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Business Quietly Returns to Saudi Arabia After Khashoggi's Murder

LONDON – Six months after agents from Saudi Arabia murdered and dismembered by the writer Jamal Khashoggi, companies are no longer shying away from the Arab kingdom.

The movie theater giant AMC says it is moving ahead with ambitious expansion plans for dozens or cinemas there. Hundreds of investors thronged last week to place $ 100 billion in orders for the first international bond sale 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 201

8 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 reported that it generated $ 111.1 billion in net income last year. That was nothing but Apple, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil combined. investors and banks flocked to the bond sale.

To corporations around the world, the October death of Mr. 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 quietly kept quiet about their companies in the kingdom.

But global businesses and Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Saudi Arabia's fortunes fall and rise with the price of oil. Increasingly, it wants fresh investment and businesses to support its fast-growing population – 33 million people, most of whom are younger than 30 – and to a nearly 13 percent unemployment rate.

in 2016 to woo investors, but the results have been slower. Direct foreign investment fell to a decade low in 2017, just $ 1.4 trillion, according to the Institute for International Finance, a research organization in Washington. Mohammed – confronts problems. In case of 2017, hundreds of Saudi businessmen and princes were detained, essentially under house arrest, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh and other locations amid corruption allegations.

About a dozen female activists were arrested in May for campaigning for broader rights , including driving. Some things are still being held on "suspicion of harming Saudi interests," and their court hearings have been delayed. Multiple times, including this week.

"Things certainly got worse after the fall of 2017 and have not significantly improved," said Karen Young, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, referring to investment levels.

But the promise of Saudi Arabia, which saw oil prices rise by about $ 71 a barrel for Brent crude, has been too rich for many big companies to pass up. Google, JPMorgan Chase and the Japanese technology giant SoftBank are among the businesses that have kept Saudi Arabia as a partner.

"We thought long and hard, and concluded that the best course of action was to go forward," Adam Aron, the chief executive of AMC, said in an interview, describing his company's decision to open at least 40 new theaters there over the next five years.

“It's the right thing to do for the people of Saudi Arabia,” he said this month. "They have been deprived of going to the movies for decades." Google has been working on a Saudi data center, its first in the Middle East and an important hub for its cloud computing services, for more than a year. Revelations about Mr. Khashoggi's kitten had not derailed its plans. When asked about its business with the kingdom, Google said it had signed a memo of understanding with Saudi Aramco in early 2018 "to explore the potential of cloud services to serve our customers in the Middle East."

JPMorgan's chief executive, Jamie Dimon, made an appearance at the Riyadh conference in October, but showed up to pitch Saudi Aramco's bond deal to investors in New York two weeks ago.

Blackstone's investment firm is still planning to spend money from a $ 40 billion infrastructure fund, of which $ 20 billion is meant to come from Saudi coffers, according to a person briefed on the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly about the firm's investment plans.

And SoftBank, nearly $ 100 billion Vision Fund for technology investment counts the Saudi government as its biggest backer, has had little difficulty crafting deals using S audi cash. It has participated in 20 investments since the Khashoggi news emerged, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Some analysts said that Aramco's floating bonds were a move by the Crown Prince.

Aramco raised $ 12 billion from its first -ever bond offering on the international market. Investors placed billions of dollars in orders on the same day at the State Department barred 16 Saudis from the United States, for their suspected role in killing Mr. Khashoggi.

"Everybody in Saudi Arabia will have the opportunity to actually pull it through and make it a success story," Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East at Eurasia Group, a political risk firm, said of the bond deal. 19659005] Many Western companies were tightly lipped about their continued investment in Saudi Arabia for weeks after Mr. Khashoggi disappeared

But in November, SoftBank's chief executive, Masayoshi Son, publicly articulated what many corporate titans have quietly used as their justification for working with the kingdom. “As horrible as this event, we cannot turn our backs on the Saudi people as we work to help them in their continued efforts to reform and modernize their society,” Mr. Son customs analysts and investors at an earnings presentation in Tokyo

Companies have also taken cues from the Trump administration, which has repeatedly stressed that it holds the crown prince and crucially in a long-awaited Middle East peace proposal and other issues.

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