Abu Dhabi empty streets
Even with the various restrictions in place during the COVID-19 crisis, UAE and Gulf economies have the wherewithal to tap sizeable funds, either through bond issues or by asset sales. (Image is for illustrative purposes only.) Image Credit: Abu Dhabi Media Office

Abu Dhabi: Gulf nations may turn to asset sales to complement an almost $50 billion debt spree to support economies rocked by the coronavirus pandemic and the collapse in crude prices, according to Citigroup Inc.

Countries including Saudi Arabia and the UAE have "really attractive" government-owned assets, which could be sold to the public or partnered with other investors, Atiq Rehman, head of Citigroup Inc.'s emerging-market cluster for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said.

Many Gulf companies have non-core business that could attract partners with technical expertise or capital, said Rehman.

"This frees up capital for you to focus on your core," he said. "I think that kind of thing you will see happening more."

"There are opportunities obviously on that front," he said. "There is also high investment-grade rating for their ability to raise substantial amount of international debt at very attractive prices. There is capacity to borrow more."

$105billion

What governments in the region could raise as debt via bonds this year

Gulf governments are looking at ways to shore up their economies as the coronavirus pandemic and a historic crash in oil prices add to pressure on already strained finances. Unlike in Europe, most major entities in the region are still state-owned. Saudi Arabia last year raised $29.4 billion by selling less than a 2 per cent stake in the world's biggest oil producer, Saudi Aramco.

Clocking up debt

Borrowers in the Gulf have raised $47 billion in bonds this year, with just over half of that in the past month alone. Franklin Templeton estimates governments and companies in the region could raise $105 billion in bonds this year, topping last year's $101 billion, the highest since Bloomberg began compiling the data in 2008.

More deals are in the works. Saudi Arabia, the region's biggest economy, is leading the way with plans to borrow a record 220 billion riyals ($58 billion) this year. Saudi Aramco, is said to have hired advisers to review a potential multi-billion dollar stake sale in its pipeline business, following a similar move by government-backed Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., whose natural gas pipelines unit could be valued at $15 billion.

Sitting on sizeable reserves

Still, Gulf nations can take some comfort in the massive reserves being held by the region's sovereign wealth funds, which can be used to support economies, Rehman said.

Middle Eastern wealth funds have built up assets of more than $2 trillion as a cushion for when oil runs out or revenues drop. These funds could see a decline by more than $300 million this year because of the market turmoil, according to the Institute of International Finance, the industry's global association.

"Sovereigns in the region are in a strong position," Rehman said, adding that Gulf states still have relatively low debt levels. "This is a challenging situation, but they are very well positioned to see through this period of recovery."