Saudi Arabia

The Gulf Cooperation Council countries’ currencies have been pegged to the US dollar (Kuwait’s is pegged to a dollar-dominated basket of currencies) for nearly three decades and the dollar peg has served these countries well. It has provided a credible anchor of stability, reduced transactions costs and simplified the conduct of macroeconomic policy. Meanwhile, despite some progress in diversification, GCC countries remain dependent, to varying degrees, on oil and gas and related activities.

With the oil price plunge since mid-2104, conditions changed in fundamental and possibly irreversible ways. As a result, GCC countries have had to call into question the appropriateness of policies that had been in place for decades. The issues are especially pressing for Saudi Arabia, with the largest and most complex of the six economies in the region and, appropriately, with the most ambitious plans to overhaul its economy. Read more

By Max Wrey, Alaco

It is a bold, ambitious plan, but Saudi Arabia’s blueprint for reducing its dependence on oil through economic diversification could struggle to get off the ground unless the country’s education system experiences a major overhaul.

‘Vision 2030’, the brainchild of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, sets out a bewildering range of policies designed to transform the economy, with the accent very firmly on cutting back the bloated public sector to make way for private enterprise.

Prince Mohammed wants to create just shy of a half a million private sector jobs and sees non-oil revenues more than tripling from Sar163.5bn ($43.6bn) to Sar530bn by 2020. At the same time, he anticipates the government wage bill’s share of the budget dropping from 45 to 40 per cent, to Sar456bn. Read more

By John Sfakianakis, Gulf Research Center

This week the Saudi cabinet approved the government’s “Vision 2030” and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave his first television interview in order to outline the plans. The 31-one-year old architect of Saudi Arabia’s economic reform program won plaudits for his directness and his bold vision for a post-oil era.

Low oil prices are turning out to be almost a blessing for the oil-dependent kingdom as economic reforms start to gain traction among policy makers. “We will not allow our country ever to be at the mercy of commodity price volatility or external markets,” Prince Mohammed said. “We have developed a case of oil addiction in Saudi Arabia,” he added, naming a truth rarely spoken by Saudi policy makers. Read more

Saudi Arabia is making all the headlines at the moment. Firstly, it convinced the OPEC oil cartel to maintain production levels at its November 2014 meeting, helping to trigger the oil price crash. It has also overseen the smooth accession of King Salman after King Abdullah’s death in January, and intervened in the conflict in Yemen during the last month.

Last week, Saudi Arabia announced it is pressing ahead with plans to open up the stock market directly to foreigners, giving a precise date of 15 June, ahead of its original deadline of the end of June. The final ‘rules’ will be published on 4 May, giving foreign investors a few weeks to get organised. Read more

By John Sfakianakis, Ashmore Group

The Gulf economies are in a position of strength to weather the recent plunge in oil prices. Many are better cushioned than at previous times in their economic history despite growing domestic populations. Oil prices are a principal revenue source for most Gulf economies and they serve as an essential litmus test for business confidence in the region.

At US$60 per barrel, the region is still fiscally sound even if more than US$280bn in oil export losses will be incurred in 2015. The move in oil prices has been excessive on the way down but it seems to be bottoming out. Read more

By John Sfakianakis

Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Egypt are all part of a region which has been consumed by anarchy, violence and destruction since 2011. But there is another part of the Middle East which is a striking contrast to all that: the Gulf. Many outsiders think it’s only a matter of time before the turmoil that has swept other Arab countries also overtakes the rulers of the Arab Gulf. They’ve been thinking that for close to a century.

The economies of the Gulf oil exporters are expanding. Over the last decade vast wealth has been accumulated which affords the Gulf countries a level of resilience that few in the emerging markets can match. Gulf currencies which are pegged to the greenback have offered additional stability. The elevated level of oil prices – at above $100 per barrel – is providing oil producing countries with a fiscal cushion. Thus, even as many other emerging markets try to find an equilibrium, Gulf countries will continue to do well and accumulate more reserves while sustaining high spending. Read more

By Faisal Ghori, author of “The Final Frontier: The World’s Last Markets”

Saudi Arabia underwent a sea change last week, one largely unnoticed outside of the Gulf. The nation’s stock market regulator, the Capital Market Authority (CMA) announced that for the first time in the country’s history, foreign investors will be allowed to directly invest in its stock market as early as the “first half of 2015, God willing.”

In typically understated Saudi fashion, the announcement was made with no fanfare through the CMA’s website and the announcement, to date, is still available in Arabic only. But contrary to the announcement’s relative obscurity, its relevance and potential impact for global investors could not be larger. Read more

Young Arabs are increasingly turning their backs on cushy public sector jobs in favour of working for private companies and starting their own businesses, a survey in 16 countries has found.

There has also been an erosion in optimism that the “Arab spring” uprisings in recent years against authoritarian governments across the region will translate into better lives for ordinary people, the survey found. Read more

Transparency International’s latest report on emerging markets companies has slammed Chinese companies for their lax reporting standards, comparing them unfavourably with the relatively more open Indian corporate scene.

Faring little better than their Chinese counterparts were a handful of Middle Eastern companies included in the report. Read more

Zamil Group, the family conglomerate headquartered in Al Khobar, the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, has seen it all, writes Camilla Hall.

Founded in the 1920s, its growth tells the tale of the big family businesses that dominate the otherwise government-led economy of Saudi Arabia. Read more

Saudi Arabia’s clampdown on instant-messaging and free call companies from Skype to WhatsApp and Viber has riled the very people it needs on side right now: young people.

In the Gulf kingdom, where men and women who are not related are forbidden from fraternising in public, instant messaging and the ability to call for free – outside the purview of parental bill payers – is an outlet many have become used to. No wonder restricting the services is going down badly. Read more

Oil-rich Gulf countries have announced some of the world’s most ambitious renewable energy plans but analysts say the next year marks a big test to show whether these pledges will turn into contracts, writes Camilla Hall.

Both Saudi Arabia, which has announced a $109bn spending drive into solar energy, and Qatar, which aims to use a sustainable energy base to host the World Cup in 2022, have signalled they intend to launch tender contracts for solar energy projects. Read more

An Asian worker carries carries a rod at a flyover construction site in eastern Riyadh on April 7, 2013. Saudi Arabia.Gulf states are intensifying their efforts to create jobs for nationals at the expense of expatriate workers as they face youth unemployment and pressure to prepare for a future less reliant on crude exports, writes Camilla Hall.

Kuwait has said it will reduce foreign workers by 100,000 a year, while hundreds of thousands of companies in Saudi Arabia faced a deadline last month to meet the proscribed quota of Saudi employees or risk having their licences removed. Read more

Abu Dhabi has launched its first big solar plant, powering 20,000 homes, as the emirate pushes ahead with its renewable energy plans aimed at diversifying the economy and meeting booming electricity demand.

While the emirate is an important oil producer, pumping about 2.65m barrels a day, it, like some of its Gulf neighbours, imports gas to meet the power needs of its swelling population. Renewable energy is now to provide an alternative.

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Last year was supposed to represent the pivotal moment in which sukuk debt – Islamic versions of bonds – came into their own as a deep, mature and liquid source of funding.

Issuance data from January suggest the jury is still out. Read more

Saudi Basic Industries Corp, Saudi Arabia’s biggest publicly-traded company, has a very non-Saudi problem: striking workers.

The Riyadh-based petrochemicals behemoth is facing the wrath of the labour unions – not at home in the kingdom where such groups are banned but at its Chemicals Geleen plant in the Netherlands. Read more

Some might say it was a good day for Saudi Basic Industries Corp, the world’s biggest petrochemicals maker.

When it announced on Wednesday that third quarter net profits fell 23 per cent from a year ago its share price in Saudi Arabia rose 1.4 per cent. Clearly, the numbers weren’t as bad as had been expected in the light of plunging world prices for petrochemicals. Read more

Hyundai Heavy Industries has won a $3.2bn contract from Saudi Electricity Company to build an oil-fired thermal power plant in Jeddah by 2017.

The turnkey project is important for both parties. Hyundai Heavy needs to make up for business lost in other sectors, notably shipping, and in other regions in the global economic downturn. And Saudi Arabia is using its oil revenues to boost the economy in an attempt to stave off any risk of the social unrest in surrounding Arab states. Read more

“Don’t forget, revolutions are expensive”, says Dimitris Tsitsiragos. He should know: his responsibilities as a vice president at the International Finance Corporation include north Africa and the Middle East, not least the countries hit by the Arab Spring.

The IFC, the World Bank’s private sector arm, has, in the last five years, boosted its annual commitments to the region by nearly 50 per cent to over $2bn. But, Tsitsiragos says it’s not enough: without more private sector involvement, the region cannot generate the investments required to produce faster economic growth and more jobsRead more

After running into trouble with international sanctions in Iran, India’s top basmati rice exporter is focusing on Africa.

While Africa today consumes only small amounts of basmati, KRBL is seeing rapid growth – and it hopes to see much more in the coming years. As African consumers get richer, they are expected to develop a taste for more expensive imported foods. Read more