RIYADH – What a difference a year makes.
There was standing room only in the expansive halls of Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel on Tuesday as the world’s financial royalty attended Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference, aimed at courting global investors.
Saudi Arabia said it signed over two dozen investment deals worth $15 billion, mostly in the manufacturing sector, as the kingdom strives to show that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s diversification plan is on track after limited progress since the first FII forum 2017.
Last year’s event was overshadowed by the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as dozens of Western leaders and executives boycotted the gathering.
On Tuesday, the bosses of HSBC, Blackstone, BlackRock, Colony Capital and Evercore were among the crowd at the luxury hotel that less than 24 months ago served as one of the detention centers for more than 200 businessmen, ministers and princes during a corruption purge.
The United States sent a big delegation this year including its energy and treasury secretaries and senior White House advisor Jared Kushner, who is due to speak on Tuesday along with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is also participating in the Oct 29-31 event, as is the head of the World Bank.
Prince Mohammed launched in 2016 a plan to transform the economy of the world’s largest crude exporter and wean it off oil by developing new industries, but outside the entertainment and tourism sectors little progress had been made.
The $15 billion deals announced on Tuesday included sectors such as manufacturing and technology. Most of the deals announced at last year’s event were clinched by Saudi Aramco.
The state oil giant remained the biggest draw for investors on Tuesday eager for any news on its long-anticipated listing following attacks on Saudi oil facilities last month that initially halved the kingdom’s output.
ROBOTS AND REFORMS
Some foreign investors have been wary of ploughing money into Saudi Arabia due to its human rights record and the commercial viability of some projects, but attendees on Tuesday said the turnout was impressive and reflected reforms to open up the largest Arab economy.
JPMorgan’s global banking head, Carlos Hernandez, said the kingdom was on the right path in terms of opening up its capital markets and reforms to make its stock exchange more attractive to foreign investors
“We’re very encouraged that they’re doing all the right things on the path to be the major hub in the region,” he said on the sidelines of the conference.
Reinforcing a technology theme at the conference, SoftBank Corp’s humanoid robot Pepper greeted attendees at the Ritz-Carlton, while Boston Dynamics’ yellow robot dog was also on display plus a 3D interactive booth for Saudi’s planned Red Sea tourism.
Some Saudi women opted not to wear the traditional black abaya covering this year, highlighting social reforms carried out by the crown prince as part of efforts to open up the conservative kingdom.
“The speed of the change has been phenomenal. We still have a way to go but we have made tremendous improvement. Allowing women to work in any field was tremendous,” said billionaire Saudi businesswomen Lubna Olayan.
ARAMCO THE BIG DRAW
Saudi Arabia is pushing to float Aramco this year following another false start last month as the kingdom strives to deliver on a cornerstone of its economic transformation drive, which is the focus of the investment forum.
Aramco CEO Amin Nasser was absent from the conference as he was meeting investors abroad to secure the planned initial public offering on Nov. 3, three people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
It could be the largest listing in history, if the $2 trillion valuation target sought by the crown prince is met.
“There are several Russian pensions funds who are interested to invest in the Aramco IPO and we have also received indications from our Russia-China fund of some Chinese major institutions also interested in Aramco IPO,” Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, said on the sidelines of the conference.
In addition to the deals announced on Tuesday, which include a $120 million investment deal between Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority and BRF Brazil Foods, other agreements include a memorandum of understanding between Samsung and Saudi entertainment resort Qiddiya.
One attendee who declined to be named said that while FII drew more participants this year “the challenge is to see whether people will continue to come going forward, especially once the Aramco deal is out of the way”.