In 2005, Saudi Arabia became the 149th country to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). As part of WTO commitments, the country’s trade regime should become more transparent and more accommodating to non-Saudi businesses.
As of the date of this report, Saudi business and laws still favor Saudi citizens, and Saudi Arabia still has trade barriers, mainly regulatory and bureaucratic practices, which restrict the level of trade and investment.
Nevertheless, the Government has liberalized the wholesale, retail, and franchise sectors, allowing foreign investors to establish joint ventures and retain a 51% share. The foreign partner’s capital requirement is set at $5.3 million (SR 20 million) and his equity share can be increased to 75% after 3 years from the contract date. All industrial enterprises are open to non-Saudis, and they can also trade in the products they manufacture. Restrictions on individual professions also are in force, such as who can practice law, medicine, accounting and financial services, architect and engineers, and other similar professions. A Saudi joint venture partner is a requirement for any entity or individual to practice the above-mentioned professional services.
Other trade barriers include:
• Commercial Disputes Settlement
There is not yet a transparent, comprehensive legal framework in place for resolving commercial disputes. Saudi commercial law is still developing, but in 1994 the Saudis took the positive step of joining the New York Convention of 1958 on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards. Saudi Arabia is also a member of the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (also known as the Washington Convention). However, dispute settlement in Saudi Arabia continues to be time-consuming and uncertain. Even after a decision is reached in a dispute, effective enforcement of the judgment can still take years. Generally, the Board of Grievances has jurisdiction over disputes with the government and over commercial disputes.
In October 2007, King Abdullah issued a royal decree to overhaul the Kingdom’s judicial system, including allocating 7 billion SAR (approximately $1.9 billion) to train judges and build new courts. The decree establishes two Supreme Courts, a general court and an administrative court, and specialized labor and commercial tribunals - although implementation has been slow. On February 4, 2009, the King reshuffled the Government appointing a new Minister of Justice, a new President of the Grievance Board, and a new Chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council. Industry sources expect the reshuffle to expedite the overhaul of the Kingdom’s judicial system.
• Business Visas
All visitors to Saudi Arabia must have a Saudi sponsor in order to obtain a business visa to enter Saudi Arabia. Business visitors and foreign investors can apply through the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) for a visitor visa at the Saudi Embassy or Consulates in the United States. Saudi Arabia has also begun to implement a decree stating that sponsorship for certain business visas is no longer required. Based on new instructions, the issuance of a visitor’s visa should be affected within 24 hours from the application date.
While most business visas are valid for only one entry for a period of up to three months, the Saudi Embassy in Washington has begun issuing a 5-year multiple entry visa for selected business people, taking into consideration the principle of reciprocity. Finally, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs is currently examining the issuance of a visitor’s visa at ports of entry for selected nationalities.
• Delayed Payments
This issue is an important concern for affected American companies. The Government, due to past fiscal constraints, had in the past fallen into arrears on payments to private contractors, both Saudi and foreign. Some companies carried Saudi Government receivables for years before being paid. The Government appears committed to clearing remaining arrears, but the problem persists. U.S. companies should check with the U.S. Embassy or Consulates if a problem arises.
• Intellectual Property Protection
Saudi Arabia recently undertook a comprehensive revision of its laws covering intellectual property rights to bring them in line with the WTO agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs). The Saudi legal system protects and facilitates acquisition and disposition of all property rights, including intellectual property. The Saudi Government recently updated their Trademark Law (2002), Copyright Law (2003), and Patent Law (2004) with the dual goals of TRIPs-compliance and effective deterrence against violators. In 2008 the Violations Review Committee created a website and has populated it with information on current cases. The government also endorsed the country’s joining the “Paris Convention for Protection of Industrial Property” and the “Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works”. Though intellectual property protection has steadily increased in the Kingdom, piracy remains a problem.
The current Law on Patents, Layout Designs of Integrated Circuits, Plant Varieties and Industrial Designs has been in effect since September 2004. Largely due to a lack of adequate resources and technical expertise, when this law went into effect the patent office had issued just over 40 patents and had a large backlog (more than 9,000 applications dating back to issuance of Saudi Arabia’s first patent law in 1989). The office has since streamlined its procedures, hired more staff, and reduced this backlog. Protection is available for product and product-by-process. The term of protection was increased from 15 years to 20 years under the new law, but patent holders can no longer apply for a routinely granted five-year extension. However, SPO applied the new law retroactively thus disallowing and rejecting hundreds of pending patent applications including those pertaining to pharmaceutical products. While the new law is being retroactively applied, patents in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may be easily exposed to infringements.
Trademarks are protected under the Trademark Law. The Rules for Protection of Trade Secrets came into effect in 2005. Saudi Arabia has one of the best trademarks laws in the region, but enforcement still lags and procedures are inconsistent.
American firms that wish to sell products in Saudi Arabia should work through their local representative to register their trademarks with the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, copyrighted products with the Ministry of Information, and patents with KACST or the GCC Patent Office. Although these government entities are responsible for IPR protection in their respective areas, any reported incident of piracy or infringement may not entail immediate and decisive action by the concerned government entity.
The Saudi Government has revised its Copyright Law, is devoting increased resources to marketplace enforcement, and is seeking to impose stricter penalties on copyright violators. The Saudi Government has stepped up efforts to force pirated printed material, recorded music, videos, and software off the shelves of stores. These efforts included stepping up raids on shops selling pirated goods in 2008. However, many pirated materials are still available in the marketplace. An Islamic ruling, or “fatwa,” stating that software piracy is “forbidden” backs enforcement efforts. Saudi Arabia remains on the Special 301 Watch List for 2008.
Saudi Arabia has not signed and ratified the WIPO internet treaties.
Manufacturers of consumer products and automobile spare parts are particularly concerned about the widespread availability of counterfeit products. Anti-counterfeiting laws exist, and the U.S. Government has urged the Saudi authorities to step up enforcement actions against perpetrators. In some popular consumer goods, manufacturers estimate that as much as 50% of the entire Saudi market is counterfeit. In order to restrict the entry of counterfeit products, the Saudi Customs Authority recently implemented a new directive requiring all imported goods to clearly display the “Country of Origin” or “Made in ….” on the items in an irremovable manner either by engraving, knitting, printing, or pressing based on the nature of the imported items.
• Arab League Boycott
The Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) announced in the fall of 1994 that its members would no longer enforce the secondary and tertiary aspects of the Arab League Boycott. The primary boycott against Israeli companies and products still applies. Advice on boycott and anti-boycott related matters are available from the U.S. Embassy or from the Office of Anti-Boycott Compliance in Washington, D.C. at (202) 482-2381.