Saudi starts winning over firms in regional race

The U.S. technology firm, CSG, has shifted its regional headquarters from Dubai to Riyadh.

It marks an early win for Saudi Arabia and proved surprisingly easy for the American firm; the new office was up and running in just two months.

Dubai may still rule as the region's business center, but the Kingdom is playing an aggressive game of catch up as it seeks to diversify its economy away from oil.

A Saudi ultimatum in mid-February has prompted some firms to rethink their strategy. From 2024, companies seeking state contracts in the Middle East's biggest economy must have offices there.

Alongside this blunt approach, the government has launched sweeping economic and social reforms to attract investors.

It aims to make the kingdom an easier place to live and work in as well as cutting the red tape that long deterred them.

James Kirby heads CSG’s regional operations and says their company is among the first of what will likely be many.

"The serious weight that the Saudi government is putting behind their initiatives - backing that up with real action - is really very encouraging. And I would expect that other companies will follow suit. CSG is not the only one that's been in this first wave."

The state news agency said in early February that 24 international firms had signed agreements to establish main regional offices in Riyadh. The list included PepsiCo, Deloitte and PwC.

Under economic changes pushed by the kingdom's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has jumped 30 places since 2019 in the World Bank's ease of doing business rankings.

It now ranks at 62, although that lags the UAE at 16.

Obtaining a foreign investor licence now requires two documents, not 12, and can take three hours, not three days.

The Royal Commission for Riyadh City has told Saudi media it planned to attract 500 foreign companies by 2030, and is building new hotels, a metro system and aims to launch a new airline to sweeten the move.

But executives say there are many gaps still to fill if it is to rival Dubai including more international schools.

Investors have other worries too the country has faced a barrage of Western criticism over its human rights record.