Saudi leads MEED’s latest economic activity index

31 January 2023


Saudi Arabia has continued to sit atop the MEED Economic Activity Index with the close of 2022, as its repeat of another bumper year of project contract awards set it well clear of the next most competitive regional projects market.

The index has generally seen the division between energy exporters and importers sharpen, with the former enjoying current account and, for the most part, fiscal surpluses, and the latter invariably facing trade deficits and persisting fiscal deficits.

High inflation, compounded by rising interest rates and high fuel prices, continues to erode economic prospects in the region. It has also pressured the finances of countries with artificially high currency pegs. Egypt has been forced to drop its currency peg three times in the past year, leaving it increasingly at the mercy of inflation.

Saudi Arabia stands largely apart from these pressures as the region’s largest oil producer. Its inflation rate in 2023 is projected by the IMF to be a minimal 2.2 per cent. While its rate of real GDP growth is expected to come down from 7.6 per cent in 2022 to 3.7 per cent in 2023, this remains high amid the glum projections that up to a third of the global economy could enter recession this year.

Together with the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and surprisingly Iraq, Saudi Arabia is expected to maintain a double-digit current account surplus in 2023, as well as a fiscal surplus, despite the kingdom’s rising project spending.

There is a further $95bn-worth of project value in the bidding stage [in Saudi Arabia], boding well for the potential of 2023 to be another bumper – if not record – year for the Saudi contracting sector

Project potential

Saudi Arabia’s project market maintained its momentum in 2022, seeing the award of 53bn-worth of project value, 1.3 per cent more than in 2021 and 46 per cent higher than the annual average over the preceding five years. 

The award figure also exceeded the value of projects coming to completion over the course of the year by $21bn – a strong net positive result for the market. 

There is a further $95bn-worth of project value in the bidding stage, boding well for the potential of 2023 to be another bumper – if not record – year for the Saudi contracting sector.

Mixed performances

The UAE, while retaining the second position in the index, has seen its score slip. Despite having strong real GDP growth and fiscal projections for 2023, the country remains well down from historic highs – the $18.7bn-worth of project awards in 2022 was just 53 per cent of the $35.1bn average in 2017-21. The market also shed $20bn in value as completions outstripped awards. 

The $56.4bn of projects in bidding and due for award in 2023 makes the prospect of a turnround a possibility, but there is no guarantee given the global uncertainty.

Qatar has meanwhile risen strongly in the index since the third quarter of 2022, despite a real GDP growth projection by the IMF of just 2.4 per cent in 2023 – as the boost to non-oil GDP from the Fifa World Cup wears off. 

Qatar’s project awards also fell in 2022 following a spike in 2021. The $14bn of awards in 2022 nevertheless remained almost level with the five-year average.

Kuwait also has a slightly lower real GDP projection in 2023, but strong overall fundamentals. Project activity also continues to tick over in the country, albeit at a slower than usual pace. The country has $27.6bn-worth of projects in the bid stage – a figure nearly 10 times the $2.8bn-worth of awards in 2022, which fell well below the $5.6bn average for the preceding five years.

The remaining GCC nations, Oman and Bahrain, and another Gulf energy exporter, Iraq, all also boast healthy current account surpluses. From there however, the countries diverge. 

Oman is in a much better position heading into 2023, having stabilised its fiscal situation and eliminated its deficit. The country also has the lowest forecast consumer price inflation rate in the region heading into 2023, at just 1.9 per cent. Furthermore, the country has a burgeoning $19.7bn-worth of projects in the bid stage that could soon bolster its projects market.

Bahrain continues to struggle with both a persisting fiscal deficit and a debt burden – equivalent to about 120 per cent of its GDP. The country’s projects market slumped in 2022, with the less than $1bn of contract awards compared to $2.6bn in completions.

Iraq remarkably sits just below the GCC countries in the index thanks to its oil-fuelled GDP growth and twin double-digit current account and fiscal surpluses. Iraq’s project activity nevertheless fell away in 2022, which saw just $5bn-worth of awards – compared to $17bn the previous year and a $12bn five-year average. The $28bn-worth of projects in the bidding stage could nevertheless make for better things to come.

Egypt’s projects market has recently been in the ascendant, but its broader economic fortunes are now in sharp decline. The full impact of the country’s currency crisis has yet to be revealed, but Cairo already has twin current account and fiscal deficits.

Iraq remarkably sits just below the GCC countries in the index thanks to its oil-fuelled GDP growth and twin double-digit current account and fiscal surpluses

Facing challenges

Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and Tunisia are all struggling to break even in the current economic climate and have double-digit unemployment. This is ironic in the case of Algeria, which is an energy exporter with a current account surplus and yet double-

digit fiscal deficit.

Below this, Iran continues to be hampered by sanctions, creeping economic malaise and an estimated 40 per cent consumer price inflation rate amid a steadily collapsing import subsidies regime.

Libya, despite resurgent oil growth, has nearly 20 per cent unemployment and 50 per cent youth unemployment due to the civil war. Reconstruction efforts in the country also showed signs of stalling in 2022 as the project award value dropped off, with many projects stuck in the bid stage.

Yemen and Lebanon close out the index with dismal economic performances due to their respective ongoing conflict and economic crisis. Remarkably, with almost one-in-three out of work and unchecked inflation, Lebanon is managing to underperform even Yemen.

About the index

MEED’s Economic Activity Index, first published in June 2020, combines macroeconomic, fiscal, social and risk factors, alongside data from regional projects tracker MEED Projects on the project landscape, to provide an indication of the near-term economic potential of Middle East and North African markets.

View the November 2022 index here
John Bambridge
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