Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia’s giant state oil company finally kick-started its initial public offering (IPO), announcing its intention to float on the domestic bourse in what could be the world’s biggest listing as the kingdom seeks to diversify its economy away from oil. From the lead-up to the IPO launch, Reuters has continuously kept readers and clients ahead on the twists and turns of the highly anticipated IPO. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Senior Gulf Deals Correspondent Hadeel Al Sayegh gives a behind-the-scenes look at how she and the team covered the story.
Q: How did you and the team stay ahead of the Aramco IPO?
A: Saudi Aramco was billed as the biggest IPO in the world, but the unanticipated twists and turns made it tough to plan straightforward coverage of the developments. The key decision-makers for this mega deal were top Saudi royals and officials, who were determining their own path for a successful offering. We, as a team, prioritized all meetings with sources around the Aramco offering, gathering intelligence of a constantly moving timeline and structure. The extensive planning helped us to stay ahead.
Q: What were some of the key breaks that we revealed?
A: In the very early hours of November 2, we were ahead by revealing that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved the launch of the IPO, after speaking to sources who were present outside his room for hours from the night before. This story indicated that the deal was going ahead and imminently after a previous attempt to launch the IPO a few weeks prior was put on hold. Also, a commitment by the government and company to abstain from selling and issuing new shares for 12 months was a key point in its prospectus disclosed just four days after Reuters reported and signified that Aramco will not pursue a second listing at an international exchange next year. Another reveal was a government decision not to offer the IPO in compliance with US regulations, known as 144a and RegS, reported by Reuters just minutes before an addendum to Aramco’s prospectus landed on November 17, which meant that Aramco would not proceed with international roadshows – that were subsequently cancelled – and signified that the nature of the deal had changed remarkably from an international offering to a domestic focused offering.
Q: How did the team report the stories from different angles?
A: We thought about how best to report the story to our clients. For example, Aramco decided to delay the launch of its IPO on October 18. Bankers were told that the delay was to incorporate its third quarter results to bolster investor confidence after the September 14 attacks that initially halved Aramco’s output. Through our conversations with sources and our own investigations, we revealed that the decision to delay the deal was actually about having more time to bring in cornerstone investors. We also reported the story from the perspective of ordinary people in Saudi Arabia and what they think of the company operating the country’s natural reserves going public. We looked at how the market would grow as a result of the deal and whether there was enough liquidity in the system in Saudi Arabia to absorb such a large offering, $25.6 billion to be really specific, and could just beat Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s record $25 billion New York stock market debut in 2014.
Q: What was the hardest part of the reporting?
A: The nature of the story was incredibly secretive. Many sources in Saudi would not use communication channels such as a cellphone or social media messaging applications. We had to rely on very secure applications. We had to meet banking sources away from areas close to their work for fear of a colleague spotting them speaking to a journalist. Also, decisions in Saudi Arabia, especially in relation to the Aramco IPO, usually happen on the weekends and very, very late at night, which meant we had to always be prepared and have the infrastructure and people available to help push out the story at any given moment. Adding to all of this, there have been a lot of competing interests in the IPO. Some people are for the deal and others against. We had to work out what people’s motivations were when they were speaking to us to make sure we were reporting accurately and being fair and transparent.
Q: Why was this an important story to tell our customers?
A: For many reasons: This was a building block of crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s vision for the kingdom, an ambitious transformation of the country that would incorporate a raft of reforms including social reforms, privatizations and a giant business zone that would capture foreign investment. It also revealed the attention and importance that many international banks were placing on Saudi Arabia to generate and capture business.
Q: What makes you passionate about journalism?
A: Journalism connects you to people from all walks of life. The access you get to how decisions are made is incredible. It gives you a different perspective from the world you know. You learn on the job all the time, you identify and connect with people and their motivations, and you learn what’s really at stake and tell that story.
Q: What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A: I cover deals for the Gulf region. I love the secretive nature of this beat and find it really fulfilling when I am revealing something that was not known before. I feel that my reporting helps the market become more fair and transparent when a deal is happening behind the scenes that could impact investor decisions.
Q: What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A: Because of the nature of my beat I always feel like I am being rewarded when companies are forced to make disclosures after a story I have broken. However, I do enjoy reporting on the story-behind-the-story when it’s warranted. The hardest part of my job is making sure that sources are comfortable with trusting me even in a whistleblower situation – knowing that their identities will remain protected is so important.
Q: Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A: I love the impact that journalism has on the world. There are very few jobs that have the ability to make a direct impact on government, policy, people’s lives and the ability to shape public opinion and help people make better informed decisions.