Oman’s decision in early 2007 to opt out of the GCCmonetary union project has come as a blow to efforts by GCCstates to establish closer economic relations. However, thedecision was not necessarily based on a complete rejectionof the scheme. Rather, it is a reassertion of Oman’s need tofollow a different path until a more solid set of monetaryunion objectives is implemented by the other GCC states. Ithas also put under the microscope the GCC’s level ofpreparedness in dealing with its 2010 deadline for theproject.
Prime candidate to join… on paper
With the most conservative GDP growth of the GCC memberstates, Oman seemed likely to benefit from the much-vaunted ‘catch-up effect’ of monetary union, as seenfollowing the introduction of the euro. Oman was certainlynot struggling to meet the negotiated requirements in termsof fiscal policy: budget deficits are required to be cappedat 3%, while Oman had a fiscal surplus in 2005 of over 11%;public debt was well below the limit the GCC imposed onitself; and Oman’s foreign exchange reserves could easilyfinance four months of imports. Although Oman was meetingthe initial entry criteria, Ahmed bin Abdulnabi Macki, theminister of national economy, announced in January that thesultanate had decided to withdraw from the monetary unionproject.
He affirmed that Oman had reservations, both with the lackof progress made on obtaining prerequisites for successfulunion by 2010 (no agreed regional headquarters or commonmarket) and also cited Oman’s aversion to surrenderingeconomic sovereignty. He stated to Reuters that, “Thesultanate has its own economic and financial compulsionswhich do not offer room for meeting the criteria set for thesingle GCC currency.”
Oman has always sought to distinguish itself from its GCCpartners, both in its approach to oil and industry, and howit is now marketing itself as a tourism destination. Thegovernment is aware that the country does not have the samedepth of oil and gas reserves that most other GCC stateshave, and that the sultanate’s economic diversificationefforts could perhaps lose market competitiveness under aunified regional currency. The slowness of the other GCCstates to move on readjusting their currencies in step withone another to help fight dollar-inspired inflation wouldseem to validate its approach.
Interestingly, the other GCC state not flush with oil andgas reserves, Bahrain, is also now beginning to voice itsown concerns over the prospect of monetary union. Commonthemes of discontent include a lack of preparedness and theincomplete implementation of a common economic marketbetween the member states. At the same time, Kuwait ishoping its fellow GCC members will move faster onreadjusting the currency peg with the US dollar to helpstave off inflation.
Oman’s voice speaks strongly of independent economicconsiderations, and this is also reflected by itsindependent partnerships outside of the regional bloc.Recent bilateral developments have given Oman a new platformfor trade and investment. Whilst this may have not beenwell-received by some GCC member states, it has opened up anumber of opportunities for the sultanate’s economy.
The Oman-US FTA has so far generated large bilateral tradereturns for Oman (45% increase in export revenues from theUS over the last 12 months). This agreement also gives Omanunrestricted access to the US market, and eliminates the 5%tariffs previously in place. This is particularly useful asthe US is Oman’s fourth-largest import partner, responsiblefor $538.7 million worth of imported goods in 2005,according to the central bank of Oman.
Ties beyond the Gulf
The so-called “FTA effect” is evident across the region,with Bahrain also entering bilateral agreements earlier lastyear. FTA countries in the MENA region have experienced anaverage 33.5% increase in trade with the US during2005-2006. Although the FTA effect may well slow down incoming years, the extra trade created will remain. However,revenue is not the only factor to be considered in Oman’scase, as strategic partnerships with the US would stand tobenefit diversification options in the country.
Oman’s intra-regional trade ties should not be forgotten.The sultanate has significant trading interests with its GCCpartners, accounting for 18% total imports and 10.7% totalexports. The UAE is Oman’s fourth largest trading partnerand still a key part of the GCC market area. Should themonetary union continue without Omani membership, thesultanate may well find itself facing higher transactioncosts to deal with the Gulf Dinar.
Oman has managed to create new space for itself in theglobal trading network, establishing bilateral agreementsand partnerships promptly and efficiently which fulfill itsdevelopment criteria. Comparatively, the GCC as anorganization has repeatedly prolonged negotiations to forgeUS-GCC arrangements and has encountered many points ofcontention in aligning members’ independent economicpolicies. Bahrain was the first to observe that going italone on a trade deal with the US might better serve itseconomic need to generate growth and jobs, and Oman’s FTAreiterated the concern that the differing priorities of GCCmember states may be hampering the growth of the smallerplayers.
Oman also seems to be bearing its Asian priorities inmind, since its three major trading partners are Japan,China and Korea, who account for a collective 44.5% of totaltrade (21.5% total imports and 58.0% total exports). This isa regional alliance that Oman has successfully enticed andis continuing to pursue. Sinopec is the sultanate’s largestexporter of crude oil (30%) and has recently announced aproposal to increase term purchases by up to 20% for thisyear. China is also bidding on industrial contracts in thecountry and is seemingly paving the way for a longrelationship with Oman.
Asian loans have proved crucial to financing governmentprojects: the Japan Bank for International Cooperation(JBIC) loaned $150 million to Oman as contribution tofinancing part of the project of the second phase of Soharport, financing construction as well as infrastructure.Japan also participates in a “human resources transfer”program, dispatching ‘experts’ in response to requests madeby the government. The Omani-Asian links continue tostrengthen and Oman is taking care to ensure that thispartnership does not become neglected at the expense ofregional economic cooperation. The GCC priority is inestablishing a trade agreement with the EU, something whichhas moved very slowly since the opening of negotiations in1990. Despite the EU being Oman’s fifth-largest trading partner, the essential composition of theGCC presents many institutional barriers to trade alliances,and Oman’s branching out may indicate its lack ofwillingness to keep on waiting.
Although there has been criticism of Oman’s decision towithdraw from the monetary union process, the move may cometo be seen as very sensible regarding the sultanate’seconomic position. Oman has sent a clear message to the GCCthat it will not marginalize its domestic concerns for thesake of regional unity. This decision has already encouragedGCC scrutiny of what many now agree are unrealisticdeadlines and criteria. The concept of a fully operationalGulf Dinar by 2010 looks unlikely, though an ECU-styleaccounting unit used as a precursor is one course now leftopen for the GCC partners. As for Oman, it seems more intenton developing on its links with the US and Asia, increasingits competitiveness to benefit from more diverse foreigninvestment and partnerships. And just perhaps, through theOmani move, the other GCC states may take a long look at themonetary union plan and revise the steps needed to achieveit.
Jason J. Nash is Head of Research at the Oxford Business Group