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Saudi Arabia

The 'Dubai Omen' And Global Risks Of Plunging Oil Prices

Anchoring in Dubai?
Anchoring in Dubai?
Daniel Eckert and Holger Zschäpitz

BERLIN — As the price of oil continues to fall, share prices on the Gulf region's stock markets have plummeted in parallel. The price of oil reached a yearly low of $60 a barrel on Friday, and we're now looking at a possible $50, which would create a truly bleak outlook for economic prospects in the Middle East. On Monday, the price touched a low of $56.25 before a modest rebound.

"The freefall of the price of oil has unleashed panic here," says Wafik Dawood, portfolio manager at Compass Capital in Cairo. On the Egyptian stock exchange, rates fell by 5% on Sunday. In Qatar they fell by 6%, and in Dubai 8%. The region's stock indices therefore lost most of the year's profit. In majority Muslim countries, exchanges tend to be open on Sundays and closed on Fridays.

"Morale is poor," says Sanyalak Manibhandu, head of research at NBAD Securities in Abu Dhabi. "The falling rates of the past few weeks are accelerating."

On the Saudi Arabian stock market, losses were somewhat more limited Sunday, to 4%, although investors fear a more long-lasting downswing. Since September, the exchange has lost 28% of its value in riyals, the Saudi Arabian currency, and is only quoting at November 2013 levels.

Well into autumn, the region's traders were taking the fall in oil prices relatively lightly, as investors were initially counting on commodities as a whole recovering fairly quickly. The cost of exploitation in the Middle East is often lower than in other places in the world so that sinking prices at first didn't seem to impact producers too heavily. But the relative calm is definitely over now that the price per barrel is under the $60 mark, as investors fear a plunge similar to 2008.

"Oil is a major source of revenue for the Gulf States," Bloomberg News quoted fund manager Tariq Qaqish of Al Mal Capital as saying. "Lower oil prices mean lower spending. Lower spending means less economic growth."

Gulf country budgets are particularly dependent on revenues from petroleum sales. That means that lower prices put state finances under pressure, which in turn raises red flags at the rating agencies. Standard & Poor's warned Friday it could downgrade Bahrain's credit rating.

Observers say the fallen oil price starkly reveals the structural weakness of economies such as Bahrain's. The "business models" of other states in the region are also coming in for some critical analysis.

Abdallah Salem el-Badri, secretary general of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), tried Sunday to contain the panic by saying that the price collapse was being exaggerated. "The fundamentals should not lead to this dramatic reduction in price," Badri said in Dubai. OPEC was striving to arrive at an appropriate and sustainable price level for both producing countries and users, Badri said, but he didn't suggest a specific price.

Canary in mine

Once again Dubai is coming in for particularly close attention. The glitzy metropolis in the desert sands is one of the most indebted economies in the world. The sheikdom's corporations alone are $109 billion in debt. We're living in an age when debts in the billions may seem common, but consider that the economic performance of the entire United Arab Emirates (UAE) — of which Dubai is one — is only $78 billion. That means that liabilities are far greater than economic performance.

In Dubai, but also in other countries in the region, economic models are based primarily on financial services and real estate, alongside oil. Also a priority is lavish state expenditure on the population, which often guarantees them a socially worry-free existence. In times of stable or rising oil prices, this doesn't pose a problem, but in times of financial uncertainty it can boomerang.

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Photo: Qf1247

The situation is particularly precarious because most of the Gulf States based their budgets on rising oil prices in 2015, according to the rating agency Moody's. In some countries a price of more than $100 a barrel is a prerequisite for a balanced budget.

The gloomiest picture is in Bahrain. The country needs the oil price to be at $125 per barrel in order to see any surplus, while Saudi Arabia needs a price of $108 and Oman $102. The UAE to which Dubai belongs calculates the barrel price at $75 for budget purposes.

Only Qatar, according to its own calculations, can manage at the $60 rate, while Kuwait can manage with less and still make a profit.

The Gulf State economies may be small and of lesser importance to the world economy. But there are numerous transmission mechanisms that could turn the crisis there into our own. For one thing, there are the billions in sovereign wealth funds. Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and others have invested untold billions of petro-dollars in the Western world.

A Qatari oil fund owns 6% of shares in Deutsche Bank, the Kuwait Investment Authority is, with 7%, the largest single investor in the German car manufacturer Daimler, and Qatar owns 17% of Volkswagen.

When oil revenues are down, funds and investors could in a worst-case scenario be obliged to sell their shares. That would put downward pressure on corporate stocks, and would make it impossible for funds to participate in recapitalization in a time of crisis.

Nervous investors are already on to the idea that the Dubai crash could bode ill for global financial markets — and indeed the last stock market crashes did carry something of a "Dubai omen."

Whenever rates in the emirate fell, a global convulsion followed shortly afterwards. The bankruptcy of Dubai in the spring of 2008 helped accelerate the global financial crisis. There is no rational explanation for why Dubai is like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. But when the air in the markets thins out, the emirate so dependent on international capital and stable commodities prices feels it earlier than others.

Investors in virtually any sector should keep eyes peeled on the daily developments in the Gulf.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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