At Geopolitical Futures, our forecasting model defines Saudi Arabia as one of the four major powers in the Middle East. Despite its massive petroleum wealth, it is also the weakest of these four but, at the same time, it is trying to shoulder security responsibility for an Arab world in turmoil. Therefore, it is significant that Riyadh announced in an interview published today that it is mulling over the idea of launching an initial public offering for its state-owned oil firm, Aramco. The move represents a massive shift in the kingdom’s approach to managing the company, the majority of which was nationalized in 1973. Even as late as a little over a year ago, when oil prices were hovering at $112 barrel, this policy would have been unthinkable for Riyadh. However, the steep plunge in oil prices, which has brought crude down to under $35, suggests that the Saudis, despite their massive reserves, realize that in the not-too-distant future, they will be in need of cash.
The Saudis demanded and received control of half of Aramco in 1950 and then nationalized 25 percent more in 1973, in response to America’s backing of Israel during the war. By 1980, it had nationalized the entire company. With 261 billion barrels of oil reserves, Aramco is among the most valuable companies in the world. That said, Aramco is not just another state-owned firm; it is the most critical organ of the Saudi state, which is why an Aramco IPO would mean a huge change in the way the regime has controlled the economy and thus represents a very radical notion.
We at Geopolitical Futures find it quite odd that the son of the Saudi monarch, Defense Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who is also in charge of strategic policy-making on energy and economic matters, would, in an interview with the Economist, reveal that the kingdom is considering an IPO for Aramco, along with many other state-owned enterprises. The four-hour interview comes amid growing negative press about the prince’s young age, inexperience and rash policy decisions. Thus, the interview in many ways is an attempt at public relations management.
Not only is the interview designed to counter international criticism of Saudi policies, it is also a way of showing that all is well in the kingdom with the young prince at the helm. Deep down though, the Saudis realize that gone are the days when they could control the international oil scene, given the massive changes in the market. The United States is in the process of becoming an oil exporter. There is also a surplus of supply on the market. Saudi Arabia’s main rival, Iran, is making a comeback in the international markets and investors will be flocking to the Persian country.
Here is where the idea of an Aramco IPO is meant to attract investors to Saudi Arabia with the idea that the kingdom is still the largest crude producer and, unlike Iran, has long been a pro-Western ally. It is way too early to tell how far the Saudis are willing to go in terms of the IPO plan but, given the situation within the kingdom and the region, Riyadh will find it hard to attract investors. Nevertheless, the fact that the Saudis are actually talking about privatizing the national oil company is itself a huge shift in their approach historically.