pub-9018797892728621
Geopolitical Implications of Global Decarbonization for the MENA

Geopolitical Implications of Global Decarbonization for the MENA

NATURAL GAS NEWS‘ Geopolitical Implications of Global Decarbonization for MENA producing countries by Pier Paolo Raimondi and Simone Tagliapietra, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (OIES) is an expert’s hindsight in the foreseeable future of the region.

Endowed with half of the world’s proven oil and gas reserves, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region represents a cornerstone of the established global energy architecture. As the clean-energy transition gains momentum worldwide, this architecture might shrink—challenging the socio-economic and geopolitical foundations of the region in general, and of its oil and gas-producing countries in particular.

The picture above is for illustration purpose and is of Natural resource wealth and public social spending in the Middle East and North Africa published back in 2015.

Geopolitical Implications of Global Decarbonization for MENA producing countries

February 21, 2021

This challenge has two dimensions: domestic and international. Domestically, a decline in global oil and gas demand would reduce revenues for producing countries. Considering the profound dependency of these countries on oil and gas rents (the ‘rentier state’ model), this could have serious economic and social consequences. Internationally, the global clean-energy transition might push producers towards a fierce competition for global market share, exacerbating geopolitical risks both regionally and globally.

In 2020, MENA oil and gas producers experienced a situation that some observers have described as a preview of what the future might look like for them beyond 2030, as global decarbonization unfolds. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an unprecedented crash in global oil demand. At the same time, oil prices collapsed (for the first time in history, the benchmark West Texas Intermediate entered negative territory) due to a lethal combination of falling demand and OPEC+ coordination failure. All this generated a perfect storm for MENA oil- and gas-producing countries, which led to unprecedented macroeconomic imbalances.

The evolution of oil markets, national stability, and prosperity as well as international influence are closely linked in the MENA region, but MENA oil- and gas-producing countries are far from homogenous. Different countries are likely to experience different impacts from the global clean-energy transition, depending on a number of domestic and international factors.

International factors

MENA producers are likely to be affected by the differences in the trajectories for oil and gas markets, the speed of the energy transition in different world markets, increased competition between energy producers, and increasing penalties for carbon intensity in production.

While gas is set to play a role in the global energy mix for decades, oil is expected to lose relevance as a result of decarbonization policies and technological developments in electric vehicles. BP’s 2020 Energy Outlook warned about the imminence of peak oil demand. In its business-as-usual scenario, oil demand is set to recover from the pandemic by 2025 but drop slowly thereafter. In its rapid-energy-transition scenario, oil demand drops from around 100 million barrels per day (mb/d) in 2019 to 89 mb/d in 2030 and just 47 mb/d in 2050. Such a scenario would represent a challenge for MENA oil producers. By contrast, in the business-as-usual scenario, gas demand is expected to increase from 3.8 trillion cubic meters (tcm) in 2018 to 5 tcm in 2040, underpinned by a massive coal-to-gas switch in Asia and elsewhere. Such a scenario would be beneficial for MENA gas-producing countries such as Qatar and Algeria, which could remain geopolitically relevant by providing an important transition fuel to a decarbonizing world.

In the MENA region, Qatar seems to be the best positioned to preserve its geopolitical role, thanks to its significant liquified natural gas (LNG) capacity and its geographical location between Europe and Asia. Nevertheless, gas-producing countries will not be immune to the challenges posed by decarbonization policies in the long run. Gas demand is especially difficult to predict starting in the second half of the 2030s, as a result of increasing cost competition in power generation from renewables, as well as stricter environmental regulations (e.g. the EU Methane Strategy). It will thus be of paramount importance for MENA gasproducing countries to cut emissions in their gas value chain, in order to preserve their position and geopolitical influence.

The speeds of the energy transition in different world regions will also affect MENA geopolitical shifts. For instance, Europe’s oil and liquids demand is expected to decrease from the current 13.3 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) to 8.6 Mtoe in 2040, according to the International Energy Agency’s stated-policies scenario. By contrast, Asia-Pacific countries’ oil and liquids demand is set to increase from the current 32.5 Mtoe to 37.9 Mtoe in 2040. Thus, MENA producers more exposed to the European market are likely to suffer more—and earlier—from the global decarbonization process than others more exposed to Asian markets. That is, energy demand will increasingly dominate energy geopolitics, especially in an oversupplied energy market.

In such a scenario, export portfolio composition and diversification will determine the evolution of geopolitical influence for MENA oil and gas producers. Exporters that depend heavily on European markets will see their geopolitical position erode and their revenues fall. For example, Algeria, which mostly exports gas via pipeline to Europe, has been an essential element of the European gas supply architecture. Unless it manages to decarbonize its gas exports, this important role will shrink as the European Green Deal is implemented. In 2019, 85 per cent of Algeria’s total gas exports flowed to Europe, 62 per cent via pipeline (mainly to Italy and Spain). By contrast, LNG provides more flexibility to gas exporters, which will enable them to respond effectively to the geographical shifts of the energy demand. Qatar is the world’s top LNG exporter. In 2019, Qatar exported 83 per cent of its total gas exports via LNG. Of this volume, 67 per cent was directed to Asia Pacific countries. Asian markets are expected to drive energy demand growth in general and LNG in particular until 2030. Oil and gas producers will increasingly try to gain market share in such growing energy markets.

While energy demand will be crucial in the future, energy supply issues will not disappear. Competition among producers will persist, and even increase in the foreseeable future. The peak of oil demand will create a harsher world of more intense competition and tighter revenues for MENA oil producers. Regional oil and gas producers are likely to pursue different supply strategies, which will need to deal with the consequence of the global energy transition.

The transition indeed raises an existential dilemma—requiring a choice between maximizing production, which would weaken higher-cost exporters, and coordinating production cuts to increase prices, which could deprive governments of vital revenues. These are not trivial issues, as maximization of production would put into question established assumptions about saving reserves for future production and avoiding stranded assets. An intensification of competition among producers could thus undermine coordinated actions (e.g. OPEC agreements), which are important to oil price stability. This was illustrated by the collapse of OPEC+ talks in March 2020—spurred by disagreements between Saudi Arabia and Russia on the introduction of production quotas, as the two were also competing for market share with US shale oil producers—and the consequent fall in oil prices.

Another example of the growing competition among producers is the growing opposite visions between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia that emerged openly during OPEC talks in late 2020. Although they managed to reach an agreement within OPEC, the UAE’s ambitious plans to increase its oil capacity from about 4 mb/d to 5 mb/d by 2030 puts further pressure on the traditional alignment among Gulf OPEC producers. Moreover, in late 2020 the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company announced a $122 billion investment plan for 2021–2025, suggesting that the UAE had abandoned its more cautious approach to the oil sector. The plan suggested that MENA national oil companies might gain a growing share of world oil and gas production in the future. That is also due to (Western) oil companies’ decisions to cut their capital expenditure and other investments. Such decisions are motivated mostly by low oil prices and their commitment to decarbonization.

In a more competitive world, some MENA producing countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have the economic advantage of vast oil reserves (298 and 97 billion barrels, respectively), the lowest production costs (under $4 per barrel), and the least carbon-intense production. In the next years, due to expected higher carbon prices, carbon intensity will play a key role in determining which oil and gas producers will be able to preserve their geopolitical influence. MENA oil producers with higher production carbon intensity, such as Algeria and Iraq, might thus lag behind.

Domestic factors

The global energy transition can also impact MENA oil- and gas-producing countries’ governance, due to their heavy dependence on revenues from these resources. To address this issue, regional oil and gas producers have launched several strategies (referred to as Visions) aimed at economic diversification (e.g. by increasing productivity, strengthening the private sector, and developing non-oil sectors), as well as increasing the share of renewables in the energy mix. These Visions were largely developed as a response to the 2014 oil price drop; COVID-19 and the acceleration of the global energy transition make it necessary to accelerate them. A country’s chances of success at this are likely to be affected by domestic factors including population size, government capacity, and financial ability to implement diversification measures.

Countries with a large, young, and growing population (Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq) will encounter significant obstacles to the transformation of their rentier-state model. By contrast, countries with a smaller population, like the UAE and Qatar (9.7 and 2.8 million inhabitants, respectively) are likely to find it easier to adjust.

The ability to govern and finance major domestic socio-economic transformation will also be crucial. For example, North African countries could exploit their geographical vicinity to Europe and become major clean-electricity suppliers. In this sense, the recent EU Hydrogen Strategy considers imports of 40 GW of green hydrogen from the EU’s eastern and southern neighbours. However, countries like Algeria and Libya are experiencing major social and political instability, which undermines such scenarios and discourages the needed foreign investments. Thus, countries with major governance issues like Algeria, Libya, and Iraq are expected to lag behind on energy and economic diversification. The risk is that these countries will focus political energies on an intensifying fight for a share of the diminishing global oil and gas market, rather than on a strategy to reorient their economy. By contrast, countries with stronger governance are better equipped to transform their economies, bear the negative consequences of the transition in the short term, and navigate the geopolitical evolution.

The availability of large foreign exchange reserves will be crucial for the transformation of MENA producing countries. With such reserves, countries could offset the negative economic effects of lower oil demand and revenues in the short term, while investing in renewable energy projects for the medium and long term. Thus, countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar (with $500, $108 and $38 billion of foreign reserves, respectively) are potentially well equipped to manage the negative effects of lower revenues and foster economic transformation. Additionally, countries with large sovereign wealth funds could use them as an integral part of the diversification effort, for example to finance research and development and renewable-energy projects in MENA countries.

Producers with large foreign exchange reserves, sizable sovereign wealth funds, and small populations to appease are potentially the best placed to navigate the uncharted waters of the global energy transition.

MENA oil and gas producers have also considered developing their high renewable-energy potential, especially solar. This could help them pursue several goals, including economic diversification and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It could also free additional oil and gas volumes, currently used to meet fast-growing domestic energy demand, for sale abroad to produce additional revenue—thus avoiding the negative economic effects of growing energy consumption and positioning themselves as major renewable powers in a low-carbon future.

More recently, MENA oil and gas producers have begun to consider the growing interest in hydrogen as a way to preserve their geopolitical influence and remain pivotal actors in the future energy system. Given the region’s abundant renewable energy and carbon capture and storage potential, MENA countries could be at the forefront in both the green and blue hydrogen markets. In the short and medium term, blue hydrogen could benefit from its cost advantages. In the longer term, the MENA countries could exploit their excellent solar conditions and low-cost renewables in order to produce and export green hydrogen. Three MENA oil producers (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman) have announced major hydrogen plans. For example, in July 2020 an international consortium announced plans for a $5 billion green renewables and hydrogen plant in Saudi Arabia, which aims to begin shipping ammonia to global markets by 2025. In September 2020 Saudi Arabia shipped 40 tons of blue ammonia to Japan in a pilot project undertaken by Saudi Aramco and the petrochemical giant Sabic.

Conclusions

The global energy transition will inevitably affect MENA oil- and gas-producing countries, both macroeconomically and geopolitically. However, not all MENA countries will see their geopolitical influence change in the same way. Some countries are better equipped than others to offset the negative effects domestically and internationally. Internationally, MENA oil and gas producers will start to focus more on energy demand differences among world regions. MENA countries with lowest-cost and least-carbon-intensive production are better positioned to preserve their geopolitical influence. Moreover, export portfolio composition and diversification will crucially define whether a country will lead or lag behind in the energy transition. Oil and gas producers are also endowed with an abundant renewable potential, another possible route to future energy leadership.

Nevertheless, competition among producers will remain or even increase, potentially undermining coordinated efforts to stabilize oil prices. Due to the strong link between hydrocarbons and the nature of the state in the MENA region, the domestic sphere will be a key element in the geopolitical shifts. Population size, strong governance, and the financial ability to adapt to change will help some MENA oil and gas producers to preserve their geopolitical role, while managing domestic socio-economic transformation.

Originally publishes by the Oxford Institute For Energy Studies.

The statements, opinions and data contained in the content published in Global Gas Perspectives are solely those of the individual authors and contributors and not of the publisher and the editor(s) of Natural Gas World.

Saudi Arabia to build 100% renewable holiday resort

Saudi Arabia to build 100% renewable holiday resort

The Red Sea Project will be the Middle East’s first tourism destination powered solely by renewable energy as Saudi Arabia to build 100% renewable holiday resort. Billions of dollars are planned to invested in mega tourism projects across Saudi Arabia; could this be the only green one?

Hugo Harrison-Carr on  

Developed by The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC), the Red Sea Project, is a luxury tourism destination located along 28,000 km2 of Saudi Arabia’s west coast. The development, due for completion in 2030, will consist of 50 hotels and around 1,300 residential properties across 22 islands and six inland sites.

The ACWA Power consortium has been awarded a public-private partnership (PPP) contract to design, build and operate the renewable power, potable water, wastewater treatment, solid waste management and district cooling for the 16 hotels, international airport and infrastructure that make up phase one of the project. 

Energy will be generated via solar panels and wind turbines to meet an initial demand of 210MW with the ability to expand in line with the development. 

In total, development is expected to generate up to 650,000 MWh of 100% renewable energy, which TRSDC believes will save 500,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions yearly. It will also have the world’s largest battery storage facility of 1000MWh, allowing the resort to remain entirely off-grid 24/7.

Three seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) plants will also be constructed to provide clean drinking water, plus a solid waste management centre and a sewage treatment plant that will enable new wetland habitats to be created to supplement irrigation water for landscaping.

TRSDC chairman, John Pagano said: 

“This is a pivotal moment for us as we seek to build a new kind of tourism destination in Saudi Arabia, aligned with Vision 2030. We’re committed to pushing the boundaries of what it means to be sustainable and investing heavily in renewables is helping us to set new global standards in regenerative tourism”.

ACWA Power chairman, Mohammad Abunayyan said: “Powering the Red Sea Project and all utility services exclusively with clean, renewable energy sources is a commendable strategy, and enabling it through a public-private partnership contract underlines TRSDC’s groundbreaking approach which sets a new benchmark in sustainability and environmental stewardship.”

World Science Day for Peace and Development, 10 November

World Science Day for Peace and Development, 10 November

This year, the United Nations, at a time when the world is struggling with the global COVID-19 pandemic, says that 10 November, will be the focus of World Science Day for Peace and Development on “Science for and with Society in dealing with the global pandemic.”

Established by UNESCO in 2002, the World Science Day for Peace and Development is an annual event that takes place on the 10th of November: all about STEM.

Electric cars line up at the official start of the Zero Emissions Race outside the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), Switzerland.Electric cars line up at the official start of the Zero Emissions Race outside the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), Switzerland.PHOTO:UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Celebrated every 10 November, World Science Day for Peace and Development highlights the significant role of science in society and the need to engage the wider public in debates on emerging scientific issues. It also underlines the importance and relevance of science in our daily lives.

By linking science more closely with society, World Science Day for Peace and Development aims to ensure that citizens are kept informed of developments in science. It also underscores the role scientists play in broadening our understanding of the remarkable, fragile planet we call home and in making our societies more sustainable.

The Day offers the opportunity to mobilize all actors around the topic of science for peace and development – from government officials to the media to school pupils. UNESCO strongly encourages all to join in celebrating World Science Day for Peace and Development by organizing your own event or activity on the day.

2020 Theme: Science for and with Society

This year, at a time when the world is struggling with the global COVID-19 pandemic, the focus of World Science Day is on “Science for and with Society in dealing with the global pandemic.”

Throughout this unprecedented health crisis, UNESCO, as the UN Agency with the field of science in its mandate, has endeavoured to bring science closer to society and to bolster the critically needed international scientific collaborations. From the science perspective, UNESCO’s response to COVID-19 is structured around three major pillars: promoting international scientific cooperation, ensuring access to wate,r and supporting ecological reconstruction.

To celebrate the 2020 World Science Day, UNESCO is organizing an online roundtable on the theme of “Science for and with Society in dealing with COVID-19.”

Join the conversation with the hashtags #ScienceDay.

World Science Day for Peace and Development, 10 November

COVID-19 response demands better use of science and technology

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic requires a far more collaborative relationship between scientists and policymakers, and the fruits of scientific research, including potential vaccines, must be shared universally. LEARN MORE!

Background

The organization of a focused event related to the commitment to science and society was one of the positive outcomes of the 1999 World Conference on Science in Budapest. It was considered an opportunity to reaffirm each year the commitment to attaining the goals proclaimed in the Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge and to follow up the recommendations of the Science Agenda: Framework for Action.

Since its proclamation by UNESCO in 2001, World Science Day for Peace and Development has generated many concrete projects, programmes and funding for science around the world. The Day has also helped foster cooperation between scientists living in regions marred by conflict – one example being the UNESCO-supported creation of the Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization (IPSO).

The rationale of celebrating a World Science Day for Peace and Development has its roots in the importance of the role of science and scientists for sustainable societies and in the need to inform and involve citizens in science. In this sense, a World Science Day for Peace and Development offers an opportunity to show the general public the relevance of science in their lives and to engage them in discussions. Such a venture also brings a unique perspective to the global search for peace and development.

The first World Science Day for Peace and Development was celebrated worldwide on 10 November 2002 under UNESCO auspices. The celebration involved many partners, such as governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, UNESCO National Commissions, scientific and research institutions, professional associations, the media, science teachers and schools.

Scope of Growth for the GCC’s B2B E-Commerce

Scope of Growth for the GCC’s B2B E-Commerce

E-commerce in the MENA’s Gulf took off despite certain difficulties to the point where Gulf Business‘ article titled Explainer: What is the scope of growth for the GCC’s B2B E-commerce industry? sustains that

The pandemic has helped boost digital marketplaces in the region, opines Muhammad Chbib, CEO at Tradeling.

7 November 2020

The pandemic has propelled the use of e-commerce in the region and globally. What are the key trends you have seen?
The most significant trend is the growth of homegrown capabilities in e-commerce in the region. Globally, while e-commerce has been recording strong growth – accelerated no doubt by the pandemic – the region has witnessed a transformational growth in the evolution of the digital economy. Not only have our homegrown companies demonstrated strong resolve to meet the needs of the people and support them, we have seen a tremendous amount of entrepreneurship – with new startups entering the market and building their own niche.

The second trend is more consumers warming up to the possibilities offered by e-commerce. While digital commerce was gaining momentum, one of the factors that has stymied its growth in the region is the relatively lower credit card penetration in some markets. There have also been typical concerns associated with conducting everyday business online. However, one thing the pandemic has brought about is the adoption of digital payments and the increased confidence of consumers to shop online and conduct e-commerce transactions.

In the B2B e-commerce space, how high is the penetration in the GCC market? Has it grown significantly this year?
While B2B e-commerce was evolving at a slower pace compared to consumer-oriented digital business, this year has witnessed a real transformation. I believe it is a case of supply and demand. What matters is that in the new reality, business customers too want to access products and services easily, quickly and efficiently. We see a growth in the B2B marketplace – here in the UAE – and growing enquiries from across the GCC.

Which are the verticals within the sector where you see most scope for growth?
It is really a matter of bringing more options to the customer, whatever the vertical. Customers like to shop around and feel they get value for money and exemplary service. But it is also a matter of sourcing new products and services that aren’t in the region yet.

For those entering the digital B2B industry, what are the main challenges?
The main challenges are finding the right talent with expertise and insights into the B2B sector, which is a different terrain compared to B2C e-commerce. An in-depth understanding of the global market is essential in addition to knowledge of the trading dynamics. You must be flexible and agile to overcome any unprecedented situation. It is also a matter of understanding the customer – the B2B customer is very different from the B2C customer.

Our priority is making the customer journey seamless, taking away their pain points and streamlining processes to ensure efficiencies that save them time and money.

Tradeling launched in April, in the midst of the lockdown – how was your experience? Do you have any immediate plans to expand?
We created Tradeling during the pandemic to connect regional and global suppliers to MENA-based business demand. Today, we have close to 400 suppliers from over 25 countries with gross merchandising value increasing from zero to a high two-digit million figure in just three months.

The key to overcoming the challenges was to enhance market confidence and we took decisive steps in this regard. Today, we have gone from a team of 40 to nearly 100 people and we continue to hire.

From logistics to financing support to ensuring a fully secure payment gateway, we are the first of our kind B2B platform across the region. This is our USP and this integrated approach to business has enabled us to address the challenges.

Looking ahead, what is the future of digital marketplaces in the region?
Digital marketplaces constitute the future of retail and in the new reality, they will record a stronger rate of growth compared to brick-and-mortar retail. But the key for success is to define your own unique niche for the marketplace; increasingly, we see online aggregators trying to capitalise on the opportunity, which will only lead to market fragmentation. What we need is bold, innovative ideas that will help accelerate the momentum of e-commerce growth in the region.COVID-19DIGITAL MARKETPLACEE-COMMERCEGCCTRADELING

Iraq’s Dire Fiscal Crisis

Iraq’s Dire Fiscal Crisis

Kirk H. Sowell describes in Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, how a newly appointed government finds it challenging to make ends meet through Iraq’s Dire Fiscal Crisis. In effect, like most oil-exporting countries of the MENA region, Iraq has to come to terms with the changing fundamentals of the world economy as aggravated by the pandemic.

Iraq’s Dire Fiscal Crisis


2 November 2020

Iraq’s Dire Fiscal Crisis

Iraq’s Prime Minister inherited a series of fiscal crises. As his interim government struggles to avert a complete economic collapse, austerity measures may come at the expense of much-needed reforms.

Since taking office, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has faced a series of fiscal and security crises amid collapsing public services and protests. The collapse in global oil prices due to the coronavirus pandemic and the Saudi-Russia oil price war caused Iraq to face an internal solvency crisis as early as June. This fiscal crisis has short and long-term implications. In the short-term, Baghdad continuously struggles to pay public sector salaries, which required the state to borrow from the Central Bank over the summer. With low oil revenue, the state’s monthly profits are covering just over 50 percent of its expenses. In the longer-term, Iraq faces a looming macro-fiscal state collapse—potentially within the next year.

The state is struggling to cover its monthly expenses. Over successive governments, the size of the public sector has grown to the point that Iraq needs to spend more than its total revenue on basic payments—public sector salaries, pensions, food aid, and welfare—to keep a majority of Iraq’s population out of destitution. In 2019, oil revenue averaged $6.5 million per month, and with modest non-oil revenues (largely customs, well less than $1 billion per month), this covered operational expenses with a small amount left over for capital spending. Since the recovery of oil prices after the March collapse, Iraq’s monthly oil revenues have averaged just over $3 billion/month, hitting a high of $3.52 billion in August. In testimony before parliament in September, Finance Minister Ali Allawi revealed[1] that with revenues at these levels, the government was still borrowing 3.5 trillion Iraqi Dinars (IQD) — just over $3 billion—from the Central Bank each month.

On October 10, as Iraq’s cash crunch became more acute, Allawi explained that state employee compensation rose from 20 percent of oil revenues in 2005 to 120 percent today. To help the public understand why the government of such an oil-rich country was broke, he explained that a government of this size should have at least $15 to 20 billion in funds to pay monthly expenses on an ongoing basis, but when this government took office, only about $1 billion was available.[2] This is in part due to weak revenues, the result of low oil prices and Iraq’s adherence to OPEC’s limitations on oil exports. In the past, Iraq’s oil exports have reached 3.5 million barrels per day (bpd), yet they decreased to 2.5 million bpd in recent months. Prominent figures, including former oil minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum, have argued in favor of leaving the OPEC agreement unilaterally. Yet Allawi, speaking before Parliament, explained that while he agreed that OPEC’s quota formula was unfair, Iraq needs the OPEC agreement to keep oil prices from collapsing. More recently, according to the Iraq Oil Report, the government has signaled that it may try to thread the needle by increasing exports by 250,000 barrels per day to satisfy critics—an amount above its quota, but still about 750,000 barrels per day below peak production, and thus hopefully too small an increase to incur Saudi retaliation.

Iraq’s monthly oil revenue to collapsed from $6.2 billion in January to just $1.4 billion in April. The figure recovered to $2.9 billion in May and has gradually improved since, but in August was still just $3.5 billion. Since the government only had about $3 billion in expendable reserves in May, it became clear that Iraq could not pay state employees in June. Salaries over the summer were paid as money became available. As late as July 28, the prime minister’s spokesman admitted that employees at the Culture & Antiquities Ministry (apparently the lowest priority), were still waiting to be paid.

The government saw this crisis coming and began preparing the public for austerity. Finance Minister Allawi made multiple public appearancesdescribing Iraq’s situation as dire and arguing for radical reform. In particular, he predicted that the government, while protecting base salaries, would make large cuts to employee benefits and other costs. On June 9, the cabinet followed through when it voted to implement a series of austerity measures, including cutting benefits, cutting unessential spending, and capping income from “double-salary” payments.[3] Kadhimi’s advisor Hisham Daoud described the new policies as “not enough but only a start” toward reform.

Kadhimi, with no electoral base or political base of his own, has faced the fiscal crisis with a weak hand. This became clear when Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the government’s austerity policies on June 10, one day later. Even MPs friendly to the government described the government’s measures as premature, suggesting that they should try to raise revenue through customs first. Parliament eventually passed a borrowing law on June 24 to allow the government to borrow just enough to make basic payments. This law, however, prohibited the government from cutting benefits. Previously, the cabinet had the authority to cut benefits because, unlike salaries set by law, benefits were set by previous cabinet decrees. Thus, Parliament made the long-term problem worse.

In July, protests resurged in Baghdad as a result of the fiscal crisis. The shortage of money caused Iraq’s electricity shortage to worsen dramatically. Outgoing Electricity Minister Luay al-Khatteeb attributed the decline to two factors: lack of maintenance and the suspension of planned electricity projects.

The government has a few possible, but politically difficult, fixes at its disposal. They could cut the subsidy of roughly $1 billion per month to private electricity consumption, which exists because the ministry only collects a fraction of consumer payments. Finance Minister Allawi pointed out that “people don’t pay their electricity bills” and that “95 percent” of consumption costs was absorbed by the state, asserting that “electricity is not a constitutional right.”[4] Yet such an effort will recall former prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s experience trying to extract electricity payments in 2017, which precipitated a strong protest movement. So far, Kadhimi has shown no sign of pushing the issue. His published comments during a cabinet meeting devoted to the electricity issue focused on “reducing bureaucracy” and improving maintenance, sidestepping the fact that maintenance workers have to be paid.

Iraq’s fiscal crisis comes on the heels of the political crisis of the outgoing government, which left the country without a budget for most of 2020. In such cases, Iraqi law allows the government to spend one twelfth of the previous year’s actual spending each month. Since this year’s revenues have been low, it never had the money to spend that much and simply spent what it had on basic payments. In September, the government released a budget for 2020 and the planned deficit was large—well over 100 percent—so as with past budgets much of the deficit will likely not be spent. The total anticipated revenues are 67.4 trillion dinars, or $57 billion, compared with proposed expenditures of 148.6 trillion dinars, or  $125.7 billion. Oil revenue in 2019 was $78.5 billion yet is projected to be just $49.3 billion for 2020. The government withdrew the bill just two days after it arrived in parliament.

In September the government ran out of money, having used up the borrowing authority from the June bill.[5] Given the population’s overwhelming dependence on state salaries, this brought the short-term financial problems to the fore. Furthermore, Parliament refused to authorize the new borrowing authority Allawi sought because the government had not submitted a “reform plan.” Thus in early October the government released a “White Paper” reform plan. The plan draws a broad and long path to reform that does not directly address the immediate crisis, except to the extent that its publication formally satisfies Parliament’s precondition for new borrowing.

An important part of Allawi’s efforts was his advocacy of Iraq accepting an International Monetary Fund “Stand-By Agreement” (SBA) which might be the only way to prevent a fiscal collapse next year. The agreement would also require spending cuts that parliament has already rejected. Allawi stressed that the IMF would not require cuts to programs protecting the poor, but rather to public sector compensation that, in Allawi’s view, Iraq needed to cut anyway.[6]

This set the stage for a new debacle as the government then sent a new borrowing law to Parliament only to condemn it. A member of Parliament on the Finance Committee criticized the figures in the bill as irresponsible.[7] Given the parliament’s role in aggravating the crisis, this was grandstanding. The looming parliamentary elections, due no later than 2022 and possibly earlier, are driving the political theater. Parliament will presumably pass an amended version of the government’s borrowing bill to allow the government to pay salaries. In the meantime, with salaries being paid late, disposable income is squeezed, further damaging an already weak economy. But Iraq could face a much worse scenario in 2021, as the IMF’s updated forecast for Brent oil prices projects $46.70 per barrel. Iraq’s Central Bank, which rescued the government over the summer, relies on a steady flow of dollars from oil revenues and given current prices range from $40 to $45, reserves are gradually declining. According to financial analyst Ahmed al-Tabaqchali, at current oil prices the Central Bank can continue to print money to fund the government “for about eight or nine months.”[8]  

In terms of immediate steps, at a minimum, a devaluation of the Iraqi dinar (long pegged at 1,182 to the dollar) seems likely in 2021. This would relieve some pressure on the Central Bank and make the government’s expenses cheaper (since its income is in dollars), but it would also drive up inflation over time. The bigger threat is that by mid-to-late 2021, the Central Bank will no longer be able to support the government, forcing austerity through non-payment of operational expenses, including salaries.

It is clear that the government needed to adopt a policy of cutting public sector expenses while increasing its capital investment in agriculture and industry and devoting more resources to education and health. Kadhimi’s reform measures in June were too little, too late.  Still, the austerity that Parliament has resisted will be inevitable if oil prices do not rise dramatically in the months to come. A key priority from an international point of view is that the IMF, as a condition for its loans, impose upon Iraq the reforms for which Allawi has been advocating and which parliament has so rejected. It does not seem likely that reform will come to Iraq by any other means.

Kirk H. Sowell is the publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics (www.insideiraqipolitics.com). Follow him on Twitter @uticarisk.

[1] See 2:13:00.

[2] In most of these comments, Allawi gives the figures in Iraqi dinars. I have converted them to dollars. Thus, he said, for example, that the Finance Ministry had 1.3 trillion IQD when he came into office. This is slightly over $1 billion.

[3] When a family received a payment for a deceased breadwinner and receives another government benefit.

[4] Discussion begins around 1:06:00.

[5] Testimony by the finance minister and discussion of the budget starts at 1:38:00.

[6] In the previously cited video from Parliament on September 8, he refers to the IMF briefly around 2:25:00, then again around 2:48:00, and once more near then end of the four-hour video in response to an MP attacking the IMF option.

[7] The reading begins at 00:09:00 and the comments referred to in the text follow.

[8] Author interview conducted on October 28, 2020 via Skype.More on: 

pub-9018797892728621