$300B Saudi state sell-off moves slowly

DUBAI/RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s $300 billion privatization program was billed as the sale of the century when Crown Prince Mohammad 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-see 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 centerpiece listing of state oil company Saudi Aramco – expected alone to raise up to $100 billion – is on track to go ahead next year, Prince Mohammad 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 privatization 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 microlevel as these are old institutions that have often never kept books and are not up to the rigors of privatization.”

The sell-off is a cornerstone of Prince Mohammad’s Vision 2030 plan to bring in fresh revenue and diversify the economy – which is in 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 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 Mohammad 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 Economy and Planning Ministry did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for comment.

The sell-off, including 5 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 privatization of Saline Water Conversion Corporation’s $7.2 billion Ras Al Khair desalination and power plant. The other three sectors have seen less progress.

Saudi Arabia’s deputy electricity minister said in October he aimed for progress in privatizing 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 Health Ministry has put on hold its tender seeking financial advisers for the privatization of 55 primary health care 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 privatization, the source said.

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

“Compared with many of its neighbors, Saudi Arabia has only limited experience in terms of privatizations, 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 privatization, which had at one stage been earmarked to begin early this year, has been shelved for the time being.

Communications and Information Technology Minister Abdullah Alswaha told Reuters last month that Saudi Post would enter a five-year “corporatization 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 privatization,” Alswaha said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 02, 2017, on page 4.




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