Bright spots amid a gloomy year

Look Back 2012 The National staff take a look at some of the issues that got people talking.

February: the US economy created 227,000 jobs in February, while the unemployment rate was at 8.3 per cent, the lowest level in nearly three years. Mike Groll / AP Photo
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It was a turbulent year around the globe for many reasons, not least unrest in parts of the Middle East and the ongoing debt crisis in Europe. But amid the gloom, there were bright spots, particularly in the UAE and South East Asia, while even the United States began to dream of a better world. The National staff review this year's top news.


Brazil - One of our Brics is cracking

In January, Brazil's central bank forecast GDP growth this year at 3.5 per cent. Since then that has looked more and more optimistic. The bank cut the forecast to 2.5 per cent in June, then down to 1.6 per cent in September and to 1 per cent last week.

The reductions confirm a marked slowdown in Latin America's biggest economy, and one of the so-called Brics of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Markets analysts are also forecasting 1 per cent GDP growth, according to the latest data.

But some analysts said even this latest, lowered figure might be too high. "1 per cent is a little optimistic. I think the economy will grow 0.9 per cent this year," Silvia Matos, an economist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, told the UK's Telegraphnewspaper.

The IMF in October projected 1.5 per cent GDP growth for Brazil, the world's sixth-largest economy, this year. Brazil's economy grew just 0.6 per cent in the third quarter of this year over the previous three months, signalling a weaker than anticipated recovery, according to official statistics released late last month. The economy lost steam last year due to the global slowdown, with GDP growth at 2.7 per cent, down from a sizzling 7.5 per cent in 2010. Last week, the bank also revised its inflation estimate for this year to 5.7 per cent, up from 5.2 per cent.


United States - America starts to dream again

The US economy created 227,000 jobs in February, while the unemployment rate was at 8.3 per cent, the lowest level in nearly three years. A labour department report also showed job-creation figures in December and January last year were better than first estimated. Barack Obama, the US president, said the figures showed the economy "getting stronger".

Employment had been rising for the previous six months but the jobless rate had been stuck above 8 per cent since early 2009. Since then unemployment has steadily fallen and stood at 7.7 per cent last month, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics.


Energy - Black gold steady but green is on the scene

According to AA PetrolWatch, oil prices peaked at US$128 a barrel in March for Brent crude oil. West Texas Intermediary reached its highest for the year on February 24 of $109.49 and its lowest of $77. 91 on June 21, according to the Energy Information Administration. It was trading at about $87 last week.

Making waves in green energy this year was the Desertec Concept, an international coalition of politicians, finance houses and scientists. It aims to generate sustainable power from the sites where renewable sources of energy are at their most abundant.

The best sites in a region can be used thanks to high-voltage direct current transmission, which can carry electricity generated from renewables with losses of just 3 per cent per 1,000 kilometres. Some 90 per cent of the world's population lives within 3,000 kilometres of deserts.

Clean power from Middle East and North African deserts can provide the region with sufficient energy for urgently needed seawater desalination. In addition, desert power can supply around two-thirds of the region's rising energy demand, whilst still leaving enough electricity for export, meeting 15 per cent of European consumption.

Studies by the German Aerospace Centre show that aim is technologically and economically feasible with economic and environmental benefits for all partners. Maghreb countries such as Morocco have started working on renewables projects and both Abu Dhabi and Dubai have stated solar ambitions.

Saudi Arabia, which is forced to burn increasing amounts of crude oil in its power plants, is planning to generate 37 gigawatts of electricity from solar sources by 2035.

"The Desertec concept is undergoing change. The more realistic version now also includes support for the countries in the Mena region to actually develop their renewable sources and support their own energy mix with renewables," said Adnan Amin, of the International Renewable Energy Agency.


Coal - Dust-up on the cards in Asia

Indonesia announced in April it planned to impose an export tax on coal of 50 per cent next year, as part of the major producer of raw materials attempts to boost domestic investment and take a bigger slice of mining profits.

If imposed the tax would add to a raft of regulations announced this year that have caused confusion in Indonesia's mining sector and worried foreign investors. It would hit the profits of both national and foreign-owned companies and could also raise costs for importers.

Late last year, the world's top thermal coal and refined tin exporter outlined plans to introduce export taxes on metals and minerals, aiming to encourage downstream investment in the mining sector.

In the United States, coal production during the third quarter of this year totalled 259 million short tonnes. This was 7.3 per cent higher than the previous quarter but 5.8 per cent lower than the third quarter last year.


Tech 2012 - Clash of the titans

Best sellers: Apple's latest iPad performed best among tablets, although its older models also sold well.

In May, the US analyst firm IDC said Apple grew its worldwide share from 54.7 per cent in the fourth quarter of last year to 68 per cent in the first quarter of this year, beating off competitors such as Asus and BlackBerry. IDC said Apple shipped 11.8 million iPads during the same period. But there was competition waiting in the wings. To date, Samsung's Galaxy SIII smartphone has sold more than 30 million units globally since its launch in May although Apple's new iPhone has hit back.

Cost: from US$799 for iPhone 5; and Dh2,499 for Galaxy SIII.

Worst sellers: In spite of the marketing push, Nokia's Lumia line-up of mobiles failed to ignite much interest. Similarly, the buzz died down for 3D TVs, as many consumers are waiting for glasses-free models. Until they make it to market they "will remain on the backburner", said Ashish Panjabi, of Jacky's Electronics.

Cost: Dh2,349 for the Lumia 920 and US$450 to $10,000 for a 3D TV.


Aviation - Feathers ruffled but wings still set to spread

Rising fuel prices and turbulent currency markets hit global airlines hard and even the almost bulletproof regional industry suffered turbulence. At Emirates Airline in Dubai profits fell 72 per cent for the financial year ending March 31, as the carrier spent US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) more on fuel than in the same period the year before.

"The global challenges of the past six months have again put Emirates to the test," said Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the chairman and chief executive of Emirates. But he said the airline would "continue to grow despite the unsteady marketplace".

Etihad Airways revenue would pass the $5bn mark this year, said James Hogan, the chief executive. Etihad has been on an acquisition drive this year, taking minority equity stakes in Virgin Australia and Aer Lingus, and raising its shareholding in Air Berlin and Air Seychelles.

In October, the International Air Transport Association announced an upward revision of its global aviation outlook for this year. Airlines are expected to earn $4.1bn this year, the agency said, up from the $3bn it forecast in June.


Gold - precious metal falls, gets back up and goes on a run, jump, ride and swim

Gold markets hit a low for the year of US$1,624 as analysts including FXEmpire forecast in July the risk appetite of traders would dwindle. Gold of another variety was also in the spotlight with the opening of the London Olympics 2012 at the end of July.

Although the last solid gold medals were awarded in 1912, the London medals for first place each contained at least six grammes of the yellow metal. The US swimmer Michael Phelps topped the individual table with four golds and two silvers, worth about Dh4,735 in total at today's prices. Gold was trading at about $1,663 a troy ounce yesterday.


Finance - Greece is the word

Greece was back in the spotlight as European officials prepared to issue an update on its progress in July before deciding whether to release the next tranche of the rescue package to the stricken country. It was feared Greece could run out of cash by October and would have to print its own currency to pay pensions and public sector wages.

Since then, the spiralling cost of borrowing for Spain and Italy and the overall euro-zone debt crisis have dominated headlines. But as the year draws to a close, many observers are starting to see chinks of light elsewhere. The Arab Spring protests in the region have prompted investments seeking safe haven to move to the UAE.

Banks saw a rise in deposits, while buyers from the region helped to bolster the property market. The UAE's GDP growth is expected to reach 4.5 per cent by the end of this year, surpassing last year's estimates of 4.1 per cent, the Ministry of Economy said this month, according to WAM.

Abu Dhabi's GDP is estimated to grow at an average annual rate of 5.7 per cent between next year and 2016, Mohammad Omar Abdullah, the undersecretary of the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development, said recently in the capital. He also said the estimate for the emirate's GDP growth during this fiscal year was 3.9 per cent.

"Abu Dhabi GDP at constant prices grew from Dh567.8 billion (US154.59bn) in 2007 to Dh606.6bn last year, achieving an annual growth rate of 6.8 per cent," the Statistics Centre - Abu Dhabi said in October.


Subcontinent - India inks reform but it is a bitter pill to swallow

The Indian government announced a flurry of economic reforms in September in an effort to open up the country to more foreign investment and boost growth. Most significantly and controversially, this included relaxing investment rules to allow foreign supermarket chains to enter India.

The move triggered protests across India, with many small shopkeepers complaining that the entry of large chains such as Wal-Mart could put them out of business. Other reforms included allowing foreign airlines to buy stakes of up to 49 per cent in India's carriers.

India grappled with a mix of tough economic circumstances this year, with growth expected to hit its lowest levels in a decade. As well as slowing growth, other challenges have included stubbornly high inflation and a weak monsoon season pushed food prices even higher. The rupee meanwhile tumbled to a record low against the dollar in June.

The country's GDP growth slowed to 5.3 per cent in the quarter between July and September compared with 5.5 per cent in the previous quarter.


Retail - Dubai and Abu Dhabi continue to sell the idea well

Data from Fitch Ratings in October revealed the country's retail and hospitality sectors performed well this year. Dubai's retail and hospitality sectors tend to benefit from healthy tourism, which was highlighted in the Fitch report with the emirate benefiting from unrest in other Middle Eastern locations.

Fitch added that prime retail and hospitality companies were better able to cope with the challenging market conditions than those in the office and residential sectors, although overall, 2012 had seen a vast recovery in the Dubai property market.

"The sector's stable outlook is reliant on the ability of property companies to refinance debt, and the main challenge of maintaining performance in light of the over-supply of residential and office space," Fitch said.

Last month, the Dubai Mall revealed its major new addition, Level Shoe District, a huge, innovative concept store dedicated solely to men's and women's contemporary and designer footwear. It is now open on the mall's ground floor. Inside 40 boutiques and four extensive departments - across 96,000 square feet - are collections by 250 designers, with big-name label concessions including Berluti, Tod's, Prada and Miu Miu.

In addition to the world's first Christian Louboutin Homme concession, the store is also home to the first Rodarte, Roger Vivier, Jil Sander and Walter Steiger footwear stores in the UAE. Other shops and services include a VIP lounge, a bespoke men's footwear shop called The Cobbler, and Sole Lounge by Margaret Dabbs, a foot therapy spa staffed by professional podiatrists and nail technicians. It also boasts the country's first Vogue Cafe.

In Abu Dhabi, Etihad Towers' retail area The Avenue had its official opening this month, and welcomed stores by IWC, Breguet, Tom Ford, De Grisogono, Kiton, Porsche Design and Vertu, while at Marina Mall this month, Chopard, Salvatore Ferragamo and Gucci all opened luxury boutiques.


China - Reins of power handed over as Dragon economy starts to fire up

The leadership switch to Xi Jinping from Hu Jintao last month after a decade of rule by the president Hu and the premier Wen Jiabao was the biggest event of the year, and has prompted a raft of speculation about what it will mean for the direction of the world's second largest economy.

Early indicators are that reform is on the cards, but we shall have to wait and see. A notable event this year was the way in which China's economy looked inward over 2012, as it tried to cool an overheating property market and develop a domestic economy, with local demand replacing lost overseas markets as Europe and the United States continued to underwhelm.

Results were mixed, again, but there is a lot of bullishness around right now for China's economy next year.


Property - UAE builds on recovery

By the second half of this year "recovery" was the word on everyone's lips - well, in Dubai anyway. The value of land in Dubai rose as the emirate's property market continued to stabilise. Figures released in the summer by Dubai's Land Department showed values increased over the first half of the year by about 10 per cent.

Agents said that in some areas prices were back to their pre- crash heights. And by December, Knight Frank was reporting that the Dubai property market was set to be one of the world's best performing next year - albeit after a huge correction.

But will it continue in 2013? Only time will tell.

Another memorable event this year was the sight of queues of hundreds of investors waiting in line to get their hands on off-plan property, which was splashed across newspapers as the year neared its close. One highlight was Emaar's launch of 542 serviced apartments at The Address The BLVD in Downtown Dubai - which sold out quicker than Justin Bieber tickets in the city - with investors braving 40°C heat to snap up flats in the 63-storey tower.