Saudi to host ‘Davos in the desert’ one year since mass boycott

Strong turnout expected at three-day Future Investment Initiative as outrage over Khashoggi’s murder last year fades.

RIYADH - Dozens of global policymakers and tycoons will attend a Saudi investment summit starting Tuesday, helping the kingdom turn the page on a critic's murder that triggered a mass boycott last year.

A strong turnout at the three-day Future Investment Initiative (FII), nicknamed "Davos in the desert", would further rehabilitate de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's image, a year on from the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Washington Post columnist's murder last October 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 glitzy annual conference at the last minute.

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 said.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will also lead a high-powered American delegation including Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's senior advisor 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."

'Open arms' 

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 to justify his return this year.

"I believe just the opposite. Corporate leaders should be having a public dialogue about it. Not because everything in Saudi Arabia is perfect -- but precisely because everything is not."

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 percent 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".

Quietly returning 

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 denied having prior knowledge.

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.

"Businesses are quietly returning to their profit-making activities in Saudi Arabia, but they remain on the hook for their own human rights responsibilities," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

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.

Riyadh has struggled to attract the foreign investment it needs, especially since a 2017 crackdown when the palatial Ritz-Carlton hotel, the venue for the FII, was turned into a five-star prison for hundreds of Saudi business executives and some royal family members.

But 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.