DW: Saudi Arabia faces difficult decisions due to low oil prices

Low global crude prices have hit Saudi Arabia hard, commented Douglas-Westwood in its Aug. 24 edition of DW Monday. With a considerable budget deficit, Saudi Arabia has been forced to begin borrowing from capital markets – $4 billion in July.

The kingdom is highly reliant on oil – accounting for more than 90% of budget revenues. Cuts have not been made to capital expenditure, and DW notes that Saudi Arabia has engaged in an expensive conflict within Yemen. Consequently, the decision to ride out lower prices has put a huge strain on finances – the International Monetary Fund estimates that $50 oil will lead to a deficit of approximately $140 billion (20% of GDP) this year. Plugging holes in the budget with bond issues is the clearest sign yet that the kingdom is feeling the pinch, and the question is, how long can it continue?

At least for the time being, DW says that there seems to be room for more lending, with plans to raise $27 billion by year’s end. Debt levels have been dramatically reduced since the late 1990s when borrowing reached 100% of GDP (prior to July’s bond issue, debt was 1.6% of GDP). At present, liquidity does not seem to be a problem, with local banks easily absorbing bond issues. However, further borrowing into 2016 and beyond could prove problematic. Predicted rises in global interest rates over the coming years may make borrowing unattractive, forcing further withdrawals from the country’s foreign reserves. If current oil price trends continue, these reserves could fall to $200 billion by 2018 – 70% less than pre-crash levels.

Where does this leave the country? Maintenance of oil output has secured market share and proved devastating for US onshore drilling. However, with a “bathtub” shaped recovery a very real possibility, DW believes that Riyadh may be forced to make a number of difficult decisions regarding domestic subsidies and expenditure in order to reduce a potentially crippling budget deficit.

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