Sabah Al Binali: A challenge we can meet

It will take courage to implement the difficult changes, such as reform of the inefficient banking sector and shrinking the government so that the private sector can expand. But it can be done.

A vision for what the coming year will bring should include scenarios and actionable ideas. My vision will focus on what might affect the UAE and the wider GCC the most. These are forward-looking statements that can be wrong.

The factor that affects our economy the most is the price of oil and our level of production. The change in our level of production is unlikely to be material, even if one considers the agreed Opec cut decisions of late November. The question is the price of oil.

The main influence in 2017 on the price of oil is unlikely to be demand, which anyway will probably soften if America turns inward, but supply. In late November Opec and non-Opec countries agreed to oil production cuts that are unprecedented in breadth, depth and cooperation. It is that last bit that is the problem. If Russia breaks from the agreement, a likely scenario signalled by Rosneft and its chief executive, Igor Sechin, or if Saudi-Iran tensions flare up and cause a rift then we will see oil drop to between US$30 and $45. Shale oil will never allow the oil price to go over $65, probably lower. That means that our economic contraction will at best slow down in terms of the effect from oil.

Our economy will continue to show cracks in its ability to function without massive government spending.

We might see positive announcements, but without a restructuring of the banking sector to make it more efficient and willing to take on local emerging market corporate risk, more effective promotion of the SME sector by government and the development of a true venture capital and early private equity investment sector it is difficult to see the ecosystem transitioning to an economy independent of oil.

The structure and functioning of the labour market needs to improve in terms of shrinking the government so that the private sector can expand, expanding the participation of Emiratis in the private sector and true meritocracy based on effective KPIs.

This will be unlikely to happen as personal politics will come to the fore in this contraction with people fighting for jobs.

What will have little actual effect on us this year regardless of all the noise: Trump, Brexit, the Chinese economy.

I believe that the price of oil will collapse. Opec has a hard enough time being compliant but add in non-Opec, especially Russia? Plus since when has Iran gone more than three months without stirring up some trouble regionally? The agreed cuts being complied with? Not a chance.

Restructuring the banking sector will not happen. Too many vested interests depend on over-borrowing from the banks. The banks will be propped up to allow them to lend to these highly inefficient vested interests with the hope that this lending alone will stimulate the economy.

The banking sector will continue to become ineffective although the sector collapse is unlikely to happen in 2017. Returns on investment will drop dramatically as they deleverage and their stock prices will plummet.

Current government promotion of the SME sector is ineffective. The SME sector isn’t growing, but the number of government-related entities meant to support the SMEs is growing at quite a healthy rate. Avoiding the difficult decisions will make things worse. Difficult decisions that would improve matters would include banning security cheques, unfortunately the banks will beat the SMEs; removing agency monopolies, unfortunately the rich will beat the SMEs; and putting in a high bracket corporate and personal income tax, but again the rich will win out over the poor. We need a government made up of technocrats more interested in serving the nation first. In terms of our human capital, if we are going to spend on consultants then I believe we should target where the value is: less McKinsey and Booz management consultants, and a lot more Aon Hewitt and Hays, specialists in human capital consulting.

We have beautiful growth plans and I keep reading in the news about great progress but, as they say, believe what you see, not what you hear.

All of this will lead to continued fiscal contraction by the government, primarily driven by how savvy the head of a department is and little to do with the effectiveness or importance of that department with regards to the economy.

The human politics element will mean that competence in productivity will decrease in the public sector as the culture in that sector becomes even more politicised, leading to a downward spiral in efficiency.

This will in turn affect the private sector, which will continue to shrink – the private sector contraction will speed up. The depth and breadth of the damage will be hidden, starting with the overly high levels of liquidity, once again, which is why 50 banks can survive in this economy and actual infrastructure projects in the late stages that continue to stimulate the economy.

As the liquidity gets used up and the live projects complete, the economy will hit a brick wall, but this is more likely to be in 2019-20. For 2017, we will be like a cancer patient who seems healthy in the first stages of that dreadful disease.

Once we realise how bad things really are it might be too late, the cancer could spread to all the organs in the body. If we don’t consider the cumulative pattern of performance we might make the wrong diagnosis.

In 2016 we learnt something important: two-thirds of our economy might be non-oil, but 100 per cent of our economy has a correlation of close to one to oil.

Two ways that my prognosis could be wrong is either from an external shock that increases oil prices, such as happened when Kuwait was invaded, Iraq was invaded, Iran was sanctioned or Libya entered into a civil war.

The second way is for courageous leaders to understand that the damage has already been done by our not having succeeded in building an economy independent of oil and that the senior technocrats, the bank executives and the rich family groups are standing in the way of the necessarily painful changes to actually build our economy and for those leaders to ignore the self-serving pressure from those who would have us eat cake and instead enforce global best practice so as to continue the vision of our founding fathers.

I remain in the service of my nation.

Sabah Al Binali is an active investor and entrepreneurial leader with a track record of growing companies in the Mena region. You can read more of his thoughts at al-binali.com.

business@thenational.ae

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