enabled by a network of Free Trade Agreements (58 per cent); and diversification of production footprint (51 per cent) as key reasons why they are interested in the region.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is also expected to attract more investments; all of the respondents agreed that the ratification of the agreement will lead to more investments from their company. Close to 70 per cent said they expect their company to increase investments by more than 50 per cent over the next 3-5 years.
In terms of geographical preference, respondents chose Malaysia (78 per cent), followed by Singapore (69 per cent) and Indonesia (67 per cent).
Of those who picked Singapore, 94 per cent of the senior executives from the 45 companies based in the Middle East said they consider the city-state a major regional R&D/innovation centre.
A further 87 per cent said Singapore is a desirable hub for regional procurement and that Singapore is an ideal place to set up their regional sales and marketing headquarters.
Finding new growth opportunities
The report identified 5 growth sectors which it expects to drive the future of the Middle East-Asean corridor. They are namely refining and petrochemicals; infrastructure and real estate; renewable energy; retail and consumer goods; and digital infrastructure and services.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, consumption of fuels and petrochemicals continues to grow strongly in Asean, driven by rising consumer and industrial demand. To address energy security concerns, the region is also now focusing on boosting local production capacity by building integrated refining and petrochemical facilities.
Similarly, rapid economic and social progress have accentuated Asean’s infrastructure needs.
“The infrastructure segment will continue to dominate the construction industry, maintaining a 46 per cent share in sector GVA (gross value added) by 2025, followed by commercial real estate (32 per cent) and residential real estate (22 per cent),” said the report.
“In particular, demand for healthcare and transport infrastructure as well as logistics and industrial real estate are expected to drive growth, which is creating new investment and business opportunities for Middle East companies.”
Separately, demand for digital solutions and enabling digital infrastructure is expected to see significant growth. Indeed, the region’s flourishing digital start-ups are increasingly attracting capital from leading investment firms globally, including many from the Middle East.
In terms of more nascent sectors, Asean nations are increasingly prioritising solar and wind solutions to meet their future energy requirements. Retail and consumer goods sector in Asean is also expected to regain momentum in the years ahead, led by an expected surge in consumer spending.
As the pandemic-fuelled liquidity begins to wane and the reality of inflation and higher interest rates sets in, many economies will face considerable challenges. Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries are vying to attract global investors and increase Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Yet, capital flows are reversing from emerging to developed markets—specifically in the United States, where interest rates are rising to levels not seen since 2018. The year 2018 is illustrative: during that time, emerging markets experienced substantial capital outflows as international investors reduced their exposure and consolidated their risk into emerging economies with fewer perceived risks, given their proactive and progressive economic policies.
Attracting foreign investors into emerging market economies has always been difficult. Nevertheless, thanks to the extended period of near-zero interest rates, emerging markets were blessed with investors hungry for higher returns. The plentiful supply of money coupled with historically low yields in rich countries led investors to explore higher yields in riskier markets across various assets, including public equities, public debt, private equity, and venture capital. The lower cost of capital allowed investors to finance opportunities that otherwise would have been unfeasible.
Unfortunately, the party is over, and the pain is just beginning. The US Federal Reserve has started an aggressive interest rate hiking campaign, which will likely be the sharpest rise in interest rates since former chair of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker’s war on inflation from 1979 to 1982. Many economists believe this will likely lead to a recession in the world’s biggest economy.
A US economic slowdown or a recession couldn’t come at a worse time for emerging markets, particularly those in MENA, where most are fighting chronic unemployment, especially among youth and women, slowing growth, and higher debt levels. Large oil-exporting countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — are better positioned given heightened commodity prices. However, their lack of interest rate autonomy given the dollar peg limits their ability to deviate their monetary policy from that of the United States.
Additionally, the global demand destruction cannot be ignored as the post-pandemic surge in demand levels off, with consumers beginning to feel the pinch from inflation and rising interest rates. This may put a damper on global energy demand and tourism. Inflation also impacts global emerging markets, causing a perfect storm for the arrival of tough economic times. Currency depreciation against the dollar is increasing the cost of imports and repaying foreign currency debts for banks, companies, and governments, many of which racked up significant debt during the pandemic.
Research suggests that the impact of US monetary tightening on emerging markets will vary depending on the factors for the change. Interest rate hikes driven by US economic expansion will likely lead to positive spillover effects that benefit more than hurt emerging markets and, therefore, are neutral on capital flows. On the other hand, interest rate hikes to fend off inflation will likely lead to emerging markets disruption. Here, there are two key points to mention. First, there is a more significant effect on emerging markets from rising interest rates due to inflation than those due to growth. Second, emerging economies with stable domestic conditions and policies tend to fare better and experience less volatility. In a global economic environment with slower growth, higher cost of capital, and a shrinking capital pool for riskier assets, discerning international investors will consolidate their investments in the highest-quality emerging markets.
The Goldilocks moment experienced in markets over the past couple of years is subsiding. Geopolitical risk, inflation, and US interest rates are all rising. In addition, two crucial macroeconomic trends will impact the future capital flows to emerging markets. First, globalization policies that have focused overwhelmingly on cost efficiency and rationalization will now focus on resiliency and values-based investments. At an Atlantic Council event on April 13, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen articulated a blueprint for US trade policy, stating, “The US would now favor the friend-shoring of supply chains to a large number of trusted countries that share a set of norms and values about how to operate in the global economy.”
Second, Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) issues are gaining more attention with countries and companies putting them on the agenda. For an indication of what’s to come, consider Total, the French oil and gas giant, marking its shift to renewable energy and rebranding to TotalEnergies, as well as Engine No. 1, a US impact hedge fund, hijacking ExxonMobil’s board to drive a green strategy at the company. As a result of the confluence of these complex issues on top of challenging macro-economic concerns, investor appetite for emerging market assets is weakening. It will become more discerning in the coming years.
But all isn’t lost. There will be divergent outcomes and risks depending on the domestic conditions of each emerging market. Thoughtful investors will continue to seek opportunities in emerging markets, especially in private markets, where the predominant share of opportunities exists. However, as financial conditions tighten, differentiation between emerging markets will increase. MENA countries can better position themselves amongst others competing for capital by:
Attracting and empowering strong policymakers to make dynamic and bold decisions that complex changes in the global economy require. Deepening the bench of talented policymakers should be another priority.
Driving policies supportive of private sector development and investment. Reducing government-owned enterprises and providing ample space for private companies to grow and prosper on an even playing field is critical to building a dynamic economy.
Continuing to nurture the nascent entrepreneurial ecosystem. Entrepreneurial economies are consistently more resilient and lead to better outcomes over the long term.
Enhancing regional and international economic integration through bilateral and multilateral agreements with more robust economies. Proactive engagement with multilateral financial institutions will also increase financial stability and resilience.
Standardizing policies according to global norms for greater regional and international integration. Investor appetite is greatly improved in emerging markets that adopt regulations and standards from developed countries.
Increasing transparency and reducing uncertainty around laws and regulations. Investors and companies need more clarity on the game’s rules in order to play it confidently and competently.
Several MENA countries continue to take bold steps to improve their global competitiveness. One such example is the privatization programs of government-owned enterprises in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to increase liquidity in local capital markets, improve transparency, and expand private sector participation. Those countries that maintain their momentum will be clear winners in the coming years. History is rich with evidence that economic challenges are followed by periods of historic gains.
Amjad Ahmad is Director and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s empower ME Initiative at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Just as the war in Ukraine is disrupting supplies and fuelling already-high inflation, economic growth in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region is forecast to be “uneven and insufficient” this year, according to the World Bank.
Growth rates in the region envisage a narrative of diverging trends. As oil exporters benefit from surging prices, higher food prices have hit the whole region.
The GCC is expected to notch up 5.9% growth this year, buoyed by oil prices and helped by a vaccination rate much higher than the rest of Mena. But most Mena economies — 11 out of 17 — are not seen exceeding their pre-pandemic GDP per capita in 2022, says the World Bank.
GCC economies have seen a relatively strong start to 2022 with the hydrocarbons sector having benefited from increased oil production so far this year, says Emirates NBD. Its survey data for the first quarter of the year point to a solid expansion in non-oil sectors as well, with strong growth in business activity in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In the wider Mena region, however, countries like Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia – home to large, mainly urban populations, but lacking oil wealth – are struggling to maintain subsidies for food and fuel that have helped keep a lid on discontent.
Egypt has been struggling to maintain a bread subsidy programme used by about 70mn of its citizens with the coronavirus pandemic hitting the national budget, and surging wheat prices are exacerbating the challenge.
The World Food Programme has warned that people’s resilience is at “breaking point,” in the region. Global foods costs are up more than 50% from mid-2020 to a record and households worldwide are trying to cope with the strains on their budgets. In North Africa, the challenge is more acute because of a legacy of economic mismanagement, drought and social unrest that’s forcing governments to walk a political tightrope at a precarious time.
The MENA region’s net food and energy importers are especially vulnerable to shocks to commodity markets and supply chains resulting from Russia’s war on Ukraine, according to the International Monetary Fund.
That’s in countries where the rising cost of living helped trigger the Arab Spring uprisings a little over a decade ago. The region’s GDP is forecast to rise 5.2% this year after an estimated 3.3% expansion last year and a 3.1% contraction in 2020.
“Even if this high growth rate for the region as a whole materialises in this context of uncertainty, and there’s no guarantee that it will…(it) will be both insufficient and uneven across the region,” according to Daniel Lederman, World Bank lead economist for the MENA region.
Countries that are net importers of oil and food and which entered 2022 with high levels of debt as a ratio of GDP are most vulnerable, he said, pointing to Egypt and Lebanon as examples. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, food prices had been rising around the world, driven by the higher shipping costs, energy inflation and labour shortages that have followed in the pandemic’s wake, along with extreme weather. Food crisis was likely to worsen in the Middle East and North Africa as Covid-19 continued, according to a report from the regional directors of Unicef, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, WFP and World Health Organisation in July 2021.
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