UPDATE 2-Saudi Arabia sets record budget for 2013

* Budgeted spending to rise 19 pct in 2013

* Actual spending expected to continue climbing -analysts

* Likely to sustain strong economic growth

* Focus on health, education, infrastructure

* Budget surplus to fall but remain large

RIYADH/DUBAI, Dec 29 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has set a

record state budget for next year as high oil prices allow heavy

spending on welfare and infrastructure projects, helping it

avoid the severe social unrest seen in other parts of the Arab

world.

The government plans to spend 820 billion riyals ($219

billion) in 2013, Finance Minister Ibrahim Alassaf said as he

presented the budget to King Abdullah on Saturday.

That amount is 19 percent higher than the 690 billion riyals

that the world's largest oil exporter budgeted for 2012. It is

slightly below the estimated 853 billion riyals that the

government actually spent this year, but analysts said actual

spending was on track to continue climbing in 2013.

"The 2013 budget points to a continued strong expansionary

fiscal stance," said Monica Malik, chief economist at investment

bank EFG-Hermes in Dubai, who predicted actual spending would

rise by 10 percent or more next year.

Saudi Arabia traditionally makes conservative projections

for both spending and oil revenue, leaving room for actual

expenditure and budget surpluses to come in much larger than

initially forecast.

"Spending is still following an expansionary policy ... If

oil prices go below $70, then there can be a problem, but even

then what is reassuring is that there are very high foreign

reserves that serve as a cushion," Saudi economist Abdulwahab

Abu Dahesh said.

He was referring to the Saudi central bank's net foreign

assets, which expanded to a record 2.35 trillion riyals in

October this year.

RAMPING UP SPENDING

Riyadh has been aggressively ramping up spending for several

years to ease domestic political tensions and because it wants

to diversify the economy away from heavy dependence on oil, in

case of a future plunge in global oil prices.

Capital spending totals 285 billion riyals in the 2013

budget, much of it going to projects such as ports, railroads

and water resources. Expenditure on education and health is also

set to increase sharply.

Fahd Alturki, senior economist for Riyadh-based Jadwa

Investment, said that after several years of big spending rises,

the economy was starting to find it harder to respond to

additional government money.

Nevertheless, he predicted the budget would help Saudi

Arabia grow strongly next year, especially in sectors that

depend on domestic demand such as retail and telecommunications.

The country is already enjoying a private sector boom. Gross

domestic product, adjusted for inflation, expanded 6.8 percent

this year, the finance ministry said. The private sector shot up

7.5 percent, outpacing state sector growth of 6.2 percent.

The government raised its estimate of GDP growth in 2011 to

8.5 percent from 7.1 percent, without explaining why the belated

revision, which was due to the completion of a census, was so

large.

SURPLUS

Next year's budget plan envisages revenue of 829 billion

riyals, which implies a small budget surplus of just 9 billion

riyals. But if global oil prices stay above $100 a barrel, the

actual 2013 surplus will be far larger.

While the 2012 budget originally envisaged revenues of 702

billion riyals, they actually amounted to an estimated 1.24

trillion.

The budget document did not reveal the oil price level that

Riyadh is assuming for next year, but Malik at EFG-Hermes

calculated that the budget implied an oil price of around $64-67

per barrel, with average Saudi oil production of about 9.5

million barrels per day.

Data released by the finance ministry on Saturday indicated

the government posted a budget surplus of 14.2 percent of GDP

this year. Malik predicted the surplus would declined to 7.4

percent next year - still one of the highest in the world.

Most Popular in Middle East