Saudi Arabia

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

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. As part of Vision 2030, the SAG targets increasing foreign investments in Saudi Arabia to $3 trillion. The government encourages investment in nearly all economic sectors, with priority given to chemicals, industrial, and manufacturing; transport and logistics; information and communication technology; healthcare and life sciences; water and waste management; energy; education; tourism, entertainment and sports; real estate; financial services; and mining and metals. In March 2021, the SAG announced it is seeking to attract $420 billion in foreign investments over the next 10 years in the infrastructure and transportation sectors alone.

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 guidance and a catalogue of current investment opportunities on its website (https://investsaudi.sa/en/sectors-opportunities/).

MISA promotes efforts to improve the Kingdom’s attractiveness as an investment destination: e-licenses to provide a more efficient and user-friendly process; an online “instant” license issuance or renewal service to foreign investors that are listed on a local or international stock market and meet certain conditions; a reduction in the license approval period from days to hours; a reduction in required customs documents; 100 percent foreign ownership in most sectors; a reduction in customs clearance period from weeks to hours; the launch of Saudi Center for Commercial Arbitration; and an increase in the investor license period to five years. MISA’s reforms appear to be yielding results: Saudi Arabia jumped 30 places to 62nd place in the 2020 World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report.

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 reopening cinemas in 2018, the SAG has hosted Formula E races, professional golf tournaments, a world heavyweight boxing title match, and a professional tennis tournament. Saudi Arabia launched the Saudi Seasons initiative in 2019 with tourism and cultural events in each of the 11 regions of the country. The Riyadh Season included first-ever car exhibition and auction in Riyadh, which attracted 350 U.S. exhibitors. Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority announced it plans to launch the second iteration of Saudi Seasons in November 2021 after a COVID pause.

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. These projects are large-scale and self-contained developments in different regions focusing on particular industries, e.g., technology, energy, logistics (airports, railways, ports, and warehouses), tourism, entertainment, and institutional (education; medical; government entities, post offices and fire stations; religious buildings, and dams and reservoirs). 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; and
  • NEOM, a $500 billion long-term development project to build a futuristic “independent economic zone” in northwest Saudi Arabia. In November 2020, the SAG announced The Line; a new, 100 mile-long, $100-$200 billion development at NEOM that will have no cars, no streets, and no carbon emissions. The project aims to create 380,000 jobs and contribute $48 billon to domestic GDP by 2030.

The long term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and sustained downturn in oil prices in 2020 on these giga-projects is not clear. While some companies working on the projects reported the ongoing availability of funding in 2020, others reported that budget cutbacks had begun to impact their operations.

In June 2020, the SAG approved a new mining investment law that aims to boost investments in the sector. The law will facilitate the establishment of a mining fund to provide sustainable finance, support geological survey and exploration programs, and optimize national mineral resources valued at $1.3 trillion. The law could increase the sector’s contribution to GDP by $64 billion, reduce imports by $9.8 billion, and create 200,000 direct and indirect jobs by 2030.

Structural impediments to foreign investment in Saudi Arabia remain.

Foreign investors must 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). The General Authority for Military Industries, for example, will require that all military procurements have fifty percent local content by 2030.

The SAG 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 increased the value-added tax (VAT) from five percent to 15 percent.

The SAG 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 increased the value-added tax (VAT) from five percent to 15 percent.

In February 2021, MISA and the Royal Commission for Riyadh City (RCRC) announced a new directive that companies that want to contract with the SAG must establish their regional headquarters in Saudi Arabia – preferably in Riyadh – by 2024. Companies that relocate their regional headquarters to Riyadh will receive tax breaks and other incentives. Saudi officials have confirmed that offices cannot be headquarters “in name only” but, rather, must be legitimate headquarters offices with C-level executive staff in Riyadh overseeing operations and staff in the rest of the region. Companies choosing to maintain their regional headquarters in another country will not be awarded public sector contracts – including contracts from Saudi Aramco – beginning in 2024.

Foreign investment is currently prohibited in 10 sectors on the Negative List, including:

  1. Oil exploration, drilling, and production;
  2. Catering to military sectors;
  3. Security and detective services;
  4. Real estate investment in the holy cities, Mecca and Medina;
  5. Tourist orientation and guidance services for religious tourism related to Hajj and umrah;
  6. Printing and publishing (subject to a variety of exceptions);
  7. Certain internationally classified commission agents;
  8. Services provided by midwives, nurses, physical therapy services, and quasi-doctoral services;
  9. Fisheries; and
  10. 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.

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 Saudi Aramco and/or the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) in large-scale petrochemical plants that utilize natural gas feedstock from Saudi Aramco’s operations. The Dow Chemical Company and Saudi Aramco are partners in the $20 billion Sadara joint venture with the world’s largest integrated petrochemical production complex.

Saudi Aramco also maintains several contractors under its Long-Term Agreement (LTA) group for a series of offshore jobs that include engineering, procurement, construction, and installation. LTA firms are prioritized for offshore contracts typically ranging between $100 to $800 million in value. Saudi Aramco also maintains a smaller group of contractors to provide hook-up, commissioning and maintenance, and modifications and operations jobs for its offshore oil and gas infrastructure. These refurbishment contracts are usually valued under $100 million and tendered exclusively to this smaller group.

With respect to other non-oil natural resources, Saudi Arabia’s mining sector continues to expand. With an estimated $1.3 trillion of mineral resources, the sector expects to have significant opportunities in exploration and development projects. Saudi Arabia’s mining sector laws were recently updated to allow foreign companies to enter the mining sector and invest in the Kingdom’s vast mining resources. Saudi Arabia’s 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 and 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 third WTO trade policy review in March 2021, which included investment policies ( https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp507_e.htm ).

Business Facilitation

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 Human Resources 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 about three weeks. The country placed at 38 of 190 countries for ease of starting a business, according to the World Bank (2020 rankings). Also, improved protections for minority investors helped Saudi Arabia tie for third place globally on that World Bank indicator.

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, which was amended in 2018 to update the language vis-à-vis Joint Stock Companies (JSC) and Limited Liability Companies (LLC). It also substantially reduced the minimum capital and number of shareholders required to form a JSC from five to two. Additionally, as of 2019, women no longer need a male guardian to apply for a business license.

Outward Investment

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 2020 and early 2021, the PIF made a number of new investments, including in Facebook, Starbucks, Disney, Boeing, Citigroup, LiveNation, Marriott, several European energy firms, Carnival Cruise Lines, Reliance Retail Ventures Limited (RRVL), and Hambro Perks Ltd’s Oryx Fund, but liquidated its position in many of these within a few months. Saudi Aramco and SABIC are also major investors in the United States. In 2017, Saudi 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.

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