I recently visited Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, having helped organize an Arab Monetary Fund-World Bank cosponsored conference on financial flows in the Arab world. Conference participants and speakers, which include academics, private and central bankers, securities regulators, and ministry of finance officials, is energized by how financial flows in the post-crisis environment has remained relatively robust (with the notable exception syndicated lending and possibly FDI), along with excitement about the future of financial integration across the Arab world. The program for the conference can be found here (PDF), and the Bank's Middle East and North Africa region also has a webpage highlighting the broader Arab financial flows project.
It is therefore perhaps appropriate to reflect on the role that major financial centers in the region will play in our increasingly multipolar world, the latter of which was the theme in the final session ("Arab Economies in a Multipolar World"). This is, of course, not the first time that the Arab world has had a prominent place in international financial flows: following the two oil price shocks in 1973 and 1979, regional financial centers were active in recycling petrodollars into the rest of the world, not just in the developed world but also in Latin America.
This time round, however, the financial development in these regional centers are more mature, regional economies now promise many more return opportunities, and even the buy side has become much more sophisticated with the rise of some of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds. It is therefore natural to reflect on how potentially increased oil price in the short and medium term future---energy prices have demonstrated a rising trend post-financial crisis, currently standing at about $75 a barrel---will generate a fresh round of liquidity that needs to be invested outside (and inside) the region, and speculate on where those locations may be.
The most obvious capital destination, of course, are the usual suspects in mature markets. Indeed, the available evidence from 2009 seems to indicate that Arab SWFs continue to allocate the majority of their investments to the United States and Europe ($32.2 of $49.6 billion, or 65 percent) even after the sharp losses some funds have experienced due to exposure to these markets.
However, there are reasons to believe that the fast-growing emerging economies such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, Mexico, and South Korea (the BRICMS) are becoming increasingly attractive alternatives. By and large, these countries have had a "good" crisis. Although data on total capital flows by source to destination are not available, it is possible to look at total FDI inflows into these markets (recall, FDI is far and away the predominant form of international financial flow), against net financial outflows from the GCC economies (see figure). Up till the onset of the crisis in 2006, at least, the trends in both series appear to be consistent with the notion that Arab SWFs are investing in these emerging markets.
It should also be pointed out that Arab SWFs also reinvest within the region: the MNA region accounts for takes a sizable 32 percent share in Arab SWF transactions in 2009. This is undoubtedly a positive for a region that displays so much heterogeneity in levels of development, and good news for the developing, non-oil exporters in MNA seeking international sources of development financing.