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Foreigners tap Saudi boom through the family

Growth potential, better corporate governance, a shot of expert knowledge and a troubled stock market are all reasons why family-owned firms might sell stakes to interested outsiders. Alex Warren reports.

FOR YEARS, SAUDI Arabia was considered one of the most opaque places in which to do business in the world. Most considered that the Kingdom’s apparently sealed-off economy consisted of oil and not much else, while few outsiders had close contacts with the thousands of family-owned companies that still dominate the private sector.

Times have changed, though, and outsiders are not only doing business with Saudi family firms, they are also trying to buy into them. With the non-oil sector beginning to take off against the background of an improving business environment, foreign groups are keen to get in on the action. The same can be said for the increasingly competitive and swelling ranks of investment banks operating in the country.

The attraction is clear enough. "If the Saudi economy performs to its potential, the boom will eclipse the entire rest of the Gulf put together," says an investment banker, raising the question of how foreign players can claim a slice of the region’s largest pie.

And while the strategies of these outsiders have increasingly often taken the form of joint ventures in recent years, more and more focus is being pointed towards acquiring stakes in family-owned companies, especially those with strong positions and prospects in the domestic or regional market.

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