First Published: 2017-12-01

$300-billion Saudi state sell-off moves at snail's pace
Banks, investors, analysts cite problems such as heavy bureaucracy, inadequate legal framework, frequent changes of priority in government departments, fatigue among investors.
Middle East Online

By Tom Arnold, Saeed Azhar and Katie Paul - DUBAI/RIYADH

The sales process will take longer than expected

Saudi Arabia's $300-billion privatisation programme was billed as the sale of the century when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled his plan to great fanfare. Nineteen months later, it is moving at a snail's pace, bankers, investors and analysts familiar with the process say.

The main problems they cite are heavy bureaucracy, an inadequate legal framework, frequent changes of priority in government departments and fatigue among investors.

Some also blame a wait-and-sea approach among many investors due to uncertainty about the fallout from an anti-corruption campaign in which dozens of royal family members, ministers and senior officials were rounded up in early November.

The centrepiece listing of state oil company Saudi Aramco - expected alone to raise up to $100 billion - is on track to go ahead next year, Prince Mohammed told Reuters in October. However, Riyadh has yet to select any exchange abroad that will handle - along with the Saudi market - what would be the biggest share flotation in history.

Sectors where the privatisation process has been slow include grains, the postal service and healthcare.

"It's going to take longer (than many expected)," a Saudi banker who has worked on transactions told Reuters. "There are headwinds from the shifting of priorities in government and at a micro-level as these are old institutions that have often never kept books and are not up to the rigours of privatisation."

The sell-off is a cornerstone of Prince Mohammed's Vision 2030 plan to bring in fresh revenue and diversify the economy - which is recession and blighted by high unemployment - away from energy exports in an era of low oil prices.

But the bankers, investors and analysts are expressing concerns including over the lack of a regulatory framework to assure would-be shareholders about how much control foreign companies could gain as a result of the stake sales, including the right to lay off staff.

Vice Minister for Economy and Planning Mohammed al-Tuwaijri told Reuters in April that, excluding Aramco, the government aimed to make $200 billion by putting large parts of the Saudi economy in private hands.

The Ministry of Economy and Planning did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment.

FACTBOX - Saudi Arabia's privatisation plans


The selloff, including five percent of Aramco, is intended to improve state finances. The government posted a $79 billion deficit last year.

However, the record is patchy in the four sectors that Tuwaijri had highlighted as priorities for this year: grain silos, sports, electricity generation and water provision.

Banks recently submitted bids to advise on the privatisation of Saline Water Conversion Corporation's $7.2 billion Ras Al Khair desalination and power plant. But there has been less progress in the other three sectors.

Saudi Arabia's deputy electricity minister said in October he aimed for progress in privatising the power sector in 2018, after "some developments required us to wait".

Prospective bidders for the kingdom's state-owned grain mills have complained of an unwieldy sale process and onerous ownership rules.

Elsewhere, the Ministry of Health has put on hold its tender seeking financial advisers for the privatisation of 55 primary healthcare units in Riyadh, after receiving their bids in April, a financial source familiar with the matter said.

It then issued a new tender to seek a technical adviser on the expected costs and demand linked to the privatisation, the source said.

The Ministry of Health did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment.

"Compared with many of its neighbours, Saudi Arabia has only limited experience in terms of privatisations, and still lacks an adequate regulatory framework," said Raphaele Auberty, a BMI Research risk analyst for the Middle East and Africa.

Shortcomings include the absence of a framework for large-scale public-private partnership projects and a bankruptcy law, said Karen Young, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Saudi Post Corp's privatisation, which had at one stage been earmarked to begin early this year, has been shelved for the time being.

Abdullah Alswaha, Minister of Communications and Information Technology, told Reuters last month that Saudi Post would enter a five-year "corporatisation phase". This would turn it into a state-run company with a profit and loss responsibility before a sale to the private sector.

"It makes sense to focus more on putting that corporate DNA, leadership and resources, then think about a complete privatisation," said Alswaha.

Uncertainty has surrounded a plan to privatise soccer clubs. Earlier this year Jadwa Investment was appointed to advise on the sale of up to five soccer clubs in the Saudi Professional League, sources told Reuters in February.

The General Sports Authority did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

"At one stage it was looking like the bidding process could start as early as 2018 but recent indications perhaps suggest 2019-20 is more likely," said Steven Bainbridge, head of sports law and events management at Al Tamimi & Company, who has been fielding interest from potential clients on the process.

Confusion has been created about an airport privatisation process after some local media reported that the government intended to privatise 27 of them by the middle of 2018, a target analysts said was unrealistic.

But in an emailed reply to questions from Reuters, Faisal Hamad al-Sugair, Chairman of Saudi Civil Aviation Holding Company, said the goal was for the airports to be "corporatised", or turned into private companies, by that date. Privatisation would follow later.

"Various challenges have arisen and have been resolved. The deadline of mid-2018 is reachable," he said.


Senior Saudi prince blasts Trump's "opportunistic" Jerusalem move

Kuwait ruler’s son named defence minister

Israel PM faces renewed pressure in Europe

Bahraini civil society group criticised after Israel visit

Saudi Arabia lifts decades-long ban on cinemas

EU says Syria war ‘ongoing’ despite Russia pullout

Istanbul nightclub gunman refuses to testify

Integrating Syrians in Turkey carries implications

US opinion views Muslims and Arabs more favourably but political affiliation makes a difference

Iranian conservative protesters say Trump hastening end of Israel

Jordan referred to UN for failing to arrest Sudanese president

Turkey demands life for journalists in coup bid trial

Netanyahu expects EU to follow suit on Jerusalem

Putin orders withdrawal of ‘significant’ amount of troops from Syria

Putin to meet with Sisi in Cairo

GCC at a critical juncture

Houthi rebels tighten grip on Sanaa after Saleh’s assassination

Israel’s Syrian air strikes risk renewing escalation as Iran expands presence in Golan

Qatar to acquire 24 Typhoon fighters from UK

Palestinian stabs Israeli guard in ‘terrorist’ attack

UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed says US Jerusalem decision could help terrorists

Fateh encourages more protests, refuses to meet Pence

Chinese electric carmaker to open Morocco factory

Iraqi victory over IS remains fragile

Morocco’s renewed ties with South Africa likely to consolidate support for Western Sahara stance

Lebanese security forces fire tear gas at protestors

Syria’s justice system: ‘working without a written law'

Egypt revives controversial desert capital project

Iran sentences fugitive ex-bank chief to jail

Iraq announces 'end of the war against Daesh'

Israeli air strike kills 2 in Gaza

UK foreign minister in Iran to push for Briton's release

Turkey's Erdogan seeks to lead Muslim response on Jerusalem

Iraqi Christians celebrate in town retaken from IS

Isolated US defiant at UN Security Council

Putin to visit Turkey for talks on Jerusalem, Syria

Protests sweep Muslim world over Jerusalem

US urges Saudi to show caution in regional disputes

Thousands march in Istanbul to protest US Jerusalem move

Bahrain Shiite leader undergoes surgery

Malaysians, Indonesians protest US move on Jerusalem

EU, Jordan voice backing for Palestinian state

Clashes in West Bank over US Jerusalem move

Macron appeals for calm over US Jerusalem embassy move

World leaders to 're-legitimise' Lebanon PM at Paris talks