DUBAI (Reuters) – When Saudi Aramco was on the verge of a deal last year to buy a stake in an Indian oil refinery, its boss quickly boarded a company jet in Paris and flew to New Delhi.
Chief executive Amin Nasser arrived unannounced early on April 11, 2018, finalised the agreement and signed it later that day. Negotiators had just finished hammering out the details.
His last-minute flight, after a business trip to France with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, underlined the importance of the deal both to Saudi Arabia and its huge state oil firm.
The planned investment in the $44-billion (£35 billion) refinery and petrochemical project on India’s west coast is a prime example of how Aramco is trying to squeeze value out of each barrel of oil it produces by snapping up refining capacity, mainly in fast-growing Asia.
But it also underlines the challenge Saudi Arabia faces in reducing its heavy economic reliance on oil. The results of its programme to diversify have been mixed, some projects are moving slowly and others are too ambitious, economic and energy analysts say.
Prince Mohammed’s stated goal of being able to “live without oil” by as early as 2020 looks set to be missed.
“Saudi Arabia’s oil addiction is as strong as ever…economically, of course, the Saudi economy runs on oil. Oil still dominates GDP, exports and government revenues,” said Jim Krane, energy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute.
“That said, Saudi Arabia is changing its relationship with oil. The dependence remains. But the kingdom is squeezing more value out of its oil,” he said.
The slow progress means the Saudi economy is likely to remain hostage to oil prices for longer than planned. Any delay in implementing change also risks denting Prince Mohammed’s image as a reformer.
SECURING THE FUTURE
Announcing his plan three years ago, the Crown Prince said Saudi Arabia must end its “oil addiction” to ensure the world’s biggest oil exporter and second largest producer cannot be “at the mercy of commodity price volatility or external markets.”
He spoke after a fall in crude oil prices boosted the Saudi fiscal deficit to about 15% of gross domestic product in 2015, slowing government spending and economic growth.
This year the deficit could hit 7% of GDP, according to the International Monetary Fund, as oil-related growth slows following production cuts led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Aramco is central to the Crown Prince’s reform plan in several ways, not least because its planned partial privatisation will generate income for the reforms.
The company has also been involved in most of the kingdom’s high-profile deals in the last two years as it increased investment in refining and petrochemicals.
In that time, Aramco has announced at least $50 billion worth of investments in Saudi Arabia, Asia and the United States. It aims to almost triple its chemicals production to 34 million metric tons per year by 2030 and raise its global refining capacity to 8-10 million barrels per day (bpd) from more than 5 million bpd.
In March last year, Aramco finalised a deal to buy a $7 billion stake in a refinery and petrochemicals project with Malaysia’s Petronas. A month later, Nasser and a consortium of Indian companies signed the initial deal that would give Aramco a stake in the planned 1.2 million bpd refinery in India’s western Maharashtra state.
In February of this year, Aramco signed a $10 billion deal for a refining and petrochemical complex in China. Last month it signed 12 deals with South Korea worth billions of dollars, ranging from ship building to an expansion of a refinery owned by Aramco.
“This is what I call the back to basics approach to economic diversification in the Gulf,” said Robin Mills, chief executive of energy consultancy Qamar Energy in Dubai. “The energy industry has the assets, capital and skills, so it’s the engine of new projects – refining, petrochemicals, gas and so on.”
MR UPSTREAM LOOKS DOWNSTREAM
In March, Aramco said it was acquiring a 70 percent stake in petrochemicals firm Saudi Basic Industries (SABIC) (2010.SE) for $69.1 billion from the national wealth fund, known as the Public Investment Fund (PIF).
Aramco is gaining new markets for its crude and building a global downstream presence – the refining, processing and purifying end of the production line. Its aim is to become a global leader in chemicals.
“We are not investing left and right, we are investing in the right markets, we are investing in the right refining assets, we are investing where we create value from fuels to chemicals,” Abdulaziz al-Judaimi, Aramco’s Senior Vice President for Downstream, told Reuters in May.
Nasser, previously known by Aramco employees as Mr Upstream, is leading the downstream expansion. He wants to bring Aramco’s refining capacity closer to its oil production potential, which is now at 12 million bpd.
Aramco wants gradually to match the downstream presence of its big competitors and, like Saudi Arabia as a whole, to reduce its vulnerability to any downturn in demand for crude oil or oil price volatility.
“You want to secure your demand in key markets,” said an industry source familiar with Saudi Arabia’s oil plans. “You have to become more dynamic, to become more adaptable, you have to make sure that you secure your future. Malaysia was one example, India was another.”
For years, Aramco has been a regular crude supplier to Indian refiners via long-term crude contracts.
Yet while it has stakes in refineries or storage assets in other important Asia markets such as China, Japan and South Korea – and owns the largest refinery in the United States – it has not secured that same access in India, a fast-growing market for fuel and petrochemicals.Slideshow (2 Images)
“India is a market that you just can’t ignore anymore,” an industry source said.
Aramco has also shifted its marketing strategy in China. It is now more oriented towards independent refiners to boost Saudi crude sales after years of dealing almost exclusively with state-owned Chinese firms.
But overall, plans to wean Saudi Arabia of oil have advanced slowly.
Few details have emerged of a $200-billion solar power-generation project announced by the PIF and Japan’s SoftBank in March 2018. It is unclear how or when the project will be executed, and Saudi’s Arabia’s energy ministry is moving ahead with its own solar projects.
In a blow to potential investment, the image of Saudi Arabia and the reputation of the Crown Prince have been damaged by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year.
Leading businessmen and politicians boycotted an investment forum meant to showcase the kingdom’s new future away from oil, and it was only big deals with Aramco that saved it.
Also, the partial privatisation of Aramco has been delayed since it set out its plans to acquire the stake in SABIC, though senior Saudi officials including Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih have said it could now happen in 2020-2021.
The PIF, chaired by Prince Mohammed, was meant to receive around $100 billion from the flotation. Instead it will get around $70 billion from the sale of its SABIC stake.
The PIF made its mark on the global stage three years ago by taking a $3.5- billion stake in Uber Technologies. But since 2016, the PIF’s direct investments overseas stand at just $10.5 billion, according to Refinitiv data, and many of the fund’s announced commitments have yet to materialise.
The funds’ main investments over the past two years were inequity shares in companies such as electric car makers Tesla (TSLA.O) and Lucid Motors and Gulf e-commerce platform Noon.com.
Such deals would not necessarily attract inward foreign investment, help develop industries or create jobs.
Additional reporting by Marwa Rashad and Hadeel Al Sayegh; writing by Rania El Gamal; editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Timothy Heritage
The World Economic Forum article dated 28 May 2019, could well be applied to most of the countries of the MENA region. Apart from the oil exporting ones, all the others’ informal economy appears to the naked eye as undergoing the same phenomenon but perhaps at a lesser density. In effect, very much like in the neighbouring sub-Saharan regions, the MENA’s informal markets seem to be pushing towards a new kind of business structure. A new kind of company is revolutionising Africa’s gig economy?Aubrey Hruby, Senior advisor to Fortune 500 companies replies.
For more than 30 years, governments and international development organizations have followed the same recipe for formalising the world’s informal economy; enacting new legislation and regulations or abolishing those that get in the way of the process.
By 2035, Africa will contribute more people to the workforce each year than the rest of the world combined. By 2050, the continent will be home to 1.25 billion people of working age. In order to absorb these new entrants, Africa needs to create more than 18 million new jobs each year. Given the urgent need to provide jobs and livelihoods to Africans, it is time to examine the conventional wisdom that informal markets must transition into formal markets. Development finance institutions (DFIs) and private investors in African markets can play a critical role in both advancing Africa’s gig economy and changing the narrative that growth in informal markets is incompatible with sustainable development.
Across African markets, companies are pioneering business models that bridge the formal and informal sectors; in these models, each company is a formal entity but can mobilise large numbers of informal actors in their supply chains or service delivery. While this has been done in dairies in Kenya and at coffee and cocoa outgrowers across the continent and in other sectors for nearly a century, the penetration of mobile phones has enabled a new breed of African companies to monetise their ability to organize and inject trust into fragmented informal markets. However, unlike Uber or Airbnb, which disrupted largely formal sectors, many of Africa’s new ‘gig economy’ firms are writing the rules for whole new industries in local markets.
Perhaps the most high-profile example is Safaricom’s M-PESA. Since its launch in 2007, M-PESA, a mobile payments system developed by Kenya’s largest telecoms operator, has enabled millions of informal sector workers to move money at a lower cost, which has provided a significant boost to the Kenyan and Tanzanian economies. Another, more recent example, is Nigeria’s Cars45, operated by Frontier Car Group. Nigeria’s $12 billion used car industry is largely informal and characterised by distrust, a lack of standardisation and the absence of a structured dealer network. Cars45 facilitates the buying and selling of used cars by pricing and rating their condition transparently and conducting online auctions. Many sectors throughout the continent remain highly informal and would benefit from these types of bridges into formality. These ‘bridge companies’ are going to define the future of employment in African countries.
DFIs are ideally placed to invest in bridge companies in African markets, given their long presence and in-depth engagement with local financing environments. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the UK’s CDC Group already invest in technology-enabled start-ups, and others, including OPIC, are adapting their strategies to be able to do so. Many of the continent’s most promising technology-enabled bridge companies are starting to raise funding large enough to attract the attention of DFIs. Frontier Car Group recently raised $89 million, Kenya’s Twiga Foods raised $10 million, and Nigeria’s Kobo365 has raised $6 million. Overcoming a dearth of funding remains one of the highest barriers for African entrepreneurs, and the development impact of investing in those that improve employment is enormous.
The gig economy comes with limitations. Lack of legal rights, limited career progression, stagnant pay and a lack of benefits are just some of the issues that will need to be addressed in an ‘Uberised’ world. These challenges, plus the day-to-day economic uncertainty, make the informal sector far worse in many ways than the formal. Bridge companies – because they are registered, and have a public brand and centralised management – can be pressured into addressing issues around workers’ wellbeing. Studies into the financial behaviours and needs of low-income families by BFA, a consulting firm specialising in financial inclusion policies, found that workers often aspired to ‘gig economy’ jobs but hated casual labour (such as waiting on a corner to be hired for the day) because of the lack of reliability and predictability.
The future of work is changing and the mass job creators of today will not be able to meet the needs of tomorrow’s workforce in the same way. Bridge companies are pioneering new ways of injecting efficiency and higher productivity into traditional informal markets. Investing in this trend is critical to solving Africa’s pressing job creation need.
As Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded the latest high-level Belt and Road gathering of world leaders in Beijing last month, China’s signature project has seemingly entered a new phase: worldwide acceptance of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a fact of international life (like it or not). So, with the wind at its back, is China doubling down on its investments worldwide? Not exactly. The total value of China’s global investments and construction contracts actually fell by $100 billion in 2018, according to data analyzed from the American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker. Just about every region saw a significant decline in Chinese investment or construction projects except, surprisingly, for one: the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
A flurry of Chinese investment and construction projects in the MENA region over the last three years has made it a key geoeconomic partner for Beijing. But surely, in pure volume terms, the MENA region could not have attracted as much Chinese economic activity as sub-Saharan Africa or East Asia, right? Think again. The MENA region ranked as the second-largest recipient of investment and Chinese construction projects worldwide after Europe in 2018, as the chart below shows.
MENA’s Growing BRI Clout
In 2018, the Middle East and North Africa leapfrogged other emerging markets as a destination for BRI projects.
The MENA region ranked ahead of traditional BRI stalwarts East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa last year, recording $28.11 billion in new projects. The region still lags behind both those regions as a whole since the launch of BRI in 2013 and dating back to 2005, but a three-year surge has brought it in closer proximity to the top of the table. That could mean a windfall for Chinese state-owned construction companies as the majority of MENA projects involve construction, rather than foreign direct investment.
Of the 2018 MENA total, nearly three-quarters was targeted at Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Those three countries also make up half of the “$20 billion club”—the group of countries with more than $20 billion worth of projects from China dating back to 2005.
Chinese Investment in MENA Countries
MENA countries with more than $20 billion worth of investment and construction projects by Chinese firms since 2005.
The list here is heavily skewed toward regional oil producers, with the exception of Egypt, and most of China’s projects in the region involve construction rather than investment. Despite a recent setback, Chinese state-owned enterprises will likely play a prominent role in Egypt’s ambitious infrastructure program, including the building of a new, gleaming capital city just outside Cairo. Chinese construction companies were vitalin President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s ambitious Suez Canal economic zone project.
At the Belt and Road Forum last month, Chinese enterprises also announced a new $3.4 billion investment to build a trade hub for Chinese goods in Dubai’s Jebel Ali Port, as well as a manufacturing and processing hub for animal and agricultural products for the food industry. China’s dramatic ramp-up of projects in the UAE suggests that it sees the country as an important piece of its Belt and Road logistics network.
Other significant nodes of China’s economic footprint in the region are Israel ($12.19 billion), Kuwait ($10.43 billion), and Qatar ($7.27 billion), according to data analyzed from AEI’s China Global Investment Tracker for the years 2005-2018.
China is pouring a lot of concrete and cement into construction projects in the region but what of Middle East exports to China? How is China affecting the bottom line of key MENA states?
The answer broadly: If you have oil or gas, China is likely to be a major export destination.
Exports to China From MENA Countries
China has emerged as a vital export destination for several countries in the Middle East and North Africa. For these countries below, China made the top five in 2018.
Major oil and gas producers generate significant revenues from Beijing, and China ranks as the top export destination for Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, and Oman, according to an analysis of data from the International Monetary Fund’s Direction of Trade Statistics.
In some cases, key U.S. allies such as the UAE send nearly three times more exports to China than to the United States, and for Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman, the gap is even starker, with nearly eight times, nearly nine times, and nearly 28 times, respectively, more goods exported to China than to the United States.
For Saudi Arabia, the difference in 2018 was less stark, sending some 30 percent more exports to China than to the United States, according to an analysis of IMF data. Expect this gap to widen as the United States continues to ramp up domestic oil production.
Meanwhile, most North African countries still maintain an export profile heavily dependent on Europe rather than on China, and Israel sends four times more goods to the United States than to China.
You can expect this map to get to darker shades of red over the next decade, particularly as China’s demand for energy—especially natural gas—continues to grow.
Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the editor and founder of the New Silk Road Monitor blog.
Hunger continues to rise in the Near East and North Africa region where over 52 million people are undernourished.
Conflicts and widening rural-urban gaps hamper the region’s efforts to end hunger by 2030.
8 May 2019, Cairo/Rome – Hunger in the Near East and North Africa region (NENA) continues to rise as conflicts and protracted crises have spread and worsened since 2011, threatening the region’s efforts to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including Zero Hunger.
Conflict continues to be the main driver of hunger across the region. More than two-thirds of hungry people in NENA, approximately 34 million people, live in conflict-affected countries, compared to 18 million hungry people in countries that are not impacted directly by conflict.
Stunting, wasting, and undernutrition are also far worse in conflict countries than in the other countries.
“Conflicts and civil instability have long-lasting impacts on the food and nutrition security of both affected and surrounding countries in the regions” said Abdessalam Ould Ahmed, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa.
“The impact of the conflict has been disrupting food and livestock production in some countries and consequently affecting the availability of food across the region,” he added.
“Rising hunger is also compounded by rapid population growth, scarce and fragile natural resources, the growing threat of climate change, increasing unemployment rates, and diminished rural infrastructure and services” Ould Ahmed underscored. The report highlights that the region is not facing just a hunger crisis as some of the highest rates of obesity are also found in countries within the region, putting pressure on people’s health, lifestyles and national health systems and economies. Addressing obesity requires food systems that ensure that people have access to healthy nutritious food and also increased public awareness and information on the risks associated with overweight and obesity.
Inadequate rural transformation hampers efforts to eradicate hunger and malnutrition by 2030
The report shows that not only do conflicts undermine the region’s Zero Hunger efforts, but also the degree of rural transformation.
“Countries that are not in conflict and have gone furthest in transforming rural areas in a sustainable way including through better management of water resources, have achieved better food security and nutrition outcomes than those in conflict or with lower levels of rural transformation,” Ould Ahmed said, noting how the report stresses that more efforts are needed to boost rural employment, stimulate economic growth in rural areas, reduce urban-rural gaps, and improve agricultural productivity and rural infrastructure and services.
The report highlights how unemployment, particularly for young people and women across all age groups is a significant challenge in the NENA region and is often higher than in other regions of the world. This is aggravated by rural-urban gaps – with significant disparities in living standards and poverty rates between rural and urban areas – and differences in labour productivity between traditional agriculture and industry and services. This gap is deepened by differences in access to education, health as well as other public services and housing.
At the same time, rural areas accommodate around 40 percent of the population, where the majority of poor are living. The report shows that the average wages for those employed in agriculture are likely to be far below those of workers outside the sector. Partially as a result of lower wages in agriculture, rural areas in the NENA region generally have higher income poverty rates than urban areas. On average, rural poverty is about twice as high as poverty in urban areas.
Transforming agriculture to achieve Zero Hunger
At a regional level, there are significant opportunities for transforming agriculture in a sustainable way, starting with the provision of improved access to markets for farmers, promoting investments in agriculture, transfer of technology and other innovations, more efficient and effective management of water resources, as well as key policy changes that support the shift from subsistence farming to commercial and diversified production systems.
“There is a great need to encourage our region’s farmers to produce according to the comparative advantage of the region,” Ould Ahmed said, highlighting that the NENA region has a great potential in the production of crops and livestock products that are least intensive in arable land and water and more intensive in use of labour.
The report highlights that greater efforts and actions are needed to support the development and implementation of policies and programmes to abolish rural-urban differences.
Key facts and figures
Number of hungry people in the Near East and North Africa: 52 million, 33.9 million are in conflict countries directly and 18.1 million in non-conflict countries.
Children under five affected by stunting (low height-for-age): 21.1 percent.
Children under five affected by wasting (low weight-for-height): 8.7 percent.
Children under five who are overweight (high weight-for-height): 9.1 percent
Note to editors: NENA countries include Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Archaeological Discovery In Egypt To Boost Tourism
Travelwirenews reports in a major archaeological discovery, Egypt on Saturday unveiled the tomb of a Fifth Dynasty official adorned with colourful reliefs and well preserved inscriptions. The tomb, near Saqqara, a vast necropolis south of Cairo, belongs to a senior official named Khuwy who is believed to have been a nobleman during the Fifth Dynasty, which ruled over Egypt about 4300 years ago. “The L-shaped Khuwy tomb starts with a small corridor heading downwards into an antechamber and from there a larger chamber with painted reliefs depicting the tomb owner seated at an offerings table,” said Mohamed Megahed, the excavation team’s head, in an antiquities ministry statement. Flanked by dozens of ambassadors, Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Enani said the tomb was discovered last month. It is mostly made of white limestone bricks. Ornate paintings boast a special green resin throughout and oils used in the burial process, the ministry said. The tomb’s north wall indicates that its design was inspired by the architectural blueprint of the dynasty’s royal pyramids, the statement added. The excavation team has unearthed several tombs related to the Fifth Dynasty. Archaeologists recently found an inscription on a granite column dedicated to Queen Setibhor, who is believed to have been the wife of King Djedkare Isesis, the eighth and penultimate king of the dynasty. Egypt has in recent years sought to promote archaeological discoveries across the country in a bid to revive tourism that took a hit from the turmoil that followed its 2011 uprising.
EY research says the largest event to be held in the Arab World is predicted to add the equivalent of 1.5% to UAE GDP
Expo 2020 Dubai will boost the UAE economy by AED122.6 billion ($33.4 billion) and support 905,200 job-years between 2013 and 2031, according to an independent report published by global consultancy EY.
During the peak six-month period of the World Expo, the largest event to be held in the Arab World is predicted to add the equivalent of 1.5 percent to UAE gross domestic product.
The scale of investment pouring in to construct and host an event of this ambition, as well as goods and services consumed by the millions expected to visit and the businesses that will occupy the Expo site in the legacy phase, will result in an economic dividend that will benefit businesses large and small across a range of sectors for years to come, according to the report.
From November 2013 – when Dubai won the bid to host the Expo – until its opening in October 2020, the economic impetus will be driven by the construction sector as work continues on building the site and supporting infrastructure such as roads, bridges and the Dubai Metro Route 2020 line, EY noted.
Najeeb Mohammed Al-Ali, executive director of the Dubai Expo 2020 Bureau, said: “This independent report demonstrates that Expo 2020 Dubai is a critical long-term investment in the future of the UAE, which will contribute more than 120 billion dirhams to the economy between 2013 and 2031.
“Not only will the event encourage millions around the world to visit the UAE in 2020, it will also stimulate travel and tourism and support economic diversification for years after the Expo, leaving a sustainable economic legacy that will help to ensure the UAE remains a leading destination for business, leisure and investment.”
The report added that small and medium enterprises, a core component of the UAE economy, will receive AED4.7 billion in investment during the pre-Expo phase, supporting 12,600 job-years.
Job-years is defined as full-time employment for one person for one year and describes the employment impact over the life or phase of a project.
During the peak six months of Expo 2020, visitor spending on tickets, merchandise, food and beverage, hotels, flights and local transport will propel economic activity.
Expo 2020 expects 25 million visits, with 70 per cent of visitors coming from outside the UAE, providing the hospitality industry with an unmissable opportunity to show the world what the UAE has to offer.
The EY report added that the positive thrust will continue in the decade after Expo closes its doors in April 2021, thanks largely to the transformation of the site into District 2020, an integrated urban development that will house the Dubai Exhibition Centre.
Matthew Benson, partner, Transaction Advisory Services, MENA, EY, said: “Expo 2020 is an exciting long-term investment for the UAE, and is expected to have a significant impact on the economy and how jobs are created directly and indirectly.
“As the host, Dubai aims to use the event to further enhance its international profile and reputation. The event will celebrate innovation, promote progress and foster cooperation, and entertain and educate global audiences.