Bankrupting the kingdom: Is Saudi Arabia facing a pending economic collapse?

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SHAFAQNA – In October 2015 the International Monetary Fund released a report mapping Saudi Arabia’s economic future, or rather, its downturn. While the kingdom remains one of the richest countries in the world per capita, with an estimated cash reserves of $750 billion, its oil dependency made it vulnerable to market fluctuations, notwithstanding its propensity to rely on financial patronage to assert its political footprint. From the bankrolling of Egypt’s national deficit, to the war on Yemen, one exhausting economic standoff with Russia and Riyadh’s undermining of the US fracking industry, the kingdom has hemorrhaged money.

Simply put the kingdom is burning through its cash reserves at a pace so great it could soon run on empty – leaving its monarchy at the mercy of a potential takeover.

In 2015 alone the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan lost a combined £360 billion in oil revenue, a loss which has been felt most sharply in Saudi Arabia, where over 80 percent of the national economy is dependent on oil revenues.

“A glut of oil, the demise of OPEC and weakening global demand combined to make 2015 the year of crashing oil prices. The cost of crude fell to levels not seen for 11 years – and the decline may have further to go,” wrote the Guardian in December 2015 to summarize the ongoing commodity bubble oil producers have faced, and will likely continue to face in the immediate future.

In an interesting twist of economic fate low oil prices have not allowed for financial markets to bounce back from their recession rut, a reality which has left many economists perplexed since high oil prices have always walked hand in hand with recession: 1973, 1979, 1990 and 2008.

Since oil prices started to plummet from their peak of $115 a barrel in August 2014, all world major economies have been worse for wear – burdened by inflation, slowed down by recession and thinned out by decreasing cash reserves.

Oil producers, such as Saudi Arabia of course have felt the impact of lower prices on their growth rates more than most, especially since business investments and consumer spending failed to close some of the economic gaps the energy market generated. If the kingdom imagined that its foreign investments would carry it through such “a dry spell” it gravely miscalculated its financial exposure, leaving itself very much exposed.

For Saudi Arabia, the energy bubble is becoming a major headache – even if most of it has indeed been by design, the ramifications of which are only starting to be felt.

As Dhaval Joshi, an economist at BCA, a London-based research company noted, “Oil powers base their spending plans on an assumed crude price.” As of right now most oil producers, including all Gulf countries are running a ballooning oil revenue deficit.

If Joshi’s predictions are correct, crude prices may fall by another 35 percent, close to $25 per barrel.  At those levels some of the world most pivotal economies will fall under aggravated fiscal strain.

Joshi warned that “low oil prices are not just squeezing Saudi Arabia’s domestic budget, imposing austerity on a kingdom not used to it: it is taking its toll on Saudi support for foreign projects too.”

Indeed, in December 2015, the kingdom announced swinging budget cuts for 2016 to address an alarming deficit of 15% of GDP run up this year. Subsidies for water, electricity and petroleum products are likely to be cut, and government projects reined in.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign endeavors too are facing an uncertain future. For those countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Bahrain which have benefited from Riyadh‘s largess over the years, the stings of budget cuts might prompt sharp political changes of heart.

IMF Middle East and Central Asia Department Director Masood Ahmed told journalists in October that Saudi Arabia is currently facing a budget deficit for the first time since 2009, noting how Riyadh had to authorize the sale of bonds to patch up its ailing economy.

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The country’s net foreign assets fell by about $82 billion in between January and August 2015, prompting the government to sell old state bonds worth $15 billion.

But Yemen could soon be remembered as the straw which broke the camel’s back. If Riyadh imagined its military adventures in impoverished Yemen would last but a few short weeks, 9 months of a brutal war and several Yemeni military incursions into the kingdom later, and Saudi officials cannot seem able to slow down the financial bleeding.

As it were Yemen could accelerate, if not prompt Saudi Arabia’s financial collapse. And since no authoritarian regime can sustain its repressive system on a dime, Al Saud days might not look as bright as they would like everyone to believe.

Even the IMF last October has raised the prospect that Saudi Arabia could go bankrupt in five years without changes to its economic policy. Inevitably such changes will have to account for less foreign patronage.

And since it is unlikely the kingdom will ever agree to a lowering of its oil output on account it would force it to renounce its position as top energy producer, Saudi Arabia’s war of economic attrition will carry on unabated.

In an interview with RT Michael Klare, an energy expert explained Riyadh’s refusal to cut down on OPEC output as follow: “I think the Saudis’ reason is that if they were to cut back – and they are one of the bigger producers – Russia, the US, also a major producer, and other countries, like Iran and Iraq, would take advantage of them. So they don’t want to be the one to suffer the brunt of any production cutbacks. Everybody is afraid to be the first one to take the initiative to cut back. So we are in a kind of a game of chicken: who will cave in first?”

But Saudi Arabia’s problem runs deeper still. Should OPEC agreed to cut production to level the commodity market, Riyadh would lose its political clout to fracking and the alternative energy market, at a time when its political standing in the Middle East is facing some very serious challenges.

“Time is a luxury that Saudi Arabia can no longer take for granted. It faces an economic time bomb, which, if not defused, will have severe and possibly irreversible effects both nationally and internationally,” wrote Luay al-Khatteeb, a nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in December 2015.

As a new dawn is rising this January 2016, the kingdom could soon find itself faced with a very uncertain future – as far as its current regime goes …

By Catherine Shakdam – This article appeared first in the American Herald

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