With a broad-ranging project such as Global Finance’s annual Middle East supplement, success means providing clear insights and stripping away layers of confusion and misunderstanding.
The countries of this region are no more a totally homogeneous group than are the countries of Europe. Nor are the countries of the Gulf a monolithic territory, their geographical proximity and geopolitical affiliation notwithstanding. Qatar makes no bones about its close relationship with the US, while in Bahrain one encounters lingering resentment of president Barack Obama’s criticism of the government crackdown on protesters in 2011.
Even differences between the seven nation states of the United Arab Emirates can escape notice. Dubai and Abu Dhabi have the most visibility and wealth, somewhat dwarfing the remaining five—Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain.
Macro trends such as the recent drop in oil prices affect Middle Eastern countries differently—particularly oil-producing countries, as they vary in their so-called break-even price per barrel, the price at which the government can balance its budget. We examine that and a 10-year-old financial tradition: that of the Gulf States’ providing a safe haven for capital and people when other areas of the Middle East are in tumult.
We look, as well, at other macro trends, such as increasing competition between banks in the area, international diversification, capital flows to Africa, and the impact of mobile and Internet banking.
Along the way we encountered some surprises. The upgrading of the UAE and Qatar from frontier to emerging markets status by index provider MSCI in May 2014 created expectations of huge capital inflows that did not materialize to the extent expected. Although mobile and Internet banking have become facts of financial life, some bankers see them as crucial—but not profit-making.
Broader global market developments also affect Gulf countries in quite varied ways, highlighting the unique characteristics of the countries making up this diverse region.