The U.S. Treasury Department has released data which breaks down Saudi Arabia’s holdings of U.S. debt.
Data on the matter had previously been kept secret for over 40 years. In March this year Saudi Arabia held $116.8 billion in U.S. debt, a 6% drop from its record holdings in January, according to Bloomberg.
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Saudi Arabia in top 12 holders of U.S. Treasuries
Reporters from Bloomberg submitted a Freedom of Information Act request in order to gain access to the data. Saudi Arabia is among top twelve foreign holders of U.S. debt. By way of comparison, China holds $1.3 trillion and Japan has $1.1 trillion.
“The politics has always been secretive, so have their finances,” said David Ottaway, a Middle East Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a research institute in Washington. “It does answer the question of how much they own, which is surprisingly not that much.”
However it seems that these figures may not tell the whole story. Some countries store Treasuries in financial centers overseas, and they will be counted as part of other countries’ holdings.
Saudi Arabia may officially only hold $116.8 billion, but a New York Times report claimed that officials had threatened to sell $750 billion of Treasuries and other assets. The threat came as a result of a proposed bill that could see the Saudi monarchy held responsible for any role in the September 11 attacks in a U.S. court.
Special relationship maintained by concessions
Holdings of U.S. Treasuries by Saudi Arabia have been grouped with other OPEC nations in the past. Other nations get a detailed monthly breakdown. The special arrangement came about due to the 1973 oil shock, and was one of a number of concessions made by successive U.S. administrations in order to maintain a special relationship with Saudi Arabia as well as access to its oil.
Treasury holdings are receiving renewed scrutiny due to fiscal pressure in Saudi Arabia. The monarchy is suffering due to falling oil prices and involvement in expensive wars.
In just 12 months the kingdom has depleted its foreign exchange reserves by 16%. The spending took place in order to plug a huge budget shortfall, the largest in 25 years.
“As we look at official and central bank and investment holdings of Treasuries around the world, we’ve seen a lot of fluctuations, we’ve seen a gradual erosion of positions that have been held for some time,” said Jim Vogel, head of interest-rate strategy at FTN Financial in Memphis, Tennessee. However those reductions may not be as large as they seem due to purchases by private foreign investors.