Lex Greensill had penetrated the British establishment, forging close ties with the country’s top officials and ministers and pushing for lucrative government contracts.
Now, the Australian financier had in mind a new sovereign client, where wealth and power were more concentrated and where good relations could transform his company: Saudi Arabia.
Ahead of Greensill Capital’s collapse this month, one of Lex Greensill’s favorite anecdotes was a camping trip he said he took with David Cameron and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Accompanied by the former British Prime Minister, who was now his paid adviser, Greensill traveled to the desert with Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, according to three people who have heard his accounts of the trip.
One of the people placed the trip in January or February 2020, shortly before the spread of the coronavirus largely cut off international travel. Flight records from Greensill Capital’s four private planes show a series of trips to Saudi Arabia in the first three months of last year.
A second person who heard Greensill’s account of the trip said the Australian financier explained that he bonded under the night sky with the Saudi royal, commonly known as MBS, that the two men both had two studied law at university.
Greensill Capital declined to comment. The Saudi Embassy in London declined to comment.
The Financial Times has repeatedly attempted to question Cameron about the account of the desert camping trip, but the former PM has ignored requests. His role in the downfall of the company has come under increasing scrutiny, after the FT revealed it pressured former colleagues for better access to emergency government Covid loan programs.
Cameron, who was once standing to earn tens of millions of pounds on Greensill’s stock options before the company’s collapse made them worthless, visited Saudi Arabia publicly in October 2019, attending the supposedly “Davos in the desert” summit in Riyadh.
The trip – a year after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents – was criticized at the time by Amnesty International, which said the former prime minister’s presence would be “interpreted as support for the Saudi regime. Despite his “appalling human rights.” record”.
Cameron, who charges at least £ 120,000 an hour for speaking engagements, has frequently used Greensill’s corporate jets to travel around the world, according to several people familiar with the matter. The FT also saw a photo of him aboard one of these lavish planes. Flight records from one of Greensill’s planes show numerous trips to and from Newquay Airport, which is about a half-hour drive from Cameron’s vacation home in Cornwall.
Greensill’s fleet of planes, an unusual luxury even for the largest multinationals, came in handy on another visit to Saudi Arabia.
In August 2019, SoftBank Managing Director Masayoshi Son and his lieutenant Rajeev Misra held meetings in the Jeddah Mall when they were invited to visit Yasir al-Rumayyan in the capital Riyadh.
Rumayyan was the head of the country’s public investment fund, which in turn is the largest investor in SoftBank’s $ 100 billion Vision fund, which has backed valuable start-ups from Uber to DoorDash.
As the men looked to change their flight plans, Greensill took to the floor to offer them a ride on his private jet. Some of those in attendance were amazed that the modest Australian had his own plane. But Greensill, then 42, had recently solidified his billionaire status with SoftBank’s investment in his eponymous finance company. He explained that he did not have one, but several aircraft.
“We need it for the customers,” recalls one participant. “We need an air force.”
Greensill’s engagement with Saudi Arabia was manifold. Last June, Greensill’s senior executive, John Luu, spoke at UK-Saudi Virtual Fintech Week, an event organized by the UK Department for International Trade and the UK Embassy in Riyadh. Marketing material for the event touted the UK’s “progressive regulators” and Saudi Arabia’s “young, tech-savvy population”.
“We’re a company that not many people have probably heard of,” Luu said at the event. “And yet, at the same time, our reach is quite broad.”
He went on to explain that Greensill Capital was not only “part of the family” of the Saudi PIF due to the support of the company by SoftBank, but also that the finance company had just “signed an agreement to become a joint partner. venture ”with the sovereign. wealth fund.
“In this context, we are establishing offices in Riyadh,” he added.
PIF did not respond to a request for comment.
Luu, whose LinkedIn profile described his role as “the spearhead of Greensill’s expansion into Saudi Arabia,” also told the event that his company had contracts with “some of the Kingdom’s largest companies. ”, But declined to name any of them.
The only company that appeared to be the target of a multi-year charm offensive in the country was state-controlled oil company Saudi Aramco.
Greensill has frequently boasted that his company is on the verge of winning a lucrative contract to offer so-called supply chain finance to Aramco, according to people familiar with the matter. Also known as reverse factoring, Greensill’s signature financing technique involves prepaying a company’s suppliers with a discount and is recognized for its ability to flatter business balance sheets.
However, the finance company never ended up providing supply chain finance to the oil company. Aramco, who also counts Rumayyan as chairman, declined to comment.
Greensill has also been involved in even more speculative funding proposals in Saudi Arabia.
During the 2019 trip to Jeddah, executives at SoftBank were examining how they could help the Desert Kingdom modernize the holy city of Mecca, which attracts millions of visitors each year on the Islamic pilgrimage known as the hajj.
Different companies in the Vision Fund could play a role: the American construction start-up Katerra to build new structures, the Hong Kong artificial intelligence specialist SenseTime to offer facial recognition, while the Indian Oyo could help to set up hotels for visiting pilgrims.
And Greensill would bundle all of that into investment products to fund the project.
Son at the time believed the Australian financier was capable of funding increasingly ambitious projects, according to people who know the founder of SoftBank. He even frequently introduced Lex Greensill by a concise nickname: “the money guy.”
“It was part of the overall smart city solution for Mecca,” said a person involved in the discussions. “That’s why Lex was there. He was doing the financing.
The big vision, again, never materialized.
Additional reporting by Anjli Raval