RAFAH, Palestinian Territories: A picture taken from Rafah shows smoke billowing during Zionist bombardment over Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on Feb 11, 2024. AFP
RAFAH, Palestinian Territories: A picture taken from Rafah shows smoke billowing during Zionist bombardment over Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on Feb 11, 2024. AFP
War on Gaza has devastating impact on Palestinian economy: IMF chief
Arab world plays a key role in a rapidly changing world: Georgieva

DUBAI: The International Monetary Fund expects the GDP growth in the Middle East and North Africa to reach 2.9 percent this year, higher than last year, but still below its October projections.

“This is largely due to short-term cuts in oil production, the conflict in Gaza and tight monetary policies” said IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva in her keynote speech at the eighth annual Arab Fiscal Forum in Dubai on Sunday. Georgieva said the Arab region plays an increasingly important role in a rapidly changing world. Among exporters, slow growth outside the hydrocarbon sector is another factor and declining oil demand will become an increasing headwind over the medium term, she said. Net energy importers, meanwhile, are held back by historically high debt and borrowing needs, and limited access to external financing.

“Economically, the impact of the conflict has been devastating in Gaza, where activity dropped 80 percent from October through December compared with a year earlier — and in the West Bank, where the drop was 22 percent,” she said.

The Palestinian economy’s dire outlook is worsening as the conflict persists and only a durable peace and political solution will fundamentally change it. The IMF will continue to provide policy advice and technical assistance to the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian Monetary Authority, she said.

Looking at neighboring economies, she said the conflict is weighing on tourism, a lifeline for many. “We are closely watching the fiscal impacts, which could be seen in areas such as higher spending on social safety nets and defense.

“Across the region and beyond, the impact is felt through rising freight costs and reduced Red Sea transit volumes — down by nearly 50 percent this year in our PortWatch data,” she mentioned.

This exceptionally uncertain moment compounds the challenges of economies that are still recovering from previous shocks. And further widening of the conflict would aggravate the economic harm.

“But the Arab world can plant the seed of a better and more stable future in these challenging conditions. It can meet the reconstruction needs to come, strengthen resilience, and create the opportunities growing populations demand,” she said.

Create fiscal space

She said fiscal space is the tree we must grow. “Like the UAE’s national tree, the Ghaf, it must be resilient — enough to withstand shocks and keep bearing fruit. The first way to nourish the tree is by mobilizing revenues. Countries can expand tax capacity with stronger institutions, better-designed frameworks, and more robust revenue collection,” she said.

Tax policy design is the key. Multiple countries have improved VAT systems. Some, like Morocco, have expanded personal income taxes — which are underutilized in the region — and made them more progressive. And 11 Arab countries have already joined the global minimum corporate tax agreement.

Kristalina Georgieva
Kristalina Georgieva

Diversifying away from hydrocarbon revenues is key for oil exporters — the UAE’s federal corporate income tax rate of 9 percent became effective last year. Non-commodity exporters can reduce exemptions and limit preferential rates, as Tunisia has done.

And since up to 50 percent of the region’s tax revenue comes from customs and other indirect taxes, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have been promoting electronic invoicing. Strengthening compliance can pay off big! “Second, we can grow the tree by eliminating regressive energy subsidies.

A paper we’re launching here tomorrow shows that phasing out explicit energy subsidies could save $336 billion in the region — equivalent to Iraq’s and Libya’s economies combined — including in oil exporting countries. In addition to savings, it discourages pollution, and helps improve social spending — a triple dividend,” she said.

Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco have succeeded with comprehensive subsidy reform plans featuring robust public communications, appropriate phasing of price increases, and targeted cash support for the most vulnerable. The third way to nourish the fiscal tree is: improve the performance of state-owned enterprises. We have a saying at the IMF — it’s not only what you owe, it’s what you own. And Arab-world SOEs own a lot, with assets exceeding 50 percent, and even 100 percent of GDP in some countries. Oman is addressing this problem head-on, instituting more robust governance, better accountability, and stronger financial management of SOEs — and they are planning some divestments, she said.

SOE debt dropped from 41 percent of GDP in 2021 to 30 percent in 2022. As new revenue and more efficient spending help our tree grow, it will bear more fruit. It will give you the fiscal space needed to maintain debt sustainability and build resilience against shocks in the short-term. Longer-term, it will help you to implement the new social contract we came together around in Marrakech — to accelerate the transformation of your economies for a future that is more inclusive and green, and more digital.

“Think of investments to prepare for AI, like upskilling workers and improving internet access in low-income countries. Or steps like developing a national strategy and clear regulations for AI, which landed the Emirates in the top tier of the IMF’s AI Preparedness Index.

“Continued strong support from Gulf Cooperation Council countries is critical,” she said adding the IMF has made available roughly $64 billion in liquidity and reserves to the MENA region since the pandemic began, including $8 billion in the last year. “Of that, $1.6 billion is from our newest instrument—the Resilience and Sustainability Trust — to help Morocco and Mauritania transition to greener economies,” she added.

With the World Bank, the IMF provided $4.5 billion in debt relief for Somalia. The IMF is ramping up capacity development throughout the region and its new office in Riyadh is strengthening its presence and partnerships with Arab institutions.

“It reminds me of a classic Arab proverb: “A tree begins with a seed.” At a time of economic challenges, geopolitical tension, and war, it is so important that we plant seeds now — of growth and cooperation, of peace and prosperity,” she said.

While uncertainties are still high, we can be a bit more confident about the economic outlook, because the global economy has been surprisingly resilient. Growth exceeded expectations in 2023, and global headline inflation is expected to fall in 2024. But we cannot declare victory prematurely. Medium-term growth prospects remain anemic at around 3 percent, compared to the historical average of about 3.8 percent. They could be boosted by factors like developments in artificial intelligence. But with roughly 40 percent of jobs exposed to AI — both globally and in the Arab world — its effects are uncertain. Countries that lack the infrastructure and skilled workforces to harness this technology could fall further behind, she added.

By Nermin Al-Houti The third forum on Just Peace was inaugurated earlier in Egypt, organized by the Abdulaziz Saud Al-Babtain Cultural Establishment in cooperation with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, under the patronage of Egyptian President Abde...
By Nermin Al-Houti The third Forum on Just Peace was inaugurated earlier in Egypt, and it is organized by Abdulaziz Saud Al-Babtain Cultural Establishment in corporation with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture under the patronage of H.E Egyptian Presi...