Economist Intelligence Unit | September 30th 2013 | Dubai to repay Abu Dhabi debt
Dubai, which needs to repay US$20bn to three Abu Dhabi entities next year, will meet its obligations and is not negotiating to refinance its debt, according to the chairman of the emirate’s Supreme Fiscal Committee, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum. However, if necessary, Abu Dhabi would probably roll over the debt, to avoid any negative impact on market sentiment.
The emirate, which was on the brink of a default in 2009, borrowed US$20bn from its wealthier neighbour to shore up a troubled conglomerate, Dubai World, and others. The debt comprised US$10bn from the Central Bank of the UAE and US$5bn each from two state-owned banks, National Bank of Abu Dhabi and Al Hilal Bank. The US$10bn debt is due to mature in February and the bank debts in November 2014. In comments to reporters, Sheikh Ahmed also said that Dubai’s state-linked companies were doing well and were able to meet their debt repayments.
Debt rises on improved sentiment
Dubai’s debt, including that of government-related entities (GREs), has continued to rise since the global financial crisis. The IMF stated in June that the total debt of the emirate and its GREs rose by US$13bn between March 2012 and April 2013, to US$142bn. This is equivalent to 102% of the estimated 2012 GDP of Dubai and the UAE’s poorer northern emirates. Of the estimated US$93bn owed by GREs, US$60bn will fall due between now and 2017, the Fund added.
The increase in GRE debt in 2012 and early 2013 reflects successful debt restructuring, the strengthening of the UAE economy and its property sector and ample global liquidity. These factors meant that Dubai GREs regained access to international credit markets and sought to take advantage of favourable borrowing conditions.
Dubai’s performance in 2014 will be pivotal to maintaining solid investor sentiment. Senior government officials have said consistently that the emirate will meet its debt obligations next year, buoyed by the UAE’s wider economic recovery. The UAE is not well served with high-frequency economic indicators, but what indications there are regarding tourism, transport, the property sector, the stockmarket and company results point to considerable strength in the economy persisting in 2013. Ongoing support from high oil prices and the UAE’s appeal as a safe-haven investment location in the region have bolstered the economy.
Rises in airport traffic and hotel occupancy contributed to a strong performance by the tourism industry in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the first six months of the year. Tourist arrivals in Dubai rose by 11.1% year on year to more than 5.5m in the first half of 2013, helping to drive overall hotel occupancy to 84.6%. The city state’s main airport handled 32.6m passengers during the period, marking an increase of 16.9% year on year. Furthermore, the property market in Dubai sparked back into life in 2012 and has continued to gain momentum in 2013. This has certainly benefited the finances of many GREs.
The main risks to this ongoing rebound include a shift down in oil prices and slowing global growth. We forecast that international oil prices will dip next year but will remain above US$100/barrel. On balance, we expect global GDP this year to expand by 2% at market exchange rates, down from global growth of 2.2% in 2012. However, we expect most of the currently suffering emerging markets to perform better in 2014, if only because the US, the EU and Japan are poised for faster growth. This should lead to a mild rebound in global GDP next year, to 2.7%.
More reforms needed
Dubai has been successful in restructuring GRE debt since the financial crisis, with most major agreements in place; a final deal regarding the debt of Dubai Holding is advanced but still pending. Progress with restructuring certainly boosted investor sentiment in 2012. Alongside this, the UAE is working on reforms to limit the risk of a renewed debt crisis.
The Central Bank has moved to curtail local banks’ exposure to GREs, proposing that lenders should offer no more than 100% of their capital base to local governments and to state-linked entities. This law was announced in April 2012, and banks were told to be in compliance by the end of September last year. However, several banks—including leading UAE banks such as National Bank of Abu Dhabi, Emirates NBD, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank and Noor Islamic Bank—said that they were unable to comply. The Central Bank has not yet managed to finalise this rule, but it announced in mid-September that an agreement had been reached with commercial banks and would be confirmed before the end of 2013.
The IMF has also stressed the importance of greater transparency with regard to the finances of GREs. The Fund acknowledged that the government had taken some steps towards better oversight. For example, the Dubai government has put in place a team to oversee debt issuance, and any new borrowing by GREs needs to be approved by the Supreme Fiscal Committee. Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, has improved its monitoring of GRE debt. Nevertheless, the IMF has urged a more comprehensive approach to transparency and the governance of GREs, stressing the importance of better data availability on debt and further reforms to improve corporate governance of GREs.
The finances of Dubai and the emirate’s GREs have benefited from the economic rebound in 2012‑13. As a result, Dubai may now be in a position to repay its debts to neighbouring Abu Dhabi on schedule in 2014. However, any difficulties in meeting the due debt would play out behind closed doors, and Abu Dhabi would probably roll over the debt if necessary, to avoid any negative impact on market sentiment.