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Country Forecast Middle East and Africa December 2017

Country Forecast Middle East and Africa December 2017

  • December 2017
  • ID: 1934795
  • Format: PDF
  • The Economist Intelligence Unit


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Middle East and North Africa

  • Donald Trump's presidency in the US continues to have major reverberations across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) given his confrontational approach towards Iran, his reduced concern about human rights and his unpredictability. His stated desire to rein in the US's role as a security guarantor for the Gulf Arab states, together with his latest move to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, threatens to upend a slew of long-standing assumptions regarding US policy in the region.
  • Regional instability, which has worsened since 2011, has been exacerbated by the deepening regional rivalry between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab Gulf monarchies (led by Saudi Arabia). This enmity has prolonged the civil war in Syria-where the two sides have backed opposing players-and played a direct role in Saudi Arabia's costly military intervention in Yemen (where it has been fighting to oust the Iranian-backed Houthis). It is also one of the factors under-lying the decision by four states to launch a boycott of Qatar in June, which was also catalysed by Mr Trump's strong endorsement of Saudi Arabia as an ally.
  • The tide has turned decisively against Islamic State (IS) in both Iraq and Syria, but its defeat creates new challenges. In Iraq, the Kurds are seeking to hold onto disputed territories they garrisoned against IS and to push for independence. In Syria, a race for territory is under way between the regime, backed by Russia and Iran, and Kurdish-led forces and other rebels with US backing. These developments have the potential to sow the seeds for new conflicts, although peacemaking efforts continue.
  • With oil prices set to remain far below their 2011-14 levels over the medium term, the region's major oil producers are undertaking the biggest shrinking of the state's role in the economy since the late 1990s. This has included cuts to capital spending and politically sensitive subsidies, as well as growing interest in private financing in infrastructure. But fear of provoking social and labour unrest will slow governments' efforts to pare back their bloated state bureaucracies.
  • Real GDP growth in the MENA region will remain sluggish in 2018-19, with annual growth averaging 3.1% (a figure flattered by Iran's outperformance), as the expected recovery in oil prices will not be sufficiently strong to enable govern-ments to ease their austerity drives. This weakness will be exacerbated by lower oil output among the region's oil exporters, in line with OPEC's recent decision to extend its production-cut agreement until the end of 2018.
  • Debt issuance by the region's oil exporters has surged since 2016, as governments seek to finance their wide fiscal deficits. However, we expect rising perceptions of political risk, tighter US monetary policy and a hard landing in China to result in higher yields among emerging-market issuers in 2018.

Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Elections are now a regular feature of political life across much of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Nonetheless, genuine democratic accountability is yet to emerge across much of the continent, underlined by the fact that the same ruling party has governed for over a decade in around two-thirds of countries. Irregularities in the conduct of elections are still a frequent problem, as evidenced by the need for Kenya to rerun its presidential poll in late October.
  • The risks posed by violent Africa-based Islamist groups will continue to dominate the region's political agenda in the coming years. The groups include al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is active across the Sahel; Somalia's al-Shabab; and Boko Haram in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
  • It is unlikely that popular revolt will topple governments in Africa. However, social unrest will become a more common feature as urbanisation gains pace and the internet revolution finally takes hold. The military will also continue to play an influential role in many countries, as underlined by recent events in Zimbabwe.
  • Regional real GDP growth will edge up from an estimated 2.7% in 2017 to an annual average of 3.3% in 2018-19. Given the region's heavy dependence on commodity exports, fluctuating oil and non-oil commodity prices will continue to create problems in terms of economic management. But with oil prices fore-cast to average US$58.3/barrel in 2018-19 (up from US$44/b in 2016), there will be scope for the region's oil exporters to adopt a slightly less restrictive fiscal stance.
  • Structural reforms will help to bolster economic activity, along with a further strengthening of ties with faster-growing economies in Asia. Nonetheless, even if SSA returned to sustained annual growth of 3-4%, this would still be insufficient to have a major impact on poverty levels in most countries.
  • The current account will remain in deficit in 2018-19. The narrowing in 2017 was driven by lower spending on imports, in line with subdued domestic demand, which will recover gradually in 2018-19. Higher oil prices will boost the earnings of the region's oil exporters in 2018-19. But a strengthening of economic growth will push up demand for imports, causing the regional deficit to widen.
  • External debt of the region is forecast to remain on an upward trajectory, rising from an estimated US$482bn at end-2017 to US$548bn at end-2019. Both bilateral and multilateral lending will continue to increase in response to ongoing demand for funds to support infrastructure and social spending.

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