Saudi Arabia’s central bank headquarters in Riyadh. Image Credit: Bloomberg

The Saudi central bank has extended a loan deferral program to help small businesses cope with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic until the end of the first quarter next year.

The monetary authority said in a statement Sunday that the plan has impacted over 77 billion riyals ($20.5 billion) of loans and the extension was taken to help support economic growth. Announced in March as one of the kingdom's first responses to the economic costs of the health emergency, the measures have already been prolonged and were due to expire in December.

The central bank has been at the forefront of the kingdom's efforts to protect the economy at a time when the government is set to cut spending in order to stop the budget deficit from widening. Last week, the Saudi central bank's mandate was broadened to formally include promoting economic growth, partly in recognition of the role it was already playing.

In the neighboring United Arab Emirates, the central bank extended similar stimulus measures through June 2021.

Saudi policy makers provided over 114 billion riyals in free depositsto local lenders in liquidity injections and to cover the costs of loan deferrals for small businesses hit by the pandemic, according to estimates by Bloomberg Intelligence.

Under the payment deferral plan, lenders are able to tap into funding from the central bank to cover any costs from granting repayment holidays to customers that need to restructure credit due to the impact of the coronavirus. The program has helped banks avoid having to recognize credit as non-performing. Still, profit across Saudi banks for the year to September is almost 30% lower than in the same period of 2019, according to official data.

Loans classified as non-performing loans rose to 2.3% of the total at the end of June, the highest level since 2011.