Doing Business in Saudi Arabia: Options and Overview for Foreign Investors and Companies

Wassem Amin SAUDI

(Note: This Article was originally published the American Bar Association, Section of International Law Quarterly Newsletter in March 2014.  For a downloadable copy of the newsletter, click here.)

By: Wassem M. Amin, Esq. MBA*

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the fastest growing economies in the Middle East. In 2013, the government increased its budget by more than 20% than the previous year, to approximately 820 Billion Saudi Riyals ($219 Billion). Additionally, Saudi’s King Abdullah pledged more than $500 billion on social welfare and infrastructure projects over the next few years. Saudi Arabia’s increased spending is part of its policy to create economic diversification and reform, in turn decreasing their dependence on oil revenue and creating new jobs for the local population.

A large proportion of the Government’s spending, approximately 300 billion Riyals, has been allocated to capital expenditures on investment projects and social infrastructure. Ambitious plans include building 539 new schools and universities, as well as the development of several new cities in the sprawling desert kingdom.
The biggest beneficiary of this expansionary policy is the construction industry. Demand in the construction and associated sectors, such as residential and commercial real estate development, will increase exponentially, representing an excellent market opportunity for foreign investors and international corporations seeking to enter the Saudi market.

Applicability of Islamic Finance

Construction projects in Saudi Arabia are typically either public or private. The governing law which applies to all contracts, including construction, is Shari’a, or Islamic, law. General principles of Islamic Finance are applicable, such as the duty to act reasonably, in good faith, and to mitigate losses.

In the private sector, within the construction sector specifically, the Islamic Finance principle that applies is the “istisna’a” contract, which is a contract for the sale of an asset that is yet to be constructed or manufactured. Using this structure, the party providing capital, the financier, enters into a contract with the purchaser of the building to be constructed. Usually the financier, whether a bank or investor, will then enter into a back-to-back construction contract with a general contractor for the project. The financier realizes a profit from the spread between the cost of the construction contract and the price of the purchase contract.

Public Works Contracts

However, in the public sector, specific regulations and a complex legal framework govern bidding for public works, as well the interpretation and enforcement of underlying contracts. While still generally subject to Islamic Law principles, public works contracts are considered administrative contracts and are subject to the Government Bids and Procurement Law, implemented with associated regulations.

Establishing a Foreign Presence in Saudi Arabia

Recent amendments in the law and a shift in policy by the government to attract foreign direct investment have made it easier than ever for a foreign company or investor to establish business operations in Saudi Arabia. Although there are a variety of business organizations in Saudi Arabia, the most commonly used by foreign companies in undertaking construction projects are Limited Liability Companies (LLCs). That is due to the relative ease of incorporating an LLC (as opposed to, for example, a Joint Stock Company), minimal capitalization requirements, and the requirement of less corporate governance formalities.

The actual procedure of establishing an LLC in Saudi Arabia is typically a two-step process: (1) First, the foreign partner applies to the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) for a foreign investment license; (2) Second, once SAGIA issues the license, the partners in the proposed LLC apply to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in order to incorporate the company. Once approved, the Ministry will certify the formation documents of the LLC and issue a commercial registration certificate–which permits the LLC to begin operating in the Kingdom legally.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Investment Regulations give foreign investors a variety of options in determining how to conduct business operations in the Kingdom. However, regardless of the option chosen, if a physical commercial presence is established, foreign investors must first obtain a foreign capital investment license from the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA). The following section gives an overview of the other options that may be feasible

Overview of Saudi Arabian Business Entities and Markets

Investments in Saudi Arabia may be through the formation of a new business entity or through the acquisition of assets or equity in an existing company. Commercial enterprises by foreign companies may be structured as any of the following: (1) joint ventures, (2) wholly owned subsidiaries, (3) local branches of a foreign company; or (4) representative or agent offices.

The principal body of law governing commercial enterprises in Saudi Arabia is the Companies Regulation, which is enforced and regulated by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. In some circumstances, an enterprise may be subject to the rules and regulations of additional regulatory bodies such as the Saudi Arabian Stock Exchange (Tadawul), the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA), or the Capital Market Authority (CMA).

In terms of the legal type of entity established, foreign investors have several options to consider–depending largely on the scope and type of the proposed enterprise as well as the investor’s exit strategy. The types of entities are: (1) Joint Stock Company; (2) Limited Liability Company; (3) Joint Venture; (4) Branches of foreign companies; and (5) Technical and Scientific offices of foreign companies.

Joint Stock Company (JSC): JSCs are the most analogous entity to a C-Corporation in the United States. They may be wholly foreign owned and are typically established with the intent towards a future public offering and listing on the Saudi Stock Exchange (Tadawul). A minimum of 5 shareholders and 3 directors on the board of directors is required. The minimum initial capitalization required is 2 Million Saudi Riyals (SR), which rises up to SR10 Million if the JSC will issue publicly traded shares.

Limited Liability Company (LLC): As with JSCs, Saudi law permits an LLC to be wholly foreign owned and managed. LLCs must have at least 2, but not more than 50, member-investors. Each member owns a pro-rata equity share equal to the uniform nominal value. Liability of individual members, under most circumstances, is limited to the member’s paid-in capital. Minimum initial capitalization for an LLC with any foreign members is typically SR500,000. However, for certain industries, such as agricultural or industrial projects, the minimum capital may be much higher. Unlike JSCs, LLCs do not issue shares and cannot be publicly traded on the Saudi Arabian Stock Exchange.

Joint Ventures – LLCs and JSCs may both be wholly owned or established with a Saudi business partner. The decision to establish a Saudi partner may be mandatory in some fields, such as establishing a branch of international law firm. However, in other cases, a foreign investor may benefit from a Saudi partner’s expertise and familiarity of the local market, customs, and traditions. The risks and benefits of doing so must be carefully analyzed after thorough due diligence is conducted.

Branches of Foreign Companies – Branch offices are set up to represent foreign companies in Saudi Arabia. Similarly to JSCs or LLCs, branch offices are allowed to engage in direct business activities. However, their scope of business is limited to that of the parent company.

Technical and Scientific Offices (TSOs) – TSOs are easily set up in Saudi Arabia and are usually established when a foreign company enters into long-term distribution or agency arrangements with local companies. However, their scope of allowed commercial activity is limited to providing technical support and assistance to local distributors, agents, and consumers. TSOs are prohibited from engaging in any direct business activities.

Other Commercial Arrangements – Distribution arrangements may be done through a joint venture with a Saudi partner or by appointing a local distributor or agent on your behalf. Other options, such as franchising or a direct international sale, may also be available, depending on the type of service or product the foreign company offers.

Saudi Arabia is a lucrative market for foreign companies and investors. At a time when the market in the United Arab Emirates is beginning to get stagnant and saturated, Saudi Arabia remains ripe with opportunities. However, the cultural, political, and legal landscape is complex and varies dramatically from that of countries such as the USA or in Europe. Unaccustomed foreign companies or investors should seek out advisory or legal firms who are proficient and have expertise in Saudi Arabia.
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Disclaimer: These materials have been prepared by Wassem M. Amin, Esq. for informational purposes only and are not legal advice. The material posted on this web site is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, a lawyer-client relationship, and readers should not act upon it without seeking professional counsel.

Wassem M. Amin, Esq., MBA is an Associate Attorney at Dhar Law LLP in Boston, MA and is the Vice Chairman of the Middle East Committee as well as the Islamic Finance Committee of the American Bar Association’s International Law Section. Wassem has extensive experience in the Middle East region, having worked as a consultant in the area for over 9 years. Wassem currently focuses his practice on Business Immigration (EB-5 Regional Center and Investor Representation) and International Business Transactions. For more information, please visit the About Us page or http://www.dharlawllp.com.

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