Saudi Arabia Adds Pressure on Global Firms to Move to Riyadh
Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, second left, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan. (Photographer: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool via Bloomberg)

Saudi Arabia Adds Pressure on Global Firms to Move to Riyadh

Saudi Arabia is increasing pressure on international firms to shift their Middle East hubs to the kingdom, posing a direct challenge to neighboring Dubai as a regional rivalry heats up.

From the start of 2024, the Saudi government and state-backed institutions will stop signing contracts with foreign companies that base their Middle East headquarters in any other country in the region, according to a statement from the Saudi Press Agency, attributed to an official source. The move is intended to limit “economic leakage” and boost job creation, the unidentified official said.

It signals “competition on steroids” within the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, said Ziad Daoud, chief emerging markets economist at Bloomberg Economics. Still, it’s “hard to see the decision being fully implemented. Expect a lot of slippage and exemptions.”

The measure is the latest designed to encourage firms to increase their presence in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, supporting a broader plan to diversify the economy of the world’s largest crude exporter. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pushed an $800 billion strategy to double the size of the city and turn it into a global hub. While earlier steps included incentives to move, Monday’s announcement is an implicit threat -- setting up firms to lose out on billions of dollars of deals unless they relocate.

“It’s not natural for companies without their decision-making apparatus in the country to be getting the prime contracts that the government and government entities would be awarding,” Khalid Al-Falih, the Saudi Minister of Investment, said in a phone interview. “It’s a reward for those who choose to be here.”

The decision lays bare a competition over global commerce and talent that has escalated as Prince Mohammed opens the kingdom’s economy and touts $6 trillion of investment opportunities over the next decade. The city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates long ago established itself as the Gulf’s business hub for everything from banking to transport. It’s a close ally of Saudi Arabia.

The ruling applies to government bodies that go through a Ministry of Finance procurement process, and won’t impact private sector firms or publicly traded companies even if they have state ownership, Al-Falih said.

“We believe that the combination of the infrastructure in place in Riyadh, the incentives that will be given, as well as the size of the pie in terms of business opportunities, will attract hundreds of companies to relocate and not wait until 2024,” he said.

‘Firm’ Decision

Challenging Dubai won’t be easy, though. The glitzy emirate still offers an array of advantages over the kingdom for international companies even as the Saudi Crown Prince revises laws and loosens social restrictions.

Last month, a group of 24 international firms including Deloitte, Bechtel and PepsiCo said at an investment conference organized by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund that they were moving their regional headquarters to the kingdom. However, some already have Saudi offices, and plan to rename them as regional headquarters while maintaining a presence in Dubai.

Al-Falih denied that the new procurement rules were an attempt to challenge Dubai’s status. “There is no specific city or country that we are targeting, we’re really just targeting the companies themselves,” he said.

Saudi Arabia Adds Pressure on Global Firms to Move to Riyadh

Wary of the changes in Saudi Arabia, the UAE has already started pushing forward on efforts to make the the country more attractive to foreign firms and encourage expatriates to put down deeper roots. It’s decriminalized cohabitation of unmarried couples, allowed expatriates to marry, divorce and use inheritance laws of their home countries, and removed a requirement to have a license to consume alcohol.

In a sign of how the challenge has been received in Dubai, Nasser Al-Shaikh, Dubai’s former finance chief who helped steer the emirate through the 2008 credit crisis, wrote in a twitter post that the Saudi move contradicts the principle of the Gulf Common Market. “Global practice and history have proven that forced attraction isn’t sustainable and the most effective way is improving the environment,” he wrote.

If the new Saudi rules are applied strictly, the 2024 decision could provide a powerful incentive. The government official quoted by SPA said that the policy “won’t affect investors’ ability to enter the kingdom’s economy or to continue dealing with the private sector.”

But the kingdom’s private sector is heavily dependent on government contracts, with many companies relying on them for most -- or all -- of their business. More details will be released later this year, the official said.

“This gives the companies time to think, because the decision will be firm,” Fahad bin Juma’a, a Saudi economist, told state television channel Al Ekhbariya. “If they want to deal with Saudi Arabia then they need to come to Riyadh.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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