More than 3,000 people are attending the three-day Saudi global investment conference this week. Many tried to keep a low profile and avoided talking to the news media.
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Bankers kept their name tags obscured behind ties. Many tried to keep a low profile and avoided talking to the news media. But those hoping to escape any tarnish from attending Saudi Arabia’s global investment conference after a dissident journalist’s killing were foiled when the crown prince himself, Mohammed bin Salman, appeared at the summit meeting and received a standing ovation.
The unannounced appearance of Crown Prince Mohammed, who is suspected of playing a role in the killing of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, highlighted the risk facing U.S. businesses that chose to attend an event aimed at bringing together prominent global executives. The crown prince is scheduled to participate in a panel discussion Wednesday morning about building the region into a global economic powerhouse.
Many Western executives and government officials have canceled their appearances, including the chief executives of Blackstone Group, JPMorgan Chase, and foreign and finance ministers from the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
Still, more than 3,000 people are attending the three-day conference this week and, on the first day, the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton buzzed as executives glided across the marble floors, sipping kiwi juice, exchanging business cards and discussing potential deals.
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Some were not in the mood for conversation; others likened the decision about whether to attend to a Hobson’s choice.
“I’m not doing any media,” said Ken Moelis, the founder and chief executive of Moelis & Co., an investment bank. “It’ll have to be ‘no comment.’”
“It’s awkward,” said Tally Zingher, chief executive of Dawsat, a startup company focused on health in the Middle East, who noted the shadow cast by Khashoggi’s death. Zingher, an American, considered not attending, but decided she was not prominent enough to make a statement by skipping the conference.
Henry Biner, an executive at the Boston-based P/E Investments, said Khashoggi’s killing was “horrendous” but there were wars and atrocities occurring across the Middle East and the situation should not necessarily deter business ties.
“One year from now, somebody is going to ask where the revenue is,” he said. “We’re not going to put our relationships on the line for this.”
And while Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, canceled his appearance at the conference, he traveled to Riyadh anyway and met with the crown prince. The two discussed combating illicit financing as well as the investigation in Khashoggi’s death, a Treasury Department spokesman said.
As business leaders took shuttle buses past barricades to enter the Ritz, aides to Mnuchin were having breakfast at a nearby luxury hotel. The secretary was expected to visit the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, which was established last year during President Donald Trump’s visit to the region, before leaving for the next leg of his six-country trip.
The decision of whether to attend the investment conference has presented a particular dilemma for financial companies, many of which have multibillion-dollar ties to Saudi Arabia, employ workers in the region and are eager to maintain strong relations there.
Morgan Stanley has been advising Saudi officials on their planned initial public offering of stock in Saudi Aramco, the national oil company. JPMorgan Chase has a leading spot as an underwriter for the IPO and employs 70 people in Riyadh. Citigroup’s chief executive, Michael Corbat, unveiled the bank’s newest Riyadh office at a festive ribbon-cutting ceremony this year.
Blackstone Group has teamed up with the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund to start a planned $40 billion infrastructure investment fund, focusing on the United States.
None of the big Wall Street firms sent their top leaders, but institutions such as Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley sent local and regional executives, some of whom are senior in stature. No one from Blackstone Group, whose chief executive withdrew from the event last week, attended, according to a company official.
Some who did attend said they were there just to do business and dismissed the Khashoggi situation.
“It’s just noise to me,” said Michael Slater, who runs the Middle East and Africa investment business for Northern Trust and is based in Riyadh. “The people I need to see are here, and that’s what I care about.”
The future of the investment conference remains uncertain, and some attendees mingling on the sidelines wondered aloud whether the current crisis would blow over or result in a real reversal of Saudi Arabia’s recent progress. For Saudis who organized the conference, one question that was top of mind was whether corporate-media sponsors that withdrew their support, including The New York Times Co., would return next year.
An investment adviser who specializes in business deals between the United States and Saudi Arabia suggested that big banks with brands to protect and Silicon Valley companies that promote ethical investing would be wary of embarking on new deals with Saudi Arabia until concerns about Khashoggi’s killing were resolved.
Real-estate investors from the United States, however, were eagerly prowling the halls, seeking funding for projects in America and looking for opportunities to get involved in infrastructure development in the Middle East.
And in a demonstration of its continued attractiveness as an investment partner, Saudi Aramco announced the signing of 15 deals worth more than $30 billion with companies in eight countries: the United States, France, China, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, South Korea and India.
At least several of the deals were preliminary memorandums of understanding, which is the first formal step toward a final contract, but they were highly symbolic amid Saudi efforts to avoid financial and political isolation.
Among the deals was one in which the French oil giant Total agreed to begin engineering studies for the eventual building of a petrochemical complex. Halliburton, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes agreed to work on a gas power plant.
With its image as a modernizing economic powerhouse tarnished in recent weeks, Saudi officials were not subtle in their efforts to remind the world of the country’s resources.
During one of the panel discussions on Tuesday, Amin Nasser, Aramco’s chief executive, made clear that Saudi Arabia’s ability to produce oil remained unmatched.
“Our capacity can be sustained for a long time, backed by among the largest reserves in the world, with the highest quality and the lowest cost of production,” he said.
Saudi leaders appearing at the finance conference tried to distance themselves and their nation from the killing.
As global business leaders and government delegations filed into the heavily fortified hotel in Riyadh, one of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful executives and an adviser to its Public Investment Fund paid her respects to Khashoggi and said reports of his grisly killing did not define her country.
“The terrible acts reported in recent weeks are alien to our culture and our DNA,” said Lubna S. Olayan, the deputy chairwoman of the Olayan Financing Co. and the first speaker at the event.
Olayan, a billionaire and one of the richest people in Saudi Arabia, said she was confident “the truth will emerge” about Khashoggi’s fate, and she thanked the foreigners who attended the conference under the circumstances.
“I am sure we will grow and emerge stronger as a result of dealing with the crisis of the last few weeks,” she said.
After an uncomfortable silence, the packed ballroom applauded.
Saudi officials in attendance also acknowledged Khashoggi, though they did so without accepting responsibility for directing his killing, despite fresh allegations from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who laid out on Tuesday the Saudi planning of what he called the “premeditated murder” of Khashoggi at the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
“From the leadership on down, we’re very upset about what has happened,” said Khalid al-Falih, the energy minister, who described Khashoggi’s killing as “abhorrent” and promised that an investigation would yield justice and retribution.
While many European and U.S. officials boycotted the conference, the prime minister of Pakistan and the king of Jordan spoke.
Veterans of last year’s gathering said it appeared there were more Saudis in attendance this year, leading some to suggest that the organizers scrambled to fill empty seats. They also noted there were more Russian and Asian executives, perhaps trying to capitalize on less competition for deals from Western investors.
The absence of U.S. broadcast media was also apparent, as the bright lights of CNBC and Fox Business that were centerpieces of last year’s event were replaced by more modest production sets for London’s Sky News and RT, the television network funded by the Russian government.
The conference’s evening gala featured an eclectic mix of food from around the world, including Peking duck and a coconut bar. One song played during the meal was “Hotel California” — a somewhat curious choice of music at a hotel where princes and businessmen last year were held captive and unable to leave.