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Event Recap April 30, 2024

MENA’s economic outlook from the Atlantic Council’s IMF/World Bank Week

By Charles Johnson and JP Reppeto

During this year’s World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) Spring Meetings, the Atlantic Council’s empowerME Initiative, alongside the GeoEconomics Center, hosted a week of events featuring leaders of prominent international finance organizations. The week’s convenings provided plentiful insights into the region’s economic outlook. 

Catalyzing climate financing through the Green Climate Fund

Mafalda Duarte, executive director of the Green Climate Fund (GCF), gave a succinct overview of the GCF’s role and its work in mobilizing and implementing climate financing in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and across the globe. 

She explained that the GCF functions as the main financial mechanism of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, bringing some $14 billion in resources to more than 250 adaptation and mitigation projects in 129 developing countries. Under its mandate and the direction of its board, the GCF prioritizes assisting the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries.

Duarte emphasized the inclusivity of the GCF’s work, noting that adequate climate financing requires partnerships with national governments, international organizations, and the global private sector. Partnering with a vast network of organizations, including the IMF and World Bank, gives the GCF access to a large-scale and flexible resource pool. She listed advisory services, project preparation, loans, equity, guarantees, and results-based payments as some tools that the GCF can leverage.

She also mentioned that roughly $1 billion of the fund’s $14 billion is earmarked for projects in the MENA region specifically in this funding cycle. She specifically highlighted the GCF’s work on renewable energy projects, given the region’s potential to harness solar and wind power and the potential cost savings on infrastructure construction offered by economies of scale. 

Duarte concluded with her own hopes for the GCF’s mission, saying that “it’s important to honor what we have been asked to do, but it’s important to take it one step further…with a particular focus on expanding efforts targeting the most vulnerable.”

An optimistic outlook on Egypt’s economic reforms

Rami Aboulnaga, deputy governor of the Central Bank of Egypt, shared an upbeat assessment of his country’s economic reforms. 

To halt further devaluation of the Egyptian pound, which recently reached seventy pounds against the US dollar at black-market rates, Aboulnaga emphasized the importance of restoring investor confidence. “The keyword is confidence,” he said. “I think the issue we are trying to grapple with is shoring up confidence.” Aboulnaga highlighted that speculation drives the parallel market and underscored reforms’ success in addressing this issue.

In terms of diversifying foreign exchange reserves and compensating for lost revenues, Aboulnaga outlined the bank’s efforts to enhance competitiveness and rectify structural imbalances. He also emphasized measures to ensure dollar availability through a flexible exchange rate. Despite regional geopolitical volatility, Aboulnaga noted a resurgence in tourism and an increase in remittances, which he cited as helping mitigate other challenges.

Aboulnaga stressed the importance of maintaining momentum to achieve and sustain stability as the core of government economic reforms. These measures aim to build resilience in the economy rather than generate short-term gains. Addressing inflation and debt reduction, which he described as top priorities for the Central Bank of Egypt, is crucial for protecting vulnerable communities. The bank is actively working to increase transparency in markets to make fluctuations more predictable.

Concerning the private sector, the structural reforms aim to cultivate a neutral environment and 

establish a level playing field for investors, thus enhancing business competitiveness. The market will be closely regulated, but not controlled.

Moving from stabilization to reform in the Egyptian economy

H. E. Rania al-Mashat, Egypt’s minister of international cooperation, led a discussion centered on macroeconomic stabilization, economic reform, and leveraging concessional funding to promote economic growth in Egypt.

She emphasized the significance of the past two months in terms of macroeconomic stabilization. According to her, recent actions toward a flexible exchange rate, fiscal consolidation, and collaboration with the IMF have provided Egypt with the opportunity to address the deeper challenge of structural reform.

This structural reform, as outlined by Mashat, revolves around three main pillars: stabilizing Egypt’s macro-fiscal landscape, enhancing the country’s business environment, and supporting the green transition. She stressed the importance of relationships with multilateral development banks and other partners in facilitating these reform programs, emphasizing that they must be country-led to ensure success.

Furthermore, Mashat highlighted the necessity of building long-standing relationships based on transparency and trust to access additional concessional finance. She emphasized the importance of accountability for every dollar received through concessional finance, ensuring alignment with the national strategy. Egypt has been able to utilize concessional finance to implement assistance programs for the country’s most vulnerable, such as Takaful and Karama, addressing both economic and social needs simultaneously.

Conflict resilience and economic integration in the MENA region

Jihad Azour, IMF director of the Middle East and Central Asia, concluded the MENA portion of the Atlantic Council’s IMF/World Bank Week by providing an evenhanded examination of the region’s economic outlook. Azour emphasized the region’s positive developments, with most inflation returning to historical averages, increased growth from non-oil sectors in the Gulf, and efforts to transition toward renewable energy. At the same time, he said issues regarding geopolitical instability and debt remain persistent challenges for MENA countries.

On geopolitical tensions and their economic impact, Azour said that “the war in Gaza is having a devastating impact on the Palestinian economy and a relatively large impact on neighboring countries” and beyond. Disruptions in the Red Sea have also affected the region. One-third of global container shipping goes through the Suez Canal, and more than one-third of oil and gas come from the region, so the Houthis’ attacks in the Red Sea are creating uncertainty regarding the waterway’s trade. Fortunately, explained Azour, recent shocks like the COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine have helped the market and supply chain adapt to major disruptions and shifts in oil supply.

Like conflict, Azour said, debt is a major concern in regional growth, citing Jordan and Egypt’s 90-percent debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratios and Lebanon’s ratio surpassing 100 percent. He explained that long-term solutions to the debt crisis require predictable macroeconomic frameworks to restore investors’ confidence in the economy. 

While debt and conflict are continuing challenges for the region, Azour assessed the Gulf as a source of optimism for MENA’s economic prospects. He noted that the Gulf’s policy and reform-driven approach to transformation has been successful in reducing reliance on oil while positioning Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, to seize on the potential of artificial intelligence. Azour explained that this economic success has allowed the GCC to lead the way in both regional and global integration, which could boost all of MENA’s economic potential under a tempered and incremental approach to greater regional integration. With sustainable long-term reforms, this progress could translate to greater economic spillover effects in the broader region.

JP Reppeto and Charles Johnson are Young Global professional in the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs


empowerME at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East is shaping solutions to empower entrepreneurs, women, and youth and building coalitions of public and private partnerships to drive regional economic integration, prosperity, and job creation.