Global business leaders may have stayed away, but Saudi Arabia’s flagship investment conference started Tuesday with a crowd. And even as attendees squeezed in to watch speeches, they checked their phones for news about Jamal Khashoggi’s death.
As the Future Investment Initiative began at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, an hour-long traffic jam snarled vehicles in the last few blocks before the venue. Men in suits hopped out of their air-conditioned cars to walk the final stretch in the sun, watched over by black-uniformed royal guards with machine guns. The first session was so overcrowded that doormen left some frustrated attendees standing outside.
While some sessions stayed packed over the course of the day, others were sparsely attended. Late afternoon saw the arrival of Mohammed bin Salman, the 33-year-old crown prince whose leadership of the desert kingdom has become a lightning rod for international criticism. As word of his arrival spread, people rushed for a place in the hall, standing and craning their necks to catch a glimpse or a photo.
He entered smiling and sat in the front row, next to King Abdullah of Jordan, as the Spanish founder of Formula E began discussing hosting an auto race in the Saudi capital. As the prince and the king exited, a crowd rushed behind them to take selfies in the lobby.
The crown prince, who didn’t address the audience on Tuesday, is expected to participate at a special plenary session on Wednesday with other Arab leaders “in a discussion on continuing to build the region into a global economic powerhouse,” according to a Twitter post from the FII conference.
The second-ever FII was planned to be the stage for showcasing new ventures and unveiling billion-dollar contracts in front of the world’s business elite, but the killing of Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist and critic of the government, prompted dozens of finance and business leaders to withdraw. After two weeks of denials, the kingdom acknowledged on Saturday that Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate in Istanbul.
Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih didn’t shy away from addressing the writer’s death. Addressing the conference ahead of an energy panel, he called the matter a crisis for the country. “From the leadership on down, we’re very upset about what has happened, and of course the king has made it clear that there will be an investigation, justice and retribution,” he said.
Amid the controversy, some businessmen and state officials were concerned about being seen with journalists. One government official told a reporter that it would be best to speak next week. Another changed the topic to talk about the conference’s agenda.
A surprise appearance was made by Saudi Arabia’s main foreign antagonist in the Khashoggi affair: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose speech scorning the kingdom’s version of events was briefly broadcast into an Al-Arabiya TV screen in the lavish conference lobby. As he spoke, some conference participants surreptitiously checked headlines online or listened intently on their phones.
Many of the Western attendees were expats living in the Gulf, rather than visitors. The crowd was more Saudi and Emirati than last year, when the Crown Prince unveiled plans for a robot-staffed Red Sea city and executives of the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund mingled with Wall Street figures like Larry Fink and Steve Schwarzman. (Fink and Schwarzman both pulled out of this year’s event.)
The only U.S. bank CEO to attend was Ken Moelis of Moelis & Co., and the lobby was devoid of last year’s robots. Instead, outside the buffet launch, attendees gawked at a sleek electric car from Lucid Motors Inc. The PIF signed an agreement to invest more than $1 billion in the Silicon Valley startup in September — months after building a stake in Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc. (TSLA).
In an effort to render business cards obsolete, participants were given high-tech badges that were equipped to transfer contact information by touching them together until they lit up in green. The seats in the conference hall were topped with a gift — a large hardcover book titled A Blueprint For The Twenty-Second Century. Its glossy pages include chapter titles such as “advancing human potential” and “technology as opportunity,” interspersed with futuristic black-and-white images.
On the sidelines, attendees whispered about the Khashoggi case, and billionaire businesswoman Lubna Al Olayan’s remarks condemning his killing. “The terrible acts reported in recent weeks are alien to our culture and our DNA,” and “the truth will emerge,” the chief executive officer of Olayan Financing Co. said in the first panel discussion.
Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the managing director of the Public Investment Fund, didn’t mention Khashoggi in his opening remarks. He and Olayan appeared with Kirill Dmitriev of the Russian Direct Investment Fund and Mubadala Investment Co. CEO Khaldoon Al Mubarak.
While that opening session was crammed, some rooms were much emptier as attendees chose to network instead. At a midday session that discussed “the shifting geography of investment,” there were fewer than 200 people in the room, compared with seating capacity of about 1,400. A panel in the chandeliered plenary room with Saudi Arabian Oil Co. CEO Amin Nasser saw fewer than 150 people attend; a year ago, amid buzz about Aramco’s potential initial public offering, Nasser spoke to a packed room of international investors.
A detailed program of confirmed speakers wasn’t available on the organizer’s website, but the event’s app outlined a final list of panels and speakers. Last week, a program that listed the who’s who of the business and finance world — including BlackRock Inc. chief Fink and JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon — was taken down. The latest dropouts are Bank of America Corp. Chief Operating Officer Thomas Montag and Evercore Inc. CEO Ralph Schlosstein, according to people with knowledge of the matter.