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Cars from Saudi Arabia line the Walk in Jumeirah Beach Residence. Pawan Singh / The National
Cars from Saudi Arabia line the Walk in Jumeirah Beach Residence. Pawan Singh / The National

Merchants of Dubai enriched by Saudi spending power

In a political sense, it may be true that Saudi Arabia is at a crossroads. But the only crossroads at which Frank Kane has noticed Saudis increasingly over the past year has been the one outside the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai's swanky Jumeirah area.

Much of the recent serious coverage of Saudi Arabia - I'm thinking particularly of long think-pieces in the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal - has been in the "at a crossroads" style of journalism.

Venerable commentators pointed to the multiple geo-political challenges facing the kingdom, such as the fall-out from the Arab Spring, the ongoing regional tension over the Iranian nuclear programme, the possible repercussions of the Syrian revolt and perennial questions of the ruling succession.

They concluded the kingdom was at a decisive junction in its 80-year history.

In a political sense, that may indeed be true. But the onlycrossroads at which I've noticed Saudis increasingly over the past year has been the one outside the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai's swanky Jumeirah area, home to the big Madinat leisure complex as well as the so-called "seven-star hotel".

Saudi-registered cars often flood the area, with KSA plates outnumbering the Dubai and Abu Dhabi ones, especially over the weekends. The cars themselves are big, powerful enough to make the trip from Riyadh, Damman or Al Khobar and often packed with a whole family obviously enjoying a Dubai holiday.

It's been a growing trend over the past year but especially noticeable at the recent Eid Al Fitr holiday. Saudis appear to have lots of money to blow and are not shy to be seen to be blowing it.

A big reason for the new burst in Saudi "conspicuous consumption" came in a recent paper from CBRE, a property-focused research firm. CBRE's experts calculated per capita GDP in the kingdom rose by 25 per cent last year.

That is a big increase in Saudi spending power in a short period. Citizens of the oil-rich kingdom have long had the reputation for fabulous wealth, of course, but with such a large population and a stratified society there always was a class of middle and lower-income earners who fell well outside the "super-rich" bracket and who had to count the riyals each month.

Now, it seems, general living standards are improving dramatically across all classes in Saudi Arabia.

There are a couple of obvious reasons for this. Oil prices are at historically high levels, well above the US$100 per barrel mark for Brent. Some experts believe they will fall below that level by the end of the year but there is no evidence yet of it happening.

The other big reason is the huge amount of public spending injected into the Saudi economy as a reaction to the Arab Spring disturbances. Some eastern parts of the country were directly affected by this but the reaction of the authorities was to swamp the whole country in cash, with a stimulus amounting to $130 billion (Dh477.48bn) over a three-year period.

That amount was earmarked for higher public-sector salaries, housing and other subsidies and infrastructure investment and surely is the main reason behind the dramatic increase in the spending power of individual Saudis.

And Saudi consumers are not just spending their new riyals on trips to Dubai. The kingdom is in the midst of a domestic consumer spree. Point-of-sale transactions were up 18 per cent in July over the same month last year, and domestic credit was at a 40-month high, growing 14 per cent over the year, according to recent figures from HSBC.

Along with the rest of the world, Saudi is having trouble exporting non-oil products, as last month's purchasing managers' index (PMI) showed. But domestic demand was more than enough last month to make up for this external shortfall and the PMI, in sharp contrast to most other developed and emerging markets, was firmly in positive territory.

With GDP growth forecast at 6 per cent this year and inflation still at a manageable 5 per cent, things are looking good for the Saudi economy and its consumers.

That, in turn, is also good news for the merchants, hoteliers and retailers of the Madinat Jumeriah.

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