It’s been a glittering year for gold globally, with a Troy ounce (37.1 grams) rising $300 to a record $1,424.60 in November, before backing down slightly into the high $1,300s as Executive went to print. And it’s been just as bright a year for the precious metal in the Middle East. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) re-checked its accounts to find it had 180 tons more than it originally thought, Lebanon’s central bank reserves appreciated by more than $2 billion to close on $13 billion, and gold bugs in the United Arab Emirates were given the novel option to buy 24 karat bars from vending machines.
For individuals and governments alike, gold has been the go-to “alternative monetary asset,” as World Bank President Robert Zoellick put it in November.
Bullion took on a new allure as the United States dollar and the euro continued to weaken amid ongoing concerns about the financial markets, and central banks sought to hedge against inflationary pressure. Driving demand even higher was the inability of institutions and currency hawks to buy Chinese renminbi, as its exchange is restricted, leaving few options to hedge against further drops in the world’s two leading currencies. Gold’s surge has raised debate about whether the precious metal should have a monetary role four decades after the US ended the gold standard. A return to the gold standard is not likely, or indeed necessarily wanted, but any country that sold off a good chunk of its gold, like Britain did a decade ago, is today regretting not having hard assets tucked away in the vaults.
For dollar-pegged currencies, which includes Lebanon and most of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, holding sizeable gold reserves has been a real boon. Five Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) states are in the top 30 countries in the World Gold Council’s (WGC) World Official Gold Holdings rankings. But it is not the usual suspects of the oil-rich Gulf states taking the titles: Lebanon ranked 18th globally — just behind Britain and ahead of Spain — with 286.8 tons, equivalent to 25.2 percent of the central bank’s total reserves. Algeria, ranked 23rd, has 173.6 tons, Libya is right behind with 143.8 tons, and Turkey is in 29th place with 116.1 tons,
Out of the GCC nations, only Saudi Arabia makes it into the top ranking, leaping from 24th to 16th place in March when SAMA announced that, incredibly, due to “a difference in accounting” rather than new gold purchases, the kingdom had 322.9 tons instead of the earlier announced 143 tons. One can only wonder how much unaccounted-for gold there may be still hidden under the tiled floors of the Saudi central bank when such a staggering discrepancy is revealed. Furthermore, such holdings are only the reserves of SAMA, not the private stash of the estimated 7,000 members of the Saudi royal family, nor of Saudi citizens. Then there is the vast amount of gold ore lying under the kingdom’s sands, estimated at 20 million tons, according to Australian government statistics. The Saudi Arabian Mining Company (Ma’aden) has five operating gold mines, with proven gold ore deposits of 1.3 million ounces and current exploration suggests deposits of more than 8 million ounces elsewhere on its acreage. This year British and Australian gold mining companies obtained exploration licenses.
With gold production having peaked in 2011 at 2,645 tons, and the output of the four traditional producers — South Africa, the United States, Canada and Australia — on a downward curve, Saudi Arabia, in addition to its gushing black gold, appears to be experiencing a gold rush of the more traditional type.
The big question now is whether gold will continue to rally in 2011. Gold bugs are dreaming of an ounce hitting $2,000, while other pundits suggest the rally may be over and it is better to buy silver.
MENA central banks holding gold appear to have no desire to sell. As Riad Salameh, the governor of Lebanon’s central bank, told Reuters in October: “Lebanon will sit on its gold… In a world where you could see major crises, the payment instrument of last resort is gold — especially for a country like Lebanon that doesn’t have natural resources.” The same could be applied to individuals. Personally, as a gold bug myself, I’m hoping for another glittering year in 2011.
PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East
correspondent for International News Services