IMF: Nearly All Mideast Economies Hit by Pandemic Recession

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -
FILE – In this 2018 file photo, Jihad Azour, the IMF’s director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department reacts during his press conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed nearly all Mideast nations into the throes of an economic recession this year, yet some rebound is expected as all but two — Lebanon and Oman — are anticipated to see some level of economic growth next year, according to a report published Monday by the International Monetary Fund.

This comes as the IMF estimates that the global economy will shrink 4.4% this year, marking the worst annual plunge since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Well before the coronavirus swept across the globe, several Mideast countries had been struggling with issues ranging from lower oil prices and sluggish economic growth to corruption and high unemployment.

While Mideast nations have seen fewer confirmed cases and deaths from the virus than countries in Europe and the U.S., the region still faces challenges in containing the disease.

“Risks of a worse-than-projected scenario loom large, particularly given recent surges in COVID-19 infections in many countries around the world that have reopened,” the IMF warned.

Iran, for example, recorded its highest daily death tolls from the virus last week. Its economy shrank by 6.5% last year and is projected to contract by another 5% this year. The IMF, however, expects Iran’s economy to rebound with 3.2% growth next year, based in part on the government’s future capacity to manage the virus, which it thus far as has struggled to do.

“Iran was among the first countries to become an epicenter of COVID-19 and we are now in the third wave of the pandemic, and this was on top of an economy that has been underperforming because of (U.S.) sanctions,” Jihad Azour, director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department at the IMF, told The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, wealthy Mideast oil exporters are expected to see their economies contract by 6.6% in 2020, the IMF said. Gulf Arab states, however, are expected to see average economic growth of 2.3% next year. The IMF says it projections are based on assumptions that the price of oil averages $41.69 a barrel in 2020 and will rise to $46.70 a barrel in 2021.

Egypt was the sole outlier in the region, experiencing modest growth of 3.5% this year after more than 5% growth annually for past two years as lower energy prices help it as an oil importer. Still, Egypt faces challenges with its massive population and as tourism revenues remain sluggish.

The IMF, known for its bullish stance on taxes and subsidy cuts, has largely suspended its calls for belt-tightening austerity measures as people struggle under the weight of lockdowns and job losses. The IMF said “in general, tax increases would be more effective after the crisis” as such measures “will likely be a drag on the recovery and invite larger fiscal costs in the future.”

The international lender is calling on countries to focus their immediate priorities on ensuring adequate resources for health care and correctly targeting support programs to the most-vulnerable people.

Meanwhile, other Mideast oil exporters like the United Arab Emirates, home to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, will see an economic contraction of more than 6% this year, while Oman’s economy is projected to shrink by 10%. Iraq faces a recession of 12%, the IMF said.