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Some answers and ambivalence from the ‘Saudi Davos’

As the stands were being dismantled at the King Abdul Aziz International Conference Center and the last items of luxury luggage were being loaded into airport-bound limos outside the Ritz Carlton last Thursday evening in Riyadh, I bumped into an old banker friend.
He works for one of the big American banks that has done business in the Middle East for decades, but this was his first visit to the Kingdom. His verdict: “They told me Saudi Arabia was more different from the US than any other country in the world, but that’s not true. This could be any big conference, anywhere in the world. It was definitely not what I expected.”
I got the feeling that many among the 3,500 attendees would have had a similar reaction after the three-day event. Even those who have been traveling regularly to the Kingdom for many years must have been pleasantly surprised at the way the Future Investment Initiative (FII) played out.
With multibillion-dollar deals almost an hourly occurrence and historic policy statements from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, there was much to digest from the event, which was nicknamed the “Saudi Davos” by some, likening the event to the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering.
Before it began, I wrote my “wish list” of questions I wanted answered at the FII. Here is my post-event assessment of how successful it was in those areas.
1. I wanted to know whether Saudi economic policymakers would heed the advice of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and ease up on some of the “austerity” measures the IMF recently said were slowing Saudi growth, especially in the non-oil sector. The answer, from Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan, was clear: The 2018 budget would be expansionary, in response to the needs of the private sector, which has been battered by government spending cuts. Box one ticked.
2. I asked what would be the future direction of strategy by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the Kingdom’s ambitious sovereign wealth fund (SWF), which is moving to a more dynamic role in the SWF world. Again, I think the answer was unequivocal: PIF intends to invest big, in glamorous areas such as high-tech and artificial intelligence, but it will keep its financial feet on the ground. The most mind-boggling unveiling at the FII was the $500 billion Neom mega-city, and PIF also announced it is aiming at the stars with a $1 billion investment in Richard Branson’s space project. But there were also some rather more down-to-earth pledges too, such as the $20 billion investment in infrastructure alongside Blackstone of the US. And there was a solid commitment to financial performance, keeping an eye on the bottom line. Box two ticked as well.

With multibillion-dollar deals almost an hourly occurrence, there was much to digest during the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh.

Frank Kane

3. Here things get a little less certain. I wanted to get some hard detail on the $200 billion privatization program the Kingdom is proposing under the Vision 2030 strategy to reduce dependency on oil and the public sector. I had expected at least one major initial public offering (IPO) to be announced during the FII, but unless you count the long-distant plan to put Neom on a public market, I was disappointed. Put a cross in box three.
4. I also hoped for clarity on the biggest privatization of them all — the $100 billion IPO of shares in Saudi Aramco, which was promised by the end of next year but has been complicated by reports of a possible private sale to Asian investors. Was the Aramco IPO on track? The answers varied according to the responder. Yes, said Amin Nasser, the company chief executive, there will be an IPO by the end of 2018. Would it be on international markets? He declined to say. The Finance Minister Al-Jadaan was more nuanced. An international IPO was only one option being discussed at the highest levels in the Kingdom, he said. Tadawul chief Khalid Al-Hussan and the Capital Market Authority Chairman Mohammed El-Kuwaiz came out with the strongest statement of intent. They were confident the biggest IPO in history could be staged on the Saudi market, with its new foreigner-friendly approach. The thinking seems to be that, rather than Aramco going out to the world, the world will come to Riyadh for Aramco. But nothing, it seems, has been finally decided. Mark box four “don’t know.”
5. Finally, I asked how the FII might change the view of the banking community toward Saudi Arabia. Would banks and financial institutions open offices and recruit local staff to deal with the rush of business expected as part of the great diversification? I think the answer there is a qualified “yes.” There was certainly enthusiasm for the great Saudi project, and a consensus that the change planned for the Kingdom was a good thing. A couple of big global firms — including ratings firm Standard & Poor’s — announced plans to begin operations in the Kingdom. Much depends on the eventual answer to the fourth question above. If Aramco stages its IPO exclusively on the Tadawul, every bank and broker in the world will have to be in Riyadh. Mark box five a provisional tick.
So, while there were many positives to come from the “Saudi Davos,” there was also much to chew over. Expect much greater clarity at the next instalment of what is promised to be an annual event.
• Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. He can be reached on Twitter @frankkanedubai