Saudis Get That 1998 Feeling as Lower Oil Price Threatens Wealth

(Bloomberg Business) -- The oil price was near its lowest in more than a decade, cash reserves were being depleted, emerging markets were in turmoil and Saudi Arabia was beginning to panic.

“It was a very scary moment,” said Khalid Alsweilem, former head of investment at the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency, the country’s central bank. “And luckily at that point, oil prices started going up. Not by design, by good luck.”

That was 1998, and now Saudi Arabia’s fortunes threaten to turn again. This time, luck might not be enough as the government tries to protect the wealth of a nation whose economy has swelled by five times since then. The bastion of conservative Sunni Islam also is paying for an expanding role in regional conflicts in the face of a resurgent Iran and Islamic State extremists who have bombed Saudi mosques.

Economists are predicting a budget deficit of as much as 20 percent of gross domestic product and the International Monetary Fund forecasts a first Saudi current-account deficit in more than a decade. Reserves at the central bank tumbled 10 percent from a year ago, or by more than $70 billion.

As a result, bets on the devaluation of the riyal are surging. The Tadawul All Share Index lost 18 percent in the past three months and dragged stocks down across the Gulf region. The benchmark’s moving averages made a so-called death cross on Aug. 18, a sign to some investors that more losses are ahead.Patient Saudis

The Saudis have “played a waiting game,” Robert Burgess, Deutsche Bank AG’s chief economist for emerging markets in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said from London. “The budget for next year is going to be a very important milestone that the markets are going to be focusing on quite intently.”

With oil prices down by more than half over the past 12 months to below $50, Saudi Arabia faces many of the same financial problems it did in 1998.


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