Saudi Aramco announced its profits almost dropped by half last year to $49 billion, a huge setback that came as COVID-19 dealt a heavy blow on the world's energy markets.

Saudi Arabia's state-backed oil giant, the world's biggest oil producer, said at the weekend it planned to spend around $35 billion this year on capital expenditures, down sharply from its previous projection of $40 billion to $45 billion.

Even so, the oil company was still optimistic about the future. It maintained its $75 billion dividend for the year and believes it will return to pre-pandemic oil output levels by the end of the year.

Aramco has taken on more debt in the past four quarters to keep up the dividend in the wake of diminishing cash flow.

Aramco said it would stick to its promise of paying quarterly dividends of $18.75 billion as part of a commitment it made to shareholders in the run-up to the company's initial public offering, according to the Associated Press.

The company started selling shares publicly in December 2019, yet the Saudi government owns more than 98% of them, the Associated Press reports.

Amin Nasser, Saudi Aramco president and chief executive officer, said during a call with reporters he is upbeat about 2021, and he anticipates the company to produce almost 99 million barrels a day by the end of the year. He described 2020 as "one of the most challenging years in history."

Aramco's earnings report comes after attacks on its oil depots, including a drone strike Friday launched by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel group in Yemen.

"We remain confident that we will emerge on the other side of this pandemic in a position of strength," AP quoted Nasser as saying, adding that "vaccine deployment will make the situation much better."

Aramco said that energy consumption was improving in some regions, including its main market of Asia, as the world's economy bounces back. Nasser said prices have so far responded to the recovery the company is expecting.