Saudi Crown Prince’s investment forum sets westerners back

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RIYAD, Saudi Arabia (AP) – Saudi Arabia’s annual key investment forum attracted more than 1,000 attendees, with top U.S. financiers and business leaders returning to the stage three years after many stayed behind. the gap following international outcry over the murder of a government critic. .

The three-day Foreign Investment Initiative, also known as ‘Davos in the Desert’, ended Thursday with appearances from financial titans such as Larry Fink, CEO of the biggest manager global asset manager, BlackRock, who joined a panel featuring Goldman. Sachs CEO David Solomon and South African mining billionaire Patrice Motsepe.

It was a sharp turnaround from 2018, when most prominent guests withdrew after it was revealed that collaborators who worked for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had killed the Washington Post columnist and Saudi critic. Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The crown prince has always denied any knowledge of the operation, despite an assessment by US intelligence services indicating otherwise.

In the years that followed, the crown prince came under scrutiny as the kingdom’s widespread crackdown on rights activists, businessmen, royals and perceived critics of his policies. At home, however, he remains popular among many Saudis for initiating reforms that transformed the kingdom, relaxed social restrictions and granted women more rights.

Most of the women attending the conference, held at the exclusive Ritz Carlton Hotel, wore flowing maxi dresses, or abayas, over business suits, in keeping with local customs. But the abayas are no longer compulsory and several women have chosen to give them up. Others wore colorful abayas, but no headscarves. Such a spectacle would have been unimaginable only a few years ago, when almost all women wore abayas and black scarves in public, and often face coverings.

On the opening night, guests attended a gala dinner with live music – also a product of recent reforms – in the economic city of King Abdullah. The crown prince hopes to attract companies to open their regional offices there and attract much of the capital now concentrated in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, which is home to Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Saudi Arabia has told companies they have until the end of 2023 to establish regional offices in the kingdom or lose access to government contracts. The aim is to attract these companies and their employees, as well as their families, to live, spend and invest in Saudi Arabia, replacing the short air trips from cities like Dubai that many consultants and others currently prefer over the life in Riyadh, where Islamic law prohibits the sale of alcohol.

At the forum, it was announced that 44 multinational companies will set up new regional headquarters in Saudi Arabia. The government hopes the strategy will add $ 18 billion to the local economy and create 30,000 new jobs by 2030, as part of a broader economic diversification plan to reduce reliance on oil as a primary source of income. of the government. Some of the companies that have moved their regional offices to Riyadh are PepsiCo, Siemens, Unilever, Deloitte, Halliburton and Baker Hughes, according to a government press release. It is not known whether these companies will reduce their operations in the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, or add staff to new offices in Riyadh.

The forum is Prince Mohammed’s flagship event for attempting to bring in much-needed investment the kingdom, but other than word on plans to open regional offices, there have been few major announcements regarding new investments.

The event is powered by the Public Investment Fund, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, which is driving multibillion-dollar investments outside the kingdom and spending billions more on mega-projects inside the country. This includes new tourist destinations along the Red Sea coast and a sprawling new modern district called Neom.

Prince Mohammed made a brief appearance at the forum on Tuesday, where he sat in the front row for a session featuring Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, although he did not take the stage as he did. at previous conferences.

The forum opened just a day after a former senior Saudi counterterrorism official launched a series of accusations against the crown prince on CBS’s “60 Minutes” program. He accused Prince Mohammed of detaining two of his adult children in Riyadh in an attempt to force his return to the kingdom, and also alleged that the prince sent a team of agents to North America to find him and to kill. Saudi authorities have denied these allegations.

Forum delegates seemed unfazed by such allegations. The event saw a flurry of networking, negotiation and trading of business cards on the sidelines. This year, there has been a lot of talk about the kingdom’s recent ‘net zero’ emissions pledge, a target Saudi Arabia aims to achieve by 2060.

The kingdom’s net zero commitment, however, only applies to emissions within its borders. The government does not intend to phase out its fossil fuel exports to countries like China and India, where energy demand is increasing. Critics accused Saudi Arabia of “green laundering”.

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