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Monday, May 25, 2020

Saudi Arabia and SoftBank: How MBS's $35bn gamble on future tech backfired

SoftBank’s Vision Fund was to be the vehicle for the kingdom's economic transformation. With billions wiped off its value, has Riyadh sunk its money into a hole in the desert?
 
Middle East Eye: When Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund was brought under the direct control of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2015, and the fund’s programme was announced in 2017, it was under a mandate to invest at home and abroad to be a financial enabler of the kingdom's economic diversification efforts. 
 
One of its earliest and biggest splashes was in Tokyo-based SoftBank’s $100bn Vision Fund, which invested in high-profile technology companies and, in keeping with its name, aimed to bankroll futuristic developments in artificial intelligence, robotics and gene-sequencing.

Saudi Arabia, along with Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, Mubadala, contributed almost two-thirds of the fund’s capital, with PIF investing some $35bn.

The investment with the Japanese conglomerate seemed a perfect match for the kingdom’s Vision 2030, outlined in 2016, with SoftBank making a commitment to enable diversification efforts through involvement in technology, renewable energy and in MBS’s $500bn Neom mega-city project on the Red Sea coast.
SoftBank’s links to Saudi and MBS, by then the kingdom’s crown prince, came under scrutiny in October 2018 following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but it largely managed to ride out the negative publicity.

Just a year ago, the media gushed about SoftBank being a major disruptor on the start-up and venture capital tech scene, while a second Vision Fund was announced. Riyadh was initially keen on getting involved but backed away last year as problems emerged with the first fund, according to Rory Fyfe, managing director of Mena Advisors, a regional research and consultancy company in London.

In late 2019, financial issues started to surface at US workspace company WeWork, in which SoftBank had invested $18.5bn, as well as other investments. The year ended for SoftBank with a $13bn loss.

Then in 2020, problems started to mount across its portfolio as the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic spread. Companies in which it had invested, such as in Uber, where it had put in $9.3bn, saw their share prices drop, along with scores of other firms, wiping out a further $18bn for the Vision Fund in the first three months of the year.

To read the rest go to Middle East Eye

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