Did Saudi National Bank President, Ammar Al Khudairy, know what he was doing when he gave a confident, 5-word answer to a question on Bloomberg TV on March 15? I suspect not. His answer to the question of whether the Saudi bank would provide financial assistance to Switzerland’s largest bank, Credit Suisse, turned out to be the straw that broke the Swiss camel’s back. His words were “The answer is absolutely not”, which he said was mainly for technical reasons. His bank already owned 9.9% of Credit Suisse and to go above 10% would trigger new regulatory and compliance burdens. 

So what did he really mean and what was his strategy? 

Did he want to wobble the bank sector, make Credit Suisse collapse, be bailed out by the Swiss National Bank, then taken over by rival UBS? Unlikely! Although, according to the Wall Street Journal, his bank was also part of an investor group that proposed injecting around $5 billion into Credit Suisse as an alternative to the UBS deal. So who knows?

But Saudi National Bank ended up losing $1 billion on the Credit Suisse investment, according to Reuters, suggesting that Mr Al Khudairy is a victim, to some degree, of an out-of-context quote going viral in a nervous market.  As biggest financial backer of the bank, he could certainly have been more guarded and less ambiguous in his words. 

A few days ago Mr Al Khudairy resigned. How could he have prevented this from a communication perspective? 

In an interview, if you want you say to be memorable, the best strategy is to start with the most important point. For example: “Unfortunately we can’t raise our investment because of the regulations that would be triggered at above 10%.”  

Secondly, he should eliminate negatives! Being quoted out of context is always a risk and difficult to correct. But training himself to use neutral to positive language at all times and to recognise a ‘danger’ word pair like ‘absolutely not’ – before he opens his mouth – would help.

Accentuate the positives! Being the authority figure that he is, to start with an emphatic negative, even at the best of times, will have an emphatically negative impact. This comment came just after the Swiss National Bank offered Credit Suisse a very large loan in a market that fears another banking crisis. Mr Al Khudairy could have been positively emphatic, for example, about the bank’s financial foundations, which he is in an interview on CNBC, but only the following day when the damage has been done.

In the full Bloomberg interview on March 15, Mr Al Kudairy makes another major faux pas (unless his intention was to crash the bank). He says there are also five or six other reasons why the bank will “absolutely not” provide financial assistance. But he doesn’t mention what those reasons are. They could be all positive, but they all SOUND negative because they were introduced by the same first message – the “absolutely not.” The market’s conclusion is: the Saudi bank is refusing to help. Switzerland’s largest bank is felled by one quote.