As investment drive falters, Saudi milks Aramco 'cash cow'


A fresh offering of shares in Saudi Aramco, the Gulf kingdom's largely state-owned oil behemoth, comes at a pivotal moment for sweeping economic reforms that have struggled to lure foreign investment.

The sale of 1.545 billion shares, expected to begin trading next week, could fetch nearly $12 billion –- a short-term boon for officials working to finance everything from luxury resorts to football stadiums and a planned desert megacity known as NEOM.

It underscores the strategy guiding de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's much-vaunted Vision 2030 agenda, now more than halfway to its deadline: leveraging massive oil wealth to pave the way for an eventual post-oil future.

Yet analysts say it does little to address broader questions about Vision 2030's viability, especially when it comes to so-called giga-projects like NEOM that embody Prince Mohammed's sky-high ambitions.

"The cash raised will certainly help support government spending priorities. But it will ultimately be a fiscal booster more than a long-term cure for funding needs," said Robert Mogielnicki of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Saudi officials have since last year said the timeframe for some Vision 2030 projects would be extended, though they have not given details and said other projects would be accelerated.

Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said last month that global "shocks" since Vision 2030's launch in 2016 -– wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the pandemic, inflation and supply chain disruptions –- had spurred a revision of reform plans.

A more fundamental problem, though, is the fact that foreign investors have been unwilling "to commit to long-term major projects in Saudi Arabia", said Torbjorn Soltvedt of Verisk Maplecroft.

"Although flows into the Saudi stock exchange have increased, efforts to boost foreign direct investment have had little success."

- No 'overnight' success -

Prince Mohammed first broached an Aramco flotation in early 2016, months before the announcement of Vision 2030 and more than a year before he became first in line to the throne.

The original plan was to list five percent of the firm, one of the world's largest by market capitalization, on a major global stock exchange.

But concerns about disclosure requirements and a reluctance to sell national resources to foreigners prompted officials to change course, floating 1.5 percent on the Saudi bourse in 2019 for $25.6 billion.

Despite being the world's biggest initial public offering, it "didn't have the transformative impact that an international listing would have brought", Soltvedt said.

"The initial plan for an international listing was not just about bolstering state finances. More importantly, it was intended to be a vehicle for change by embodying the vision for a more open economy."

Efforts to secure international buy-in for Vision 2030 have stumbled, analysts say, and foreign direct investment remains well below the project's target of 5.7 percent of GDP.

"Foreign investment in non-energy or energy-adjacent projects only goes into Saudi Arabia because of government subsidies like free land, free energy, low-cost labor, etc," said Ellen Wald, author of a history of Aramco.

"The share sale happened now because the Public Investment Fund wanted to generate more cash to invest and Aramco is their cash cow," she added, referring to the Saudi sovereign wealth fund.

Saudi analyst Mohammed bin Saleh was more optimistic, saying Vision 2030 was "on track" and pointing to official figures indicating non-oil GDP growth of 4.6 percent in 2023.

"Saudi Arabia is going through a huge national transformation project, and it will not be achieved overnight," he said.

- Projects off pace -

That is especially true for the most eye-catching projects including NEOM, with its plans for a futuristic ski resort and mirror-encased skyscrapers extending 170 kilometers (105 miles) across the desert.

Officials have yet to comment on reports that NEOM's 2030 targets -- both in terms of size and population -- have been scaled back considerably.

Other projects have shown progress, including the Red Sea Global development which opened two resorts last year and is preparing to launch 14 more hotels by the end of 2025.

Yet "the pace of 'giga-project' completion in Vision 2030 is certainly lagging", said Jim Krane of Rice University's Baker Institute.

"Most observers are not surprised, because the projects are so massive and the logistics of simultaneous completion of 14 of them always looked pretty unlikely."

As spending commitments pile up for events like Expo 2030 and the 2034 World Cup, for which Saudi Arabia is the sole bidder, analysts say further Aramco share sales could be in the offing -- and that investor interest is likely to remain high.

"Aramco's got an enormous set of assets along with the world's lowest-cost oil production and an impressive knowledge base," Krane said.

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