From football clubs to phone companies, Gulf Arab states are on an investment binge in the West, thanks to high oil prices.

When not tempting the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema to Riyadh for hundreds of millions of euros a year, Saudi Arabia has regularly opened its deep pockets to prop up ailing businesses in the West.

Together with its neighbors the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, the massive Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) stepped in at the height of the 2008/9 financial crisis to support several Western banks, even as their own economies cratered along with the oil price.

“The Gulf sovereign wealth funds can invest large sums in an unbureaucratic manner, especially when the going gets tough. They’ve often proved to be white knights for many companies,” Eckart Woertz, Director of the GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies, told DW.

The Kingdom currently has stakes in Nintendo, Uber, Boeing and Newcastle United Football Club. In June, Golf’s PGA Tour agreed on a controversial merger with the Saudi-backed LIV Golf that was denounced by human rights groups.

PIF also owns nearly two-thirds of would-be Tesla rival Lucid Motors, splurging some $5.4 billion (€5.04 billion) over the past five years on a firm that produces less than 10,000 vehicles per year.

Telecoms investments under scrutiny

The latest investment, albeit much smaller, is Saudi Telecom’s (STC) announcement last week that it had built up a 10% stake in Spain’s telecommunications giant Telefonica, worth some €2.1 billion ($2.25 billion).

Saudi Telecom is gradually increasing its stake in Spanish telecoms company Telefonica

Over the past eight years, Telefonica’s market value has shrunk by two-thirds. Price wars for mobile and internet services, investments in new technologies and expansion to new markets have left the Spanish firm with a huge debt pile.

The UAE’s phone company e& (formerly Etisalat) this year upped its stake in another major European telecoms firm, Vodafone, from 10% to nearly 15%. Last month, e& said it was considering a further increase to 20%.

The two investments have naturally sparked national security concerns as the Gulf states are autocratic regimes that have a long history of human rights abuses and rampant surveillance of their populations.

Last week, Nadia Calvino, Spain’s first deputy prime minister, said the stake in Telefonica would need to be scrutinized “with the defense of Spain’s strategic interests in mind.”

The Madrid government is said to be particularly wary of Telefonica’s ties with the country’s defense sector.

Britain too is worried whether Vodafone’s tie-up with e& could impact the former’s $19 billion planned merger with rival Three UK, which is currently being scrutinized by the country’s competition watchdog.

Three is owned by Hong Kong-based CK Hutchison and the deal could give China — and also the UAE — access to critical UK communications infrastructure. But some analysts think the concerns may be overblown.

Oil-rich Gulf nations are not China

“Saudi Arabia does not pursue comparable interests to China or Russia,” said Woertz. “While China has been pursuing technology that is already installed here in highly sensitive communications infrastructure, that is not the case with Saudi Arabia. They don’t produce high-end technology like China’s Huawei.”

Woertz was referring to the ban placed on Huawei and other Chinese tech firms by the United States and many of its allies in recent years. Western intelligence agencies have raised concerns that Chinese wireless networking equipment could contain backdoors that enable surveillance by Beijing.

Deep pockets for high-end chips

Amid a global shortage of high-end semiconductors needed to power advanced artificial intelligence language models, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are reported to have been buying up chips made by the US tech company NVIDIA.

The two countries have spoken openly about a desire to become leaders in AI technologies, which many tech leaders have warned could be misused by autocratic regimes. Indeed China has a lead over the rest of the world in surveillance of its 1.4 billion population.

“Human rights defenders and journalists are frequent targets of government crackdowns [in UAE and Saudi Arabia],” Iverna McGowan, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Europe office, told the Financial Times last month. “Pair this with the fact that we know how AI can have discriminatory impacts, or be used to turbocharge unlawful surveillance. It’s a frightening thought.”

Surveillance skills and close ties to China

There are increasing concerns that Gulf states are using AI technology to snoop on Western companies and users

Gulf Arab states have hit the headlines recently for their own surveillance prowess. In 2019, Google and Apple removed a popular UAE-based messaging app ToTok, after the New York Times reported that it was being used by Emirati intelligence agencies to spy on users.

The Gulf Arab states also heavily censor the internet, including anti-Islamic content, government critics and liberal issues, including LGBTQ+ rights.

The Gulf countries are also key partners of China’s so-called Digital Silk Road (DSR), the technological arm of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that aims to smooth trade between China and much of the rest of the world.

Several analysts have warned that the pervasiveness of Chinese snooping technology in the Middle East will likely pose additional security concerns for the West.

No end to sportswashing

Human rights groups have regularly denounced Saudi Arabia for a practice known as sportswashing — in other words, distracting from its appalling rights record with mega sports deals, like the recent merger of Golf’s PGA tour and the massive investment in a Saudi league filled with top footballers from the West. 

“It’s been clear for some time that Saudi Arabia was prepared to use vast amounts of money to muscle its way into top-tier golf — just part of a wider effort to become a major sporting power and to try to distract attention from the country’s atrocious human rights record,” said Felix Jakens of Amnesty International UK.

In its latest annual report, the human rights group accused Saudi Arabia of human rights violations including unfair trials, torture in prisons, mass executions and discrimination against women.

While rights concerns are important, and security threats need investigating, GIGA’s Woertz said that pragmatism often trumps other issues in business, especially in times of crisis.

“For companies, human rights are not their primary concerns. It is about growing the respective business and as an investor they [Gulf countries] are very useful,” he said.

Source : DW

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