Saudi Aramco: when IPO communications is about more than just $

The recent announcement in the Economist of the potential for a Saudi Aramco IPO got the energy, capital markets and communications community in a bit of a flutter. After waiting for the dust to settle, and a bit more information to come out of the Kingdom (eg this won’t be a full IPO of the holding company), I’ve attempted to put my thoughts on the matter into some sort of cogent order.

As you might know, I’ve advised 4 national oil companies, a number of energy ministries and some sovereign state; so I have a certain amount of experience around this subject, but cannot claim any sort of inside knowledge and understanding. I could be as wrong or right as the next commentator.

An unusual announcement:

The recently announced intention by Saudi Armaco to consider some sort of IPO is, as has been noted by an anonymous banker in the FT, rather against usual practice. (behind paywall) https://next.ft.com/content/5b6ac53c-b875-11e5-bf7e-8a339b6f2164
Bankers would have us believe that it’s in the reputational interest of the client to keep quiet until a transaction is all but guaranteed. Whilst I remain agnostic on this, as the reputational risk is far greater for the investment banks than it is for the corporate; the greater control exerted by the primary advisor to IPO over the last decade or so means that corporate actors and their communications advisors today rarely get the luxury gauging market reaction through a bit of strategic communications. The news about Saudi Aramco considering an IPO is therefore very rare.

 

Consider the motivation:

This discussion is derived from an exclusive interview in the Economist (paywall) http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21685475-possible-ipo-saudi-aramco-could-mark-end-post-war-oil-order-sale , not with Saudi Aramco, but with Kingdom’s deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. We must therefore consider this news through a wider prism than a normal IPO. Corporate and financial considerations will be central to the campaign, but the needs of Saudi Arabia itself are interlinked.

Consider the current reputational challenges that KSA faces. Geopolitical conflict in Yemen and beyond; low oil prices and their consequent internal financial challenges; a lack of consensus within OPEC to Saudi production targets and finally the fundamentally cultural perception challenges when Saudi politics and society are viewed in Europe or North America.

The Kingdom took the brave decision to go on the front foot and tell their story directly. I’m sure there will be been long negotiations between the Economist and the Kingdom as to what areas were “fair game”, but that doesn’t change the fact that this was both a serious coup for the Economist and a brave and rare decision by the Saudi leadership to make a balanced on the record statement of belief and positive intent. The long interview with Prince Salman shows that there is another way to look at the myriad of dynamics in which the Kingdom is involved. Whether you agree or not, the article is persuasive that the Saudi point of view is worth considering.

 

The Sovereign / parastatal reputational connection

Sovereign states have every right to use their operational and financial assets as communications exemplars to enhance their reputation. Even Aramco’s harshest critics admit that it’s incredible that such a massive, complex corporation manages to run as effectively as it does. It is very much a potential jewel in the crown of Saudi global communications; an example of the way Saudi Arabia has developed both in corporate but also technological and financial terms.

This status would only be enhanced by the transparency and corporate rigour necessary to list equity on any stock market, including the Tadawul (Saudi Stock Exchange). In fact a listing on the Tadawul would be perfect, as it would enhance global interest and liquidity in the Saudi Stock exchange – raising the global profile of another Saudi institution, and demonstrating the continuing development of the modern Saudi state.

 

A PR Stunt or combined value narrative?

Matching the needs of the Saudi Arabia, the NOC and wider stakeholders = Great PR
So the big question here is whether this all a “PR stunt” designed for short term gain? In general terms, it depends on the commitment of the State in question (in this case Saudi Arabia). Good PR demands true operational commitment. For a narrative to resonate, there has to objectivity. For Saudi Arabia to truly enhance its reputation through an IPO of one of the most important companies in the world, it has to be genuinely committed to the success of the IPO and provide ongoing growth to the stock – or at least guarantee yield.

If this is part of a reputation enhancement campaign for Saudi Arabia – and Aramco probably doesn’t need new capital – investors have no reason to be concerned. Their interests and those of the Kingdom are in fact intertwined.

By choosing to IPO Saudi Aramco, the Saudi political leadership may well have created a positive ongoing narrative that will allow it to continually present a successful, modern, innovative face to the world. Assuming the listed vehicle is commercially successful, everyone’s a winner.