Saudi Aramco expected to list first on Saudi stock exchange, delaying international debut

  • Saudi Arabia is walking back plans for a massive public share offering for state oil giant Aramco, the world's biggest oil company, on a big international stock exchange.
  • Aramco is now expected to move forward with a listing on the Saudi stock exchange, with plans for an international listing at least temporarily shelved.
  • Aramco said a range of international listing options were still under consideration.

Saudi Arabia's state-owned oil giant Aramco, the world's largest oil company, is walking back plans for a massive public share offering on an international exchange.

Aramco is now expected to list public shares on the Saudi domestic stock market, perhaps as soon as the second half of this year, according to sources familiar with the situation. But a potential international listing is now expected to come later, if at all, the sources said.

The initial public offering of Saudi Aramco in a city such as New York or London was expected to be the largest ever share listing. But plans to list on a major foreign stock exchange have been delayed as Aramco grapples with the challenges of taking the company public.

Currently, there is no international listing planned, but sources said Aramco continues to hope it will list in a foreign financial center some time next year.

"The Company continues to review options for the listing," Saudi Aramco said in a statement after the news was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

"In addition to listing on Tadawul, the home exchange, a range of international options are still being held under active review. The Company will not provide a running commentary on the course of the IPO."

The headquarters of Saudi Aramco in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Mary Catherine Wellons | CNBC
The headquarters of Saudi Aramco in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Sources said the Aramco listing will be much smaller than anticipated in the international market, and that an Asian cornerstone investor is likely to participate. A big investment in Aramco by China's sovereign wealth fund has long been rumored, but never confirmed by the Saudis.

"Asian sovereign wealth funds have always been in the mix. There's no reason for them to close the door to London or new York, but they could have figured the prudent path was to do it in Riyadh first," one market source said. "There are many ways to define an IPO."

An international listing of Aramco was seen as the centerpiece of the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's efforts to reshape the Saudi economy and reduce the nation's reliance on oil revenues. It was seen valuing Aramco at $1 trillion to $2 trillion and raising about $100 billion to underwrite an expansion of the kingdom's public investment fund.

A rebound in oil prices following the 2014 collapse of the crude market has somewhat curbed the need for such a large IPO, sources told the Wall Street Journal.

One factor favoring the idea of first listing locally is the anticipated award in June of emerging market status for Saudi Arabia by index firm MSCI. That designation could bring a wave of foreign capital into the local market next year as global fund managers add Saudi Arabia to their holdings.

Still, the market capitalization of the entire Saudi stock exchange is under $500 billion.

The money that flows from Aramco's oil wells to state coffers is the linchpin of a social contract between the ruling royal family and average Saudis. Investors long questioned how Aramco would balance that contract with its citizens, who have come to depend on generous social spending, with its responsibility to shareholders post-IPO.

A listing on the New York Stock Exchange has long raised concerns about litigation risks. Family members of those killed in the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11 have long sought to press a legal case against Saudi officials, alleging they shielded some of the attackers.

Earlier this year, Saudi Aramco CEO Amin Nasser told CNBC his company was ready to go public, but was waiting for its sole shareholder, the Saudi government, to decide on an international listing venue.