Banking: Can nothing hurt Saudi sentiment?


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The murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has sparked condemnation of the kingdom’s leadership the world over, but as the dust settles after the Future Investment Initiative, what are the real-world effects, if any, of this crisis on Saudi Arabia’s banking ties?


All of the heads of large international banks from Europe, the US and Japan who were due to speak at the state-run investment conference in late October, eventually cancelled.

And a small number of deals with the kingdom seem to have been delayed or cancelled, including proposed investments by the Saudi Public Investment Fund in space companies Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.

But take a step back and the picture looks a lot less clear-cut.

For one, bank heads only pulled out once most western media groups, corporations and politicians had already done so, and it therefore looked untenable for them to uphold their attendance.

More importantly, most of the big banks were in fact present at the conference, just no longer on panels, with sometimes large delegations of lower-ranking bankers mingling in the crowd at the Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh, where the event was held.

On panels still appeared the heads of Moelis & Co, which has been advising state oil company Saudi Aramco on its planned IPO, UK venture capital firm SoftBank Investment Advisers and oil major Total, as well as partners of consultancy firms McKinsey and PwC.

Beyond these western participants were large corporate and banking contingents from Russia and Asia, as well as smaller ones from Africa.

I understand the emotion around the story, but it is very difficult to think about disengaging from Saudi Arabia, given its importance to global energy markets 
 - John Flint, HSBC

That big business was not withdrawing from Saudi Arabia was made all the more evident by the signing of 15 memoranda of understanding, worth $34 billion, on day one of the summit. The signatories included Total, Hyundai Heavy Industries, Baker Hughes – which is part of General Electric – and Schlumberger.

The vast majority of those deals relate to the oil sector, so they will do little to advance Vision 2030, whose purported goal is, in part, to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from hydrocarbons.

Still, they indicate that the Khashoggi crisis is not hampering foreign businesspeople’s interest in Saudi opportunities – far from it.

It is also telling that Saudi Arabia’s bond debt was the best performing sovereign in its index last week. It generated 0.41%, the highest in Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s dollar investment-grade emerging market index, according to CreditSights.

As Euromoney has reported, in its September issue and since, bankers and the broader business community has become more wary of Saudi decision-makers.

But, as the events of recent weeks have shown, even after Khashoggi’s death, the financial world is as yet far from ready to give up on that burgeoning market.

John Flint, chief executive of HSBC, on Monday summed up the consensus view among bankers: “I understand the emotion around the story, but it is very difficult to think about disengaging from Saudi Arabia, given its importance to global energy markets.”

Plus ça change…