Saudi Arabia tries to salvage its investment conference after A-listers pull out

Saudi Arabia's investment conference this week was until recently the hottest ticket in business and finance...

Posted: Oct 22, 2018 4:06 PM
Updated: Oct 22, 2018 4:06 PM

Saudi Arabia's investment conference this week was until recently the hottest ticket in business and finance.

Now the program has been stripped of names and the list of speakers, once a who's who of global business, has been heavily revised.

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Most of the top global CEOs and finance officials who were due to participate in the Future Investment Initiative, dubbed "Davos in the desert," pulled out in the past 10 days following the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2.

The latest to drop out, after much soul-searching, was Siemens (SIEGY) CEO Joe Kaeser.

"Siemens has been a reliable partner to Saudi Arabia for decades ... But for now, the truth must be found and justice must be served," Kaeser said in a statement Monday.

Saudi Arabia had denied any knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi, but late on Friday admitted that the Washington Post columnist died inside the consulate. Members of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's inner circle have been blamed for his death.

Conference organizers say it will be business as usual when the event starts Tuesday. The website of the Future Investment Initiative promises that a detailed program for the three-day event will be "released shortly."

Bin Salman is due to host the conference. But if he attends, he'll be rubbing shoulders with a much less famous crowd than this time last year, when he used the conference to promote his Vision 2030 plan to wean Saudi Arabia's economy off oil.

Among the other A-list executives who have already pulled out are JPMorgan (JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon, HSBC (HSBC) CEO John Flint, Blackrock (BLK) CEO Larry Fink and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and IMF managing director Christine Lagarde are also skipping the event.

"The Khashoggi story has damaged the reputation of the kingdom and has increased political uncertainty," said Garbis Iradian, the chief economist for Middle East and North Africa at the Institute of International Finance. "[Businesses] may postpone or reduce doing business dealings in the kingdom and adopt a wait and see attitude," he added.

But the absence of top names won't put a halt to discussions about future business opportunities. Some companies are sending less senior executives. JPMorgan and HSBC are sending representatives, despite their CEOs pulling out. And the head of Morgan Stanley's (MS) international business, Franck Petitgas, is listed on the conference app as a speaker.

Others, such as Airbus (EADSF) — which has 1,000 employees in the kingdom — want to keep channels of communication open despite pulling top executives.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund -— a sovereign wealth fund — will lead a delegation including more than 30 Russian entrepreneurs, executives and officials.

"We appreciate the constructive dialogue and are happy to share experiences, identify new joint projects and discuss promising areas for the development of comprehensive cooperation between a wide range of partners from Russia, Saudi Arabia and other countries," RDIF CEO Kirill Dmitriev said in a statement on Friday.

Germany has decided to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but defense contractors from other countries, including the United States, will be at the conference. In an interview with CBS last week, President Donald Trump said that he didn't want to sanction Saudi Arabia because it could cost firms like Boeing (BA) and Raytheon (RTN) billions in arms deals and cost jobs.

Raytheon CEO Thomas Kennedy is listed as a speaker at the event.

Oil industry executives are also expected to attend. Total (TOT) CEO Patrick Pouyanné is on the speaker list. His company signed a deal earlier this month to start working on a $5 billion petrochemical complex in the kingdom.

But the kingdom's budding relationship with the global tech world is coming under intense pressure, and could be damaged.

At the conference a year ago, SoftBank (SFTBF) CEO Masayoshi Son sat alongside bin Salman as the prince announced plans for a $500 billion futuristic city, NEOM.

Son has also launched a $93 billion mega tech fund with nearly half the money coming from the Saudi government. It has already made big investments in dozens of startups such as WeWork and Slack. Son was already planning for a second such fund. Now, that looks unlikely to happen.

Son and the head of SoftBank's international business, Marcelo Claure, were listed as speakers at the Saudi conference until recently. Neither appear on the revised list. The company has stayed silent on whether they will attend.

The kingdom urgently needs to reverse a decline in foreign investment to diversify its economy and end what the crown prince once called an "addiction" to oil. Under Vision 2030, bin Salman wants to grow the private sector, boost tourism and reduce unemployment over the next decade.

The plan caught the imagination of many international players, including billionaire Richard Branson, who jumped on opportunities for two tourism projects and was in talks for a $1 billion investment in his space company.

But Branson was one of the first to suspend his links with Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi's disappearance, and he has questioned whether anyone in the West can continue to do business there.

Many international investors were convinced this time last year that Saudi Arabia was open for business. It will be a much harder sell this time around.

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