RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Ahmed al-Ghaith pulled his Dodge Durango into a gas station in central Riyadh and told the attendant to fill it up. In a country where gas sells for 45 cents a gallon, that cost him $12.
With global oil prices plummeting, you might think people in Saudi Arabia, a nation synonymous with oil, where 90 percent of government revenue comes from holes drilled in its majestically profitable sands, would be freaking out.
But at a busy downtown gas station one day recently, there was not a whiff of concern among the drivers of the stream of Audis, Cadillacs, Mercedes-Benzes, Dodges and Chevys pulling up to the pumps in a land where government-subsidized gas is as cheap as water.
“Personally, it doesn’t affect me a bit,” said Ghaith, 49, who works in a bookstore and spends about $40 a month fueling his big American-made SUV. “It might affect the government in the future — maybe they will have to cut back on their big projects. But it’s no problem for me.”
In Saudi Arabia, the general response to the drop in global oil prices by half — from more than $100 a barrel six months ago to around $50 now — is a shrug.
Remember all those $60 fill-ups at U.S. pumps when gas was running close to $4 a gallon over the past few years? While your wallet was getting hammered, Saudi Arabia’s was getting stuffed thick. The kingdom has more than $750 billion in cash reserves, which is more than enough to keep the lights on and stave off panic over oil markets.
“The government has the cushion to withstand low oil prices,” said Tariq al-Sudairy, chief executive of Jadwa Investment, a private investment bank in Riyadh. “The question is how long this period of low oil prices will be, and will it be long enough to force the government to make tough decisions?”
Sudairy and other analysts said those tough decisions mainly involve the government’s massive program of infrastructure projects. Under King Abdullah, who died last month, the Saudis spent billions on roads, rails, universities, hospitals, airports, seaports, housing, brand-new cities and other projects funded almost entirely by oil revenue.
These days in Riyadh, bad traffic is further jammed by construction of the city’s first subway rail system, which has closed off many major streets. In typical Saudi fashion, the project is a sprawling, all-at-once effort involving thousands of contractors working behind and beneath red-and-white-striped construction barriers that have sprouted everywhere.
Jadwa officials said the government has been increasing capital spending by an average of 25 percent annually in recent years. By the company’s reckoning, the government could go seven or eight years without trimming back its plans, simply by using its massive reserves, which are equal to 100 percent of annual gross domestic product, to cover budget deficits. The company also reports that the government has extremely low debt and could borrow if it chose to do so.
More likely, Sudairy said, the government would monitor oil prices closely for about 18 months and rethink strategy if they did not rebound.
Sudairy said the government’s cash cushion masks a more fundamental problem: Although the Saudis have worked to diversify their economy in recent years, they still rely overwhelmingly on oil. Even booming private industry in areas such as transport and construction depend heavily on government spending, which comes almost exclusively from oil.
“We should have freaked out when oil went to $100 a barrel,” said Fahad M. Alturki, Jadwa’s chief economist. “That was a sleeping pill that allowed us not to worry about long-term problems. When are we going to break the reliance on oil as our main source of revenue?”
Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a leading Saudi journalist, wrote recently that the drop in oil prices could be the jolt that Saudi officials need to focus on diversifying an economy in which most Saudis still work in government jobs.
“What’s the value of money if it’s not spent on building a society capable of standing on its feet tomorrow without oil or with smaller oil revenues?” Rashed wrote in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.
Economists also note that if the government were truly worried about oil prices, it could use its power to increase them. Saudi Arabia, the largest producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a group that supplies 40 percent of the world’s oil, has resisted calls for production cuts that would push oil prices higher.
Saudi officials appear to have calculated that keeping their production steady will help them maintain market share and hold on to their major customers, including China. And Saudi analysts said low prices would be bad news for competitors that don’t have Saudi Arabia’s massive cash reserves, especially its main regional rival, Iran, and U.S. shale-oil producers.
It is far more expensive to extract a barrel of oil from Texas or North Dakota shale deposits than to siphon it out of the vast reserves beneath the Saudi desert. So Saudi analysts said lower oil prices potentially could drive some shale producers out of business.
“But that is not driving the Saudi decision-making,” Alturki said. “If they wanted to play politics with oil prices, they could have done so at any time. This is just market economics.”
At the al-Dhaher gas station in the shadows of Riyadh’s gleaming Kingdom Centre skyscraper, regular gas is 45 cents a gallon and premium sells for 60 cents. Here all the global market strategy and posturing seem distant from the lives of average Saudis, who are accustomed to the largesse of a wealthy state.
Saudi Arabia spends tens of billions a year subsidizing gasoline, electricity, rice and other daily needs, and that government support acts as a buffer between Saudis and fluctuating global oil prices.
“It means nothing to me, except for my stock investments,” said Fahad al-Harbi, 40, a government worker who was sitting in his shiny black Mercedes sedan as an attendant, an Indian immigrant, filled his tank for $14.
The Riyadh Tadawul stock index hit a record high in the fall but finished down about 4 percent for the year, largely because of investor jitters over falling oil prices, Sudairy said.
Suhail al-Tammimi, 32, a religion teacher, pulled into the gas station with his wife and children. He commutes about 60 miles every day, and he can fill the tank of his small Chinese-made car for about $7.
“I am worried about the long term,” he said, handing a few small bills to the station attendant. “Our country is too dependent on oil. What will happen to us in 10 years?”