The PR of ‘invest’ and ‘Saudi’
When you enter search terms such as “invest” and “Saudi” using Google, Twitter, or any other social media, the result is often a mix of shock and negativity.
Apparently, there are too many angry people out there who are still not happy with many things Saudi Arabia is doing. Their anger is based on years of stereotypes of Saudis and Saudi Arabia long left unchecked. The “Saudinvestophobia” is a result of not very cordial ties between the Kingdom and the global media.
I see angry people opposing the Public Investment Fund deal with Newcastle, and others trying to entice the public against the Kingdom over issues of human rights among many others.
It is human nature that we all tend to fear what we don’t know or sometimes base our opinions on stereotypes. In addition to human psychology, the post-colonial mentality prevailing in the older generations in the West also played a role in tarnishing Saudi Arabia’s image.
For years the mindset is to see Western companies exploiting new markets and frontiers. It is plausible for many to see Western companies forming joint ventures in developing countries and acquiring their national assets. It’s normal to see Western names joining the boards of companies in developing countries but it’s very hard to accept seeing surnames that start with “Al” on the boards of Western organizations.
Although I hate to hold such a negative analysis, it is still a valid viewpoint. We saw this in the COP26 talks and every COP that preceded it. It was always the same mentality of pressuring the rest to follow “us” without respecting the social and political constraints or the economic impact that may result from the quick transformation.
The world can’t go on like this and the reverse-investment cycle must be accepted. And I’m not in defense of the Saudis, Arabs, or Muslims, but I’m expressing my views as member of a developing country in defense of these countries’ rights to expand their global reach and eliminate barriers under globalization.
Twenty years ago, the Gulf Cooperation Council sovereign wealth funds weren’t as active as today and their investments abroad were limited to low-risk securities and fixed-income assets.
In fact, the wealth of many Arab nations was recycled to the Western financial system through a series of unethical schemes. The wealth of tyrants and corrupt officials were managed by top institutions and citizens of many developed nations didn’t know that their institutions were managing the wealth of the people that they despised.
Today, the funds also knowns as sovereign wealth funds are taking a different course. GCC funds are taking the lead in the Arab world in investing abroad and asking to be active board members. The old model of handing over the wealth of the GCC nations to Western bankers is not sustainable.
For these changes in directions to be effective, they must be accompanied by a huge public relations drive to fend off stereotypes, biases, and to help position these nations as investors who have the right to manage their wealth.
What’s worrying to many I guess is the fear of seeing governments of developing countries getting involved in the decision-making of many institutions at their homes through these funds. I’m sure there is enough governance in developed nations that can assure people that the involvement of these SWFs is professional and politically neutral.
So for the Saudi investment strategy to succeed abroad, more investments have to be made into PR but this must be a two-way process. Not only Saudi Arabia needs to ensure that its positioning and image are clear when investing abroad but at the same time it must make sure that investors from developed countries adhere to the highest standards of environmental, social, and governance practices.
The right PR will always start from home and people in other nations will accept Saudi investments when they see real change at home. But this can’t work as well unless people in the West eliminate their condescending behavior and accept others and what they are doing.
We can’t judge people by results alone, it’s unfair. We must judge people by their efforts and intentions as well. Not all nations are starting the race with the same conditions and here we can argue about many factors that affected developing nations from having the right conditions to start the race. The most important part is that we are all marching ahead to the finish line, and it doesn’t matter who gets their first. This is only possible when the race is for a good cause but if it’s for pure competition then our problems will never end and the divide will continue to exist.
• Wael Mahdi is a senior business editor at Arab News and co-author of “OPEC in a Shale Oil World: Where to Next?”