It’s what you can’t see—the oil beneath the Arabian sands—that potential investors in Saudi Aramco’s on-again, off-again initial public offering (IPO) ought to focus on. The truth about the remaining oil resources beneath the Saudi desert continues to be a state secret. I’ll elaborate on this after a little background to set the context.
Recently, Saudi Aramco, the state-owned Saudi oil company, delayed its planned IPO again. For those who missed the previous time, plans for the IPO first came to light in 2016 as part of Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision, essentially a plan to diversify the country’s economy away from heavy dependence on oil. The feverish attention the proposed IPO produced abated when the world’s largest company unexpectedly withdrew it in 2018. The financial firms advising the government were let go as the government looked for other ways to raise money for its 2030 Vision plans.
And yet, the IPO idea remained a possibility and was later revived. The problem has been that both times the IPO looked like it was about to happen, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia got cold feet, worried that it might not get the $100 billion it wants for 5 percent of the company.
Initial hopes of listings on prominent international exchanges such as the New York Stock Exchange and the London Stock Exchange have long since been abandoned. But the most recent IPO attempt was to be made wholly on Saudi Arabia’s own domestic exchange. Even that apparently looked like it might fail.
So, the big question is why. The answer is probably right beneath the Saudis’ feet: The oil under Saudi sands—or rather the uncertainty about the amount of extractable oil that still lies there.
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