Saudi Arabia’s decision to pressure wealthy families in the kingdom to back the listing of its state oil giant is the latest sign Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has one underlying message: show me the money.

Even before last weekend’s devastating attack at the heart of the Saudi energy industry, the kingdom was trying to raise cash to fund the transformation of its economy.

A stock market listing for Saudi Aramco has long been seen as the centerpiece of Prince Mohammed’s vision, with proceeds to be funneled into sectors beyond oil that will propel the kingdom’s economy into the future.

The government believes securing the support of the country’s wealthiest families will prop up Saudi Aramco’s valuation to the $2 trillion figure that Prince Mohammed is said to covet. But such an aggressive approach could ultimately prove counterproductive to its long-term trading performance. Saudi Arabia’s government has denied it is pressuring investors.

“Whether we invest all depends on the valuation,” said one regional financier, who regards a valuation of $1.4 trillion to $1.5 trillion as fair. “The stock will drop if you sell it expensive—you can never control the stock market.”


One person briefed on the transaction said Saudi Arabia will seek to allocate 20% of the listed shares to the local families. A similar level will also be apportioned to state pension funds and international investors. The remainder should be allocated to retail investors, with local bankers saying strong interest is expected as Saudis seek a stake in the kingdom’s main revenue earner.

“It’s Aramco!” said one banker, riffing on the company’s reputation as the world’s most profitable. “The name is enough to hook retail investors, who will be particularly eager if the biggest local investors are also in on the deal.”

International investors may be less keen, even as some of the world’s biggest banks with almost endless rosters of wealthy clients have lobbied their way into roles for the IPO. JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, Citi, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse are among those expected to start a roadshow soon to drum up interest, but many potential investors have said they are wary. Leaning on wealthy Saudi nationals is unlikely to quell their fears.

“I think this all fits into a pattern of behavior,” said Greg Priddy, a former energy analyst for the US government, who has advised banks and hedge funds for more than a decade.

“The issue isn’t the company. Aramco is a well-run professional outfit with great capabilities. The problem is the country it’s in, who rules it, and his whims. There’s clearly huge pressure under way to get to the $2 trillion valuation he’s asserted, but the strategy boils down to ‘His Royal Highness commands it’.”

As of now, Saudi Aramco is considering a listing of up to 3% of the company on the Tadawul exchange in Riyadh, including the portion allocated to investors such as the wealthy families, raising a potential $60 billion for the kingdom. But the listing could still be limited to a 1%  sale. Saudi Aramco declined to comment.

Wealthy families, including many of the hundreds of royals and business magnates who were brought into the Ritz-Carlton during the crown prince’s anti-corruption probe, are a key element of ensuring a successful, oversubscribed offering, bankers said.

One of those approached to become a key investor is said to be Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the highest profile business magnates detained during the crown prince’s graft purge. Along with other “guests”, the billionaire investor was released from the Ritz after reaching financial settlements that the government said had netted more than $100 billion in asset transfers to the state.

If international demand is lower than expected, the government is expected to ask the segment of rich Saudis to make up any shortfall, said one banker working on the deal.

One person familiar with the process said some families believe they are already overexposed to the energy sector by virtue of living in the Middle East. “These are very big sums of money that they are after,” he said.

Saudi Arabia, which derives its influence from its huge oil reserves, had planned to showcase the world’s most profitable company to the full glare of international investors, confident it could match up to the biggest oil and gas majors.

While Saudi Aramco is renowned for its operational prowess and has overhauled its accounts and operations to prepare itself for outside investors, recent events have reaffirmed its position as an arm of the Saudi state.

Despite its reputation for managing the production and refining for the world’s largest crude oil exporter, strong-arming wealthy families into buying the company risks undermines its credibility, said two people close to Saudi Aramco, suggesting some disquiet within the company about the strategy.

As part of his scramble for cash Prince Mohammed has sought to accelerate the IPO process and has given greater influence to the Public Investment Fund, his chosen vehicle for executing his economic reforms.

The fund’s head Yasir al-Rumayyan is now chairman of Saudi Aramco, replacing industry veteran Khalid al-Falih in a ruthless reshuffle that has alarmed some Saudis and global investors.

One Saudi financier said there was a bigger aim, with the kingdom looking to effectively clawback money into the country that wealthy Saudis might once have invested overseas, in London property or offshore funds.

“This IPO tactic is all about repatriating wealth,” the financier said, pointing out that moving large sums of money out of the country had already become harder after the Ritz-Carlton crackdown. Large remittances and payments have been closely monitored by banks and the state.

Last weekend’s attacks have heightened the sense of urgency. While the kingdom has claimed its finances will not be affected, with Aramco releasing oil in storage to keep sales to customers going, having production offline will ultimately hit its bottom line.

Rumayyan and Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman—MBS’s half brother—have gone to great efforts this week to convince investors of Aramco’s durability and ability to bounce back quickly from the attacks ahead of the IPO.

Edward Moya, an oil analyst at Oanda, said the kingdom faces an uphill struggle. With Saudi defences breached by what the US have said were Iranian missiles and drones, investors would view the threat of a future attack as “a continued risk to Aramco’s source of revenues.”

Saudi Arabia has nevertheless indicated it wants to push ahead.

The nine banks appointed as global coordinators of the IPO are set to send analysts to Saudi Aramco’s headquarters in the eastern province of Dhahran next week. Company executives are set to present their investment narrative to the bankers who will then write the research reports used to market the stock to institutional clients, as early as next month.

Before the attacks two bankers working on the deal had said that trying to list this year was optimistic. Since last weekend the company has emphasised it will still be within the next 12 months.

Fears exist that the strategy of leaning heavily on wealthy Saudi families could distort how advisers conduct the IPO process.

While the primary focus has become the initial listing on the domestic Tadawul stock exchange, bankers and advisers had been operating on the assumption that the company was keeping the option of an international listing later on, in an established market such as New York, London or Tokyo. That could become more complicated if wealthy investors in the kingdom are seen to have been lent on.

Saudi Aramco Opens Gates To Struck Sites
Saudi Aramco has revealed the extent of damage to oil sites hit by last weekend’s attacks as the state group seeks to show it is on top of repairs to facilities crucial to the global economy.

At the Khurais oilfield 150 km north-east of Riyadh, crews in white protective suits cleaned up spillage under the desert sun, with temperatures reaching 40 C.

Reporters were shown two gas-oil-separation plants, which are essential for stabilizing the extracted crude. Both sustained significant damage, with one tall stabilization column blackened by what Aramco executives say was a direct missile hit.

Mohammed al-Suwayegh, head of the production facility at Khurais, described how Aramco fire trucks had raced to the scene in the early hours last Saturday after the missile and drone attacks began.

“As they reached the site they saw other rockets hit,” he said.

Workers were applying fixes to the structures on Friday, with the company keen to show it can meet the oil ministry’s pledge to restore production quickly.

In the world’s largest oil processing facility in Abqaiq, not far from the Gulf coast, five stabilization columns that separate hydrogen sulphites were damaged.

The site is still being assessed to decide whether to repair or replace the equipment but officials said the plant had been built to survive damage to specific parts.

Spherical steel tanks, which depressurize the crude, have been badly damaged. Aramco is designing plates to repair the damaged sections, to be built by its local contractors.

Khalid al-Buraik, head of Aramco operations in the region that includes Abqaiq, pointed to the facility’s “full parking lot” despite heading into a long weekend for Saudi Arabia’s National Day on Monday.

One Aramco official at Khurais, showing off a pipe riddled with shrapnel holes, said the company was “working like a beehive day and night” to restore operations.