RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s annual cornerstone investment forum has drawn over 1,000 participants, with big-name U.S. financiers and business leaders back on the stage three years after many stayed away following the international outcry over the killing of a government critic.
The three-day Future Investment Initiative, also known as “Davos in the Desert,” wrapped up Thursday with appearances by finance titans such as Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of the world’s biggest asset manager, BlackRock, who joined a panel that featured Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon and South African mining billionaire Patrice Motsepe.
It was a stark turnaround from 2018, when most high-profile guests backed out after it was revealed that aides who worked for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had killed Washington Post columnist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The crown prince has consistently denied any knowledge of the operation, despite a U.S. intelligence assessment to the contrary.
In the years since, the crown prince has faced continued scrutiny over the kingdom’s widespread crackdown on rights activists, business people, senior royals and perceived critics of his policies. At home, though, he remains popular among many Saudis for ushering in reforms that have transformed the kingdom, loosened social restrictions and granted women greater rights.
Most of the women at the conference, held at the exclusive Ritz Carlton Hotel, wore long-flowing robes, or abayas, over business suits, in line with local customs. But abayas are no longer required and several women opted to forgo them. Others wore colorful abayas, but no head scarves. Such a sight would have been unimaginable only a few years ago when nearly all women wore black abayas and headscarves in public, and often a face covering.
On the opening night, guests attended a gala dinner with live music – also a product of recent reforms – in King Abdullah Financial District. The crown prince hopes to lure firms to open their regional offices there and attract much of the capital now concentrated in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, home to Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Saudi Arabia has told companies they have until the end of 2023 to establish regional offices in the kingdom or lose access to government contracts. The goal is to attract these companies and their employees, as well as their families, to live, spend and invest in Saudi Arabia, replacing the short fly-in trips from cities like Dubai that many consultants and others currently prefer over life in Riyadh, where Islamic law bans the sale of alcohol.
At the forum, it was announced that 44 multinational firms would be setting up new regional headquarters in Saudi Arabia. The government hopes the strategy will add $18 billion to the local economy and create 30,000 new jobs by 2030, part of a wider economic diversification plan to rely less on oil as the main source of government revenue. Some of the companies moving their regional offices to Riyadh are PepsiCo, Siemens, Unilever, Deloitte, Halliburton, and Baker Hughes, according to a government press release. It’s unclear whether such companies will scale down their operations in the UAE and elsewhere, or add staff in new offices in Riyadh.
The forum is Prince Mohammed’s signature event for trying to bring badly needed investments to the kingdom, but other than the word on plans to open regional offices, there were few major announcements around new investments.
The event is powered by The Public Investment Fund, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, which is behind multi-billion dollar investments outside the kingdom and spending billions more on mega-projects inside the country. This includes new tourism destinations along the Red Sea coast and a new, sprawling modern district called Neom.
Prince Mohammed made a brief appearance at the forum Tuesday, where he sat in the front row for a session that featured Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, though he did not take to the stage as he has done in some previous conferences.
The forum opened just a day after a former senior Saudi counter-terrorism official lobbed a slew of accusations against the crown prince on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” He accused Prince Mohammed of detaining two of his adult children in Riyadh to try and force his return to the kingdom, and also alleged that the prince had sent a team of agents to North America to track him down and kill him. Saudi authorities have denied the allegations.
The forum’s delegates appeared unfazed by such allegations. The event saw a flurry of networking, deal-making and business card exchanges on the sidelines. This year, many discussions focused on the kingdom’s recent “net zero” emissions pledge, a target Saudi Arabia aims to reach by 2060.
The kingdom’s net-zero pledge, however, only applies to emissions within its borders. The government has no plans to phase out its fossil fuel-burning exports to countries like China and India, where demand for energy is growing. Critics have accused Saudi Arabia of “green washing.”