Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris has ruled out making any investments in Saudi Arabia following the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the sudden arrest of business executives in November 2017, which was followed by the seizure of more than $100bn of their assets.
Speaking to broadcaster CNBC in Abu Dhabi on February 11, Sawiris said “personally I can invest anywhere in the world and why would I go somewhere where I’m not convinced that there is a rule of law and order.”
While praising Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman for some of the reforms he has made, such as opening up the entertainment sector and allowing women to drive, Sawiris said the country’s human rights situation is a key concern.
“Political stability and economic stability they go together,” he said. “And also you need to be somewhere where you are comfortable. I encourage what His Royal Highness has done in terms of women liberalization, in terms of allowing music and singing and young people to have a normal life like everywhere in the world… I encourage also his vision for the economy, but he needs to come straight on human rights and all the other stuff.”
The local human rights situation is not always to the fore when it comes to other business ventures Sawiris has been involved in. For example, he is chairman of Orascom Telecom Media and Technology, which owns 75% of North Korea’s only 3G mobile telecoms network, Koryolink. However, he also has a record of supporting liberal causes, helping to set up a political party called The Free Egyptians in 2011, soon after the country had risen up to eject autocratic President Hosni Mubarak from office.
His comments about Saudi Arabia are further evidence of the damage that has been done to the country’s reputation by the actions of Mohammed Bin Salman. The crown prince continues to come in for sustained criticism in the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere for his perceived involvement in the murder of journalist Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, other domestic human rights abuses and Saudi Arabia’s conduct in the Yemen war. Some long-term supporters of the country have called on Mohammed Bin Salman to be replaced.
The anti-corruption campaign – which many observers saw as an effort to shore up the crown prince’s power rather than end graft – is another concern for many international businesses, even though the Saudi government recently announced a surprise end to the campaign.
It was launched in November 2017 when scores of senior political and business figures were detained in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. The Anti-Corruption Committee, which is chaired by the crown prince, says it has questioned 381 people since then and reached settlements with 87 of them. A further 64 people are still facing charges from the Public Prosecutor.
The process has been opaque throughout and the authorities have not named the individuals being detained or said what charges they are facing. Few details have been released of the settlements that have been reached either, although the authorities said on January 30 that more than SR400bn ($107bn) in assets had been taken by the government, in the form of real estate, companies, cash and other assets. This is significantly higher than the amount the crown prince had claimed as recently as October, when he told Bloomberg that “something above $35bn” had been seized.
Concerns about abrupt asset seizures and the country’s increasingly toxic reputation are likely to have contributed to the collapse of inward investment into Saudi Arabia in 2017. Although investment picked up in the first three quarters of 2018, according to official data, it remains at a very low level by historical standards.
Saudi officials have tried to counter the criticism being directed at their country, but with limited success. Minister of state for foreign affairs Adel al-Jubeir told CBS Face the Nation on February 10 that “The death of Jamal Khashoggi was a massive tragedy. It was a mistake. It was committed by officials of the Saudi government acting outside their scope of authority… The crown prince had nothing to do with this.”
And former diplomat Prince Turki al-Faisal responded to Sawiris’s recent comments by saying the Egyptian tycoon was “mistaken”. Also speaking to CNBC on February 11, Prince Turki said “the kingdom has come a long way in providing the right atmosphere for people to invest in the country not just on issues of accountability but also on issues of transparency, on issues of rule of law… Mr Sawiris is missing a great opportunity.”