Times of Oman
Nov 30, 2015 LAST UPDATED AT 01:35 AM GMT
Saudi healthcare booms as state scrambles to close welfare gap
January 19, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Stock market listings planned by two of Saudi Arabia's biggest private hospital operators point to a boom in its healthcare industry, as political pressures prompt the government to pour huge sums into the underdeveloped sector.

Many areas of Saudi consumption, including the retail industry, housing and travel, have ballooned in the past decade because of oil-fuelled growth in national income. But healthcare has lagged, partly because of government inefficiency and bureaucracy.

Now the mediocre quality of state-run healthcare has become a political liability for the government, especially in the wake of the 2011 uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, which underlined the risks of social discontent. Many Saudis complain about overcrowded hospitals and shortages of medications.

So the government has embarked on a drive to reform the sector, building hundreds of hospitals, providing interest-free loans to private companies and changing health insurance rules.

This could make Saudi Arabia the world's fastest-growing major healthcare market over the next few years, helping to diversify the economy beyond oil and providing a bonanza to foreign companies selling medicines, equipment and services.

"It is a case of chronic underinvestment and reactive overexpenditure," said Mohammad Kamal, an analyst at financial firm Arqaam Capital in Dubai.


The standard of Saudi Arabian healthcare provision has long contrasted with its wealth. The kingdom, which the IMF ranked 30th in the world by GDP per capita for 2012, has 2.2 hospital beds per 1,000 residents, according to Arqaam, lower than the global average of 3.0 and far below the average of 5.5 in developed countries.

Local newspapers routinely report complaints about issues such as overcrowding - with some patients receiving intravenous drips in hospital corridors - and poor hygiene and maintenance, resulting in pest infestations and infections.

Abdulkarim al-Thobeiti, a Saudi engineer working in the public sector, says he will never set foot in a state-run hospital because they are either fully booked or poorly maintained.

"If you want to make an appointment to see a doctor you have to wait for months, unless you have some connection or know someone who can pull a few strings," Thobeiti said.

This may change as the government ramps up healthcare budgets. Spending has already jumped from $8 billion in 2008 to $27 billion last year, and Saudi asset management firm NCB Capital expects it to soar to $46 billion in 2017.

In addition to building new state-run facilities, the government is offering private companies interest-free loans covering up to a half of the cost of building new hospitals.

And, although the move has yet to be announced officially, Saudis employed in the public sector are expected to become eligible for state-funded health insurance within the next few years, Arqaam and other analysts say.

This would enable them to use private healthcare services without paying extra fees out of their own pocket.

Today, the overwhelming majority, about 83 percent, of Saudi Arabia's 8.4 million health insurance holders are expatriates whose employers are legally obliged to cover their insurance costs, according to Arqaam.

The insurance reform could swell the pool with more than a million Saudi public servants and about 5 million of their dependents, Arqaam estimates. This implies a surge in demand for private Saudi healthcare firms, which are turning to the stock market to finance expansion.

Sulaiman Al-Habib Medical Group and Almana General Hospitals will seek to list their shares on the local bourse in 2014 or early 2015, bankers told Reuters in November.

Some companies have already tapped the market. Dallah Healthcare raised 540 million rials ($144 million) in an initial public offering of shares at the end of 2012, while National Medical Care Co conducted a 175 million rial IPO last March.

Major global players are also looking f

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