Business in Saudi Arabia: Half-opening the gates

A TRIP around the bustling shopping centres of Riyadh, with their wide range of familiar European and American retailing brands, gives the superficial impression of a country that is open to the outside world. Some of the world’s biggest energy and manufacturing firms, from Exxon Mobil to Unilever, have operations in the kingdom too. The Gulf’s wealthiest economy, with low taxes, economic growth of almost 4% last year, a population of 30m, a free-spending government and cheap energy supplies, Saudi Arabia should be as big a draw for businesses as its holy city of Mecca is for pilgrims. But while stepping up its efforts to promote the entry of foreign firms, the Saudi government is simultaneously becoming more choosy about which ones it lets in, and which can stay.This week SAGIA, the government agency for promoting business investment, announced a new fast-track service to process applications from foreign investors within five days. Last month the agency held a conference in London to attract more investment from British firms. But just a few days before announcing the fast-track service, the agency’s boss, Abdullatif al-Othman, said it would kick out of the country those smaller foreign firms that it judged were failing to add enough value to the Saudi economy. In recent months the agency has cancelled the licences of dozens of foreign firms for various breaches of the…

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