The tangled financial web between Saudi Arabia and the West

It's complicated

A tangle.
(Image credit: Illustrated | non-exclusive/iStock, Wikimedia Commons)

It wasn't that long ago that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (cozily dubbed "MBS" by his elitist pals) was the toast of neoliberal political and financial circles throughout the West. Despite prosecuting a brutal war in Yemen, the crown prince's ostensible commitment to reforming Saudi society and opening up its economy to Western players won him a celebrity's welcome in Washington, D.C. But the disappearance and apparent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi earlier this month at the hands of Saudi agents has sent the international community into an uproar, and the reputation of both MBS and his country into a tailspin.

President Trump dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia to deal with this crisis. Meanwhile, the Saudis are preparing to host the Future Investment Initiative — otherwise known as "Davos in the Desert" — on Oct. 23. But since the Khashoggi story broke, the event has been bleeding big-name corporate attendees.

That last point is telling. The reputation of MBS and his country may or may not survive this new controversy. But if they do weather it, it will be thanks to Saudi Arabia's deep and intricate economic ties with America and the rest of the developed world.

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At the center of that tangled web is oil.

Saudi Arabia pumps out a little over 10 percent of the global oil supply. While it doesn't have the same market dominance it had during its 1973-1974 oil embargo, Saudi Arabia could still send a massive shock through global oil prices if it wanted to. On Sunday, the Saudi government released a statement threatening retaliation if other countries punished it for Khashoggi's disappearance, including a reminder that it has "an influential and vital role in the global economy." Observers took that as a threat to weaponize the country's oil dominance.

At the same time, the lessons of the previous embargo also weigh against Saudi Arabia. The government is still heavily reliant on oil revenues for financing itself, and a serious embargo could destroy demand. Countries are already increasing energy efficiency and reducing oil consumption, and a big price shock could speed up that process, leaving Saudi production with less demand permanently going forward. President Trump has also pressed OPEC and Saudi Arabia to hold down oil prices. So while Trump's decision to reinstate the Iran embargo has ironically given Saudi Arabia more market leverage, it's also made Trump more insistent that the Saudis not use it. As Trump has soft-pedaled his response to Khashoggi's disappearance so far, bin Salman and his government may not want to risk angering the U.S. president.

More subtle but more determinative are the myriad ties Saudi Arabia has built with international finance using its oil wealth.

The twin pillars of bin Salman's economic modernization plan are a $100 billion initial public offering in Aramco, Saudi Arabia's state-owned oil company — the biggest IPO ever, potentially — and the country's $300 billion sovereign wealth fund, which bin Salman hopes to expand to $600 billion. The IPO is on hold, but these twin plans have generated enormous profit opportunities for major banks and financial firms around the world. There are potentially trillions in capital investment opportunities in the future.

Saudi Arabia has already committed $20 billion to the private equity behemoth Blackstone, for instance, and JPMorgan Chase has been providing the Saudi government with lucrative financial advice for 80 years. The CEOs of the two respective firms ultimately decided to ditch Davos in the Desert this year, along with BlackRock CEO Larry Fink (but apparently only after a great deal of agonizing). Meanwhile, executives from many other top financial institutions were still planning to attend the conference. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is also still scheduled to attend, though his plans are reportedly under review.

A lot of the hesitancy is probably due to Saudi Arabia's reputation for holding grudges. After 9/11, Citigroup decided to end a joint venture with the Saudis and sold its stake. The Saudi government responded by casting Citigroup into the wilderness, denying it any further investment opportunities for years. Saudi Arabia froze all new business dealings with Canada after that country's government pressured it over the arrest of a women's rights activist. And when Qatar displeased the Saudi government, they cracked down with an oil embargo in 2017.

Saudi Arabia's arms purchases may be a point of leverage as well. It had the third-largest military budget in the world last year. And Saudi Arabia holds the title of America's premiere weapons buyer, gobbling up 18 percent of all U.S. arms sales between 2013 and 2017, and recently doing a deal to buy another $110 billion worth of arms over the next decade. "Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, all these [companies]. I don't want to hurt jobs. I don't want to lose an order like that," Trump recently said. "I don't like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States."

Trump's reticence to play hardball with MBS and the Saudis may ultimately come from a more vulgar and mundane place: his personal business interests. The president recently protested that he has "no financial interest in Saudi Arabia." But the Saudis have actually done numerous deals in real estate and other areas with Trump over the years — he even once sold a yacht to a Saudi prince. A Saudi lobbying firm pumped $270,000 into Trump's D.C. hotel just between October 2016 and March 2017. "I get along great with all of them [the Saudis]," Trump declared in 2015. "They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much!"

In many ways, Saudi Arabia, America, Trump, and the titans of the financial world all have economic leverage on each other. But frankly, if Western political and business players wanted to come together to turn Saudi Arabia into a pariah state, they could probably do it without too much pain. Saudi Arabia doesn't really have the clout to destroy anyone's energy market anymore, nor are its arms deals that big in the grand scheme of things. Wall Street would be less profitable without access to Saudi wealth, but it would still be plenty profitable.

But no one wants to go to the trouble. And without leadership from the White House, the titans of finance may be able to preserve their own reputations with the symbolic gesture of skipping this year's conference.

Then, once things blow over, everyone can get back to business.

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