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
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: . 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.
13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics
* 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.