Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and chief executive of the giant Wall Street bank, told the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York that he felt there was a need to move ahead with the reform plan advocated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, “so that what you want to have produce more stability in the long-run doesn’t produce instability in the short-run.
“That’s my wording and my assessment, but I think if you could push a button, which you can’t, that button would be pushed, because it’s there now. I mean, some of these reforms are a kind of a bootstrap,” Blankfein added.
His remarks are a clear sign that the international financial community is fully backing the plans to reduce oil dependency and public sector domination of the Kingdom’s business affairs.
The Goldman boss was speaking on a panel with Yasir Bin Othman Al-Rumayyan, CEO of the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund, who said there was some resistance to the original plans for Vision 2030 when it was launched 18 months ago, but that has changed.
“We started getting more and more believers. And that’s what you need,” he said.
Both men said that Saudi Arabia needed to attract more foreign talent to the Kingdom to help see the changes through.
Blankfein said: “There’s a lot of people cheering on this new opportunity. That’s an attractive thing. I think the difficulty is going to be attracting a lot of expats and a lot of people. Look, Saudi Arabia has done this in another context. Look at Aramco. World class,” he added.
Al Rumayyan agreed that the Aramco model was a good one. “What you’re trying to do is to create ecosystems.
“We need to have good schools, good health care, good recreations, entertainment, parks, transportation, everything. Of course, we need to have better ecosystems.”
The PIF boss said that a system of “gated communities” could be possible in some of the new developments planned in the Kingdom, like the recently announced Dead Sea Resort and the entertainment complex planned in co-operation with Six Flags group outside Riyadh.
“If we want to build stuff, we need good lawyers, good bankers, good taxers, and if we don’t have them in Saudi, we have to get them from outside,” he added.
In a discussion about Riyadh’s failure to attract more financial professionals to create a real hub for the banking and investment industries, Blankfein said: “You’re going to have to import people to live there. And so, you’re going to have to put them up and make it attractive for them and their families.”
Al Rumayyan highlighted the delay in opening the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, which was supped to be delivered in 2012.
“What went wrong? It’s like one of the most beautiful projects, developments, you can ever see anywhere in the world; about 64 beautiful buildings. It’s like an architect’s dream. Beautiful designs, everything is so good about it.
“Now, there’s a problem. It wasn’t looked at from the commercial sense, and that’s where we come in. OK, we like beautiful things and good things, and development, and what have you, but at the same time, it should make sense,” he added.
Blankfein agreed that there had to be commercial sense to the development of a financial district. “You have to create the culture of commerce that makes it an attractive place for a hub. Now, one of the great things is, it’s where the money is and it’s where the population is for the region.
“But there’s no reason for Dubai, geographically, to have it, and if you turned back the clock 60 years ago you wouldn’t have had a clue that that would be the case. But they (Dubai) were very aggressive, commercial and created a lot of incentives for people to aggregate there and really kind of stole it,” he added.
Ian Bremmer, the American founder of the Eurasia Group consultancy who was moderating the discussion, raised the perception of Saudi Arabia in the US.
“Everyone in this room looks at Vision 2030, looks at the Kingdom, wants it to succeed. But when you go to the US as a whole and you ask people what they think about Saudi Arabia, you frequently get, you know, a very different perspective,” Bremmer said.
Blankfein said: “I think this is going to be a real challenge for Saudi Arabia and I think they have to get on it and you have to walk the corridors of Congress, and you have to make yourself known.”
Al Rumayyan added: “The relationships between Saudi Arabia and the United States has been there since President Roosevelt came to see King Abdul Aziz. It’s had maybe some bit of volatility, but all in all, it’s always been a good relationship. President Trump’s first visit to Saudi Arabia meant a lot to us. And I think we are very much aligned.”
Goldman Sachs has so far won only one mandate in the Kingdom’s huge $200 billion privatization plan — the advisory role in the sell-off of Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport.
Blankfein said: “Sometimes money is just money, and sometimes it’s more than just money, because with certain investments come a valuable validation that then brings other money. And then, you know, we like to think, in some ways, we carry that.”