Resurging projects uplift UAE and Saudi economies

29 January 2024


The UAE and Saudi Arabia are almost neck-and-neck – with the UAE marginally in the lead – at the top of the MEED Economic Activity Index, which assesses the near-term economic health of regional markets.

In October 2023, both countries were forecast by the Washington-based IMF to grow at a region-beating rate of 4% in real GDP terms in 2024, though without taking into account the deepening of voluntary oil production cuts in November by half a dozen Opec+ countries, among them Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

In the Q4 Opec+ meeting, in addition to the voluntary cuts announced in April 2023 and extended until the end of 2024, Saudi Arabia and the UAE agreed to cut their oil production by a further 1 million barrels a day (b/d) and 163,000 b/d, respectively, until the end of Q1 2024.

The impact of these additional cuts, as well as the trailing of the oil price below the IMF’s forecast of $79.9 a barrel in 2024, remains to be seen, but – other factors notwithstanding – it should be negative.

In spite of this, some think tanks and ratings agencies have given both countries even more bullish real GDP projections since the start of the year. Aljazira Capital has forecast a 4.4% real GDP growth figure for Saudi Arabia in 2024 and ratings agency Moody’s has projected an even higher 4.6% growth rate.

Aljazira Capital stated that weaker oil revenues “would be offset by growth in non-oil revenues” from the private sector amid the implementation of non-oil spending programmes under Saudi Vision 2030.

For the UAE, ratings agency Standard and Poor’s (S&P) meanwhile forecast 5% growth in 2024 – also driven by the non-oil sector, which grew by 6% in 2023, led by hospitality, retail and financial services.

Beyond the headline figures, both countries are keeping their inflation and fiscal balance in check and have relatively contained unemployment levels. However, Saudi Arabia’s figures of 5.6% unemployment and 23.8% youth unemployment both remain well above average for the GCC countries.

Projects boom

Both countries have also seen a surge in projects activity. Together, they were responsible for the bulk of the $253bn in contracts that made 2023 a record year for regional project activity.

In Saudi Arabia, the total awards value for the year was 59% higher, rising to $95bn – double the long-term average value of project awards over the preceding 10 years. New work also outstripped project completions by a ratio of almost four to one, adding $70bn to the net value of projects under execution.

In the UAE, the value of project awards leapt by 175% to hit $81.5bn – a value almost close to double the long-term average. Significant project completions worth more than $48bn nevertheless weighed on the market and reduced the net change in the value of projects under execution to $33bn.

Other markets

The other GCC countries have mixed outlooks, with varying growth forecasts and projects market activity.

Qatar has a modest 2.2% growth projection for 2024 and has maintained recent project awards at a level matching the rate of completion of legacy projects, as well as the long-term award value average.

Kuwait’s economy was given a 2024 growth forecast of 3.6% by the IMF in October, after contracting in 2023, but this does not include the voluntary production cuts announced in November. The country’s projects market meanwhile continues to slip, with its 2023 awards sitting at just 76% of its average.

The revision of Oman’s 2024 growth forecast by the IMF in January provides a glimpse into the impact of the additional voluntary oil production cuts announced in November for Q1, with the country’s real GDP growth projection for the year having been revised down markedly from 2.7% to 1.4%. The country’s projects market is nevertheless largely holding its own, with its 2023 contract awards clocking in at 88% of the long-term average, even as completions slightly exceeded new awards.

Bahrain continues to struggle with a persistent fiscal deficit and deepening debt, and the squeezing of the country’s cash flow is being reflected in its sinking projects market. The $1.2bn in awards in 2023 flagged 32% behind completions and 65% below the market’s long-term average.

Morocco has increasingly emerged as one of the least troubled markets in the wider Middle East and North Africa region, with a solid 3.6% growth projection for its largely non-hydrocarbons economy. Inflation in the country has also been curbed and the $2.4bn in project awards in 2023 exceeded completions by 24%, despite dipping below the long-term average.

Egypt is heading into 2024 facing severe economic headwinds, with high inflation amid falling foreign exchange reserves and the looming prospect of a further currency devaluation, short of an IMF bailout. The country’s mounting fiscal trouble has been reflected by falling projects activity, with the $12.6bn in awards in 2023 being both below the level of completions and 44% below the long-term average.

Tunisia has a forecast of just 1.9% real GDP growth, but an unexpected burst of $1.5bn in project awards in 2023 boosted projects activity – with the value nearly double both completions and average awards.

Algeria, Iraq and Jordan face various headwinds, but chief among their problems is that their middling growth rates are insufficient to accommodate either their rising debt or double-digit unemployment. All three countries also had projects markets that underperformed in 2023, with award values below both the level of completions and long-term averages.
John Bambridge
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