[OPE-L] Arab Stock Market Tumbles; But Who Knows It?

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Wed Mar 29 2006 - 14:55:54 EST

Left Margin

Arab Stock Market Tumbles; But Who Knows It?

By Carl Bloice
published by portside, March 28, 2006

Think people in the Emirates don't stage street
demonstrations? Think again. On March 8, hundreds of
protestors gathered in front of the Kuwait City stock
exchange. They weren't anti-globalization protesters,
but stockholders who had seen their net worth plummet
over the preceding month, culminating the previous day
when the market fell 400 points.

It didn't get any better. On March 14, the Kuwaiti
investor-demonstrators hit the streets again, this time
marching on the parliament demanding the government take
action to stop the slide. The market had just registered
its largest one-day loss and closed at a six-month low.

Still it didn't stop. Two weeks later, on March 26,
after analysts had begun expressing a positive outlook,
the Kuwaiti exchange cascaded again, shedding 239.8

According to press reports, the Kuwait protesters
accused the big money traders on the exchange of
manipulating the market for various financial and
political motives. A member of parliament, Abdulwahid
Al-Awadi said, "someone is playing with the stock market
in an attempt to monopolize it." However it soon became
clear that the crisis was not limited to the Emirate of
Kuwait. That same day, in the United Arab Emirates, the
market plunged to its lowest level in 11 months and
observers began referring to the fall as "Black
Tuesday." The stock markets fell 11.7 percent in Dubai
and 4.74 percent in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi stock market accounts for half of the value of
all Arab exchanges, with a capitalization of around $650
billion. Over a two week period, the capital value of
the Saudi market slid by more than 30 percent. By March
16, the Financial Times was reporting that the main
Saudi index was "down 21 percent from its all-time high,
but Dubai, where the collapse began earlier, was 51
percent off." On March 26, in defiance of optimistic
forecasts, the Saudi stock market fell 626.65 points. Of
the 79 listed companies, 72 saw their price drop. "A lot
of wealth is disappearing overnight," Shahid Hameed,
head of asset management at Manama-Bahrain-based
Securities & Investment Co, told Bloomberg news.

How strange it is that in an area of the world that has
been officially named a strategic priority for the
United States since the 1970s, an economic meltdown is
underway and shows no signs of slowing any time soon and
yet people in our country are almost totally unaware it
is happening.

Why the stock markets across the region are being
shattered is not clear; international observers and
analysts on the scene admit it remains somewhat a
mystery. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that
the panic behind the rout is interrelated with the
political and military situation in the Middle East and
Gulf region, the U.S. conflict with Iran and the
continuing costly and destabilizing war in Iraq. It
cannot bode well for the political or economic security
of the international community.

The total combined value of the stock exchanges in the
Gulf countries fell March 14 to just under one trillion
dollars, down some $159 billion from their in 2005 value
and more than $250 billion below their all-time high.

"'Collapse,' 'Domino effect,' 'Bleeding' screamed
headlines in Arab newspapers," reported the Financial
Times, as Arab investors tried to come to terms with the
region-wide collapse in stock market prices.

"It is pure panic and its snowballing effect on investor
sentiment which are triggering the fall. We cannot any
more call it a correction as it is a crash," Dhaheer
Quraish, general manager of Essham Securities, told the
Dubai-based Khaleej Times.

Evidently there were no street demos in the Saudi
capital, but Saudi politicians demanded state action to
stop the market decline.

There were, however, hospital visits. "High-Living
Saudis Panic as Stock Market Collapses," reported the
London Daily Telegraph (March 17), observing that Saudi
"rich kids have been selling their cars and even rushing
to the doctor after a whirlwind stock market crash saw
huge profits perish. Heart-attacks, stress,
hospitalization, and panic selling are all reported
results of the Saudi collapse, which has seen tens of
billions of dollars in losses in a fortnight."

"Many speculators have disappeared after big losses of
the past 10 days and some have been transferred to
hospitals, though their families claim they are out of
the country," reported Beirut's Daily Star on March 11
-- three days before "Black Tuesday."

"Stock markets in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Kuwait and other
Arab countries plunged in unison this week as investors
hit the exits simultaneously. US investors are barely
aware that these markets even exist let alone bothered
by this panic," observed the online finance commentator

Now, while I know next to nothing about the intricacies
of stock exchanges, I couldn't help but be intrigued as
to why the major mass media in the U.S. have either not
noticed that the Middle East stock markets are crashing
or don't think it worth reporting.

Although financiers in various Arab countries argued
that their respective governments should refrain from
taking measures to shore up the markets as the crisis
deepened, the governments announced various measures to
do just that.

Over the period since Black Tuesday, most exchanges in
the region have been on a roller coaster, more often
than not ending the day going down as governments
announced various measures to stabilize them. Although
Saudi politicians had demanded that the government act
to prevent a full-scale market crash, the Saudi
officials at first said the government would not
intervene to stop the slide. Later, the Saudi government
moved to allow foreign residents to trade directly in
the market (they were previously restricted to investing
in mutual funds) while it began considering a proposal
to split shares in order to pull its market out of the
doldrums. Authorities in Dubai, meanwhile, put forward a
plan to divide listed firms between active and non-
active, depending on the number of daily trades, and
separate the weaker firms from the main index.

On March 14 Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the world's
eighth-richest man, announced he was putting $2.7
billion of his own money into Saudi Arabian stocks. The
prince (worth $23.7 billion), according to Bloomberg,
would buy 10 billion Saudi riyals worth of stock over
the next few weeks. His spokesperson Heba Fatani said,
"The prince is a patriot."

The public stance of most business observers in the Arab
countries is that the exchanges were afflicted by a
bubble and that the market declines are merely a
"correction." Most attribute it to speculative trading
on the part of small investors who have taken up trading
vigorously over recent years. Over the past three years
the Saudi exchange has ballooned 620 percent. The total
value of stocks in Tunisia, the UAE, Jordan, Lebanon,
Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt,
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Morocco more than doubled last

However, other factors for the fall are being cited,
including growing unease over the political situation
related to the war in Iraq and the torpedoing of the
U.S. port management deal involving Dubai Ports World.
The expectation is that the correction will continue,
having, in the words of the Financial Times, "a few more
months to run."

It is obvious that the situation in the world, and
particularly the region, has contributed to the stock
market crisis and that it will have considerable
consequences for the future of the countries involved
and the international economy. This makes the major U.S.
media's obliviousness to the situation ever more

Henry T. Azzam, chief executive officer at Jordinvest
and MobileCom, Jordan, writing in the Daily Star of
Lebanon, said his colleagues expect the markets'
downward trend to continue and then "eventually revert
back to a positive slope in late 2006 as broad economic
indicators remain robust." However, he wrote, "The
economic impact of the current correction should not be
underestimated. Many small investors will be forced to
exit the market with losses incurred. Those who stay
will experience the reverse of the 'wealth effect.'
People will feel that their wealth has shrunk and this
will discourage them from spending. The impact of this
on economic growth is difficult to assess, but it would
definitely reduce consumption and weaken in the process
overall economic activities."

But who knows what the future holds?

Financial Times analyst Philip Coggan has suggested that
how the stock market crisis will play out is very much
connected to future political and military developments
in the region. "If the recent volatility in markets is
to turn into a rout, a catalyst will be needed," he
wrote March 17. "It could be US/Iran where discussions
are increasingly heated. The global economy has lived
with oil at $70 a barrel: could it live with $80 or


Carl Bloice is a writer based in San Francisco.

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