A stairwell in the Queen Elizabeth II cruise liner docked at Port Rashid in Dubai, where the tourism sector has been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: AFP

Middle East oil exporters are bracing for recession and the lowest growth rates since the 1990s, with economists warning that the “twin shocks” of Covid-19 and plummeting oil prices will have a knock-on effect across the region.

“Quarantines, disruption in supply chains, the crash in oil prices in light of the breakdown of OPEC+, travel restrictions, and business closings point to a recession in the MENA region, the first in three decades,” the Institute of International Finance warned this week.

Oil exporters in the Gulf and North Africa are projected to see growth levels drop to 0.8%, IIF said, based on an average price per barrel of $40. At the time of publication on Monday, crude was hovering at cents above $20 per barrel.

Petro-titans like Saudi Arabia, which have shifted major resources toward sovereign wealth funds in recent years, are expected to recall funds back home as their collective surplus of $65 billion is flipped inside out to a deficit of the same amount or more.

These sovereign wealth funds could shed up to $75 billion in stocks in the coming period, Reuters on Sunday quoted JPMorgan’s Nikolaos Panigirtzoglou as saying.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund currently holds significant shares in everything from ride-hailing app Uber to Japan’s SoftBank.

Such funds have likely already offloaded as much as $150 billion-worth of stock in the month of March, said Panigirtzoglou.

How did we get here?

Saudi Arabia earlier this month launched an oil price war, flooding the market with crude in a game of chicken against Russia after the latter refused to collaborate on production cuts.

Moscow, which desired lower prices to compete with US shale, did not blink.

The result has been, Bloomberg reports, a “cascade” of oil surplus, with some landlocked producers literally paying buyers to relieve them of supplies they cannot store.

From Saudi Arabia to Algeria, MENA exporters are expected to see hydrocarbon earnings fall by nearly $200 billion this year, according to the Institute of International Finance report, resulting in a loss of more than 10% of GDP in this sector alone.

As the price war was launched, the novel coronavirus began spreading through the Gulf, shattering hopes of diversifying toward tourism in the near future.

Saudi Arabia, with approximately 1,300 confirmed cases as of Monday, has shuttered the gates of Mecca over fears it could become the new virus epicenter after Iran.

The religious pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites, mandatory for every Muslim, nets Saudi Arabia billions of dollars each year.

Knock-on effect

The financial troubles in the Gulf do not stop at the Persian Gulf, but are slated to have a painful knock-on effect across the Middle East region.

Young people from Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt – with its population of 100 million, have for decades turned to the Gulf Arab states for jobs after graduation, doing everything from running restaurants in Riyadh to working in banks in Dubai.

Such positions have become even more crucial in a time of heightened visa restrictions in the United States and Europe.

A recession in the Gulf, thus spells an even worse outlook for already struggling economies in the Levant, which often look to the oil producers for help during hard times.

“A global recession will lead to a reduction in trade, foreign direct investment, tourism flows, and remittances to Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Lebanon,” IIF said.

Egypt, the report notes, is expected to see a “significant drop” in critical Suez Canal transit revenues, as global trade suffers.

The Egyptian government earlier this month revoked the press credentials of Guardian correspondent Ruth Michaelson after she reported on a researcher’s findings that Egypt was seeing a higher number of Covid-19 cases than reported.

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Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.