18.10.2015 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Saudi Arabia in Search of a New Course

455222111Saudi Arabia, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, is experiencing serious financial problems. The ongoing plummeting of oil prices is forcing the Saudis to be more careful with money. Tens of billions of dollars invested abroad are making a return to the kingdom. In July 2015, Saudi Arabia’s authorities, for the first time in 8 years, issued governmental bonds worth $4 bn.

Bloomberg reports that Saudi Arabia has already withdrawn $50-70 bn, which it had previously invested worldwide through management companies. It is noteworthy that the country has been withdrawing funds for the past six months. For example, Saudi Arabia’s SAMA Foreign Holdings reached its maximum in August 2014, having amounted to $737 bn. But since then, the fund has been shrinking because oil prices have dropped more than twice in this period. Saudi Arabia’s budget deficit is forecast to reach 20%; however, reduction of expenditures still remains a sensitive topic.

In the context of the continuous fall in oil prices, Riyadh has worked out a plan to gradually reduce public spending to cope with a sharp decrease in budget revenues caused by the slumping oil prices. For example, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Finance has issued an order prescribing all state companies to temporary stop hiring new employees and launching new projects until the end of the fiscal year. In addition, the government procurement of new cars and furniture has also been put on hold as well as the signing and approval of new lease agreements for state institutions and enterprises. The expropriation of plots of land for the purpose of the subsequent extraction of oil has also been suspended throughout the country. The Ministry of Finance has, at the same time, demanded an acceleration in the collection procedure of oil revenues.

“To prove that the country indeed has a sound fiscal discipline, the government has to take steps to cut expenditures in the 4th quarter. Subsequently Saudi Arabia will be compelled to find new ways to reduce expenditures and boost efficiency in order to assure there will be no budget deficit in 2016,” John Sfakianakis, Director of the Middle East Division of the Ashmore Group, said in his interview to Bloomberg.

It should be pointed out in that regard that oil revenues comprise about 90% of Saudi Arabia’s budget, and the landslide of oil prices of over 40% within the last 12 months adversely affected the country’s financial standing. And, although the kingdom’s debt burden remains one of the lowest in the world (less than 2% of the GDP), the kingdom’s international assets have been consistently shrinking for the last nine months and reached a two year minimum. This situation directly influences the policy of OPEC since Saudi Arabia (which extracts almost 30% of the OPEC’s oil, positions itself as an extremely influential raw material supplier, maintains powerful military forces, and has its own global ambitions, immense resources and substantial diplomatic experience) de facto plays the role of the shadow leader of this organization. At times siding with the US, and then pursuing its own interests, the kingdom has assumed such an influential position in the international community that other countries revere its opinion, and as for the last oil crisis, Saudi Arabia is seen as its key player.

Nevertheless, competing for its share on the global oil market, Saudi Arabia continuously lowers oil prices. For example, according toThe Wall Street Journal, the price of oil supplied to Asia, which was quoted on the price-list of the state owned company Saudi Aramco sent to its foreign buyers, was reduced by $1.7 per barrel in September and October. Thus, the discount on Saudi oil will now amount to $1.6 in comparison to the prices of oil supplied by Dubai, although previously the situation was just the opposite, because in the past Saudis would ask for a 10 cent mark up for that grade of oil. The Saudi company has also decreased its price for heavy oil by $2 for its Far Eastern buyers and by 30 cents for US consumers. Saudi Arabia is cutting prices on the oil it will be delivering to Asia and the US in the coming November. The biggest Saudi Arabian oil company Saudi Aramco has announced a $3.20 price drop. Apparently, it has to do with the fact that Russia has boosted its output to a record high since the collapse of the USSR at 10.74 million barrels per day, having increased oil extraction by 0.4% in comparison to last August.

It is a well-known fact that the state of the country’s economy and its financial standing determine the country’s foreign policy. And how exactly has the oil price and revenues drop affected Riyadh’s foreign policy? Two problems—an unprovoked war in Yemen and the substantial financial support of terrorists in Syria—must be considered here. It is quite understandable that both these problems represent an additional financial burden for the Saudi’s budget and force the Saudi leadership to look for new ways to resolve these issues. They may have been enjoying a certain degree of lull in fighting in Yemen recently, but the same cannot be said of the situation in Syria.

And, based on the information provided by the international mass media, the Saudi leadership has split in their opinion on whether to continue funding Syria or to begin reducing their financial commitment. “Riyadh is facing a choice: to give more support to the moderate opposition or to look for a compromise,” an American expert on national security, James Farvell, wrote in The National Interest. The expert explained that if Saudis offer more support, that would trigger a confrontation with Russia, but if they side with Moscow, Russia’s regional influence might be reinforced and that might, in turn, challenge Saudi Arabia’s interests.

Because of this dilemma, controversial information regarding Saudi’s decisions are appearing in the press. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia was one of the first to condemn Russia after the beginning of the Russian military operation in Syria on September 30. It accused Russia of bombing the troops of moderate opposition instead of ISIS. “These attacks resulted in the deaths of numerous innocent victims. We call for a stop it immediately,” demagogically and groundlessly said the representative of Saudi Arabia Abdallah al-Muallimi in the UN. Simultaneously 53 religious leaders signed an online appeal to support a jihad against the Syrian authorities as well as the presence of Russia and Iran in this country. They appealed to the countries of the Muslim world to render “moral, financial, military and political support to those who are called the ‘holy warriors of Syria’.” The authors of the appeal explicitly stated that if they fail, the other Sunni states in the region, and, first of all, Saudi Arabia will be the next victims.

With reference to a high-ranking Saudi official who wished to remain anonymous, the BBC stated that armed groups of the so-called moderate opposition would receive new, high-tech weapons, including tank destroyers. Jaish al-Fath, The Free Syrian Army and The Southern Front moderate opposition groups will also receive support. According to the source, it is quite likely that the “moderate opposition” in Syria will receive surface-to-air systems as well. Keeping in mind that Russia is carrying out air strikes across not only the facilities of ISIS, but also the above listed groups, a scenario when Saudis turn their weapon against Russian aviation is quite possible.

On the other hand, a curious document, apparently a copy of the instructions issued for the embassies of Saudi Arabia in the Middle Eastern countries, has been uploaded to the Internet. The main idea of the documents is that all the diplomatic representative offices should gradually cease financial support of the armed Syrian opposition, apparently owing to the low efficiency of militants’ activities. The authenticity of the document raises certain doubts, as is always the case with such documents. However, specialists in the Arabic language concluded that the text was written by a native speaker, and that the document’s design conforms to the style adopted in Saudi Arabia. It shouldn’t be ruled out that the drying up of the source of funding, that militants used to receive from the Saudis, against the backdrop of a certain degree of success of the government troops as well as the increasing military and technical assistance to Syria on the part of Russia, have convinced many “oppositionists” to surrender and change masters. This process is expected to only accelerate in the future.

On Sunday, October 11, the Defense Minister, Mohammed bin Salman, visited Sochi. The search for common ground on the issues related to the situation in Syria was the main theme of the meeting held by the son of the Saudi king and Vladimir Putin. The parties also discussed the prospects of their economic cooperation. And, since Saudi Arabia is currently experiencing certain financial difficulties and is in the “clutches” of economic uncertainty, this topic was of a special interest.

It was the second visit to the Russian Federation of the Saudi prince, who currently carries out sensitive missions related to the complex relations between the two countries. It should be noted that King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has been admitted to hospital in a critical condition and is currently being kept in the intensive care unit of the King Faisal royal hospital in Riyadh.

Victor Mikhin, Corresponding Member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”

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