This content is from: Corner Office

Saudi Wealth Fund Wants to Build the Amazon.com of the Gulf

The kingdom’s Public Investment Fund will invest $500 million in a new online shopping platform for the Middle East.

  • Jess Delaney

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund emerged on Sunday as the anchor investor in Noon, a soon-to-launch online retailer that aims to replicate from a Middle Eastern base the success of e-commerce giants Alibaba Group Holding and Amazon.com. The PIF will contribute $500 million to the venture, with another $500 million coming from other investors in the region.

With oil prices down more than 50 percent since mid-2014, Saudi Arabia, in efforts led by brash young Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is jockeying to become a premier technology investor as it seeks to wean its economy off hydrocarbon revenue. Central to Prince Mohammed’s plan is the PIF, a state holding company with about $100 billion in local assets that he repurposed earlier this year to invest abroad and hopes to turn into the world’s biggest sovereign fund and an engine for economic growth and diversification.

In October the PIF came out as the lead investor behind a new technology investment fund proposed by the Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank Group Corp. The SoftBank Vision Fund, as it is called, will invest globally in the tech sector and could top $100 billion, with the PIF potentially dishing out as much as $45 billion over the next five years.

Noon, which will be based in Riyadh and launch initially in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, is the brainchild of Emirati entrepreneur Mohamed Alabbar, who chairs Emaar Properties, the real estate developer behind the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping center. The Gulf region is on the brink of becoming the fastest-growing e-commerce market anywhere, according to consulting firm A.T. Kearney, though the sector currently represents a relatively small, 0.4 percent share of gross domestic product.

But can Saudi Arabia — a place where change comes slow — achieve Prince Mohammed’s dream of becoming a global tech hub? If the kingdom were to fall short, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying. In June, Prince Mohammed took a stroll through Silicon Valley, meeting with prominent tech leaders such as Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella, two weeks after the PIF grabbed headlines with an investment in Uber Technologies — to the tune of $3.5 billion. Bankers may have balked at the $66 billion valuation for the ride-hailing app, but Saudi Arabia is still the talk of the town.