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Tue 18 Dec 2018 08:11 AM

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Energy subsidies, expat levy loom over Saudi budget

Saudi Arabia's budget is out later on Tuesday

Energy subsidies, expat levy loom over Saudi budget

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

The clash is focusing attention on the kingdom’s budget, due out on Tuesday. It’s an event that had already gained in significance, with the Saudis seeking to reduce reliance on oil exports. A preliminary version was released in September.

But since then, there’s been an explosion of international outrage over the Oct. 2 murder of columnist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. That’s led some analysts to speculate that the government may seek to rally domestic support -- by taking steps to stimulate the economy. At the same time, oil prices have plunged almost 30 percent in the past three months, eating into the revenue available to finance spending.

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-oil 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 foreigners.

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 International 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.