Statistics agency for Arab world in works

Arab finance ministers are set to agree today to the creation of a regional equivalent of the euro zone's statistics agency in hopes of providing greater transparency for attracting the investment the region needs for development.

"We are discussing something very specific this year, on how to build an Arab version of the Eurostat," Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, Deputy Ruler of Dubai and UAE Minister of Finance, said yesterday on the eve of the annual meeting of Arab Financial Institutions and fourth meeting for the Council of Arab Ministers in Dubai.

In coordination with the IMF, the group's aim is to create a body that would act as a regional auditor and provide credible data for policymakers and financial institutions.

In the European Union, the Eurostat has authority to demand that public-sector institutions open up their accounts for review.

Despite the growth of local statistics centres in the Arabian Gulf, the vast majority of the wider region's governments are yet to provide frequent credible economic facts and figures.

"This is a realisation, not just by the IMF, but Arab countries themselves that to attract multilateral companies, foreign direct investment, portfolio investment and financial aid, they need to provide more transparent figures to the rest of the world," said Nassib Ghobril, the chief economist at Byblos Bank in Beirut.

"At the same time, for governments to develop proper economic and social policies, they each must have comprehensive, broad-base statistics. There are still many countries in the Arab world that do not provide statistics or have their own local agencies."

Policymakers are also expected to decide how much money their governments will inject into five Arab financial institutions that require more fiscal firepower to meet the needs for economic development and job creation in the region.

The finance ministers are weighing up to a 50 per cent capital increase, the equivalent of US$10 billion (Dh36.73bn), for the Arab Monetary Fund, Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa, Arab Authority for Agricultural Investments and Development and the Arab Investment and Export Credit Guarantee Corporation.

Shareholders - donor governments - have not increased the capital of Arab financial institutions since they were set up in the mid 1970s, Sheikh Hamdan said.

"Each of these five institutions have produced strategies on what is needed to improve the lives of Arab citizens," he said. "The ministers will decide how much is required to carry out these plans.

Today's expected decision comes two years after the Arab Spring uprisings began, in which demonstrations demanding economic development and social justice toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

"Raising the capital of these multilateral institutions is important because it'll increase the capacity for these organisations to support trade among the Arab countries and to provide additional financing for economies in transition," Mr Ghobril said. "There are many economies currently facing financing challenges."

A capital increase "will support and enable [Arab financial institutions] to expand their works and strengthen the partnership between the public and private sectors," Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, said in a speech in January at the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit in Riyadh.

"It will enhance their roles in financing vital projects of Arab strategic dimensions and national developmental projects to meet the growing needs of the goods and services needed by Arab citizens and provide them with more job opportunities," he said.

Why it pays to compare

A comparison of sending Dh20,000 from the UAE using two different routes at the same time - the first direct from a UAE bank to a bank in Germany, and the second from the same UAE bank via an online platform to Germany - found key differences in cost and speed. The transfers were both initiated on January 30.

Route 1: bank transfer

The UAE bank charged Dh152.25 for the Dh20,000 transfer. On top of that, their exchange rate margin added a difference of around Dh415, compared with the mid-market rate.

Total cost: Dh567.25 - around 2.9 per cent of the total amount

Total received: €4,670.30 

Route 2: online platform

The UAE bank’s charge for sending Dh20,000 to a UK dirham-denominated account was Dh2.10. The exchange rate margin cost was Dh60, plus a Dh12 fee.

Total cost: Dh74.10, around 0.4 per cent of the transaction

Total received: €4,756

The UAE bank transfer was far quicker – around two to three working days, while the online platform took around four to five days, but was considerably cheaper. In the online platform transfer, the funds were also exposed to currency risk during the period it took for them to arrive.

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