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Global business returns to Saudi Arabia, quietly

SFGate Thursday, 18 April 2019
Six months after agents from Saudi Arabia murdered and dismembered writer Jamal Khashoggi, companies are no longer shying away from the Arab kingdom.

Movie theater giant AMC says it is moving ahead with ambitious expansion plans for dozens of cinemas there. Hundreds of investors thronged last week to place $100 billion in orders for the first international bond sale tied to Saudi Arabia’s state-backed oil company. Google has a major data center in the works.

Many companies contend that they are, in part, helping to open up the deeply conservative society. A screening of Marvel’s “Black Panther” at a repurposed concert hall in early 2018 lifted a 35-year ban on movie theaters, with men and women attending the showing together.

But the math is simple: There is serious money to be made from working with the kingdom that lives off the world’s most profitable company, Aramco. A few weeks ago, Aramco disclosed that it generated $111.1 billion in net income last year. That was more than Apple, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil combined.

“It is nothing personal,” J. Robinson West, managing director of the BCG Center for Energy Impact, a Washington consulting firm, said about why investors and banks flocked to the bond sale.

To corporations around the world, the October death of Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post who was strangled when he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, was a controversy to avoid. Business leaders pulled out of a high-profile, government-sponsored conference in Riyadh, and have since largely kept quiet about their companies’ ties to the kingdom.

But global businesses and Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, recognize a need for each other.

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