MIDEAST STOCKS-Gulf markets soft, stimulus plan doesn't buoy Saudi

DUBAI, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Gulf stock markets were mostly soft in early trade on Thursday, with the Saudi Arabian bourse taking little encouragement from the government's announcement of a 72 billion riyal ($19 billion) stimulus package.

King Salman issued a royal decree approving 72 billion riyals worth of measures to stimulate growth in the private sector next year.

They include residential loans worth 21.3 billion riyals, a 10 billion riyal fund to support economic projects, and 1.5 billion riyals to support distressed companies. A government fund would invest in smaller companies, and 7 billion riyals of government fees would be returned to companies.

However, some of these steps had already been expected, and it remains unclear how quickly they can be implemented and affect the economy, which faces headwinds early next year in the form of the planned introduction of a 5 percent value-added tax and fresh domestic energy price hikes.

The Saudi stock index edged down 0.2 percent in the first 45 minutes of trade with utility Saudi Electricity , which had plunged 9.9 percent on Wednesday, falling a further 6.9 percent.

The stock rose early this week in anticipation of the government announcing hikes in electricity tariffs. But the company said on Wednesday it would pay the government a fee equivalent to the rise in tariffs, so there should be no positive impact on its profits.

Shares in most banks were firm. The Saudi central bank hiked its reverse repo rate, the rate at which commercial banks deposit money with it, in line with U.S. Federal Reserve overnight, but it kept the repo rate, used to lend money to banks, unchanged at 2.00 percent.

This may be modestly positive for Saudi banks' margins, since they have excess cash, with the economy and loan growth sluggish.

National Shipping Co of Saudi Arabia (Bahri) rose 1.7 percent after proposing a 2017 cash dividend of 1.5 riyals per share, down from 2.5 riyals for 2016; some investors had been expecting a lower dividend after profits fell sharply this year.

The Dubai index fell 0.2 percent as Emaar Properties, which had dropped 6.2 percent on Wednesday on news of a smaller-than-expected special dividend for shareholders, lost a further 0.4 percent.

In Abu Dhabi, ADNOC Distribution edged down 0.4 percent to 2.64 dirhams. It traded for the first time on Wednesday after an initial public offer at 2.50 dirhams per share. The Abu Dhabi index slipped 0.4 percent.

Qatar's index dropped 0.7 percent. Industries Qatar slid 2.1 percent and Qatar General Insurance & Reinsurance plunged 9.1 percent in thin trade after the company said it was exiting Dubai's insurance market.

Kuwait's index outperformed the region, rising 1.0 percent after the central bank decided to keep interest rates on hold despite the U.S. hike. (Reporting by Andrew Torchia; Editing by Mark Potter)