Saudi minister and US counterpart agree road map for cooperation in energy sector

The Saudi minister of energy, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, and the US secretary of energy, Jennifer Granholm, on Wednesday agreed a road map for cooperation between the countries in the sector. (X/ @MoEnergy_Saudi)
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Updated 15 May 2024
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Saudi minister and US counterpart agree road map for cooperation in energy sector

  • During meeting in Riyadh, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman and Jennifer Granholm discuss ways to enhance energy-related collaborations
  • They also review Kingdom’s efforts to tackle climate change through local and regional initiatives, including the Saudi and the Middle East green initiatives

RIYADH: The Saudi minister of energy, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, and the US secretary of energy, Jennifer Granholm, on Wednesday agreed a road map for cooperation between the countries in the sector.
During a meeting in Riyadh, they also discussed ways in which collaborations might be enhanced in energy-related fields such as carbon management, clean hydrogen, nuclear energy, electricity and renewables, innovation, energy-sector supply chain resilience, and energy efficiency. The two countries signed a Partnership Framework for Advancing Clean Energy in July, 2022.
The officials also reviewed the Kingdom’s efforts to tackle climate change through local and regional initiatives based on a circular carbon economy, including the Saudi and the Middle East green initiatives, the ministry said.
The new road map represents a joint plan for energy cooperation that establishes a timeline and outlines critical projects for collaboration, officials said.
Both sides agreed to engage in various activities to implement the road map, including: exchanges of knowledge on policies related to the joint plans, such as standards and regulatory frameworks; enhancement of joint research and development, especially in the field of new technologies; and the building of human capital through training and exchanges of expertise.


Saudi banking sector fuels economic growth and inclusion via digital transformation 

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Saudi banking sector fuels economic growth and inclusion via digital transformation 

RIYADH: The digital revolution within Saudi Arabia’s banking sphere has significantly enhanced the nation’s economic panorama, facilitating effortless financial transactions for customers, experts have told Arab News.

Situated in the heart of the Middle East, the Kingdom stands out not just for its deep-rooted history and cultural legacy but also for its swift embrace of digital advancements, notably within the banking domain.

In recent years, the nation has undergone a significant transformation in its banking sector, propelled by the ambitious Vision 2030 program led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

This visionary endeavor seeks to broaden the economic landscape, diminish reliance on oil income, and propel the country forward into a new age of prosperity. 

In an interview with Arab News, Saudi-based economist Talat Hafiz set out how the digital transformation has positively impacted the overall economic landscape of the country. 

Hafiz said: “It has allowed (customers) to perform financial transactions and conduct financial businesses related transactions real-time around the clock and year round, which has facilitated  doing business in the Kingdom and in turn have reflected positively on the overall economy, as it has saved time and efforts and ultimately cost reduction to businesses.”

Fabrice Franzen, partner at Bain & Co., told Arab News that the Kingdom has been one of the first countries to avail full digital banking licenses without the need for branches. 

“SAMA (Saudi Central Bank) has actively promoted the digital bank model, and three licenses were issued to local investors and companies, which should go live imminently,” he added.

Franzen anticipated that this should create healthy competition with the traditional players and drive further innovation and enhance customer experience.

Infrastructure and government support

The journey toward digitalization commenced with substantial investments in telecommunications infrastructure. 

This effort positioned Saudi Arabia as a frontrunner in digital regulatory maturity and network speed among G20 nations. 

According to the International Telecommunication Union’s Digital Regulatory Maturity Index, the Kingdom secured the top spot in the Middle East and Africa and ranked ninth among G20 countries. 

Notably, Saudi Arabia stood sixth globally in terms of the fastest data download speed in fifth-generation networks, showcasing its remarkable progress. 

The rise of digital banks and banking solutions

STC Bank was given the go-ahead in 2021. Screenshot

Demonstrating the government’s backing for digital transformation within the banking sphere, the Saudi Cabinet greenlit the licensing of two local digital banks in 2021: STC Bank and the Saudi Digital Bank.

This involved the conversion of stc pay into a local digital bank, now known as “STC Bank,” equipped to conduct banking operations in the Kingdom with a capital of SR2.5 billion ($670 million). 

Furthermore, an alliance of companies and investors spearheaded by Abdul Rahman bin Saad Al-Rashed and Sons Co. established another local facility named the Saudi Digital Bank, with a capital of SR1.5 billion. 

The introduction of the Saudi Arabian Riyal Interbank Express, also known as SARIE – which translates literally from Arabic as “fast” – marked a significant turning point for the digital banking sector in the Kingdom. 

This system not only boosts the efficiency of the national payment infrastructure but also aligns seamlessly with the ongoing developmental trajectory observed within the Kingdom’s payments sector.

According to Hafiz, this system provides the mechanism for all Saudi commercial banks to make and settle payments in riyals. 

The economist added: “It provides the basis for improved banking products and services and is the foundation for the payments system strategy of the Kingdom.” 

Hafiz asserted that SARIE is a “state-of-the-art payment,” as it provides the mechanism for banks to exchange funds transfer and direct debit messages safely and efficiently on behalf of their customers as well as for their own trading purposes. 

SAMA has consistently demonstrated a strong interest in promoting safety and enhancing efficiency within payment systems, aligning with its overarching focus on financial stability, according to the economist. 

As a result, the central bank plays a pivotal role in both the development and operation of payment systems in the Kingdom. 

SARIE, for Hafiz, has undoubtedly represented a significant milestone, profoundly impacting consumer behavior and the operational efficiency of financial institutions across the nation.

Saudi Arabia’s support for fintech companies

The rollout of accelerator programs aimed at bolstering the expansion of emerging fintech companies marked a significant catalyst for the sector’s advancement. 

This initiative was crafted to facilitate the transfer of best practices, tools, and resources to empower emerging firms in the financial technology domain, fostering their growth and amplifying their presence within the Kingdom.

SAMA has been actively supporting the emergence of the fertile fintech scene in Saudi Arabia, providing a wide range of licensing options, according to Bain and Co. 

“Local investors (institutional, family offices) are also actively investing in fintech, providing a healthy flow of seed capital and supporting subsequent capital raises,” the partner told AN.

He added that Saudi fintechs benefit from a sizable domestic market of over 30 million residents, enabling rapid scaling.

Hafiz noted the significance of this program particularly when it comes to supporting new startup fintech companies because such programs are carefully designed to help fintech companies accelerate their growth by providing different services that help them through a fast-track program to scale up their businesses. 

“The national Fintech Strategy goals and objectives are to create 525 Fintech companies in the Kingdom that create 18,000 Fintech job opportunities and contribute SR13.3 billion to the Kingdom’s Gross Domestic Product by 2030,” the economist highlighted.

The Saudi Central Bank has supported the growing fintech scene in the Kingdom. File

Rapid growth in electronic payments

By the end of 2021, the retail sector in the Kingdom witnessed a significant milestone in digital transformation: electronic payments accounted for 57 percent of total transactions, surpassing the target set by Vision 2030, according to data from the central bank. 

Additionally, Saudi Arabia achieved the highest adoption rate of Near Field Communication, NFC, payments, reaching 94 percent, outpacing even nations in the EU, as well as Hong Kong, Canada, and the Middle East and North Africa region.

Financial literacy and inclusion

Financial inclusion in Saudi Arabia aims to provide affordable financial services to all citizens, aligning with government efforts to enhance financial literacy and economic participation. 

This is becoming a major concern for the financial authorities in Saudi Arabia, according to Hafiz. 

He attributed it to the aim of making financial services available to all individuals in the Kingdom at affordable pricing, supporting the government’s efforts connected to raising the financial literacy in the society. 

One of the main goals and objectives of the Financial Sector Development Program – a Saudi Vision 2030 program – is to raise individuals’ financial literacy through proper financial planning and investment.

“Policymakers in Saudi Arabia have implemented robust policies that encourage and ensure the enhancement of financial inclusion, since it has been identified as imperative for economic growth,” Hafiz added.

According to Franzen, the Financial Services Development Program has set an ambitious trajectory to develop the sector as a way to support financial inclusion, literacy, and efficiencies.

“This is benefiting the economy and Saudi citizens as they have enhanced access to cheaper and more secure banking solutions,” he added.

Diverse digital banking ecosystem

The digital banking landscape in Saudi Arabia is vibrant, offering a range of services to cater to evolving consumer needs. 

“With three full digital banking licenses approved, Saudi Arabia is at the forefront of promoting full digital banking solutions – at par with the UAE and well ahead of other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries,” Franzen said.

He observed that the Kingdom could rely on advanced regulations for biometric customer identification and centralized databases, greatly easing digital onboarding and authentication.

Online banks, neo-banks, challenger banks, and Banking-as-a-Service all play roles in the digital revolution. 

“While neo-banks and challenger banks are still nascent in the market, one should expect that they will drive a higher speed of innovation and will put pressure on traditional players,” Bain and Co. partner emphasized.

“Similar trends have been observed in other markets such as the UK when new digital banks came to challenge the High Street incumbents,” he continued, adding: “This has led to cheaper and more reliable financial services becoming the norm in the UK market (no or very low fees, instant solutions), to the benefit of the customer.” 

According to a report by KPMG, a global network of professional firms providing financial services, neo-banks hold a 20 percent market share in Saudi Arabia’s digital banking sector.

Furthermore, online banks claim 30 percent, while the Banking-as-a-Service segment is projected to reach a market valuation of $7 trillion by 2030, with a yearly growth rate of 26 percent.

Enhanced customer experience

Banks are prioritizing improving customer experience through advanced technologies. AI-driven chatbots offer instant support, and data analytics enables personalized financial advice. These advancements streamline operations and cultivate customer loyalty.

“In Saudi Arabia, 95 percent of people who hold bank accounts and have access to the internet prefer digital over traditional banking channels, such as physical branches and phone banking,” according to a report by Backbase, a Dutch financial technology company.

Bain and Co. partner said that “while customers have grown accustomed to managing their lives from the comfort of their home on their phone (ride-hailing, food delivery, online shopping, home entertainment), they expect a similar service from the banks.”

Franzen added that mobile solutions offer an attractive alternative for those living in remote areas of the Kingdom where branch density is much lower than in the main urban hubs. It also offers cheaper banking solutions for those with lower income.

Future trends and projections

With the rise of pure digital banking entities intensifying their operations, a notable trend is emerging: a surge in account openings, both initially and for secondary accounts, as customers explore branch-less alternatives. 

Franzen said that as confidence in these digital-only players grows, a shift towards them serving as primary banks is anticipated, akin to the trajectory witnessed in countries like the UK, where neo-banks have secured over 25 percent of primary banking relationships.

“One key potential technology unlock to drive digital financial services would be increased flexibility on cloud usage and data residency rules,” he added.


US ready to reopen oil stockpile if petrol prices surge again, FT reports

Updated 17 June 2024
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US ready to reopen oil stockpile if petrol prices surge again, FT reports

BENGALURU: The Biden administration is ready to release more oil from the US strategic stockpile to stop any jump in petrol prices this summer, the Financial Times reported on Monday.

Senior Biden adviser Amos Hochstein told the newspaper that oil prices are “still too high for many Americans” and he would like to see them “cut down a little bit further.”

Hochstein, speaking to the FT said that the US would “continue to purchase into next year, until we think that the Strategic Petroleum Reserve has the volume that it needs again to serve its original purpose of energy security.”

The Energy Department this year has been buying about 3 million barrels of oil per month for the SPR after selling 180 million barrels in 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The move was an effort to curb gasoline prices that spiked to more than $5 a gallon, but it also reduced the reserve to its lowest level in 40 years.

Earlier this month, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told Reuters that the US could hasten the rate of replenishing the SPR as maintenance on the stockpile is completed by the end of the year.


China’s May industrial output misses forecasts, retail sales a bright spot

Updated 17 June 2024
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China’s May industrial output misses forecasts, retail sales a bright spot

BEIJING: China’s May industrial output lagged below expectations with the property sector still weak, adding pressure on Beijing for policy support to shore up growth, but retail sales beat forecasts thanks to a holiday boost, according to Reuters.

The industrial data released on Monday by the National Bureau of Statistics came in below expectations for a 6 percent increase in a Reuters poll of analysts.

However, retail sales, a gauge of consumption, in May rose 3.7 percent on year, accelerating from a 2.3 percent increase in April and marked the quickest growth since February. Analysts had expected retail sales to grow 3 percent due to the five-day public holiday earlier in the month.

Fixed asset investment expanded 4 percent in the first five months of 2024 from the same period a year earlier, versus expectations for a 4.2 percent rise. It grew 4.2 percent in the January to April period.

China’s property market downturn, high local government debt and deflation remain heavy drags on economic activity. The latest figures point to an uneven growth that reinforces calls for more fiscal and monetary policy support.

With narrowing interest margins and a weakening currency remaining key constraints limiting Beijing’s scope to ease monetary policy, China’s central bank left a key policy rate unchanged as expected on Monday.

The world’s second-largest economy grew faster than expected at 5.3 percent in the first quarter, but analysts say the government’s around 5 percent annual growth target is ambitious.

China’s exports grew faster than expected in May helped by improved global demand, but imports growth slowed significantly.

Tepid demand at home has also kept a lid on consumer prices as confidence remains low in the face of a protracted property sector crisis. New bank lending rebounded far less than expected in May and some key money gauges hit record lows.

Property investment fell 10.1 percent year-on-year in January-May, deepening from a decline of 9.8 percent in January-April.

China’s property sector has been hit by a regulatory crackdown and the government has slashed down payment requirements and canceled the floor rate for mortgage interest rate.

The central bank last month announced a relending program for affordable housing to accelerate sales of unsold housing stock.

The job market overall was steady. The nationwide survey-based jobless rate hit 5 percent in May, the same as that in April.

The government has vowed to create more jobs linked to major projects, roll out measures to promote domestic demand targeted at youths and has pledged greater fiscal stimulus to shore up growth. 


Oil Updates – prices slip on weaker US consumer demand, rise in China output

Updated 17 June 2024
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Oil Updates – prices slip on weaker US consumer demand, rise in China output

NEW DELHI: Oil prices slipped in Asian trading on Monday after a survey on Friday showed weaker US consumer demand and as May crude production rose in China, the world’s biggest crude importer, according to Reuters.

Global benchmark Brent crude futures for August delivery were down 40 cents, or 0.5 percent, at $82.22 per barrel at 9:31 a.m. Saudi time. US West Texas Intermediate crude futures for July delivery fell 36 cents to $78.09 a barrel.

The more-active August delivery WTI contract slipped 0.5 percent to $77.7 per barrel.

That followed prices slipping on Friday after a survey showed US consumer sentiment fell to a seven-month low in June, with households worried about their personal finances and inflation.

However, both benchmark contracts still gained nearly 4 percent last week, the highest weekly rise in percentage terms since April, on signs of stronger fuel demand.

“Last week’s robust rally was fueled by forecasts of strong 2024 demand from OPEC+ and the IEA. However, given OPEC’s vested interest in crude oil, there is some skepticism around OPEC’s forecasts,” said Tony Sycamore, a market analyst at IG in Singapore.

“Friday’s soft US consumer confidence numbers suggest that the resilience of the American consumer and the US economy will be tested as households run down their savings to combat higher interest rates and cost-of-living pressures,” he added.

Meanwhile, China’s May domestic crude oil production rose 0.6 percent on year to 18.15 million tonnes, according to data released by the National Bureau of Statistics on Monday.

Year-to-date output was 89.1 million tonnes, up 1.8 percent from a year earlier. National crude oil throughput fell 1.8 percent in May over the same year-ago level to 60.52 million tonnes, with year-to-date totalling 301.77 million tonnes, up 0.3 percent from a year ago.

The country’s May industrial output lagged expectations and a slowdown in the property sector showed no signs of easing, adding pressure on Beijing to shore up growth.

The flurry of data on Monday was largely downbeat, underscoring a bumpy recovery for the world’s second-largest economy.

On the geopolitical front, concerns of a wider Middle East war lingered after the Israeli military said on Sunday that intensified cross-border fire from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement into Israel could trigger serious escalation.

After the relatively heavy exchanges over the past week, Sunday saw a marked drop in Hezbollah fire, while the Israeli military said that it had carried out several airstrikes against the group in southern Lebanon.

Markets in key oil trading hub Singapore and other countries in the region were closed for a public holiday on Monday.


Air transport industry improves baggage handling despite rising passenger numbers: SITA report

Updated 16 June 2024
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Air transport industry improves baggage handling despite rising passenger numbers: SITA report

RIYADH: Baggage mishandling in the air transport industry has decreased to 6.9 bags per 1,000 passengers in 2023 from 7.6, despite increased passenger traffic, according to a new report. 

According to the latest report from multinational information technology company SITA, this decrease marks a positive trend even as global passenger numbers exceeded pre-pandemic levels for the first time since 2019, reaching 5.2 billion.  

This improvement underscores the industry’s strong adoption of technology, especially in automated baggage handling driven by artificial intelligence and computer vision technologies. 

David Lavorel, CEO of SITA, noted that technology-driven solutions will play a pivotal role in managing the projected doubling of global passenger traffic by 2040.  

He said: “Technologies like these are essential because they help us gather, integrate, and share data effectively. This means we can uncover important insights that make decision-making easier and more automated.”   

Over the years, there has been a 63 percent decrease in mishandling rates from 2007 to 2023, despite a simultaneous 111 percent increase in passenger traffic. However, challenges remain, particularly in managing escalating baggage volumes, SITA said. 

It highlighted that the industry’s focus on digitalization is crucial, with emphasis placed on enhancing data analysis capabilities and implementing automated systems for baggage handling.  

SITA’s research highlighted growing passenger expectations for seamless travel experiences, including self-service options like unassisted bag drops and mobile-enabled journey tracking.  

“Today, 32 percent of passengers rely on bag collection information sent straight to their mobile. Better communication and visibility for passengers will encourage more use of digital self-service and give passengers control over their journey,” SITA said. 

Collaboration between airlines and airports is identified as key to further enhancing baggage handling efficiencies. While data sharing has improved, there is room for enhancement, especially in providing comprehensive, real-time baggage tracking throughout the journey.  

Initiatives like the International Air Transport Association’s Resolution 753 and advocacy from Airports Council International underscore the industry’s commitment to achieving greater transparency and reducing passenger anxiety associated with baggage handling. 

The report highlighted varying trends in baggage mishandling rates regionally, with North America and Europe showing notable declines over the years, attributable to increased investments in infrastructure and technology.  

In contrast, Asia Pacific maintained the lowest mishandling rates globally, reflecting successful digitization efforts despite ongoing recovery challenges. 

In conclusion, SITA’s findings highlight the air transport industry’s resilience and adaptability amid growing passenger demands.  

By continuing to innovate and collaborate, stakeholders can build on these achievements to ensure smoother, more reliable travel experiences for passengers worldwide.