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A Year After Khashoggi Slaying, Big Finance Descends on Saudi Arabia for ‘Davos in the Desert’

October 29, 2019, 1:21 PM UTC

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, no doubt, will be smiling today.

Big numbers packed the Ritz Carlton in Riyahd on Tuesday for the opening sessions of the prince’s brainchild event, the annual Future Investment Initiative, with the prominent names in finance topping the list of headliners. One invited guest texted Fortune to say there was a lengthy queue to enter the hall where the morning’s plenary sessions were held. But, he was quick to add, “still nearly all male dominated panels.”

In the end, more than 6,000 attendees from more than 30 countries are expected to make the trip to FII 2019, including Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, and cabinet members Rick Perry and Steven Mnuchin. The showing is a far cry from last year when dozens of high-profile executives pulled out, in an effort to distance themselves and their company from the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

A spokesperson for the FII organizing committee verified that just 3,500 were on hand for the event a year ago.

Bank chiefs in the desert

Big Tech and Hollywood are giving this year’s so-called “Davos in the Desert” event a miss, but Wall Street A-listers can’t keep away. The event has attracted CEOs and high ranking officers from various U.S., European and Asian banks, including CitiGroup, Credit Suisse and HSBC, each of the three are lined up as advisors for the Saudi Aramco initial public offering.

It’s a busy week for the latter two banks. HSBC interim CEO Noel Quinn took the morning slot at FII 2019 to speak on a panel about how to “foster growth amid heightened uncertainty.” Uncertainty is a subject HSBC—and its shareholders—know a thing or two about. Just 24 hours prior, Quinn and his top lieutenants had reported disappointing quarterly results, exacerbated by problems in its U.S. and European retail banking divisions. Shares in Europe’s largest bank are down as much as four percent since its Friday close.

Also on Tuesday morning, Tidjane Thiam, CEO of Credit Suisse joined a panel entitled “How can investors survive and thrive in a multipolar world?” Credit Suisse is due to report its third quarter results tomorrow morning in Zurich.

For European banks such as HSBC and Credit Suisse, low interest rates and flattening yield curves are making it exceedingly difficult to turn a profit through the traditional commercial banking operations of lending and attracting new accounts. Instead, such banks are chasing fees as advisors on deals and beefing up their wealth management businesses, making an event such as FII an obligatory stop-over for the banks’ top brass.

Thiam addressed this issue briefly in comments during his panel session. He said that over the past decade, “the overall growth in wealth has happened in emerging markets” such as Asia and the Gulf countries. And, he added, that the bottom line on Credit Suisse’s own wealth management business reflects this trend, “with the bulk of that coming from emerging markets.”

“Undoubtedly, wealth management is one of the top reasons to attend this event,” said Neil Quilliam, a specialist on the region for the Chatham House, Royal Institute of International Affairs. “For the banks, Europe is looking a little bit lean at the moment. There aren’t the rich pickings there.”

Quilliam, who was in attendance today at the event, declined, as did so many others, to attend last year. He thought a lot was riding on Day One of the event. A strong turnout would serve as an important visual for Saudi Arabia, and in particular for the crown prince, to show the investment community the kingdom is open for business. The kingdom itself is looking for investors from abroad to back its ambitious on-again-off-again IPO plans for Saudi Aramco. Sure enough, reports trickled out of Riyadh today that the listing could happen by year-end.

The place to be for VCs… not for women

The venture capital community is also well represented at the event.

Tomorrow, Softbank CEO Mayoshi Son, is scheduled to speak on a panel about investing in so-called “deep tech,” a catch-all phrase that encompasses scientific and engineering breakthroughs that leap from the laboratory to the marketplace. Son is known to be looking for deep-pocked investors for Softbank’s next technology venture fund. The Saudi sovereign wealth fund had been big backers of Softbank’s Vision Fund, but have not committed to any further investments, The Wall Street Journal reports.

In 2018, Son skipped the event, so perhaps his reappearance this year will put the relationship back on firmer footing.

For all the strides the event organizers made in bringing back the captains of finance to Riyadh this year, the event is still noticeably lacking women. (And that’s despite stacking the program agenda with such sessions as “The She Economy.”)

A preliminary program for the event showed 18 women speakers (not including moderators) among scores of men on the main stage. Asked to verify the final number of women participants, event organizers could not immediately provide a confirmed figure.

Ambareen Musa, an entrepreneur based in United Arab Emirates, is one of the relatively few female business leaders invited to participate. The CEO and founder of the comparison-pricing hub for personal finance products, Souqalmal.com, told Fortune this will be the third time she’s attended FII. “I go every year, to meet everybody in the region that counts,” she said. “It’s become the major investment forum for the Middle East.”

In her view, the appeal of FII for startup founders like herself is in the business networking opportunities it affords. She’s hoping to close a $10 million – $15 million funding round in the coming weeks, and was optimistic she’d drum up additional investor interest in the various meetings she has scheduled.

The larger discussion about gender equality is still a secondary priority, at least on the sidelines of the event. “It’s just not the forum, I guess,” she concedes.

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