• Friday, Dec 04, 2020
  • Last Update : 05:54 pm

Saudi triples VAT in unpopular virus-led austerity push

  • Published at 01:33 pm July 1st, 2020
Saudi Arabia triples VAT
Saudi women buy jewellery at a shop in the gold market before the expected increase of VAT to 15%, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia June 29, 2020. Picture taken June 29, 2020 Reuters

Seeking to shore up state finances battered by sliding oil prices and the coronavirus crisis, it announced in May that it would triple VAT and halt a cost-of-living monthly allowance to citizens

Saudis braced Wednesday for a tripling in value added tax, another unpopular austerity measure after the twin shocks of coronavirus and an oil price slump triggered the kingdom's worst economic decline in decades.

Retailers in the country reported a sharp uptick in sales this week of everything from gold and electronics to cars and building materials, as shoppers sought to stock up before VAT is raised to 15 percent.

The hike could stir public resentment as it weighs on household incomes, pushing up inflation and depressing consumer spending as the kingdom emerges from a three-month coronavirus lockdown.

"Cuts, cuts, cuts everywhere," a Saudi teacher in Riyadh told AFP, bemoaning vanishing subsidies as salaries remain stagnant.

"Air conditioner, television, electronic items," he said, rattling off a list of items he bought last week ahead of the VAT hike.

"I can't afford these things from Wednesday."

With its vast oil wealth funding the Arab world's biggest economy, the kingdom had for decades been able to fund massive spending with no taxes at all.

It only introduced VAT in 2018, as part of a push to reduce its dependence on crude revenues.

Then, seeking to shore up state finances battered by sliding oil prices and the coronavirus crisis, it announced in May that it would triple VAT and halt a cost-of-living monthly allowance to citizens.

The austerity push underscores how Saudi Arabia's once-lavish spending is becoming a thing of the past, with the erosion of the welfare system leaving a mostly young population to cope with reduced incomes and a lifestyle downgrade.

'Austerity measures bite'

Shopping malls in the kingdom have drawn large crowds in recent days as retailers offered "pre-VAT sales" and discounts before the hike kicks in.

A gold shop in Riyadh told AFP it saw a 70 percent jump in sales in recent weeks, while a car dealership saw them tick up by 15 percent.

Once the new rate is in place, businesses are predicting depressed sales of everything from cars to cosmetics and home appliances.

Capital Economics forecast inflation will jump up to six percent year-on-year in July, from 1.1 percent in May, as a result.

"The government ended the country's lockdown (in June) and there are signs that economic activity has started to recover," Capital Economics said in a report.

"Nonetheless, we expect the recovery to be slow-going as fiscal austerity measures bite."

The kingdom also risks losing its edge against other Gulf states, including its principal ally the United Arab Emirates, which introduced VAT at the same time but has so far refrained from raising it beyond five percent.

Its finances have taken another blow as authorities massively scaled back this year's hajj pilgrimage, from 2.5 million pilgrims last year to around a thousand already inside the country, and suspended the lesser umrah because of coronavirus.

Together the rites rake in some $12 billion annually.

The International Monetary Fund warned the kingdom's GDP will shrink by 6.8 percent this year -- its worst performance since the 1980s oil glut.

The austerity drive would boost state coffers by 100 billion riyals ($26.6 billion), according to state media.

The Saudi Jadwa Investment group forecasts the shortfall will rise to a record $112 billion this year.

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