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In times of conflict, spare a thought for the non-Gulf economies

Confidence and growth have taken hits – but the tide is turning for some nations, if not all

An olive picker in Tunisia. Unorthodox government polices could worsen the country's economic crisis Alamy via Reuters
An olive picker in Tunisia. Unorthodox government polices could worsen the country's economic crisis

Positive news for non-GCC Arab economies has been in short supply of late. 

The Gaza conflict, missile attacks in the Red Sea, war in Ukraine and last month’s tit-for-tat missile strikes between Israel and Iran have weighed on sentiment, undermined limited confidence and cut into growth. 

But some positives have emerged. Headline inflation rates have slowed across much of North Africa and the Levant, implying lower interest rates, a return to real growth and more stable exchange rates. 

March data show inflation at an annualised rate of just 0.9 percent in Morocco and 1.6 percent in Jordan. Tunisia’s inflation rate has also come down, although it is still running at over 7 percent year on year. 

Egypt’s inflation rate jumped earlier this year as the government implemented price hikes to some goods and services – notably fuel. In February, the effect of the devaluation in the pound to the level of the parallel market affected prices. But March’s reading eased to an albeit still high 33 percent year on year. 

Elsewhere, Lebanon’s inflation slowed to 70 percent year on year in March, the first time it has been in double – rather than triple – digits since early 2020 due to de-facto dollarisation and lower demand for imports. 

That said, inflation in these economies is vulnerable to increases in the prices of global foods and energy (such as oil) due to their being net importers. If supply chain disruptions persist, it could result in central banks keeping monetary policy tighter with consequences for growth and employment. 

And in Morocco’s case, it could undermine the Bank Al-Maghrib’s intention to widen the dirham’s trading band and formally adopt an inflation-targeting monetary framework.

The strikes by Iran and Israel undoubtedly marked a dangerous escalation in what up to now had been a proxy war. Thankfully, policymakers across the globe have for the moment worked to de-escalate the situation. 

Outside the countries directly involved, the most significant spillover has been the disruptions to shipping in the Red Sea and Suez Canal. Many of the major global shipping companies have diverted ships away from the Red Sea due to attacks by Houthi rebels and have instead opted to go around the Cape of Good Hope. 

The latest data shows that total freight traffic through the Suez Canal and Bab el-Mandeb Strait is down 60-75 percent since the onset of the hostilities in Gaza in early October. 

Almost all countries have seen fewer port calls. This could create fresh shortages of some goods imports, hamper production, and put upward pressure on prices. 

News of Iranian drones and missiles flying over Jordan imply that tourism numbers will, unfortunately, have fallen further

For Egypt, inflation aside, the shipping disruptions have proven to be a major economic headache. Receipts from the Suez Canal were worth around 2.5 percent of GDP in 2023 – and that was before canal fees were hiked by 15 percent this January. Canal receipts are a major source of hard currency for Egypt and officials have said that revenues are down 40-50 percent compared to levels in early October.

The conflict is also weighing on the crucial tourism sector. Tourism accounts for 5-10 percent of GDP in the economies of North Africa and the Levant and is a critical source of hard currency inflows. 

Jordan, where figures are the timeliest, show that tourist arrivals were down over 10 percent year on year between November and January. News of Iranian drones and missiles flying over Jordan imply that these numbers will, unfortunately, have fallen further.

In the case of Egypt, foreign currency revenues – from tourism and the Suez canal – represent more than 6 percent of GDP and are vulnerable. This played a large part in the decision to de-value the pound and hike interest rates aggressively in March.

The saving grace is that the conflict has galvanised geopolitical support for these economies.

For Egypt, the aforementioned policy shift was accompanied by an enhanced $8bn IMF deal and, while not strictly bilateral support, the bumper Ras el-Hekma deal seems to have been accelerated as the pressure on the Egyptian economy ratcheted up. 

This is providing much needed foreign currency. At the same time, Jordan recently renewed its financing arrangement with the IMF for $1.2bn over four years.

Tunisia, however, is an exception. President Saied’s anti-IMF rhetoric and reluctance to pass reforms, such as harsh fiscal consolidation, in an election year, mean that the country’s staff-level agreement for an IMF deal is likely to remain in limbo. 

If strains on Tunisia’s foreign receipts are stretched, and the central bank and government continue with unorthodox policies of deficit financing, there is a risk that Tunisia’s economic crisis will become messier more quickly in the next year – particularly large sovereign debt repayments are due in early 2025.

James Swanston is Middle East and North Africa economist at London-based Capital Economics

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