The CEOs of Citigroup (C.N) and Credit Suisse (CSGN.S), as well as the heads of fund managers BlackRock (BLK.N) and BlackStone (BX.N) will be among those gathering in Riyadh next week for a glitzy investment conference, an event not attended by top financiers last year after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
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SoftBank (9984.T) founder and CEO Masayoshi Son will also attend the Oct 29-31 conference, two people familiar with the matter said, as the Japanese company seeks to raise funds for a second technology fund.
But the buzz around the Future Investment Initiative (FII) has faded since the conference was first launched in 2017, when it was heralded as Davos in the desert, a nod to the annual gathering of world leaders and corporate bosses in the Swiss Alps.
Now, fallout from Khashoggi’s killing and the stop-start process towards the long-awaited stock market listing of state-run energy giant Saudi Aramco have shifted the mood.
“It’s not seen as a must-do event like Davos,” said one banker at an international bank.
The country has struggled to lure foreign investment to fund projects outside the oil sector, including manufacturing, meant to create millions of jobs for Saudis, as investors hesitate over the commercial viability of projects and Riyadh’s human rights record.
Proceeds from Aramco’s initial public offering will boost the Saudi wealth fund’s ability to back domestic mega-projects including the $500 billion futuristic city NEOM, announced at FII in 2017.
But there has been little progress on NEOM so far other than construction of royal palaces and an airport. A NEOM company spokesman said it continues to engage with a “wide range of potential foreign and local investors”.
Saudi Arabia has managed to sign some multi-billion dollar deals last year at the conference, but it was Aramco that clinched most of them.
“Signing commercial agreements is great for PR, but what Saudi Arabia really needs is for many of its national development initiatives to move from the conceptual stage to implementation with foreign, private-sector partners,” said Robert Mogielnicki, resident scholar at Washington-based Arab Gulf States Institute.
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