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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Oman has means to maintain its currency peg, central bank governor says

The country has no plans to change the peg even though the slump in oil prices has hurt its finances

A view of Oman's Sohar port. The country's Central Bank Governor says Oman has the means to maintain its currency peg and has no plans to change it. Saleh Al Shaibany
A view of Oman's Sohar port. The country's Central Bank Governor says Oman has the means to maintain its currency peg and has no plans to change it. Saleh Al Shaibany

Oman has the means to maintain its currency peg and has no plans to change it even though the decline in oil prices has hurt its finances, central bank governor Tahir Al Amri said.

Oman’s gross foreign currency reserves, which stood at $19.6 billion at the end of January, are enough to cover nearly nine months’ worth of imports, Mr Al Amri said in Muscat. Oil remains the country’s biggest export and most of its revenue is in US dollars, he added.

“We are strongly behind the peg” despite pressures, Mr Al Amri said. “We will try and make sure that we have ways and means of defending our fixed exchange-rate policy.”

The finances of the Middle East’s biggest non-Opec oil producer, like those of others in the six-nation GCC, were battered after the plunge in crude prices beginning in 2014. With income from exports falling sharply and the budget gap widening, the country borrowed heavily to finance imports and cover outflows from foreign worker remittances.

As a result, government debt-to-GDP rose from 5 per cent in 2014 to 41 per cent at the end of 2017, according to Mr Al Amri.

To help offset the revenue shortfall, the sultanate raised corporate tax to 15 per cent from 12 per cent, increased fees on items such as passports and lowered fuel and electricity subsidies. Taking advantage of attractive interest rates, Oman raised $6.5bn in eurobonds in January, its biggest sale on record. The country plans to impose VAT next year, the governor said.

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The government is trying to make the business environment in Oman more attractive to both locals and foreigners, Mr. Al Amri said. New commercial companies and investment laws are in the pipeline and other legislation, such as a bankruptcy law, is under discussion. The central bank recently expanded banks’ abilities to extend credit to the private sector. “There are a lot of initiatives to curtail red tape,” he said.

Oman did not scale back infrastructure projects already under way because it thinks they will have a positive impact on the economy, the government said in its bond prospectus in January.

Mr Al Amri said Oman can secure enough funding to cover its external financing needs this year. Bloomberg Economics estimates these at $11.5bn, made up of a $10bn current-account deficit and $1.5bn of debt maturing this year. In 2019, it may continue to draw down on the country’s sovereign wealth fund as a last resort, he said.

The governor said Oman is also in discussions with major international strategic partners to explore ways to deepen financial and commercial transactions. He did not identify those countries but said they were outside the Gulf.

Real GDP growth for 2018 is expected to be at least 3 per cent, according to the budget, which was based on an oil price of $50, he said. Only a small amount of a $10bn 2011 grant offered by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar has been used to finance a few projects, Mr Al Amri said.

“We need to work hard to accelerate the diversification measures. We need to make sure we start doing things differently,” he said. “We are not worried that is not going to happen.”