Muscat performs tricky budget balancing act

12 December 2023


On 11 November, Oman’s Etco Space sent its first nano-satellite, Aman-1, into orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from California. It is the sort of endeavour Muscat is keen to promote as it tries to diversify its economy.

Etco Space chief executive Abdulaziz Jaafar said his company will be “pushing the boundaries of our space programme in the coming months and years”. It aims to launch more satellites and get involved in deep-space missions. 

Oman’s economy needs to find new areas to exploit. GDP growth slowed from 4.3 per cent in 2022 to 1.3 per cent in 2023, according to the Washington-based IMF. The organisation expects the growth rate to revive to 2.7 per cent in 2024, but that is at least partly dependent on a rebound in hydrocarbons production.

This may not come to pass. Oman is part of the wider Opec+ arrangement to curb production and at the group’s meeting on 30 November, Oman agreed to cut 42,000 barrels a day (b/d) from its output during the first quarter of 2024. Opec said the cuts will be gradually unwound later in the year “subject to market conditions”.

Soft oil prices

It is not just about output, however. Oil prices have also been weaker in 2023. The Finance Ministry says Oman received $81 a barrel on average in the first nine months of 2023, compared to $94 in the same period last year. 

Caroline Bain, chief commodities economist at Capital Economics, said the Opec+ cuts “should at least act as a floor under prices at current levels, but we would be surprised if it prompted a sustained price rally”.

As it stands, Oman’s net oil revenues were RO4.8bn ($12.5bn) in the first nine months of 2023, 10 per cent lower than a year ago. 

Gas revenues have fallen even more significantly – by 42 per cent to RO1.6bn – prompting an overall drop in public revenues of 16 per cent, or RO1.7bn.

Wider market dynamics mean the pressure is likely to continue into 2024. Bhushan Bahree, executive director at S&P Global Commodity Insights, says that crude prices are “under pressure from a looming oil over-supply early next year”, amid strong oil production growth in the Americas.

The economic pressures follow a period of fairly benign conditions. High oil revenues in recent years have enabled Omani authorities to post fiscal and current account surpluses and pay off some sovereign debt. 

Such trends have prompted the main credit ratings agencies to issue upgrades. In May 2023, Moody’s Investors Service promoted Oman from Ba3 to Ba2, while both Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings upgraded the sovereign from BB to BB+ in September.

Debt and spending

Government debt rose from just 5 per cent of GDP in 2014 to a peak of 68 per cent in 2020, but since then there has been a concerted effort to reverse that trend. By 2022, it had dropped to 40 per cent of GDP and Fitch predicts it will stabilise at about 35 per cent in 2024-25. 

Overall public debt is now at about RO16.3bn, levels last seen in 2018-19.

Despite the lower oil and gas revenues, the government has kept its spending discipline, with expenditure down 14 per cent in the first nine months of the year. This has meant the budget remains in surplus, albeit at lower levels than in 2022. Figures from the Finance Ministry show a surplus of RO791m for the first nine month of 2023, down from RO1.1bn in the same period a year earlier.

In the longer-term, Oman is pinning much of its hopes on hydrogen production. Hydrogen Oman (Hydrom) signed five deals for projects in Duqm in mid-2023, involving total potential investment of $30bn. It is hoping a second round of deals, covering blocks of land in the Dhofar region, could attract a further $20bn-$30bn, with awards due in early 2024.

Hydrom managing director Abdulaziz al-Shidhani has said total investments in the sector could reach $140bn by 2050, by which time the country is hoping to produce 8 million tonnes a year (t/y) of green hydrogen. There is an interim target of 1 million t/y by 2030.

Even if these investment and production targets are achieved, oil and gas will remain central elements of the Omani economy for some time. In a sign of the sector’s continuing importance, the $7bn OQ8 refinery project in Duqm is due to be completed by the end of 2023, with partners OQ and Kuwait Petroleum International aiming to process about 230,000 b/d of oil once it is up and running. 

Compared to the undulations in oil and gas and the wider economy, Oman’s political scene is far more stable. Since taking over in 2020, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq al-Said has pushed economic reforms but made few changes on the political side, other than gradually adjusting some of the key personnel. In late October, he appointed new governors to take over in South Al-Batinah, North Al-Sharqiyah and Al-Wusta.

There have also been public protests in Muscat over the Gaza war, but they have been more limited than some other demonstrations in recent years, such as the protests against high unemployment and inflation seen in 2018 and 2019 in cities around the country. 

As long as the government can keep the economy relatively stable, it should also be able to maintain the political equilibrium.

MEED's January 2024 special report on Oman also includes:

> BANKINGOmani banks look to projects for growth
> POWER & WATEROman expands grid connectivity
Dominic Dudley
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