SAUDI ARABIA is thinking about listing shares in Saudi Aramco, the state-owned company that is the world’s biggest oil producer and almost certainly the world’s most valuable company. Muhammad bin Salman, the kingdom’s deputy crown prince and power behind the throne of his father, King Salman, has told The Economist that a decision will be taken in the next few months. “Personally I’m enthusiastic about this step,” he said. “I believe it is in the interest of the Saudi market, and it is in the interest of Aramco.”
The potential listing comes as Saudi Arabia grapples with the damage wreaked on its economy by an oil-price collapse to below $35 a barrel, as well as mounting tensions with its arch-rival Iran, following the execution of Saudi cleric Nimr Baqr al-Nimr in early January. It is just one possible step in an ambitious plan to balance the budget and throw open the country’s closed economy.
Prince Muhammad made the remarks during his first on-the-record interview, on January 4th, in which he ranged broadly, from the geopolitics of the region, to his efforts to foster radical economic reform in Saudi Arabia.
The prince has held two high-level meetings recently on the possibility of floating Saudi Aramco shares. Officials say options under preliminary consideration range from listing some of its petrochemical and other “downstream” firms, to selling shares in the parent company, which includes the core business of producing crude.
Officials say Saudi Aramco is worth “trillions of dollars”, but it is one of the world’s most secretive oil companies and reveals no information on revenues and offers only limited information on its hydrocarbon reserves.
Prince Muhammad says that a listing would make the company more transparent. Diplomats say investors are already being sounded out. The talk is of first floating part of the company in Riyadh—perhaps 5%. In time that could rise, though the kingdom would continue to exercise control over the company.
The upstream part of the business would be most attractive to investors. At 261 billion barrels, Saudi Aramco’s stated hydrocarbon reserves are more than ten times those of ExxonMobil, the largest private oil company. Saudi Aramco is also one of the world’s lowest-cost oil producers, thanks to the ease of pumping oil in Saudi Arabia.
Speaking about Iran, Prince Muhammad defended Saudi Arabia’s decision to suspend diplomatic relations on January 3rd after its embassy was set ablaze in Tehran by crowds protesting against Mr Nimr’s execution. The prince denied that there was a risk of outright conflict. “A war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the beginning of a major catastrophe in the region,” he said. “…For sure, we will not allow any such thing.” However, on January 7th, Iran said that Saudi warplanes had attacked its embassy in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital.
Since Prince Muhammad became head of the defence ministry, and the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, just over a year ago, the country’s geopolitical swagger has been coupled with plans for sweeping economic change at home. These plans include gradually eliminating subsidies on electricity, water and housing; seeking private-sector provision in health care and education; introducing a 5% value-added tax on non-essential goods; and studying the complete or partial privatisation of over two dozen agencies, including the national airline and telecoms firm.
Asked if Saudi Arabia was undergoing a “Thatcherite revolution”, Prince Muhammad replied: “Most certainly.”
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