One man's view of times when hope is in short supply

In the Vietnam War movie We Were Soldiers, depicting the first major battle the Americans had in that conflict, the leader of the US soldiers Lt Colonel Hal Moore, played by Mel Gibson, stands up in the middle of battle and looks around.

What he sees is chaos, his men dying and the enemy about to overrun his position.

Hal Moore then nods to himself as if making a decision and transmits the code phrase “Broken Arrow”. It basically meant ”we’re in trouble”, and every US military aircraft diverted from its mission to support the ground forces.


In many ways I feel the same from an investment and business point of view. I look at oil and it is US$33 per barrel and heading lower as Iran ramps up its production. Add to that Saudi Arabia’s promise to not cut production and it seems that $20 oil, or lower, is here to stay.

I look at the regional geopolitical situation and the number of conflicts, be they direct wars, civil wars or proxy wars is large and seems to be increasing. Conflicts destroy lives, financial assets and economies. Conflicts also lead to massive refugee migration.

I read the paper and am informed of large layoffs. I read that Dubai is building large numbers of four and three-star hotels, implicitly accepting that margins will shrink as it slides down the tourist demographic scale. I read that company after company has posted a loss. All of which runs counter to the mantra that only one-third of the UAE’s GDP comes from oil.

But most alarming of all is what I don’t read. I don’t read a frank and realistic analysis of the economic future that we face. I don’t read feasible solutions that we may apply.

In many ways I feel like Lt Colonel Hal Moore. I feel that I am standing in the midst of chaos and mayhem. But unlike Hal Moore I can scream “Broken Arrow” all I want and nobody is going to help me. I must help myself.

The primary way to help myself starts with having saved and invested for a rainy day, or perhaps decade. Take your pick. It’s a little late to start now, but if you haven’t already done it, then in the next up cycle start with earnest.

For the many expats who have lost their jobs there is a silver lining. Whether they return home or move on to a new host country, it is unlikely that their destination is an oil-producing country. The good news is that with energy costs having declined over 70 per cent, the economies of the rest of the world will boom. Not immediately, consumers will rebuild depleted savings before consumer-led growth starts. In America this will probably be the day after Thanksgiving in preparation for Christmas.

But what of Emiratis? Will there be an economy left to work in? Is the “two-thirds non-oil GDP” an accurate statistic that gives one reassurance, or is it a miscalculation that gives false hope? Are the many companies created and owned by GREs financially fit and able to play the promised positive role in making the UAE less dependent on oil?

I do not see any clear-cut answers for Emirati or expat other than inheriting money or a business from their fathers. For the rest of us, I do not have an answer that is in our hands, but I see a way out.

Saudi Arabia did not allow oil prices to plummet to these levels to kill shale oil. This is rubbish that I debunked in an earlier article. Saudi Arabia is at cross-purposes with Iran and its ally Russia.

However, Russia has its own problems stemming from sanctions for its tour of Ukraine and oil revenue that plummeted. It is under intense pressure to get oil prices up, and this will increase as the health of their economy deteriorates. There is clearly a trade here – one that we saw the thin bones of in last week’s agreement between Saudi Arabia, Russia, Qatar and Venezuela to cap output.

The larger trade is that Russia reins in Iran in some way and in return the Saudis allow oil prices to go back up to something sensible, say $60 per barrel. If this stand-off continues, however, all stakeholders will be very sad.

So every time you pray, add a little something at the end asking for Saudi Arabia and Russia to figure out a deal. If you don’t pray, start.

Sabah Al Binali is an active investor and entrepreneurial leader with a track record of growing companies in the Mena region. You can read more of his thoughts at al-binali.com.

business@thenational.ae

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