As global banking elites attend the Future Investment Initiative forum in Riyadh, a focal point of Saudi Arabia's economic reforms, AFP takes a look at the vehicle that is bankrolling the transition: the Public Investment Fund.

From world-class footballers to a new national airline and even a speciality shop serving camel milk gelato, the Public Investment Fund (PIF) has splashed billions on acquisitions intended to diversify the oil-reliant economy.

How did the formerly passive sovereign wealth fund evolve into the engine of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 reform agenda, and what do its investments say about where the kingdom is headed?

- Humble origins -

Founded in 1971, the PIF maintained a low-profile portfolio for decades until a 2015 cabinet resolution reconstituted its board and named Prince Mohammed chairman -- a change the fund's website describes as being "reborn".

The idea, said Saudi political analyst Sulaiman al-Oqaily, was to create a kind of "alternative oil field" that would facilitate Saudi Arabia's transition away from fossil fuels.

"The Saudi private sector was fragile and not at the level of ambition to manage the kingdom's transition from a resource-dependent state to a productive state," Oqaily said.

"Therefore, the Saudi leadership wanted to have an active fund that would establish companies with a return, so that it could replace the oil fields if they dried up one day."

The PIF now boasts assets under management exceeding $700 billion and says it has created more than 560,000 "direct and indirect" jobs.

Halfway through the Vision 2030 project, however, Saudi Arabia remains heavily dependent on oil, even if official statistics show steady growth in non-oil sectors.

Robert Mogielnicki of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington said it is "too early to evaluate the extent of the fund's effectiveness in actually diversifying the economy".

- In the arena -

The PIF has made its biggest international splash in the sports world, including with its 2021 takeover of Newcastle United.

Its football push ramped up over the past year as the kingdom signed contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to lure megastars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Neymar to the Saudi Pro League.

Such eye-watering sums would be impossible without the PIF, which has also acquired 75-percent stakes in elite local squads Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli.

The PIF has taken the lead on facilitating the stars' transition to life in the Gulf, said a fund official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to brief the media.

"We do everything," the official said. "Our teams are visiting all clubs across the country to see what they actually need" -- from new training pitches to gyms and saunas.

"All the clubs have to do is play."

Beyond football, the PIF funded the LIV Golf circuit, which emerged as a rival to the PGA Tour before officials in June announced a shock merger agreement in hopes of ending the sport's civil war.

- The Line -

The PIF's high-profile investments in foreign firms include stakes in Uber, electric car maker Lucid and video game company Activision Blizzard.

Yet domestic investments constitute 77 percent of the fund's portfolio, according to its latest annual report, and its work within the kingdom could ultimately determine whether Vision 2030 succeeds.

Its so-called giga-projects include the $500 billion futuristic megacity known as NEOM, which has generated buzz primarily for The Line, planned parallel mirror-encased skyscrapers extending over 170 kilometres (105 miles) of mountain and desert terrain.

PIF-owned Riyadh Air, unveiled this year, is intended to transform the capital into "a gateway to the world", according to state media, rivalling other Gulf travel hubs like Dubai.

The fund has also backed projects that tap into a budding sense of nationalism and pride in Saudi products under Prince Mohammed, including the Saudi Coffee Company and Noug, a posh cafe serving espresso drinks, gelato and smoothies made with Saudi camel milk.

The PIF's unmatched resources means it has to be mindful of its impact on local markets, Mogielnicki said.

"My sense is that how the PIF enters local markets and industries is ultimately less important than how it steers these new entities and then how the fund exits," he said.

"The most significant risk associated with certain smaller, domestic investment initiatives is the potential for crowding out private sector actors."

These concerns aside, there is little doubt the PIF will keep growing.

The crown prince has said he wants the fund to have $1 trillion in assets by the end of 2025.