No Need to Economise


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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At a time when other countries are scaling back spending or focusing on loss mitigation, Qatar is pushing ahead with a programme of investments to further strengthen the economy. Indeed, the country appears best placed of all the Gulf states to ride out the global financial storm.

The underlying cause for Qatar's buoyancy is its long-term scheme to expand its natural gas production, a project that is scheduled to peak by 2010. This year, the country expects to double its liquefied natural gas (LNG) output to 62m tonnes per year, increasing that to 77m tonnes per year by the end of 2010.

On February 2, the minister of state for energy and industrial affairs, Mohammed Saleh Al Sada, told local media that due to this increased output, Qatar's economy should grow by some 10% this year. This is far above the 0.5% global growth predicted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its latest World Economic Outlook, issued in late January, as well as a stark contrast to the negative growth outlook for many of the world's leading economies, such as the US and Japan.

While not quite as optimistic as Al Sada, a research note issued by Standard Chartered Bank the same day said the Qatar economy would expand by around 8.5% this year, with inflation expected to drop to 8%, almost half of the 15.2% high reached in mid-2008.

This growth has insulated Qatar's private sector from the worst of the global slowdown. According to Sheikh Fahad bin Jassem Al Thani, minister of business and trade, no local companies have been forced to close as a result of the crisis, and there have been no staff layoffs reported.

"Qatar is among the least affected countries," he told a seminar held in Doha on February 10. "The global recession hardly has any major impact on our economy, which is in very good shape."

That is not to say Qatar has been entirely unaffected. Though growth is expected to be strong, it is nowhere near the record highs of 2005, when nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) soared by more than 30%.

The property market is expected to cool somewhat. A report issued in mid-February by Kuwaiti investment bank Markaz warned that the real estate sector could deflate in a similar manner to Dubai. According to the report, 38% of Qatar's population work in the real estate and construction sectors, which could suffer as a result of the economic downturn.

Though the financial services sector has not suffered as it has in other countries - thanks mainly to its low exposure to toxic debts - the government has moved to shore up the position of local banks and boost liquidity in the market.

Last October, the government unveiled a scheme by which the state-run Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) could buy up to 20% of listed bank's shares. One of the lenders to benefit from this programme has been the Qatar International Islamic Bank, which sold a 5% stake to the QIA in late January for $127m.

While providing support to some sectors, the overall strength of the economy as well as the depth of its fiscal reserves have allowed the state to push ahead with efforts to further diversify the country's economic base away from a dependence on oil and gas, which currently constitute around 57% of GDP, according to the Standard Chartered report.

Another step in this diversification process was announced on February 10 by the minister of business and trade, when he released details of a plan to establish a $550m company to support small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

The new company, which will begin operations early in 2010, will ensure that SMEs have assistance to develop and expand, thus reducing the economy's reliance on the energy industry.

"SMEs have a key role to play in the economic and social development of the country. The private sector has the potential to generate numerous jobs," the minister said.

Further afield, the state is looking to capitalise on the global crisis by seeking investment opportunities overseas. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 31, Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani told the international media that Qatar's sovereign wealth fund was considering increasing its stakes in some of its existing holdings and acquiring shares of up to three blue chip companies.

The minister said these new investments could be in the financial services, industrial and tourism sectors, while the state was also considering raising its holdings in London-based Barclays Bank, in which Qatari investors have more than 6% of shares.

According to Bloomberg, Qatar's sovereign wealth fund has some $58bn worth of investments.

With strong growth predicted and more investments coming on line, the Qatari economy looks set to shine amidst the gloom of the global crisis, emerging even brighter after the clouds have cleared.

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