Clerics, credit, jingoism: Aramco casts IPO net

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A billboard displaying an advert for Aramco in the Saudi capital Riyadh. AFP

(AFP) – From taboo-busting religious support to easy credit and fervent jingoism, Saudi Arabia pulled out all the stops to prop up Aramco’s IPO but it is unlikely to be the blockbuster it once hoped for.

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The world’s most profitable company is seeking to raise around $25 billion – a fraction of the $100 billion it once sought – from its much-delayed initial public offering that is heavily focused on domestic and Gulf investors.

The sale of 1.5 percent of the energy giant has so far been oversubscribed 1.7 times, it said last week after its retail tranche ended, with bidding for institutional investors set to close on Wednesday.

That however pales in comparison to Saudi Arabia’s other blockbuster listings, including the 2014 IPO of the National Commercial Bank, the kingdom’s biggest lender, which was oversubscribed more than 23 times.

In 2006, a record 10 million Saudis – roughly one in two of the population – subscribed to property developer Emaar’s IPO while Aramco attracted only about half as many retail investors.

“Preparations for the public listing of Aramco… have stepped up a gear but the signs are that it is unlikely to be the blockbuster sale that the kingdom once hoped for,” said Capital Economics.

The sale is on course to beat Chinese retail giant Alibaba’s $25 billion record IPO in 2014, but “the proceeds would barely cover the kingdom’s budget deficit for a year”, the research group added.

Barring a last-minute surge from institutional investors, interest appears relatively muted despite a nationwide advertising blitz, banks offering easy “IPO loans” and nationalists calling for investment as a patriotic duty.

Aramco also dangled sweeteners for local investors, including promises of higher dividends and the possibility of bonus shares if they hold on to the stock.

But in an ultra-conservative nation promoting what observers call a de-emphasis on religion amid Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s sweeping modernisation drive, some Saudis say they are torn between conflicting religious advice.

Senior cleric Abdullah al-Mutlaq sought to drum up support for the IPO, saying it was “halal”, or permissible in Islam, and that even religious scholars were likely to participate.

But influential cleric Abdelaziz al-Fawzan, who campaigners say was arrested last year, claimed in a video that resurfaced recently on social media that part of the IPO was not compliant with Islamic principles.

“I want to subscribe (to the IPO) but… Fawzan says it’s usury and Mutlaq says it’s halal. We are lost between them,” said one Twitter user.

Some of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest families have been pressed to take part.

That reportedly includes billionaire tycoon Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal who was among several businessmen locked in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel during a 2017 crackdown on corruption.

“If I don’t invest people will say ‘I am not patriotic’,” a Riyadh-based businessman told AFP.

“There’s so much hype: ‘Prince Al-Waleed is investing, Malaysian investors are investing, it’s very safe’ – but I cannot forget 2006,” he added, explaining his decision to steer clear.

The businessman said he lost around one million riyals ($267,000) in the kingdom’s worst stock market crash in 2006, much of which came through three bank loans that he is still repaying.

But a senior government figure dismissed such concerns.

“Aramco extracts oil from the ground for barely $3 a barrel,” he told AFP.

“Even if crude prices stay low Aramco will remain highly profitable for a long time, generating wealth for its investors.”

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