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World’s Worst Economy Is a Threat to Mideast Rulers Rich or Poor

The region’s economies are running short of cash to placate struggling citizens.

Striking public officials demand a wage increase in Tunisia on Jan. 17.

Striking public officials demand a wage increase in Tunisia on Jan. 17.

Photographer: Nacer Talel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Saudi ministers had just finished presenting an upbeat view of the kingdom’s economic prospects for 2019 at a December conference in Riyadh when a businessman sitting in the audience burst their bubble. After congratulating the officials on their growth predictions, Abdulaziz Al-Ajlan, a textile manufacturer, politely pointed out how little their outlook resembles reality. “Many small and medium-sized companies are shutting down,” he said. “We see companies firing Saudis.”

Four years of low crude oil prices have taken a toll on the Arab world’s biggest economy and other oil exporters, exacerbating a malaise that’s gripped the region since 2011. That year the Arab Spring protests swept across the Middle East, toppling regimes and wrecking economies. The oil-rich nations of the Persian Gulf mostly escaped the worst of it, but they weren’t going to take any chances and spent heavily to ward off unrest. Now, after four years of lower crude oil prices, they’re in financial trouble, too. The International Monetary Fund ranks the Middle East and North Africa as the worst-performing corner of the world economy since 2011, along with Latin America. Over the next few years, the IMF forecasts, the region will hold that title on its own.