Saudis seek to double foreign investments in ten years

Friday 29/01/2016
Abdullatif al-Othman, governor of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA).

Riyadh - Saudi Arabia aims to at least double annual inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI) over the next ten years by focusing on new sectors such as mining, health care and information technology, the head of its investment agency said.

The plan outlined January 24th by Abdullatif al-Othman, governor of the Saudi Arabian General Invest­ment Authority (SAGIA), is part of a radical revamp of economic policy as the kingdom seeks to adapt to an era of cheap oil.

Foreign investment has been heavily concentrated in the oil and gas sector of the world’s top crude exporter, as well as downstream in­dustries such as petrochemicals.

However, the plunge of oil prices over the past 18 months has called that strategy into question. Oth­man said SAGIA was now seeking foreign capital in a wide range of sectors without direct links to oil.

“If you look at an economy that has been able to fetch about $10 bil­lion a year in the traditional sector… we should be looking at multiples of that,” he said in an interview.

“So our hope is that we would double or triple this level of FDI on a rolling average for the next ten years.”

SAGIA faces big obstacles. A slug­gish bureaucracy and an undevel­oped legal system have deterred foreign investment in the past; now low oil prices are slowing growth of the Saudi economy. Geopoliti­cal tensions in the region may also weigh in.

Inflows of FDI peaked at about $40 billion in 2009 but have been trending down since then and to­talled just $8 billion in 2014, figures from the UN Conference on Trade and Development show.

Othman said SAGIA would seek to remove bureaucratic or regulato­ry obstacles to investment by talk­ing to foreign firms to identify their concerns, then discussing them with ministries and other govern­ment bodies.

The investment push is part of a larger economic reform drive con­ceived by Deputy Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. Details of the programme, which in­cludes privatisation, changes to the way in which Saudi Arabia manages its oil wealth and efforts to make state spending more efficient, are expected to be announced soon.

Initially, mining may prove one of the most attractive investment areas for foreigners. While the king­dom has been extensively explored for oil and gas, Othman said depos­its of many other minerals had not yet been fully identified. Saudi Ara­bia is believed to have big deposits of phosphate, bauxite, base metals and gold.

In a joint venture that could be­come a model for future projects, a local firm, majority state-owned Saudi Arabian Mining Company, be­gan producing copper in December at a mine near Medina along with Canada’s Barrick Gold Corporation.

Othman said Saudi Arabia aimed to move far beyond resource ex­traction, partly because it needs to generate hundreds of thousands of jobs for a rapidly growing local population.

Last September, the government said it would let foreign investors own 100% of retail and wholesale businesses. Previously, the ceiling was 75%.

Authorities have since received expressions of interest from foreign retailers, Othman said, declining to name them.

Saudi Arabia does not have a ma­jor domestic automobile industry. Othman said authorities were in discussions with auto companies, especially makers of spare parts and firms in the area of buses and trucks, but did not identify the firms.