Attendees gather outside the plenary hall on the opening day of the Future Investment Initiative (FII) forum at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday, October 29, 2019. Picture: BLOOMBEWRG/FAISAL AL NASSER
Attendees gather outside the plenary hall on the opening day of the Future Investment Initiative (FII) forum at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday, October 29, 2019. Picture: BLOOMBEWRG/FAISAL AL NASSER

Riyadh — Top finance moguls and political leaders attended a Davos-style Saudi investment summit on Tuesday, in stark contrast to last year when outrage over critic Jamal Khashoggi’s murder sparked a mass boycott.

Organisers say 300 speakers from more than 30 countries, including US officials and heads of global banks and major sovereign wealth funds, are attending the three-day Future Investment Initiative (FII), nicknamed “Davos in the desert”.

A strong turnout at the annual conference, aimed at projecting the insular kingdom as a dynamic investment destination, will help repair ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s global image that was tainted by Khashoggi’s killing last October.

“I have been coming to Saudi Arabia for 20 years but what I have been seeing particularly in the past two or three years is [economic] transformation,” Indian tycoon Mukesh Ambani told the conference, lauding the kingdom’s leaders. “As a businessman and as an investor I’m all in.”

The murder at Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate triggered one of the top crude exporter’s worst crises and prompted a wave of business and political leaders to pull out of the 2018 conference at the last minute. But the event is set for a reboot this year as global outrage fades.

“More than 6,000 executives and participants are attending,” said Yasir al-Rumayyan, chief of the kingdom’s vast public investment fund, which organised the conference. “This is more than double the first FII. The growth has been incredible.”

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, leaders of key emerging markets, are set to speak along with King Abdullah II of Jordan and four African leaders.

US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin leads a high-powered American delegation that includes energy secretary Rick Perry and Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior advisor to US President Donald Trump.

The CEOs of asset management firms Blackstone and SoftBank, as well as chairs of the sovereign wealth funds of Kuwait, UAE, Singapore and Russia are also expected to attend.

Top executives from blue chips Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, both working on the much-anticipated flotation of state oil behemoth Saudi Aramco, are on a long-list of global bank representatives at the forum.

Attention on Aramco IPO

“This year’s FII is very different from last year,” said Ryan Bohl, from the US geopolitical think-tank Stratfor. “The sanctions threat over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, which led to boycotts last year, is over. Many delegates this year have no qualms about getting close to Saudi,” he told AFP.

Global banks and consultants are vying for business around the much-delayed initial public offering (IPO) of state oil giant Aramco, the world’s most profitable company. The kingdom plans to list as much as 5% of Aramco, which analysts say could be worth between $1.5-trillion and $2-trillion.

Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television said on Tuesday that Aramco will finally make its stock market debut on December 11, on the Saudi Tadawul exchange.

“I expect that many international observers as well as most attendees will pay more attention to the delayed Aramco IPO than to the Khashoggi legacy,” said Steffen Hertog, an associate professor at the London School of Economics.

The global fallout over Khashoggi’s killing rendered Prince Mohammed a pariah, testing alliances with Western powers and casting a shadow on his ambitious reform agenda aimed at weaning the kingdom off its dependence on oil.

In the US, the CIA has reportedly concluded that the crown prince, who controls all major levers of power in the Saudi government, likely ordered the gruesome killing.

Prince Mohammed has said that he accepts responsibility, because it happened “under my watch” — but has denied having ordered it.

As it attempts to draw a line under the Khashoggi scandal, the Saudi government has hosted Western musicians at dazzling entertainment events, eased restrictions on women’s rights and started issuing tourist visas for the first time.

AFP