Saudi Stocks Crash Most Since 2016 As Riyadh Threatens US With "Very Strong" Retaliation

Saudi Arabia warned on Sunday it would respond to any "threats" against it as its stock market crashed the most since 2016 after President Trump's warning of "severe punishment" over the disappearance of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.

On Saturday, Trump said the U.S. could take “very, very powerful, very strong, strong measures” against the country if its leaders are found responsible for the Saudi citizen’s fate. The kingdom, which denies its involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance, announced it would retaliate against any punitive measures with an even “stronger” response, the Saudi Press Agency reported, citing an official it didn’t identify.

"The kingdom affirms its total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether through economic sanctions, political pressure or repeating false accusations," the kingdom's statement said. "The kingdom also affirms that if it is (targeted by) any action, it will respond with greater action."

Saudi Arabia has traditionally been one of Trump's closest foreign allies, the US president made a point of visiting the kingdom on his first overseas trip as president and has touted arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But both the White House and the kingdom are under mounting pressure as concern grows over the fate of the veteran journalist, who hasn't been seen since he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

The Saudi response came after Saudi Arabian stocks slumped the most since 2016 amid a broad selloff over collapsing relations with the US, with the Tadawul All Share Index, or TASI, plunging by 7% at one point during the week's first day of trading, the most since December 2014, with all but seven of the gauge’s 186 members fell, led by Saudi Telecom, which declined 6.2%, Jabal Omar lost 6% and Saudi Basic Industries Corp. retreated 1.9%. Selling volume soared, with the number of shares traded more than double the 30-day average.

At one point, the index fell more than 10% in four days and was virtually unchanged on the year at the close of trading.

The market clawed back some of the losses, closing down just over 4% later on. The Saudi benchmark fell 3.9% on Oct. 11, when the MSCI Emerging Markets Index plunged 3.2% following last week's S&P rout. While the MSCI EM index recovered part of that loss on Friday, when it gained 2.7%, the Saudi selloff has re-accelerated as a result of the latest threat from Trump.

The escalation in tension between the two allies, and growing calls for Saudi Arabia to explain what happened to the missing writer, have raised concerns whether the kingdom can attract foreign investors needed to overhaul its economy according to Bloomberg. The diplomatic spat comes as the nation has been reforming its financial markets and has won inclusion in FTSE Russell and MSCI Inc. indexes for emerging markets.

"You are talking about a geopolitical situation becoming even worse and Saudi Arabia is going to show its stubborn attitude again," said Naeem Aslam, chief market analyst at Think Markets UK. "This is not going to sit well with foreign investors. From where we sit, we don’t see any demand for Saudi equities at all."

Neighboring markets were not spared either, with stock markets in Kuwait and Dubai dropping 1.9% and 1.5%, respectively; the Abu Dhabi’s ADX General Index dropped 0.7%. In Kuwait, all but one of the 16 members of the Boursa Kuwait Premier Market Price Return Index fall, dragging the measure down the most in almost a year. In Dubai, Emaar Properties and Dubai Islamic Bank are the biggest drag on the index, which closes at the lowest level since January 2016.

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Foreign capital is key to Saudi Arabia’s plans to diversify its economy beyond oil and cut a 12.9% jobless rate among its citizens.

But in response to Khashoggi’s disappearance, media firms and some technology executives have pulled out of a major Riyadh investment conference scheduled for next week. As we reported yesterday, numerous company leaders backed away from the “Davos in the Desert” event later this month intended to showcase Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s modernization plan for his nation. Still, Trump said the U.S. would be “foolish” to cancel large arms deals with the Gulf state.

“This is happening at a time when Saudi Arabia is preparing for a big investment event and they don’t need people suspending or pulling out investments,” said Nadi Barghouti, head of asset management at Emirates Investment Bank in Dubai.

"Saudi is one of the world’s top oil producers, so one can’t sanction Saudi in the same way that one could sanction Iran,” Richard Sneller, the head of emerging-market equities at Baillie Gifford & Co. in Edinburgh, said last week. “Having said that, there are aspects of the Saudi regime that some people find less palatable and there are competing interests within Saudi as well. This is a very complicated country."

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While Trump has not described what punishment Saudi Arabia might face, he did indicate that Washington does not want to harm close defence ties, saying the United States would be punishing itself if it halted sales of military equipment to Riyadh. But U.S. senators have triggered a provision of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act requiring the president to determine whether a foreign person is responsible for a gross human rights violation. The act has in the past imposed visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials.

Also, anti-Saudi sentiment in the U.S. Congress could conceivably raise pressure to pass the so-called No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act, which would end sovereign immunity shielding OPEC members from U.S. legal action. Past U.S. presidents have opposed the bill but the chances of it being passed may have increased because of Trump’s frequent criticism of OPEC, which he accuses of driving up oil prices.

Meanwhile, as Reuters notes, there is concern Khashoggi’s disappearance could add to a sense that Saudi policy has become more unpredictable and uninvestible under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is pushing social reforms to modernize the kingdom but has also presided over a rise in tensions between Riyadh and several other countries.

A Gulf banker told Reuters that the Khashoggi case, combined with other events, had become a significant factor for some potential investors in Saudi Arabia and that her bank was receiving many queries from foreign clients on how to interpret it.

“It’s cumulative – the Yemen war, the dispute with Qatar, the tensions with Canada and Germany, the arrests of women activists. They add up to an impression of impulsive policy-making, and that worries investors,” the banker said.