Mideast stocks drop amid rising US-Iran tensions
Dubai, UAE - The US killing of Iran’s most senior military commander reverberated through Middle Eastern markets, sending stocks into retreat and setting the tone for what’s likely to be a volatile week.
All the region’s major equity gauges fell on Sunday. Kuwait’s dropped more than 4 per cent, trimming a rally that made it the best market in the region last year. Aramco shares slumped as the country’s Tadawul All Share Index lost as much 2.1 per cent, with local banks contributing the most to its decline. Benchmark stock indexes in the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Israel, Egypt and Oman also weakened.
Geopolitical risks flared after Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was killed in Iraq last week in a drone attack ordered by US President Donald Trump. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani vowed revenge, while Trump said late Saturday the US had identified 52 Iranian sites that would be hit ‘very hard’ if Tehran retaliated.
“Investors who were hoping for lower geopolitical tension in the Middle East and North Africa in 2020 got their hopes dashed on the second day of the year,” said Mohammed Ali Yasin, chief strategy officer at Abu Dhabibased Al Dhabi Capital Ltd. “2020 will continue to be a year of high geopolitical tensions.”
Global markets turned sour on Friday as Soleimani’s death triggered a flight to havens at the expense of riskier assets. MSCI Inc’s index of emerging-market stocks fell the most in more than a month. Brent crude rose to US$68.60 a barrel, its highest level since mid-September, and gold, a haven for investors in rocky markets, almost reached a six-year high.
The cost of insuring Saudi Arabia’s debt against default spiked, jumping more than when missiles struck Aramco’s oil facilities in September, an attack Washington blamed on Tehran. At 65 basis points, Saudi Arabia’s five-year credit default swaps are now more expensive than Indonesia’s for the first time in almost two years, even though Moody’s Investors Service rates the latter four levels lower. Yields on the bonds of Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Lebanon and Iraq all climbed.
Aramco shares were facing their biggest test since the initial public offering less than a month ago. The stock dropped 1 per cent to SAR34.80 on Sunday, headed for its lowest close since the December 11 listing.
Optimists will point to the resilience of Middle East markets in the face of political tension. Volatility surged in September after the Aramco drone strikes highlighted the vulnerability of Saudi oil installations. Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility. That came just a few months after a spate of attacks on oil tankers in or near the Strait of Hormuz, for which the US and Saudi governments blamed Iran.
The extent of the latest sell-off will depend on if, how and when Iran responds to Soleimani’s killing, said Fahd Iqbal, Credit Suisse AG’s Dubai-based head of Middle East Research.
“There will be a sense of nervousness and wait-and-see,” he said on Sunday. “There is a lack of knowing what Iran is going to do, or how severe any kind of retaliation will be, if there is any.”