Saudi energy minister says gov't remains committed to Aramco IPO after reports suggest plan has been put on backburner
Saudi Arabia on Thursday rejected reports that Aramco's planned initial public offering had been scrapped, saying the kingdom had stepped up preparations for the stock market debut of the state energy giant.
"The government remains committed to the IPO of Saudi Aramco at a time of its own choosing when conditions are optimum," energy minister Khalid al-Falih said in a statement.
The plan to float around five percent of Aramco -- expected to be the world's largest stock sale -- forms the cornerstone of a reform programme envisaged by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to wean the economy off its reliance on oil.
But Aramco executives have repeatedly cited unfavourable market conditions to push back the IPO, earlier scheduled for this year, with many observers sceptical whether the listing will happen at all.
Fresh speculation about the listing swirled late Wednesday after a media report that the kingdom had halted the plan and financial advisors working on it had been disbanded.
London, New York and Hong Kong have all vied for a slice of the much-touted IPO.
But experts say Aramco's inability to generate a $2 trillion valuation sought by the crown prince and legal concerns that the IPO will invite unprecedented scrutiny to the company have prompted indecision and delays.
Falih, however, insisted that the kingdom had boosted preparations for the listing.
"The government has undertaken a number of major preparatory measures including issuing a new income tax law as it relates to hydrocarbons activities, reissuing a long-term exclusive concession, and appointing a new board of directors," Falih said.
Falih refused to specify a possible timing for the IPO, reiterating that it depended on factors such as "favourable market conditions and a downstream acquisition which the company will pursue in the next few months".
He did not elaborate on the acquisition but Aramco chief executive Amin Nasser last month confirmed preliminary talks to acquire a "strategic stake" in SABIC, the world's fourth largest petrochemicals company that is 70 percent owned by the government-run Public Investment Fund (PIF).
Nasser had acknowledged in an interview to Al-Arabiya television that a potential SABIC deal would "affect the time frame for Aramco's initial public offering".
Observers see the acquisition of a stake from PIF as a complex alternative to raise much-needed cash for the kingdom's top sovereign wealth fund.
SABIC, Saudi Arabia's largest publicly listed company, has a market capitalisation of around $100 billion -- the same amount the kingdom had sought to raise from Aramco's IPO.
Experts say the deal, if it goes through, will put cash into the PIF and allow Aramco to claim an important asset which it can borrow against.
The PIF, which hopes to control more than $2 trillion by 2030, seeks cash to pivot the economy away from oil after foreign direct investment in Saudi Arabia plunged last year to a 14-year low, according to a UN body, a blow to Prince Mohammed's ambitious reforms.