Demographics and hydrocarbons invigorate Algeria's economic outlook

Algeria’s population reached 42.3m by the end of 2018, making it the second-largest country in North Africa after Egypt, which surpassed 100m earlier in the year. With demographic growth of 1.7% in 2017, Algeria’s Ministry of Health expects that the population will reach 51m by 2030. The population remains relatively young, with a median age of 27.8 and 29.2% of residents under the age of 15. Life expectancy at birth continues to rise, reaching 76 years in 2016.

In line with global trends, recent decades have seen Algeria become increasingly urban, with approximately 76% of residents living in urban centres in 2018. However, the population is highly decentralised, and only about 5.4m live in the metropolitan area of Algiers, the capital. The western port of Oran is the country’s second-largest city, with an estimated population of roughly 650,000, and in the north-east Constantine ranks third with around 500,000. Altogether, the country has 40 cities with populations of around 100,000.

Geography

At 2.4m sq km, Algeria has the largest land mass of any country in Africa or the Mediterranean. Located in the French-speaking Maghreb region of North Africa, it boasts a Mediterranean coastline of more than 1200 km, with 6734 km of land bordering seven countries and territories: Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Tunisia and the Western Sahara.

The country is divided into 48 administrative provinces, known as wilayas, and 1541 municipalities, or baladiyahs. The largest wilaya by land mass is Tamanrasset in the south, with a sparsely populated area of 556 sq km, but the largest according to population remains the Algiers metropolitan area.

Algeria can be broadly divided into three topographical regions: the Tell, a narrow coastal strip north of the Tellian Atlas mountains; the Hauts Plateaux, between the Tellian Atlas and Saharan Atlas mountain ranges; and the desert region to the south of the Saharan Atlas range, which accounts for 80% of the country’s territory. Characterised by hilly and mountainous terrain, Algeria’s average elevation is 800 metres and more than half of the country is at least 900 metres above sea level. The highest point is Mount Tahat, standing at 2908 metres in the Hoggar range of the Sahara region.

The north of the country lies at the boundary of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates, and thus is seismologically active. In 1980 and 2003 major earthquakes struck the country, each individually killing and wounding at least 2000 people.

The northern coastal region is relatively fertile and receives up to 1000 mm of rain in some areas, and benefits from year-round rivers descending from the nearby Tellian Atlas mountains. Due to erratic rainfall, rivers in other regions do not have water year-round, and none of the country’s rivers are navigable. Further south, the steppes become increasingly arid, giving way to the Sahara Desert beyond the Atlas Mountains.

While the southern desert regions have large intra-day variations in temperature and can be hot all year round, coastal areas can be classified as Mediterranean. The majority of the population lives in these areas, where summers are hot and dry, while winters are relatively cool and wet. The central Hauts Plateaux have a similar climate, though they experience less and far more irregular rainfall overall.

Average temperatures in Algiers, range from 22°C to 29°C in August, the hottest month of the year, to as low as 9°C to 15°C in January.

Language, Religion & Ethnicity

More than 90% of Algerians identify as Berber, descended from the indigenous pre-Islamic populations of North Africa. Considering the strong influence of Arab culture following the 7th and 8th century conquests, most Berbers also officially identify as Arab.

Despite centuries of Arabisation, more than a quarter of the population still speaks Berber as their first language, and many identify primarily as Berber. While Berbers are spread throughout the country, they are concentrated in the north-east region. There are about 100,000 Protestant Christians as well as 2000 people of Jewish faith living in Algeria, and around 99% of the population identifies as Islamic. Islam is recognised by the constitution as the state religion, though the law enshrines the right to freedom of worship.

Algerian Arabic is derived from dialects originating in the north of the country and is spoken as a first language by around 73% of the population. However, Modern Standard Arabic, a more formal version of the language, was established in the country’s 1963 constitution as the first official language.

Nearly all of the remaining 27% speak Tamazight, an indigenous Berber language, which was formally recognised as a national language by way of a constitutional amendment in 2016, having been suppressed for decades. By virtue of the country’s colonial heritage, French is also widely spoken in government, media and schools, and particularly among urban elites.

Natural Resources

Algeria is one of the leading African producers of hydrocarbons, ranking first in gas production and among the top-three oil producers. According to the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), of which the country has been a member since 1969, Algeria has proven oil reserves of 12.2bn barrels and proven gas reserves of 4.5trn cu metres, the third and second largest on the continent.

Although not yet commercially exploited, the country has large reserves of shale oil and gas, and ranks third globally behind China and Argentina in terms of technically recoverable shale gas reserves. At the same time, much of the country’s territory is either under-explored or unexplored, and offshore exploration has remained limited.

Domestic consumption of oil and gas has doubled since 2010, while production has continued to stagnate, which has resulted in declining volumes of hydrocarbons exports. When combined with the sharp fall in global prices that occurred in 2014, this has continued to weigh on both exports and government revenue.

In addition to hydrocarbons, Algeria also has notable reserves of high-grade minerals. The country has the third-largest reserves of phosphates in the world, and has significant proven deposits of iron ore, gold, zinc, copper and uranium. Many of these deposits are under-exploited or under-explored due to their location in the more isolated and mountainous southern regions of the country, areas which frequently have underdeveloped transport infrastructure links.

Economy

Algeria’s GDP is anticipated to reach $188bn by the end of 2018, which will make it the largest economy in the Maghreb region and second largest in North Africa after Egypt. Its per capita GDP, anticipated to reach $4500 by the end of 2018, indicates that it has the highest living standards in the Maghreb. Tunisia and Morocco follow with per capita GDPs of $3573 and $3355, respectively.

Neighbouring Libya has experienced a strong recovery, with its per capita GDP reaching $6639 and surpassing Algeria’s. Due to the size of its population, Egypt has the largest economy in the region, but it experiences the lowest living standards, with its 2018 per capita GDP predicted to come in at $2572. Measured on a purchasing power parity basis, Algeria boasts the highest GDP per capita in the region by virtue of its lower price of basic purchasable goods.

The state continues to play a dominant role in the Algerian economy, depending on oil and gas exports for some 60% of public revenue and 96% of exports. The sharp decline in global oil prices since 2014 resulted in several challenging years for the Algerian economy. However, until 2016 its relatively low debt-to-GDP ratio and significant savings in its hydrocarbons stabilisation fund allowed the government to maintain high fiscal deficits, and thereby cushion the negative impact it might have on economic growth.

Fiscal consolidation in 2017 caused growth to diminish to 1.4% that year, down from 3.2% in 2016, accompanied by a corresponding increase in overall levels of unemployment. Facing the challenges of this economic downturn, in late 2017 the authorities made changes to economic policy, and in 2018 they financed government spending by way of monetary financing through the central bank. While this is expected to boost economic growth in the short term, with the IMF forecasting GDP growth of 2.5% for 2018, it risks an eventual increase in inflation.

When the authorities do take action to rein in the budget deficit, economic growth is expected to slow significantly. At the same time, the imposition of import restrictions on 851 consumer products has done little to impede the current account deficit or slow the decline in international reserves thus far, raising chances of more difficult corrections in future years.

The authorities have signalled their intention to introduce a wide range of structural reforms aimed at diversifying the economy, promoting the private sector and gradually leading the country away from its established dependence on hydrocarbons. A number of actions have been taken to achieve these goals since 2015, with new initiatives also to be launched in 2019.

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Cover of The Report: Algeria 2018

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