Moody's analyst sees Mideast growth hit by turmoil

The Associated Press
Monday, March 7, 2011; 8:36 AM

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Economic growth across the Middle East could take a significant hit because of the political upheaval roiling the region, a senior analyst at credit agency Moody's Investors Service said Monday.

Tristan Cooper, the firm's head analyst for regional sovereign ratings, said as much as 2 percentage points of economic growth could be wiped out this year.

"Now that we've seen this political turmoil erupt in the region, it's likely that the economic growth trajectory will have been altered quite significantly," he said at a conference in Dubai.

Numerous countries across the Middle East and North Africa have been gripped by popular uprisings calling for widespread political reforms this year. Protests in Tunisia and Egypt toppled leaders who had been in power for decades, and armed rebels in Libya are threatening the regime of longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi.

Cooper cautioned that forecasts for this year and next have "a high degree of uncertainty" because it's unclear how the unrest will play out and whether it will spread.

Growth next year could also be affected, but to a lesser extent "assuming that the political turmoil abates and things begin to get back to some degree of normality," Cooper said.

The International Monetary Fund predicted in late January that economies across the Middle East and North Africa are likely to grow by 4.6 percent in 2011, lower than its earlier forecast of 5.1 percent.

Kai Stukenbrock, a Dubai-based sovereign credit analyst at another rating agency, Standard & Poor's, said it is difficult to gauge the region-wide economic affect of Middle East protests because the situation remains volatile.

But he predicted the fallout of the unrest in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, could wipe out much of the nation's growth potential this year.

Instead of expanding by an expected 4 or 5 percent this year, Egypt's economy will now likely grow by 1 or 1.5 percent at best this year, and maybe not at all, Stukenbrock said.

"The key issue is where things will go politically," he told reporters on a conference call.

S&P on Monday put its foreign currency ratings for the Gulf nation of Oman on a negative watch list, suggesting a possible downgrade is imminent. The firm said it made the move because social unrest and possible fallout from regional conflicts increase the political risks facing the country.

In recent days, protesters have staged sit-ins around Oman, including the capital Muscat and the northern industrial city of Sohar, where the unrest began, to press for reforms. The government has responded by firing a number of senior officials.

Separately, Moody's said it is keeping a "cautious" outlook on the financial health of state-linked companies in the oil-rich Gulf Arab states in light of political developments in the region.

Many Gulf companies had their credit ratings knocked down over the past two years as the global financial crisis hit the region, popping property bubbles and revealing billions of dollars of bad debt, particularly in Dubai.

Moody's said the situation has now stabilized somewhat as the economy recovers, but that weaker companies could still face pressure.

"While we believe that (Gulf) corporate credit quality could further stabilize, we are mindful of the near-term economic impact that regional political instability could have on selected markets and issuers," the rating agency said.

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