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Domestic focus may limit clout of $2 trillion Saudi wealth fund


Reuters
DUBAI
Saudi Arabia aims to create the world's biggest sovereign wealth fund, a $2 trillion behemoth that can throw its weight around global markets, but the fund's growth abroad is likely to be slowed by its responsibility for aiding the economy at home.
Building the Public Investment Fund (PIF) into"the largest fund in the world by far" is a cornerstone of radical economic reforms announced by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last month to cut the kingdom's reliance on oil.
The PIF, founded in 1971 to finance development projects in Saudi Arabia and until now little known abroad, is to grow from 600 billion riyals ($160 billion) to over 7 trillion riyals, helping make Riyadh a global"investment power", he said. The biggest sovereign fund so far is Norway's, worth $852 billion.
"There will be no investment, movement or development in any region of the world without the vote of the Saudi sovereign fund," Prince Mohammed told Al Arabiya television.
Under the plan, Saudi Arabia would partly live off returns earned on the PIF's foreign investments, which would help offset Riyadh's loss of oil revenues due to low crude prices.
But the PIF is also being pressed into service for a second purpose: it is to use its money to revitalise the Saudi economy and create jobs by developing new industries and pushing through stalled multi-billion dollar development projects.
The PIF will"help unlock strategic sectors requiring intensive capital inputs. This will contribute towards developing entirely new economic sectors and establishing durable national corporations," the reform plan reads.
For example, the government will transfer ownership of Riyadh's floundering King Abdullah Financial District to the PIF, sources told Reuters.
The PIF may also get involved in areas such as mining, shipbuilding and developing six industrial cities. The government says it is examining ways to salvage the industrial city scheme, plagued for a decade by delays and a lack of enthusiasm among potential tenants.
The result, say bankers and consultants familiar with Saudi official thinking, is that in the initial years at least, the PIF's resources and management attention are likely to focus more on domestic projects than foreign markets.
Sven Behrendt, head of German consultancy GeoEconomica, said the PIF's foreign role, where it would face pressure to maximise returns by taking risks, would contrast with its domestic role as a strategic investor, where returns would be secondary as projects could not be allowed to fail for political reasons.
"The two approaches require different investment philosophies - different capabilities, different management skills and different evaluation criteria...It's difficult to square."
Bankers and consultants in touch with the PIF say the fund, under new secretary-general Yasir al Rumayyan, a former chief executive of Saudi Fransi Capital, is still designing its new operations and structure, while looking to hire managers within the kingdom and abroad.
To build up the fund, the government has been transferring corporate assets and land to it, including ownership of state oil giant Saudi Aramco.. But that simply makes the PIF a large holding company rather than a fund that can funnel large sums into new investments.
A total of $579 billion in net foreign assets held by Saudi Arabia's central bank (SAMA), which has traditionally served as Riyadh's sovereign fund, will not be transferred to the PIF, the sources said.
So to raise money that the PIF can reinvest, Riyadh plans to sell shares in PIF companies over coming years - a complex process that will depend on the appetite of foreign investors for Saudi assets in an era of cheap oil.
The sales will include up to 5 percent of Aramco; Prince Mohammed estimated the company was worth over $2 trillion, implying the offer could raise $100 billion.

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