During 2019, the Saudi Arabian government (SAG) continued to pursue its ambitious series of socio-economic reforms, collectively known as “Vision 2030.” Aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy away from oil revenues and creating more private sector jobs for a growing and young population, Vision 2030 contemplates the development of new economic sectors and a significant transformation of the economy. Spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the reform program seeks to expand and sharpen the country’s knowledge base, technical expertise, and commercial competitiveness.
To help accomplish these goals and develop nascent industries, Saudi Arabia seeks increased foreign investment and international private sector participation in its economy. As in 2018, the SAG took several steps in 2019 to further improve the Kingdom’s investment climate. Regulatory changes were made to allow foreign investors to own controlling stakes in Saudi companies, a new consolidated authority to protect intellectual property rights was launched, significant investments in infrastructure were made, reforms were introduced to remove guardianship laws and travel restrictions for adult women, and a tourism visa was introduced, opening the Kingdom to non-religious tourism for the first time. To further facilitate investment in priority segments of the economy, the SAG elevated two Saudi authorities to full ministries in 2020: the new Ministry of Investment and the new Ministry of Tourism. Saudi Arabia also held several events in 2019 focused on attracting new foreign investments, including the third annual Future Investment Initiative, the National Industrial Development and Logistics Program, and the Saudi Iron and Steel Conference.
Saudi Arabia’s Capital Market Authority removed the 49 percent ownership limit for foreign strategic investors in companies trading on the Saudi Stock Exchange “Tadawul,” the largest capital market in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Foreign strategic investors are now able to own controlling stakes in listed enterprises. The Tadawul currently holds ‘emerging market’ status from leading index providers such as the FTSE Russell Emerging Market Index, the S&P Dow Jones Emerging Market Index, and Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI). The incorporation of the Tadawul into these funds in 2019 resulted in sizeable foreign capital infusions into the Kingdom, which increased international interest in Saudi markets and economic sectors.
The Saudi Arabian government (SAG) and its new stand-alone intellectual property rights (IPR) agency, the Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property (SAIP), took important steps in 2019 to improve IPR protection. Nearly all IPR institutions and enforcement responsibility have been consolidated into SAIP. Working with other SAG agencies, in 2019 SAIP increased enforcement actions, drafted new IPR regulations, conducted market raids against counterfeit and pirated goods, and launched significant pro-IPR awareness campaigns. In 2019, Saudi Arabia increased in-market seizures of illegal goods and Saudi Customs seized over 3 million counterfeit and illegal goods at its borders and ports. In addition, the illicit satellite and online provider of sports and entertainment content known as “beoutQ” ceased operations in the Kingdom in August 2019.
In December 2019, the Kingdom fulfilled its long-standing objective to publicly list shares of its crown jewel – Saudi Aramco, the most profitable company in the world. The initial public offering (IPO) of 1.5 percent of Aramco’s shares on the Saudi Tadawul stock market on December 11, 2019 was a cornerstone of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 program. The largest-ever IPO valued Aramco at $1.7 trillion, the highest market capitalization of any company, and generated $25.6 billion in proceeds, exceeding the $25 billion Alibaba raised in 2014 in the largest previous IPO in history.
Infrastructure remains at the forefront of Saudi Arabia’s ambitions as it pursues its Vision 2030 goal to become the most important logistics hub in the region, linking Asia, Europe, and Africa. By establishing new business partnerships and facilitating the flow of goods, people, and capital, the Kingdom seeks to increase interconnectivity and economic integration with other Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Improvements to transportation, such as the $23 billion Riyadh metro and completion of a new airport in Jeddah in 2019, are intended to support this plan. In addition, Saudi Arabia continues its work to create and expand “economic cities” throughout the Kingdom as hubs for petrochemicals, mining, logistics, manufacturing, and digital industries.
In recognition of the progress made in its investment and business climate, Saudi Arabia’s ranking on several world indexes improved in 2019. The Kingdom jumped 13 places on the IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook 2019, the biggest gain of any country surveyed. Saudi Arabia was ranked the world’s 26th most competitive country, and 7th among G20 countries, supported by improvements to government and business efficiency. Furthermore, the World Bank ranked Saudi Arabia the world’s top reformer and improver in its Doing Business 2020 report. The Kingdom rose 30 places, from 92nd to 62nd, and improved in 9 out of 10 areas measured in the report. Saudi Arabia also climbed three places in the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Global Competitiveness Report rankings, becoming the world’s 36th most competitive economy of 141 surveyed. The Kingdom achieved significant results across each of the 12 index components, ranking first for macroeconomic stability, 17th for market size, and 19th for product market.
On the social front, the Kingdom removed guardianship laws and travel restrictions for adult women as part of its effort to increase female participation in the Saudi economy, which currently stands at only 22 percent. To boost domestic tourism, Saudi Arabia launched a new tourism visa in 2019 for non-religious travelers to visit the Kingdom. Citizens of 49 countries are now able to apply for electronic visas. The SAG also removed the requirement that foreign travelers staying in the same hotel room provide proof of marriage or family relations. The SAG launched its Saudi Seasons initiative in 2019, with 11 tourism ‘seasons’ held in each region of the Kingdom. The program includes events and activities specifically designed to complement the cultural, touristic, and historical touchstones of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom also continued its work on large-scale tourist hubs being constructed around Saudi Arabia, such as Qiddiya, NEOM, the Red Sea Project, and Amaala, which aim to attract both domestic tourists and visitors from around the world when completed.
Investor concerns persist, however, over the rule of law, business predictability, and political risk. The continued detention and prosecution of activists, including prominent women’s rights activists, remains a significant concern. The ongoing diplomatic rift with Qatar also contributes to uncertainty. Moreover, pressure on Saudi Arabia’s fiscal situation from the sharp downturn in oil prices and demand, as well as the unexpected spending needed to respond to COVID-19 will have a negative impact on the budgets of ministries and state-owned entities. While it is unclear what the specific impact on Saudi’s major development projects will be, fiscal pressure is likely to dampen the SAG’s ambitious plans. Overall budget cuts of 15 percent have already been announced for 2020 and further spending reductions may be imposed.
Despite the launch of SAIP, the protection of intellectual property rights (IPR) also remains a significant concern, particularly for the pharmaceutical industry. Several U.S. and international pharmaceutical companies allege the SAG violated their intellectual property rights and the confidentiality of their trade data by licensing local firms to produce competing generic pharmaceuticals without approval. Industry attempts to engage the SAG on these issues have not led to satisfactory outcomes for the affected companies. Moreover, legal recourse and repercussions for IPR violations remain poorly defined. Primarily for these reasons, the U.S. Trade Representative included Saudi Arabia on its Special 301 Priority Watch List for the second consecutive year.
The economic pressures to generate non-oil revenue and provide more jobs for Saudi citizens have prompted the SAG to implement measures that may weaken the country’s investment climate. In particular, increased fees for expatriate workers and their dependents, as well as “Saudization” polices requiring certain businesses to employ a quota of Saudi workers, have led to disruptions in some private sector activities and may lead to a decrease in domestic consumption levels. Furthermore, the lack of a work-visit visa, and the transition to a high-fee, long-term work visa, which requires a work contract, have hindered expatriate workers, including consultants and senior level private sector officials, from entering the country to advise on new and ongoing projects within their own companies.
Finally, U.S. companies, including those with significant experience in Saudi Arabia, continue to experience payment delays for SAG contracts. It is unclear whether the financial impact of sharply lower oil prices and additional spending on COVID-19 will exacerbate this challenge.
|TI Corruption Perceptions Index||2019||51 of 180||http://www.transparency.org/
|World Bank’s Doing Business Report||2019||62 of 190||http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings|
|Global Innovation Index||2019||68 of 126||https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/
|U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions)||2018||$11,375||https://apps.bea.gov/
|World Bank GNI per capita||2018||$21,600||http://data.worldbank.org/
1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment
Policies Toward Foreign Direct Investment
Attracting foreign direct investment remains a critical component of the SAG’s broader Vision 2030 program to diversify an economy overly dependent on oil and to create employment opportunities for a growing youth population. As such, the SAG seeks foreign investment that explicitly promotes economic development, transfers foreign expertise and technology to Saudi Arabia, creates jobs for Saudi nationals, and increases Saudi Arabia’s non-oil exports. The government encourages investment in nearly all economic sectors, with priority given to transportation, health/biotechnology, information and communications technology (ICT), media/entertainment, industry (mining and manufacturing), and energy.
Saudi Arabia’s economic reforms are opening up new areas for potential investment. For example, in a country where most public entertainment was once forbidden, the SAG now regularly sponsors and promotes entertainment programming, including live concerts, dance exhibitions, sports competitions, and other public performances. Significantly, the audiences for many of those events are now gender-mixed, representing a larger consumer base. In addition to the reopening of cinemas in 2018, the SAG has hosted Formula E races, PGA European Tour professional golf tournaments, a world heavyweight boxing title match, and a professional tennis tournament. Saudi Arabia launched the Saudi Seasons initiative in 2019 with 11 tourism seasons held in each region of the Kingdom. The program includes events and activities specifically designed to complement the cultural, touristic, and historical touchstones of Saudi Arabia. As part of the Riyadh Season, the Kingdom organized a first-ever car exhibition and auction in Riyadh, which attracted 350 U.S. exhibitors.
The SAG is proceeding with “economic cities” and new “giga-projects” that are at various stages of development and is seeking foreign investment in them. In 2020, the Kingdom announced the opening of a NEOM Airport, an important milestone for opening the northwest territory for development. These projects are large-scale and self-contained developments in different regions focusing on particular industries, e.g., technology, energy, tourism, and entertainment. Principal among these projects are:
- Qiddiya, a new, large-scale entertainment, sports, and cultural complex near Riyadh;
- King Abdullah Financial District, a commercial center development with nearly 60 skyscrapers in Riyadh;
- Red Sea Project, a massive tourism development on the archipelago of islands along the western Saudi coast, which aims to create 70,000 jobs and attract one million tourists per year.
- Amaala, a wellness, healthy living, and meditation resort on the Kingdom’s northwest coast, projected to include more than 2,500 luxury hotel rooms and 700 villas.
- NEOM, a $500 billion long-term development project to build a futuristic “independent economic zone” in northwest Saudi Arabia.
Pressure on Saudi Arabia’s fiscal situation from the sharp downturn in oil prices and unexpected spending needed to respond to COVID-19 will have a negative impact on the budgets of ministries and state-owned entities. While it is unclear what the impact on specific development projects will be, fiscal pressure is likely to dampen the SAG’s ambitious plans in the near term.
The Ministry of Investment of Saudi Arabia (MISA), formerly the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA), governs and regulates foreign investment in the Kingdom, issues licenses to prospective investors, and works to foster and promote investment opportunities across the economy. Established originally as a regulatory agency, MISA has increasingly shifted its focus to investment promotion and assistance, offering potential investors detailed guides and a catalogue of current investment opportunities on its website (https://investsaudi.sa/en/sectors-opportunities/).
MISA has introduced e-licenses for the first time as part of its ongoing efforts to provide a more efficient and user-friendly process. An online “instant” license issuance or renewal service is now being offered by MISA to foreign investors that are listed on a local or international stock market and meet certain conditions. Saudi Arabia recently opened the following additional sectors to foreign investors: (i) road transport, (ii) real estate brokerage, (iii) audiovisual services and (iv) recruitment and related services.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s overall welcoming approach to foreign investment, some structural impediments remain. Foreign investment is currently prohibited in 10 sectors on the Negative List, including:
- Oil exploration, drilling, and production;
- Catering to military sectors;
- Security and detective services;
- Real estate investment in the holy cities, Mecca and Medina;
- Tourist orientation and guidance services for religious tourism related to Hajj and umrah;
- Printing and publishing (subject to a variety of exceptions);
- Certain internationally classified commission agents;
- Services provided by midwives, nurses, physical therapy services, and quasi-doctoral services;
- Fisheries; and
- Poison centers, blood banks, and quarantine services.
In addition to the negative list, older laws that remain in effect prohibit or otherwise restrict foreign investment in some economic subsectors not on the list, including some areas of healthcare. At the same time, MISA has demonstrated some flexibility in approving exceptions to the “negative list” exclusions.
Foreign investors must also contend with increasingly strict localization requirements in bidding for certain government contracts, labor policy requirements to hire more Saudi nationals (usually at higher wages than expatriate workers), an increasingly restrictive visa policy for foreign workers, and gender segregation in business and social settings (though gender segregation is becoming more relaxed as the SAG introduces socio-economic reforms).
Additionally, in a bid to bolster non-oil income, the government implemented new taxes and fees in 2017 and early 2018, including significant visa fee increases, higher fines for traffic violations, new fees for certain billboard advertisements, and related measures. On July 1, 2020, the SAG will increase the value-added tax (VAT) from five percent to 15 percent. The VAT was originally introduced in January 2018, in addition to excise taxes implemented in June 2017 on cigarettes (at a rate of 100 percent), carbonated drinks (at a rate of 50 percent), and energy drinks (at a rate of 100 percent).
Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
Saudi Arabia fully recognizes rights to private ownership and the establishment of private business. As outlined above, the SAG excludes foreign investors from some economic sectors and places some limits on foreign control. With respect to energy, Saudi Arabia’s largest economic sector, foreign firms are barred from investing in the upstream hydrocarbon sector, but the SAG permits foreign investment in the downstream energy sector, including refining and petrochemicals. There is significant foreign investment in these sectors. ExxonMobil, Shell, China’s Sinopec, and Japan’s Sumitomo Chemical are partners with Saudi Aramco (the SAG’s state-owned oil firm) in domestic refineries. ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and other international investors have joint ventures with Aramco and/or the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) in large-scale petrochemical plants that utilize natural gas feedstock from Aramco’s operations. The Dow Chemical Company and Aramco are partners in a $20 billion joint venture for the world’s largest integrated petrochemical production complex.
With respect to other non-oil natural resources, the national mining company, Ma’aden, has a $12 billion joint venture with Alcoa for bauxite mining and aluminum production and a $7 billion joint venture with the leading American fertilizer firm Mosaic and SABIC to produce phosphate-based fertilizers.
Joint ventures almost always take the form of limited liability partnerships in Saudi Arabia, to which there are some disadvantages. Foreign partners in service and contracting ventures organized as limited liability partnerships must pay, in cash or in kind, 100 percent of their contribution to authorized capital. MISA’s authorization is only the first step in setting up such a partnership.
Professionals, including architects, consultants, and consulting engineers, are required to register with, and be certified by, the Ministry of Commerce. In theory, these regulations permit the registration of Saudi-foreign joint venture consulting firms. As part of its WTO commitments, Saudi Arabia generally allows consulting firms to establish a local office without a Saudi partner. Foreign engineering consulting companies, however, must have been incorporated for at least 10 years and have operations in at least four different countries to qualify. Foreign entities practicing accounting and auditing, architecture, or civil planning, or providing healthcare, dental, or veterinary services, must still have a Saudi partner.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has opened additional service markets to foreign investment, including financial and banking services; aircraft maintenance and repair; computer reservation systems; wholesale, retail, and franchise distribution services; both basic and value-added telecom services; and investment in the computer and related services sectors. In 2016, Saudi Arabia formally approved full foreign ownership of retail and wholesale businesses in the Kingdom. While some companies have already received licenses under the new rules, the restrictions attached to obtaining full ownership – including a requirement to invest over $50 million during the first five years and ensure that 30 percent of all products sold are manufactured locally – have proven difficult to meet and precluded many investors from taking full advantage of the reform.
Other Investment Policy Reviews
Saudi Arabia completed its second WTO trade policy review in late 2015, which included investment policy (https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp433_e.htm ).
In addition to applying for a license from MISA, foreign and local investors must register a new business via the Ministry of Commerce (MOC), which has begun offering online registration services for limited liability companies at: https://mc.gov.sa/en/ . Though users may submit articles of association and apply for a business name within minutes on MOC’s website, final approval from the ministry often takes a week or longer. Applicants must also complete a number of other steps to start a business, including obtaining a municipality (baladia) license for their office premises and registering separately with the Ministry of Labor and Social Development, Chamber of Commerce, Passport Office, Tax Department, and the General Organization for Social Insurance. From start to finish, registering a business in Saudi Arabia takes a foreign investor on average three to five months from the time an initial MISA application is completed, placing the country at 141 of 190 countries in terms of ease of starting a business, according to the World Bank (2019 rankings). With respect to foreign direct investment, the investment approval by MISA is a necessary, but not sufficient, step in establishing an investment in the Kingdom; there are a number of other government ministries, agencies, and departments regulating business operations and ventures. In 2019, MISA established offices in the United States, starting in Washington D.C., to further facilitate investment in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi officials have stated their intention to attract foreign small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to the Kingdom. To facilitate and promote the growth of the SME sector, the SAG established the Small and Medium Enterprises General Authority in 2015 and released a new Companies Law in 2016. It also substantially reduced the minimum capital and number of shareholders required to form a joint stock company from five to two. Additionally, as of 2019, women no longer need a male guardian to apply for a business license.
Saudi Arabia does not restrict domestic investors from investing abroad. Private Saudi citizens, Saudi companies, and SAG entities hold extensive overseas investments. The SAG has been transforming its Public Investment Fund (PIF), traditionally a holding company for government shares in state-controlled enterprises, into a major international investor and sovereign wealth fund. In 2016, the PIF made its first high-profile international investment by taking a $3.5 billion stake in Uber. The PIF has also announced a $400 million investment in Magic Leap, a Florida-based company that is developing “mixed reality” technology, and a $1 billion investment in Lucid Motors, a California-based electric car company. In the first half of 2020, the PIF made a number of new investments, including in Facebook, Starbucks, Disney, Boeing, Citigroup, LiveNation, Marriott, several European energy firms, and Carnival Cruise Lines. Saudi Aramco and SABIC are also major investors in the United States. In 2017, Aramco acquired full ownership of Motiva, the largest refinery in North America, in Port Arthur, Texas. SABIC has announced a multi-billion dollar joint venture with ExxonMobil in a petrochemical facility in Corpus Christi, Texas.
3. Legal Regime
Transparency of the Regulatory System
Saudi Arabia received the lowest score possible (zero out of five) in the World Bank’s 2018 Global Indicators of Regulatory Governance Report, which places the Kingdom in the bottom 13 countries among 186 countries surveyed (http://rulemaking.worldbank.org/ ). Few aspects of the SAG’s regulatory system are entirely transparent, although Saudi investment policy is less opaque than other areas. Bureaucratic procedures are cumbersome, but red tape can generally be overcome with persistence. Foreign portfolio investment in the Saudi stock exchange is well-regulated by the Capital Markets Authority (CMA), with clear standards for interested foreign investors to qualify to trade on the local market. The CMA has progressively liberalized requirements for “qualified foreign investors” to trade in Saudi securities. Insurance companies and banks whose shares are listed on the Saudi stock exchange are required to publish financial statements according to International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) accounting standards. All other companies are required to follow accounting standards issued by the Saudi Organization for Certified Public Accountants.
Stakeholder consultation on regulatory issues is inconsistent. Some Saudi organizations are diligent in consulting businesses affected by the regulatory process, while others tend to issue regulations with no consultation at all. Proposed laws and regulations are not always published in draft form for public comment. An increasing number of government agencies, however, solicit public comments through their websites. The processes and procedures for stakeholder consultation are not generally transparent or codified in law or regulations. There are no private-sector or government efforts to restrict foreign participation in the industry standards-setting consortia or organizations that are available. There are no informal regulatory processes managed by NGOs or private-sector associations.
International Regulatory Considerations
Saudi Arabia uses technical regulations developed both by the Saudi Arabian Standards Organization (SASO) and by the Gulf Standards Organization (GSO). Although the GCC member states continue to work toward common requirements and standards, each individual member state, and Saudi Arabia through SASO, continues to maintain significant autonomy in developing, implementing, and enforcing technical regulations and conformity assessment procedures in its territory. More recently, Saudi Arabia has moved toward adoption of a single standard for technical regulations. This standard is often based on International Organization for Standardization (ISO) or International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) standards, to the exclusion of other international standards, such as those developed by U.S.-domiciled standards development organizations (SDOs).
Saudi Arabia’s exclusion of these other international standards, which are often used by U.S. manufacturers, can create significant market access barriers for industrial and consumer products exported from the United States. The United States government has engaged Saudi authorities on the principles for international standards per the WTO Technical Barriers to Trade Committee Decision and encouraged Saudi Arabia to adopt standards developed according to such principles in their technical regulations, allowing all products that meet those standards to enter the Saudi market. Several U.S.-based standards organizations, including SDOs and individual companies, have also engaged SASO, with mixed success, in an effort to preserve market access for U.S. products, ranging from electrical equipment to footwear.
A member of the WTO, Saudi Arabia notifies all draft technical regulations to the WTO Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade.
Legal System and Judicial Independence
The Saudi legal system is derived from Islamic law, known as sharia. Saudi commercial law, meanwhile, is still developing. In 2016, Saudi Arabia took a significant step in improving its dispute settlement regime with the establishment of the Saudi Center for Commercial Arbitration (see “Dispute Settlement” below). Through its Commercial Law Development Program, the U.S. Department of Commerce provides capacity-building programs for Saudi stakeholders in the areas of contract enforcement, public procurement, and insolvency.
The Saudi Ministry of Justice oversees the sharia-based judicial system, but most ministries have committees to rule on matters under their jurisdictions. Judicial and regulatory decisions can be appealed. Many disputes that would be handled in a court of law in the United States are handled through intra-ministerial administrative bodies and processes in Saudi Arabia. Generally, the Saudi Board of Grievances has jurisdiction over commercial disputes between the government and private contractors. The Board also reviews all foreign arbitral awards and foreign court decisions to ensure that they comply with sharia. This review process can be lengthy, and outcomes are unpredictable.
The Kingdom’s record of enforcing judgments issued by courts of other GCC states under the GCC Common Economic Agreement, and of other Arab League states under the Arab League Treaty, is somewhat better than enforcement of judgments from other foreign courts. Monetary judgments are based on the terms of the contract – e.g., if the contract is calculated in U.S. dollars, a judgment may be obtained in U.S. dollars. If unspecified, the judgment is denominated in Saudi riyals. Non-material damages and interest are not included in monetary judgments, based on the sharia prohibitions against interest and against indirect, consequential, and speculative damages.
As with any investment abroad, it is important that U.S. investors take steps to protect themselves by thoroughly researching the business record of a proposed Saudi partner, retaining legal counsel, complying scrupulously with all legal steps in the investment process, and securing a well-drafted agreement. Even after a decision is reached in a dispute, enforcement of a judgment can still take years. The U.S. government recommends consulting with local counsel in advance of investing to review legal options and appropriate contractual provisions for dispute resolution.
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ratified the 1958 New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards in 1994. Saudi Arabia is also a member state of the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes Convention (ICSID), though under the terms of its accession it cannot be compelled to refer investment disputes to this system absent specific consent, provided on a case-by-case basis. Saudi Arabia has yet to consent to the referral of any investment dispute to the ICSID for resolution.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
The use of any international or domestic dispute settlement mechanism within Saudi Arabia continues to be time-consuming and uncertain, as all outcomes are subject to a final review in the Saudi judicial system and carry the risk that principles of sharia law may potentially supersede a judgment or legal precedent. The U.S. government recommends consulting with local counsel in advance of investing to review legal options and contractual provisions for dispute resolution.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
Traditionally, dispute settlement and enforcement of foreign arbitral awards in Saudi Arabia have proven time-consuming and uncertain, carrying the risk that sharia principles can potentially supersede any foreign judgments or legal precedents. Even after a decision is reached in a dispute, effective enforcement of the judgment can be lengthy. In several cases, disputes have caused serious problems for foreign investors. For instance, Saudi partners and creditors have blocked foreigners’ access to or right to use exit visas, forcing them to remain in Saudi Arabia against their will. In cases of alleged fraud or debt, foreign partners may also be jailed to prevent their departure from the country while awaiting police investigation or court adjudication. Courts can in theory impose precautionary restraint on personal property pending the adjudication of a commercial dispute, though this remedy has been applied sparingly.
In recent years, the SAG has demonstrated a commitment to improve the quality of commercial legal proceedings and access to alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. Local attorneys indicate that the quality of final judgments in the court system has improved, but that cases still take too long to litigate. In 2012, the SAG updated certain provisions in Saudi Arabia’s domestic arbitration law, paving the way for the establishment of the Saudi Center for Commercial Arbitration (SCCA) in 2016. Developed in accordance with international arbitration rules and standards, including those set by the American Arbitration Association’s International Centre for Dispute Resolution and the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Court of Arbitration, the SCCA offers comprehensive arbitration services to domestic and international firms. The SCCA reports that both domestic and foreign law firms have begun to include referrals to the SCCA in the arbitration clauses of their contracts. However, it is currently too early to assess the quality and effectiveness of SCCA proceedings, as the SCCA is still in the early stages of operation. Awards rendered by the SCCA can be enforced in local courts, though judges remain empowered to reject enforcement of provisions they deem noncompliant with sharia law.
In December 2017, the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) recognized Saudi Arabia as a jurisdiction that has adopted an arbitration law based on the 2006 UNCITRAL Model Arbitration Law. UNCITRAL took this step after Saudi judges clarified that sharia would not affect the enforcement of foreign arbitral awards. The potential impact of the decision is that foreign investors and companies in Saudi Arabia have slightly more certainty that their arbitration agreements and awards will be enforced, as in other UNCITRAL countries. Whether (and how) Saudi courts will apply this latest interpretation of the relationship between foreign arbitral awards and sharia law remains to be seen.
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
In January 2019, the Saudi government established the Foreign Trade General Authority (FTGA), which aims to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s non-oil exports and investment, increase the private sector’s contribution to foreign trade, and resolve obstacles encountered by Saudi exporters and investors. The new authority monitors the Kingdom’s obligations under international trade agreements and treaties, negotiates and enters into new international commercial and investment agreements, and represents the Kingdom before the World Trade Organization. The Governor of the FTGA reports to the Minister of Commerce.
Despite the list of activities excluded from foreign investment (see “Policies Toward Foreign Direct Investment”), foreign minority ownership in joint ventures with Saudi partners may be allowed in some of these sectors. Foreign investors are no longer required to take local partners in many sectors and may own real estate for company activities. They are allowed to transfer money from their enterprises out of the country and can sponsor foreign employees, provided that “Saudization” quotas are met (see “Labor Section” below). Minimum capital requirements to establish business entities range from zero to 30 million Saudi riyals ($8 million), depending on the sector and the type of investment.
MISA offers detailed information on the investment process, provides licenses and support services to foreign investors, and coordinates with government ministries to facilitate investment. According to MISA, it must grant or refuse a license within five days of receiving an application and supporting documentation from a prospective investor. MISA has established and posted online its licensing guidelines, but many companies looking to invest in Saudi Arabia continue to work with local representation to navigate the bureaucratic licensing process.
MISA licenses foreign investments by sector, each with its own regulations and requirements: (i) services, which comprise a wide range of activities including IT, healthcare, and tourism; (ii) industrial, (iii) real estate, (iv) public transportation, (v) entrepreneurial, (vi) contracting, (vii) audiovisual media, (viii) science and technical office, (ix) education (colleges and universities), and (x) domestic services employment recruitment. MISA also offers several special-purpose licenses for bidding on and performance of government contracts. Foreign firms must describe their planned commercial activities in some detail and will receive a license in one of these sectors at MISA’s discretion. Depending on the type of license issued, foreign firms may also require the approval of relevant competent authorities, such as the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Tourism.
An important MISA objective is to ensure that investors do not just acquire and hold licenses without investing, and MISA sometimes cancels licenses of foreign investors that it deems do not contribute sufficiently to the local economy. MISA’s periodic license reviews, with the possibility of cancellation, add uncertainty for investors and can provide a disincentive to longer-term investment commitments.
MISA has agreements with various SAG agencies and ministries to facilitate and streamline foreign investment. These agreements permit MISA to facilitate the granting of visas, establish MISA branch offices at Saudi embassies in different countries, prolong tariff exemptions on imported raw materials to three years and on production and manufacturing equipment to two years, and establish commercial courts. To make it easier for businesspeople to visit the Kingdom, MISA can sponsor visa requests without involving a local company. Saudi Arabia has implemented a decree providing that sponsorship is no longer required for certain business visas. While MISA has set up the infrastructure to support foreign investment, many companies report that despite some improvements, the process remains cumbersome and time-consuming.
Competition and Anti-Trust Laws
MISA and the MOC review transactions for competition-related concerns, including allegations of price fixing for certain products. The Ministry of Commerce has looked to the GCC’s reference pricing approach on subsidized products to assist the SAG in determining market-price suggested norms.
Saudi competition law prohibits certain vertically-integrated business combinations. Consequently, companies doing business in Saudi Arabia may find it difficult to register exclusivity clauses in distribution agreements, but are not necessarily precluded from enforcing such clauses in Saudi courts.
Expropriation and Compensation
The Embassy is not aware of any cases in Saudi Arabia of expropriation from foreign investors without adequate compensation. Some small- to medium-sized foreign investors, however, have complained that their investment licenses have been cancelled without justification, causing them to forfeit their investments.
In August 2018, the SAG implemented new bankruptcy legislation which seeks to “further facilitate a healthy business environment that encourages participation by foreign and domestic investors, as well as local small and medium enterprises.” The new law clarifies procedural processes and recognizes distinct creditor classes (e.g., secured creditors). The new law also includes procedures for continued operation of the distressed company via financial restructuring. Alternatively, the parties may pursue an orderly liquidation of company assets, which would be managed by a court-appointed licensed bankruptcy trustee. Saudi courts have begun to accept and hear cases under this new legislation.
4. Industrial Policies
MISA advertises a number of financial advantages for foreigners looking to invest in the Kingdom, including the lack of personal income taxes and a corporate tax rate of 20 percent on foreign companies’ profits. MISA also lists various SAG-sponsored regional and international financial programs to which foreign investors have access, such as the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, the Arab Trade Financing Program, and the Islamic Development Bank.
The Saudi Industrial Development Fund (SIDF), a government financial institution established in 1974, supports private-sector industrial investments by providing medium- and long-term loans for new factories and for projects to expand, upgrade, and modernize existing manufacturing facilities. The SIDF offers loans of 50 to 75 percent of a project’s value, depending on the project’s location. Foreign investors that set up manufacturing facilities in developed areas (Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, Jubail, Mecca, Yanbu, and Ras al-Khair), for example, can receive a 15-year loan for up to 50 percent of a project’s value; investors in the Kingdom’s least developed areas can receive a 20-year loan for up to 75 percent of the project’s value. The SIDF also offers consultancy services for local industrial projects in the administrative, financial, technical, and marketing fields. (The SIDF’s website is https://www.sidf.gov.sa/en/Pages/default.aspx .)
The SAG offers several incentive programs to promote employment of Saudi nationals in certain cases. The Saudi Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF) (https://www.hrdf.org.sa/), for example, will pay 30 percent of a Saudi national’s wages for the first year of work, with a wage subsidy of 20 percent and 10 percent for the second and third year of employment, respectively (subject to certain limits and caps).
American and other foreign firms are able to participate in SAG-financed and/or -subsidized research-and-development (R&D) programs. Many of these programs are run though the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), which funds many of the Kingdom’s R&D programs.
Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation
Saudi Arabia does not operate free trade zones or free ports. However, as part of its Vision 2030 program, the SAG has announced it will create special zones with special regulations to encourage investment and diversify government revenues. The SAG is considering the establishment of special regulatory zones in certain areas, including at NEOM and the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia has established a network of “economic cities” as part of the country’s efforts to reduce its dependence on oil. Overseen by MISA, these four economic cities aim to provide a variety of advantages to companies that choose to locate their operations within the city limits, including in matters of logistics and ease of doing business. The four economic cities are: King Abdullah Economic City near Jeddah, Prince AbdulAziz Bin Mousaed Economic City in north-central Saudi Arabia, Knowledge Economic City in Medina, and Jazan Economic City near the southwest border with Yemen. The cities are in various stages of development, and their future development potential is unclear, given competing Vision 2030 economic development projects.
The Saudi Industrial Property Authority (MODON in Arabic) oversees the development of 35 industrial cities, including some still under development. MODON offers incentives for commercial investment in these cities, including competitive rents for industrial land, government-sponsored financing, export guarantees, and certain customs exemptions. (MODON’s website is https://www.modon.gov.sa/en/Pages/default.aspx .)
The Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu (RCJY) was formed in 1975 and established the industrial cities of Jubail, located in eastern Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf coast, and Yanbu, located in north western Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea coast. A significant portion of Saudi Arabia’s refining, petrochemical, and other heavy industries are located in the Jubail and Yanbu industrial cities. The RCJY’s mission is to plan, promote, develop, and manage petrochemicals and energy intensive industrial cities. In connection with this mission, RCJY promotes investment opportunities in the two cities and can offer a variety of incentives, including tax holidays, customs exemptions, low cost loans, and favorable land and utility rates. More recently, the RCJY has assumed responsibility for managing the Ras Al Khair City for Mining Industries (2009) and the Jazan City for Primary and Downstream Industries (2015). (The RCJY’s website is https://www.rcjy.gov.sa).
Performance and Data Localization Requirements
The government does not impose systematic conditions on foreign investment. For example, there are no requirements to locate in a specific geographic area (except for some restrictions on the distribution of retail outlets and the location of industrial activities). Investors are not required to export a certain percentage of output. There is no requirement that the share of foreign equity be reduced over time. Investors are not required to disclose proprietary information to the SAG as part of the regulatory approval process, except where issues of health and safety are concerned.
Although investors have not been required heretofore to purchase from local sources, the situation is changing. In line with its bid to diversify the economy and provide more private sector jobs for Saudi nationals, the SAG has embarked on a broad effort to source goods and services domestically and is seeking commitments from investors to do so. In 2017, the Council of Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA) established the Local Content and Private Sector Development Unit (NAMAA in Arabic) to promote local content and improve the balance of payments. NAMAA is responsible for monitoring and implementing regulations, suggesting new policies, and coordinating with the private sector on all local content matters.
Government-controlled enterprises are also increasingly introducing local content requirements for foreign firms. Aramco’s “In-Kingdom Total Value Added” (IKTVA) program, for example, strongly encourages the purchase of goods and services from a local supplier base and aims to double Aramco’s percentage of locally-manufactured energy-related goods and services to 70 percent by 2021.
In the defense sector, Saudi Arabia’s military is in the process of reforming its procurement processes and policies to incorporate new ambitious goals of Saudi employment and localized production. The SAG has shifted over the last two years away from offsets in favor of “localization” of purchases of goods and services and “Saudization” of the labor force. Previously, the government required offsets in investments equivalent to up to 40 percent of a program’s value for defense contracts, depending on the value of the contract. The SAG is currently mandating increasingly strict localization requirements for government contracts in the defense sector. The SAG’s Vision 2030 program calls for 50 percent of defense materials to be produced and procured locally by 2030, and simultaneously seeks comparable increases in the number of Saudis employed in this sector.
The government encourages recruitment of Saudi employees through a series of incentives (see section 11 on “Labor Policies” for details of the “Saudization” program) and limits placed on the number of visas for foreign workers available to companies. The Saudi electronic visitor visa system defaults to five-year visas for all U.S. citizen applicants. “Business visas” are routinely issued to U.S. visitors who do not have an invitation letter from a Saudi company, but the visa applicant must provide evidence that he or she is engaged in legitimate commercial activity. “Commercial visas” are issued by invitation from Saudi companies to applicants who have a specific reason to visit a Saudi company.
In the fall of 2016, the SAG implemented a series of significant visitor fee increases for expatriates whose countries do not have reciprocity agreements with Saudi Arabia, doubling the cost of a single-entry business visit visa to $533. (U.S. citizens are exempt from such increases on the basis of reciprocity.) The SAG also imposed higher exit and reentry visa fees for all foreign workers residing in the Kingdom, including U.S. citizens. Furthermore, in January 2018, the SAG implemented new fees for expatriate employers ranging between $80 and $107 per employee per month and increased levies on expatriates with dependents to a $54 monthly fee for each dependent (see section 11 on “Labor Policies”). In January 2019, fees on expatriate employees increased to between $133 to $160 per month, and levies on expatriate dependents increased to $80 per month. These fees are scheduled to increase again in 2020 to between $186 to $212, but no additional increases are planned beyond 2020.
Saudi Arabia is undergoing a digital transformation as part of its Vision 2030 National Transformation Program strategy to enable private sector growth. Emerging technology spheres include significant investment in developing Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, and other information and communications technology (ICT) sectors. As such, data protection and cybersecurity laws and regulations are rapidly evolving.
Saudi Arabia aims to be the Middle East’s high-technology hub. While there is no dedicated data protection legislation in force in Saudi Arabia, personal data is protected under general provisions of Saudi law imposing strict obligations on businesses in relation to how, who, and when personal data can be collected, used, and stored.
Saudi E-Commerce Law applies to all e-commerce providers (domestic and international) that offer goods and services to customers based in Saudi Arabia. Its provisions regulate e-commerce business practices, requiring transparency and consumer protection, as well as protection of the personal data of customers, with the goal to enhance cybersecurity and trust in online transactions. Data retention is also restricted; service providers are not allowed to retain personal data any longer than required to complete business transactions for which data was collected. Also, sharing of data and customer information with third-party providers is prohibited without express permission.
Saudi Arabia’s Cloud Computing Regulatory Framework (CCF) governs the rights and obligations of cloud service providers, customers, businesses, and government entities, and includes principles of data protection. CCF divides customer data protection into four levels: from non-sensitive to highly sensitive, with security breach notification required to be given to customers, and in certain situations breaches must be registered with the Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC), which regulates Saudi telecommunications. CCF regulations do not allow cross-border data flows by cloud service providers or customers of sensitive business content from private and government sectors, as well as highly-sensitive and secret content belonging to government agencies and institutions, unless expressly allowed by Saudi law.
Saudi Arabia’s Internet of Things (IoT) Regulatory Framework regulates the use of all IoT services and includes data security, privacy, and protection requirements. IoT providers and implementors must comply with existing and future published laws, regulations, and requirements concerning data management, which will likely continue to focus on cybersecurity and data security. The IoT Regulatory Framework specifies data security measures, such as limited retention and data localization for IoT services and networks, which are also regulated by the CITC.
Saudi Arabia’s Electronic Transactions Law imposes obligations on internet service providers (ISPs) to maintain confidentiality of business information and personal data in electronic transactions.
Saudi Arabia’s Anti-Cyber Crime Law seeks to protect the national economy by deterring cybercrimes such as destruction or alteration of data, illegal access to bank or credit information, interruption of computer and information network transmissions, and other disruptions to ICT infrastructure. The law also requires consent from individuals whose personal data or documents are to be disclosed.
Saudi Arabia’s Essential Cyber Controls (ECC) regulations are currently being drafted with input from multiple Saudi cybersecurity and ICT authorities, and for the first time, in consultation with large American cloud, ISP, and ICT industry representatives, who have provided feedback on how to protect consumer data while still enabling innovation and growth of the digital economy and cross-border trade.
There are no requirements for foreign IT providers to turn over source code or provide access to encryption. Other than a requirement to retain records locally for ten years for tax purposes, there is no requirement regarding data storage or access to surveillance.
5. Protection of Property Rights
The Saudi legal system protects and facilitates acquisition and disposition of all property, consistent with the Islamic practice of upholding private property rights. Non-Saudi corporate entities are allowed to purchase real estate in Saudi Arabia in accordance with the foreign-investment code. Other foreign-owned corporate and personal property is protected by law. Saudi Arabia has a system of recording security interests, and plans to modernize its land registry system. Saudi Arabia ranked 19th out of 190 countries for ease of registering property in the 2020 World Bank Doing Business Report.
In 2017, the Saudi Ministry of Housing implemented an annual vacant land tax of 2.5 percent of the assessed value on vacant lands in urban centers in an attempt to spur development. Additionally, in January 2018, in an effort to increase Saudis’ access to finance and stimulate the mortgage and housing markets, Saudi Arabia’s central bank lifted the maximum loan-to-value rate for mortgages for first-time homebuyers to 90 percent from 85 percent, and increased interest payment subsidies for first-time buyers. This further liberalized stringent down-payment requirements that prevailed up to 2016, when the central bank raised the maximum loan-to-value rate from 70 percent to 85 percent.
Intellectual Property Rights
In 2017, Saudi Arabia established SAIP to regulate, support, develop, sponsor, protect, enforce, and upgrade IP fields in accordance with the best international practices. Over the past two years, SAIP has worked to consolidate IP protection capability, coordinated and led online and in-market IP enforcement efforts, worked to establish specialized IP courts, and promoted awareness of the importance of respecting IP and the consequences of violating another’s IP rights. SAIP cooperated with USTR and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) over the past year, resulting in the signing of a Cooperation Arrangement in October 2018 between SAIP and USPTO. SAIP has made a commendable effort to increase transparency, join international treaties, improve stakeholder involvement in policymaking, and continue legislative development. Saudi Arabia Customs Authority has also significantly enhanced its IP enforcement efforts and capacity, having seized over 3 million counterfeit and other illegal goods in 2019, having partnered closely with trademark and copyright owners, and having systematically notified right holders of suspected shipments. Saudi Arabia was included in the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) Special 301 Report’s “Priority Watch List” in April 2020 for the second consecutive year. USTR plans to conduct an Out-of-Cycle Review focused on addressing protection against unfair commercial use, as well as the unauthorized disclosure, of undisclosed test or other data generated to obtain marketing approval of pharmaceutical products. Saudi Arabia was not included in the 2019 Notorious Markets List.
Saudi Arabia was included in the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) Special 301 Report’s “Priority Watch List” in April 2020 for the second consecutive year. USTR plans to conduct an Out-of-Cycle Review focused on addressing protection against unfair commercial use, as well as the unauthorized disclosure, of undisclosed test or other data generated to obtain marketing approval of pharmaceutical products. Saudi Arabia was not included in the 2019 Notorious Markets List.
Since 2016, the Saudi Arabia Food and Drug Authority (SFDA), which the Minister of Health oversees, has continuously granted marketing approval to domestic companies relying on another company’s undisclosed test or other data for products despite the protection provided by Saudi regulations.
The United States government also remains concerned about reportedly high levels of online piracy in Saudi Arabia, particularly through illicit streaming devices (ISDs), which right holders report are widely available and generally unregulated in Saudi Arabia. In June 2020 the World Trade Organization’s court decision sided with Qatar’s complaint that beoutQ, a Saudi-based rampant satellite and online piracy service had violated the IP rights of dozens of rights holders and has forced Saudi Arabia to establish enforcement methods to remove the readily available boxes. In August 2019, it was reported that BeoutQ ceased operations, although there continues to be reports of pirated boxes being readily available in country.
U.S. software firms report that the Saudi government continues to use unlicensed and “under-licensed” (in which an insufficient number of licenses is procured for the total number of users) software on government computer systems in violation of their copyrights. Other concerns include the lack of seizure and destruction of counterfeit goods in enforcement actions by the MOC, and limits on the ability of MOC to enter facilities suspected of involvement in the sale or manufacture of counterfeit goods, including facilities located in residential areas.
Resources for Rights Holders
Embassy point of contact:
+966 11 488-3800 Ext. 4270
Regional IPR Attaché:
Pete C. Mehravari
U.S. Intellectual Property Attaché for Middle East and North Africa
U.S. Embassy Kuwait | U.S. Department of Commerce
Office: +965 2259-1455
6. Financial Sector
Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
Saudi Arabia’s financial policies generally facilitate the free flow of private capital and currency can be transferred in and out of the Kingdom without restriction. Saudi Arabia maintains an effective regulatory system governing portfolio investment in the Kingdom. The Capital Markets Law, passed in 2003, allows for brokerages, asset managers, and other nonbank financial intermediaries to operate in the Kingdom. The law created a market regulator, the Capital Market Authority (CMA), established in 2004, and opened the Saudi stock exchange (Tadawul) to public investment.
Prior to 2015, the CMA only permitted foreign investors to invest in the Saudi stock market through indirect “swap arrangements,” through which foreigners had accumulated ownership of one per cent of the market. In June 2015, the CMA opened the Tadawul to “qualified foreign investors,” but with a stringent set of regulations that only large financial institutions could meet. Since 2015, the CMA has progressively relaxed the rules applicable to qualified foreign investors, easing barriers to entry and expanding the foreign investor base. The CMA adopted regulations in 2017 permitting corporate debt securities to be listed and traded on the exchange; in March 2018, the CMA authorized government debt instruments to be listed and traded on the Tadawul. The Tadawul was incorporated into the FTSE Russell Emerging Markets Index in March 2019, resulting in a foreign capital injection of $6.8 billion. Separately, the $11 billion infusion into the Tadawul from integration into the MSCI Emerging Markets Index took place in May 2019. The Tadawul was also added to the S&P Dow Jones Emerging Market Index.
Money and Banking System
The banking system in the Kingdom is generally well-capitalized and healthy. The public has easy access to deposit-taking institutions. The legal, regulatory, and accounting systems used in the banking sector are generally transparent and consistent with international norms. The Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA), the central bank, which oversees and regulates the banking system, generally gets high marks for its prudential oversight of commercial banks in Saudi Arabia. SAMA is a member and shareholder of the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland.
In 2017, SAMA enhanced and updated its previous Circular on Guidelines for the Prevention of Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing. The enhanced guidelines have increased alignment with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) 40 Recommendations, the nine Special Recommendations on Terrorist Financing, and relevant UN Security Council Resolutions. Saudi Arabia is a member of the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force (MENA-FATF). In 2019, Saudi Arabia became the first Arab country to be granted full membership of the FATF, following the organization’s recognition of the Kingdom’s efforts in combating money laundering, financing of terrorism, and proliferation of arms. Saudi Arabia had been an observer member since 2015.
The SAG has authorized increased foreign participation in its banking sector over the last several years. SAMA has granted licenses to a number of new foreign banks to operate in the Kingdom, including Deutsche Bank, J.P. Morgan Chase N.A., and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). A number of additional, CMA-licensed foreign banks participate in the Saudi market as investors or wealth management advisors. Citigroup, for example, returned to the Saudi market in early 2018 under a CMA license.
Credit is normally widely available to both Saudi and foreign entities from commercial banks and is allocated on market terms. The Saudi banking sector has one of the world’s lowest non-performing loan (NPL) ratios, in the range of 2.0 percent for 2018. In addition, credit is available from several government institutions, such as the SIDF, which allocate credit based on government-set criteria rather than market conditions. Companies must have a legal presence in Saudi Arabia to qualify for credit. The private sector has access to term loans, and there have been a number of corporate issuances of sharia-compliant bonds, known as sukuk.
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
There is no limitation in Saudi Arabia on the inflow or outflow of funds for remittances of profits, debt service, capital, capital gains, returns on intellectual property, or imported inputs, other than certain withholding taxes (withholding taxes range from five percent for technical services and dividend distributions to 15 percent for transfers to related parties, and 20 percent or more for management fees). Bulk cash shipments greater than $10,000 must be declared at entry or exit points. Since 1986, when the last currency devaluation occurred, the official exchange rate has been fixed by SAMA at 3.75 Saudi riyals per U.S. dollar. Transactions typically take place using rates very close to the official rate.
Saudi Arabia is one of the largest remitting countries in the world, with roughly 75 percent of the Saudi labor force comprised of foreign workers. Remittances totaled approximately $33.4 billion in 2019. There are currently no restrictions on converting and transferring funds associated with an investment (including remittances of investment capital, dividends, earnings, loan repayments, principal on debt, lease payments, and/or management fees) into a freely usable currency at a legal market-clearing rate. There are no waiting periods in effect for remitting investment returns through normal legal channels.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Development is progressively implementing a “Wage Protection System” designed to verify that expatriate workers, the predominant source of remittances, are being properly paid according to their contracts. Under this system, employers are required to transfer salary payments from a local Saudi bank account to an employee’s local bank account, from which expatriates can freely remit their earnings to their home countries.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
The Public Investment Fund (PIF, www.pif.gov.sa ) is the Kingdom’s officially designated sovereign wealth fund. While PIF lacks many of the attributes of a traditional sovereign wealth fund, it has evolved into the SAG’s primary investment vehicle.
Established in 1971 to channel oil wealth into economic development, the PIF has historically been a holding company for government shares in partially privatized state-owned enterprises (SOEs), including SABIC, the National Commercial Bank, Saudi Telecom Company, Saudi Electricity Company, and others. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the chairman of the PIF and announced his intention in April 2016 to build the PIF into a $2 trillion global investment fund, relying in part on proceeds from the initial public offering of up to five percent of Saudi Aramco shares.
Since that announcement, the PIF has made a number of high-profile international investments, including a $3.5 billion investment in Uber, a commitment to invest $45 billion into Japanese SoftBank’s VisionFund, a commitment to invest $20 billion into U.S. Blackstone’s Infrastructure Fund, a $1 billion investment in U.S. electric car company Lucid Motors, and a partnership with cinema company AMC to operate movie theaters in the Kingdom. Under the Vision 2030 reform program, the PIF is financing a number of strategic domestic development projects, including: “NEOM,” a planned $500 billion project to build an “independent economic zone” in northwest Saudi Arabia; “Qiddiya,” a new, large-scale entertainment, sports, and cultural complex near Riyadh; “the Red Sea Project”, a massive tourism development on the western Saudi coast; and “Amaala,” a wellness, healthy living, and meditation resort also located on the Red Sea.
At the end of 2019, the PIF reported its investment portfolio was valued at $300-$330 billion, mainly in shares of state-controlled domestic companies. In an effort to rebalance its investment portfolio, the PIF has divided its assets into six investment pools comprising local and global investments in various sectors and asset classes: Saudi holdings; Saudi sector development; Saudi real estate and infrastructure development; Saudi giga-projects; international strategic investments; and an international diversified pool of investments.
In addition to previous investments in Uber, Magic Leap, and Lucid Motors, the PIF made a number of new investments in the first half of 2020. These include equity investments in Facebook, Starbucks, Disney, Boeing, Citigroup, LiveNation, Marriott, several European energy firms, and Carnival Cruise Lines. The Ministry of Finance announced in 2020 that $40 billion was being transferred from the Kingdom’s foreign reserves, held by the central bank SAMA, to the PIF to fund investments.
In practice, SAMA’s foreign reserve holdings also operate as a quasi-sovereign wealth fund, accounting for the majority of the SAG’s foreign assets. SAMA invests the Kingdom’s surplus oil revenues primarily in low-risk liquid assets, such as sovereign debt instruments and fixed-income securities. SAMA’s foreign reserves fell from $502 billion in January 2020 to $449 billion in April 2020. SAMA’s foreign reserve holdings peaked at $746 billion in mid-2014.
Though not a formal member, Saudi Arabia serves as a permanent observer to the International Working Group on Sovereign Wealth Funds.
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.
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 of up to one million riyals (USD 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, but not bribery between private parties. Only senior Control and Anti-Corruption Commission (“Nazaha”) officials are subject to financial disclosure laws. The government is considering disclosure regulations for other officials, but has yet to finalize them. Some officials have engaged in corrupt practices with impunity, and perceptions of corruption persist in some sectors.
Nazaha, established in 2011, is responsible for promoting transparency and combating all forms of financial and administrative corruption. Nazaha’s ministerial-level director reports directly to the King. In December 2019, King Salman issued three royal decrees consolidating the Control and Investigation Board and the Mabahith’s Administrative Investigations Directorate under the National Anti-Corruption Commission, and renaming the new entity as the Control and Anti-Corruption Commission (“Nazaha”). The decrees consolidated investigations under the new Commission and mandated that the Public Prosecutor’s Office transition its on-going investigations to the new consolidated commission. The Control and Anti-Corruption Commission report directly to King Salman. The Commission recommends anti-corruption reforms, administers and audits anti-corruption databases and program, and investigates and prosecutes alleged corruption. Furthermore, the Commission has the power to dismiss a government employee even if they are not found guilty by the specialized anti-corruption court.
Some evidence suggests Nazaha has not shied away from prosecuting influential players whose indiscretions may previously have been ignored. In 2016, for example, it referred the Minister of Civil Service for investigation over allegations of abuse of power and nepotism. On March 15, Nazaha announced it would charge 298 Saudi and foreign individuals with a range of corruption charges, including a major general and at least two judges. In April, Nazaha indicted eight individuals, including two individuals from Riyadh’s regional health directorate, on corruption charges related to contracts for quarantine accommodations related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Commission regularly publishes news of its investigations on its website (http://www.nazaha.gov.sa/en/Pages/Default.aspx).
SAMA, the central bank, 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 USD1.3 million. The Basic Law of Governance contains provisions on proper management of state assets and authorizes audits and investigation 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.
Globally, Saudi Arabia ranks 51st out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2019.
Resources to Report Corruption
The National Anti-Corruption Commission’s address is:
National Anti-Corruption Commission
P.O. Box (Wasl) 7667, AlOlaya – Ghadir District
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Nazaha accepts complaints about corruption through its website www.nazaha.gov.sa or mobile application.
10. Political and Security Environment
Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The King’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has assumed a central role in government decision-making. The Department of State regularly reviews and updates a travel advisory to apprise U.S. citizens of the security situation in Saudi Arabia and frequently reminds U.S. citizens of recommended security precautions. In addition to a Global Travel Advisory due to COVID-19, the Department of State has a current travel advisory for Saudi Arabia that was updated in September 2019. The Travel Advisory urges U.S. citizens to exercise increased caution when traveling to Saudi Arabia due to terrorism and the threat of missile and drone attacks on civilian targets and to not travel within 50 miles of the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border. The Travel Warning notes that terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks in Saudi Arabia and that terrorists may attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities. In the past, terrorists have targeted both Saudi and Western government interests, mosques and other religious sites (both Sunni and Shia), and places frequented by U.S. citizens and other Westerners.
Missile attacks have targeted major cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah, Riyadh’s international airport, Saudi Aramco facilities, and vessels in Red Sea shipping lanes. Houthi rebel groups operating in Yemen have fired missiles and rockets into Saudi Arabia, targeting populated areas and civilian infrastructure, and have publicly stated their intent to continue to do so. The Houthi rebel groups are also in possession of unmanned aerial systems (drones), which they have used to target civilian infrastructure and military facilities in Saudi Arabia. U.S. citizens living and working on or near such installations, particularly in areas near the border with Yemen, are at heightened risk of missile and drone attack.
Please visit www.travel.state.gov for further information, including the latest Travel Advisory.
11. Labor Policies and Practices
The Ministry of Labor and Social Development 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 75 percent of total jobs in the country are held by expatriates, who number roughly 12.6 million out of a total population of approximately 33.4 million. The largest groups of foreign workers come from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, the Philippines, and Yemen. Saudis occupy about 96 percent of government jobs, but only about 25 percent of the total jobs in the Kingdom. Over one-third of Saudi nationals are employed in the public sector.
Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics estimates unemployment at 5.5 percent for the total population and 12 percent for Saudi nationals (Q3 2019 figures), but these figures mask a high youth unemployment rate, a Saudi female unemployment rate of 21.3 percent, and low Saudi labor participation rates (45.5 percent overall; 18.9 percent for women). With approximately 60 percent of the Saudi population under the age of 30, job creation for new Saudi labor market entrants will prove a serious challenge for years.
The SAG encourages Saudi employment through “Saudization” policies that place quotas on employment of Saudi nationals in certain sectors, coupled with limits placed on the number of visas for foreign workers available to companies. In 2011, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development 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. Reforms enacted in 2017 refined the program to incentivize further the employment of women, individuals with disabilities, and managerial and high-wage positions. Each company is determined to be in one of four strata based on its actual percentage of Saudi employees, with platinum and green strata for companies meeting or exceeding the quota for their sector and size, and yellow and red strata for those failing to meet it. Expatriate employees in red and yellow companies can move freely to green or platinum companies, without the approval of their current employers, and green and platinum companies have greater privileges in securing and renewing work permits for expatriates.
Over the past few years, the SAG has taken additional measures to strengthen the Nitaqat program and expand the scope of Saudization to require the hiring of Saudi nationals. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development has mandated that certain job categories in specific economic sectors only employ Saudi nationals, beginning with mobile phone stores in 2016. The ministry has since broadened the policy to include car rental agencies, retail sales jobs in shopping malls, and other sectors. The ministry has likewise mandated that only Saudi women can occupy retail jobs in certain businesses that cater to female customers, such as lingerie and cosmetics shops. In 2017, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development began to phase in rules forbidding employment of foreigners in retail sales positions in 12 sectors, including: watches, eyewear, medical equipment and devices, electrical and electronic appliances, auto parts, building materials, carpets, cars and motorcycles, home and office furniture, children’s clothing and men’s accessories, home kitchenware, and confectioneries. Because many retail shops in sectors subject to Saudization are owned and operated by expatriates, these policies have resulted in numerous store closures across the country. 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, despite near-record unemployment levels.
In 2017, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development and the Ministry of Interior launched the latest phase of an ongoing campaign to deport illegal and improperly documented workers. The combination of Saudization and Nitaqat policies, new expatriate fees, increased visa and entry/exit permit fees, the increased VAT, and other measures that have raised the cost of living, has prompted approximately 1.9 million expatriates to depart the Kingdom over the past few years. These measures have also significantly increased labor costs for employers, both Saudi and foreign alike.
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. Domestic workers are not covered under the provisions of the latest labor law; 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. In some instances, foreign workers and particularly domestic staff encounter 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 is available at: https://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Overtime 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 protecting workers’ rights. Non-Saudis have the right to appeal to specialized committees in the Ministry of Labor and Social Development 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.
12. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Other Investment Insurance Programs
Saudi Arabia has been a member of the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency since April 1988. Additionally, Saudi Arabia signed an Investment Incentive Agreement Washington, D.C. on February 27, 1975.
13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics
|Host Country Statistical source*||USG or international statistical source||USG or International Source of Data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other|
|Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD)||2018||$786,552||2018||$786,552||https://data.worldbank.org/country|
|Foreign Direct Investment||Host Country Statistical source*||USG or international statistical source||USG or international Source of data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other|
|U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions)||N/A||N/A||2018||$11,375||BEA data available at
|Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions)||N/A||N/A||2018||$946||BEA data available at
|Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP||N/A||N/A||2019||29.8%||UNCTAD data available at
* Source for Host Country Data: Saudi General Authority for Statistics
According to the 2020 UNCTAD World Investment Report, Saudi Arabia’s total FDI inward stock was $236.1 billion and total FDI outward stock was $123.1 billion (in both cases, as of 2019).
Detailed data for inward direct investment (below) is as of 2010, which is the latest available breakdown of inward FDI by country.
|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|
|“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.|
*Source: IMF Coordinated Direct Investment Survey (2010 – latest available complete data)
|Portfolio Investment Assets|
|Top Five Partners (Millions, US Dollars)|
|Total||Equity Securities||Total Debt Securities|
|All Countries||$156,967||100%||All Countries||$95,897||100%||All Countries||$61,069||100%|
|United States||$55,449||35.3%||United States||$42,602||44.4%||United States||$12,847||21.0%|
Source: IMF’s Coordinated Portfolio Investment Survey (CPIS); data as of December 2017.
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 11 488-3800