In 2020, the Saudi Arabian government (SAG) continued its ambitious socio-economic reforms, collectively known as “Vision 2030.” Spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Vision 2030 provides a roadmap for the development of new economic sectors, including tourism and entertainment, and for a significant transformation toward a digital, knowledge-based economy. The reforms are aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy away from its reliance on oil and creating more private sector jobs for a young and growing population.
To help accomplish these goals, the Saudi Arabian government (SAG) took additional steps in 2020 to improve the Kingdom’s investment climate, attract increased foreign investment, and encourage greater domestic and international private sector participation in its economy. To accelerate development and facilitate investment, the SAG elevated two Saudi authorities to full ministries in 2020: the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority became the Ministry of Investment, and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage became the Ministry of Tourism. On March 30, 2021, the SAG also announced the new Shareek program, an initiative designed to generate $3.2 trillion of domestic investment from the SAG, the sovereign wealth Public Investment Fund, and the private sector into Saudi Arabia’s economic development.
The Saudi Arabian government and its new stand-alone intellectual property rights (IPR) agency, the Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property (SAIP), have taken important steps since 2018 to improve IPR protection, enforcement, and awareness. In 2020, SAIP continued its inspection campaigns and seized millions of items that violated IPR protection. However, despite making measurable progress, the continued lack of effective protection of IPR in the pharmaceutical sector remains a significant concern. Several U.S. and international pharmaceutical companies allege the SAG violated their IPR and the confidentiality of 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, while 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.
Infrastructure development remains a priority component of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 aspiration 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 country seeks to increase interconnectivity and economic integration with other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Improvements to transportation, such as the $23 billion Riyadh metro, are intended to support this plan. In addition, Saudi Arabia continues to create and expand “economic cities” – including plans for special economic zones – throughout the Kingdom as hubs for petrochemicals, mining, logistics, manufacturing, and digital industries. The Kingdom also continued its early-stage work on infrastructure for NEOM, a futuristic city in northwest Saudi Arabia that Saudi officials have said will cost $500 billion to develop.
Saudi Arabia is launching an $800 billion project to double the size of Riyadh city in the next decade and transform it into an economic, social, and cultural hub for the region. The project includes 18 “mega-projects” in the capital city to improve livability, strengthen economic growth, and more than double the population to 15-20 million by 2030. The SAG is seeking private sector financing of $250 billion for these projects with similar contributions from income generated by its financial, tourism, and entertainment sectors. While specific details of a new initiative announced in February 2021 to attract multinational companies’ regional headquarters offices to Saudi Arabia have not been finalized, senior SAG officials have said publicly that beginning in 2024, government contracts will only be awarded to companies whose regional headquarters are located in the Kingdom. “Saudization” polices requiring certain businesses to employ a quota of Saudi workers have led to disruptions in some private sector activities.
In recognition of the progress made in its investment and business climate, Saudi Arabia’s rankings on several world indexes improved between 2019 and 2021. The country jumped 13 places on the IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook 2019, the biggest gain of any country surveyed, and increased two more spots in 2020 to 24th place, supported by improvements to government and business efficiency. 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. World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Competitiveness Report Special Edition ranked Saudi Arabia among the top 10 countries in the world for digital skills. The report attributed this progress to a number of factors including the adoption of information and communication technology, flexible work arrangements, national digital skills, and the legal digital framework.
On the social front, the removal of guardianship laws and travel restrictions for adult women, the introduction of workplace protections, and recent judicial reforms that provide additional protection have enabled more women to enter the labor force. From 2016 to 2020, the Saudi female labor participation rate increased from 19 percent to 33 percent.
Development of the Saudi tourism sector is also a priority under Vision 2030, with plans to develop tourist attractions that meet the highest international standards and develop potential UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In addition to introducing a new tourism visa in 2019 for non-religious travelers, the SAG no longer requires that foreign travelers staying in the same hotel room provide proof of marriage or family relations. Construction of several multi-billion dollar giga-projects focused on tourism, including Qiddiya, the Red Sea Project, and Amaala, continue to progress. The SAG is seeking private investments through its Tourist Investment Fund, which has initial capital of $4 billion, and the Kafalah program, which provides loan guarantees of up to $400 million. In addition, the Tourism Fund signed MOUs with local banks to finance projects valued up to $40 billion in an effort to stimulate tourism investment and increase the sector’s contribution to GDP. Due to the global pandemic, the SAG paused its Saudi Seasons initiative comprised of 11 annual tourism ‘seasons’ held in each region of the country, but has announced the program will resume in November 2021.
The Saudi entertainment and sporting events sector is growing rapidly. AMC, Vox, and other cinema companies continue to develop hundreds of movie theaters. The SAG is seeking to sign agreements for film production studios in Saudi Arabia for end-to-end film production. Saudi film festivals, like the Red Sea Film Festival, are being developed to meet the SAG’s Vision 2030 Quality of Life objectives. The SAG has also hosted several world class sporting events including the European Tour, Diriyah ePrix, Dakar Rally, Saudi Formula One Grand Prix, Diriyah Tennis Cup, WWE Crown Jewel, and Supercoppa. In addition, several festivals and concerts have demonstrated strong demand for a variety of art and culture content.
Investor concerns persist, however, over the rule of law, business predictability, and political risk. Although some have recently been released, the continued detention and prosecution of activists, including prominent women’s rights activists, remains a significant concern, while there has been little progress on fundamental freedoms of speech and religion. Pressure on Saudi Arabia’s fiscal situation from the sharp downturn in oil prices and demand in 2020, as well as the unexpected spending needed to respond to COVID-19, will likely dampen some of the SAG’s ambitious plans. Despite budget cuts imposed in 2020 and the possibility that further spending reductions may be forthcoming, companies working on the SAG’s giga-projects reported the ongoing availability of funding in 2020. Revenues generated by the tripling of Saudi Arabia’s value-added tax rate from 5 to 15 percent in July 2020 have helped ease fiscal stress.
The pressure 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 going forward. 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.
Finally, while some U.S. companies, including those with significant experience in Saudi Arabia, continue to experience payment delays for SAG contracts, many were paid in full from late 2020 through the beginning of 2021. The SAG has committed to speed up its internal payment process and pay companies in a timely manner.
|TI Corruption Perceptions Index||2020||52 of 180||http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview|
|World Bank’s Doing Business Report||2020||62 of 190||http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings|
|Global Innovation Index||2020||66 of 131||https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator|
|U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions)||2019||$10,826||https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/|
|World Bank GNI per capita||2019||$22,840||http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD|