Uncertainty hangs over investment in Middle East as protests spread

Protests across the Middle East have changed the investment landscape in a short period of time. The National examines the threat to the age of growth.

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In just two months, the protests and turmoil flaring in many countries in the Mena region have caused a radical shift in the way investors view the region's prospects.
Investors put billions of dollars into the Middle East in the years leading up to the wave of uprisings in the region, convinced of the potential to profit from strong economic growth coupled with large populations of consumers. But now those investments are under a cloud of uncertainty.
"Right now, it is very difficult to say what is going to happen," said Sadek Wahba, the chief investment officer and global head of Morgan Stanley's US$4 billion (Dh14.69bn) infrastructure fund. "Investors don't like uncertainty. To make an investment today in this region is very challenging."
The Morgan Stanley fund signed a 50-50 joint venture deal with Orascom Construction Industries early last year to invest in infrastructure assets in places such as Egypt and Algeria, and countries in the Gulf.
At the time of the announcement, the venture was expected to invest billions of dollars after adding debt and funds from other investors.
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The reasoning was clear. While western economies were shrinking or slowing down, Egypt's economy was expected to grow by more than 5 per cent last year and this year, according to the IMF. GDP growth in Tunisia has recently hovered at about 4 per cent a year.
Mr Wahba said he now expected a period of "short-term caution" for investors until the security situation became clearer in the countries that were moving towards more democratic governments.
Even more important for investors will be clarity about the regulatory and legal frameworks that are going to be put in place by these new governments.
Mr Wahba hopes that investor appetite will return if transparency increases.
"In the long run, there is no doubt that any change that provides greater openness and transparency in processes is a huge plus," he said. "You cannot get away from the fact these are massive economies that are growing very fast and have a lot of catching up to do."
The sudden political changes in the region are also expected to have an impact on countries not affected by uprisings, which could become more attractive for investors and companies hoping to set up somewhere with less political risk.
Gulf countries have been the boldest about investing in the region, with the UAE accounting for more than $100bn of deals announced in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, according to analysis of announcements over the past several years.
Ghanem Nuseibeh, a partner at Cornerstone Global Associates and a senior analyst at Political Capital, said countries with strong governments and happier populations could get a larger slice of the region's investment pie.
"Regional investors may find in the stability of the UAE a safe haven to redirect their investments and capital from less stable countries," he said.
"However, as the situation starts to stabilise, any inflow of capital and investment resulting from the unrest will move in the opposite direction."
One risk posed by the unrest was the possibility that foreigners - especially those investors with a less nuanced understanding of the Middle East - would begin to paint the entire region with the same brush.
"The danger involved is that other people … including the United States, look at the Arab world and say all are equal," said William Cohen, a US defence secretary in the Clinton administration and the principal of a consultancy called the Cohen Group.