Riyadh prioritises stability over headline growth

28 September 2023

MEED's October 2023 special report on Saudi Arabia also includes: 

> POLITICS: Saudi Arabia looks both east and west
> GIGAPROJECTSGigaproject activity enters full swing
> TRANSPORTInfrastructure projects support Riyadh’s logistics ambitions

> UPSTREAMAramco focuses on upstream capacity building
> DOWNSTREAMSaudi chemical and downstream projects in motion
> POWERRiyadh rides power projects surge
> WATERSaudi water projects momentum holds steady
> BANKSSaudi banks track more modest growth path
> SPORTSaudi Arabia’s football vision goes global
> JEDDAH TOWERJeddah developer restarts world’s tallest tower


As 2023 heads towards its final quarter, Saudi Arabia has elected to continue to pursue further voluntary Opec+ oil production cuts, supporting oil prices at the expense of its own immediate GDP growth.

On 5 September, Riyadh confirmed its intention to roll over its additional 1 million barrels a day (b/d) of production cuts until the end of the fourth quarter. Analysts had largely expected Saudi Arabia to extend the cuts with a view to further tightening oil markets, and the price of Brent crude broke the $90-a-barrel mark and reached its highest point in 10 months shortly after the cut extension was announced.

Despite the rise in prices, Saudi Arabia’s ongoing oil production restraint will ensure no improvement is likely to be made on its modest mid-year real GDP growth forecasts.

In July, the Washington-based IMF lowered its projection for Saudi Arabia’s economic growth to 1.9 per cent, down from an earlier forecast of 3.1 per cent in April – and compared to an 8.7 per cent growth figure for 2022, which saw oil reach highs of up to $124 a barrel and the kingdom’s first fiscal surplus in nearly a decade.

The country also entered a technical recession in the second quarter after its economy contracted for its second successive quarter in a row – shrinking by 0.1 per cent after a contraction of 1.4 per cent in the first quarter, according to estimates from the General Authority for Statistics (Gastat). This resulted in a slowing of year-on-year growth to 3.8 per cent in the first quarter and 1.1 per cent in the second.

There is now a risk that the Saudi economy could see an overall contraction for 2023. The further three months of production cuts will translate into a 9 per cent overall fall in production in 2023, the largest drop in 15 years, according to Khalij Economics.

Non-oil growth

Despite the disappointing headline GDP growth figures and projections, however, Saudi Arabia is maintaining a robust non-oil growth rate.

The non-oil economy is estimated to have grown 5.5 per cent year-on-year in the second quarter of 2023, according to Gastat, while oil sector growth declined by 4.2 per cent. Private sector growth for the quarter has been estimated to be even higher, at about 6.1 per cent.

At the same time, the Riyad Bank Saudi Arabia purchasing managers’ index (PMI) settled to an 11-month low of 56.6 in August 2023, down from 57.7 in July, reflecting a moderation of non-oil activity. It was the second stepdown in two months for the index from a multi-year high for new business in June.

The headline PMI figures remain deeply positive, however, with the index well above the 50 mark that delineates growth from contraction. 

The index also saw the rate of job creation pick up further in August amid sustained new business growth. This reflects a continuation of a job creation trend in the country that has seen unemployment fall from 9 per cent during the Covid-19 pandemic to 4.8 per cent at the end of 2022. Meanwhile, youth unemployment has been halved over the past two years to 16.8 per cent in 2022.

On the flipside, input cost inflation accelerated to its fastest rate in over a year due to a sharper uptick in purchase prices, though selling prices partially compensated for this by also rising. Business confidence nevertheless slid to the lowest level since June 2020 over concerns of rising market competition.

Project performance

The kingdom’s non-oil sector should continue to be well supported by Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure and project spending plans. These schemes remain affordable thanks to the kingdom’s broad financial reserves and buffers.

As of mid-September, Saudi Arabia’s project spending for 2023 had already all but matched that of 2022, with contract awards in the kingdom approaching the $57bn mark – last year’s figure – but with three and a half months still left to run. 

This is the third straight year with project awards of around $55bn or more. This is a 75 per cent increase in spending compared to the period from 2016 to 2020, which witnessed an average of only slightly more than $30bn in awards each year.

There is a further $50bn-worth of project work in bid evaluation and expected to be awarded this year. Even accommodating the possibility of delays for much of this work, the award of even a modest portion of this would make 2023 by far the strongest year on record for project awards in Saudi Arabia.

This heightened level of projects activity is as much due to above-average spending on oil and gas infrastructure, amid a spree of investment by Saudi Aramco in the optimisation of its core assets, as it is to the kingdom’s gigaproject programme

Oil and gas project awards alone have exceeded $21bn in 2023 to date and could readily be on track to beat the previous award high of $24.7bn seen in 2019.

It is the construction and transport sector that has the furthest to go to outdo itself in the last quarter of 2023. 

Awards in the sector to date have hit $24.6bn, whereas awards in 2022 reached $34.7bn – so there is a $10.1bn gap to bridge to beat last year’s performance. This is not unrealistic given the $14.2bn-worth of projects in the sector under bid evaluation, and especially given the backing of the Public Investment Fund for the kingdom’s gigaprojects and other Vision 2030 schemes.

Overall, the ongoing upsurge in projects activity should continue to prove supportive of the non-oil economy, regardless of either the vicissitudes of the oil price or Saudi Arabia’s moderation of its own oil production.

John Bambridge
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