April 20, 2020

How 2020’s Oil Prices Will Challenge Saudi Arabian Economic Diversification

By Matthew McIntosh

The oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia came to an end at a virtual OPEC conference on April 9th, 2020, with both states agreeing along with OPEC members and the majority of non-OPEC attendees to a proposed 10 million barrels per day cut (Cohen, 2020). Since Mexico refused to this initial proposal, OPEC members and its producing allies – now including Mexico – compromised and agreed at a videoconference meeting on April 12th, 2020, to reduce their overall crude oil production by 9.7 million barrels per day from May 1st, 2020 to June 30th, 2020 (Stevens, 2020).

The Riyadh-Moscow oil price war worsened an already challenging year for the global oil market, whereby COVID-19’s impact on reduced oil demand had already caused global oil prices per barrel (bbl) to decline by 30% from the beginning of the year prior to the start of the oil price war on March 6th, 2020 (BBC, 2020). In particular, there are negative Saudi economic consequences to be considered from the 2020’s oil price woes.

This article considers how low oil prices amidst COVID-19’s spread and insecure Gulf regional relations will negatively affect Saudi Arabia’s economic diversification ambitions in 2020. Instead, government revenue is expected to be prioritized towards healthcare and the military while taxation will likely not be implemented to raise capital. Prior to examining economic diversification though, the Saudi economy’s general decline amidst this oil crisis must be considered, as this impacts economic diversification.

Oil Price Woes Cause Saudi Arabian Economic Decline

The Saudi Arabian economy will shrink thanks to less income from oil rents due to low oil prices. More specifically, this contraction will occur because the oil sector is the backbone of the Saudi economy, with Saudi oil revenues accounting for roughly 67.44% of government budget revenue and oil exports comprising 78.62% of the total value of Saudi exports in 2018 (KPMG, 2019). In 2020 though, the price of the OPEC Basket – which consists of a weighted average of prices for petroleum blends produced by OPEC members, including Saudi ‘Arab Light’ – has declined by 74.51% from its high of US$66.11/bbl on January 20th to its low of US$16.85/bbl on April 4th (OPEC, 2020). Accordingly, for the rest of 2020, the IMF forecasted in its April World Economic Outlook that Saudi Arabia will suffer negative growth of -2.3%, with non-oil Saudi GDP declining by 4% (IMF, 2020).

These economic projections are supported by recent examples of the Saudi economy declining following descents in oil prices. For instance, the average annual price of the OPEC Basket experienced a 56.67% decrease from US$96.29/bbl in 2014 to US$40.76/bbl in 2016 (OPEC, 2020). This resulted in Saudi Arabia suffering a decline in oil rent as a percentage of annual GDP from 40.01% in 2014 to 19.43% in 2016. Saudi Arabia’s GDP growth also fell from 4.11% in 2015 to -0.74% in 2017 (World Bank, 2020b).

The reason for this economic decline is because Saudi Arabia is a rentier state, whereby a state is classified in this manner through its over-reliance on resources ­– that being oil in the Saudi context – for financial income (Mishrif, 2018a: 15; Schwarz, 2008: 604). The apparent Saudi oil-dependency is demonstrated by Saudi Arabia’s high oil rents as a percentage of GDP. For instance, following 2014’s oil price crash Saudi oil rents as a percentage of GDP still tallied in an average of 21.94% between 2015-2017 (World Bank, 2020e). In the same period though, Saudi Arabia’s more recent oil adversary, the Russian Federation, had oil rents on average contribute to 5.84% of its GDP (World Bank, 2020d). This Saudi economic oil reliance exposes the most underlying demand for Saudi Arabia’s future economic progress: economic diversification.

Saudi Economic Diversification Under Duress

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) heightened diversification ambition in 2016 with the launching of Saudi Vision 2030: Riyadh’s domestic future action plan, which is premised on diversifying the Saudi economy (Mishrif, 2018b: 17). Since 2016, Riyadh has aimed to achieve diversification in sectors that are most appealing to private enterprises – the likes of which are manufacturing, finance, construction, real estate, and tourism (Mishrif and Al-Naamani, 2018: 222).

In particular, tourism has been the most relevant sector to the enactment of the diversification strategy to date, as the industry is planned to become more commercialized and evolve outwards from its traditional pilgrimage focus (Gardener, 2019; Kalin, 2019). The Saudi government launched a new visa regime for 49 countries on September 27th, 2019 that seeks to enhance leisure tourism, offering greater tourist destinations and activities, which will help to provide employment to Saudi citizens (Ibid.,). Within 10 days of implementing this visa regime, the Kingdom had welcomed over 24,000 visitors on a tourist visa (Al Jazeera, 2019). Indeed, the sector shows ambition, with Saudi economists projecting that the tourism sector could increase its GDP contribution from 3% in 2019 to 10% in 2030 (Kalin, 2019).

Notwithstanding, Riyadh’s most recent economic diversification initiative has had limited results. State-owned Saudi Aramco went public on December 11th, 2019 (Sullivan, 2019). The Saudi government had hoped that Aramco would be given a pre-Initial Public Offering (IPO) valuation of US$2 trillion. This, in turn, would enable US$100 billion to be raised for Riyadh’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) – a fund used by MBS for the purpose of economic diversification (Bell, 2019). Ultimately the company’s valuation was only US$1.7 trillion when it went public, resulting in much lower funds of only US$25 billion being raised for the PIF (Sullivan, 2019; Bell, 2019).

With this additional information in mind, economic diversification funding for the remainder of the year will be challenged amidst an unstable global oil market. First, building off of Aramco’s less than expected earnings, 2020’s low oil prices will likely challenge government investment in economic diversification due to the lessened amount of oil revenue coming into the Kingdom. Some analysts propose that even the cut of 9.7 million bbl/day starting May 1st, 2020, to June 30th, 2020, agreed upon by OPEC+ (which includes OPEC members and non-OPEC allies) could reduce nearly US$40 billion from Saudi state revenues for the rest of the year if oil prices were to average US$40/bbl in 2020 (Stevens, 2020; Al Jazeera, 2020c). This could still be seen as an optimistic projection though, as the new OPEC+ deal will not necessarily force oil prices to quickly become economically acceptable for oil producers, with the OPEC Basket declining from US$21.18/bbl on April 13th to US$17.51/bbl on April 15th (Cohen, 2020; OPEC, 2020). With less government revenue coming from low oil prices, Saudi economic diversification ambitions will be challenged this year.

Second, even Saudi tourism – the sector that has been prioritized for diversification – has been halted by COVID-19. This is particularly apparent in the suspension of the Umrah pilgrimage on March 4th, 2020 to local residents and the subsequent March 31st, 2020, encouragement by the government for all Muslims to delay Hajj pilgrimage plans indefinitely (El-Yakoubi, 2020; CBC, 2020). Likewise, Riyadh suspended all international flights into the Kingdom on March 14th, 2020, which was followed then by the Kingdom extending this suspension indefinitely on March 28th, 2020 (Hassan, 2020; Kalin, 2020). Thus, Saudi tourism has been effectively halted and this key diversification sector will suffer for the remainder of the year.

Furthermore, even with the lessened government revenue for the remainder of the year, current health and foreign policy issues faced by the Kingdom mean that government capital will need to be prioritized towards healthcare and the military to help deal with Saudi Arabia’s problems in these areas; effectively challenging Saudi economic diversification.

Prioritizing Healthcare

Beginning with healthcare, as a prototypical rentier state, Saudi Arabia has always prioritized spending on healthcare and other social programmes to ensure both citizen compliance with the state and subsequent regime legitimacy (Ahmadov, 2011: 22; Gray, 2011: 1; Kaya et al., 2019: 2). Saudi Arabia’s prioritized healthcare spending is apparent even during periods of low oil prices. Although the 2014 oil price collapse led to a $137.46 decrease in Saudi health expenditure per capita from 2014-2016, health and social services still took up 12% of the 2016 Saudi Budget expenditure – the second-highest of any sector amidst this period of low oil prices (World Bank, 2020a; Bhatia, 2017: 13).

Amidst current low oil prices, COVID-19 has now become an issue for Riyadh. Yet, the prioritization of healthcare has already been demonstrated by King Salman, whom announced on March 30th, 2020, that free treatment is to be provided to all COVID-19 patients in all government and private health facilities in the Kingdom, regardless of nationality (Arab News, 2020). With government revenues now being prioritized towards health services, this will most likely contribute to economic diversification initiatives taking a back seat in 2020.

Military Spending

Saudi Arabia’s ability to fund its military requirements will be challenged in 2020, as Saudi Arabia announced that its 2020 budget spending would receive a US$13 billion reduction due to oil prices crashing (Sabah and Abu Omar, 2020; Bisaccio, 2020). Riyadh certainly has its military obligations in this regard, specifically its constant friction with Iranian ambitions in the region, particularly in Yemen. Indeed, the civil war in Yemen has been conflictual for Saudi Arabia given its support for the government regime of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, with Saudi Arabia repeatedly accusing Iran of supplying sophisticated weapons to the Houthis (Al Jazeera, 2020a).

Accordingly, Saudi Arabia has experienced notable attacks from Houthi rebels in recent months. First, On September 14th, 2019 Houthi rebels attacked Saudi Aramco’s oil facilities – which are key to Saudi economic success – in Abqaiq and Khurais (Altaher et al., 2019). Then both on February 21st, 2020 and March 28th, 2020, the Saudi military intercepted missiles launched by Houthi rebels at Saudi cities (Al Jazeera, 2020a; Al Jazeera, 2020b). Although the Saudi-UAE coalition proposed a two-week ceasefire to begin on April 9th, 2020, Yemen’s Houthi rebels told Al Jazeera that they will to not stop fighting after the ceasefire has ended (Burdon-Manley, 2020).

With no clear resolution in sight, Saudi military funding will need to be prioritized in 2020 to ensure national security (Bell, 2017: 2). Indeed, even though 2014’s oil price decline caused the Saudi government to lessen its military expenditure by US$23.513 billion from 2015-2016, the military (tied equally with education spending) was still the most prominent target of the 2016 government budget, comprising 25% of the 2016 government’s expenditure (World Bank, 2020c; Bhatia, 2017: 13). Therefore, the Saudi government will very likely continue to prioritize military concerns in 2020 amidst lessened financial income and uncertain regional relations, meaning that economic diversification initiatives should be further challenged in the Kingdom for the remainder of the year.

Issue Regarding Taxes

The lack of taxation is another element of Saudi Arabia’s rentier state social contract, as oil exports generate substantial revenue for the state, meaning that Riyadh does not typically resort to taxation in order to generate further revenue (Schwarz, 2008: 609). For instance, only since January 1st, 2018, has Saudi Arabia had a 5% value-added tax; imposed with the goal of uplifting non-oil income after the 2014 oil price plunge (Kerr and Al Omran, 2018). Suddenly implementing new taxes amidst COVID-19’s forced slowdown of economic activity and the subsequent need to prioritize healthcare could disrupt the rentier contract at a challenging time and could thus very well backfire on the government (Jarzabek, 2016: 5).

Accordingly, on March 20th, 2020, the Saudi finance Ministry announced that Saudi business owners could postpone value-added tax, excise tax, and income tax payments for three months (Rashad et al., 2020). Therefore, since taxes have not been implemented so far amidst both COVID-19’s spread and the oil war’s slowdown of Saudi domestic economic activities, there is even more reason for economic diversification initiatives to be challenged for the time being.

Concluding Remarks

In sum, Saudi economic diversification initiatives will be all the more difficult to pursue thanks to oil price griefs amidst COVID-19 and insecure regional relations. The lowering of oil prices means that the Saudi economy will shrink in 2020, regardless of how well oil prices bounce back after the ending of the Riyadh-Moscow oil price war. Considering this economic contraction amidst COVID-19 and tense regional relations, government revenue will need to be prioritized towards healthcare and the military. Finally, taxes have not be implemented in response to the financial damage caused by COVID-19 and the Riyadh-Moscow oil-price war, thereby lessening the government’s ability to yield capital for economic diversification initiatives. Consequently, capital will very likely be diverted away from important economic diversification investment targets like tourism, especially given COVID-19’s slowing of this sector.

Ultimately, 2020’s oil price woes will add to Saudi Arabia’s uphill battle toward achieving economic diversification targets. Further research should be conducted into Saudi economic diversification investment following COVID-19’s decline and a solid uplift in oil prices. This will enable a full analysis of the Saudi economic diversification funding that was lost due to 2020’s low oil prices.


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