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Saudi Arabia hopes for 'activist investors' as bourse opens up

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is looking for "activist investors," the head of the country's stock exchange told CNBC on Monday, as it opened to foreigners for the first time.

The exchange, which has a market capitalization of around $550 billion, has opened to direct foreign investment at a time of low oil prices and increasingly aggressive—and costly—Saudi Arabia foreign policy.

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However, the CEO of the Saudi Stock Exchange or Tadawul, told CNBC that the opening up of the market was a "forgone conclusion" aimed at modernizing capital markets rather than raising funds.

"The reason is not really about raising further funds for Saudi Arabia—I mean we have a lot of liquidity—but it is these qualitative influences that we are looking for, that we hope will help to develop our capital markets," CEO Adel Saleh Al-Ghamdi told CNBC in an interview on Monday.

Saudi men chat outside the Saudi Stock Exchange or Tadawul in Riyadh.
AFP | Getty Images
Saudi men chat outside the Saudi Stock Exchange or Tadawul in Riyadh.

Al-Ghamdi, who has headed up the exchange since July last year, said the Arab state was looking for "long-term value investors who take an active role in shaping the direction of the companies that they invest in."

"These activist shareholders are basically there to allow us to better align with best global practices and hopefully that will accelerate our convergence to higher standards of corporate governance, investor relations, issuer disclosures and hopefully broaden and make more sophisticated our research coverage of our listed companies," he later added.

Around 160 companies are listed on the Saudi Arabian stock exchange, covering 15 industries.

The Tadawul All Share Index traded around 0.5 percent lower on Monday but was up more than 15 percent over the year to date.

Oliver Bell, manager of the T. Rowe Price Africa and Middle East Fund, described the opening as "an exciting development," because of the size and the depth of the market, as well as the variety of stocks available.

"A further attraction for global investors is the liquidity of the market, which can trade up to $4 billion a day," Bell added in a research note published on Monday.

Until now, international investors have made up only 1 percent of the Saudi market via swaps, according to Bell. T. Rowe Price has been investing in Saudi Arabia via swaps since 2006.

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