CEOs, investors and policymakers debate how to ‘invest in humanity’ at FII conference in Riyadh

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Updated 26 October 2021

CEOs, investors and policymakers debate how to ‘invest in humanity’ at FII conference in Riyadh

  • Future Investment Initiative summit to identify avenues for contributing in a way that creates both value and impact
  • Annual event provides platform for global leaders, investors and innovators to explore solutions to society’s challenges

RIYADH: At the first Future Investment Initiative (FII) forum in Riyadh in 2017, one of the attending billionaire entrepreneurs urged Saudi Arabia, then just embarking on the Vision 2030 strategy of transformation, to follow the example of Nike and “just do it.”

On Tuesday, at the start of the fifth FII, the Kingdom, and the FII itself, has certainly gone for “it” in a big way.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic and other global issues, in the past five years there has been a big change in the Saudi economic scene, with the pace of the Vision transformation accelerating as social, cultural and economic measures take effect in the Kingdom.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the FII conference in a virtual session in the capital Riyadh, on Jan. 28, 2021. (File/AFP)

The FII itself has also undergone a transformation, becoming a permanent institute and a fixture on the international forum scene, though still under the auspices of the Public Investment Fund (PIF), Saudi Arabia’s multi-billion-dollar sovereign wealth fund.

At the first FII, as billionaires, entrepreneurs and senior policymakers from around the world made their way to the Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh, and the adjoining King Abdulaziz Conference Center, some smart commentator with an eye for a catch-phrase came up with “Davos in the Desert” to describe the scene.

Despite the annoyance of the World Economic Forum, which organizes the extravaganza in the Swiss mountains, the phrase stuck, and FII has increasingly taken on the trappings of the annual Alpine gathering.

Among the nearly 4,000 attendees were such luminaries as then-IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and Larry Fink, chief executive of giant investment group BlackRock, who remains a regular at FII — all inquisitive to learn details of the Vision 2030 strategy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had unveiled the previous year.

The crown prince set the tone for the event, and for subsequent years, with a keynote speech that unveiled the central message of what life would be like in the Saudi Arabia of the Vision 2030 era.

He promised a “return to moderate Islam that is open to all religions,” and to eradicate promoters of extremist thoughts, adding: “We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.”

The show-stealer of that first forum was Masayoshi Son, the chairman and CEO of Japan’s SoftBank. Earlier in the year, Son had unveiled the Vision Fund, the biggest start-up investment enterprise in the world, with a budget of $100 billion — including $45 billion from the PIF — to invest in cutting-edge technology that would transform the world.

Sharing a stage with Sophia the Android, the first robot to be “awarded” Saudi citizenship in a light-hearted ceremony, Son told the audience: “Every industry will be redefined. These computers, they will learn, they will read, they will see by themselves. That’s a scary future but anyway that’s coming,” he said.

‘Sophia the Robot’ of Hanson Robotics reacts during a discussion about Sophia’s multiple intelligences and artificial intelligence (AI) at the RISE Technology Conference in Hong Kong on July 10, 2018. (File/AFP)

The first FII was also notable for two other landmark announcements which have left an enduring mark on the Saudi economy and the global investment scene.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled the master concept of NEOM, the $500 billion city-of-the-future to be built in the northwest of the Kingdom, which has since become the flagship project of the Vision 2030 strategy.

Carbon neutral and sustainable, the new metropolis would be served by an army of robots and driven by state-of-the-art digital technologies and artificial intelligence.

It would also create a new urban hub for innovation and enterprise in an under-populated part of Saudi Arabia. Other mega-projects followed, like the Red Sea development, the Qiddiya resort complex, the AlUla desert oasis with its historic cultural roots, and the Diriyah Gate development on the outskirts of Riyadh.

The second big announcement of that first FII was the unveiling of a financial road map for the PIF, aiming to make it the biggest sovereign wealth fund, with a target of $2 trillion assets under management by 2030.

Saudi CEO of NEOM Nadhmi Al-Nasr speaks during the last day of the FII conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Oct. 25, 2018. (File/AFP)

The PIF was to be the main vehicle for the implementation of the Vision 2030 transformation, and also raise significantly the Kingdom’s profile in the international financial community.

The second FII forum, in October 2018, was overshadowed to some degree by the tragic murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul earlier in the month, which led some top-level executives and media organizations to stay away, but for which regrets and condemnation were expressed by the crown prince from the stage at the opening keynote.

It was difficult for a visitor to see much difference. The attendance figures were as good as the inaugural launch; while some familiar faces were missing from the big set-piece plenary sessions, an army of more junior executives from many of the big banks, financial institutions and other global investors were happily doing deals at the event.

Some $60 billion in deals and Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) were signed in 2018, across a range of sectors including energy, housing, health and technology.

The 2018 event attracted eight heads of state, 20 international ministers and was watched by 2.8 million viewers worldwide.

Delegates attend a debate during the fourth edition of the FII conference at the capital Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel on Jan. 27, 2021. (File/AFP)

By 2019, when Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the PIF governor, declared the FII to be “one of the top three gatherings in the world,” it was business as usual, with an even bigger turnout of around 6,000 at the event and millions more tuning in worldwide from more than 110 countries.

Like most international events of last year, FII 2020 was impacted by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented it from being held in its customary October slot.

Instead, the fourth FII was held virtually in January this year, organized from Riyadh with the help of satellite hubs in New York, Paris, Beijing and Mumbai.

The theme was “The Neo Renaissance,” referring to the rebirth of global economic life after the shock of the pandemic the previous year. The event also developed what was to be an enduring theme, and a prominent element of the fifth event starting today in Riyadh: The importance of ESG — environmental, social and governance — standards in global finance.

In the five years since the first “Davos in the Desert,” much has changed. The FII itself is now a non-profit organization run by the PIF under Chief Executive Richard Attias, who is a prominent figure at the annual events.

Mask-clad participants stand next to a sign annoucning the next panel during the fourth edition of the FII conference at the capital Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel on Jan. 27, 2021. (File/AFP)

Its one-item agenda consists of “Impact on humanity.” Meanwhile, the Saudi economy has developed and progressed with the FII.

It has emerged from the shock of the pandemic last year, and, in particular, Saudi Arabia has helped steer global energy markets through their most severe crisis for many years through its leadership, along with Russia, of the OPEC+ organization.

All the economic indicators in the Kingdom are heading in the right direction, with GDP this year forecast to show a strong recovery from the doldrums of the pandemic recession.

Higher oil prices will make a big contribution to stronger government revenues, which can also be used to finance the ongoing Vision 2030. Non-oil growth is also expected to rise sharply.

Despite the challenges of the past two years, the FII has become an integral part of the global investment scene and the international forums circuit.

The FII has “just done it,” and will do it again in Riyadh starting on Tuesday.


Saudi desalination corporation reveals environmental sustainability road map

Updated 06 December 2021

Saudi desalination corporation reveals environmental sustainability road map

  • Kingdom’s plans for improving environment, combating climate change, reaching carbon neutrality shared at global industry forum

JEDDAH: A Saudi government institution responsible for the desalination of seawater has revealed its road map to achieving environmental sustainability at a major international industry conference.

Officials from the Saline Water Conversion Corp. shared their Saudi Green Initiative action plans — aimed at improving the environment, combating climate change, and reaching carbon neutrality ­— at a recent forum in London attended by more than 90 global leaders and investors.

By taking part in the event, the SWCC not only hoped to strengthen its world leadership role in the desalination industry, but also look at ways to further reduce production costs while increasing the involvement of relevant Saudi companies and organizations in current and future projects.

Saudi Ambassador to the UK Prince Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan was among forum delegates who heard how the corporation was focused on enhancing the use of clean energy sources in place of thermal heating systems.

Addressing the meeting, Saleh Al-Mana, the SWCC’s assistant deputy governor for technical affairs and projects, said that by reusing water and recycling filters in production systems, and developing engineering principles in technical designs for beneficiaries including the agriculture, industrial, and urban sectors, the transition to low carbon activated the circular economy.

The corporation has been working on initiatives to achieve environmental sustainability in all areas of desalination supply, from production to transportation.

At the Saudi Green Initiative forum held in Riyadh in October, the Kingdom revealed its blueprint for dealing with climate change by increasing the reliance on clean energy, protecting the environment, and offsetting millions of tons of carbon emissions annually by 2030.

The country was investigating more ways to produce, treat, and distribute water locally using energy systems that ensured sustainable growth.

The initiative aims to protect the marine environment by investing in zero liquid discharge systems, a wastewater management system that extracts salts and minerals and converts them into products of high economic value for use in the industrial sector.

Earlier this year, the SWCC set a world record for the lowest energy consuming desalination plant.

The transition to a low-carbon future will be a complex process. Alternatives will take significant time and sustained investment to meet the rising global energy demand.

Egypt to launch natural gas-powered bus fleet in 2022

Updated 05 December 2021

Egypt to launch natural gas-powered bus fleet in 2022

CAIRO: Egypt will launch its first fleet of buses powered by natural gas next year, Minister of Public Enterprise Hisham Tawfik has said.

About 70 percent of the components used in the manufacturing of the buses will be sourced locally, in cooperation with several Egyptian companies, he said.

Tawfiq said that the fleet will include buses that can accommodate 14 to 50 passengers, and that the goal of the project is to localize technology and transport production.

“Our strategy is to work in the production of environmentally friendly vehicles, whether they run on natural gas or electricity,” he added.

A delegation from the Belarusian Minsk Automobile Plant signed a contract to supply production materials for the project.

Production is expected to begin in mid-2022, with a target of 250 buses completed per year.

Tawfiq welcomed cooperation with the Belarusian side, especially in light of the distinguished relations between the two countries, which have developed significantly in recent years.


IMF likely to lower its global economic growth estimates due to omicron threat

Updated 05 December 2021

IMF likely to lower its global economic growth estimates due to omicron threat

WASHINGTON: The International Monetary Fund is likely to lower its global economic growth estimates due to the new omicron variant of the coronavirus, the global lender’s chief said at the Reuters Next conference on Friday in another sign of the turmoil unleashed by the ever-changing pandemic.
Omicron has spread rapidly to at least 40 countries since it was first reported in South Africa last week, officials say, and many governments have tightened travel rules to try to keep it out.
“A new variant that may spread very rapidly can dent confidence, and in that sense, we are likely to see some downgrades of our October projections for global growth,” IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva told the conference.
Much remains unknown about omicron. Researchers said it could have picked up genetic material from another virus, perhaps one that causes the common cold, which would allow it to more easily evade human immune system defenses.
Georgieva said the fund is also looking at all of its research processes in order to ensure the its data integrity in the wake of a data-rigging scandal at the World Bank.
“Is there something more that can be done, and we are looking at all the processes — are they sufficiently up to date with what others are doing?” Georgieva said.

YouGotaGift — region’s first marketplace for digital gift cards

Updated 06 December 2021

YouGotaGift — region’s first marketplace for digital gift cards

YouGotaGift is the region’s first marketplace for digital gift cards. It is an end-to-end digital platform that connects prepaid cards from top retail brands to consumers and businesses. 

Its prepaid cards are completely digital, meaning customers can buy them online and have them delivered instantly by email or SMS. 

It works with over 700 retail brands, reaches over 5 million users and serves over 2,000 corporates.  

YouGotaGift was originally founded in 2013 in the UAE by CEO, Husain Makiya, Marketeer Abed Bibi, and Honeybee Tech Ventures (incubator), and further backed by a major regional VC, namely MEVP (Middle East Venture Partners).

It began operating in Saudi Arabia in 2014, with its first significant banking client in the Kingdom. It is now operating across the Gulf Cooperation Council and beyond with multiple offices across the region. “Our consumer business offers our global users the convenience to send personalized e-gift cards to celebrate friends, family, and colleagues,” Makiya told Arab News.

“As a fully registered Saudi company, we have massively expanded our business in the Kingdom and greatly scaled up our team on the ground over the last 18 months, spearheaded by Fawziah Al-Hoshan, as general manager,” he added.

Al-Hoshan is a Saudi woman with a decade-long career in business and HR with Saudi corporates and multinationals, including Olayan Group and Pepsico. Makiya said the Kingdom is witnessing tremendous economic growth and the emerging talent pool is highly energized to engage in new roles and career opportunities offered by such companies as YouGotaGift. 

He said YouGotAGift is the first to bring this category of gift cards to the Kingdom. “Our collection of gift cards were first incorporated by National Commercial Bank for their loyalty program LAK,” he said. “It was a pivotal move toward adding a digital redemption process for customers who were used to traditional physical products or gift cards as a reward for their loyalty toward a program.”

Since then, it has integrated with over 800 businesses in the Kingdom to digitize their rewards and incentives programs for both employees and customers.

“With Saudi Vision 2030 well on its way, tremendous efforts from the government to push digitization in every aspect of life has also contributed to a ‘never-before’ level of interest for e-gift cards amongst consumers,” he said.

Makiya explained that corporates and individual customers have both identified various ways to use these cards over the last 18 months; from traditional incentives and rewards to sending Eidiya or just helping the ones in need during the pandemic.

“It’s a clear sign that they’re here to stay,” he said. Makiya said the global gift card business is expected to cross $2 trillion by 2027, adding: "In our part of the world, we expect the eGift Card market alone to reach $1.2 billion dollars by 2024, of which at least $700 million will be attributed by the Kingdom."

“For businesses and government entities, e-gift cards are the No.1 most in-demand method to reward their employees and customers, and the adoption rate of these cards in the Kingdom outweighs that of the entire region driven by the digital transformation of Vision 2030,” he added.

Logistics sector key pillar of economic diversification plan, says Saudi minister

Updated 05 December 2021

Logistics sector key pillar of economic diversification plan, says Saudi minister

RIYADH: The transport and logistics sector represents one of the key pillars of the Kingdom’s economic diversification strategy, said Saudi Minister of Transport and Logistics Saleh Al-Jasser.
The minister highlighted the opportunities available in this sector in the Kingdom at the recent International Investment Summit held in Dhaka.
Al-Jasser said the Kingdom’s transport and logistics sector is undergoing rapid transformation. He highlighted the Kingdom’s National Transport and Logistics Strategy at the event, which was attended by investment companies and experts in the field.
Saudi Arabia expects its new transport and logistics strategy to generate SR550 billion ($150 billion) in investments by 2030 in areas such as public transport, railways, and airports expansion and development.
The government would provide 35 percent of the needed investments, and the rest would come from private investors. The strategy would have multiple benefits on economic activities because it would connect many sectors, such as Hajj and tourism, as well as industries.
A host of projects are planned to help achieve the strategy’s economic and social goals, including the launch of a second national airline, along with improved governance to enhance the work of the organizations involved. The new strategy also seeks to improve the capabilities of the Kingdom’s air cargo sector by doubling its capacity to more than 4.5 million tons. It includes a land bridge project that will span more than 1,300 km and connect the Kingdom’s ports on the coast of the Arabian Gulf with those on the Red Sea coast. It will have the capacity to transport more than 3 million passengers and 50 million tons of freight annually, opening up new opportunities in the areas it passes through.
Al-Jasser also visited the Chittagong Port, Bangladesh’s largest port, and held meetings with key officials to discuss ways to enhance cooperation in the sector.
Saudi investment
Saudi company Engineering Dimensions will invest $1.75 billion in Bangladesh, a Bangladesh official was quoted as saying by the local media.
Sirajul Islam, chairman of Bangladesh Investment Development Authority, said the Saudi company will jointly invest in two companies in the country.
Engineering Dimension has already invested in power generator production and a large scale cement factory.
Local media quoted Al-Jasser as saying many public and private companies of Saudi Arabia were keen to invest in Bangladesh in infrastructure development, power, port, energy and renewable energy sectors.