With an international credit squeeze threatening companies, infrastructure projects and financial markets, GCC governments are coming under pressure to tap their vast oil-revenue savings to avert problems. Sovereign wealth funds (SWFs), which manage much of the region's excess oil income, are drawing increasing attention as potential new sources of loans and investment.
The GCC countries hold an estimated $US1.5 trillion (Dh5.5tn) in assets in investment funds, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington-based think tank. That is more than double the proposed $700 billion emergency bailout package designed to rescue America's financial system. With so many funds on hand, analysts say the Gulf economies are less vulnerable than the West to a serious liquidity crisis.
"If you've saved a lot of the oil revenue from the past five years, it gives you the capacity to smooth any downward adjustment," said Brad Setser, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. As long as oil prices stay above $49 a barrel - the point at which the Saudi Arabian government would stop running a surplus - the GCC is likely to have a steady supply of investible cash and credit, according to the IMF.
But that does not mean that GCC companies will necessarily have an easy time. Most of the sovereign funds in the region invest the bulk of their money far from the Middle East, in part to assure it is in securities that can be easily sold in a pinch and in part to diversify their risks. Much of the large-scale borrowing in the region comes from international credit markets. That is why central banks in the region have either made new funds available to money markets or expressed a willingness to do so. In response to the tightening liquidity supply, last week the Central Bank created an emergency Dh50bn lending facility. So far, the measure has failed to push down the Emirates interbank lending rate (Eibor), which climbed to 4.19 per cent - the highest since January - before Gulf markets closed for the Eid al Fitr holiday on Monday.
Still, some argue that directing even a tiny share of government-controlled funds into local markets and companies could make a big difference. "Recycling a bit more of this surplus oil wealth back into the region makes a lot of sense right now," said Ibrahim Masood, a senior investment officer at Mashreqbank in Dubai. "Done in the right way, I think it would be a very logical thing to do." Last week, the government-controlled Kuwait Investment Authority pumped an estimated US$1bn into the local stock market to halt a slide in equities prices. Saudi Arabia's government-run pension fund, the Public Establishment for Retirement, has been known to lend money to needy Saudi banks in the past, and analysts say the fund may do so again soon. Russia is also debating using its SWF to prop up faltering domestic stock markets.
In recent weeks, several large Gulf entities have struggled to secure funding, according to Reuters. Kuwait's Global Investment House recently agreed to pay more for a $410 million loan in the aftermath of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Bourse Dubai, the holding company that owns Dubai's securities exchanges, has not refinanced the company's $3.78bn loan that matures in February, while both Dubai Aerospace Enterprise and the investment arm of the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) have had little luck securing loans of more than $1bn, the news agency reported.
The Investment Corporation of Dubai, which agreed to a $6bn loan before liquidity dried up, surprised lenders when it withdrew the entire amount last week, Reuters said. Bringing large amounts of SWF assets back into the UAE would require a significant break from precedent. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (Adia) - the world's largest sovereign fund - is often named as a likely financial safety net. But although Adia is estimated to control more assets than all other Emirati SWFs combined, the fund is specifically mandated to invest outside the Gulf.
According to Erik Portanger, the head of media relations at Adia, the Government would probably have to amend Adia's charter if it wanted to use the funds to remedy a local liquidity squeeze. Since the charter has not been changed since Adia was founded in 1976, that is a very unlikely scenario, he said. Most observers agree that the major funds are unlikely to be saviours. "If there were a major funding need, it would probably come from the sovereign wealth funds that already invest locally," said Andrew Gilmour, an economist at the Samba Financial Group.
Among the government-controlled funds and companies in the UAE that have a history of investing at home are the Abu Dhabi Investment Company and Mubadala Development. Those entities, however, have set a course of investing to create value, and would be reluctant to support struggling firms or markets directly. A Mubadala spokeswoman declined to comment. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org