Sep 16, 2015 2:24 PMDuring King Salman's recent visit to Washington, DC, members of the Saudi delegation issued several announcements concerning planned commercial reforms and other developments that could prove significant to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Saudi Arabia (KSA) as the Kingdom looks to broaden its economy at a time when low oil prices are projected to be the norm for the medium term. We will highlight some of the more significant announcements in this and subsequent notes.
While Saudi Arabia remains committed to continuing its current record-setting output of light sweet crude (one of the major factors contributing to low oil prices), the KSA is now facing projections of massive budget deficits and rapidly depleting cash reserves. Increased FDI, particularly from the United States, appears to be critical to the KSA's strategy for coping with the downsides of consistently low oil prices.
Reforms in the Arab world often begin with teasers that function as "trial balloons". This note will reference such a trial balloon floated by a Saudi official associated with the Deputy Crown Prince. In a closed door meeting with business leaders in DC, this official announced that the Kingdom is considering opening the Saudi banking market to permit entry of additional foreign banks - especially American ones - wishing to do business in the Kingdom. In additional to financing major projects, it is hoped that such banks would also cater to small businesses and individual depositors.
Even with the recent entry of a branch of a bank based in fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Member State Qatar, Saudi Arabia is still seen as, perhaps, the most "under-banked" market in the world. To attract additional FDI, which has been in slight decline in recent years, some see the entry of additional Foreign banks and the capital they bring as critical. Entry by foreign banks based elsewhere in the GCC has been helpful, but it will take the power of additional American and other western banks to take a more broad-based growth to the next level.
Not stated, but understood, in this announcement is Saudi Arabia's desire that western powers continue to see that they have a stake in the stability of the Kindgom vis-a-vis its continuing conflict with Iran and, increasingly, Russia.
Of course, the devil is in the details: What will be required to gain entry? And, once in the market, how secure is a bank's investment in the Kingom and how will such a bank be regulated and taxed? How might such a venture impact an investing bank's legal and regulatory position at home?
JHI will continue to track the flight path of this trial balloon and let you know where it lands...
Jul 10, 2015 2:09 PMBy R. Jason Huf
When the Saudi government decided to ramp up the production of light, sweet crude oil and crash the price of it world-wide, the first thing most people in the United States (quite rightly) noticed was the sharp decline in the price of gasoline. It’s the best break working people in America have enjoyed in a long time, and has generated economic growth that no artificial government “stimulus” program can ever hope to match.
Middle East practitioners like myself, on the other hand, immediately understood two things: 1. the increase in production was designed to dampen the profitability of energy projects, particularly by oil & gas producers in the United States – which, in turn, helps to continue to make the maintenance of stability in Saudi Arabia a priority for Western countries and their oil-dependent economies; and, 2. it was a direct attack against the cohesiveness of the Kingdom’s arch-enemy, Iran, and some of its anti-Western allies such as Venezuela and, particularly, Russia (all three countries having economic models with price floors for oil that are unsustainable in the current environment).
Iran's desperate economic situation notwithstanding, they have lashed out and struck back on a variety of levels and are emboldened by recent victories in Yemen, Iraq and Vienna. Iran is increasingly aggressive in the region, and Saudi Arabia is feeling ever distant from the United States. As to the fear of a regional arms race stemming from the unabated existence of the Iranian nuclear arms program, such an arms race is already underway.
Keenly aware that the balance of power in the Middle East continues to swing in favor of Iran and that the United States is decreasingly interested in serving as the region's chief guarantor of security in the region, the Arab states may feel that they are in a desperate situation themselves. Let us not forget, that the despicable and barbaric terrorist organization ISIS/ ISIL was originally cobbled together with the support of Turkey and Qatar to serve as a hyper-radicalized Sunni buffer against encroaching Shia (Iranian) power. The Saudi move to create an oil supply glut and the joint Saudi/ Egyptian military operations against Iranian clients in Yemen seem, thus far, insufficient to halt Iranian momentum.
If the present trend continues, a direct region-wide conflict between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, et al vs. Iran and Syria seems more likely, not less.
We live in an era when asymmetrical warefare that utilizes non-uniformed combatants targeting civilians to engender fear and instability so as to achieve a political or otherwise socially relevant end (e.g., "terrorism") has become a regular feature, turning cities well behind the lines of a given conflict into battlefields themselves. What do you do when you are a business that has invested in a region wherein the situation has become so uncertain?
Well, that depends on the industry you are in, how much risk you (and your insurance providers) are willing to absorb, and what kind of talent you think you can attract to work in such an environment.
As for myself, I remain committed to my relationship with Jeddah. The Jeddah office consists of local personnel, I have spent years developing my practice, and I have never been one to simply throw away the fruits of my own hard work. At present, my inclination is to stay the course.
In fact, having considered this contingency for some time, I am currently leaning toward expansion, rather than withdrawal. I feel it may soon become time to further live up to my firm's catch phrase - and, follow my natural instincts - and explore.
Whereas some firms may be examining their options on executing an exit strategy, I am exploring the possibility of expanding into new jurisdictions and expanding the range of assistance I can provide to Western companies that remain in the region.
As an attorney, your practice is client-driven. Some companies will stay, some will leave and new businesses will enter one or more Gulf Cooperation Council markets. There will continue to be a need for Western legal expertise working hand-in-hand with local practitioners throughout the region.
Perhaps more fundamentally, I am proud of the work I have done over the years. From assisting with Shari-ah-compliant finance to education reform, I have been a small piece of a small piece in the jigsaw puzzle of helping to foster an environment wherein one may someday see a broad-based, self-sustaining middle class in the Middle East.
This sense of accomplishment will be foremost on my mind as I look toward Exploring the Boundaries of My Own Business...
– Jason Huf
Friday, July 10, 2015
New York, NY
Jason Huf International, pc
"Exploring the Boundaries of Your Business."