Fickle investors forgive and forget at Saudi 'Davos in the Desert'

Fickle investors forgive and forget at Saudi 'Davos in the Desert'
Comment: Outrage over Jamal Khashoggi's killing has given way to a desire to put profits before politics, writes Courtney Freer.
5 min read
29 Oct, 2019
Some of the biggest corporate names who had boycotted last year, return this year [AFP]
This week the third annual Future Investment Initiative kicked off at the infamous Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, after last year's forum was a more subdued occasion, taking place as it did on the heels of the death of Jamal Khashoggi in October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. 

A year later, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman having admitted that Khashoggi's murder happened "under my watch," with five people sentenced to death for the killing, and no threat of impending US sanctions, investors seem ready to forgive and forget – and take advantage of a Saudi Arabia eager to open up to foreign investment.

Indeed, according to the event's website, it will host over 6,000 attendees from over 30 countries and over 275 speakers.

Indian Prime Minister Nerendra Modi, to whom Mohammed bin Salman has referred as an elder brother, is slated to speak and is also expected to meet with the leadership about major bilateral developments, as he is making his second visit as prime minister to the kingdom (the last one was in April 2016).

Saudi Arabia is expected to invest $100 billion in India in the next two years, while Aramco is investing more than $44 billion in India's Ratnagiri oil refinery and is said to be buying a 50 percent stake in a $4.6 billion petrochemicals plant in Gujarat.

Such developments imply that Saudi Arabia is increasingly looking eastward for potential economic partners, particularly since they are less likely to become entangled in political developments in the kingdom; in exchange for Saudi silence on Kashmir, Indian silence on Saudi human rights abuses seems likely.

Brazilian President Jair Bolonsaro is another guest of honour who will address the conference, after a visit to the UAE. On Monday, Bolonsaro called the relationship between Brazil and the UAE "excellent" and went on to say that "my relationship with His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed is the best relationship possible."
In exchange for Saudi silence on Kashmir, Indian silence on Saudi human rights abuses seems likely
Bolonsaro also explained that Brazil will be holding an auction in the oil sector and that major offshore oil companies, including those from the UAE (and presumably from its ally Saudi Arabia as well), will be involved. Interestingly, then, energy deals with India and Brazil still play a major role in new deals being struck at the investment forum, which is meant to foster diversification away from Saudi Arabia's energy reliance.

King Abdullah from Jordan and the presidents of Congo-Brazzaville, Kenya, Niger and Nigeria are also slated to speak, in addition to Jared Kushner.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin - who was absent last year - is leading the American delegation, alongside Energy Secretary, Rick Perry.

Other notable speakers include the president of the World Bank, the CEOs of the London Stock Exchange, the Singapore Exchange, Standard Chartered and Societe Generale, and rapper,

In all, Americans still account for 40 percent of the speakers, demonstrating that they are by no means withdrawing from the kingdom or from the Gulf more generally.

Notably, Amazon, Apple, and Google will not be attending the forum, however. In addition, major media companies including Bloomberg Media, CNBC, CNN, Fox Business Network, The Financial Times, and The New York Times will not be serving as media partners.

A large number of blue-chip firms, including BlackRock, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, and JPMorgan Chase, some of which did not attend last year, will be at this year's forum, which is said to be the biggest in history.

Larry Fink of BlackRock, who did not attend last year, sought to justify his firm's decision to participate with a statement on LinkedIn. He opined that, while many corporate leaders are trying to do business in Saudi Arabia under the radar or avoid speaking about it, "corporate leaders should be having a public dialogue about it. Not because everything in Saudi Arabia is perfect - but precisely because everything is not."

But Fink's sense that this event could serve as a forum for discussing what is wrong inside Saudi Arabia, is misplaced. A draft agenda leaked by Axios shows a focus of most panels on moving forward; indeed, the title of the programme is "What's next for global business?," suggesting that any qualms about doing business in the Kingdom should be left at the door.
Americans still account for 40 percent of the speakers, demonstrating that they are by no means withdrawing from the kingdom
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will likely try to capitalise on his vision for "what's next" in Saudi Arabia. The listing of Saudi Aramco's embattled IPO, with an expected $2 trillion valuation, has generated considerable attention, particularly with this week's announcement that it will debut on the Tadawul on 11 December.

And the World Bank's 'Ease of Doing Business' index recently saw Saudi Arabia climb 30 places; the most of any country, to 62nd, for putting into place what it describes as a "record number of business reforms in the past year."

These developments aside, the fact that this year marks the third such investment summit raises questions about the extent to which the events are really helping to diversify the Saudi economy, and move towards the goals of Vision 2030.

The fact that the forum is being held at all, and is meant to be larger than ever before, however, is important in itself as a signal that the kingdom and its leadership are moving on from the Khashoggi murder. The message to those investors who are still holding out for some kind of real accountability, is to get on board, or get left behind.  

Dr Courtney Freer is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics and a research officer for the Kuwait Programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CourtneyFreer

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.