Saudi mulls income tax and asset sales to boost state coffers

Saudi Arabia is ‘considering all options’ to bolster its finances including income tax, says finance minister.

Saudi Finance Minister
Saudi finance minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said on Wednesday while an income tax is not 'imminent', the kingdom 'isn’t ruling anything away for now' [File: Jason Alden/Bloomberg]

Saudi Arabia is accelerating plans to sell off state assets and isn’t ruling out introducing income tax as the kingdom seeks to boost state coffers hit by the slump in oil prices.

The world’s biggest oil producer could raise more than 50 billion riyals ($13.3 billion) over the next four to five years by privatizing assets in the education, health-care and water sectors, Finance Minister Mohammed Al Jadaan said Wednesday during a virtual forum organized by Bloomberg.

The government is “considering all options” to bolster its finances and while income tax isn’t “imminent” and “would require a lot of time” to prepare, the kingdom “isn’t ruling anything away for now,” he said.

Saudi Arabia has been taking steps to shore up its economy from the double whammy of the coronavirus and lower crude prices. The economy is set to shrink 6.8% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, in what would be the deepest contraction in over 30 years.

The government has already taken unprecedented measures to support its finances, including tripling value-added tax, increasing import fees, and canceling some benefits for government workers. The kingdom has traditionally been tax-free for individuals, with oil revenue supporting a wide range of subsidies and benefits for citizens.

‘Not Austerity’

“Saudi Arabia is not in austerity and we are not getting into an austerity phase,” Al Jadaan said. While the government has “re-allocated some spending,” total spending in 2020 is likely to be more than a trillion riyals, as planned.

The kingdom is also likely to have to borrow about 100 billion riyals more than planned this year and plans to tap the global debt market at least one more time in 2020 after so far selling $12 billion in international bonds in 2020, Al Jadaan said.

As well as raising debt, the kingdom has already been selling state assets as part of efforts to diversify its economy away from oil after a slow start. In December, the government sold a $29 billion holding in energy giant Saudi Aramco through the largest initial public offering in history. It also recently sold a stake in two grain mills.

Despite its efforts to contain costs, the government also transferred $40 billion from reserves held by the central bank to boost the financial firepower of its sovereign wealth fund for deals. The Public Investment Fund has already acquired stakes in companies including Citigroup Inc., Facebook Inc. and concert promoter Live Nation Entertainment Inc.

The sovereign fund will continue to boost its global investments, Al Jadaan said.

Source: Bloomberg