17 November 2018
Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the government would sell less than 5 percent of Saudi Aramco, but he valued the firm at over US$2 trillion. Photo: Reuters/Saudi Press Agency
Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the government would sell less than 5 percent of Saudi Aramco, but he valued the firm at over US$2 trillion. Photo: Reuters/Saudi Press Agency

Saudi reform plan pleases markets but not skeptics

Saudi Arabia has unveiled a sweeping economic reform plan to reduce its economy’s dependence on oil revenue.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman promised to invest Saudi petrodollars more aggressively, sell stakes in state firms such as oil giant Saudi Aramco, restructure ministries to make them more efficient, modernize the education system and give foreigners long-term residency rights, Reuters reports.

The announcement on Monday pleased financial markets but fell short of convincing skeptics that the kingdom can prosper in an era of cheap oil, the news agency said.

The Saudi stock market TASI jumped 2.5 percent in the heaviest trading volume for eight months. 

The Saudi riyal rose slightly versus the US dollar in the forward market, while the yield on Saudi Electricity Co.’s Islamic bond due in 2023 fell 9 basis points.

A number of fund managers, including Shakeel Sarwar, head of asset management at Bahrain’s Securities & Investment Co., said low oil prices seem to be pushing the kingdom to take measures to make the economy more dynamic in the long run.

“If these economic reforms and liberalization can be successfully implemented over the next five to 10 years, future economic and political analysts may end up identifying this current oil price decline as a blessing in disguise for Saudi Arabia and rest of the Gulf region,” he said.

But other observers said the reform drive, like others before it, could be stifled by the weight of Saudi bureaucracy.

And while low oil prices may be pushing Riyadh towards reform, they are also cutting the resources it can use to manage the change, they said.

“I hear the words but question how it will be translated into action. There has been a lack of delivery in Saudi Arabia in the past and people are skeptical,” said a senior foreign banker in the kingdom, declining to be named because of commercial sensitivities.

“Where will the foreign money come from to invest in the Aramco IPO, especially with oil prices where they are now and given the muted foreign interest in the opening of the stock market?”

Large amounts of foreign money will be needed to absorb the assets which Riyadh aims to sell.

Prince Mohammed said the government would sell less than 5 percent of Saudi Aramco, but he valued the firm at over US$2 trillion; the Saudi bourse’s capitalization is just US$423 billion.

Although the Saudi stock market opened up to direct foreign investment last June, total foreign ownership of the market remains tiny at less than 1 percent.

Much of the optimism over the reforms stems from the energy and ambition of Prince Mohammed, and the fact that after years of piecemeal efforts at change, the government has put together a broad plan that addresses many problems simultaneously.

The International Monetary Fund, which expressed concern about Saudi economic policy in the past, praised the plan hours before its public release.

The reform program appears “ambitious and comprehensive”, and its scale “measures up to the challenge facing the economy”, Masood Ahmed, director of the IMF’s Middle East and central Asia department, told Reuters.

Briefing the media, Prince Mohammed stressed the positive goals of the plan, including job creation and an effort to provide more recreational opportunities for Saudis.

“If you are an average Saudi citizen, why would you say no to a target to diversify the economy away from oil, to create jobs, to increase labor force participation? Those are all things any reasonable citizen would want their country to undergo,” said fund manager Ali Al Nasser at London’s Duet Group.

As the reforms progress, however, some of them may prove painful.

For example, the government aims to cut its dependence on oil by boosting its non-oil revenues to 600 billion riyals (US$160 billion) by 2020 and 1 trillion riyals by 2030, from 163.5 billion riyals in 2015.

That leap is to be accomplished partly by raising new revenues from initiatives such as a “green card” system giving expatriates more rights to live and work in the kingdom over the long term.

But more taxation will also be required, particularly a value-added tax due to be introduced around the region in 2018. This could boost inflation and erode living standards.

“There may be some hardships in the initial years. We will endure and then the economy will take off,” Prince Mohammed said.

If the take-off does not happen, however, there could be a backlash by people whose interests have been harmed by the policy shake-up, said Jason Tuvey, Middle East economist at London-based Capital Economics.

“Given that the authorities will be coming up against significant vested interests within the royal family, the business elite and the religious establishment, we think that political concerns rather than oil prices are more likely to determine whether the government’s plans come to fruition.”

Aside from being the deputy crown prince, Mohammed, 30, holds several other top positions in the government, including second deputy prime minister, defense minister, and chief of the House of Saud royal court. 

He is considered by many as the power behind the throne of his father, King Salman.

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