Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 27 September 2020

CORONAVIRUS

Coronavirus: prepare for the recovery now, urges IMF's Jihad Azour

Official for Middle East warns countries 'will miss the recovery' if they are not already ready for when the shock has passed

Jihad Azour, Director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia Department, says the Fund is taking a three-pronged strategy during the pandemic; saving lives, containing economic damage and getting ready for when the shock of the crisis passes. Victor Besa/The National 
Jihad Azour, Director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia Department, says the Fund is taking a three-pronged strategy during the pandemic; saving lives, containing economic damage and getting ready for when the shock of the crisis passes. Victor Besa/The National 

Countries must prepare now for the time when the global economy is in recovery and the shocks of the coronavirus crisis begin to pass at the end of this year, the International Monetary Fund said.

The Fund is running a three-pronged strategy; saving lives, containment of the economic damage and "to prepare for the repair and recovery".

"We need to start thinking, what will be the situation when we exit? And what are the challenges that we need to address and how from now, countries need to start preparing themselves," Jihad Azour, the IMF’s director for the Middle East and Central Asia, told The National.

“We are going back to the drawing board to see what needs to be done when we exit [the crisis] and how the situation will look.”

“Otherwise, we will miss the recovery and the region that is already facing a high level of unemployment and low level of inclusion will face even more difficult challenges going forward.”

The IMF has made about $100 billion (Dh367bn) in emergency funding available and it has already received at least 90 requests, including from Tunisia.

The IMF’s outlook for the Middle East and Central Asia matches a grim forecast for the world economy.

This year, economies in the Middle East and Central Asia will shrink on average by 3.1 per cent, representing a loss of output of $425bn.

Overall, he said, this is the most challenging crisis that the region has ever gone through.

“We have to recognise that this crisis took everybody by surprise. And we are still in the eye of the storm.”

The UAE and Saudi Arabia, for example, “reacted fast in providing both needed measures to curb and address the aftermath of Covid-19 on people. And also they have introduced both fiscal measures as well as also monetary and financial measures in order to provide a relief for their economy," he said.

The extension of the Opec+ agreement "provides good news for those countries because it will help stabilise oil prices, but I think what is going to be important for those large economies is to protect some of the key sectors from the risk of dislocation, provide the needed support for the engines of the economy to be protected.”

Recovery for the UAE and Saudi will depend on “how fast and how strong globally the recovery will be, because this will bring with it increasing demand for oil, and also the re-establishment of the trade and the value chain rules”, Mr Azour said.

The difficulty, he says, “is we don't know how long the crisis is going to last”.

Still, in the fourth quarter, according to IMF estimates, “the global economy will start exiting from the current shock, and then ... we would have rapid improvement in economic conditions. Yet it's not realistic to think that next year, we will go back to the pre-Covid-19 shock” levels of growth.

Countries already facing fragility before the coronavirus – such as Iraq and Iran, as well as those in conflict, Syria, Libya and Lebanon – “have a big issue and difficulty today” to cope with the health crisis, Mr Azour said.

He has “a lot of sympathy” for what the people of Iran are going through which comes “over and above a very weak economic and financial situation”.

Tehran is seeking $5bn in assistance from the Fund but the US, a powerful IMF board member, says none of it will reach the Iranian people.

"We have received a request and given the limited engagement we have over the recent times with Iran, it's taking more time to assemble the information required in order to process that request,” said Mr Azour.

The Iranian economy will contract 6 per cent this year, he said.

“Therefore the priorities [for Tehran] are protect lives and do whatever it takes in order to redirect resources and make funding available to address this issue.”

Mr Azour is a former Lebanon finance minister and he said the Fund “stands ready to help” with its economy forecast to contract by 12 per cent. This comes on top of a political and financial crisis that pre-dated Covid-19.

The country needs “a strong reform package that provides a solution to the crisis that financially and monetarily” it is facing “in order to restore confidence and also a plan that addresses the structural problems that Lebanon has been facing”.

However, Lebanon has still not formally requested financial assistance from the Fund.

Updated: April 15, 2020 07:27 PM

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