I OVERVIEW OF RECENT ACTIVITY

The Saudi Arabian economy, while remaining strong and stable relative to other countries in the region, has entered a period of transition. Saudi Arabia remains the largest economy in the Middle East and recorded a gross domestic product of approximately US$753 billion in 2015. While the economy is still driven by abundant oil reserves and related hydrocarbon industries, with oil prices at their lowest in over a decade, the country’s leadership has adopted a National Transformation Plan named ‘Vision 2030’ to modernise and diversify the economy. Vision 2030 focuses on increasing employment, particularly in the private sector, in retail, education and healthcare sectors. The government has also announced a broad privatisation programme in many key sectors, which is expected to include an IPO of 5 per cent stake in Saudi Arabian Oil Company, a company that analysts believe could be worth upwards of US$2 trillion.

In response to a predicted budget deficit, in mid-2015, Saudi Arabia issued its first sovereign bond in eight years, selling approximately 15 billion riyals of bonds to local banks. It is widely speculated that the government will issue an additional sovereign bond, or potentially a sovereign sukuk (Islamic bond) and also tap into international debt markets to cover the deficit and to avoid further deterioration of its reserves.

The government is also focusing on increasing foreign investment into the country. In a long-awaited and very welcome move, the government opened the Saudi Arabian Stock Exchange to investment by foreigners in June 2015 and liberalised the foreign ownership rules in May 2016 and August 2016. At the same time, the Saudi Arabian Capital Market Authority (CMA) has been encouraging many of the country’s blue-chip and large family-operated companies and financial services companies to list. Listings and capital raises in Saudi Arabia have continued to be strong over the past year, while capital markets in other regional and oil-driven economies have dried up.

Saudi Arabia is home to the largest number of investment funds domiciled in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). With the support of the CMA and other government institutions, funds and asset managers have diversified from real estate into other parts of the economy, with a particular focus on listed equities, and now with financial assistance from a Ministry of Labour initiative, into venture capital and small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) private equity investments. Additionally, managers, investors and many government-owned vehicles are being encouraged to reinvest capital and proceeds into Saudi Arabia rather than deploying funds into foreign investments.

The government has empowered forward-thinking regulators that have implemented relatively clear, stable and predictable funds and capital markets regimes. It is encouraging to many investors and commentators to see the Saudi Arabian markets opening up. As a result, it is widely expected that MSCI will add Saudi Arabia to its indices in 2019, in particular to the emerging market index, a move that would potentially foster more growth and lead to a greater influx of capital into the country’s markets.

II GENERAL INTRODUCTION TO the REGULATORY FRAMEWORK

The CMA and the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (SAMA) are the governmental bodies that regulate asset management and financing transactions in Saudi Arabia.

The CMA regulates Saudi Arabia’s capital markets, including securities, sales of assets, equity securities and debt securities (such as sukuk). Its power is granted under the Capital Market Law, which was originally implemented in 2003.

The CMA has issued the following implementing regulations governing the management and offerings of securities:

  • a the Offers of Securities Regulations, which govern the offering of securities in companies in Saudi Arabia on both a private and public basis;
  • b the Listing Rules, Merger and Acquisition Regulations and Corporate Governance Regulations, which govern the activities, operations and management of companies publicly traded on the Saudi Arabian Stock Exchange;
  • c the Rules for Qualified Foreign Financial Institutions Investment in Listed Shares, which govern investment by foreign investors in shares listed on the Saudi Arabian Stock Exchange;
  • d the Investment Funds Regulations, which govern private equity funds, hedge funds, money market funds and private real estate funds, significant amendments to which will be implemented in November 2016;
  • e the Real Estate Investment Funds Regulations, which govern publicly placed real estate funds; and
  • f the Securities Business Regulations, Authorised Persons Regulations and the Prudential Rules, which govern the operations and actions of asset managers.

The CMA also introduced two new regulations during 2016, which are intended to permit licensed managers to create new financial products in the Saudi Arabia market: The Rules for Special Purpose Entities, which are intended to promote sukuk and the offering of other debt instruments, and Real Estate Investment Traded Funds Instructions, which will permit the listing of certain income-producing real estate funds on the Saudi Arabian Stock Exchange.

SAMA acts as the central bank of Saudi Arabia, and is responsible for issuing currency and regulating the insurance industry. It is also responsible for encouraging the development of the Saudi Arabian banking system in both the public and commercial sectors. Additionally, SAMA is Saudi Arabia’s investment authority, and is responsible for managing the country’s assets, both inside and outside of the country.

With few exceptions, individuals who are not citizens of a GCC country and non-GCC corporate entities (including Saudi entities with direct or indirect non-GCC ownership) must register with the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) prior to owning non-listed shares or real property in Saudi Arabia. The SAGIA registration process adds expense and time to any transaction. The primary exemptions to SAGIA registration are ownership in a CMA fund and investment in listed shares through the qualified foreign investor (QFI) framework or the CMA-regulated swap regime.

To date, the SAGIA rules have not governed foreign ownership in a CMA fund. Accordingly, there is no requirement that non-GCC investors in a CMA fund obtain SAGIA approval. A foreign investor’s ownership of units in a CMA fund is only governed by the rules and regulations of the CMA. Moreover, GCC nationals and companies that are majority-owned by GCC nationals (and partly owned by non-GCC nationals) are permitted to invest directly in listed securities in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, financial institutions that register with the CMA as a QFI are permitted to buy and sell shares of publicly listed companies in Saudi Arabia on their own behalf and on behalf of their clients without SAGIA approval.

III COMMON ASSET MANAGEMENT STRUCTURES

For tax and other regulatory reasons, the majority of structures used in Saudi Arabia are domestically based. The primary vehicle for asset management in Saudi Arabia is an investment fund regulated by the CMA. As opposed to other Saudi Arabian vehicles, a CMA fund is relatively inexpensive to establish and maintain and allows for significant structuring flexibility. Further, a manager can structure the fund so that investors are truly passive, unlike many other vehicles where investors actually have statutory veto rights and other substantial minority protections.

A CMA fund is a contractual entity formed between the fund manager and its investors upon execution of the terms and conditions of the fund. Under CMA regulations (and from the perspective of other governmental authorities and ministries), a CMA fund is not considered to be a separate legal entity from the fund manager. Accordingly, the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Commerce and Industry will not issue a commercial registration to a CMA fund. Therefore, all actions of the CMA fund, including ownership of real property, assets and shares in Saudi companies, must be performed by a CMA-licensed fund manager or a CMA-licensed custodian on the CMA fund’s behalf. The CMA issued a circular in August 2015 requiring that independent CMA-licensed custodians are mandatory to hold the assets of all real estate funds, and in May 2016 introduced amendments to the funds regulations requiring all funds to have independent custodians. The amendments to the funds regulations are effective in November 2016, and codify many of the unwritten practices and procedures of the CMA adopted over the past decade.

The Saudi CMA fund is arguably the most efficient vehicle for structuring investments into Saudi Arabia. If properly structured, they create the ability to minimise restrictions from SAGIA and can also provide certain tax efficiencies not available with other structures.

Before the rise in the popularity of CMA funds, most collective investment vehicles in Saudi Arabia took the form of limited liability companies. However, these are relatively inflexible vehicles that statutorily provide substantial rights to their shareholders, which makes it hard for managers to enforce any default provisions or even to exit investments or wind down the fund. For example, structuring and enforcing a capital commitment structure in a Saudi limited liability company is very complex. The Saudi Arabian government enacted new companies regulations in May 2016, which permit single-shareholder companies and other clarifications to corporate formations and structures. However, it is unlikely that any corporate structures will surpass the popularity of CMA funds.

IV MAIN SOURCES OF INVESTMENT

With over 300 domestic funds currently in operation, Saudi Arabia has the largest number of funds domiciled in the Middle East. Historically, investment funds in Saudi Arabia have invested primarily in real estate, as such investments were deemed safe and easier to structure in order to be shariah-compliant. While real estate funds are more prevalent, the CMA has been encouraging the formation of equities funds, including funds established solely to invest in IPOs, to increase liquidity for investors in the market.

Additionally, the Human Resources Development Fund, a governmental body affiliated with the Ministry of Labour supporting employment of Saudi Arabian nationals in the private sector, and Takamol Holding for Business Services, a holding company sponsoring public-private partnerships, launched the Musharakah Programme in 2015. This initiative is focused on addressing the funding gap for SMEs operating in Saudi Arabia by guaranteeing certain financing for funds targeting investments in the SME sector across a range of industries. Accordingly, 2015 has seen a surge of newly formed investment funds seeking to participate in the Musharakah Programme and invest in SMEs in Saudi Arabia.

The vast majority of investors in Saudi Arabian funds are Saudi nationals, Saudi-domiciled companies and family offices, and government-backed entities and organisations, but there is also a significant level of investment from GCC nationals and companies in such funds. Traditionally, most funds in Saudi Arabia had been publicly offered and targeted retail investors, but there has been a significant shift toward privately placed funds due to their relative ease of establishment, both in terms of timing and regulatory scrutiny. Since the primary source of capital for Saudi Arabian funds are family offices and the government, most investors can easily meet the 1 million riyal minimum investment in a private placement.

V KEY TRENDS

i Equity capital markets

The government is encouraging significant investment into the Saudi Arabian economy, from both local and foreign investors. 2014 witnessed many IPOs, including the IPO of NCB, which was the largest ever regional IPO, and the second largest globally in 2014. While the kingdom only witnessed six IPOs in 2015 raising approximately US$1.4 billion, such was the most in the GCC region, which only witnessed two others (one in the UAE and one in Oman). The kingdom has seen three IPOs in the first six months of 2016, compared to none in the rest of the GCC, including the offering of L’azurde Company for Jewellery, which was backed by regional private equity heavyweights, Investcorp, The National Investor and Eastgate Capital Group (now known as NCB Capital (DIFC) Limited).

In June 2015 foreign investors were permitted to directly own shares listed on the Saudi Arabian Stock Exchange through the QFI framework. The foreign ownership rules were twice liberalised in 2016 with further amendments becoming effective in August 2016. Only foreign institutions that have a minimum of US$1 billion in assets under management and five years of experience will be permitted to register with the CMA as a QFI. Once registered, a QFI can purchase or can arrange for its clients to purchase shares of companies listed on the Saudi Arabian Stock Exchange (except for six companies that have substantial real estate holdings in Mecca and Medina, where ownership of real property is limited to Saudi Arabian nationals). Holdings in a single company by a QFI or its clients will be limited to 10 per cent, and holdings in a single company by QFIs in the aggregate will be limited to 49 per cent.

Prior to June 2015, foreign investors could participate in listed companies through swap arrangements only, which allowed investors to participate in the profits of the companies but did not provide for voting rights. It is expected that, as a result of the new regulations, foreign investment in the Saudi Arabian stock market will grow from US$7 billion to nearly US$35 billion in future coming years.

The CMA recently introduced draft regulations allowing for the listing of real estate investment traded funds. Further, it is widely expected that the CMA and Saudi Arabian Stock Exchange will introduce a small-cap exchange in 2017 to improve access to capital for SMEs and encourage better corporate governance.

ii Debt capital markets

Historically, the majority of debt issues from Saudi Arabia have been in the form of sukuk, and it is expected that this trend will continue. There has been a tremendous growth in sukuk, with US$14.15 billion of sukuk issued from Saudi Arabia in 2013, which accounted for 7.8 per cent of global sukuk issuances in 2013.

Sukuk issuances are regulated by the CMA. It is expected that the CMA will issue regulations in the near future governing setting forth the process to list sukuk.

In mid-2015, the government issued 15 billion riyals in bonds, the first sovereign debt issuance in eight years. 2015 has also seen a significant increase in the number privately placed sukuk in Saudi Arabia. In 2014, there were no direct sovereign issuances, although the General Aviation Civil Authority issued a sukuk with government support. Sadara Petrochemical, which is partly owned by the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco), also issued a multibillion riyal sukuk. The recent sukuks in Saudi Arabia have been predominantly domestic, Saudi Arabian-riyal denominated and privately placed.

The current population demographics of Saudi Arabia are significant in supporting strong growth in the domestic consumer market. It is estimated that 79 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s population is under the age of 35, providing the potential for a greater demand for property mortgages, auto loans and general personal borrowing. It is expected that retail lenders will inevitably need to tap the international capital markets to meet the potential increased demand for retail borrowing. The growth of the domestic market should also encourage the expansion of business interests that may require access to debt capital markets to help finance them. A number of Saudi Arabian banks are considering sukuk to meet required capital adequacy requirements, and 2015 has seen sukuks of over 1 billion riyals issued by NCB, Riyad Bank and Saudi British Bank, three of the country’s largest lenders. This trend continued in the first half of 2016 as Bank Al-Jazira successfully issued a US$533 million sukuk.

iii Investment funds

The CMA has increasingly scrutinised blind-pool investment funds and real estate development funds. Due to this heightened scrutiny and the relative ease with which managers can establish private CMA funds, there has been a significant shift toward single asset funds, particularly single asset real estate funds with very limited numbers of investors.

In May 2016, the CMA issued draft Investment Funds Regulations, which it was intended would replace the previous Funds Regulations issued in 2006. These new regulations will become effective in November 2016. The CMA hopes these regulations will provide clarity and encourage more managers to launch funds. The CMA had intended for years to revamp the Funds Regulations to address problems of investor protection, which arose during the financial downturn, and to cover the launches of a diverse range of new funds, many of which were not contemplated by the 2006 Regulations (and in fact introduced similar draft regulations in May 2013, which were ultimately not adopted). In August 2015, the CMA also issued a circular providing new guidelines for the launch of private real estate funds in Saudi Arabia. The primary change set forth in the circular requires that each real estate fund must appoint an independent custodian to hold the assets of the fund and independent members to the fund’s board, the body which oversees the performance of the fund manager.

Offerings of foreign funds
  • a Foreign funds may only be offered in Saudi Arabia as a private placement (to investors making an investment of at least 1 million riyals) and must be placed by a CMA-licensed distributor;
  • b the manager of the foreign fund must be authorised in a jurisdiction that employs regulatory standards and requirements at least equivalent to those of the CMA. It is unclear whether managers established in many offshore jurisdictions would meet these criteria, although the CMA regularly allows for funds domiciled in major offshore jurisdictions to be offered in Saudi Arabia;
  • c there is a one-year limit on the offering period of foreign funds in Saudi Arabia; and
  • d the distributor must provide a report to the CMA of all Saudi investors that subscribed for units in the fund.

VI SECTORAL REGULATION

i Insurance

The SAMA regulates the insurance industry in Saudi Arabia. In particular, insurance companies are governed by the Law on Supervision of Co-operative Insurance Companies and its Implementation Regulations, and the Investment Regulations issued by the SAMA.

Every insurance company must adopt an investment policy approved by the SAMA. Any material changes to the investment policy must also be approved by the SAMA.

If the SAMA does not approve the insurance company’s investment policy or the insurance company does not have any investment policy, then the insurance company must adhere to the investment standards set out in Table 1 of the Implementation Regulations (see below), provided that investments outside Saudi Arabia will not exceed 20 per cent of the total investments and are in accordance with Article 59(2) of the Implementation Regulations. Article 59(2) provides that the insurance company must invest 50 per cent of its total invested assets in riyals. The SAMA’s written approval is required if the insurance company wishes to reduce this percentage.

The Regulations are silent on what constitutes investments outside of Saudi Arabia.

Table 1: the Implementation Regulations

Investment type

% for general insurance

% for protection and savings insurance

Saudi authorised banks

20% maximum

10% maximum

Saudi government bonds

20% maximum

10% maximum

Saudi riyal-denominated investment funds

10% maximum

15% maximum

Foreign currency-denominated investment funds

10% maximum

10% maximum

Foreign government bonds

5% maximum

5% maximum

Bonds issued by domestic companies

5% maximum

5% maximum

Bonds issued by foreign companies

5% maximum

5% maximum

Equities

15% maximum

15% maximum

Real estate in Saudi Arabia

0% maximum

5% maximum

Loans secured by real estate mortgages

0%

5% maximum

Loans secured by policies issued by the insurer

0%

5% maximum

Other investments

15% maximum

15% maximum

Insurance companies must take into account the investment concentration risks. Concentration in an investment instrument must not exceed 50 per cent in any one investment instrument mentioned in Table 1.

Insurance companies are prohibited from investing in derivatives, option contracts, hedge funds, deposits with foreign banks, private equity investments and any off-balance sheet instrument, and these should also not form part of the insurance company’s asset allocation unless specifically approved by the SAMA, and must be based on efficient portfolio management justification. An insurance company can, with the approval of the SAMA, invest in derivatives subject to the following conditions:

  • a such derivatives must be listed on a stock exchange, are capable of being readily closed out, are based on underlying admissible asset and have a prescribed pricing basis;
  • b the insurance company must set aside assets that can be used to settle any obligations under these derivatives and set adequate provisions for any adverse changes on the derivatives and their coverage; and
  • c the counterparty must be reputable and in an acceptable financial condition.

Investment in sukuks is allowed provided they are equivalent to bonds and the percentage allocation in them does not conflict with those outlined in Table 1. The maximum limit of allocating sukuks that are issued by local companies in which the government has a significant ownership is 20 per cent, and the solvency margin is equivalent to the government’s participation in the capital.

ii Pensions

There are two large governmental institutions in Saudi Arabia focused on pensions and payments of employee benefits: the Public Pension Agency (PPA) and the General Organisation for Social Insurance (GOSI). Additionally, Saudi Aramco Investment Management Company (SAIMCO), which invests the capital for the Saudi Aramco pension and retirement plans, is a large player. Otherwise, private pension plans are not particularly active players in asset management in Saudi Arabia.

PPA

Government employees in Saudi Arabia are entitled to pensions of up to 80 per cent of their final salary. The PPA, which is a division of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Finance, manages all retirement programmes for civil and military pensioners.

The PPA primarily invests in shares of Saudi Arabian companies listed on the Saudi Arabian Stock Exchange, and it is believed that its local stock market holdings are worth more than 40 billion riyals. However, the PPA also has substantial investments in real estate and fixed income products. The PPA is the largest backer of the King Abdullah Financial District, a massive mixed-use project in Riyadh consisting of 59 towers in an area of 1.6 million square metres and with an estimated cost of 29 billion riyals. The PPA recently announced that it intended to increase its allocation to real estate investments.

GOSI

All employers in Saudi Arabia are obligated to register with the GOSI, and to enrol all Saudi and non-Saudi employees in the GOSI. The payment obligations to GOSI are as follows:

  • a Saudi employees are required to be registered under the Annuities Branch of the GOSI subject to the payment of 18 per cent of the employee’s wage. The employer shall pay 9 per cent of the subscription amount, and the remaining 9 per cent must be deducted from the employee’s salary on a monthly basis; and
  • b Saudi and non-Saudi employees are required to be registered under the Occupational Hazards Branch of the GOSI. The employer shall pay the subscription amount of 2 per cent of the employee’s wage for Saudi and non-Saudi employees.

Over 6 million individuals and corporate bodies are covered by this regime.

GOSI investments are distributed among a number of major investment fields such as cash investments, bonds, loans, shares and real estate investments, but it is primarily focused on international private equity investments. The GOSI follows a long-term investment management strategy that aims to avoid risks, seeks large revenues that enable it to meet its liabilities towards its contributors and beneficiaries, and concentrates on profitable local investments. Although the direct objective of GOSI investments is to maintain fund sustainability to cover the contributors’ insurance benefits, they also indirectly support developmental projects in Saudi Arabia. These investments are usually directed to developmental projects that play an important role in containing labour force and developing human and material resources.

The GOSI has approximately 138 billion riyals invested in shares listed on the Saudi Arabian Stock Exchange, 46 billion riyals in securities and other financial instruments, and 2 billion riyals in real estate assets.

Saudi Aramco

Another active player is Saudi Aramco, the government-owned oil and gas company. Saudi Aramco is quite different from the government entities described above, as it is primarily an industrial operating company, and less frequently associated with the financial services and asset management industries. However, with annual revenues of over US$300 billion, Saudi Aramco is an active investor in technology, energy and venture capital investments both in Saudi Arabia and worldwide. Through its investment management division, SAIMCO, Saudi Aramco invests a substantial portion of its revenues for the benefit of its retirement and pension plans. Saudi Aramco’s energy investments division, Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures, is also an active investor both in Saudi Arabia and abroad.

iii Real property

The Real Estate Finance Regulations were passed in July 2012 and provide a provisional framework for secured and structured finance transactions pertaining to real estate assets. This is a positive development for the potential growth of an asset-backed securitisation market in Saudi Arabia.

Real estate funds are governed by the Real Estate Investment Funds Regulations implemented by the CMA. However, in practice, the CMA has advised that all privately placed real estate funds will be governed by the private placement rules in the Investment Funds Regulations, subject to the circular issued by the CMA in August 2015. The vast majority of private funds in Saudi Arabia are real estate-focused, as Saudi Arabia is in the middle of a real estate boom.

The real estate boom goes hand in hand with the long-anticipated issuance of the Real Estate Registered Mortgage Regulations in July 2012. The Regulations provide the foundation for the creation of all mortgages in Saudi Arabia. The legislation represents a significant milestone in the registration, prioritisation and enforcement of security rights within Saudi Arabia. Many asset managers believe this will increase the liquidity for potential home purchasers in Saudi Arabia, and as a result are keen to acquire and develop properties.

iv Hedge funds

Hedge funds are regulated by the Investment Funds Regulations, which provide specific requirements regarding the diversification parameters and amount of leverage a fund can incur.

Further, the regulations require that all open-ended funds allow for sales and redemptions at least twice a week. These subscription and redemption requirements apply unless formally waived by the CMA. The CMA is likely to provide a waiver for a privately placed investment fund, but not for a public fund offered to retail investors.

v Private equity

As previously mentioned, May 2016 saw the issuance of new draft Investment Funds Regulations, which will become effective in November 2016.

We continue to see an increase in the use of single asset funds for private equity deals. Privately placed CMA funds offer a means to pool Saudi, GCC and foreign investors in a vehicle to acquire an asset, while avoiding the challenges involved in partly foreign-owned limited liability companies making private equity investments in Saudi Arabia.

vi Other sectors

Most investment in Saudi Arabian funds and other vehicles comes from two investor classes: family offices and investment companies, and government entities.

Family groups, such as SEDCO, Olayan, Saudi Binladin, Bin Saedan, Al Rajhi and MASIC, are major players in the asset management field in Saudi Arabia. Many of these groups are now CMA-licensed, and are moving from their traditional roles of managing family money to a new role of raising and managing third-party funds.

While governmental investment vehicles are not as well known as some of the sovereign wealth funds elsewhere in the GCC (such as Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, Qatar Investment Authority and Kuwait Investment Authority), the Saudi Arabian government is a major player in the asset management and investment arenas. The SAMA, the GOSI and Public Investment Fund (PIF) and other government-owned organisations have an estimated US$1.15 trillion under management. The majority of that sum is deployed in non-Saudi investments, although there has been a strong push for these organisations to increase the amounts of their investments in Saudi Arabia. PIF in particular is expected to dramatically grow in size in the foreseeable future as the government intends to convert PIF into the kingdom’s primary sovereign wealth fund and move its stake in Saudi Aramco to PIF. Additionally, PIF made waves in June 2016 when it closed on a US$3.5 billion investment in Uber.

The growth of PIF comes on the heels of the Saudi Arabian government recently establishing two sovereign wealth funds: Sanabil Al-Saudia in 2008 and Hassana Investment Company in 2009. Sanabil and Hassana were established to manage the assets and investments of the PIF and the GOSI, respectively. The intention of these organisations is to diversify the existing investments of the PIF and the GOSI within the various industries of Saudi Arabia, and also to provide training and expertise to Saudi nationals. Additionally, it was announced that Saudi Arabia will establish another sovereign wealth fund, and it is expected that the National Reserve Fund will be officially launched in the near future.

The Islamic Development Bank (IDB) is a multilateral development financing institution owned and funded by 56 primarily Islamic countries spread across the globe and headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. IDB has long invested in infrastructure projects and educational programmes, but is also becoming a more active investor in both regional and international shariah-compliant private equity funds, real estate funds and other alternative investments. Further, IDB, as a highly rated supranational body, has become an important issuer of sukuk, in addition to being an increasingly important and active investor in funds.

While endowments of universities and colleges are not major institutional investors generally in Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah University for Sciences and Technology (KAUST) is a powerful exception. KAUST, which opened in 2009, is an international, graduate-level research university in Saudi Arabia dedicated to inspiring a new age of scientific achievement in Saudi Arabia. With an endowment of approximately US$20 billion, KAUST is a respected, and often approached, institutional investor. Its focus is on the advancement of science and technology to improve the lives of people in Saudi Arabia and the world, but it invests across asset classes both inside and outside of Saudi Arabia.

One of the most active players in the Saudi market is Kingdom Holding Company, a publicly listed company controlled and 95 per cent owned by HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Al Saud. Kingdom Holding invests in a variety of asset classes both inside and outside of Saudi Arabia. As of May 2016, the company had a market capitalisation of US$12.2 billion and nearly US$11.5 billion in assets under management.

VII TAX LAW

Taxation in Saudi Arabia is administered by the Saudi Arabian Department of Zakat and Income Tax (DZIT). The main taxes levied on businesses in Saudi Arabia are income tax on business profits and zakat (i.e., mandatory Islamic charitable giving).

i Zakat and income tax

The tax exposure of wholly Saudi-owned and GCC-owned entities formed in Saudi Arabia is limited to zakat and, for entities formed in other GCC jurisdictions, a withholding tax on dividends and capital gains. A Saudi Arabian corporate vehicle will only be subject to zakat at 2.5 per cent on the higher of its net worth or its profits so long as it is wholly owned by Saudi or GCC shareholders, or both.

To the extent that a portion of a Saudi-domiciled corporate entity is owned by non-GCC foreigners, a corresponding portion of the entity’s profits will be subject to tax at a rate of 20 per cent of such profits. The portion of the entity’s profits corresponding to the ownership by Saudi and GCC shareholders will continue to be subject to zakat at a rate of 2.5 per cent.

The Saudi Arabian tax and zakat regulations provide for the look through of ownership shareholdings in a Saudi LLC from a GCC state to determine whether such shareholding should be subject to income tax. This means that if any of the corporate shareholders in a Saudi-domiciled corporate structure that targets Saudi investments has any non-GCC foreign shareholders, the Saudi-domiciled company will be liable to pay income tax to the extent that its ultimate owners are non-GCC foreigners.

Additionally, in June 2016, the Saudi Arabian cabinet approved the introduction of a tax on undeveloped real estate. While the implementing regulations for the tax are still being introduced, the government intends to impose a 2.5 per cent annual tax on the value of undeveloped urban land.

ii Withholding tax

A withholding tax is payable on payments for income derived from Saudi Arabia made to non-Saudi nationals and companies. The withholding tax will not apply to non-Saudis who are resident in Saudi Arabia or have a permanent establishment in Saudi Arabia.

If a Saudi company or individual makes a payment that is from a source in Saudi Arabia to a non-Saudi, then such payment is subject to withholding tax at various rates depending on the nature of the payment. The withholding tax will not apply to payments made on contracts for goods, but will apply to payments made for services and on interest payments under loan agreements.

A dividend paid by a Saudi Arabian company to a non-Saudi resident shareholder results in a withholding tax at a rate of 5 per cent. This tax will apply to dividends attributable to non-Saudi GCC shareholders and non-GCC foreign shareholders.

Capital gains on the sale of shares in an unlisted company in Saudi Arabia by a non-resident shareholder results in a withholding tax at a rate of 20 per cent on the amount of the gain. This tax will apply to non-Saudi GCC shareholders and non-GCC foreign shareholders.

iii Effect of Saudi tax issues on structuring

To avail itself of the least tax exposure, any corporate vehicle organised in, or conducting business within, Saudi Arabia should be structured so that it is Saudi-domiciled and wholly owned by Saudi or GCC nationals, or both (i.e., foreign investment should not be sought at the Saudi or GCC level) to avoid exposure to income tax at a rate of 20 per cent (on the portion of profits relating to its foreign shareholders); and the exit from the investment is done by a holding entity in Saudi Arabia of the shares in the target company in Saudi Arabia.

A 100 per cent Saudi or other GCC-owned entity incorporated outside the GCC (e.g., in the Cayman Islands) will be treated as a foreign entity for purposes of the regulations in Saudi Arabia.

iv Exceptions

Saudi funds are extremely tax-efficient vehicles. To date, the DZIT has not assessed any taxes on Saudi funds, their investments or unitholders in a Saudi fund. However, the DZIT has reserved the right to tax funds in the future and on a retroactive basis, and in fact, the Shura Council, an influential advisory body to the government, has recommended that closed-ended investment funds be subject to tax. Therefore, it is recommended that parties closely consult with tax advisers in Saudi Arabia and take into consideration the fact that a tax may be applied retroactively.

VIII OUTLOOK

Saudi Arabia has the largest economy in the Middle East. Following the significant slump in the price of oil, the government is maintaining aggressive plans to grow, modernise and and diversify its economy. Accordingly, this is an exciting time for the asset management industry, particularly with the opening of the Saudi Arabian Stock Exchange to foreign investors in June 2015 and the introduction of new regulations intended to spur foreign investment and new products in the kingdom. Additionally, the funds industry in Saudi Arabia has been a success story compared with the rest of the GCC, and locally domiciled funds have flourished. The CMA and other regulators have encouraged this growth and stability, and have been revolutionising the structuring of private equity and real estate deals in Saudi Arabia. As such, it is expected that Saudi Arabian markets will continue to expand in the coming year.

Footnotes

1 Nabil A Issa and James Stull are partners at King & Spalding LLP in association with the Law Office of Mohammad Al Ammar.