Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal threw his weight behind Saudi stocks on Wednesday, saying he would invest 1 billion riyals ($267m) in a market pummelled by unrest in the Arab world.
The nephew of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and prominent investor in Citigroup also said at a news conference that the U.S. bank would post a profit in the first quarter and should resume paying dividends, given its now strong position.
Alwaleed said he had invested more than 500 million riyals in banks, petrochemicals, telecoms, industrial and consumer stocks on the biggest Arab bourse, and was ready to spend a similar amount in the future.
"The stock market fall is not justified," he told reporters, adding that the economy of the world's top oil exporter was healthy and the stock market in much better shape than after a crash in 2006.
"The Saudi economy is very strong, and the bourse is in a strong position," he said. "Saudi stocks are cheap, and there are big opportunities. Saudi companies are strong.
"I'll invest more if prices fall and there is an opportunity," he said.
Some investors remain nervous ahead of a planned protest on Friday, March 11, despite the king's plan to spend an estimated $37 billion to ease social tensions in the OPEC member, where over 10 percent of the 19 million locals are unemployed.
Just 90 minutes before Alwaleed spoke, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, another nephew of the king, took the podium to tell reporters that the best way to bring about change in the country was through dialogue.
"The principle of dialogue, I believe, is the best way to address the issues facing society," Faisal said, adding that protests in the conservative kingdom were forbidden.
Saudi stocks hit a 22-month low on March 2, falling nearly 20 percent in a two-week span as fears of domestic unrest in the conservative kingdom triggered panic selling by investors.
It has since recovered 14.8 percent, spurred on by comments last Saturday by Saudi Finance Minister Ibrahim Alassaf that the economy was in "excellent" shape and a rise in oil prices would help strengthen the kingdom's economic and financial position.
"This follows on from the minister's comments and you could look at these statements as a policy response to concerns about possible unrest in Saudi Arabia - it's a confidence boosting measure for retail investors," said Ibrahim Masood, senior investment officer at Mashreq Bank.
Public revolts against autocratic regimes and economic hardships have swept through the Arab world over the past two months, unseating Egyptian and Tunisian leaders and sparking insurrection in Libya.
Although Saudi Arabia's huge oil wealth has provided a high standard of living compared with many of its neighbours, rumblings of discontent from the Shi'ite minority last week have alarmed Riyadh and investors who once thought that relative prosperity would be insulation against the spreading unrest.
Retail investors account for around 85 percent of Saudi Arabia's market turnover.
Foreign investors, through swaps agreements, have an estimated $1.5 billion invested in Saudi shares as of February, said Ankit Gupta, senior research analyst at Securities & Investment Co (SICO) in Bahrain.
Oil prices, which rose above the $100 per barrel mark on the regional unrest, are expected to help the kingdom and other Gulf crude exporting countries to finance the increased social spending in the short term.
Prince Alwaleed said he expected Citigroup to post a profit in the first quarter, and called on the bank to resume paying dividends.
"Citigroup is in a strong, solid and excellent position," he said. "We have asked publicly to start distributing dividends.
Citigroup's Chairman Richard Parsons said in December the bank would not pay dividends in the near term.
Alwaleed also said his investment company, Kingdom Holding, was still in talks with Kuwait's Zain to buy the telecom's Saudi assets.
"There are still talks. They're not dead," he said.For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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