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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - DUBAI: Attracting foreign investment into Saudi Arabia is one of the key components of the Vision 2030 strategy to move away from oil dependency and encourage the non-oil economy. But it has been a challenging task for a variety of reasons.
It is the job of Ibrahim Al-Suwail — deputy minister of investor services at the new Ministry of Investment — to help change that reality in a world made even more uncertain by the coronavirus pandemic and all that means for global capital flows.
“The government sees the importance of foreign direct investment (FDI) as one of the main pillars of the strategy,” Al-Suwail told Arab News. “The coronavirus comes at a very challenging time for Saudi Arabia, but we have mobilized quickly to ‘future-proof’ the economy.”
In such a fast-changing global financial and economic scene it is difficult to see how any single economy can be entirely “future-proofed,” but that is a challenge policy makers across the world face not just in Saudi Arabia.
In some ways the Kingdom’s capacity to attract foreign investment had been enabled for the pandemic challenge, as far as anybody could be prepared for an event that could lead to the biggest global economic downturn in nearly a century.
In February, before the true implications of the pandemic had really hit home, the Kingdom embarked on a shake-up of its investment infrastructure. The role of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) — the government agency in charge of attracting FDI — was enhanced with the creation of a new ministry-level body, the Ministry of Investment of Saudi Arabia, or MISA.
The government picked one of its best-known and internationally respected policymakers — Khalid Al-Falih, the former minister of energy and chairman of Saudi Aramco — to lead the body. Commentators at the time said that the appointment of such a heavy-hitter, well known in the global investment community, was a sign that attracting FDI had been prioritized on the government’s strategic agenda.
- MBA from INSEEC Business School, Paris
- MBA from Al-Yamamah University, Riyadh
- Joannou & Paraskevaides, Executive
- Silki LA Silki National Telecommunication Co, Development and Logistics Executive
- Saudi Telecom, Executive
- Saudi Arabian General Inevstment Authority, Deputy Governor
- Ministry of Investment, Deputy Minister for Investment Services
“FDI is one of the main pillars towards achieving the Vision 2030 goal. Saudi Arabia has a lot of potential for direct investment in many sectors, like tourism, the giga-projects like the Red Sea Development, mining and minerals. The Kingdom can be a logistics hub connecting three continents — Asia, Africa and Europe, which is not so far away,” Al-Suwail said.
“It was a good sign, to build on the work of SAGIA in the past in terms of attracting the attention of the international investor community. We are responsible for governing and safeguarding the Kingdom’s entire investment ecosystem,” he said.
The extent of the challenge is shown by official figures from the UN’s Conference on Trade and Development. Just before the global financial crisis hit in 2008, Saudi Arabia was attracting FDI of around $40 billion per year, but since then it has struggled to get back to those levels. Last year it reached around $4.6 billion, which was an improvement on the previous two years.
SAGIA used a different metric to assess FDI, which showed some promising results. In 2019, there was a 54 percent increase in the number of foreign companies setting up in the Kingdom, with 1,131 international firms choosing Saudi Arabia as a place to do business, compared with 736 the previous year. It was a record year.
The figures for the first quarter of 2020 are being prepared. Al-Suwail said they will show a “solid uptick” over the final quarter of 2019, despite the fact that the serious economic effects of the pandemic kicked in during March.
The onset of the virus prompted a shift of gear at the new ministry. Its program of outward-reaching conferences, seminars and presentations, scheduled for the rest of the year in some of the world’s great financial centers, moved online with the creation of the MISA COVID-19 Response Center (MCRC) a few days after the sickness was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization.
“Many countries around the world, because of the global health crisis, are looking inward, but we want to continue to look outward to the rest of the world, as far as we can,” Al-Suwail said.
The MCRC has, in cooperation with other government agencies, acted as a central hub for information on the business effects of the crisis, telling investors of the initiatives and services available during the emergency, giving notice of curfew regulations and exemptions for essential businesses, and providing round the clock support for businesses.
It has also organized a series of international webinars for current and potential investors in order to keep the FDI momentum going during the pandemic. The most recent took place last week with participation from US companies and institutions.
The webinar series will continue over the next few months, and will be both geography and sector-specific. “We are in touch with investors to seek their current needs, and to let them know of the various stimulus packages the government is offering during the pandemic,” he said.
So which sectors are potential foreign investors in Saudi Arabia looking at most enthusiastically? “There is no one single sector. Our message is that Saudi Arabia is open for business, and that we have increased the number of investment opportunities,” Al-Suwail said.
“It is no longer just about oil. There has been big diversification since 2017, and the country is full of other resources and opportunities.”
The mega projects launched as part of the Vision 2030 reform plan are obvious targets for FDI and, before the pandemic crisis, authorities were involved in talks with potential investors in construction, infrastructure, utilities, hospitality and other areas the big projects will need.
Al-Suwail highlighted new opportunities in the Saudi healthcare sector, where a recent change of laws has allowed full ownership by non-Saudi companies. He also sees big opportunities in information technology, tourism and leisure, with the new tourist visa facilitating visits to the Kingdom at an unprecedented level.
Traditionally, trade and investment from the US has been the dominant feature of the Saudi economic scene, but that is changing with the rise of the fast growing economies in Asia. Al-Suwail said the forthcoming figures for the first quarter of 2020 would show big investment from China and India, as well as other partners in more traditional places like the UK and Europe.
One core aspect of the FDI initiative was the privatization program of initial public offerings (IPOs) and trade sales that Saudi policymakers have promoted to attract foreign investors, but this has been slow to get off the ground. The biggest IPO in history, the listing of shares in Saudi Aramco at the end of last year, turned into an event largely focused at Saudi and other Gulf Cooperation Council investors, rather than the rest of the world.
“Privatisation is at the heart of Vision 2030, and we have made remarkable progress. There will be more IPOs, I am sure. We will see that Aramco was just the tip of the iceberg,” Al-Suwail said.
When the new ministry was launched, some commentators were confused as to the relationship between it and the Public Investment Fund, the Kingdom’s big sovereign wealth fund. Since the fall in global asset values brought on by the economic slowdown as a result of the pandemic, the PIF has been actively seeking what it regards as under-valued opportunities in the global cruise industry, leisure and entertainment, and in Western oil companies.
MISA’s focus is on investment into the Kingdom, rather than outward, and, as Al-Suwail explained, it is not itself an investor. “MISA is a facilitator for investment, rather than an investor itself. We manage inward investment end-to-end in the Kingdom. But of course we talk to PIF all the time and work closely with them,” he said.
The overarching aim of the Vision 2030 strategy is to increase the role and importance of the private sector in the Kingdom’s economy, and that chimes well with Al-Suwail’s approach. “I come from the private sector, and the idea there was to achieve the targets set by the company. Now my target is also the country’s target,” he said.
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