Saudi's $500 billion mega-city NEOM is attracting 'overwhelming' interest from investors

  • With ambitious plans to transform its economy as part of the crown prince's Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is hoping to boost foreign direct investment (FDI).
  • It hopes ambitious mega projects like the futuristic city of NEOM will attract FDI.

With ambitious plans to transform its economy as part of the crown prince's Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is hoping to boost foreign direct investment (FDI) into the country as it embarks on a post-oil era and ambitious mega projects like the futuristic city of NEOM.

Ibrahim Al-Omar, governor of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA), said foreign direct investment (FDI) was growing in Saudi Arabia.

Official figures from the World Bank show FDI net inflows were $7.453 billion in 2016 while net outflows were $8.936 in the same year.

Since then, however, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has appeared to take the reigns on transforming the economy and society by introducing a raft of liberalizing reforms.

An anti-corruption purge led by the crown prince last year caused concern among some business leaders, but Al-Omar said foreign investment was now growing, but didn't give more detail.

"We have seen a growth for foreign investment — about 50 percent comparing the first quarter this year to the same period last year. Also, the (FDI) inflows we have seen about 40 percent," Al-Omar told CNBC's Hadley Gamble as she hosted a session on the Saudi Arabian FDI landscape at the Gateway Gulf investment forum in Bahrain.

The Kingdom Tower (center) stands on the skyline above the King Fahd highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The Kingdom Tower (center) stands on the skyline above the King Fahd highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia was ready to help businesses set up in the country and SAGIA was working with government entities to support and incentivize foreign investment, Al-Omar said.

The country also wanted to improve its business environment and ranking on the World Bank's "ease of doing business index" — it is currently at number 92 in the index of 190 countries.

"We have a target to be number 20 in the rankings of the ease of doing business by 2020. We are working with the World Bank and best practice across the world and we have identified over 400 reforms. Today, we have achieved about 40 percent of them," he said.

Al-Omar's comments come at an inflection point for Saudi Arabia as it, and its neighbors, try to wean themselves off oil as a main driver of the economy.

Economic sustainability has become something of a mantra for countries trying to invest in other sectors and infrastructure, as well as attract foreign investment into those areas, as a bid to weather future declines in oil prices.

Saudi Arabia's economic transformation strategy, the much-vaunted Vision 2030 that's being driven by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aims to increase FDI into Saudi Arabia from 3.8 percent to the international level of 5.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Promoting the kingdom as a nation that's "open for business," the strategy also aims for Saudi to rise from its current position of 25 to the top 10 countries on the Global Competitiveness Index. In addition, Vision 2030 aims to increase the private sector's contribution from 40 percent to 65 percent of GDP.

'Overwhelming' interest in NEOM

The $500 billion industrial zone of NEOM is one of Saudi Arabia's mega-projects that it hopes will bring in billions from foreign investors.

The ambitious 26,500 square kilometer business zone will link Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan and is envisaged as a futuristic hub for both industry and citizens. It aims to embrace digital technologies and services to make the city a major commercial location in the Middle East.

NEOM's Chief Executive Klaus Kleinfeld told the audience at the Gateway Gulf forum on Thursday that the project was attracting massive interest from foreign investors.

"The investment case for NEOM is actually very easy to make, because we've got so many things going for us," he said during the FDI panel, adding that the interest in partnering with Saudi Arabia in the creation of NEOM was "overwhelming."

"We've had a huge amount of interest and we're talking to a lot of companies that are at the forefront of technologies wanting to partner with us and try out things in NEOM... On the technological side, a lot of people look at it as a place where they think they can try a lot of things out."

Officials hope a privatization program, including the sale of 5 percent of oil giant Saudi Aramco, will raise $300 billion to help fund the creation of NEOM, which is under construction, and that more money will be invested by the private sector.

In a bid to remove bureaucratic and legislative obstacles that could deter businesses, Kleinfeld said the crown prince had specifically instructed that regulations be written in the most business-friendly and future-orientated way as possible.

The project is estimated to take between 30 to 50 years to complete, however, with the first phase due by 2025.

"And the $500 billion, we're not going to spend it all tomorrow and, quite frankly, a lot of it will come from private investments," Kleinfeld said. "But what I'm seeing today is that the interest in partnering is overwhelming."

Kleinfeld said that key concepts for NEOM, such as mobility around the city, were still being explored and there "there are gazillions of players that are willing to help and willing to invest in that," he said.