When Saudi Arabia hosted its high-profile investment conference just weeks after Jamal Khashoggi’s killing last October, top executives from some of the world’s biggest financial companies begged off, skipping the event over fears negative publicity could tarnish their company’s brands.
A year later, human rights advocates say the kingdom has yet to deliver justice, failing to hold senior Saudi officials responsible for The Washington Post columnist’s killing or to even reveal the location of his body. But business leaders have been far more forgiving.
In a few weeks, senior executives from blue-chip firms including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and BlackRock will be returning to the kingdom for the conference, dubbed “Davos in the Desert,” according to an attendees list reviewed by The Washington Post.
More than 150 executives have confirmed their attendance, the list shows, including more than 40 executives representing U.S. companies. The head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund was attending, along with other executives who represent major banks, tech companies, business conglomerates and defense contractors in India, the Middle East Europe and the United States.
Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser and President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, is also expected to attend, leading a U.S. delegation, according to a person briefed on his plans.
Larry Fink, BlackRock’s chief executive who withdrew last year from the Future Investment Initiative event, has framed his decision to return to Saudi Arabia as an effort to promote change in the kingdom, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to wean the country’s economy off its dependence on oil.
“I believe greater economic integration and diversification will help Saudi Arabia build a more modern and sustainable economy,” Fink wrote on his LinkedIn page. “I also believe that corporate engagement and public dialogue can help with that evolution.”
Over the past year, Saudi Arabia has worked tirelessly to change the subject after Saudi agents killed Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, in a plot that the CIA concluded with high confidence was approved by the crown prince. The assassination left the Saudi government with its worst public relations crisis since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the kingdom was vilified after it emerged that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
Since Khashoggi’s murder, the Saudi government has promoted high-profile entertainment events featuring Western artists, rolled back entrenched restrictions on women’s rights and recently announced that tourists from the United States and other countries can obtain visas to visit attractions in Saudi Arabia for the first time.
As it tries to turn the page, the Saudi government has been able to count on influential allies, including business and political leaders. Trump has been the crown prince’s most prominent defender, arguing the U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia and U.S. arms sales to the kingdom should not be threatened by Khashoggi’s killing.
Banking leaders have also had a powerful incentive to keep relations cordial with Saudi Arabia – namely, the hotly anticipated initial public offering by Aramco, the national oil company. Analysts have estimated the company could have a valuation between $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion, and the crown prince has said he would like to list as much as 5% of Aramco, the world’s most profitable firm.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that Aramco had chosen nine banks to underwrite its listing, including JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, whose senior executives were expected to attend the investment conference in October, according to the list obtained by The Post.
Rob Runyan, a spokesman for Citigroup, declined to comment on whether Michael Corbat, the company’s chief executive, who was included on the list, planned to attend the conference. Brian Marchiony, a spokesman for JPMorgan Chase, declined to comment on the attendance of Carlos Hernandez, the firm’s head of global banking, who was also on the list.
“I think most people have moved on,” said Karen Young, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, referring to the business community’s attitude toward Saudi Arabia in light of the Khashoggi killing.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is still struggling to attract foreign investment, for reasons that are not linked to bad publicity because of human rights abuses or any political event, she said. Foreign investment in Saudi Arabia had already dipped to historic lows by late 2017, when the government rounded up hundreds of Saudi business executives and some royal family members and imprisoned them at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, in what the Saudi government billed as an “anti-corruption” drive.
Since Khashoggi’s death a year ago, foreign investment in the kingdom has actually increased somewhat, Young said, citing the gradual easing of capital flight and moderate steps taken by the Saudi government to improve the business environment.
For investors, “there is always a consideration of political risk,” but such investors were likely to be far more concerned with recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities – blamed by U.S. and Saudi officials on Iran – than the negative publicity generated by Khashoggi’s murder.
A cheery invitation to the Future Investment Initiative, sent by Yasir al-Rumayyan, the head of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund who was recently named as the chair of Aramco, promised “unparalleled networking among CEOs, world leaders, and experts.” The invitation, which was reviewed by The Post, does not address recent turmoil in the country.
Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, said engagement by foreign companies with Saudi Arabia was unlikely to alter the kingdom’s harsh treatment of dissidents and rights activists, despite assertions to the contrary by some business leaders. “The notion that the mere presence of more international companies would translate into human rights reforms is pretty naive,” he said.
“So far, there have been virtually no improvements on major issues such as freedom of expression, rule of law or political participation, and I could make a compelling argument that these areas have gotten worse under MBS,” he added, referring to the crown prince by his initials.
Saudi officials have insisted they are seeking accountability for Khashoggi’s killing, pointing to the prosecution of 11 individuals they say are linked to the murder. The public and journalists have been barred from attending the trials of the 11 defendants, though diplomats from the United States and other United Nations Security Council members have been allowed to attend, along with a representative from Turkey.
One sector that appeared to be staying away from the investor conference is Silicon Valley. Last year, representatives from Google, Uber and other tech firms had planned to attend before news of Khashoggi’s murder prompted them to cancel.
One of the few expected attendees from Silicon Valley is Jim Breyer, known for leading the first major venture capital investment in Facebook. The Florida-based Magic Leap, which sells computer headsets and is funded in part by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, is sending its chief product officer, according to the attendees list. Breyer declined to comment through his spokesman, Matt Benson. Magic Leap spokeswoman Julia Gaynor also declined to comment.
Conspicuously absent from the attendees list is Masayoshi Son, founder and chief executive of SoftBank, a mammoth venture capital firm that was launched with significant financial support from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. Last year, Son canceled his attendance of the event. Instead, he stayed at a nearby hotel and held meetings with others who attended.
Son has grappled with his Saudi investors over who calls the shots in the $100 billion Vision Fund, according to a person familiar with the relationship, noting that some Saudi royals have bristled at setbacks. For instance, Uber and Slack, which both received large cash infusions from the Vision Fund, have seen their stock prices plummet following highly anticipated initial public offerings earlier this year. SoftBank is also the main backer of WeWork, whose chief executive recently resigned after delaying the company’s public listing because of poor financial performance.
Other technology financiers and entrepreneurs contacted by The Post said they had no plans to attend the Saudi conference, largely because an abundant flow of money already available in the tech industry made funding from the kingdom unnecessary and not worth the public relations headache.
If technology leaders did stay away, it would undermine one of the principal aims of the conference: “positioning technology investments at the forefront of Saudi Arabia’s economic transformation,” according to Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
The Saudis, he said, had lagged behind other Persian Gulf states in creating a “knowledge, tech-driven economy.” But the conference had other important aims, he added, including proving the Saudi economy’s ability to bounce back after “successive political and economic storms – the controversial anti-corruption campaign, the killing of Khashoggi, ongoing involvement in the Yemen war, escalating tensions with Iran, and the September 14 attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities.”
For the Saudis, “the big issue is conveying the message that the country is safe, and the event is safe to visit.” The strikes on the oil installations, along with attacks by a rebel group in Yemen targeting airports and other infrastructure primarily in southern Saudi Arabia, “calls into question the security of the state,” he said.
The success of the conference also hinged on the kingdom’s ability to generate excitement around other initiatives, including the Aramco IPO, and entertainment and tourism projects. “Around non-Jamal Khashoggi-related news,” Mogielnicki said.