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Saudi plans to create $2 trillion wealth fund in move away from oil

Kingdom will sell shares in state-run oil giant as part of new strategy to build the world's largest sovereign wealth fund in face of budget deficit
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed Bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed Bin Salman on a poster in Riyadh (AFP)

Saudi Arabia will create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund to ween its economy off oil in a race against falling prices.

To jump-start the strategy, the kingdom will sell shares in its state-run oil company, Saudi Aramco, and transform the company into an industrial conglomerate, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Bloomberg in an interview published on Friday.

An initial public offering, which the prince suggested might be in the works in January, could happen as soon as next year.

The public sale “will technically make investments the source of Saudi government revenue, not oil,” the second-in-line to the throne was quoted as saying.

"What is left now is to diversify investments. So within 20 years, we will be an economy or state that doesn't depend mainly on oil."

The Public Investment Fund (PIF) will eventually control more than $2 trillion in assets, the prince said, big enough to buy the world’s four largest publicly traded companies – Apple, Google, Microsoft and Berkshire Hathaway.

Five percent of the fund is currently invested in abroad, but by 2020, Saudi plans to increase the PIF’s foreign investments to 50 percent, according to fund’s secretary-general.

News of the prince’s strategy comes just months after the kingdom posted a record $98bn budget deficit – the highest in the country’s history - and projected an $87bn shortfall for this year.

In an unprecedented departure from its decades-old welfare system, Saudi authorities raised fuel, water and electricity prices in December and pledged to end wasteful budget spending.

Officials have also hinted that subsidy cuts and taxes could be on the way, and a "National Transformation Plan" is scheduled to be announced in May, Bloomberg reported.

In addition to bringing liquidity to the kingdom and the mega-fund in the making, taking Aramco public will also bring greater transparency to the company, a Saudi official suggested to the Financial Times when the idea was raised earlier this year.

In an interview with The Economist earlier this year, the prince said selling company shares would “counter corruption, if any, that may be circling around Aramco”.

The kingdom has taken other state-owned companies public in recent years, including Saudi Arabia Basic Industries Corporation, a chemical manufacturer, and Saudi Electricity, which are both traded on Tadawul, the Saudi stock exchange.

"It's an effort to redistribute some of the wealth," Andrew Hammond, a recent policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Middle East Eye of the strategy. "The interesting bit is the idea of opening up the accounts - the ruling family have always siphoned off a part of its revenues for themselves."

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