Leaders, tycoons flock to Saudi 'Davos in desert'

Leaders, tycoons flock to Saudi 'Davos in desert'

Local staff and delegates are pictured at the King Abdulazziz Conference Centre in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh to attend the Future Investment Initiative (FII) forum on October 29, 2019. ( AFP)

Saudi Arabia drew top finance moguls and political leaders to its Davos-style investment summit Tuesday, in stark contrast to last year when outrage over critic Jamal Khashoggi's murder sparked a mass boycott.

Organisers say 300 speakers from over 30 countries, including American officials and heads of global banks and sovereign wealth funds, are attending the three-day Future Investment Initiative (FII), nicknamed "Davos in the desert".

A strong turnout at the event, aimed at projecting the insular kingdom as a dynamic investment destination, would help repair de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's global image that was tainted by journalist Khashoggi's gruesome 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."

Thousands of delegates, including world leaders and finance moguls, crammed into a chandelier studded ballroom at Riyadh's palatial Ritz-Carlton hotel, in very different scenes to 2018 when many of the sessions were empty.

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 last year's conference at the 11th hour.

Despite the enthusiastic turnout this year, many delegates were still squeamish about being named in media interviews -- and some hid their name cards behind their ties -- in a sign of lingering reputational risk of doing business with the Saudis.

But in general the event has undergone a reboot 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 President Donald Trump.

"This is a major victory" for the crown prince -- often known by his initials MBS -- said Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University.

"To see corporate leaders now argue that Saudi Arabia has made both reforms and mistakes under MBS and argue for the value of economic engagement with Riyadh suggests that the business world is moving on from Khashoggi's murder," he told AFP.

A prime draw at the Riyadh conference is the much-delayed initial public offering of state oil giant Aramco, the world's most profitable company, for which global banks and consultants are vying for business.

The kingdom plans to list as much as five percent of the state oil behemoth, raising some 100 billion dollars in an exercise analysts say could put the firm's value at between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion.

Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television said 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 reform agenda aimed at weaning the kingdom off its dependence on oil.

The CIA has reportedly concluded that the crown prince, who controls all major levers of power in the Saudi government, likely ordered the killing -- a charge he has repeatedly denied.

Since then, the government has attempted an image revamp -- hosting Western musicians at concerts and easing restrictions on women's rights.

On the sidelines of the conference Tuesday, memorandums of understanding were signed on $15 billion in foreign investment deals billed as representing "the scale and diversity of the kingdom's economy".

But away from the spotlight, Riyadh has struggled to attract foreign investment and its economy remains heavily reliant on the oil that has brought it unimaginable wealth over the decades.

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