RIYADH: Dozens of global policymakers and tycoons will attend a Saudi investment summit starting on Tuesday, helping the kingdom turn the page on a critic’s death.
A strong turnout at the three-day Future Investment Initiative (FII), nicknamed “Davos in the desert”, would further rehabilitate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s image, a year on from the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But the event, aimed at projecting the insular kingdom as a dynamic investment destination, is set for a reboot this year as global outrage dissipates.
Leading the high-profile attendees are Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, guests of honour who are set to address the conference, a Western official told AFP.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will also lead a high-powered American delegation including Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law.
“This is the biggest event on the annual business calendar in Saudi Arabia,” said Steffen Hertog, an associate professor at the London School of Economics. “International businesses have moved on from Khashoggi.”
Blue-chip firms such as Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup are also set to send top executives to this year’s event, according to US media.
“Global companies operating in Saudi Arabia today often want to operate under the radar or avoid talking about their business there,” asset manager BlackRock’s chief executive Larry Fink, who withdrew from last year’s FII, wrote on LinkedIn. “I believe just the opposite. Corporate leaders should be having a public dialogue about it.”
Global banks and consultants are vying for business around the hotly anticipated initial public offering of state oil giant Aramco, the world’s most profitable company.
The kingdom plans to list as much as five per cent of Aramco, which analysts say could be worth between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion. “Last year, some international businesses thought it was better to avoid sending top level representation as it was so close in the aftermath of the Khashoggi affair,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based consultancy Cornerstone Global Associates, who has vigorously defended the kingdom’s stand on the killing. “This year ... the optics are no longer seen as a reason to boycott such an important event. Global businesses want to do business in Saudi and Saudi is inviting (them) with open arms.”
But the organisers are not inviting media scrutiny. The FII website has not listed its speakers, saying only that it will “bring together decision makers, leading investors and global experts”.
Some global companies seeking to sidestep any reputational risks of doing business with Saudi Arabia will avoid the conference but are likely to pursue meetings on the sidelines, observers say.
As it attempts to draw a line under the Khashoggi scandal, the government has hosted Western musicians at dazzling entertainment events, eased restrictions on women’s rights and started issuing tourist visas for the first time.
Saudi Arabia recently climbed 30 places to 62nd in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index for carrying out what it called a “record number of business reforms in the past year”.
But Cinzia Bianco, Gulf Research Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the kingdom had its work cut out to diversify its economy. “The real challenge for Saudi policymakers is to attract long-term investments in non-energy-related ventures,” she said.