Saudi Arabia has thrown investors a curve ball.
King Salman’s move to arrest a string of high-profile nationals, from ministers to princes, has left some encouraged by the authorities’ willingness to take on corruption. Yet, they’re also worried about who might be next.
“This is all new in Saudi Arabia, and the market doesn’t know how it will all end,” said Tariq Qaqish, managing director of the asset-management division at Mena Corp. Financial Services Llc. in Dubai. “We will see a shift in terms of sentiment, especially among foreign investors. For local and GCC investors, they will probably be on the sidelines until they understand how this latest move will play out.”
In less than 24 hours, dozens of high-profile Saudis were arrested, the government intercepted a ballistic missile Yemeni Houthi fired at Riyadh’s international airport, and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri unexpectedly resigned in a televised speech from the kingdom. They’re signs of the changing times in Saudi Arabia.
The charges against those detained aren’t public, creating even more uncertainty in a market that’s already considered opaque. The kingdom’s attorney general said that “during the investigation, all parties retain full legal privileges relating to their personal and private property, including funds.”
The government is giving the entire nation a makeover, from allowing women to drive to the construction of a new business hub on the Red Sea. The overhaul was kick-started by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has bypassed senior royals to become the kingdom’s predominant leader, after a plunge in crude prices strained Saudi Arabia’s finances, and forced the energy-rich nation to confront the realities of life after oil.
Since then, the kingdom has allowed foreigners to trade Saudi stocks directly and shifted the bourse’s settlement cycle to T+2, among other changes. But total foreign ownership has lingered below 5 percent of the value of shares on the exchange. The Tadawul All Share Index has declined 3.2 percent this year, compared with MSCI Emerging Markets Index’s 30 percent advance.
The centerpiece of the crown prince’s “Vision 2030” reform plan, intended to diversify the kingdom’s economy and invest more heavily in infrastructure, is oil giant Aramco’s initial public offering, which could be the world’s largest.
The crackdown “is the latest act of concentration of power in Saudi,” said Hasnain Malik, the global head of equity research at Exotix Capital. “As unprecedented and controversial as it may be, this centralization might also be a necessary condition for pushing the austerity and transformation agenda, the benefits of which very few investors are pricing in.”
Among those arrested is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the billionaire with stakes in companies, such as Citigroup Inc. and Twitter Inc. Ranked the world’s 50th richest person with a net worth of about $19 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, Alwaleed is the founder of Kingdom Holding Co., a Riyadh-based investment firm.
Kingdom Holding’s shares fell as much as 9.9 percent last Sunday in the Saudi capital, bringing its losses for the year to 21 percent.
“People that were untouchable aren’t anymore,” said Joice Mathew, the head of equity research at United Securities in Muscat. “Locals might think twice before bringing money in the stock market. People will refrain for making new positions, and be very vigilant and careful.”
While Saudi stocks on Sunday fell as much as 2.2 percent, they recovered to advance 0.3 percent at the close. “The index could be getting support from the government—the Public Investment Fund could be in the market buying,” Mathew said.