Things change slowly in Saudi Arabia, if they change at all. The country has long defied foreign investors who would try to guess its next move. Like a mirage, Saudi Arabia’s promise — be it lucrative construction contracts or the chance to invest in cash-rich companies — taunts thirsty believers before disappearing into the desert sand.

Change comes particularly slowly in the realm of Saudi finance. In the time it took its upstart neighbors Dubai and Doha to build entire cities, Riyadh has managed, after many fits and starts, to pass a mortgage law to allow its own population to buy homes on credit. Those who have faith that the Saudis will one day open their equity market to foreigners are especially patient souls. At a time when the capital markets of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are angling to get an upgrade to MSCI’s emerging-markets index, the Saudi stock market, the Tadawul, remains sealed off from direct foreign investment.

But foreigners and Saudis are used to reading signs, and lately they find fresh reason for optimism. The replacement of a key figure, a board reshuffle, even an eerie silence on a once-hot issue — these are often the harbingers of change in Saudi Arabia. The recently adopted mortgage law, for instance, was seven years in the making. After repeated hints and rumors failed to pan out, most observers had given up hope of seeing the measure adopted — then, suddenly, the kingdom’s Council of Ministers enacted the law last July. Such is the nature of change in the Gulf’s biggest, and most opaque, economy.

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