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Business Maverick

Saudis Save Up for Aramco Share Sale Many See as One-Way Bet

Signs for kerosene and crude oil sit on pipes used for landing and unloading crude and refined oil at the North Pier Terminal, operated by Saudi Aramco, in Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia, on Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. Saudi Aramco aims to become a global refiner and chemical maker, seeking to profit from parts of the oil industry where demand is growing the fastest while also underpinning the kingdom’s economic diversification. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

The sale of shares in their national oil giant, Aramco, has been three years in the making and fraught with delays. The buzz in Riyadh is now not if, but when people can own a piece of the most profitable company on the planet.

It’s the day so many ordinary Saudis have eagerly awaited.

“We knew it was a matter of time, so all the talk in the office was everybody save up, have some cash ready to go,” said Nosaibah Alrajhi, 30, who founded and runs a financial services company. “I have some ready cash.”

One of the quirks of the world’s biggest IPOs is that, to start, it’s not open to the world. Shares can only be bought by citizens of Saudi Arabia, where three quarters of the population is under 35 and the economy is barely growing.

But it’s not clear how much of Aramco will be sold to locals before shares start trading likely in December. And no one knows what the payoff will be — whether Saudis can expect a handsome payday or whether they’ll have to hunker down for a long haul.

“This is definitely a serious event that will be recorded in the history of Saudi Arabia,” Eid Al Shamri, chief executive of investment bank Ithraa Capital, said at his office in Riyadh as the IPO event was broadcast. “A lot of people are talking about it. But what is the extent of the people’s participation? We are tightening our belts.”

Read More: Aramco Sale Tests Saudi Faith in Crown Prince’s Big Project

Few question the decision of Saudi’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to diversify the nation’s economy away from its huge stores of fossil fuel. But the IPO came at a sub-optimal moment.

The oil infrastructure has barely recovered from an drone and cruise missile attack in September that briefly cut Saudi’s oil production in half, revealing its future vulnerability.

And as the outside world aspires to electric cars buzzing and homes warm with solar heat, it was unclear whether the Saudi IPO will get the $2 trillion valuation its leaders had set for it. Already, on Sunday, banks involved with the IPO released estimates below $1.5 trillion and valuations that varied by $1 trillion.

Still, Saudi Arabia was abuzz, with the import of the moment and hope of getting rich.

Aramco Chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan kicked off the sale at a news conference broadcast live nationwide on Sunday from the company’s headquarters in the eastern city of Dhahran.

Read More: Aramco Sale Tests Saudi Faith in Crown Prince’s Big Project

News quickly spread over social media, with Twitter users posting pictures from Dhahran and sharing stories. Self-styled analysts explained why it can be lucrative to buy shares. Some posted videos with illustrations for those with no financial background. One besieged God to bless the country after the announcement was made.

Everyone is being encouraged to invest in the kingdom’s most important asset and many Saudis see the IPO as a demonstration of loyalty. Al Shamri said he heard about people who are thinking of selling their houses or borrowing money to buy shares.

The nation has been caught before in similar euphoria — and disappointed. It has still not recovered from a collapse of the stock market in 2006, when the index sank from 21,000 to below 8,000.

But some experts argue that the Saudi leadership is serious — and that both the nation and ordinary Saudis stand to win as the IPO moves forward.

“This is the biggest IPO that will happen in Saudi history,” said Alrajhi, the entrepreneur at the fintech firm Focus. “I will get my money back and more. It’s Aramco. It’s the biggest player in the international market. I want to be part of it.”

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