Bloomberg’s Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait and five other Bloomberg journalists spent five hours talking to Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, second deputy premier and minister of defense, in Riyadh. In the wide-ranging interview, Prince Muhammad discussed selling shares of Saudi Aramco, the National Transformation Program, energy markets and US-Saudi relations.
Below is a full transcript of that interview.
Bloomberg: The National Transformation Plan, when do you expect that to appear and what do you expect to be in it?
Deputy Crown Prince: We will first launch the vision for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia within a month under which there will be a number of programs, one of which is the National Transformation Program.
Bloomberg: Could you perhaps tell us a little bit about the role of the Public Investment Fund and the privatization. What structure will it come under the PIF?
Deputy Crown Prince: The Public Investment Fund is one of the programs that will fall under the vision of the Kingdom. It will be launched after the National Transformation Program. We aim to increase the size of the Public Investment Fund by restructuring the funds, and some of the companies and assets owned by the fund today. We believe there’s a great opportunity to increase profitability through introducing new assets, most important of which are Aramco and some huge real estate assets.
Bloomberg: Would Sabic come into the PIF as well?
Deputy Crown Prince: Saudi Arabia, through PIF, owns the majority of Sabic shares, no less than 70 percent of it.
Bloomberg: In terms of looking at Saudi Aramco, just to deal with that, you would hope to have it privatized or have its shares sold next year, in 2017?
Deputy Crown Prince: I’m trying to push for it to be in 2017. Aramco will greatly benefit, not only the fund, but also the Saudi economy as a whole. By simply transferring the shares of Saudi Aramco to PIF will make PIF the largest fund on Earth. Aramco has other benefits to the economy. Many were saying that the idea of IPOing Aramco was just an attempt to get liquidity to cover Saudi financial needs, but that’s far from the truth. The objective is to diversify income. This is the main objective.
Therefore, IPOing Aramco and transferring its shares to PIF will technically make investments the source of Saudi government revenue, not oil. However, investments are mostly in oil. What is left now is to diversify investments. So within 20 years, we will be an economy or state that doesn’t depend mainly on oil, whether from profits of the PIF or other sources of income that we target. So this is one of the benefits of listing Aramco, other than the benefit to the Saudi market, the benefit to the Saudi economy in general and the benefit to the continuity of Aramco and its growth.
Bloomberg: Your plan is to list Saudi Aramco in Saudi and to make it open to foreign investors?
Deputy Crown Prince: There’s no doubt about that.
Bloomberg: And your plan is for Saudi Aramco as a whole, not just to list the refineries?
Deputy Crown Prince: The mother company will be offered to the public as well as a number of its subsidiaries. We will also announce Aramco’s new strategy and will transform it from an oil and gas company to an energy/industrial company.
Bloomberg: Can you give us some idea of the size? Will the size of these new assets, the industrial and the downstream bits of Aramco, will that be as big as the upstream production bits?
Deputy Crown Prince: We’re targeting many projects. Most important is building the first solar energy plant in Saudi Arabia. Aramco is now the biggest company in the world and it has the capability of controlling the shape of energy in the future and we want to venture into that from today. Also, we want to develop the petrochemicals market that depends on oil and the services provided by some of the oil derivatives as well as some of the industries that we might create given the size of Aramco. For example, we could create a huge construction company under Aramco that will also be offered to the public and that services projects other than Aramco’s projects in Saudi. So all these projects that we announce will be how we transform Aramco from an oil and gas company to an industrial and an energy company.
Bloomberg: Would you put the downstream assets of Sabic with those of Aramco, including things like petrochemicals? Is that part of the dream to put those together?
Deputy Crown Prince: Sabic and Aramco are two independent companies, but both will have a majority ownership by PIF. We as owners, it’s important to us not to have conflict between our companies. There was a conflict between the two companies that we resolved over the past few months. This will increase the profitability of both Aramco and Sabic.
Bloomberg: Is your aim for the refineries to build particularly in Asia or are you looking elsewhere?
Deputy Crown Prince: We target emerging markets like China, India, South Africa, Indonesia. We believe these are the main markets that we are targeting. We’re also targeting the U.S. market, including the recent deal we’ve made with Shell.
Bloomberg: And that was all part of directing Saudi Aramco toward the bigger refinery market?
Deputy Crown Prince: Correct.
Bloomberg: Saudi Arabia has always had a relationship with America, whether it’s oil going in one direction and security going in the other. Do you have a similar ambition with China?
Deputy Crown Prince: Our partnership with the US is huge. Oil is only a small part of it. Oil was just the beginning for us.
Bloomberg: Very quickly on the Public Investment Fund, you confirm that the person you’ve selected to sort of run that will be Yasir Alrumayyan. He is the beginning of the management of this new bigger organization.
Deputy Crown Prince: Yes, first of all, the fund’s board has changed. It was chaired by the finance minister. Approximately a year ago this has changed. Now, it is chaired by the chairman of the Economic Development Council. The board of directors was also restructured and we worked on restructuring the fund. At the same time, we made use of the available opportunities. We worked on this file through a number of workshops during the first few days, then we created a team and we selected Yasir Alrumayyan to lead this team.
Bloomberg: What is his position exactly? Is he CEO?
Deputy Crown Prince: No, he is now the general secretary of the board that follows the vision and the strategy of the board.
Bloomberg: When you said that the PIF will become the world’s biggest fund, what would be its size and how quickly do you think you’ll get to that level.
Deputy Crown Prince: I believe this will happen as soon as Aramco goes public.
Bloomberg: How much money?
Deputy Crown Prince: It’s hard to evaluate Aramco now, but we’re working on it. However, undoubtedly, it will be larger than the largest fund on earth. We will surpass $2 trillion.
Bloomberg: How much of Aramco will be listed initially?
Deputy Crown Prince: We’re talking about less than 5 percent.
Bloomberg: And it will be listed in 2017?
Deputy Crown Prince: We’re trying to achieve that, but without a doubt it will be in the market by 2018.
Bloomberg: Between now and 2020, how much do you expect to generate and what are the measures that you will push to generate extra non-oil revenue?
Deputy Crown Prince: By 2020, we are aiming to have extra revenue exceeding $100 billion. We did a quick fix in 2015 which increased our non-oil revenue by 35 percent. This year, we’re trying to target over $25 billion. I believe we will succeed in achieving more than $10 billion in non-oil revenue in 2016.
Bloomberg: You’ve talked about privatizing many things as well as Saudi Aramco, can you give us some idea of which industries you’ll get to target first?
Deputy Crown Prince: The most important sectors are the healthcare and services sectors. Healthcare, we are trying to get rid of all the assets owned by the government and transfer them into a holding company. We are trying to push for more health insurance by convincing the citizens that services provided through health insurance are better than the free healthcare services, and faster for them. We will also transfer our health treatment programs abroad to domestic programs and we will also incentivize our partners abroad to invest in healthcare locally. Regarding the services sector, we have a number of entities that have privatized a lot of their services such as the interior ministry. We are trying to encourage the rest of the services ministries to follow in their footsteps. I believe we have the knowledge and the know-how.
Bloomberg: On the non-oil revenue measures, I assume VAT would be one of those measures. Could you share on record other measures?
Deputy Crown Prince: Yes, we have the sin tax, energy drinks and soda drinks tax. We are working on a specific program similar to the green card. Some fees might be on luxury items and as we said earlier, restructuring subsidies. So it’s a large package of programs that aims to restructure some revenue-generating sectors.
Bloomberg: How threatening is the drop in the price of oil to Saudi Arabia and how might that impede these plans, this vision that you have?
Deputy Crown Prince: I don’t believe that the decline in oil prices poses a threat to us. We have a great capability to reduce spending like we did in ’97, but we don’t believe that we will need to resort to that even if oil prices were low. We are working on increasing the efficiency of spending. We succeeded in many things in 2015, from lowering the deficit which could have reached $250 billion to less than $100 billion, increasing our non-oil revenue by 35 percent. It was estimated that we were going to spend over $300 billion in 2015, but we succeeded in spending less. The government used to exceed allocated budget expenditure by more than 25 percent and in some cases up to 40 percent. In 2015, we succeeded in reducing this gap to 12 percent, so I don’t believe that we have a real problem when it comes to low oil prices. We’ve done plenty of quick fixes in 2015 and we’ve implemented tools that regulate our spending and regulate achieving revenue and liquidity.
Bloomberg: So in a way an oil price of 30-40-50 dollars spurs reforms that you want to push forward.
Deputy Crown Prince: For us, it’s a free market that is governed by supply and demand and this is how we deal with the market.
Bloomberg: But you’re happy with supply and demand ending up with a price in those ranges?
Deputy Crown Prince: We try to focus on the non-oil economy and we have taken precautions for when prices go lower.
Bloomberg: You have the upcoming meeting in Doha in April 17th. Will a freeze be enough?
Deputy Crown Prince: If all countries agree to freeze production, we’re ready.
Bloomberg: So will Saudi Arabia insist that Iran joins the production freeze?
Deputy Crown Prince: Without a doubt. If all countries including Iran, Russia, Venezuela, OPEC countries and all main producers decide to freeze production, we will be among them.
Bloomberg: But would you be happy freezing without Iran, if all the other producers are prepared to freeze would you be prepared to freeze production even if Iran continues.
Deputy Crown Prince: If there is anyone that decides to raise their production, then we will not reject any opportunity that knocks on our door.
Bloomberg: Looking forward in terms of demand and supply, do you think there was a time in which oil demand peaks and how close are we to that ?
Deputy Crown Prince: It’s very hard to predict, but we believe that oil demand will increase over the next few years and we expect there to be a correction over the next two years.
Bloomberg: Just very quickly on the issue of America, you have Mr. Obama coming to Saudi Arabia. He has talked about the relationship with you being a bit complicated at the moment. Do you still see America as the policeman of the Middle East?
Deputy Crown Prince: America is the policeman of the world, not just the Middle East. It is the number one country in the world and we consider ourselves to be the main ally for the U.S. in the Middle East and we see America as our ally as well.
Bloomberg: Is there a deal nearing on Syria at all?
Deputy Crown Prince: Syria’s situation is very complex and difficult. We are trying to make sure any movement in the future will be positive rather than negative.
Bloomberg: The prospects of a Trump presidency. He has made certain noises about Saudi Arabia.
Deputy Crown Prince: We don’t interfere in the elections of any other country and as a Saudi, I don’t think that I have the right to comment on US elections.
Bloomberg: Do you expect the war in Yemen to be entering its final phase and how do you see it.
Deputy Crown Prince: There is significant progress in negotiations, and we have good contacts with the Houthis, with a delegation currently in Riyadh. We believe that we are closer than ever to a political solution in Yemen. So we are pushing to have this opportunity materialize on the ground, but if things relapse, we are ready.
Bloomberg: In the long run, is Saudi Arabia not better off with oil at a $100 than $40?
Deputy Crown Prince: This question can have two possible aspects. The rise in oil prices is beneficial to us, however it poses a threat to the lifespan of oil. The decline in oil prices poses a drop in revenue for us, but we are adjusting to market conditions, whatever they may be.
Bloomberg: This is a question that I probably should have asked earlier. If you talk to anybody analyzing Saudi economically now and investors they’ve mentioned delayed government payments to construction companies or to companies in general. Is this something that is temporary and will it be sped up?
Deputy Crown Prince: There’s no doubt this issue will be dealt with. What causes this commotion is that we were trying to avoid a bigger danger. We tried to compile all decrees over the last few years and we found that ministries could commit to more than $1 trillion based on these decrees. There were also decisions approved six years ago and to this day, no contractual agreements were made by these entities. However, these entities still had the power to sign on more than $1 trillion. If passed, this would have been a catastrophe. So we froze them in 2015 and abolished three quarters of them that had no contractual commitment. The remaining quarter are things that have contractual agreements and things that we need to move forward on. We’ve started to restructure the process of handling them which is what caused this confusion in the past. But no doubt we are committed to any contractual agreements made by the Saudi government. But there was a grave danger and we were able to avert it.
Bloomberg: So going forward, things will be streamlined again?
Deputy Crown Prince: True, a number of companies have already been paid and the rest is on the way.
Bloomberg: Would that include Bin Ladin and Saudi Oger?
Deputy Crown Prince: No doubt. The problem with Saudi Oger is different to one we have here in Saudi. We have paid them many installments, but they have debt in and out of Saudi. So as soon as money is transferred to their bank accounts, the bank withdraws it. Saudi Oger can’t cover their own labor costs. That’s not our problem, that’s Saudi Oger’s. The contract between us and Saudi Oger, we will honor it. But if the bank withdraws our installments and Saudi Oger can’t pay a thing to its own contractors and workers, that’s their own problem. They can take them to court.
Bloomberg: So the government will not intervene in this issue of unpaid workers.
Deputy Crown Prince: We did not receive any complaints from contractors with Saudi Oger or workers. And no legal action has been taken against Saudi Oger, but as soon as they take legal action, no doubt the government’s role is to protect them.
Bloomberg: Can I ask you a familiar question about Saudi Arabian women through the prism of the economy. You’ve been championing the private sector. You’re a champion of privatization, but one of your most underused resources in the economy is women. You know what an issue it is with foreigners coming here, they look at the gleaming new King Abdullah Financial District and they still ask questions about why women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia. Is this something you want to push for or tackle?
Deputy Crown Prince: I just want to remind the world that American women had to wait long to get their right to vote. So we need time. We have taken many steps. In King Salman’s time, women were able to vote for the first time and 20 women won in these elections. Women can now work in any sector. In business and commerce, as a lawyer, in the political field and in all sectors. Women can carry out any jobs they want. What is left is that we support women for the future and I don’t think there are obstacles we can’t overcome.
Bloomberg: Do you see that as a particular project of yours to promote Saudi women in a new way.
Deputy Crown Prince: No doubt. We look at citizens in general and women are half of this society and we want it to be a productive half.
Bloomberg: In terms of the Public Investment Fund’s Strategy, is the fund looking at any banks, in particular buying the RBS stake in Saudi Hollandi?
Deputy Crown Prince: We have stakes in some banks. Three banks in Saudi, the largest stake is in the National Commercial Bank. There are two opportunities outside of Saudi Arabia being discussed at the moment, but I cannot disclose that information as we have yet to complete them. I believe that we will conclude at least one of them.
Bloomberg: Just on this point, I realize that you can’t give details, but you’re looking at financial assets outside of Saudi Arabia?
Deputy Crown Prince: We are seeking profitability. There are assets in Saudi Arabia that we would like to capitalize on through the fund and any future investment opportunities, we will be looking at profitably whether it’s inside Saudi or abroad.
Bloomberg: But you said there are things you are looking at right now, are they in Saudi Arabia?
Deputy Crown Prince: No, abroad. In the region.
Bloomberg: In the financial sector.
Deputy Crown Prince: That’s right.