Both counties are undergoing change, which makes their relationship with one another even more salient.
Britain is faced with Brexit and needs to find deeper economic relationships with countries outside the EU. At the same time, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is bringing change to Saudi Arabia. Vision 2030 has been designed to wean Saudi Arabia off its economic dependency on oil and focus on sectors that create jobs, such as education, tourism and manufacturing. Renewable energy and sustainability underpin many of the new projects. Social change, such as the empowerment of women, features front and center.
The three-day visit of the crown prince to the UK was a big charm offensive.
Billboards and newspaper ads depicted the two flags, coining the term “United Kingdoms” and portraying the crown prince as the man who is bringing change to KSA. The PR campaign was designed to inform the British people about Vision 2030 and combat stereotypes about the Kingdom.
The Saudi PR machine did not stop there.
The Saudi Center for International Strategic Partnerships and The Daily Telegraph organized a UK-Saudi CEO Summit designed to educate UK business on the many opportunities of Vision 2030. The summit focused on four key areas: The rationale and implementation of Saudi Vision 2030; women in leadership; a presentation of “high-tech” giga-projects such as NEOM and Qiddiya; and an eye toward the need to create enduring partnerships between the private sectors of the two countries.
There is big interest in what is happening in Saudi Arabia among the global business and the investor community.
Curiosity, however, is not enough for business people to commit dollars and resources. They need to understand the economic policies of a country and how they will be implemented. They also need to understand the societal context in a country before they commit resources — be that in the form of trade or investments. The conference was designed to address precisely those issues.
Attendance was big, filling the conference hall throughout the day, and the seniority of speakers and attendees was impressive.
The CEO Summit is part of a series of conferences and measures, kick-started in Riyadh last October when the great and the good gathered at a conference nicknamed “Davos in the Desert.” The London conference picks up where the Riyadh conference left off. It is designed to enlighten the British business elite and there will, no doubt, be follow-up events in the US and Asia.
Between Brexit and Vision 2030 lies much common ground — and a world of opportunity.
Not enough is known about the Kingdom and its policies in Europe. Sophisticated investors have been eyeing developments with eagle eyes, but still need to be sold on the implementation of the promise.
There is, of course, the IPO of Saudi Aramco, which will be the largest in history. The stock exchanges of New York, London, Hong Kong and Tokyo are vying for that juicy business. With Brexit looming, the London Stock Exchange may be the most eager among them to list Aramco. The oil giant’s CEO, Amin Nasser, gave no specifics other than explaining that the preparatory work was to conclude during the second half of 2018 and that the decision was up to the shareholder.
Business opportunities in the Kingdom go well beyond the Aramco IPO, and the conference was designed to give a comprehensive view. There may have been some skepticism about how the giga-projects could be designed and built within the given time frame.
However, there was, above all, interest and eagerness to learn. Nasser introduced many opportunities to cooperate with UK businesses, 2,000 of which were prequalified and only a little over 10 percent actually work with Aramco.
The concept of the entertainment city of Qiddia was also received with great interest. In the end it will probably be reforms relating to the ease of doing business, such as the recent revamp of Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority processes, as much as huge projects, which will convince investors that KSA is the place to do business.
Be this as it may, the crown prince is on to something with his ad campaign focusing on the United Kingdoms. UK business people need new perspectives in a post-Brexit world where access to their traditional markets will be restricted. Saudi Arabia needs to create jobs for its young population.
Vision 2030 is about creating these jobs, as are the giga and mega-projects. The reforms and projects require money and innovation.
The needs and objectives are complementary on both sides. It is now up to business people to make the connections. Over lunch the pace of netwoking was feverish. In addition, the authorities on both sides need to create business-friendly frameworks of cooperation.
Memorandums of understanding in the oil and gas, metals, education, health care and real-estate sectors were signed at the end of the conference.
The Mansion House gathering may or may not immediately result in the commitment of big sums of dollars, pounds and riyals. But then Rome was not built in a day, but built it was. Reforming Saudi Arabia’s economy will not take as long as building Rome. It is a journey, and the conference was an important step along the way. Stay tuned.
• Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macroeconomist and energy expert.