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Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

In 2021, the Saudi Arabian government (SAG) continued its ambitious socio-economic reforms, collectively known as Vision 2030. Spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Vision 2030 provides a roadmap for the development of new economic sectors and a transition to a digital, knowledge-based economy. The reforms aim to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil and create more private sector jobs for a young and growing population.

To accomplish these ambitious Vision 2030 reforms, the SAG is seeking foreign investment in burgeoning sectors such as infrastructure, tourism, entertainment, and renewable energy. Saudi Arabia aims to become a major transport and logistics hub linking Asia, Europe, and Africa. Infrastructure projects related to this goal include various “economic cities” and special economic zones, which will serve as hubs for petrochemicals, mining, logistics, manufacturing, and digital industries. The SAG plans to double the size of Riyadh city and welcomes investment in its multi-billion-dollar giga-projects (including NEOM, Qiddiya, the Red Sea Project, and Amaala), which are the jumping-off points for its nascent tourism industry. The Kingdom is also developing tourism infrastructure at natural sites, such as AlUla, and the SAG continues to grow its successful Saudi Seasons initiative, which hosts tourism and cultural events throughout the country.

The Saudi entertainment and sports sector, aided by a relaxation of social restrictions, is also primed for foreign investment. The country hopes to build hundreds of movie theaters and the SAG aims to sign agreements for production studios in Saudi Arabia for end-to-end film production. The SAG seeks to host world class sporting events and has already hosted the European Golf Tour, Diriyah ePrix, Dakar Rally, and Saudi Formula One Grand Prix. In addition, recent film festivals and concerts have demonstrated strong demand for art and cultural events. Lastly, the SAG is eager for foreign investment in green projects related to renewable energy, hydrogen, waste management, and carbon capture to reach net-zero emissions by 2060. It is particularly interested in green capacity-building and technology-sharing initiatives.

Despite these investment opportunities, investor concerns persist regarding business predictability, transparency, and political risk. Although some activists have recently been released, the continued detention and prosecution of activists remains a significant concern, while there has been little progress on fundamental freedoms of speech and religion. The pressure to generate non-oil revenue and provide increased employment opportunities for Saudi citizens has prompted the SAG to implement measures that may weaken the country’s investment climate going forward. Increased fees for expatriate workers and their dependents, as well as “Saudization” policies requiring certain businesses to employ a quota of Saudi workers, have led to disruptions in some private sector activities. Additionally, while specific details have not yet been released, Saudi Arabia announced in 2021 that multinational companies wanting to contract with the SAG must establish their regional headquarters in Saudi Arabia by 2024.

The SAG has taken important steps since 2018 to improve intellectual property rights (IPR) protection, enforcement, and awareness. While some concerns remain regarding IPR protection in the pharmaceutical sector, no new incidents related to regulatory data protection for health and safety information have been reported since October 2020, and in March 2022 Saudi Arabia issued a public statement stipulating that data protection in the Kingdom is for five years. While the sharp downturn in oil prices in 2020 put pressure on Saudi Arabia’s fiscal situation, the subsequent spike in oil prices has increased government revenue and the SAG expects a budget surplus in 2022.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2021 52 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview
Global Innovation Index 2021 66 of 132 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2020 $11,386 https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita 2020 $21,930 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

 

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

3. Legal Regime

4. Industrial Policies

5. Protection of Property Rights

6. Financial Sector

7. State-Owned Enterprises

SOEs play a leading role in the Saudi economy, particularly in water, power, oil, natural gas, petrochemicals, and transportation. Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest exporter of crude oil and a large-scale oil refiner and producer of natural gas, is 94.5 percent SAG-owned, and its revenues typically contribute the majority of the SAG’s budget. Four of the eleven representatives on Aramco’s board of directors are from the SAG, including the chairman, who serves concurrently as the Managing Director of the PIF. In December 2019, the Kingdom fulfilled its long-standing promise to publicly list shares of Saudi Aramco. The initial public offering (IPO) of 1.5 percent of Aramco’s shares on the Saudi Tadawul stock market on December 11, 2019, was the largest-ever IPO and valued Aramco at $1.7 trillion. The IPO generated $25.6 billion in proceeds, exceeding the $25 billion Alibaba raised in 2014 in the largest previous IPO in history. In February 2022, the SAG announced the transfer of four percent of Aramco’s shares to the PIF. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced that after the transfer, the state will remain Aramco’s largest shareholder, retaining more than 94 percent of the total shares.

In March 2019, Saudi Aramco signed a share purchase agreement to acquire 70 percent of SABIC, Saudi Arabia’s leading petrochemical company and the fourth largest in the world, from the PIF in a transaction worth $69.1 billion; the acquisition was completed in 2020. Five of the nine representatives on SABIC’s board of directors are from the SAG, including the chairman and vice chairman. The SAG is similarly well-represented in the leadership of other SOEs. The SAG either wholly owns or holds controlling shares in many other major Saudi companies, such as the Saudi Electricity Company, Saudia Airlines, the Saline Water Conversion Company, Ma’aden, the National Commercial Bank, and other leading financial institutions.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

There is a growing awareness of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in Saudi Arabia. The King Khalid Foundation issues annual “responsible competitiveness” awards to companies doing business in Saudi Arabia for outstanding CSR activities. In March 2021, the SAG approved the formation of a committee on corporate social responsibility in the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development.

Saudi Arabia does not participate in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

9. Corruption

In December 2019, King Salman issued royal decrees creating the Oversight and Anti-Corruption Commission (“Nazaha”). Nazaha is responsible for promoting transparency and combating all forms of financial and administrative corruption. Nazaha reports directly to King Salman and has the power to dismiss a government employee even if found not guilty by the specialized anti-corruption court. Throughout 2021, Nazaha published monthly press releases detailing its arrests and investigations, often including high-ranking officials, such as generals and judges, from every ministry in the SAG. The releases are available on the Nazaha website at http://www.nazaha.gov.sa/en/Pages/Default.aspx .

Foreign firms have identified corruption as a barrier to investment in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has a relatively comprehensive legal framework that addresses corruption, but many firms perceive enforcement as selective. The Combating Bribery Law and the Civil Service Law, the two primary Saudi laws that address corruption, provide for criminal penalties in cases of official corruption. Government employees who are found guilty of accepting bribes face 10 years in prison or fines up to US$267,000. Ministers and other senior government officials appointed by royal decree are forbidden from engaging in business activities with their ministry or organization. Saudi corruption laws cover most methods of bribery and abuse of authority for personal interest, and in December 2021 Saudi Arabia amended the Combating Bribery Law to criminalize foreign bribery. Only senior Nazaha officials are subject to financial disclosure laws. The government is considering disclosure regulations for other officials but has yet to finalize them.

SAMA oversees a strict regime to combat money laundering. Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Money Laundering Law provides for sentences up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $1.3 million. The Basic Law of Governance contains provisions on proper management of state assets and authorizes audits and investigations of administrative and financial malfeasance.

The Government Tenders and Procurement Law regulates public procurements, which are often a source of corruption. The law provides for public announcement of tenders and guidelines for the award of public contracts. Saudi Arabia is an observer of the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement (GPA).

Saudi Arabia ratified the UN Convention against Corruption in April 2013 and signed the G20 Anti-Corruption Action Plan in November 2010. Saudi Arabia was admitted to the OECD Working Group on Bribery in February 2021, and the International Anti-Corruption Academy (IACA) elected Saudi Arabia to its Board of Governors in April 2022.

The Kingdom ranks 52 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2021.

10. Political and Security Environment

The Department of State regularly reviews and updates travel advisories to apprise U.S. citizens of the security situation in Saudi Arabia and frequently reminds U.S. citizens of recommended security precautions. Please visit www.travel.state.gov  for further information, including the latest travel advisory.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development (MHRSD) sets labor policy and, along with the Ministry of Interior, regulates recruitment and employment of expatriate labor, which makes up a majority of the private sector workforce. About 76 percent of jobs in the country are held by expatriates, who represent roughly 38 percent of the total population. The largest groups of foreign workers come from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, the Philippines, and Yemen. Saudis occupy about 93 percent of government jobs, but only about 24 percent of the total jobs in the Kingdom. Roughly 46 percent of employed Saudi nationals work in the public sector.

The removal of guardianship laws and travel restrictions for women, the introduction of workplace protections, and recent judicial reforms that provide additional protection have enabled more women to enter the labor force. From 2016 to 2020, the Saudi female labor participation rate increased from 19 percent to 33 percent. As of Q4 2021, Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics estimates unemployment at 6.9 percent for the total population and 11 percent for Saudi nationals, but these figures mask a high youth unemployment rate, a Saudi female unemployment rate of 22.5 percent, and low Saudi labor participation rates (51.5 percent overall; 35.6 percent for women). With approximately 60 percent of the Saudi population under the age of 35, job creation for new Saudi labor market entrants will remain a challenge.

The SAG encourages Saudi employment through “Saudization” policies that place quotas on employment of Saudi nationals in certain sectors, coupled with limits on the number of visas for foreign workers available to companies. In 2011, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development (the forerunner of MHRSD) laid out a sophisticated plan known as Nitaqat, under which companies are divided into categories, each with a different set of quotas for Saudi employment based on company size.

The SAG has taken additional measures to strengthen the Nitaqat program and expand the scope of Saudization. The MHRSD has mandated that certain job categories in specific economic sectors only employ Saudi nationals. The ministry has likewise mandated that only Saudi women can occupy retail jobs in certain businesses that cater to female customers. Many elements of Saudization and Nitaqat have garnered criticism from the private sector, but the SAG claims these policies have substantially increased the percentage of Saudi nationals working in the private sector over the last several years and has indicated that there is flexibility in implementation for special cases.

Saudi Arabia’s labor laws forbid union activity, strikes, and collective bargaining. However, the government allows companies that employ more than 100 Saudis to form “labor committees” to discuss work conditions and grievances with management. In 2015, the SAG published 38 amendments to the existing labor law with the aim of expanding Saudi employees’ rights and benefits. In March 2021, MHRSD implemented its Labor Reform Initiative (LRI), which allows foreign workers greater job mobility and freedom to exit Saudi Arabia without the need for the employer’s permission. Domestic workers are not covered under the provisions of either the 2015 regulations or the LRI; separate regulations covering domestic workers were issued in 2013, stipulating employers provide at least nine hours of rest per day, one day off a week, and one month of paid vacation every two years.

Saudi Arabia has taken significant steps to address labor abuses, but weak enforcement continues to result in credible reports of employer violations of foreign employee labor rights. Foreign workers (particularly domestic staff) have encountered employer practices, including passport withholding and non-payment of wages, that constitute trafficking in persons. The Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report details concerns about labor law enforcement within Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship system. It is available at https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-trafficking-in-persons-report/saudi-arabia/.

Overtime work is normally compensated at time-and-a-half rates. The minimum age for employment is 14. The SAG does not adhere to the International Labor Organization’s convention on protecting workers’ rights. Non-Saudis have the right to appeal to specialized committees in the MHRSD regarding wage non-payment and other issues. Penalties issued by the ministry include banning infringing employers from recruiting foreign and/or domestic workers for a minimum of five years.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2020 $700,118  2020 $700,118 www.worldbank.org/en/country
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A 2020 $11,386 BEA data available at https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A 2020 $6,262 BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP N/A N/A 2020 34.5% UNCTAD data available at

https://unctad.org/topic/investment/world-investment-report

* Source for Host Country Data: Saudi General Authority for Statistics   

According to the UNCTAD World Investment Report, in 2020 Saudi Arabia’s total FDI inward stock was $241.862 billion and total FDI outward stock was $128.759 billion.

Detailed data for inward direct investment (below) is as of 2010, which is the latest available breakdown of inward FDI by country.

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward $169,206 100% Total Outward N/A N/A
Kuwait $16,761 10% Country #1 N/A N/A
France $15,918 9% Country #2 N/A N/A
Japan $13,160 8% Country #3 N/A N/A
United Arab Emirates $12,601 7% Country #4 N/A N/A
China, P.R. $9,035 5% Country #5 N/A N/A
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.

*Source: IMF Coordinated Direct Investment Survey (2010 – latest available complete data)

14. Contact for More Information

Economic Section and Foreign Commercial Service Offices
Embassy of the United States of America
P.O. Box 94309
Riyadh 11693, Saudi Arabia
Phone: +966 11 835-4000

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