Saudi sees lucrative deals at summit despite boycotts

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Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum and Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan, attend Riyadh’s conference. Reuters

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia brushed off an outcry over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and went ahead on Tuesday with an investment conference boycotted by Western political figures, leading international bankers and company executives.

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Speaking at the opening session, prominent Saudi businesswoman Lubna Olayan said the killing of the Washington Post columnist was “alien to our culture” and voiced confidence that the kingdom will “emerge stronger”.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, is expected to sign deals worth more than $50 billion in the oil, gas, industries and infrastructure sectors on the opening day with companies including Trafigura, Total, Hyundai, Norinco, Schlumberger, Halliburton and Baker Hughes.

Hundreds of bankers and company executives joined officials at a palatial Riyadh hotel for the Future Investment Initiative, an annual event designed to help attract billions of dollars of foreign capital as part of reforms to end Saudi dependence on oil exports.

The managing director of the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, the main backer of the event, said Saudi Arabia was becoming more transparent and that the Saudi Public Investment Fund continued to develop new industries under economic reforms launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Yasir al-Rumayyan said the fund has invested in 50 or 60 firms via SoftBank Group’s Vision Fund and would bring most of those businesses to the kingdom. PIF has made substantial commitments to technology companies or investments, including a $45 billion deal to invest in Vision Fund.

Many Western banks and other companies, fearful of losing business such as fees from arranging deals for Saudi Arabia’s $250 billion sovereign wealth fund, sent lower-level executives even as their top people stayed away.

Others are still sending strong representation. Total chief executive Patrick Pouyanné said on Monday he would attend. Russia is sending a large delegation led by Direct Investment Fund head Kirill Dmitriev.

Mr Dmitriev said Saudi Arabia’s economic diversification drive was “important for the world” and that Russian companies, mainly oil and petrochemcial firms, want to enter the Saudi market.

“Saudi Arabia is a great partner for us, not just a partner in investments or oil … we believe modernisation and transformation in Saudi Arabia is truly historic.”

Top executives of Asian companies were hesitant to pull out, so the participation of Chinese and Japanese institutions may keep the three-day conference – which has no connection to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland – busy enough for Riyadh to claim it as a success.

For these reasons, the Western boycott may have little long-term impact on Saudi economic prospects.

Foreigners sold a net 4.01 billion riyals ($1.07 billion) of Saudi equities last week, by far the biggest pull-out of overseas money since the stock market opened to direct foreign investment in mid-2015.

The event is being held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, where scores of princes, businessmen and officials were detained in a crackdown on corruption just days after last year’s conference ended.

Authorities said the crackdown extracted over $100 billion from suspects in financial settlements. But that figure has not been verified, and details of the alleged crimes were never made public, fuelling investors’ concern about legal transparency.

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