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UAE recovering well from crisis: IMF

The UAE is recovering well from the Dubai debt crisis and its struggling real estate sector is showing some signs of regaining strength, a senior International Monetary Fund official said. “The real estate sector has seen signs of stabilisation in some segments in recent months, though the picture as a whole is still very fragile,” Harald Finger, head of the IMF mission to the UAE, said after annual consultations with the government. Residential property prices in some areas have picked up though the commercial market is still under pressure, Finger said in an interview.

A corporate financing crunch that began in 2009 among government-related enterprises (GREs) mostly in Dubai, raised concerns about possible debt defaults and prompted Abu Dhabi, the richest emirate, to extend some $10 billion of aid to Dubai.

After last year’s consultations, the IMF urged the UAE to develop a framework for managing risks among its GREs.

Since then, GREs have been in talks to restructure billions of dollars of debt maturing in the next few years, and they and the Dubai government have promised to resolve the problems; Abu Dhabi has also acted, announcing this week that it will consider merging two of its major real estate firms.

Finger said that while more needed to be done, the IMF was encouraged that the GREs were getting to grips with their debts.

“Refinancing needs this year are substantial. But the GREs are increasingly becoming proactive in managing their upcoming rollovers. This is positive,” he said.

Last year, the IMF said Dubai-based banks “may pose a risk to financial stability”, partly because of real estate debt.

Finger said on Wednesday that UAE banks appeared able to cope.

“Banks are comfortably liquid,” he said, though any reduction in foreign funding as a result of global financial instability could still put pressure on some of them.

The UAE, one of the world’s top five oil exporters, responded to the crisis by boosting government spending, helping to push up the oil price needed to balance its budget to an estimated $84 per barrel this year from $23 in 2008. That could pose a problem for state finances if oil prices fall back from current levels well above $100.

Finger said that while the UAE was expected to increase its spending on economic development this year, it was also taking other budget steps, which he did not detail, to save money and strengthen its finances.

The IMF estimates the UAE posted a consolidated budget surplus last year and that excluding some extraordinary items, its fiscal balance as a proportion of gross domestic product will improve by 0.5 percentage points this year, he said without giving an absolute figure for the surplus.

“We’re happy with the pace of fiscal consolidation,” Finger said. The IMF predicted on Wednesday that the UAE’s GDP growth would slow to 2.3 percent this year from an estimated 4.9 percent in 2011, partly because there was little room for it to increase oil production further for now.

One uncertainty for the economy is the impact of tightening international financial sanctions against Iran, since Dubai is a major hub for Iranian re-exports trade. The IMF has estimated that the sanctions could cost the UAE as much as 0.7 percent of GDP if trade halts completely. Finger said it was too early to tell what the impact would be.

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