27 April 2017

What 'Trumpism' means for MENAT

President Trump’s forthright views generate the kind of column inches and airtime that money cannot buy. But what does ‘Trumpism’ mean for MENAT?

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Although he is a businessman through and through, having adopted a brand of transactional politics that wants something in return, President Trump is not afraid to experiment, throwing comments into the Twittersphere to see what comes back.

But strong views demand strong action and there is a question mark here. Already the honeymoon seems to be waning as the dollar loses a bit of its edge, and the latest income and consumption data shows slight signs of weakness.

A change of direction

With the global powerbase long centred in Washington seemingly heading eastward - notably towards Beijing - the new administration’s inward-looking intentions may not last.

Part of the goal for any US administration is to try to broker a more secure and prosperous Middle East, with Iran and KSA holding the keys to creating a regional security framework.

However, the previous administration’s ‘Pacific pivot’, a strategic re-balancing of US interests from Europe and the Middle East toward East Asia (recognising in particular China’s importance both as a trading partner and as a threat to US dominance), does not favour such a development. Will there be a Trumpist reversal of the pivot?

Trump has threatened to rip up the Iran nuclear deal, won by his predecessor on the promise of new diplomatic and trade channels. But then Trump also pledged to move the US embassy to Jerusalem before back-pedalling furiously.

Then there is the travel ban to consider, which some regional voices claim to understand. “Every country has the right to take what it thinks are the right decisions towards its security and stability," said Salman Al Ansari, president of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee.

Action speaks louder than words

The clue is in the title of course and perhaps what really gets the Trump administration and its counterparties smiling is trade. KSA is the US’s biggest trading partner in the Middle East, exchanging well over US$30bn worth of goods in 2016. KSA holds over USD116bn of US government debt (as of March 2016,) according to the US Treasury Department. American firms have, to date, invested USD10 billion in the country, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

As US-made cars, industrial machinery, civil aircraft defence systems and the like went one way, 386 million barrels of KSA oil went the other, making it the second biggest source of foreign oil for the US.

UAE and the US traded over USD23 billion worth of goods in 2016. It is the largest Middle Eastern export market for the US, with American companies (of which there are over 1,000 operating in-country) having invested USD15.6 billion into the country. Boeing, for example, has its Middle East headquarters in Dubai catering for a USD2.3 billion 10-year manufacturing deal. Lockheed Martin, GE and ExxonMobil are also well-established here.

US/Turkey trade is a bellwether too, growing to USD17.4 billion in 2015 from USD10.8 billion in 2009. US banking and manufacturing sectors have driven some USD3.6 billion of investment in the country, with Ford, GE, Unilever, Coca Cola and Microsoft all present and correct.

For countries with high US stakes, keeping on good terms with the new administration may seem prudent. Iraq is the biggest US trading partner affected by the travel ban. It is the sixth biggest source of US oil imports. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said his country will not retaliate.

But prudency works both ways. With 47 countries and territories in the world with Islam as the dominant religion, including key Middle Eastern and Asian trading nations such as Malaysia, KSA, UAE, Turkey, Indonesia and Iraq, will the Trump administration really risk jeopardising the USD220 billion of trade (6% of its total) that the US Census Bureau says these countries generate?

No waiting game

Just as the US has its Pacific pivot, so KSA has been courting the Asia Pacific region. Bloomberg reported that FDI into Indonesia from KSA has surged 48 per cent in the past six years. A USD6 billion oil refinery deal between Saudi Aramco and Indonesia’s Pertamina signed in December 2016 shows good faith.

A recent visit to Southeast Asia by KSA’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz saw Indonesia win pledges of USD1 billion in development finance and signed agreements to cut trade barriers. This, Bloomberg reported, was preceded by a USD7 billion contract in Malaysia to develop an oil refinery and provide up to 70 per cent of its crude requirements. Malaysian and KSA companies also signed USD2.2 billion of agreements in construction, aerospace, halal, and hajj-related industries.

Even if the Trump administration is setting the US on an introspective course – and nobody really knows this for sure yet – MENAT’s star traders are clearly not waiting around anxiously to find out.

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