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Economy of Saudi Arabia

Economy of Saudi Arabia
Riyadh with the Kingdom Centre in the background
Currency Saudi Riyal (harr, SR)
Calendar year
Trade organisations
WCO, GCC, World Bank IMF

$906.8 billion (PPP; 19th)

$745.273 billion (nominal; 19th)[1]
GDP growth
5.13% (2012)[2]
GDP per capita
$53,780 (PPP; 8th)[1]
GDP by sector
agriculture: 3.2%; industry: 60.4%; services: 36.4% (2009 est.)
2.90% (2012)[2]
Labour force
7.63 million (2009 est.) note: about 80% of the labor force is non-national
Labour force by occupation
agriculture: 6.7%; industry: 21.4%; services: 71.9% (2005 est.)
Unemployment estimated 10%
Main industries
crude oil production, petroleum refining, basic petrochemicals, ammonia, industrial gases, sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), cement, fertilizer, plastics, metals, commercial ship repair, commercial aircraft repair, construction
Exports $381.5 billion (2012 est.)[4]
Export goods
petroleum and petroleum products 90%[5]
Main export partners
 United States 14.3%
 China 13.7%
 Japan 13.7%
 South Korea 9.9%
 India 8.2%
 Singapore 4.3% (2012 est.)[6]
Imports $136.8 billion (2012 est.)[7]
Import goods
machinery and equipment, foodstuffs, chemicals, motor vehicles, textiles[8]
Main import partners
 China 13.5%
 United States 13.2%
 South Korea 6.7%
 Germany 6.5%
 India 6.3%
 Japan 6.0% (2012 est.)[9]
$127.4 billion (31 December 2012 est.)[10]
Public finances
9.4% of GDP (2009 est.)
Revenues $293.1 billion (2010 est.)
Expenses $210.6 billion (2010 est.)
Economic aid (Donor) $100 million in 1993 to Lebanon; since 2000, Saudi Arabia has committed $307 million to Palestinians; pledged $240 million to Afghanistan; pledged $1 billion in export guarantees and soft loans to Iraq.
Standard & Poor's:[11]
AA- (Domestic)
AA- (Foreign)
AA+ (T&C Assessment)
Outlook: Stable[12]
Outlook: Stable
Outlook: Stable
Main data source: CIA World Fact Book
All values, unless otherwise stated, are in US dollars.

Saudi Arabia has an oil-based economy with strong government control over major economic activities. Saudi Arabia possesses 18%[13] of the world's proven petroleum reserves, ranks as the largest exporter of petroleum, and plays a leading role in OPEC, although its influence has waned in recent years.[14] Most workers, particularly in the private sector, are foreigners.


  • Economic overview 1
  • History 2
    • Future plans 2.1
  • Employment 3
  • Private sector 4
  • Trade 5
    • List of trade organizations 5.1
  • Challenges 6
    • Diversification 6.1
  • Investment 7
    • Doing business 7.1
    • Companies 7.2
      • Saudi ARAMCO 7.2.1
      • SABIC 7.2.2
      • Ma'aden (company) 7.2.3
      • ICT Services 7.2.4
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Economic overview

The petroleum sector accounts for roughly 92.5% of budget revenues,[15] 90% of export earnings, and 55% of GDP. Another 40% of GDP comes from the private sector. An estimated 9 million foreign workers[16] play a crucial role in the Saudi economy, for example, in the oil and service sectors. The government is encouraging private sector growth to lessen the kingdom's dependence on oil, and to increase employment opportunities for the swelling Saudi population. The government has begun to permit private sector and foreign investor participation in the power generation and telecom sectors. As part of its effort to attract foreign investment and diversify the economy, Saudi Arabia acceded to the WTO in 2005 after many years of negotiations. With high oil revenues enabling the government to post large budget surpluses, Riyadh has been able to substantially boost spending on job training and education, infrastructure development, and government salaries. More than 95% of all Saudi oil is produced on behalf of the Saudi Government by the parastatal giant Saudi Aramco, and the remaining 5% by similar parastatal companies as of 2002.

Saudi oil reserves are the second largest in the world, and Saudi Arabia is the world's leading oil producer and exporter. Oil accounts for more than 90% of the country's exports and nearly 75% of government revenues. Proven reserves, according to figures provided by the Saudi government, are estimated to be 260 billion barrels (41 km3), about one-quarter of world oil reserves.

With its absolute monarchy system of government, large state sector and supply of welfare benefits, the Saudi economy has been described as

a bewildering (at least to outsiders) combination of a feudal fealty system and a more modern political patronage one. At every level in every sphere of activity, Saudis maneuver through life manipulating individual privileges, favors, obligations, and connections. By the same token, the government bureaucracy is a maze of overlapping or conflicting power center under the patronage of various royal princes with their own priorities and agendas to pursue and dependents to satisfy.[17]
The gross domestic product of Saudi Arabia fluctuates dramatically according to the price of oil (see below).
Year Gross Domestic Product
(in millions of Saudi Riyals (SR))
US Dollar Exchange Inflation Index
Per Capita Income
(as % of USA)
1970 22,565 4.50 Saudi Arabian Riyals
1975 163,670 3.52 Saudi Arabian Riyals
1980 546,602 3.59 Saudi Arabian Riyals 95 43.84
1985 376,318 3.62 Saudi Arabian Riyals 92 49.33
1990 437,334 3.74 Saudi Arabian Riyals 91 33.13
1995 533,504 3.74 Saudi Arabian Riyals 101 28.29
2000 706,657 3.74 Saudi Arabian Riyals 100 26.50
2005 1,152,600 3.74 Saudi Arabian Riyals 100 32.53

(Market prices estimated by the International Monetary Fund and other sources, with figures in millions of Saudi Arabian Riyals (SR)).[18]).For purchasing power parity comparisons, the U.S. dollar is exchanged at 3.75 Saudi Arabian Riyals only.[19] Mean wages were $14.74 per man-hour in 2009.)

As of August 2009 it was reported that Saudi Arabia is the strongest Arab economy, according to World Bank.[20]


Saudi Arabia was an economy based on subsistence agriculture by a population that was largely nomadic until the discovery of oil in the 1930s. It was not until the 1973 oil crisis that the country saw rapid growth, and GDP per capita (PPP) shrunk by 0.8% on average during the 1980s, grew 2.1% during the 1990s and 4.4% during the 2000s.[21] Annual imports grew 44% on average during the 1970s, but shrunk 1.9% during the 1980s, grew again 2.4% during the 1990s and 14% during the 2000s.[22]

Due to a sharp rise in petroleum revenues in 1974 following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Saudi Arabia became one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. It enjoyed a substantial surplus in its overall trade with other countries; imports increased rapidly; and ample government revenues were available for development, defense, and aid to other Arab and Islamic countries.

But higher oil prices led to development of more oil fields around the world and reduced global consumption. The result, beginning in the mid-1980s, was a worldwide oil glut, which introduced an element of planning uncertainty for the first time in a decade. Saudi oil production, which had increased to almost 10 million barrels (1,600,000 m3) per day during 1980–81, dropped to about 2 million barrels per day (320,000 m3/d) in 1985. Budgetary deficits developed, and the government drew down its foreign assets. Responding to financial pressures, Saudi Arabia gave up its role as the "swing producer" within OPEC in the summer of 1985 and accepted a production quota. Since then, Saudi oil policy has been guided by a desire to maintain market and quota shares.

In June 1993, Saudi Aramco absorbed the state marketing and refining company (SAMAREC), becoming the world's largest fully integrated oil company. Most Saudi oil exports move by tanker from oil terminals at Ras Tanura and Ju'aymah in the Persian Gulf. The remaining oil exports are transported via the east-west pipeline across the kingdom to the Red Sea port of Yanbu. A major new gas initiative promises to bring significant investment by U.S. and European oil companies to develop non-associated gas fields in three separate parts of Saudi Arabia. Following final technical agreements with concession awardees in December 2001, development should begin in 2002.

However, beginning in late 1997, Saudi Arabia again faced the challenge of low oil prices. Due to a combination of factors—the East Asian economic crises, a warm winter in the West caused by El Niño, and an increase in non-OPEC oil production—demand for oil slowed and pulled oil prices down by more than one-third.

Saudi Arabia was a key player in coordinating the successful 1999 campaign of OPEC and other oil-producing countries to raise the price of oil to its highest level since the (Persian) Gulf War by managing production and supply of petroleum. That same year, Saudi Arabia established the Supreme Economic Council to formulate and better coordinate economic development policies in order to accelerate institutional and industrial reform.

Future plans

Saudi Arabia has announced plans to invest about $46 billion in three of the world’s largest and most ambitious petrochemical projects. These include the $27 billion Ras Tanura integrated refinery and petrochemical project, the $9 billion Saudi Kayan at the Wayback Machine (archived March 15, 2009) petrochemical complex at Jubail Industrial City, and the $10 billion Petro Rabigh refinery upgrade project. Together, the three projects will employ more than 150,000 technicians and engineers working around the clock.[23] Upon completion in 2015–16, the Ras Tanura integrated refinery and petrochemicals project will become the world’s largest petrochemical facility of its kind with a combined production capacity of 11 million tons per year of different petrochemical and chemical products. The products will include ethylene, propylene, aromatics, polyethylene, ethylene oxide, chlorine derivatives, and glycol.[23]


As of 2008, roughly two thirds of workers employed in Saudi Arabia were foreigners, and in the private sector approximately 90%.[24] In January 2014 the Saudi government claimed it had lowered the 90% rate, doubling the number of Saudi citizens working in the private sector employment to 1.5 million. (This compares to 10 million foreign expatriates working in the kingdom.)[25]

According to Reuters, economists "estimate only 30-40 percent of working-age Saudis hold jobs or actively seek work," although the official employment rate is only around 12 percent. Most Saudis with jobs are employed by the government, but the International Monetary Fund has warned the government cannot support such a large wage bill in the long term.[25] [26] The government has announced a succession of plans since 2000 to deal with the imbalance by `Saudizing` the economy, However, the foreign workforce and unemployment among Saudis has continued to grow.[27]

One obstacle is social resistance to certain types of employment. Jobs in service and sales are considered totally unacceptable for citizens of Saudi Arabia—both potential employees and customers.[28]

Private sector

Saudi Arabia's private sector is dominated by a handful of big businesses in the service sector, primarily in construction and real estate—Bin Laden, Olayan, Zamil, Mahfouz, and Al Rajhi. These firms are "heavily dependent on government spending", which is dependent on oil revenues.[29]

From 2003-2013 "several key services" were privatized—municipal water supply, electricity, telecommunications—and parts of education and health care, traffic control and car accident reporting were also privatized. According to Arab News columnist Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, "in almost every one of these areas, consumers have raised serious concerns about the performance of these privatized entities."[30]


Saudi Arabian exports in 2006

In recent years, Saudi Arabia sought to join the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority to encourage foreign direct investment in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia maintains a negative list of sectors in which foreign investment is prohibited, but the government plans to open some closed sectors such as telecommunications, insurance, and power transmission/distribution over time. As of November 2005, Saudi Arabia was officially approved to enter World Trade Organization.

List of trade organizations


Among the challenges to Saudi economy include halting or reversing the decline in per capita income, improving education to prepare youth for the workforce and providing them with employment, diversifying the economy, stimulating the private sector and housing construction, diminishing corruption and inequality.

Income drop

Despite possessing the largest petroleum reserves in the world, per capita income dropped from approximately $18,000 at the height of the oil boom (1981) to $7000 in 2001, according to one estimate.[37] As of 2013, per capita income in Saudi was "a fraction of that of smaller Persian Gulf neighbors", even less than petroleum-poor Bahrain.[38]

Unlike most developed countries where gross domestic product growth is a function of increases in productivity and inputs such as employment, in Saudi the fluctuation of oil prices is the most important factor in the growth or decline of domestic production. "Saudi reserves are steadily being depleted, and no significant new discoveries have been found to replace them," according to Middle East journalist Karen House. Saudi population grew sevenfold from 1960 to 2010,[39] and petrol prices are subsidized and cost users less than equivalent quantities of bottled water. [40] With production stagnant, growth in population and domestic energy consumption means a decline in per capita income unless oil prices rise to match that growth.[38]


Saudi population is young. About 51% are under the age of 25 (as of Feb 2012).[41] According to a 2013 report by the International Monetary Fund, up to 1.6 million young nationals of the Gulf countries (of which Saudi Arabia is the largest) will enter the workforce from 2013 to 2018, but the economies of those countries will have jobs in the private sector for less than half (approximately 600,000).[42]


According to The Economist magazine, the Saudi government has attempted in years past to raise employment by forcing "companies to fill at least 30% of their positions" with Saudi citizens. However, "employers complained bitterly about the lack of skills among young locals; years of rote-learning and religious instruction fail to prepare them for the job market." As a consequence, "the quota has now been dropped and replaced with a more flexible system."[43]

According to another source (scholar David Commins), the kingdom depends "on huge numbers of expatriates workers to fill technical and administrative positions" in part because of an educational system that in spite of "generous budgets", has suffered from "poorly trained teachers, low retention rates, lack of rigorous standards, weak scientific and technical instruction and excessive attention to religious subjects".[44] [45] [46]


Saudi has not been a hotbed of technological innovation. The number of Saudi patents registered in the United States between 1977 and 2010 came to 382—less than twelve per year—compared to 84,840 patents for South Korea or 20,620 for Israel during that period.[29][47] Saudi hopes to increase technological innovation, particularly with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and thus to stimulate the economy.

Legal system

Saudi Arabia's legal system is unique and—according to some—an obstacle to doing business in the kingdom because of its lack of predictability and its prohibition on interest payments. There is no uniform legal code and no concept of legal precedent.[48] According to Oxford Business Group, "it is not always possible to reach a conclusion on how a Saudi court or judicial committee would view a particular case" because "decisions of a court or a judicial committee have no binding authority with respect to another case," and "in general there is also no system of court reporting in the Kingdom."[49]

The author of a book on the Saudi legal system (Frank Vogel) bemoaned the
"unpredictability of decisions; obscure if not occult doctrine; dissonance between many Saudi commercial norms and those prevailing nearly everywhere else ... huge costs on the Saudi economy. That the king and government have not been inclined, or able, to impose a solution to this widely known difficulty is an apt measure of the cultural and political influence of fiqh and ulama and of the centrality of the shari'a ideal for Saudi life public and private."[50]

A business journalist (Karen House) criticizing the Saudi bureaucracy complained that someone seeking to start a business in Saudi Arabia

has to complete innumerable applications and documents at multiple layers of multiple ministries, which invariably requires seeking favors from various patronage networks and accumulating obligations along the way, most probably including having to hire less-than-competent dependents of his patrons. Then, for any business of any size, government contracts, not private competition, are the financial lifeblood. So this means more patrons, more favors, and more obligations. Not surprisingly, Saudi businesses that can compete outside the protected Saudi market are few.[51]

A 2005 survey by the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce found 77% of businessmen polled felt they had to `bypass` the law to conduct their operations. Since then "businessmen say it has only gotten worse."[52]


Poverty in the Kingdom has grown in recent years. 40% of all Saudi citizens live on less than 3000 Saudi riyals ($850) a month,[26] while 19% of Saudis live on less than 1800 SR (Saudi riyals) ($480) a month,[53][54]


Only 30% of Saudi Arabia's citizens own their own home, compared to the international average rate of 70% ownership. In 2011, analysts estimated 500,000 new homes/year were needed to match the growth in Saudi population, but as of early 2014 only 300,000 to 400,000 houses/year were being built.[55]

One problem is that the government Real Estate Development Fund (REDF) -- which provides 81% of all loans for housing—had a 18 year waiting list for loans due to pent-up demand. Another is that the REDF's maximum loan is 500,000 SR ($133,000), while in 2012 the average price for a small free-standing home in in Riyadh is more than double that—1.23 million SR ($328,000).[56]

A major reason for the high cost of housing is the high cost of land. In urban areas the price of land has been bid up because nearly all of it is owned by the Saudi elite (members of the royal family or other wealthy Saudis), who have lobbied the government for land "giveaways".[55] Landlords have seen prices rocket by 50% from 2011 to 2013.[55] The owners benefit from these price increases as they hold the land for future development.[57] [58] To deal with the key "land banking" issue the Housing Minister suggested in 2013 that landowners of vacant within city limits could be subject to a tax. However, no firm plans for any tax have been unveiled.[55]


As of 2007, manufacturing outside of the petroleum industry contributed 10% to Saudi Arabian GDP and less than 6% of total employment.[59]

Through five-year development plans, the government has sought to allocate its petroleum income to transform its relatively undeveloped, oil-based economy into that of a modern industrial state while maintaining the kingdom's traditional Islamic values and customs. Although economic planners have not achieved all their goals, the economy has progressed rapidly. Oil wealth has increased the standard of living of most Saudis. However, significant population growth has strained the government's ability to finance further improvements in the country's standard of living. Heavy dependence on petroleum revenue continues, but industry and agriculture now account for a larger share of economic activity. The mismatch between the job skills of Saudi graduates and the needs of the private job market at all levels remains the principal obstacle to economic diversification and development; about 4.6 million non-Saudis are employed in the economy.[60]

Saudi Arabia's first two development plans, covering the 1970s, emphasized infrastructure. The results were impressive—the total length of paved highways tripled, power generation increased by a multiple of 28, and the capacity of the seaports grew tenfold. For the third plan (1980–85), the emphasis changed. Spending on infrastructure declined, but it rose markedly on education, health, and social services. The share for diversifying and expanding productive sectors of the economy (primarily industry) did not rise as planned, but the two industrial cities of Jubail and Yanbu—built around the use of the country's oil and gas to produce steel, petrochemicals, fertilizer, and refined oil products—were largely completed.[60]

In the fourth plan (1985–90), the country's basic infrastructure was viewed as largely complete, but education and training remained areas of concern. Private enterprise was encouraged, and foreign investment in the form of joint ventures with Saudi public and private companies was welcomed. The private sector became more important, rising to 70% of non-oil GDP by 1987. While still concentrated in trade and commerce, private investment increased in industry, agriculture, banking, and construction companies. These private investments were supported by generous government financing and incentive programs. The objective was for the private sector to have 70% to 90% ownership in most joint venture enterprises.[60]

The fifth plan (1990–95) emphasized consolidation of the country's defenses; improved and more efficient government social services; regional development; and, most importantly, creating greater private-sector employment opportunities for Saudis by reducing the number of foreign workers.[60]

The sixth plan (1996–2000) focused on lowering the cost of government services without cutting them and sought to expand educational training programs. The plan called for reducing the kingdom's dependence on the petroleum sector by diversifying economic activity, particularly in the private sector, with special emphasis on industry and agriculture. It also continued the effort to "Saudiize" the labor force.[60]

The seventh plan (2000–2004) focuses more on economic diversification and a greater role of the private sector in the Saudi economy. For 2000–04, the government aims at an average GDP growth rate of 3.16% each year, with projected growths of 5.04% for the private sector and 4.01% for the non-oil sector. The government also has set a target of creating 817,300 new jobs for Saudi nationals.[60]

Advertising expenditures have reached new peaks due to emphasis on value-added manufacturing.[61]

As part of its diversification, Saudi Arabia has been inking major refinery contracts with Chinese and other companies.[62]


Saudi Arabia has one stock exchange, the Tadawul, whose financial markets are regulated by the Capital Market Authority. The stock market capitalisation of listed companies in Saudi Arabia was valued at $646 billion in 2005 by the World Bank.[63]

Doing business

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been rated as the 22nd most economically competitive country in the world, according to the International Finance Corporation (IFC)-World Bank's annual "Doing Business" report issued for 2013. Since 2004, the Kingdom has advanced its overall Doing Business rankings, from 67th to 22nd.

Saudi Arabian companies dominate 2009's "MEED 100", with companies listed on the Tadawul, accounting for 29 out of the region’s 100 biggest publicly quoted companies ranked by market capitalisation. Just three of the 20 companies that have dropped out of the top 100 over the past year are listed on the Saudi stock exchange.[64]

Foreigners are allowed to wholly own limited liability companies in the majority of industries. Non-Saudi nationals are required to obtain a foreign capital investment license from the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA).[65]



Saudi Aramco (officially the Saudi Arabian Oil Co.), is a Saudi Arabian national petroleum and natural gas company based in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.[66][67] Saudi Aramco's value has been estimated at up to US$10 trillion in the Financial Times, making it the world's most valuable company.[68][69][70] (ARAMCO is state-owned and unlisted.)

Saudi Aramco has both the largest proven crude oil reserves, at more than 260 billion barrels (4.1×1010 m3), and largest daily oil production.[71] Headquartered in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia,[72] Saudi Aramco operates the world's largest single hydrocarbon network, the Master Gas System. Its yearly production is 3.479 billion barrels (553,100,000 m3),[73] and it managed over 100 oil and gas fields in Saudi Arabia, including 284.8 trillion standard cubic feet (scf) of natural gas reserves.[73] Saudi Aramco owns the Ghawar Field, the world's largest oil field, and the Shaybah Field, another one of the world's largest oil fields.[74]


The Saudi Arabian Basic Industries Corporation SABIC was established by a royal decree in 1976 to produce chemicals, polymers, and fertilizers. In 2008, SABIC was Asia's largest (in terms of market capitalization) and most profitable publicly listed non-oil company, the world's fourth-largest petrochemical company, ranked 186th as world's largest corporation on the Fortune Global 500 for 2009, the second largest producer of ethylene glycol and methanol in the world, the third largest producer of polyethylene and overall the fourth-largest producer of polypropylene and polyolefin. Standard and Poor's and Fitch Ratings claimed SABIC to be the world's largest producer of polymers and the Persian Gulf region's largest steel producer for 2005 and assigned SABIC an "A" corporate credit rating. In 2008, Fortune 500 ranking records SABIC revenues at $40.2 billion, profits at $5.8 billion and assets standing at $72.4 billion.[75]

Ma'aden (company)

Ma'aden was formed as a Saudi joint stock company on 23 March 1997 for the purpose of facilitating the development of Saudi Arabia’s mineral resources. Ma'aden's activities have focused on its active gold business which has grown in recent years to include the operation of five gold mines: Mahd Ad Dahab, Al Hajar, Sukhaybarat, Bulghah, and Al Amar. Ma'aden is now expanding its activities beyond its gold business with the development of phosphates, aluminum, and other projects. In addition, since its formation, Ma'aden (through the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources) has collaborated with the government and local legislators to develop a regulatory framework for the governance of the mining industry.

ICT Services

Saudi Arabia is currently enjoying a massive boom in its personal computer industry since the deregulation of 2002. PC per capita has exploded to nearly 43% of the population in 2005 from just 13% in 2002 leapfrogging over the rest of West Asia. The electrical and electronics market was estimated to be around $3.5 billion in 2004.[76]

The e-commerce market was estimated at just over $1 billion in 2001.[77]


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External links

  • Saudi Arabia entry at The World Factbook
  • Saudi Arabia Economic Development at DMOZ
  • MEED - Middle East Business intelligence since 1957: "Middle East business news and analysis, tenders, contracts awarded, commentary, economic data, insight, projects and events" - magazine website
  • Comprehensive current and historical economic data
  • Tariffs applied by Saudi Arabia as provided by ITC's Market Access Map, an online database of customs tariffs and market requirements.

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