Global technology leaders, including Amazon.com Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google, and Microsoft Corp., have obtained licenses to establish regional headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi policy, announced in February 2021, is to award contracts exclusively to companies with a significant regional presence. The recent approvals, confirmed through a government database, indicate these corporations’ efforts to comply with the Saudi government’s deadline of January 1.
Alongside these tech giants, other prominent entities such as Airbus SE, Oracle Corp., and Pfizer Inc. have also received licenses for their regional headquarters in Riyadh. This initiative is part of Saudi Arabia’s strategy to curb ‘economic leakage’ and reflects Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambition to transform the country’s economic landscape.
Saudi Arabia’s Economic Reform and Foreign Investment
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly called MBS, has pursued economic reforms to attract international investment. These reforms include easing restrictions on gender mixing, women driving, and public entertainment. However, challenges like limited lifestyle options and the continued ban on alcohol pose hurdles for foreign executives considering residing in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia, recognized as the largest economy in the region, has ambitious plans to invest trillions of dollars to become a tourism and commercial hub. This strategy positions Riyadh as a competitor to Dubai, the Middle East’s premier business hub known for its lifestyle, low taxation, and connectivity. Traditionally, global firms have managed their Middle East operations from Dubai, maintaining smaller offices in Saudi cities. The implications of establishing regional headquarters in Riyadh for operations in other regional locations are yet to be fully understood.
Challenges and Uncertainties in Compliance with Saudi Regulations
While firms like Microsoft, Google, and Airbus have acknowledged their compliance efforts, the Saudi initiative faces challenges. Executives have expressed concerns about applying rules to certain businesses and the ambiguity surrounding the entities covered by procurement restrictions. There are also questions about the impact on companies with contracts from entities like the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund.
The Ministry of Investment has not yet responded to requests for clarification. In December, it was announced that over 200 firms had received headquarters licenses, with companies like Bechtel, PwC, and PepsiCo already designating Riyadh as their regional headquarters. The success of this initiative will depend on addressing these uncertainties and creating an environment that supports sustained international business engagement in the region.