Saudi Arabia will transfer airports to its sovereign wealth fund by mid-2018, as part of a nationwide privatization drive spurred by low oil prices.
Airports will be turned into companies before being handed over to the Public Investment Fund, to help improve accountability, Faisal Al-Sugair, chairman of Saudi Civil Aviation Holding Co., said in a phone interview. The transfer will also boost oversight as the General Authority of Civil Authority will no longer be both an operator and regulator, he said.
The kingdom aims to win investment in airports as its seeks to revive an aviation industry that’s been dwarfed by competitors in nearby Dubai and Qatar. It’s also looking at privatizing seaports as depressed crude prices weigh on state spending plans.
The wealth fund will take over Saudi Civil Aviation Holding, which will act as an umbrella company for the airport operators, Al-Sugair said. The holding company will be worth “billions of dollars,” he said.
Airport stakes will be sold off when the operating companies have become stabilized, which could be before they are handed over to the wealth fund, Al-Sugair said. A variety of privatization options are under consideration, including initial public offerings and private stake sales, he said. Different airports may be sold in different ways, and the government is yet to decide what stakes it will retain, he said. PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young are advising on the sale process and on turning operators into companies.
The eventual sales may be hampered by “a very bearish market,” Al-Sugair said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you get less interest—if you don’t get very good bids because of the situation in the market,” he said. That could lead to sales being re-tendered or postponed, he said.
Al-Sugair declined to comment on the level of interest in current tenders, which include Qassim, Hail, Ahsa and Taif airports, as he’s not directly involved in them. Generally, most bidders for Saudi airports have been European and international airport operators in partnership with contractors and investors, he said.
The country intends to convert Dammam airport into a company by July 1, followed by smaller airports and the Saudi Academy of Civil Aviation, a training provider, in the fourth quarter, Al-Sugair said.