Despite nearly every high profile Western business or political figure dropping out, along with nearly all of the media sponsors, the Future Investment Initiative started in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia today, with the host, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman looking chummy with King Abdullah of Jordan and Saudi Arabia signing a bunch of deals with multinational energy companies.
The reason everyone from JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon to Dealbook editor Andrew Ross Sorkin to Uber chief Dara Khosrowshahi dropped out was the killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul earlier this month. The killing was mentioned early in the day in Riyadh; according to the Associated Press, Saudi energy minister Khalid al-Falih sait it was “abhorrent” and “nobody in the kingdom can justify it or explain it. From the leadership on down, we’re very upset at what has happened.”
One of Saudi Arabia’s most important partners in its drive to modernize and open up its economy, SoftBank chief executive Masayoshi Son, cancelled his speech at the conference just before it begun, according to the Wall Street Journal. Saudi Arabia is the biggest outside investor in SoftBank’s “Vision Fund,” an almost $100 billion money pool used to take big stakes in companies like WeWork and Uber.
Crown Prince bin Salman started the conference, which nearly everyone called “Davos in the Desert” (to the annoyance of the real Davos), to show that Saudi Arabia could host and make deals with high profile international companies that weren’t the energy and infrastructure giants they’ve dealt with for decades.
But Arab News reported that some nearly $50 billion worth of deals were signed on the first day of the conference, including projects with “Trafigura, Total, Hyundai, Norinco, Schlumberger, Halliburton and Baker Hughes.” Trafigura is a metals and energy trading firm; Total is a French oil and gas company, Schlumberger, Halliburton, and Baker Hughes, are all energy services companies, while Norinco is a Chinese arms manufacturer. Not exactly the diverse group the Saudis were hoping for.
With nearly all of the Western CEOs cancelling their attendance, what’s left has been multinational energy and energy services companies, and Saudi Arabia’s allies from the Arab and Muslim world, along with a fleet of Russian businessmen.
The AP reported “directors of the Saudi, Russian and United Arab Emirates’ sovereign wealth funds took part in the opening panel. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan headlined another session, with Jordan’s King Abdullah II expected to speak at the forum on Wednesday.”