Experts agree Saudi Arabia is recovering nicely from the aftermath of the financial crisis ... but there are 'variables' that could affect the rate of recovery.
Saudi economy back on track
The Saudi economy is back, but not with a bang. The experts agree the kingdom is recovering nicely from the aftermath of the financial crisis two years ago, and looks ready to resume its role as the dynamo of regional economic growth.
But there are "variables" that could affect the rate of recovery and global perception of the Middle East's biggest but most enigmatic business centre.
A recent report from Banque Saudi Fransi (BSF) underlined the good news: business confidence is on the rise again. After a dip in the third quarter this year, largely because of worries about euro zone and sovereign debt fears, executives are more optimistic again.
The BSF index is back above the 100 base level and with all the important forward indicators on the rise it looks set to climb higher again next year.
As ever in Saudi, the motor for economic and financial growth is energy. The oil price averaged US$73 a barrel in the third quarter, confounding fears that it might fall below $65. Most Saudi executives now think prices will continue to rise, with the vast majority looking at between $75 and $85 a barrel in the next six months.
That has important implications for the national exchequer and for economic policy, but the immediate "feel good" factor is just as important. It encourages the banks to ease credit to the financial and commercial sectors, where they have been criticised in the past for an ultra-conservative approach that held back economic recovery.
The improvement is "gradual" but noticeable, says John Sfakianakis, the BSF chief economist who produced the report. "A third of respondents think bank lending will be good or excellent at the end of this year, which is in marked contrast to earlier forecasts," Mr Sfakianakis says.
Of most significance for the banking sector is the apparent end to the financial fallout from the Al Gosaibi affair.
One of the reasons credit was hard to find this year was the worry that the dispute between the business empires of the al Gosaibi family and the entrepreneur Maan al Sanea would cause a financial crisis for the country's banks, and fears that other trading groups could experience similar problems of over-leveraging.
With US$20 billion (Dh73.46bn) at stake for the global banking system, and an estimated $5bn of this for Saudi banks, the scope for serious damage was huge.
"The Saudi banks have all taken provisions above the normal rate in relation to [Ahmad Hamad Al Gosaibi and Brothers] and Saad [Mr al Sanea's master company], and now believe it's behind them," says Mr Sfakianakis. Although it is impossible to say precisely how much Saudi banks will take as a "hit" from the affair until we see detailed figures for the 2010 financial year, expected next spring, the damage looks containable.
How the foreign bank creditors involved in Al Gosaibi will fare is a different matter and could be one of the big "variables" mentioned above.
But for the moment, Saudi is basking in the bright prospects for the oil price. Anybody doubting how important energy is for the kingdom should look no further than the line in the BSF report that states: "This [the rise in oil prices] is promising for the state's fiscal revenues, more than 85 per cent of which are derived from oil exports, and should enable the kingdom to sustain foreign asset holdings at about 100 per cent of GDP while supporting an expansionary spending programme."
In other words, the Saudis have amassed enough petrodollars to sustain the economy through an era of current account budget deficit. That reserve is essential to fund recovery and finance the ambitious five-year economic plan for infrastructure investment and diversification.
This is a unique Middle East version of "quantitative easing". Whereas in the West quantitative easing is debt financing to stimulate economic recovery, in Saudi it is funded by petrodollar reserves - in other words, cold, hard cash.
All well and good so far, but then the "variables" begin to appear. The biggest is the oil price, of course, but as far as it is possible to forecast, prices look set on a steady upward trend.
The other possible negatives are inflation and the socio-demographic asymmetry that has long been a feature of Saudi society. The two are connected.
So far, inflation looks controllable. Mr Sfakianakis says it was about 5.9 per cent last month, comparatively high in regional terms, but with little prospect of an immediate rise. He thinks it will be about 5 per cent a year from now.
Two of the main elements of price inflation are food and housing, and it is here that the picture gets a little clouded.
Saudi's large, young and relatively impoverished lower classes want cheap food and affordable housing, but these demands have so far fallen outside the government's ability to deliver, even with all that oil wealth. It is the central enigma of the Saudi economic model.
Is it possible the Al Gosaibi affair will come back to bite the Saudi recovery? Perhaps. International banks, in for the lion's share of the $20bn hit, will want to see the matter resolved in an equitable fashion before they take part again in Saudi economic strategy.
For their part, the Saudis would rather have them on board but don't actually need them, as long as the oil price remains high. It's all in the hands of the Saudi authorities. How nice do they want to be?