Step forward for foreign investors

10 February 2003
The Supreme Economic Council on 2 February approved a revised negative list of activities barred to foreign investors. The changes will allow direct foreign investment in some telecoms activities, insurance and printing (Saudi Arabia, MEED Special Report, 20:9:02, pages 32-36).

The main activities now removed from the list are: telex services; cable services; electronic data exchange; advanced extra fax services; mobile satellite services; internet service provision; online information provision; printing presses; radio and television studios; foreign media outlets; public relations and advertising; and insurance.

The revision has been eagerly awaited since the list was first published in February 2001, when the government announced it would be changed annually. However, investors will be disappointed that the more significant parts of the telecoms sector - GSM and fixed-line services - remain on the list. They are not expected to be opened up to investors until the kingdom accedes to the World Trade Organisation.

Nevertheless, the newly permitted sectors offer an array of business opportunities. The internet service provision market is very overcrowded, but mainly consists of small companies with low profit margins - potentially strong candidates for take-over and consolidation. Mobile satellite services are already practised in the kingdom by foreign companies, so in this case the list is effectively formalising an existing arrangement.

Insurance is the other major business sector to be opened up. However, the revision specifies it will only become open once the new insurance law that will liberalise the sector is passed. A number of Western insurance companies already operate in the kingdom through relationships with banks or as subsidiary offices of their Gulf headquarters.

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