Saudi Prince Plans $80 Billion Fund, IPO for Neom Project

(Bloomberg) — Saudi Arabia will set aside 300 billion riyals ($80 billion) for an investment fund tied to the crown prince’s flagship megaproject, Neom, and plans an initial public offering of the project on the kingdom’s stock market as soon as 2024.

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The Neom Investment Fund could potentially expand to 400 billion riyals, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told reporters in Jeddah. It will invest in companies that agree to operate at Neom, a new region planned in Saudi Arabia’s northwestern corner.

The prince’s announcement on Monday was attended by global investors including Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio, Tim Collins of Ripplewood, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and Kuwaiti retail billionaire Mohammed Alshaya.

For the first time, Prince Mohammed also outlined details on how he plans to finance Neom — one of the largest and most complex construction programs in the world.

The first phase of the project, which runs until 2030, will cost 1.2 trillion riyals, with about half of that covered by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), he said. Officials will seek to raise another 600 billion riyals from other sovereign wealth funds in the region, private investors in Saudi Arabia and abroad, and an initial public offering of Neom itself on the Saudi stock market — an idea the prince first floated in 2017.

“We have big aims to get Saudi Arabia among the top three largest stock markets on the planet,” Prince Mohammed said, adding that he expects the Neom IPO to happen around 2024 and possibly add more than 1 trillion riyals to the size of the kingdom’s market. He didn’t say how large the share sale would be or explain details of that valuation. The Saudi sovereign fund will eventually sell shares in all its companies, he added.

Population boost

Announced in 2017, Neom is Prince Mohammed’s plan to turn an expanse of desert the size of Belgium into a high-tech region with a linear metropolis, a ski resort and an industrial city that partially floats on water.

He’s billed it as a testbed for new technologies that could revolutionize urban life — as well as a way to attract foreign investment and diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy. But five years in, Neom has been plagued by setbacks, many stemming from the difficulties of implementing the prince’s grand and ever-changing ideas, according to current and former employees.

His latest announcement detailed a plan within Neom for twin skyscrapers that stretch horizontally for more than 100 kilometers, containing within them an entire city of 9 million people. A new exhibit open to the public in Jeddah displays potential designs for “modules” of the buildings — to be built in stages — by global architecture firms including Los Angeles-based Morphosis and UK-based Archigram.

Asked why he wanted to build Neom, the prince told reporters that his plan to remake Saudi Arabia involves increasing its population from around 34 million people currently to between 50 million and 60 million by 2030. Half will be foreigners, he added, compared to the kingdom’s current demographic balance of around a third foreigners and two thirds Saudi citizens.

The capital of Riyadh will be overcrowded if it expands too much, the prince said — he’s already declared his intention to double its population — but “Neom will take care of 10 million.”

By 2030, he’s aiming for 1.5 million people living in “The Line” — the twin buildings — reaching 9 million by 2045, he said.

Neom will start engaging major potential investors by the end of this year, he said. Officials are talking to companies “around the planet,” and many Chinese firms are already working in Neom, he said.

Saudi Arabia also plans to invest in neighboring Egypt to complement the project, including in the tourist area of Sharm el-Sheikh, which is located across the Red Sea from Neom, he said. “We’re going to create huge investment in Egypt.”

In addition to the 600 billion riyal-backing from the Saudi sovereign fund, Neom’s first phase will depend on a “government subsidy” of 200 to 300 billion riyals, the prince said, without clarifying what form that would take. He eventually wants Neom to be self-sufficient and bring a 13-14% return on investment, he said.

Prince Mohammed’s reign as the kingdom’s de facto ruler has been characterized by sky-high ambitions and targets, compared to more limited implementation on the ground so far.

He declared his intentions in 2016 for an IPO of state oil giant Saudi Aramco, initially planned for global markets and later scaled back to a domestic share sale in 2019. The prince has repeatedly said that he’d be happy if he achieves 50% of what he sets out to do.

(Updates with additional context and details from fifth paragraph.)

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