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Howard Marks in Saudi Arabia

The really nice thing about money and its pursuit is that even inveterate enemies can turn their nuclear tipped projectiles into rose petals at the feet of their otherwise erstwhile adversary.

This morning I was reminded of that incongruous scene a number of years ago when Sandy Weill, the ex-Chairman and CEO of Citigroup was secretly and then not so secretly in the middle of the desert, in Saudi Arabia, with camels in the background, meeting with Prince Al-Waleed.

Now, in Saudi Arabia, everyone is a prince, but Al-Waleed is a Prince among Princes and known for his investing acumen.

That acumen has often gone against the conventional wisdom.

At the time, Citigroup was in tremendous crisis, along with the rest of the financial sector, which in turned dragged the market down to its “666” level on the S&P 500 by March 2009.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear Prince Al-Waleed refer to Weill as “my good friend, Sandy Weil,” and cap that off by putting his arm around the Jewish New York banker.

Did I mention that Weill was Jewish?

Did I mention that Prince Al-Waleed had a very, very significant stake in Citigroup?

So this week, fast forward some 8 years and I saw this photo on CNBC this morning:

There was Howard Marks.

Founder of Oaktree Capital. An investor with his own acumen, A Nice Jewish boy from Ozone Park, Queens and most importantly, boyhood friend of Dr. Jack Dillenberg.

But Marks wasn’t the only prominent figure there having originally hailed from the 12 Tribes slightly to the north of Saudi Arabia. There were lots of familiar names and for those who believe in stereotyping, there was plenty to confirm those beliefs, but then again, those people in the habit of stereotyping don’t really need proof of anything.

Anyway, Howard Marks, along with others was there for the “Future Investment Initiative 2017.”

What is the “Future Investment Initiative 2017?”

Who better to explain than the ad campaign people for those seeking outside investment?

The Future Investment Initiative 2017 is “An initiative of the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia, FII is a pioneering new global investment event that will connect the world’s most powerful investors, business leaders, thought leaders and public officials with the path-breaking innovations that are defining the future.”

The Saudis want money to get them beyond their oil reserves and who better to get if from than their friends?

When I say “friends,” I mean “enemies,” but when money is at stake, those lines can become blurred.

That may be the actual point.

Ask Jack Dillenberg.

He may tell you that there is nothing worse than poverty, even as poverty can bring out both the best in people and the worst, as can wealth.

But nations, as much as they are a collection of people, are not people.

Wealthy nations really don’t go to war with other wealthy nations. They may have trade disputes, but they don’t incite violence or death. Democratic nations don’t go to war with one another, either.

Poor people, poor nations and nations that have a disparate distribution of wealth, often do very bad things,

Impoverished people may do bad things in order to simply survive.

Poor nations can do bad things just to get attention or to focus attention elsewhere.

It’s those nations with real disparity in wealth and that may have an illegitimate hold on power that are real causes for concern. They have to identify outside enemies of the state and the regime to get people’s minds off of their sorry and sad lots.

Saudi Arabia has been very good at that.

But now, it’s all changing.

Women will soon be able to drive and oil will not be there forever.

And notable Jews are everywhere to be seen. Marks isn’t alone. In fact, he was interviewed this morning by another kindred soul.

Saudi Arabia needs friends as it plans for a future less tied to oil revenues and it needs all the friends it can find.

Maybe they can make their new friends more comfortable than Jared Kushner appeared to be a few months ago when he was standing in the midst of a Saudi Sword Dance ceremony

A Saudi Arabia with economic interests beyond oil and a more broad distribution of its wealth, including a more pervasive distribution of economic activity, would be a much better neighbor.

Add voting rights to its diversification goal and a real dividend could be true peace and prosperity in the region.

The alternative is really bleak.

A Saudi Arabia feeling as if its source of wealth will disappear would do very, very bad things to maintain its internal leadership structure. It would even more readily point its fingers at the enemies beyond its borders.

Ironically, it may be Howard Marks and others that can help create the very best hope for peace in the region.

Just as his boyhood friend, Jack, from Ozone Park, helped to create a new class of health professional sensitive to the needs of those bereft and committed to changing the system that perpetuated poor outcomes.

 

 

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