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Dubai’s Economy is melting like a Glacier in the Desert

Mir Mohammad Ali Khan

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Exactly on December 12, 2016, I wrote an article predicting that Dubai is going to see its economic fall. I even gave the dates that it may happen by 2018. Here we are in 2018 and Dubai’s economy has started to melt like an ice cone in a hot summer day near Jumeirah beach.

Let’s examine how? Dubai is a city where I have lived for several years. Established and ran businesses in. I understand the economic environment and its financial structure. The financial structure is connected to its economic structure in the strangest manner, a phenomenon not found in many cities of the world. The phenomenon of “I OWE YOU and will pay you later”.

And this comes in the form of a “Post Dated Cheque”. Nobody asks you before gladly receiving that cheque from you, what would happen 8 months from today if your business has collapsed or sees a cash crunch. How will you honor your cheque. You are not dealing with a bank that you have given the cheques to, with a huge ability of financial sustenance.

Your cheques are mostly to other businessmen who write cheques to their creditors based on your postdated cheques. I owe you on top of I owe you multiplied by the umpteenth factor. No economy can develop and sustain on this principle. Simple as that. One business man in the chain defaults, the entire chains is broken. The biggest of the companies can face a downturn and their cheques can bounce. And the strangest thing is that if your cheque bounces you are not given a chance to even negotiate the payment with a little more time. A complaint is lodged and the businessman arrested. Or to avoid the arrest, the businessman flees Dubai leaving the entire business to collapse and not a single chance of recovery for the receivers of the cheques.

Abraaj Capital had a $48 million dollar cheque bounce two weeks ago.

You think that’s was a big cheque. Wait till you read this. From January 2018 to the end of May 2018, 26 billion dirhams worth of cheques have been bounced. 1.2 million cheques in total. Or 39.3% of the total number of cheques issued in 2017 which were to come due in 2018. They came due and they bounced. 39.3% is not an amount to be taken lightly, neither is the number of checks that is 1.2 million nor the amount of 26 billion dirhams, that’s $7 billion dollars in just 6 months of 2018. In the coming months of 2018 from July to December this can become the trigger for a disaster in the making to be dealt by the authorities with no recourse. And the reason I said no recourse is because you need to see by researching other related clues in order to establish if the people who have written the cheques are still in Dubai or most of them have fled the city.

You need to look at two things if you want to do related research to establish the above point if the people have fled Dubai or not. First, if their phones connections are cancelled. And Second, if they have fled with their families. Best thing to look at to see the second part is to see as to how many children have been withdrawn from their schools. Let’s look at the biggest phone carrier of Dubai, Etisalat and its data. 32,000 phone connections were cancelled between March and April of 2018. Just in 38 days in total. 28,000 children were withdrawn from schools without registering themselves for the end of summer sessions. Meaning those families do not plan to come back.

I wish it ended here. I wish the signs were not as obvious. But they are. Dubai property that used to be sold at 2300 dirhams per square foot is selling at less than 600 dirhams per square foot. Or in simple words, it’s selling at 25% of its value.

Gold Souk has empty stores for the first time in 35 years. You could not find a single empty store to rent or buy earlier. Arabian Center, Sunset Mall and Al Ghurair have stores shutting down every week. Emirates Towers with the most chic restaurants is witnessing a closure upon closure of restaurants. Hotels have cut their average price to 30% of what they used to charge and last month alone 18 hotels shut down including Savoy, Ramada, Richmond, Crest, Jarmond and the list goes on. Lamcy plaza, one of the busiest malls had a fire and was supposed to be opened in August 2017 and it’s still closed down. Bur Juman and Wafi Mall have the highest vacancy rates of shops. The list can go on and on and I can pen down more signs of an economic meltdown than you can read.

Abraaj Capitals’ collapse is a nail in the financial system coffin of Dubai. The biggest confidence eroding incident ever to have taken place in the history of Dubai’s financial system.

The point is not to sit and laugh at what has happened. That is cruel and arrogant. Livelihoods have been lost and families have been ruined. The point is for other counties in the GCC to stop this postdated cheque based economic model immediately before they face the same fate. And for the businessmen the lesson is to develop a sustainable business model where your freedom is not hinged upon one bounced cheque. Because anybody’s cheques can bounce unintentionally and based on unforeseen circumstances. With the OECD restrictions, Anti-Money Laundering initiatives around the world. FATF watching. Counter Terrorism financing watchdogs sifting through every transaction. The biggest appeal of Dubai will be dead as well. The appeal of having unquestioned transactions for the world’s corruptly earned funds.

This is a bad cycle that Dubai is going through and in my humble opinion we have yet to see its bottom. What is happening right now is only a glimpse of what is yet to come. With media censorship and controlled release of any and all news, you will not even hear these stories in Dubai. Unless you want to be a journalist who loves jail food.

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Economy

Transitioning from least developed country status: Are countries better off?

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The Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are an internationally defined group of highly vulnerable and structurally constrained economies with extreme levels of poverty. Since the category was created in 1971, on the basis of selected vulnerability indicators, only five countries have graduated and the number of LDCs has doubled.  One would intuitively have thought that graduation from LDC status would be something that all LDCs would want to achieve since it seems to suggest that transitioning countries are likely to benefit from increased economic growth, improved human development and reduced susceptibility to natural disasters and trade shocks.

However, when countries graduate they lose international support measures (ISMs) provided by the international community. There is no established institutional mechanism for the phasing out of LDC country-specific benefits. As a result, entities such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund may not always be able to support a country’s smooth transition process.

Currently, 14 out of 53 members of the Commonwealth are classified as LDCs and the number is likely to reduce as Bangladesh, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu transition from LDC status by 2021. The three criteria used to assess LDC transition are: Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI), Human Assets Index (HAI) and Gross National Income per capita (GNI).  Many of the forthcoming LDC graduates will transition based only on their GNI.  This GNI level is normally set at US $ 1,230 but if the GNI reaches twice this level at US $ 2,460 a country can graduate.

So what’s the issue?  A recent Commonwealth – Trade Hot Topic publication confirms that most countries graduate only on the basis of their GNI, some of which have not attained significant improvements in human development (HAI) and even more of which fall below the graduation threshold for economic development due to persistent vulnerabilities (EVI).  This latter aspect raises the question as to whether transitioning countries will, actually, be better off after they graduate.

Given the loss of ISMs and the persistent economic vulnerabilities of many LDCs, it is no surprise that some countries are actually seeking to delay graduation, Kiribati and Tuvalu being two such Commonwealth countries despite easily surpassing twice the GNI threshold for graduation.

How is it possible that a country can achieve economic growth but not have appreciable improvements in resilience to economic vulnerability?  Based on a statistical analysis discussed in the Trade Hot Topic paper, a regression model, based on all forty-seven LDCs, was produced.  The model revealed that there was no statistically significant relationship between economic vulnerability and gross national income per capita.  The analysis was repeated just for Commonwealth countries and similar results were obtained.

Most importantly, analysis revealed that there was a positive relationship between GNI and EVI. In other words, increases in wealth (using GNI as a proxy) is likely to result in an increase in economic vulnerability.  This latter result is counterintuitive since one would expect more wealth to result in less economic vulnerability.

So what’s the take away?

The statistical results do not necessarily imply that improving the factors affecting economic vulnerability cannot result in improvements to economic prosperity.  It does suggest, however, that either insufficient efforts have gone into effecting such improvements or that there are natural limits to the extent to which such improvements can be effected.

One thing is clear, the multilateral lending agencies should revisit the removal of measures supporting climate change or other vulnerabilities for LDCs on graduation, since the empirical evidence suggests that countries could fall back into LDC status or stagnate and be unable to achieve sustainable development. Whilst transitioning from LDC status should be desirable, it should not be an end in itself. Rather than to transition and remain extremely vulnerable, countries should be resistant to such change or continue to receive more targeted support until vulnerabilities are reduced to more acceptable levels.

What are your thoughts?

Commonwealth

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Economy

U.S. policy and the Turkish Economic Crisis: Lessons for Pakistan

M Waqas Jan

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Over the last week, the Turkish Lira has been dominating headlines the world over as the currency continues to plunge against the US dollar. Currently at the dead center of a series of verbal ripostes between Presidents Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the rapidly depreciating Lira has taken center stage amidst deteriorating US-Turkey relations that are wreaking havoc across international financial markets. Considering Pakistan’s current economic predicament, the events unfolding in Turkey offer important lessons to the dangers of unsustainable and unrealistic economic policies, within a dramatically changing international scenario. This holds particular importance for Pak-US relations within the context of the impending IMF bailout.

In his most recent statements, Mr. Erdogan has attributed his economy’s dire state of affairs as an ‘Economic War’ being waged against it by the United States. President Trump too has made it evident that the latest rounds of US sanctions that have been placed on Turkey are directly linked to its dissatisfaction with Ankara for detaining American Pastor Andrew Brunson. Mr Bruson along with dozens of others has been charged with terrorism and espionage for his purported links to the 2016 attempted coup against President Erdogan and his government.  There is thus a modicum of truth to Mr. Erdogan’s claims that the US sanctions are in fact, being used as leverage against the weakening Lira and the Turkish economy as part of a broader US policy.

However, to say that the latest US sanctions alone are the sole cause of Turkey’s economic woes is a gross understatement. The Lira has for some time remained the worst performing currency in the world; losing half of its value in a year, and dropping by another 20% in just the last week. Just to put the scale of this loss in to perspective, the embattled currency was trading at about 2 Liras to the dollar in mid-2014. The day before yesterday, it was trading at about 7 Liras to the dollar.

While the Pakistani Rupee has also depreciated quite considerably over the last few months, its recent drop (-17% against the dollar over the past 12 months) pales in comparison to the sustained and exponential downfall of the Lira. Yet, both the Turkish and Pakistani economies are at a point where they are experiencing an alarming dearth of foreign exchange reserves that have in turn dramatically increased their international debt obligations.

The ongoing financial crises in both Turkey and Pakistan are similar to the extent that both countries have pursued unsustainable economic policies for the last few years. These have been centered on increased borrowing on the back of overvalued currencies. While this approach had allowed both governments to finance a series of government investments in various projects, the long term implications of this accumulating debt has now caught up with them dramatically. As a result, both countries may soon desperately require IMF assistance; assistance, that in recent times, has become even more overtly conditional on meeting certain US foreign policy requirements.

In the case of Pakistan, these objectives may coincide with recent US pressures to ‘do more’ regarding the Haqqani network; or a deeper examination of the scale and viability of the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor. With regards to the latter, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has clearly stated that American Dollars, in the form of IMF funds, to Pakistan should not be used to bailout Chinese investors. The rationale being that a cash-strapped Pakistan is more likely to adversely affect Chinese interests as opposed to US interests in the region at the present. The politics behind the ongoing US-China trade war add even further relevance to this argument.

In the case of Turkey however, which is a major NATO ally, an important emerging market, and a deeply integrated part of the European financial system, there is a lot more at stake in terms of US interests. Turkey’s main lenders comprise largely of Spanish, French and Italian banks whose exposure to the Lira has caused a drastic knock on effect on the Euro. The ensuing uncertainty and volatility that has arisen is likely to prove detrimental to the US’s allies in the EU as well as in key emerging markets across South America, Africa and Asia. This marks the latest example of the US’s departure from maintaining and ensuring the health of the global financial system, as a leading economic power.

Yet, what’s even more unsettling is the fact that while the US is wholly cognizant of these wide-ranging impacts, it remains unfazed in pursuing its unilateral objectives. This is perhaps most evident in the diminishing sanctity of the NATO alliance as a direct outcome of these actions.  After the US, Turkey is the second biggest contributor of troops within the NATO framework. As relations between both members continue to deteriorate, Turkey has been more inclined to gravitate towards expanding Russian influence. In effect, contributing to the very anti-thesis of the NATO alliance. The recent dialogues between Presidents Erdogan and Putin, in the wake of US sanctions point markedly towards this dramatic shift.

Based on the above, it has become increasingly evident that US actions have come to stand in direct contrast to the Post-Cold War status quo, which it had itself help set up and maintain over the last three decades. It is rather, the US’s unilateral interests that have now taken increasing precedence over its commitments and leadership of major multilateral frameworks such as the NATO, and the Bretton Woods institutions. This approach while allowing greater flexibility to the US has however come at the cost of ceding space to a fast rising China and an increasingly assertive Russia. The acceleration of both Pak-China and Russo-Turkish cooperation present poignant examples of these developments.

However, while it remains unclear as to how much international influence US policy-makers are willing to cede to the likes of China and Russia over the long-term, their actions have made it clear that US policy and the pursuit of its unilateral objectives would no longer be made hostage to the Geo-Politics of key regions. These include key states at the cross-roads of the world’s potential flash-points such as Turkey and Pakistan.

Therefore, both Turkey and Pakistan would be well advised to factor in these reasons behind the US’s disinterest in their economic and financial predicaments. Especially since both Russia and China are still quite a way from being able to completely supplant the US’s financial and military influence across the world; perhaps a greater modicum of self-sufficiency and sustainability is in order to weather through these shifting dynamics.

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Social Mobility and Stronger Private Sector Role are Keys to Growth in the Arab World

MD Staff

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In spite of unprecedented improvements in technological readiness, the Arab World continues to struggle to innovate and create broad-based opportunities for its youth. Government-led investment alone will not suffice to channel the energies of society toward more private sector initiative, better education and ultimately more productive jobs and increased social mobility. The Arab World Competitiveness Report 2018 published by the World Economic Forum and the World Bank Group outlines recommendations for the Arab countries to prepare for a new economic context.

The gap between the competitiveness of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and of the other economies of the region, especially the ones affected by conflict and violence, has further increased over the last decade. However, similarities exist as the drop in oil prices of the past few years has forced even the most affluent countries in the region to question their existing social and economic models. Across the entire region, education is currently not rewarded with better opportunities to the point where the more educated the Arab youth is, the more likely they are to remain unemployed. Financial resources, while available through banks, are rarely distributed out of a small circle of large and established companies; and a complex legal system limits access to resources locked in place and distorts private initiative.

At the same time, a number of countries in the region are trying out new solutions to previously existing barriers to competitiveness.

  • In ten years, Morocco has nearly halved its average import tariff from 18.9 to 10.5 percent, facilitated trade and investment and benefited from sustained growth.
  • The United Arab Emirates has increased equity investment in technology firms from 100 million to 1.7 billion USD in just two years.
  • Bahrain is piloting a new flexi-permit for foreign workers to go beyond the usual sponsorship system that has segmented and created inefficiencies in the labour market of most GCC countries.
  • Saudi Arabia has committed to significant changes to its economy and society as part of its Vision 2030 reform plan, and Algeria has tripled internet access among its population in just five years.

“We hope that the 2018 Arab World Competitiveness Report will stimulate discussions resulting in government reforms that could unlock the entrepreneurial potential of the region and its youth,” said Philippe Le Houérou, IFC’s CEO. “We must accelerate progress toward an innovation-driven economic model that creates productive jobs and widespread opportunities.”

“The world is adapting to unprecedented technological changes, shifts in income distribution and the need for more sustainable pathways to economic growth, “added Mirek Dusek, Deputy Head of Geopolitical and Regional Affairs at the World Economic Forum. “Diversification and entrepreneurship are important in generating opportunities for the Arab youth and preparing their countries for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

With a few exceptions, such as Jordan, Tunisia and Lebanon, most Arab countries have much less diversified economies than countries in other regions with a similar level of income. For all of them, the way toward less oil-dependent economies is through robust macroeconomic policies that facilitate investment and trade, promotion of exports, improvements in education and initiatives to increase innovation and technological adoption among firms.

Entrepreneurship and broad-based private sector initiative must be a key ingredient to any diversification recipe.

The Arab Competitiveness Report 2018 also features country profiles, available here: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates.

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