This event is mostly going unnoticed and least talked about. Gulf countries are in a process of forming their monetary union.
In Dec 2009, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar signed a pact to form a union and will be followed by Oman and UAE in due time. UAE opted out of the union over objections to selecting the Saudi capital, Riyadh as the base for the future Gulf central bank. Oman said it could not meet the union’s prerequisites for joining at this time.
In May 2010, it was decided that Muhammad al-Jasser, Saudi Monetary Authority head would head the Gulf Monetary Council/New Central bank. This was pretty much expected as it is the largest economy in the union by far.
John Whittaker of Lancaster University summarises the lessons Gulf economies need to take from Euro. GMU would be much smaller than EMU. GMU-4 economy would be USD 606.3 bn and population at 32.6 mn. Adding Oman and UAE it would become USD 887.2 bn and 42.2 mn respectively. EMU is at USD 12,266 bn and 320.4 mn.
Although the Gulf-zone will be much smaller than the eurozone both in population and economic size (table 1), there is no doubt that the Gulf rulers are aware of the symbolic prestige of the euro and they are looking to the euro as the model for their own currency. There will be a single central bank, there are plans for entrance conditions which match the ‘convergence criteria’ applied to countries joining the euro, and implementation is to follow similar procedures with detailed planning handled by an independent Monetary Council that will later mutate into the central bank.
It is therefore ironic that the decision to proceed with the new Gulf currency has been made at a time when the euro is suffering its severest strains to date – which prompts consideration of whether the Gulf currency might also be vulnerable. The euro-system is currently threatened by doubt about the sustainability of the debts of several Southern eurozone governments and here is speculation that, without financial support from other governments or the IMF, there may be a return to national currencies. The focus at the moment is on Greece where government debt is 115% of GDP (table 2) and the budget deficit is 2.7% of GDP (an upwards revision from the figure in table 2). Comparable problems also exist in Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy, generally compounded by large balance of payments deficits.
He shows overall fiscal balances of Gulf ecos are much better. Out of the joining four, only Bahrain runs fiscal deficits. Other three have both fiscal and current account surpluses:
At present, government debts in the GCC are small and, apart from Bahrain, all government budgets are in surplus (2009; table 2). The contrast with the troubled eurozone governments could hardly be greater. If the Stability Pact conditions of the eurozone are the relevant criteria (government deficits less than 3% of GDP; debts less than 60% of GDP), these are evidently satisfied with ease.
But then this is mainly because of oil resources. Once you join a common currency costs are huge:
However, a joint currency is a large commitment and all member countries need to be confident that the other members will continue with responsible fiscal behaviour in the future. In GCC countries, hydrocarbon duties provide the bulk of government revenues and the question has to be raised as to what will replace this when hydrocarbon reserves become depleted. This is a not a concern for Saudi Arabia and Qatar (table 3), provided that oil and gas prices do not fall significantly, but Bahrain and Oman (predicted to join the currency later) are less fortunate.
Diversification into other activities such as tourism and financial services is taking place in all GCC countries and there is discussion about developing new sources of taxation. But, even if sufficient revenue is raised, a potential difficulty arises with monetary policy.
Again just like Euro, there are major political reasons for GMU to succeed. There is no central fiscal policy, the major weakness of Euro. In EMU Germany is the centre and GMU it is going to be Saudi:
These caveats aside, current circumstances seem to be favourable for the establishment of a joint Gulf currency – at least as compared to the euro. GCC government finances are generally healthy, their business cycles are approximately in phase, they share a common culture and language, and co-operation between countries is increasing at several levels. But they do not share a government so the new currency could be vulnerable to the same forces that now endanger the euro. There needs to be enough commitment amongst all members both to abide by the rules and to help other members if they need it. As the largest economy and oil exporter, this responsibility will rest disproportionately on Saudi Arabia, although this would be shared with UAE if UAE and Oman join at a later date.
The author then looks at how the transition would be made and whether the common currency should be pegged or allowed to float? He says it should move towards free float currency to give credibility to the set-up:
The test of any exchange rate policy other than a free float is its credibility, implying that the managed float and the adjustable peg would be poor choices. In the absence of controls on the movement of foreign capital, any arrangement that builds in discretion for the monetary authority over exchange rates invites destabilising foreign exchange flows whenever there is a hint that the parity could be adjusted. Similarly, fixing the new currency to a wider basket is not ideal as it is vulnerable to expectations that the composition of the basket may be changed. For these reasons, a free float is likely to be the appropriate option and it has the additional advantage that it should partially smooth the flow of foreign earnings as the oil price fluctuate
This will be an interesting experiment for sure. The linkage of this union to world oil markets is going to be significant. Any problems in former would lead to problems in latter.
For instance, EMU economies were different and hence suffered differently in the crisis. However, Germany/France emerged stronger and were able to help (reluctantly though) the struggling smaller economies.
GMU economies would mostly be similar and affected by movement of oil prices. In such a case helping each other might not work in case of drop in oil prices. But then the central bank can cut rates without really worrying over inflation etc.
Looking forward to this new union….
There is already a proposed symbol for the new currency.