Top finance moguls and political leaders are attending a Davos-style Saudi investment summit in contrast to last year when outrage over critic Jamal Khashoggi’s murder sparked a mass boycott.
Organisers say 300 speakers from 30 countries, including US officials and heads of global banks and major sovereign wealth funds, will attend the annual summit that seeks to project the insular kingdom as a dynamic investment destination.
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 global image that was tainted by Khashoggi’s killing last year.
The murder 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.
The CIA has reportedly concluded that the crown prince, who controls all major levers of power in the Saudi government, likely ordered Khashoggi’s killing.
In a recent interview, Prince Mohammed said he accepted responsibility because it happened “under my watch” – but denied having ordered it.
Turning the page
But the event is set for a reboot this year as global outrage over the killing fades.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, leaders of key emerging markets, are set to speak at the summit along with King Abdullah II of Jordan and four African leaders.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin leads the American delegation that includes Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior adviser to President Donald Trump.
The CEOs of asset management firms Blackstone and SoftBank, as well as chairs of the sovereign wealth funds of Kuwait, UAE, Singapore and Russia, are also expected to attend.
Top executives from blue chips Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, both working on the much-anticipated flotation of state oil behemoth Saudi Aramco, are on a long list of global bank representatives at the forum.
“This year’s FII is very different from last year,” Ryan Bohl, of the US geopolitical think tank Stratfor, told AFP.
“The sanctions threat over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, which led to boycotts last year, is currently over. Many delegates this year have no qualms about getting close to Saudi.”
Global banks and consultants are vying for business around the much-delayed initial public offering of state oil giant Aramco, the world’s most profitable company.