Qatar has enough financial firepower to defend its currency and economy, Finance Minister Ali Shareef Al Emadi said, as a Saudi-led campaign to isolate the small Gulf Arab country entered its second week. Al Emadi sought to play down the impact of the crisis on the country, saying the plunge in Qatari assets last week was a “normal” reaction to moves by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to cut diplomatic and transport links with Qatar. “We’re business as usual and we’re open for business,” he told CNBC in an interview broadcast Monday. The Saudi-led alliance is demanding that Qatar distance itself from Iran and stop funding Islamist groups. Qatar denies sponsoring terrorism and accuses the Saudis of seeking to dominate smaller neighbors. The unprecedented measures have prompted investors and economists to ponder how long Qatar, the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, can weather the pressure without having to devalue its currency or sell any of its global assets. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, one of the world’s largest, controls stakes in companies from Glencore Plc to Barclays Plc. “Our reserves and investment funds are more than 250 percent of gross domestic product,” Al Emadi, who sits on the board of the sovereign wealth fund, said. “I don’t think there is any reason that people need to be concerned about what’s happening or any speculation on the Qatari riyal.”
Mohamed Abu-Basha, a Cairo-based economist at the EFG-Hermes investment bank, doesn’t see any major risks to the riyal or Qatar’s growth prospects. “The Qatari government can continue leading economic activity with little interruption,” he said. The cost of these investments is likely to increase because the material can no longer come across the land border with Saudi Arabia, he said. Yet while this might expand the country’s budget deficit, that risk is “by no means life-threatening,” he said. The crisis caused Qatar’s most liquid bonds to tumble last week as its sovereign rating was cut and bets against its currency surged.
Al Emadi said Qatar’s government didn’t need to buy back its bonds. “We are extremely comfortable with our positions, our investments and liquidity in our systems,” he said. “We are going to make sure that we are even more diversified than we were before.” Ratings companies have been less sanguine about the feud’s effect on the economy of the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. Moody’s Investors Service sees the potential to push up Qatar’s borrowing costs. Qatar’s sovereign credit strength will be hurt primarily on higher funding costs, while a pick-up in foreign investment outflows would drain foreign-exchange reserves, it said.
S&P Global Ratings lowered Qatar’s long-term rating by one level to AA- last week and put it on negative watch, on concern the country’s finances will be affected. At the same time, it said on Sunday that Qatari banks are strong enough to survive the pullout of all Gulf money and a quarter of their other foreign holdings. In a worst case scenario, only two unidentified lenders would have to dip into their investment securities portfolio, S&P concluded.
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The biggest danger Qatar faces would be further credit rating downgrades, said EFG-Hermes’s Abu-Basha. Banks rely on non-resident deposits and foreign borrowing, and additional downgrades could scare away foreign funding and hurt the financial system’s liquidity, he said. Al Emadi predicted the countries isolating Qatar will share in the economic pain they’re inflicting on it. “A lot of people think we’re the only ones to lose in this,” the minister said. “If we’re going to lose a dollar, they will lose a dollar also.”