Will Saudi Arabia’s plan work to become the Middle East’s new corporate HQ?

With the world’s most active sovereign wealth fund and a raft of incentives and social reforms, the kingdom may diminish the UAE’s dominance in attracting corporates

The deadline has passed for international companies vying for big contracts with Saudi Arabia to relocate their corporate headquarters to the kingdom. 

From Jan. 1, government-backed entities are restricted from doing business with large foreign firms that don’t have regional headquarters in the country, as Saudi Arabia looks to diversify its economy away from oil. Ultimately, the kingdom is squaring off with the UAE, which has long held the majority of regional headquarters and attracted the lion’s share of corporate expenditure and foreign investment. 

“A superficial nameplate saying ‘this is the regional headquarters’ will not fly,” Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Investment Khalid Al-Falih said back in 2021, when the mandate was first announced. The expectation is that businesses will employ executive-level staff and oversee operations in other Middle East countries from their kingdom-based offices.

By October 2021, 44 companies had received government licenses to set up headquarters in the country. The companies that had already relocated their regional headquarters included PepsiCo, DiDi, Unilever, Siemens, KPMG, Novartis, Baker Hughes, Halliburton, Philips, Schlumberger, SAP, PwC, Oyo, Boston Scientific and Tim Hortons. Since then, a total of 200 have been granted licenses for regional HQs. 

In tandem with the corporate push, quality of life is becoming a larger emphasis for the kingdom. In 2016 the religious police was tamped down. Two years later, an investment initiative was launched to rapidly develop more cultural, entertainment, sports and tourism activities, which was quickly followed by opening up to global tourism and a broader acceptance of Western dress in corporate settings. Women’s workforce participation has also gone up, from 18% in 2009 to 30% in 2020, according to the Atlantic Council.

Saudi Arabia is now aiming to lure 480 companies to open regional HQs by 2030. For context, as of 2021, 196 of the Fortune 500 had a dedicated office for the Middle East and Africa to service the region, with 70% opting to locate in Dubai. 

Analysts and recruitment experts predict executives are scrutinizing the policy for loopholes.

The feeling among those already doing business in the region is “we’re going to try and get around it in some way, shape or form,” Oscar Orellana-Hyder, co-founder of Cordell Partners, a financial services headhunting firm based in the UAE, told The Circuit

“The decision on where to locate a headquarters also depends on who the anchor investor is in a firm, the amount invested and what type of capital has been raised from the region,” he added. 

The move comes at a time when the region’s sovereign wealth funds are writing bigger checks and becoming more strategic in their investment decisions – with more strings attached. 

Three sovereign wealth funds from the UAE invested a combined $36.5 billion in 2023, according to Global SWF, which tracks the world’s sovereign investment funds. Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala was ranked third in the top 10 list of SWFs with investments of $17.5 billion, followed by Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) with $13.2 billion. 

Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) was ranked seventh at $5.9 billion. Abu Dhabi’s ADQ took the eighth spot with investments of $5.8 billion.

But it is Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, known as the PIF, that is the world’s most active and prolific: it was the leading sovereign investor in 2023 with $31.5 billion deployed in 48 deals, a 33% increase over 2022.

“If you’re pitching to the PIF, and if you’re pitching to other parts of Saudi Inc. then it’s all about this commitment piece,” Orellana-Hyder said. “Commitment has to flow both ways.”

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