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Iran’s Tourism Industry Sprouts despite US Sanctions

For several years, the US sanctions on Iran continued to have a detrimental impact on the economic growth of the country, with tourism sector being severely affected throughout the period under sanctions. The 2016 sanctions removal brought many visible changes to the development of the country, with hopes for tourism industry to benefit from the potential influx of travelers and new opportunities for the industry players.

Iran’s tourism was severely affected by the US sanctions

Iran was in a quivering state for more than 35 years owing to the never-ending political tensions with the USA post the 1979 Iranian Revolution. This led to no formal diplomatic relationships between the countries since 1980, and considerable sanctions imposed on Iran over the years. The impact of these sanctions was visible through a range of profound economic problems such as inflation, unemployment, poverty, and underdevelopment of virtually all industries in the country.

One sector that faced severe repercussions of the sanctions was Iran’s tourism industry. A negative image of the country was reinforced by the mainstream media as a flag-burning, west-hating nation, a fact that caused a major dent to Iran’s tourism industry. Adding to it, lack of resources to tackle this negative discourse had further left Iran in an international isolation over all these years. Despite being rich in culture, natural history and landscapes, a country with such an image could not persuade foreign tourists to visit.

Moreover, the US sanctions drastically affected Iran’s economy, which resulted in lack of proper resources to establish a well-equipped transportation sector, including airlines, trains, and buses, which in turn led to Iran becoming even less attractive to tourists. In addition, lack of proper hospitality infrastructure such as hotels, restaurants, roads, etc., further negatively impacted international tourists’ interest in Iran. Adding to it, the US sanctions also created greater tensions between Iran and the USA which led the US government to issue a travel advisory over all these years, which restricted its citizens to travel to Iran due to safety risks, such as getting kidnapped or arbitrary arrest and detention in the country. Thus, this resulted in almost no tourist from the western countries visiting Iran.

Iran’s tourism sector did witness a very modest growth over the years, largely thanks to pilgrimage tourism visiting the shrines and originating mostly from regional countries such as Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Turkey.

According to The World Bank data, the number of international tourists’ arrivals in Iran fluctuated, increasing from 2.7 million in 2006 to just 4.9 million visitors in 2014. Iran’s tourism industry was suffering particularly badly not only from the lack of arrivals of American tourists, but generally more affluent, well-spending tourists from western hemisphere, who were universally deterred by sanctions, poor state of the tourism infrastructure, as well as the negative image of the country created by international media.

According to official figures by Iran’s Culture Heritage Organization, during the sanctions period, tourism sector contributed around 2.0% to the country’s GDP (an average of US$7.5 billion in a year), leading to sluggish infrastructural development throughout that period. Iranian tourism sector’s hopes for change and better growth started budding when Iran signed a nuclear deal with six countries in July 2015, an event that led to the US sanctions being finally lifted.

The nuclear deal came as a ray of hope

Even before the US government removed the sanctions, the country started witnessing a slight increase in the number of foreign visitors. This was thanks to the nuclear deal signed between Iran and a group of six countries (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – Russia, France, UK, USA, and China, plus Germany) and the EU in July 2015. The deal included Iran’s commitment to restricting its nuclear activities, agreeing to keep check on the uranium stockpile, among other agreements.

The deal immediately mellowed down Iran’s negative image and released a positive message of lowered risks associated with visiting the country. This gave a slight boost to the tourism sector with a moderate growth of 4.5% with 5.2 million foreign tourists visiting the country in 2015, the highest arrivals number till date.

Another upward push on the growth trajectory came the following year, when the US government removed sanctions from Iran in January 2016, as part of the nuclear deal. This was expected to have a major impact on tourism sector as it offered hope for much needed economic stimulation, along with investments and development in the economy, and tourism sector in particular.

Iran’s Tourism Industry Sprouts despite US Sanctions by EOS Intelligence

Post lifting of sanctions, tourism sector rejoiced with developments

The nuclear deal and removal of sanctions brought growth to the tourism sector, owing to removal of restrictions on imports of financial and transportation-related services. As a result, some European airlines, such as British Airways and Lufthansa, resumed direct flights to the country. As visa requirements were increasingly relaxed, tourists from western countries started to arrive. This in turn slowly raised the demand for accommodation leading to skyrocketing prices of hotel rooms. These changes finally generated higher income for local businesses such as hotels, restaurants, tourist guides, local transportation providers, and other players in the market. Iranians excitedly welcomed foreign tourists, including the Americans, along with the positive outlook for the sector’s growth.

The Iranian government, following the sanctions removal, initiated efforts to attract foreign investments with a clear agenda of reducing Iran’s oil dependency and boost the country’s economy, by betting on increasing revenues from tourism sector.

The initiatives included the launch of a scheme called “100 Hotels, 100 Businesses” that outlined 174 projects to be introduced to investors interested in hotel construction. This is was an ambitious scheme led by the Iranian government focusing on bringing the hotel industry of the country back on track. This scheme aimed at attracting investments for the construction of 100 hotels across 31 provinces with priority given to most popular regions such as Tehran, Kashan, or Mashhad. Also, through this scheme, the government focused on initiating joint ventures with foreign companies, benefiting both the government and foreign investors.

The government also announced other major plans for the development of tourism industry. These included creating regulations to facilitate investment, creating brands of hotels and restaurants, promoting new types of tourism such as sports, climate, and industrial tourism, developing knowledge-based human resources, creating a comprehensive system of standards, balancing inbound and outbound tourism by improving political relations, and creating a system for the protection and restoration of historical and natural sites.

The Iranian government further assured about the transfer of capital and profits overseas as per the foreign investment law of the country and full protection for the investors against any non-commercial risks such war or border conflict, confiscation or corruption, etc.

The government also started working on changing the image of the country and its tourism industry in the eyes of potential foreign visitors. One major change to this was to allow increased access to the internet, e.g. over social media, for the local players, which gave the restrained westerners a far greater insight into the country without the filters added from the mainstream media.

These efforts undertaken by the Iranian government were welcomed by several foreign investors, as they brought a sense of encouragement and stability to prospects of investing in the country.

This soon led to emergence of international hotel chains, the first being Novotel (296 rooms) and Ibis (196 rooms) hotels by the French hospitality company Accor which came to Tehran already in 2015. The company’s chief executive Mr. Bazin, at the launch of the venture, was optimistic in bringing up the chain of budget hotels such as Ibis and mid and upmarket hotels such as Novotel, Sofitel, and Pullman in 20 cities of Iran, but with no particular timeline given. Another hotel that came up in 2017 was Spanish Melia in Caspian Sea in 2017, built in partnership of Melia and its Iranian partners in Tehran, where the Iranians invested more than US$250 million while the management is taken over by Melia. The hotel includes 319 luxurious rooms, two residential towers, a sports center, and other services in an area of 18,000 square meters. Similarly, the Abu Dhabi’s Rotana Management Corporation planned to open four hotels in Iran’s major cities, Tehran and Mashhad, two in each. One of the hotels (a five-star hotel with 275 rooms and suites in Mashhad) was built within one year in 2017.

Overall, investments in the tourism sector started growing at a moderate level post the removal of US sanctions. According to World Tourism and Travel Council (WTTC) data on the capital investments in Iran’s tourism sector, 2016 witnessed an investment of US$2.75 billion contributing 3.25% of all investments in the country, as compared to the investment of US$2.63 billion in 2015. Since then, capital investments have been growing and are estimated to reach US$3.75 billion in 2028 with a share of 4.86% of all investments.

As a result of increased investments and rise in tourism sector, the GDP of the country also witnessed a slight growth. According to WTTC data, tourism industry’s share in the country’s GDP increased to 7.1% in 2015 contributing US$26.04 billion, up from 6.5% (US$24.38 billion) in 2014. However, it stabilized in the following years (6.8% in 2016, 6.4% in 2017, and 6.5% in 2018), with expected contribution to GDP of 6.52% amounting to US$35.39 billion by 2028. With developments in the tourism sector, the ministry of tourism is hoping to host nearly 20 million tourists per year by 2025.

But as the country started seeing benefits of the sanctions removal, with its improved economy thanks to rise in export and import, infrastructural developments, increase of foreign investments from 2016 to mid-2018, and boost in tourism sector and many other industries, the US government shocked the country by re-imposing sanctions in August 2018. The re-imposition was a consequence of the USA withdrawing its participation from the nuclear deal in May 2018 over political differences. This brought a blow to the Iranian economy with restrictions over imports and exports, thus again leaving Iran in economic struggle due to recession through shrinking oil exports.

EOS Perspective

The economic trembles coming from crude oil export ban led the Iranian government to increase its focus on tourism industry to offset the lost revenues. While American tourists are again restricted to travel to Iran, the country is still witnessing an increased influx of tourists from other regions, including the Middle East and Asia, a fact that cushions the impact of re-imposed sanctions.

Although a blessing in disguise for Iran, one of major reasons for the rise in tourism despite the US sanctions was the almost threefold fall of Iranian currency against US dollar which made travelling to Iran a low-cost affair for many foreign tourists, especially in comparison to other Middle Eastern destinations. This has contributed to the foreign tourists’ influx especially from the western countries – tourists with budget constraints as well as tourist arriving for medical tourism purposes. At the same time, the fall in rial value against the US dollar increased travel expenses for Iranians going overseas. This has constrained the outbound tourism, resulting in a decrease of 6.5% during 2018 (March 21- June 21 of Iranian Calendar).

The weakening of the currency was just one of the reasons that contributed to the slight growth in the Iran’s tourism sector, despite the US sanctions. The country continued to communicate its selling points and positive image to foreign audiences. Iran has been working on reinforcing its position as destination of religious pilgrimages, place with improved infrastructure, natural landscape, and cultural history. Through these messages on social media, the country seems to have attracted various sorts of tourists, from leisure travelers to artists to businessmen and more, resulting in growth of the industry.

According to deputy minister of the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism of Iran, the number of tourists’ arrivals increased by 24% during the first seven months of 2019 (starting from March 21 as per Iranian Calendar) compared to the same period previous year. In terms of tourists’ arrivals numbers, between March 2018 to March 2019, Iran witnessed 7.8 million foreign tourists visiting the country as compared to 4.7 million tourists from March 2017 to March 2018.

Encouraged by the growth in the sector, Iranian government undertook further initiatives to ensure the inflow of foreign visitors continues (and increases). In August 2019, a functionalized center was established in Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization, with a task to make decisions on reducing the negative impact of the US sanctions on tourism industry.

Following the US State Department’s warning (issued in May 2018) against travelling to Iran, citing it being an unsafe travel destination, the risk of fall of other western tourists’ arrivals increased. The Iranian government, to compensate for the fall, focused more on attracting tourists from regional countries. For instance, visa fees for Iraqi tourists (accounting for 24% of inbound tourists in 2018) were removed, while visas for Omanis were waived off.

Iran is also looking for tourists in more remote markets, especially in countries that are known to frequently stand against the USA in the international area. China is one such market which Iran is hoping to attract leisure tourism from by allowing visa-free entry of the Chinese nationals into Iran as of July 2019. Iran has an ambitious plan to increase the number of Chinese visitors from just over 50,000 in 2018 to 2 million in 2020.

Furthermore, in order to encourage foreign tourists to visit Iran, the Iranian government decided not to stamp their passports to help them avoid issues with subsequent attempts to travel to the USA. Additionally, the government is also trying to spur medical tourism by developing health tourism hubs, especially in Shiraz with a vision to increase the tourists travel for medical purposes as well.

These measures have been quite successful in promoting Iranian tourism growth, even though the American and other western visitors have (to some extent) been replaced with arrivals from the Middle Eastern and Asian countries. However, looking at the current situation of unrest, with the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 by US military, and Iran responding to this with missile attacks on the US military troops in Iraq less than a week later, the conflict between the two countries is nowhere near its end. This political unrest, if continues, has a potential to again severely affect Iran’s tourism industry, as the country will be unable to grow the sector without reliance on western visitors. Tourists’ sentiments are tightly linked to political climate; therefore, it can be expected that only improved relations with the USA, and through this a better image, will allow Iran to truly develop its tourism industry and its economic situation in general.

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A Close Look at Iran’s Post-Sanctions Growth Story

Iran’s emergence from economic isolation in 2016 was considered by many industry experts as the largest market opportunity since the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), paving way for plethora of new business opportunities. They expected massive influx of foreign direct investments (FDI) and a rapid economic growth in the country. As a result, many business delegations traveled from all over the world to Iran, hoping to tap its lucrative industry opportunities. Over a year later, we take a close look at Iran’s progress so far and whether it has truly leveraged its growth potential.

At first glance, multinationals saw the lifting of sanctions as the opening up of paths for foreign investments and international trade in crucial sectors such as oil and gas, automotive, aviation, mining, tourism, and financial services. In addition, Iranian president Rouhani’s long-term political vision with its focus on various domestic structural reforms and the stance on improving relations with the West were viewed by the international business communities as promising signs. Iran achieved 6.6% GDP growth during 2016-2017 as well as a drastic decline in annual inflation to 8.9% from nearly 40% during 2013.

Despite the economic growth achieved, a closer look at the ground realities in the country depicts a different picture, especially when comparing the expectations and the country’s actual achievements so far. The growth achieved in 2016 was largely due to the oil sector’s rebound in both production and exports. Growth in non-oil sectors was mere 0.9% during the first half of 2016. In the same year, unemployment rate also increased to 12.8% from 11% in 2015. There are still serious questions about the country’s ability to sustain its economic stability in the long run. To add fuel to the fire, Iran’s ballistic missile testing and accusations of sponsoring terrorism in the region have brought the nuclear deal again in jeopardy, eroding newly-regained investor confidence.

Although the FDI saw a massive 600% increase in 2016, it is still nowhere near the government’s projections. While several MoUs were signed, not many have converted into actual deals till date. It was realized soon by many that Iran still remains a challenging place for multinationals to conduct business due to high levels of state interruption, bureaucratic bottlenecks, lack of transparency, and outdated business and financial systems. Iran still continues to be isolated from the global financial systems. Majority of international banks are reluctant to re-engage in Iranian transactions mainly due to potential links with terrorism they might be implicated in and massive financial repercussions such transactions could entail. Therefore, investors are holding their horses amid current ambiguity over local and global political developments (Trump’s final stance on nuclear deal as well as President Rouhani’s reforms post elections).

Automotive

The automotive sector is Iran’s second largest industry after oil and gas, contributing around 10% of the GDP. Iran Khodro Company (IKCO) and SAIPA, the two major companies (state funded), have long benefitted from monopoly and protectionist policies, and therefore are reluctant to innovate. Currently, Iranian cars are considered to be of inferior quality mainly due to lack of technological innovation and outdated production platforms. The industry also suffers from price controls, unfavorable import tariffs, and other state interventions.

Since the lifting of sanctions, many expected car prices to decline and FDI to increase, both of which have not materialized quite yet due to the overall financial and political hurdles the country currently faces. Despite 19 MoUs already signed by global automakers, only few have progressed so far. With the new reforms pertaining to local content and export requirements, and the government’s ambitious plan to boost domestic production from 1.6 million cars at present to 3 million cars by 2025, the automotive industry presents a lucrative opportunity for foreign investors. Vehicle sales are projected to grow at a CAGR of 13% by 2020. Joint ventures with foreign automakers and deregulation are the top priorities for the government to unleash the industry potential.

Aviation

Due to the years of economic isolation, Iran’s aviation industry has failed to stay abreast with the latest industry developments, which we discussed in detail in our article New Wings to Fly – Post-Sanction Scenario of Iran’s Aviation Industry in April 2016. The sanctions restricted Iran to procure new planes as well as any maintenance or repair services for its existing fleet. As a result, the nation remains inherited with an outdated fleet that requires immediate modernization. Iran requires nearly US$220 billion in investment to uplift its aviation industry. Besides investments, Iran will have to make significant changes to the existing business and financial policies that have become outdated and unprofitable. The current pricing and finance management strategies have resulted in many local airline companies running with severe losses.

In the post sanctions era, Iran has signed four major procurement deals for over 240 new passenger aircrafts. However, industry experts believe that it will be challenging for Iran to finance these deals. The delivery of third Airbus A330 was postponed recently (March 2017) and banking restrictions were cited as the main reason. Considering the heavy investments required in this sector as well as the current ambiguity of political developments and financing bottlenecks, Iran’s aviation industry will still take a few good years to start its journey towards growth trajectory.

Oil & Gas

Iran’s underdeveloped oil and gas industry has attracted the eyes of many. This was evident from the visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping to the country just weeks after the sanctions were lifted. Oil production has increased rapidly from 3.2 million barrels per day (BPD) in 2015 to 3.7 million BPD in 2016. The total output is expected to reach 4.2 million BPD in 2017. Similarly, exports in the post-sanctions period have also witnessed a rapid surge as many countries resumed purchasing Iranian oil. Experts suggest that Iran also has the potential to supply Europe with around 35 billion cubic meters of gas each year by 2030.

While many multinationals have recognized the country’s potential, various legal, political, and financial hurdles are holding them back from acting on their interest. As a result, despite the high number of initial MoUs signed throughout 2016, only the joint deal between Total, Petropars, and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has materialized so far. With the current government’s strong focus to develop and boost the petrochemicals industry as well as to improve contract politics and terms to attract more investments, there are signs of growth in the medium to long term. The need of the hour for Iran’s oil industry is to attract FDI and technology to improve the current infrastructure in order to meet its long-term goals.

Implications for an Average Iranian

The nuclear deal and its expected socio-economic rewards are yet to yield significant benefits for an average Iranian. Before the recent elections, sentiments were mixed as many Iranians felt that their living standards have not improved as expected. In a recent 2016 survey by University of Maryland, only 46% of Iranians believed the country’s economic situation was good, compared to 54% expressing the same opinion in 2015. It is important to note that structural reforms at a national level and FDI deals require longer timeframes to be implemented and show their true impact on the economy as well as society. For example, it will take years for Airbus and Boeing to complete their deliveries and for Total to start pumping oil, and even longer for the financial benefits of these and other deals to trickle down to general population. Attaining economic prosperity as a result of investment deals is a time-consuming process and not something that happens overnight, hence, it is too early to judge the success or failure of the nuclear deal as of yet. Keeping in mind Iran’s current volatile environment, it will take at least few more years for Iranians to slowly start reaping the rewards.

EOS Perspective

The lifting of sanctions has helped Iran to boost its GDP, oil production, and trade, while at the same time, the country’s continuation of testing nuclear weapons and supporting terrorism has dampened investor confidence and business opportunities. The political and financial risk of doing business with Iran has forced many multinationals to refrain from pursuing new opportunities. In the current context, Rouhani’s recent victory echoes public acceptance towards his overall political propaganda including economic liberalization. The election results are expected to have a positive impact on Iran’s prospects in the next four years, as the government will continue to work towards reviving the economy by improving foreign relations and business policies.

In order to sustain the current economic recovery and to rekindle investor confidence, the government will have to implement major reforms with regards to its state-owned enterprises, financial systems, and business policies. In its second term, the government will have to push for investment promotion, upgrade its outdated policies, promote competitiveness, and business-friendly environment to encourage FDI. Further, with the current level of unemployment and present economic framework, it is clear that the pace of job creation is inadequate. There is a pressing need to diversify the economy and develop private sector free of current bureaucratic challenges. In the long run, the key question is whether Iran can leverage its natural resources to diversify its economic structure and ramp up its economic modernization.

Looking at the promising developments that Iran’s automotive, aviation, and oil and gas sectors have shown so far, there is no doubt about their growth potential in the long term. Over the next year or so, Iran should attempt to re-integrate itself into the global trade and finance systems. This would boost trade and open up more business opportunities, fueling growth in key industry verticals. In the short-term however one can only expect moderate growth.

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New Wings to Fly – Post-Sanction Scenario of Iran’s Aviation Industry

The Nuclear Deal between Iran and the six super powers is seen as a boon for the aging Iran aviation industry. Iran now plans to add 300 new aircraft in the next five years and 500 in the next 10 years by growing the national fleet as well as additional airports and facilities to the country’s existing infrastructure. Although many view this as a tremendous opportunity, there are many hurdles along the way – how does the country plan to tackle them?

On July 14, 2015, Iran and the six super powers (the USA, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany — collectively known as the P5+1) finalized a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This agreement is meant to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program can only be used for peaceful purposes in return for lifting the sanctions from P5+1 countries. On January 16, 2016, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that Iran met the requirements of the JCPOA and the sanctions were immediately lifted. One of the reliefs for Iran was the ability to conduct business with the EU and US companies across a range of sectors, including aviation-related industries.

The lifting of the sanctions was a relief for the aviation industry of Iran, as the entire in-service fleet of 225 airplanes is in a dire need for repairs and maintenance. Due to import sanctions, much needed machinery and parts have not been available for the airlines to repair and maintain their fleet, while the access to new airplanes was very limited. The average age of Iran’s fleet is 25 years, which is among the oldest in the world. This is also one of the reasons why Iran’s civil aviation has had one of the world’s worst safety records – more than 500 people dead in the past few years in air crashes of various Iranian airlines.

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The lack of access to new machinery and aircraft has affected the growth of the domestic airlines – this includes the flagship carrier, Iran Airways, as well as other top airlines such as Aseman Airlines and Mahan Air. These three airlines hold the maximum in-service fleet and they are likely to also be the first to benefit from any deals made in the aviation sector in the country. And the deals are expected to start pouring in soon. The lifting of sanctions has enabled Iran to seek the possibility of doing businesses with companies such as General Electric (GE), a US-based equipment manufacturer, which has shown interest in investing in Iran to provide commercial aircraft engines, parts, and services, which is likely to be a boon for the local airlines in working towards improving their safety record over time.

Iran has already initiated talks with two leading aerospace equipment manufacturers, US-based Boeing and France-based Airbus, to buy equal amount of airplanes from both companies. As of January 2016, a deal was signed between Airbus and Iran to deliver (although the delivery timeline is still unclear) 118 jetliners worth US$27 billion. Boeing is working out the details with the US Treasury and a contract will go under negotiation once these details are clear. Both companies are motivated to convert the talks into a deal – even though both companies are giants, selling to most airlines around the world, the number of airplanes ordered by a Iran is still going to be a large contract for them.

Iran plans to re-vamp the entire aviation industry, including the purchase of new airplanes and construction of new airports along with refurbishing the existing infrastructure. The new planes are planned to slowly replace the older ones with the ambitious objective for the airlines to have brand new in-service fleet, which would reduce the repairs and maintenance costs over time. Apart from investment in airplanes, Iran also plans to develop five new airports with a total investment of US$8 billion. Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization (CAO) has already outlined two airport projects to be developed with an investment of US$1 billion expected to be completed by 2022, while the rest of the projects are yet to be announced.

The idea is to develop these airports as international corridor and transit hubs by reviving the historical trade route advantage, which Iran had through the Silk Route in ancient times. Iran, back then known as Persia, connected the Western countries to the Eastern ones – it was one of the transit hubs for trade. In current attempts to revive that route, Iran considers two airports, Dubai, UAE and Doha, Qatar, as competitors, due to these airports’ advantage of the same central geographical location connecting the West and the East. Dubai and Qatar have already leveraged their location and facilities by offering transit hubs to many international carriers, which brought good volumes of international traffic into these two countries. This has also led to the development of hospitality and tourism industry in the areas along with business and job opportunities to the local and expat population of UAE and Qatar. These countries have also worked on establishing their flagship airlines – Emirates and Qatar Airways, and both of these airlines are among the top airlines in the world now.

According to Iran officials, both these airports (Dubai and Doha) and their flagship airlines (Emirates and Qatar Airways, respectively) are direct competitors to Iran’s airports and its key airline – Iran Air. Iran can also learn from these two airports’ history in its quest to restore growth in aviation and several associated industries. The development of Dubai airport has been attributed as one of the major turning points to the development of the city, Dubai – the airport was earlier used for transit flights, repairs and/or refueling of the airplanes, gradually increasing the international flights and footfall in the city. This spurred interest of international players in hospitality industry to expand their existing infrastructure in the city, which in turn lead to the development of hospitality and tourism industry in UAE, which was a relevant step UAE took in diversifying its oil-based economy. Currently, Dubai handles passenger traffic of more than 75 million on a yearly basis. Recently it was announced that Dubai will be expanding its airport to accommodate the increasing traffic on its terminals.

Iran would like to draw a similar story for itself and follow Dubai’s footsteps by putting its flagship airline in the global picture and using its airports as transit hubs. The major challenge in Iran’s case is that it has missed out on this opportunity by at least a decade, if not more. Dubai and Doha already have the infrastructure, policies and rules in place to accommodate growing traffic, along with businesses looking to invest or expand in the city or the country. Iran still needs to develop or update the basic infrastructure it has so it can start to match its competitors. For this development, it needs heavy investment and planning to execute the vision it has for the aviation industry and developing other industries such as tourism and hospitality.

The Realistic View

Iran used its natural resources to attain economic development, a similar scenario as in other oil-based countries such as Saudi Arabia. Iran and Saudi Arabia are two countries, which can leverage on the onshore oil reserves available at a low cost. According to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) data, Saudi Arabia accounted for 22.1% (266.56 billion barrels) while Iran accounted for 13.1% (157.53 billion barrels) of world’s total crude oil reserves in 2014. Over the years, Saudi Arabia has built its financial strength from oil revenues, but Iran was not able to achieve the same due to the economic sanctions imposed on it by USA, originally in 1979, strengthened in 1995 and then again in 2012.

Recent developments finally gave hope for Iran to catch up, though the process is expected to be slow. While the agreement with P5+1 has allowed Iran to stabilize its oil exports at about 1 million barrels per day, it is still 50% less than what Iran used to export before 2012. Another challenge are the declining oil prices, which have reached a level below US$30 per barrel in January 2016 from US$105 per barrel in 2012. Iran’s oil revenue accounted for about 12.5% of its GDP in 2012, a share that declined to 6.25% in 2014. The infrastructure spending share in GDP also declined by 3% points since 2012, as Iran has limited access to financing and the Oil Stabilization Fund (OSF), a fund to stabilize the economy against fluctuating oil revenues, was no longer operational.

In a scenario where majority of the economic development of the country is dependent on the natural resources such as oil and gas, once the oil and gas market slows down, the economic growth slowdown soon follows. Market fluctuations for oil and gas industry have led oil-based economies to diversify into other industries or build up financial reserves to sustain economic fluctuations. For Iran, aviation might be a tool to achieve that – the country plans to re-build aviation industry to make way for the tourism industry, which the country hopes to develop as part of the shift from being an oil-based economy.

The first step in this shift for Iran is to gather investment to develop and support the growth of aviation industry. However, Iran is in dire need of investments from external sources since it has no funds, assets, or resources to re-build or stabilize the economy. Iran was able to gain access to some funds worth US$32 billion from unfrozen assets abroad, which were available to the country once the sanctions were lifted – however, these frozen assets are not unlimited, and the Airbus deal worth US$27 billion was made from those unfrozen assets. At the same time, the investments cannot come from the growth of other industries such as manufacturing or agriculture, as any growth achieved from these industries will have to attribute to fiscal spending on developing human resources such as education and health of the population. Iran also needs trained staff personnel to support the development of non-oil based industries such as aviation and transportation. To do this, the country has to invest in training institutes and infrastructure to sustain the economic development Iran is hoping to achieve in the next few years.

The country is trading its natural resources to lure international companies to start or increase their businesses with Iran. For example, Total, a France-based oil and gas company, has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to buy crude oil from Iran and promised research to look for other opportunities so it can invest in Iran. Such a deal brings in investment, which will help Iran to stabilize the economy or build financial reserve to later on invest in other industries such as aviation.

Currently, Iran needs close to US$220 billion in investment to uplift its aviation industry. The country cannot afford to sponsor this investment from its own reserves or funds from any other industry growth. These funds will need to be used to help maintain the economic stability as Iran is struggling with high unemployment and inflation. One of the best options for Iran is to leverage the natural resources such as oil and gas to other countries; in the pre-sanction period Iran could only do that with Asian countries such as China, India, or South Korea. Since the sanctions are lifted, Iran is open to expand its business options to European regions and USA as well.

EOS Perspective

The World Bank has forecast an optimistic growth of 5.8% for Iranian GDP in 2016, owing to the fact that Iran’s economy will benefit from the lifting of the sanctions from six super powers. In spite of the promise of industry growth, Iran has a lot on its plate to deal with before it can be considered a stable economy.

For starters, Iran has to gain the market share it once had in the pre-sanction period in the global oil industry, which means that it is going to adopt an aggressive strategy to gain back its lost clients especially European clients such as France, Italy, and Greece (in the pre-sanction period, these European countries were its major clients for oil trade). These countries used to do business with Iran but shifted to Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iraq once the sanctions were imposed. Iran’s oil minister, Mr. Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, in an interview on November 5, 2015 was clear on Iran’s next steps when he said “Our only responsibility here is attaining our lost share of the market, not protecting prices”. Iran plans to sell oil at rates cheaper than its counterparts to gain the European clients back, which may result into an oil surplus in the market pushing the oil prices lower than US$30 per barrel. This also means that Iran would have short and medium term issues building up investments it needs to develop the aviation industry or even stabilize the economy to reduce unemployment and inflation. Apart from investments, Iran has to make changes to its existing policies to incorporate the growth of aviation industry. The country also has to gain access to trained and skilled staff who can handle the organizational and operational change the aviation industry will undergo in the next few years.

One major challenge for the aviation industry is that Iran still has not finalized a contractor for the repairs and maintenance of its already aging fleet. Lufthansa, the German-based aviation company, is in talks with Iran to set up a maintenance unit in Iran but nothing has been set it stone yet. With new airplanes in the pipeline and no immediate maintenance support for Iranian airlines, the industry growth might continue to be hampered more than before.

Iran needs to give priority to keep the in-service fleet in service. It might take years for aviation companies such as Airbus to complete the orders and during that time it is imperative that the older planes have access to machinery and repairs to stay in business.

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Venezuela – Evolution After the Revolution?!

It has been a month since Hugo Chavez passed away, losing a two-year long battle against cancer. With snap elections on 14 April, both Venezuelans and the rest of the world eagerly await the outcome – an outcome that might drive Venezuela deeper into a state of socialism or towards the path of market-oriented economic development.

Whatever the result of the election, perhaps the most pertinent question is how Chavez’s demise has impacted the future of Venezuela’s oil economy? What good has the largest proven oil reserves in the world (297.57 billion barrels) brought Venezuela in terms of inclusive human and economic development?

Let us retrace our steps to 1998. The global oil industry was in a big mess, with prices at an all time low of (less than $10 per barrel), driven by oversupply of oil by OPEC member countries, which were unwilling to comply with production and export quotas. Things, however, took a turn for the better when in February 1999 Hugo Chavez came into power in Venezuela. Now at the helm of affairs of one of the world’s largest oil producing nations, it became important for Mr. Chavez to revive the oil sector, which was to become the driving force behind his socialist policies. In his own charismatic manner, Hugo Chavez convinced the OPEC members to lower production, thus driving-up oil prices (to a price of $25-28 per barrel).

Further, driven by his ambition to bring about a socialist revolution in Venezuela, a new Hydrocarbons law was passed in 2001, to bring all oil production and distribution activities in Venezuela under the purview of the government. The law proposed a minimum 51% state ownership of PDVSA, the national oil company, and an increase in royalties paid by foreign corporations from 16.6% to 30%.

Under Chavez, Venezuela also shifted its focus from the US, to forge closer alliance with Russia, China, Nicaragua, Cuba and Iran by signing preferential oil deals. These deals, however, put additional economic pressure on PDVSA, and in turn the Venezuelan economy, with 43% of the company’s crude and oil products sales not being paid directly in cash, resulting in shelving of some of the company’s investment plans.

Oil-sector reforms were carried out under a veil of socialist change and reform. While the pro-socialist policies of Hugo Chavez remain popular among the Venezuelan masses, they have resulted in a lack of talent and investment, causing the Venezuelan oil industry to decline. According to Morgan Stanley reports, Venezuela’s oil production declined by 25% during the Chavez era (1998-2013).

While the socialist regime under Chavez is said to have brought about a sense of income equality amongst Venezuelans, the cost of this equality has left the country in an economically dilapidated state. Huge deficits and high inflation have lead to significant devaluation of its currency (30% to the US Dollar in February 2013).

The state of the economy hinges purely on the outcome of the elections, with Nicolas Maduro, the acting president and the hand-picked successor of Chavez, and Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda State, vying to be the next president.

Nicolas Maduro, who served as a foreign minister under Chavez for six years, is a right-wing activist. A loyalist to Chavez, Maduro pledges to follow Chavez’s policies. Given his closeness to Chavez, Maduro also enjoys the support of military.

On the other hand, Henrique Capriles, who came closest to beating Chavez in the last elections in 2012 (bagging 44% votes), vows to adopt pro-business policies, which include de-politicization of the oil sector and opening-up Venezuela to foreign investments. Capriles does recognize that actions taken during the Chavez era cannot be undone over a short period of time.

Driven by the emotions linked with Chavez’s death, initial polls widely tip Maduro to win the upcoming elections. But given the economic condition of Venezuela, would this be a right choice? Even if Capriles wins, will the government be stable enough to guide Venezuela to development? Will the Venezuelan oil sector open for global trade? One can only speculate.

Irrespective of who comes to power, one thing will stay unchanged. The oil sector will remain critically important in either continuing to aid the path towards a fully-socialist state or changing the course to a more market-oriented economy.

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