Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is spearheading a campaign to convince multinationals from Google to Siemens to relocate their regional headquarters from Dubai to Riyadh.
Under the initiative, dubbed “Programme HQ”, authorities are offering incentives to blue-chip companies in sectors such as IT, finance and oil services to move to Riyadh, according to consultants advising the government and executives who have heard the pitch.
The aim of the initiative is to bolster foreign investment and support the crown prince’s ambitious vision to establish the kingdom as a regional business hub. “They are looking at the regional HQs, not the operating units, so they basically want the senior leadership,” said an executive briefed on the plans. “I think it’s about the optics: ‘we are a serious player, we are the largest market, we want the companies that do business here to be based here’”.
The campaign underscores how Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s biggest economy, is using its financial clout to step up competition with Dubai, the regional trade, finance and tourism hub, as Prince Mohammed drives the development of a string of megaprojects. Virtually all big companies operating in the oil-rich Gulf have their regional headquarters in the United Arab Emirates. The Saudi move comes as Gulf economies are struggling because of the pandemic and the collapse of the oil price.
The campaign has gathered momentum ahead of the annual investor conference affiliated to the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund chaired by the crown prince, scheduled to begin on January 27.
One executive said he believed the kingdom hoped to showcase memorandums of understanding with companies that had provisionally agreed to make the switch from Dubai to Riyadh to highlight progress made with Prince Mohammed’s “Vision 2030” plan to modernise the kingdom and overhaul its economy.
“What they are saying, very constructively, [is] what do you need? What sort of environment, ecosystem, infrastructures [do you need] to be based here,” the executive said.
A consultant working in the kingdom said “it’s more like who hasn’t been tapped up,” in reference to the companies being approached.
Saudi Arabia wants to lure groups to the King Abdullah Financial District, a vast development of 59 skyscrapers in northern Riyadh that lacks tenants, executives said. “It’s about attracting key international anchor tenants,” said a Saudi government adviser briefed on the plans.
Incentives on offer include a 50-year tax holiday, waiving quotas on the employment of Saudis — which has proved to be a burden for companies — and guarantees of protection against future regulations, said three consultants.
But executives said companies were lukewarm to “Programme HQ” as they balanced the implications of relocating senior executives from Dubai, which is more liberal, better connected and has state of the art infrastructure including good schools, with the need to placate influential Saudi officials.
Companies are nonetheless considering shifting various business units — if not their regional management — to Riyadh to appease Saudi concerns, consultants and executives said.
Many businesses have put aside any concerns about the reputational risk of working in the kingdom after the brutal 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents and other human rights abuses.
Google Cloud last month agreed with Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, to deliver cloud computing services infrastructure, which will lead to the tech company opening its first office in the kingdom.
Saudi Telecom also announced a $500m deal with Alibaba Cloud, part of the Chinese group, for similar services. Western Union invested $200m for a 15 per cent stake in STC’s mobile wallet unit.
“My phone’s been ringing off the hook by high-tech companies wanting to expand in Saudi Arabia the last few weeks,” said Sam Blatteis, a former Gulf head of government relations for Google, who advises tech multinationals. “The coronavirus [pandemic] has created fertile soil for them in Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi Arabia’s investment ministry declined to comment. The Riyadh city commission did not respond to an emailed request for comment.