Even as Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) economies’ growth slows because of lower oil production, the region’s sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) sit on an abundance of capital that they are using to accelerate an economic transformation, including an aggressive diversification away from hydrocarbon and an ambitious shift toward deals in Asia, which jumped by nearly 60% in value in the first nine months of 2023.
Overall, deals dropped by around 3% in both volume and value, and SWFs (directly or through portfolio companies) saw the lion’s share of activity in the region, representing 86% of deal value (see Figure 1).
Middle East dealmaking has accelerated since 2018, with deal value projected to end the year roughly on par with 2022
As we first pointed out last year, SWF’s direct strategic investments fall into five distinct categories.
Deals to enter a new vertical at scale. These acquisitions are aimed at building local platforms in underdeveloped sectors. For example, that was the objective of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund’s (PIF’s) move to consolidate the steel sector in Saudi Arabia by acquiring AlRajhi Steel and Hadeed. In a non-SWF deal, Abu Dhabi–based healthcare company M42 bought dialysis provider Diaverum.
Deals to strengthen ties with partners. These include acquisitions to support the development of regional economies in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Oman, and Sudan as well as those to solidify relationships, especially in Asia. Emirati holding company Mubadala co-led a $2 billion investment in the Chinese online fashion company Shein. Qatar Investment Authority invested $1 billion in India's Reliance Retail Ventures, the retail arm of billionaire Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Industries.
Deals to invest in economies or sectors of the future. Consider PIF’s majority ownership of Lucid Motors, a US-based maker of electric vehicles, for example, or Mubadala’s investments in China’s Hasten Biopharmaceutical as well as its joint venture with National Resilience, a technology-focused biomanufacturing company dedicated to broadening access to complex medicines. As part of the deal, Mubadala will establish a first-of-its-kind biopharma manufacturing facility in the region, based in the UAE.
Deals to increase soft power and visibility. Among the most publicized acquisitions for national branding was PIF’s big move into football. Local teams Al Hilal, Al Ahli, Al Nassr, and Al Ittihad are all now owned by PIF, which also owns Newcastle United. Investments in the Saudi teams included attracting global stars. Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo plays for Al Nassr, and his former Real Madrid teammate Karim Benzema joined Al Ittihad.
Deals that build regional champions via strategic investments through SWF portfolio companies. Leading domestic companies are buying to expand from the GCC into higher-population and higher-growth markets as well as turning to M&A to enhance capabilities. For example, PIF-owned Savvy Games acquired Scopely for $4.9 billion. The deal follows PIF’s earlier investments in esports ESL and Faceit. Similarly, Abu Dhabi–based AD Ports Group completed its acquisition of Spain-headquartered logistics group Noatum.
As momentum for these five types of deals continued in 2023 at roughly the same pace as 2022, we noted two emerging trends to watch in 2024.
More deals are aimed at accelerating the energy transition. Middle Eastern countries have announced ambitious net-zero targets. So far, the UAE and Oman pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait by 2060. Within the region, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have positioned themselves as leaders in providing clean energy globally with both expertise in hydrocarbons and a potential advantage in renewables and energy transitions.
This energy transition push is reflected in M&A activity. PIF and Mubadala have committed to net-zero targets by 2050. In addition to working to decarbonize existing portfolios, those funds are investing in green assets and in technologies that support decarbonization.
Setting the target and ambition is the first step for investment companies to decarbonize their portfolios, and it has broad implications for M&A practitioners’ investment strategies and portfolio management. For example, net-zero commitments now will lead investment companies to consider emissions as part of the deal approval framework. It also now requires them to actively advocate for emissions reduction in portfolio companies and evaluate investments in enabling decarbonization technologies for portfolio companies.
The other big emerging trend: the Gulf’s SWFs’ increasing exposure to Asia. During the first three quarters of 2023, those funds invested a total of $8.5 billion in increasing their ties to Asia, nearly a 60% rise over 2022 (see Figure 2). The activity was spread across Asia, including China, India, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore.
Middle East acquirers are increasingly targeting companies in Asia-Pacific, with 2023 being the highest year for deal value since 2018
PIF and South Korean automaker Hyundai recently entered a joint venture valued at more than $500 million that will build a new manufacturing plant in Saudi Arabia. The localization of Hyundai’s vehicles is aimed at accelerating the development of the country’s automotive and mobility ecosystem and attracting further investments to the sector and the wider economy.
Overall, the investment thesis in Asia includes tightening ties with Asian countries, building supply chain resilience in strategic categories such as automotives and semiconductors, leveraging green energy investments, and a big shift to relocate the Asian companies’ manufacturing, innovation, and commercial operations in the Middle East. It’s a massive goal with equally sizable benefits for GCC economies.
Achieving those benefits requires substantial effort from the region’s SWFs and governments to build an extensive talent base, to provide localization incentives, to design win-win deals with Asian partners, and to provide local supply chain ecosystems and infrastructures.