The Desert Comes Calling 

There have been many seismic changes in the Middle East over the past 70 years that have fundamentally transformed the geopolitical and social fabric of the region. The birth of Israel (1948), Suez crisis (1956), formation of OPEC (1960), the seven day war (1967), emergence of the Gulf Nations (1971), Iranian revolution (1978), the Gulf Wars (1991, 2003) and the Arab Spring (2011). The region defies easy categorisation, remains a hotbed of repression and modernisation, and continues to attract our attention – in the same way people are obsessed with car crashes and marathon races. Executive placements

Having just come back from a lightning trip to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – my view is we may just be on the cusp of another long-awaited change – the emergence of a forward-looking, turbocharged Saudi Arabia, intent on making up for lost time.

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Over a three day business trip, the significant clash of wildly different images was what struck most- Victoria’s Secret boutiques, the world’s highest per-capita YouTube usage rates and NEOM, the USD 500bn AI and robotics wonder city to be built in the northwest desert clash with a traditionally conservative cultural environment which still includes women in black abbayas and continued segregation of the sexes in most social settings.

However, the overwhelming impression is not of warring images but unity and shared purpose. There is a forward-looking vibe in Riyadh that is laser-like and palpable.  Sousou Partners was there to visit with one of the region’s most significant government investment agencies.  As an Executive recruitment firm specializing in Real Assets, we have worked with Middle Eastern clients for the past 20 years, including helping a substantial sovereign wealth fund build out an entire platform of over 150 hires. Yet, I have never felt such anticipation and energy.

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I was mesmerised. The change is happening as we speak.

Our flights were full, the hotels were packed with foreigners, mainly consultants…French, English, Italians….conversations buzzing, laptops constantly at hand, enjoying the faster pace and fully aware that they are in on the secrets of Riyadh’s ambitions – they are the select few (for now) experiencing it first-hand. Executive placements. 

The specific story for us is that the country is open for business, looking to expand and bring in European and American real estate talent in part to help mobilise the development of NEOM. The larger story is that this is part of an overall Saudi pitch to encourage private equity firms and other investment platforms to support and invest in Riyadh and Saudi Arabia’s ambitious modernisation plans. I am a believer.

Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince has had a tricky year. But the 34-year-old heir to the throne will soon be the only game in town and he seems intent on propelling this proud, aloof, conservative, desert kingdom into the frontline of world players. The contradictions are still there: elegance and uber-opulence; humility and arrogance – but increasingly tradition is making way for ambition and the embrace of the future. The reality of Riyadh with all its potential.

Riyadh is intent on being part of the world conversation – thus the launch in 2017 of the Future Investment Initiative (FII) an annual investment forum hosted by PIF to discuss trends in the world economy and investment environment. Initially shunned, now everyone attends.

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Riyadh is also intent on using the template forged by Bahrain and Dubai to become the pre-eminent regional financial hub – diversification, good governance, transparency and attractive to Western investment. The ambition:  to improve on and eclipse these cities. Riyadh has a unique set of credentials: third largest city in the Arab world (7mn population), one of the wealthiest cities in the world and with a highly educated population. All of this will be put to good use. Executive placements. 

Here is the change story told from a recruitment point of view.

Imagine you are sitting in London, in a top private equity shop, investment bank, or corporate. You are on top of your game or looking for your next and last stop, but not ready to call quits – one more BIG thing to do.

If you receive a call from a recruiter about an opportunity in Saudi – how would you react?  The typical response has been: “what…be serious…why on earth would I entertain moving in the first place, let alone go to Saudi? Oh no, not me…that’s for second-tier pros.” Or “how will I meet a girl, I can’t relate to the culture, all the glitz and the gold without the glamour. I am used to real quality, good service, good food, diverse cultures.”

Until very recently you would be excused for that reaction. I spent my formative years growing up in the Gulf and had pretty fixed views on Saudi and Riyadh was a no-go zone for me. Especially as a feminist.

Now when that phone rings – like me, responses are starting to change. A lot of people are beginning to take a second look.

In the world of property and investment, the game is really about two different things: spotting the next big thing and identifying long-term opportunities. Here, right now – my feeling is that Saudi is both. Executive placements, © All Rights Reserved. 

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Written by
Ghada Sousou 

CEO - Ghada Sousou