Saudi Arabia's new economy at risk as Khashoggi killing worries investors

Saudi Arabia's young crown prince had a vision for his kingdom: a country with a diversified economy, a boom...

Posted: Nov 21, 2018 3:45 PM
Updated: Nov 21, 2018 3:45 PM

Saudi Arabia's young crown prince had a vision for his kingdom: a country with a diversified economy, a booming tourism and entertainment industry and a budding tech hub with some of the world's biggest names.

Now all that hangs in the balance. Foreign companies are reluctant to do new business with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and money is fleeing the kingdom.

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"Foreign investor sentiment has deteriorated," said Garbis Iradian, chief economist for the Middle East and North Africa at the Institute of International Finance.

"Some big names could continue to do business with the kingdom, but not enough to achieve the objective of diversifying the economy away from oil," he added.

President Donald Trump signaled Tuesday that he will not take strong action against Saudi Arabia or bin Salman for the murder and dismemberment of the Washington Post journalist. He cited the kingdom's influence on oil prices and US weapons sales in his statement.

'Maybe he did, maybe he didn't'

But he also left open the possibility that bin Salman may have been involved, as the CIA believes, and as Saudi Arabia strenuously denies.

"It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn't," Trump said in the statement.

Trump's remarks angered US lawmakers, including Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker. He told CNN that Congress would respond with "additional pressure" on Saudi Arabia if the administration doesn't name the crown prince. It could use the Magnitsky Act, which allows for sanctions on human rights grounds, he added.

Investors, or the host of global chief executives who stayed away from bin Salman's showcase investment conference in Riyadh last month, are unlikely to be reassured.

Saudi Arabia's stock market was one of the hottest emerging markets earlier this year with money from overseas pouring in. In July, the main Tadawul had gained as much as 17% since the start of 2018.

Those gains have largely evaporated since — the index is now just 4% up for the year. It fell 2% on Sunday following media reports that cited a CIA assessment implicating bin Salman in Khashoggi's killing.

Foreign investment in the stock market has reversed over the past few months. According to MEFIC Capital in Riyadh, nearly $165 million of foreign money was pulled out of Saudi-listed companies in September before the Khashoggi killing.

And according to a United Nations report earlier this year, foreign direct investment in Saudi Arabia fell to $1.4 billion in 2017, its lowest level in 14 years.

Capital flight is accelerating

Saudi residents are also voting with their money. JP Morgan estimates that they'll move $90 billion out of the kingdom this year, up from $80 billion in 2017. The bank is projecting even bigger outflows in 2019, according to a research report published this month.

The outcry over the Khashoggi killing at the hands of Saudi agents saw dozens of high profile CEOs and international media pull out of "Davos in the desert" last month.

Softbank (SFTBF) CEO, Masayoshi Son, decided to skip the event despite being a close ally of the crown prince. Speaking after the event, Son said his company wouldn't sever its financial ties to Saudi Arabia but also wouldn't take any more Saudi cash until the truth about the murder was known.

Son also downplayed plans for a second mega fund in collaboration with Saudi Arabia, saying it was "too early."

Uber's CEO Dara Khosrowshahi also finds himself in a tough spot. His company took $3.5 billion from Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund in 2016. The fund's managing director, Yasir Al Rumayyan, sits on Uber's board.

Khosrowshahi said last week he's waiting for more information before taking any action over the Saudi government's significant investment in the startup.

The Saudi government has repeatedly changed its story about Khashoggi's death, initially denying any knowledge of it before claiming that a group of rogue Saudi operatives were responsible for the killing.

Bin Salman launched Vision 2030 more than two years ago. His plan includes a blueprint on what the economy should look like over the next decade, ending what he once called its "addiction" to oil.

Over the past year, the crown prince has allowed women to drive, opened cinemas and vowed to return the kingdom to a "moderate" form of Islam.

More partners needed

AMC (AMC) opened its first theater in Riyadh in April. That month, it signed an agreement to open at least 30 cinemas across the kingdom over the next five years. Six Flags (SIX) also has plans to open a theme park in 2022.

AMC and Six Flags did not respond to requests for comment.

Saudi Arabia has also announced several ambitious projects including Neom, a futuristic mega city of self-driving cars and passenger drones. Several foreign advisory board members have distanced themselves from the project following the death of Khashoggi.

Bin Salman will need more partners and investors to make his vision a reality. Many of them were already disappointed by a decision to delay indefinitely plans to sell part of state oil giant Saudi Aramco.

Some analysts expect investment will eventually recover, as the lure of a young and wealthy population proves too hard for foreign businesses to resist.

"Vision 2030 is a more holistic long-term transformation across all sectors of the economy," said Rabia Yasmeen, senior analyst at Euromonitor International.

"We see big regional and global names entering the Saudi market over the [next five years], with lucrative opportunities in retail, hospitality and tourism, real estate, healthcare and digitization," she added.

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