The upside of the PIF’s absence from global top 10 wealth fund rankings
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund was left out of the global top 10 rankings for sovereign wealth funds last year — but that is really a good thing.
Ever since the fund began to invest abroad, some Saudis worried that it would fail because it was “new in the game.”
Their worries were justified, though they did not come true.
The PIF, established in 1971, was never a real SWF until it departed the Saudi Ministry of Finance and entered a league of its own in 2015 under the supervision of the Council of Economic Development Affairs.
For many years, the fund was a black box for most Saudis, who were unaware of its activities. Before 2015, the Ministry of Finance launched many investment vehicles, but never believed in them.
There is a clear reason for that: Oil prices were high enough to make them focus on spending rather than investing.
So when the PIF started to change direction and walk the walk of a SWF, there were few Saudis outside the fund who knew how it would function. To many, it was merely a state-owned entity staffed by Western-educated graduates who spoke a business language full of financial jargon.
But when the fund started to make headlines through investments in companies such as Uber, people began to pay attention. Unfortunately, in its infancy, Uber faced legal battles in several countries, confirming the worries of many Saudis that the fund would falter.
In light of all the reputational, strategic and image-building challenges, the PIF was met with skepticism from the international media, who cannot be blamed, as even Saudis found the fund hard to understand.
But things are totally different now.
The PIF has transformed. Though it does not receive as much press attention as it used to, it has repeatedly struck smarter deals, such as when it bought a majority stake (63 percent) in the promising startup Lucid Motors.
That deal today was so good that Global SWF, an entity specializing in sovereign fund analysis, labeled it a “benchmark” for how state-owned investors should conduct venture capital operations.
“With an almost 40 times return on investment, every state-owned investor should aspire to replicate the success of PIF with Lucid Motors ... even if 90 percent of startups are doomed to fail,” it said.
This is very good news. The PIF is now signing fewer deals, but focusing on winners. It is now an active venture capital investor that can take startups to the next level, while making billions at the same time.
PIF assets under management are growing more than expected and are well on their way to surpassing the fund’s objective for the second quarter of 2022, to reach SR1.8 trillion ($480 billion).
But is this the only measurement for how well the PIF is doing? No. The other measure is what the fund is doing at home.
In the Kingdom, the PIF is not only creating business and forging new industries, it is targeting job creation — and jobs are what Saudis are looking for from the fund.
PIF Gov. Yasir Al-Rumayyan said last month that the fund has established a department called “National Development” to focus on supporting local supply chains, and increasing the role of local suppliers in the Kingdom’s economy.
The new department will assess and monitor, on a quarterly basis, the impact of projects and companies on the economy in terms of job creation, and local production.
Al-Rumayyan said that the Kingdom’s Shareek program aims to strengthen cooperation between the public and private sectors and increase local investment to SR5 trillion by 2030.
The fund has reached a balance today. It is providing the financial returns needed for stakeholders, and soon enough the required amount of jobs to please the Saudi public.
The next step for the PIF is renowned global status. That will take more time, but as long as the PIF can stay among the top 10 SWFs each year through qualitative deals, it will stay on course to achieve that.
To support its goals, it needs to position itself better publicly and attract more investors to conduct business in the Kingdom, while also helping local investors to grow.
That is all that it needs to be the champion at home and the giant it wants to be on a global scale.
• Wael Mahdi is a senior business editor at Arab News and co-author of “OPEC in a Shale Oil World: Where to Next?”