• Oil exporters’ budgets under pressure
  • Importing countries will face lower subsidy costs
  • Bahrain faces biggest budgetary challenges

The gap between the sovereign ratings of energy exporters and importers in the Middle East and North Africa is narrowing due to the low price of oil, according to ratings agency Fitch Ratings.

The low-price environment will mean that oil exporting nations may need to consolidate their budgets and reduce spending, which could negatively affect growth, says Fitch in a report released on 18 February.

In contrast, the oil importing countries, which are typically seen as more high-risk countries, will see their government budgets benefit from the lower cost of oil. Not only will countries such as Egypt or Jordan face lower import bills, they will also have lower fuel subsidy costs.

Given this new economic environment, it is likely that some oil exporters will risk having their sovereign rating cut, while oil importers could see an improvement to their risk rating.

Among oil exporting nations, Bahrain will face the most difficulties. It has a high fiscal breakeven oil price in place and a higher debt to GDP ratio compared to its Gulf neighbours. Fitch placed the country on negative watch in December 2014.

Oman will also struggle to a certain extent in a low oil price environment, but has larger sovereign wealth fund assets and lower debt than Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia has limited debt and large financial buffers to weather low oil prices, but the country’s fiscal situation could be negatively affected by the kingdom’s plans to maintain high spending in 2015. Fitch says that the kingdom is examining debt financing options as well.

Abu Dhabi and Kuwait are the best positioned oil-exporting nations in the region, and Fitch says the governments are expected to post fiscal and external surpluses in 2015.

The agency bases its report on the assumption that Brent crude will average $70 per barrel in 2015 and $80 in 2016.

Earlier in February, another rating agency revised downwards its ratings for Bahrain and Oman.