Virgin founder Richard Branson announced he was pulling out of talks on a $1 billion deal with Saudi Arabia over the killing of a Washington Post columnist. State involvement in the killing, “if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government,” Mr. Branson said.
Days later in a text message, Mr. Branson counseled the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to release female activists his country had imprisoned.
“If you were to pardon these women and a number of men too, it would show the world the Government is truly moving into the 21stCentury,” Mr. Branson texted the crown prince. “It won’t change what happened in Turkey but it would go a long way to start and change people’s view.”
Mr. Branson was one of the first in a parade of CEOs, fund managers and bankers who scrambled to figure out how to preserve their relationships with Prince Mohammed after the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul embassy in the fall.
Mr. Branson urged Prince Mohammed to change his ways. Others adopted a dual strategy of public condemnation while trying to continue to do business as usual. Some shunned the formality of Saudi Arabia’s high-profile investment conference but pursued informal gatherings instead.
The reason: Many have tied their companies’ future to Saudi money and Crown Prince Mohammed’s wide-ranging economic overhauls.
“This whole Khashoggi thing doesn’t mean anything,” said hedge-fund manager John Burbank, who has been one of the U.S.’s most prominent investors in Saudi stocks. “It means much less than the big, sweeping liberalization that’s happening in the kingdom.”
MBS, as Prince Mohammed is known, politely thanked Mr. Branson for his input. A few days later, the crown prince publicly denied involvement in the murder, calling it a heinous crime. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has since concluded that he likely ordered the killing.
American investors in Saudi stocks, besides Mr. Burbank, include Peter Thiel and hedge fund Bienville Capital Management, among others. Roughly 4% of the total Saudi market is held by foreigners.
“One person’s life doesn’t matter unless it’s MBS’s,” Mr. Burbank says. “Khashoggi doesn’t matter.” He adds that investors who have steered away from Saudi Arabia are hypocrites, because some of them also invest in Russia and Turkey.
Mr. Burbank was among the dozens of Western executives and investors who showed up at the home of Yasir al Rumayyan—chairman of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign Public Investment Fund, which the crown prince oversees—on the eve of the investor conference in October. Over platters piled high with roast lamb, towers of sweets in golden birdcages and champagne flutes of fruit juice, they toasted their relationship beneath palm trees tinted by purple spotlights, attendees said.
SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son backed out of the conference, but he still showed up at the lamb feast. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi also pulled out of the conference, but Uber co-founder and board member Travis Kalanick was at the party, along with former congressman and current banker Eric Cantor and his boss, banker Ken Moelis, and venture capitalist Jim Breyer. Thiel Capital portfolio manager John MacMahon also appeared at the dinner, and the chief executive of Silicon Valley construction startup Katerra, Michael Marks, attended the investment conference.
Matt Barnard, the CEO of Plenty—an indoor-farming startup with $200 million in backing from a Saudi-backed SoftBank fund—flew to Saudi Arabia for the conference. But he returned home without attending, a Plenty spokeswoman says.
The cost of shunning Saudi Arabia could be high. Some business partners fear losing access to the kingdom in the future if they pull out of Saudi deals now.
Ari Emanuel, the CEO of Hollywood talent agency Endeavor, is negotiating to return a $400 million investment that the Saudi sovereign-wealth fund made in his company earlier this year, people familiar with the company’s plan say.
In the wake of Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance, Mr. Emanuel said he was “really concerned about it.”
.. “Were there mistakes made? Absolutely there were mistakes made,” said Matt Michelsen, an associate of John Burbank and a Silicon Valley investor. “But this place is changing. I saw Starbucks opening on multiple corners. There are women walking around without abayas. It’s a fundamental shift that’s occurred.”
The government of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has spent billions to counter selloffs in recent months
Saudi Arabia’s government has been spending billions of dollars to quietly prop up its stock market and counter selloffs that have followed repeated political crises in recent months.
According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of trading data and interviews with multiple people with direct knowledge of government intervention efforts, the Saudi government has placed huge buy orders, often in the closing minutes of negative trading days, to boost the market.
The Saudi stock market is a pillar of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to revamp his country’s economy. Since he ascended to a top leadership position three years ago, the de facto Saudi ruler and his deputies have faced a series of foreign-relations predicaments—most recently the October murder of columnist Jamal Khashoggi—that prompted investors to dump Saudi stocks.
The Saudi stock exchange normally discloses how much stock the government buys. The recent purchases after political crises have been concealed from public view. That is because the government, rather than buying stock directly, has routed its money through asset managers at Saudi financial institutions who run funds that don’t need to reveal their clients, those people say.
.. It is a strategy the kingdom used last year after it launched an economic blockade of Qatar, following the arrest and torture of prominent Saudis, a corruption crackdown that some inside the government called a political purge, and after Prince Mohammed detained Lebanon’s prime minister, the Journal found.
Through the upheaval, Prince Mohammed’s government has been keen to show the world that Saudi Arabia remains safe for foreign investors. “We need to highlight to the world that Saudi investment is good,” said a Saudi government official.
.. China and other developing countries have been intervening for years in their stock markets. The Saudi efforts stand apart because they’re geared to attract foreign investors to a market with little foreign ownership. Foreigners only own about 4% of stock on the Saudi market, where all of the companies are Saudi-based and many have some government ownership.
.. Antoine van Agtmael, who coined the term “emerging market” almost 40 years ago, and who now works as an adviser for publisher FP Group, said government intervention makes the Saudi stock exchange “more of a fake market, and that kind of undermines the trust of investors in the long run.”
.. Having a healthy stock market is especially important because the Saudi stock exchange, known as the Tadawul, will be included next year in global emerging-market indexes. That inclusion will result in billions of dollars of foreign capital entering the exchange, which currently has a market capitalization of around $500 billion.
.. To prop up the market, the government has bought stocks via its sovereign Public Investment Fund, or PIF, say people familiar with the matter. PIF has been Prince Mohammed’s main investment instrument at home and abroad, taking a high-profile stake in Uber Technologies Inc. and investing billions of dollars with SoftBank Group Corp.
.. When local share prices falter, one of these people says, Mr. Rumayyan tells deputies to start buying. They use the messaging program WhatsApp to contact managers at institutions including state-controlled NCB Capital Co. who manage PIF funds, this person says.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has directed at least $11 billion of Saudi money into U.S. startups since mid-2016, either directly or through SoftBank Group Corp.’s $92 billion tech-focused Vision Fund, to which the Saudis committed $45 billion
.. Some of tech’s most prominent young companies have welcomed Saudi money, including Uber Technologies Inc., office-sharing company WeWork Cos. and augmented-reality device maker Magic Leap Inc. For Uber, the situation could be particularly dicey: A prominent Saudi official sits on its board... . Saudi’s Public Investment Fund has committed another $4.9 billion to Uber, Magic Leap and electric-car maker Lucid Motors Inc.
The Public Investment Fund is supposed to be Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, but the prince, who heads its board, runs it like his own business. In April, it acquired 129 square miles of state land for a sports and entertainment city. In August, it announced plans for a tourist resort bigger than Belgium. And in October, Prince Mohammed unveiled Neom, his $500 billion robot city, at an international conference.
.. Far from diversifying wealth, he seeks to centralize it in his hands.
.. the Saudi economy dropped into recession more sharply than predicted in the last quarter. The gross domestic product dipped 0.7 percentin 2017, substantially down on pre-purge predictions of growth of 0.1 percent, and worryingly below population growth of 2 percent.
.. Saudi Arabia’s ranking on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index has fallen from 26 in 2014 to 92 in 2017. Unemployment continues to increase, in part because of the influx of women into the job market.
.. A direct sale to Chinese state-owned oil companies is also being mentioned.
.. Investors and neighbors crave predictability, stability and the confidence that comes with a sound regulatory system. All three are what made Dubai. Properly carried out, such a system would please bankers who might welcome the chance to retrieve debts or land from princes that act like robber barons.
.. A new House of Lords would lessen the risk that wounded egos will spawn an opposition. Subject to his elders’ scrutiny, the crown prince might be more prudent about spending money, particularly on defense and security, which documents indicate was 43 percent over budget in 2016.
.. For now Prince Mohammed is offering more personal liberty and relief from the scowls of the religious police as compensation for the introduction of taxes.
But as Abdullah, the previous king, recognized, more taxation — whether direct or indirect — will stoke demands for broader representation.