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 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 is progressively liberalizing 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 scrupulous about 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 – i.e., 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 take a long period of time. 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 of the case. 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 improving 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 firms both domestic and international. 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. While Saudi Arabia adopted this law in 2012, UNCITRAL did not consider it as a model law jurisdiction due to the SAG’s reference to sharia’s supremacy over UNCITRAL-adopted provisions. After discussions between UNCITRAL representatives and Saudi judges, during which the Saudi judges clarified that sharia would not affect the enforcement of foreign arbitral awards, UNCITRAL added Saudi Arabia to the list of model law jurisdictions. 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 will also monitor the Kingdom’s obligations under international trade agreements and treaties, negotiate and enter into new international commercial and investment agreements, and represent the Kingdom before the World Trade Organization. The Governor of the Foreign Trade General Authority will report to the Minister of Commerce and Investment.
Until the FTGA becomes operational (possibly later in 2019), MCI and SAGIA remain the primary Saudi government entities responsible for formulating policies regarding investment activities, proposing plans and regulations to enhance the investment climate in the country, and evaluating and licensing investment proposals.
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 (USD 8 million), depending on the sector and the type of investment.
SAGIA 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 SAGIA, it must grant or refuse a license within five days of receiving an application and supporting documentation from a prospective investor. SAGIA has established and posted on-line its licensing guidelines, but many companies looking to invest in Saudi Arabia continue to work with local representation to navigate the bureaucratic licensing process.
SAGIA 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. SAGIA 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 SAGIA’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 Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage.
An important SAGIA objective is to ensure that investors do not just acquire and hold licenses without investing, and SAGIA sometimes cancels licenses of foreign investors that it deems do not contribute sufficiently to the local economy. SAGIA’s periodic license reviews, with the possibility of cancellation, add uncertainty for investors and can provide a disincentive to longer-term investment commitments.
SAGIA has agreements with various SAG agencies and ministries to facilitate and streamline foreign investment. These agreements permit SAGIA to facilitate the granting of visas, establish SAGIA 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, SAGIA 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 SAGIA 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
SAGIA and the Ministry of Commerce and Investment review transactions for competition-related concerns. Concerns have arisen that allegations of price fixing for certain products, including infant nutrition products, may have been used on occasion as a pretext to control prices. The Ministry of Commerce and Investment 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.
Potential investors should note that the “Resolving Insolvency” indicator most negatively affects Saudi Arabia’s World Bank “Doing Business” ranking.
However, in February 2018, the SAG announced the approval of new bankruptcy legislation, which became effective in August 2018. According to the SAG, the new bankruptcy law 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.