Business associations are governed by the Regulations for Companies (issued in 1982, and amended in 1992). The regulations list business forms and structures, of which joint stock companies and limited liability partnerships are the most attractive to foreign investors. Additionally, there are certain business forms and structures, such as liaison and technical/scientific offices, which are not specifically dealt with by the regulations but are nevertheless subject to them.
Establishments, or sole proprietorships, although required to register with the Ministry of Commerce, are not subject to the regulations. Such enterprises are of marginal interest to foreigners since a foreigner is not allowed to conduct business in Saudi Arabia as a sole proprietor. In addition, Saudi law forbids foreigners from engaging in business in the Kingdom under the name of a Saudi national.
Although not provided for in the Companies Law, the Ministry of Industry & Electricity and the Ministry of Commerce have issued administrative fiats that have allowed the creation of wholly foreign owned branches. Such branches do not require a local sponsor and may enter into and do business in Saudi Arabia under their own names.
The regulations define a company as a joint undertaking to participate in an enterprise with a view to profit. Thus, a registered company is deemed to be a commercial entity, whatever its objectives may be. Upon registration, the company acquires legal personality. If it is not fully owned by Saudis, it may not enjoy certain rights but would still be as a Saudi company.
Every industrial or commercial establishment must be registered in the Commercial Register. Saudi participants in foreign companies and foreign branches need to obtain the consent of the Foreign Capital Investment Committee prior to registration.
Forms of Business Organisation
Joint Stock Company
A joint stock company is owned by five or more individuals or entities. Capital is apportioned into negotiable shares of an equal amount, and shareholders are liable only to the extent of the value of their holdings. The minimum capital requirement is SR2 million or no less than SR10 million if its shares are offered for public subscription. The par value of each share cannot be less than SR50, and upon incorporation, its issued paid-up capital must be no less than one-half of the authorised capital. A recent change to the Regulations allows a joint stock company to issue non-voting preferred shares in an amount up to 50% of its capital.
Prospective joint stock companies involving businesses such as minerals exploitation, administration of public utilities, banking and finance require authorisation by Royal Decree prior to incorporation.
The management is composed of a board of directors. This board, appointed by the shareholders, must have a minimum of three members. Directors must own at least 200 shares of the joint stock company.
Limited Liability Company
Generally, a company with foreign participation would incorporate as a limited liability company, meaning a privately held company used to set up industrial, agricultural, contracting or services projects having Saudi and foreign partners. Limited liability companies are specifically not permitted to conduct banking, insurance or savings operations. These entities may not offer subscriptions to the public to raise capital, and partners cannot transfer their interest without the unanimous consent of the other partners.
Limited liability companies may also be established in the form of partnerships limited by share, in which the limited partner is liable to the partnership's debts only to the extent of his capital contributions reflected in fully tradable share certificates. In practice, partnerships limited by shares are relatively rare.
A limited liability company must be registered under the Regulations for Companies as well as under the foreign capital investment regulatory regime. The various regulations do not specify minimum capital requirements for regular limited partnerships. A minimum capital of SR1 million, however, is required for the establishment of a partnership limited by shares. Contribution stipulations, as well as other mandatory information, must be registered with the Ministry of Commerce.
A general partnership is an association of two or more persons who are jointly liable for the debts of the partnership to the extent of their personal fortunes. As a separate legal entity it can transact business in its own name. Partners are forbidden to transfer interests without the unanimous consent of the other partners. No minimum capital is required, and contribution terms are set forth in the partnership agreement which must be registered with the Ministry of Commerce.
A limited partnership is composed of general partners who are liable for the partnership's debts to the extent of their personal fortunes and limited partners who are liable for partnership's debts only to the extent of their investment. Participation by limited partners in the management of the partnership might expose them to joint individual liability with the general partners. Registration requirements are the same as for general partnerships.
The name of the firm must include the name of at least one general partner. For reasons of liability, limited partners should avoid having their names included in the firm name.
As of 1991, foreign 'free professionals' such as lawyers, engineers and medical practitioners, may establish joint practices with partnerships that are locally licensed. The establishment of a professional partnership requires approval from the Ministry of Commerce, which sets conditions that concern the reputation of the foreign firms, transfer of interests and minimum participation of Saudi partners (25%). Profits of foreign partners from such professional partnership will presumably be taxable, unlike salaries earned by foreign professionals working for local firms.
Foreign investment in joint ventures with Saudi partners has advantages. While foreign partners in a joint venture entity may hold 100% of the equity in some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, there are advantages in having a local Saudi partner own 50% of the equity or more. For example, if a Saudi holds 50% of the equity in a joint venture company it enables the company to obtain an interest-free loan for up to 50% of the project cost, which is repayable over a period of 10 years. In addition, majority Saudi-owned joint ventures are entitled to preference after wholly Saudi-owned companies in the allotment of government contracts. Trading and marketing activities aimed at Saudi individuals or wholly Saudi-owned companies, however, are forbidden to mixed Saudi-foreign joint ventures by Royal Decree M/11 of 1962.
Foreign companies carrying out industrial or contracting works essential to the goals of economic development in Saudi Arabia may apply to the Foreign Capital Investment Committee for a licence to establish a branch in the Kingdom. Upon receiving the license, the company may complete its registration process under the regulation. It may be noted that, unlike a limited liability joint venture, a branch of a foreign entity is not entitled to a tax holiday. In practice, relatively few branch licences have been issued, consistent with a general government policy of insulating the local market from direct competition by foreign companies.
In recent years, however, the concept of branches has been expanded to cover companies that are not involved in industrial and contracting works although the granting of such licences is rare.
Saudi Service Agent
Foreign companies operating exclusively for the purpose of implementing government contracts are required to obtain temporary commercial registration. Such registration is available only to contractors operating in the public sector. If a foreign contractor is engaged in a governmental contract and does not have a Saudi partner, it must engage a Saudi national as an agent. In cases of certain military contracts an exception to this general rule may sometimes be made. Agents may receive compensation not exceeding 5% of the contract value. The agency agreement should be submitted to the Ministry of Commerce along with the application for temporary commercial registration within 30 days of signing the contract.