May 19, 2017 / 2:09 PM / 3 months ago

Saudis boost U.S. Treasury holdings ahead of Trump visit, economic talks

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has been increasing its holdings of U.S. Treasury bonds by billions of dollars ahead of a visit by President Donald Trump and economic talks at which Riyadh aims to obtain investment and technology from the United States.

Saudi holdings of U.S. government bonds climbed to a one-year high of $114.4 billion in March from a low of $89.4 billion last September, the most recent data from the U.S. Treasury Department shows. Compared to 12 months ago, the Saudi holdings were almost unchanged.

That was striking because Riyadh has liquidated many of its other overseas assets over the past year to cover a budget deficit caused by low oil prices; the Saudi central bank's holdings of all types of foreign securities combined shrank by about $40 billion in the 12 months through March.

Saudi Arabia will be Trump's initial stop on his first international trip as president, signifying the new U.S. administration's intent to reinforce its relationship with a top ally in the Middle East, particularly on security matters.

Riyadh also wants close economic ties with the United States as it tries to cut its dependence on oil by diversifying its economy. During Trump's visit this weekend, dozens of senior executives and economic officials from both countries will discuss proposed investment projects in non-oil industries.

John Sfakianakis, director of the Riyadh-based Gulf Research Centre, said financial factors such as rising U.S. yields may have been behind the Saudis' Treasury buying, but it showed Riyadh's commitment to U.S. assets.

"Investment policy is based on financial returns, not political expediency - the Saudis require diversified and liquid assets. But they clearly see value in the U.S. economy and investments in the U.S.," he said.

The U.S. data showed Saudi Arabia was the 12th biggest foreign investor in Treasuries. It also suggested Riyadh's investment decisions had not been affected by last September's U.S. Congress vote allowing relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh has long denied any involvement in the attacks and it strongly criticized the U.S. Congress vote, which could in the long term expose Saudi assets in the United States to claims for damages.

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