Experts welcome Saudi Arabia’s transformational plan, but say more still to be done

King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh is among the assets planned to be transferred to the Public Investment Fund. (Shutterstock)
Updated 09 September 2017
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Experts welcome Saudi Arabia’s transformational plan, but say more still to be done

DUBAI: Global financial and economic experts have welcomed the transformational plan to privatize large parts of the Saudi economy, but believe there is more work to be done before the program can really get down to the business of selling state assets to domestic or global buyers.
The National Center for Privatization (NCP), which is helping coordinate the program, recognizes that the plan is at an early stage. “In this initial phase our priority is to support individual government agencies to create the right framework for privatization, and to guide potential investors through the beginning of this process and create a blueprint for the future transfer of assets to private ownership,” said Hani Alsaigh, director general of the NCP’s strategic communication and marketing.
But experts pointed out that there was still a lot to be done in setting up the appropriate legal, regulatory and accounting infrastructure for the $200 billion program.
Nasser Saidi, who was minister of economy in Lebanon when that country considered a privatization program in the early 2000s, said: “When you approach privatization you have to have a legal and regulatory framework. This is being worked on fast in Saudi Arabia, but it is not there yet.”
He said that a crucial stage was the setting up of a privatization body separate from the authority of ministries that has a mandate to see the program through, and with an appropriate regulatory structure.
One such model is being worked through the privatization of King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, where the assets are planned to be transferred to the Public Investment Fund (PIF) and regulation in the hands of the General Authority of Civil Aviation.
A Saudi banker, who asked to remain anonymous because his bank was involved in the advisory process for some of the privatization plan, said: “We’re seeing the first stages in the process. It will be difficult to navigate given the bureaucracy involved. It might be complicated to put in place the preparatory infrastructure, but in the end it will be brought to a result because of the political power behind the privatization.”
On the question of the best form the sell-offs could take, the banker thought it was good to have a combination of options depending on the assets: “A straightforward sale to strategic investors might be preferable, but in other cases a local listing, or a dual listing would be good. The government has to have flexibility.”
Saidi said it was important for the local capital markets to be fully involved. “IPOs offer good value, and they also allow Saudi citizens to see the benefit of the sale, if they believe they have a stake in it, as happened in the UK. And of course it would be good for local markets too,” he said.
Ellen Wald, American expert on the Middle East and author of the forthcoming book “Saudi Inc.”, said: “It’s an ambitious plan, to be sure, but the Saudis have stacked the odds in their favor by focusing on areas of strength and on attracting foreign capital to invest through joint ventures.”


No need for more talks over draft budget: Lebanon finance minister

Updated 21 May 2019
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No need for more talks over draft budget: Lebanon finance minister

  • Lebanon’s proposed austerity budget may please international lenders but it could enrage sectors of society
  • Lebanon has one of the world’s heaviest public debt burdens at 150 percent of GDP

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s finance minister said on Tuesday there was no need for more talks over the 2019 draft budget, seen as a vital test of the government’s will to reform, although the foreign minister signalled the debate may go on.
The cabinet says the budget will reduce the deficit to 7.6% of gross domestic product (GDP) from last year’s 11.2%. Lebanon has one of the world’s heaviest public debt burdens at 150% of GDP.
“There is no longer need for too much talking or anything that calls for delay. I have presented all the numbers in their final form,” Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said.
But Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil suggested the debate may go on, telling reporters: “The budget is done when it’s done.”
While Lebanon has dragged its feet on reforms for years, its sectarian leaders appear more serious this time, warning of a catastrophe if there is no serious action. Their plans have triggered protests and strikes by state workers and army retirees worried about their pensions.
President Michel Aoun on Tuesday repeated his call for Lebanese to sacrifice “a little“: “(If) we want to hold onto all privileges without sacrifice, we will lose them all.”
“We import from abroad, we don’t produce anything ... So what we did was necessary and the citizens won’t realize its importance until after they feel its positive results soon,” Aoun said, noting Lebanon’s $80 billion debt mountain.
A draft of the budget seen by Reuters included a three-year freeze on all forms of hiring and a cap on bonus and overtime benefits.
It also includes a 2% levy on imports including refined oil products and excluding medicine and primary inputs for agriculture and industry, said Youssef Finianos, minister of public works and transport.
“DEVIL IN THE DETAIL“
Marwan Mikhael, head of research at Blominvest Bank, said investors would welcome the additional efforts in the latest draft to cut the deficit.
“There will be some who claim it is not good because they were hit by the decline in spending or increased taxes, but it should be well viewed by the international community,” he said.
Jason Tuvey, senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics, said: “The numbers will be of some comfort to investors, but the devil will be in the detail.”
“Even if the authorities do manage to rein in the deficit, it probably won’t be enough to stabilize the debt ratio and some form of restructuring looks increasingly likely over the next couple of years,” Tuvey said.
The government said in January it was committed to paying all maturing debt and interest payments on the predetermined dates.
Lebanon’s main expenses are a bloated public sector, interest payments on public debt and transfers to the loss-making power generator, for which a reform plan was approved in April. The state is riddled with corruption and waste.
Serious reforms should help Lebanon tap into some $11 billion of project financing pledged at a Paris donors’ conference last year.
Once approved by cabinet, the draft budget must be debated and passed by parliament. While no specific timetable is in place for those steps, Aoun has previously said he wants the budget approved by parliament by the end of May.
On Monday, veterans fearing cuts to their pensions and benefits burned tires outside the parliament building where the cabinet met. Police used water cannon to drive them back.