Business Outlook: Saudi Market and Investors

A trader monitors screens displaying stock information at the Saudi Stock Exchange (Tadawul) in Riyadh. The chief executive of Saudi Arabia's stock exchange said he expected a flurry of licenses allowing the first foreign investors to buy shares there in coming weeks.

The Saudi market can attract more foreign investors if it eliminates restrictions

BY Ahmad Khatib

Stock markets around the world crashed in 2008 and billions of dollars were lost, but most of the world’s major indices found a way to recover. Some of them recorded historic levels later on, and many have repeated that exceptional performance so far in 2016.

The Saudi stock market was one of the exceptions to the norm, never showing signs of complete recovery.

Despite several amendments to existing Saudi market’s regulations and the reshuffle of leadership across its governing bodies, the public’s confidence in the market is yet to be restored.

For several years, the Saudi stock market’s losses were seen as a social matter rather than a business or economic priority.
Thousands signed petitions requesting the highest authorities in the Kingdom to interfere and return the money to those who lost it because of companies which faced difficulties immediately after they were listed on the exchange.

Meanwhile, the Capital Markets Authority (CMA) in the Kingdom was slowly introducing reforms aimed at improving the transparency and efficiency of the market.

Scandals were uncovered and penalties were announced against individuals and corporations. Despite having announced its strategic vision and plans over the past period, the CMA had a new challenge at hand.

As Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 was declared earlier this year, there was an implicit mandate for the CMA: prepare the market to attract foreign investors, and above all, get ready for the listing of Saudi Arabia’s oil giant Aramco, in what is expected to be the listing of the world’s largest company.

Although foreigners have been allowed to invest in the Saudi market in the past, the restrictions have been abundant.
Even though several international institutions applied for a license, the requirements were unattainable.
And despite more lax conditions in May, CMA’s new regulations concerning foreign investors remain relatively cautious.

However, it appears that the new decree in the Kingdom and the announcement of Vision 2030 have expedited a lot of reforms in the market and more are expected to be announced later this year.

Another important and long awaited move, which was also announced this year, is the planned restructuring of the company operating the Saudi stock market prior to listing it on the exchange as well.

Many see this step as part of the privatization plans announced in the Kingdom’s new vision, yet it remains a transparency requirement to list the biggest company in the world and attract top tier investors from around the globe.

Fund managers around the world have been following the developments in the Saudi market for many years.
When foreign investors were welcomed to the market, only a very small percentage of liquidity came from them.
Many of these fund managers believe the restrictions will be further eased in the future, but that is not what matters at the moment.

Investors look for value and that still does not seem to be in place for them. A value proposition would include companies, businesses, regulations and the market environment.

The CMA’s plans along with those of other Saudi authorities seem to be very ambitious and need much more time to be implemented.

The Saudi Index is yet to receive the nod on an upgrade and inclusion in the ‘MSCI Emerging Markets Index’ alongside other regional markets such as the UAE and Qatar, who were included in the MSCI Index back in 2013.

It is worth noting that as the Saudi objectives need a quicker pace and less bureaucracy, the studies needed for upgrading the market—and the reviews of new supporting products—take a long time before they get approved and implemented.

Achieving that value proposition is the main factor in delivering on the big objectives, and in order to provide foreign investors with their needs in a very short time, the decision makers should act without the conservative approach they are used to.

Governing bodies of stock markets in the Arab region have already taken steps ahead and some have established specialized exchanges that are attracting investors to them.

The largest stock exchange in the region would have a better chance of becoming the leading regional market for foreign investors, only if it does not try to reinvent the wheel.

Ahmad Khatib is the Chief Executive Officer at the financial services group Amana Capital.


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