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Saudi Budget: How Khashoggi murder, oil pinch are eating into its revenues

The pre-budget announcement projected revenue at 978 billion riyals in 2019

Alaa Shahine | Bloomberg 

Saudi Arabia's crown prince

As Saudi Arabia’s rulers were finalizing their spending plans for 2019, two dramas were unfolding -- and pulling them in opposite directions.

The budget, due out on Tuesday, is an event that’s gained in importance since the kingdom began a push to reduce its reliance on exports. A preliminary version was released in September.

Since then, there’s been an explosion of outrage over the Oct. 2 murder of columnist and regime critic by Saudi government agents. That’s led some analysts to speculate that top officials may seek to rally domestic support -- by taking steps to stimulate the At the same time, prices have plunged almost 30 percent in the past three months, eating into Saudi revenues.

Here’s an overview of what to look out for:

Energy Subsidies

In its September pre-budget statement, the Finance Ministry committed to continue raising domestic energy prices to increase non-revenue. The increases not only affect business costs but could also upset consumers long used to state subsidies.

“It will be all about the pace,” said Monica Malik, chief economist at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank. “They will want to show that it’s a balance between supporting growth and having a fiscal adjustment.”

Expat Levy

Bloomberg News reported this month that the government is reviewing the fees it imposed on expatriate workers after rising costs inflicted economic pain and contributed to an exodus of

One of four people familiar with the matter who commented said that while the fees are unlikely to be scrapped altogether, authorities might modify or restructure them. Awwad Alawwad, the Saudi media minister, denied the fees are being reconsidered.

Cost of Living Allowance

In January 2018, King Salman ordered a one-year package of handouts for citizens hurt by fuel price rises and new value-added taxes. Officials at the time said the measures would cost the government more than 50 billion riyals ($13.3 billion).

Economists will be looking closely at whether the government allows the package to expire or incorporates it into 2019 spending. The Monetary Fund expects the budget deficit to narrow to below 2 percent of GDP next year.

That forecast is based in part on the royal allowances not being renewed, the IMF said in August.

The political fallout from the killing of Khashoggi “will probably sway the government to opt for higher spending,” according to Ziad Daoud, chief Middle East economist at Bloomberg Economics, who predicts a 7.4 percent jump from 2018. The turmoil “is unlikely to derail Saudi Arabia’s attempts to issue debt externally,” he said.

Revenue Challenge

The pre-budget announcement projected revenue at 978 billion riyals in 2019. The recent drop in oil prices makes that outlook “challenging,” Malik said. A drop in revenue could make it trickier for the government to shrink its deficit.

Brent crude prices have tumbled almost 30 percent since the killing of Khashoggi amid mounting pressure from U. S. President Donald Trump on the Saudi-led OPEC grouping to lower prices.

Non-oil revenue also matters. The Finance Ministry said in September that companies with sales exceeding 375,000 riyals a year will have to register for value-added taxation. The threshold in 2018 was one million riyals.

Here are some other key figures from the pre-budget document:

— The budget deficit is expected to narrow to 4.1 percent of gross domestic product versus 5 percent in 2018

— Public debt is projected to increase to 25 percent of GDP from 20 percent in 2018 — The is expected to expand 2.3 percent, compared with 2.1 percent

First Published: Tue, December 18 2018. 06:49 IST