Saudi economy shows signs of weakness

3 August 2023


The Saudi economy is showing signs of weakness as negative growth in the oil economy overshadows the positive growth registered by the non-oil economy.

On 31 July, London-based Capital Economics said the Saudi economy was now technically in recession after the kingdom's General Authority for Statistics (Gastat) confirmed that the economy contracted during the second quarter of this year with the publication of its GDP Flash Estimates.

The estimates show that the Saudi economy contracted by 0.1 per cent during the second quarter of this year compared to the first quarter. Real GDP declined by 1.4 per cent in the first quarter compared to the fourth quarter of 2022.

The statistics look more encouraging on an annual basis. Real GDP increased by 1.1 per cent during the second quarter of 2023 compared to the same period in 2022. The non-oil economy grew by 5.5 per cent in the second quarter compared to the same period last year, while the oil economy decreased by 4.2 per cent compared to the previous year. During the first quarter of this year, growth was 3.8 per cent compared to the first quarter of 2022. 

Projects performance

The projects market has also performed strongly during the first half of the year. According to regional projects tracker MEED Projects, $42bn of deals were signed, the most on record. The previous high was the $28bn awarded during the first half of 2014.

Capital Economics said the technical recession was mainly due to reductions in oil production, despite the non-oil economy maintaining strong growth. The oil economy contracted by 1.4 per cent during the second quarter on a quarter-on-quarter basis, while the non-oil economy increased by 2 per cent.

Looking to the future, Saudi Arabia has adopted even more stringent cuts to its oil production in the third quarter, with an additional voluntary reduction of one million barrels a day in July and August.

Capital Economics expects this to counter further strength in the non-oil sector, leading to an anticipated contraction in GDP of about 3 per cent quarter-on-quarter in the third quarter. It also says there is a growing possibility that the upcoming Opec+’s Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee meeting will result in the kingdom announcing the extension of this voluntary cut until at least the end of September.

If this occurs, the economy is expected to shrink by about 0.5 per cent over 2023. Excluding the global financial crisis and pandemic, this would mark the poorest GDP performance in over two decades.

IMF downgrade

The economic data for the second quarter was released shortly after the Washington-based IMF downgraded its real GDP growth projection for Saudi Arabia in 2023 to 1.9 per cent in its latest World Economic Outlook update.

The fund had in April anticipated a growth rate of 3.1 per cent for the year, adjusting this forecast to 2.1 per cent in June due to global macroeconomic concerns and uncertainties in oil demand.

The downward revision in Saudi Arabia’s growth forecast has broader implications for the wider Middle East region, which the IMF now expects to grow by 2.6 per cent in 2023, down from 3.1 per cent in its April forecast.

The slump in Saudi Arabia’s economic output contrasts strongly with its performance in 2022, when its growth was gauged at 8.7 per cent by the IMF, driven by a boost in oil revenue amid high energy prices. The kingdom also achieved its first budget surplus in almost a decade.

The signs of weakness in the Saudi economy coincide with reports of losses for the Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is driving much of the development of the non-oil economy in the kingdom. According to a report by Bloomberg, it made an investment activity loss of about $11bn in 2022, in sharp contrast to the $19bn profit reported the previous year. Despite the loss on investment activity made last year, PIF’s total assets grew from $676bn to about $778bn in 2022.

The PIF and its subsidiary companies are leading the development of a wide range of projects in the kingdom, including five official gigaproject developers. They are Neom, Red Sea Global, Roshn, Qiddiya and Diriyah.

Debt markets

The investment losses and the ramp-up of spending on domestic projects mean the PIF is likely to raise more debt. According to another report by Bloomberg, the fund has hired banks for a debut Islamic dollar bond sale to help finance its global spending plans. The fund could raise about $3bn, although the final size of the sukuk could be bigger depending on investor demand. It has mandated HSBC, Standard Chartered, Emirates NBD Bank and Al-Rajhi Capital for the offering.

As of the end of 2022, the fund’s borrowings amounted to $85bn. Earlier this year, it secured $5.5bn with a three-tranche green bond sale.
Colin Foreman
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