DENIAL IN THE DESERT: SAUDI ARABIA’S INVESTMENT CONFERENCE

DENIAL IN THE DESERT: SAUDI ARABIA’S INVESTMENT CONFERENCE

What a difference a year (and the murky murder of a journalist) makes. When Saudi Arabia hosted its first Future Investment Initiative last fall, it was a coming-out party for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious vision of economic and social reform. This year, the event (known to the WEF’s chagrin as “Davos in the Desert”) is overshadowed by ongoing furor about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.  As a result, a number of participants have pulled out – but not all.


Here’s a look who’s going, not going, and on the fence – and why:

ATTENDING

Imran Khan: Pakistan’s prime minister desperately needs foreign financing to help solve mounting economic challenges at home, and Khan hopes Riyadh – which has always seen Pakistan as a strategic ally in South Asia  – will give him money with softer conditions than the IMF, with whom Pakistan is currently negotiating.

Chinese business leaders: Not exactly a paragon of the free press itself, China has stayed mostly quiet on the Khashoggi affair. But Beijing is also all business: China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, and the kingdom remains a good oil “hedge” for China as pressure on Iran ramps up. Furthermore, China is probably keen to profit from any downgrade in the kingdom’s relations with the West over the Khashoggi affair.

Russia’s investment chief and a 30-person delegation: No one loves to court jilted American allies in the Middle East more than Russia. Moscow has stayed out of the Khashoggi fray and is quietly hoping that the scandal does erode Washington’s ties to the kingdom, not least in the area of arms sales which Russia would love to make to Riyadh. Russia is also eager to take part, along with China, in the lucrative IPO of Saudi’s state-backed oil giant, Saudi Aramco.

NOT ATTENDING

US business leaders: Top US finance and tech CEOs are shunning the event because of the potential PR blowback. But will US firms actually stop taking tens of billions in investments from – or positions in – Saudi Arabia? The fact they’re still sending lower-level representatives suggests Prince Mohammed may be able to weather this storm yet.

Steve Mnuchin: Facing bipartisan pressure from Congress, the White House cancelled US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s attendance at the conference (he was to give the keynote.) But… yesterday Mnuchin nonetheless traveled to Riyadh and met with the crown prince to discuss other aspects of US-Saudi

cooperation.

MAYBE ATTENDING

Masayoshi Son: Perhaps no one has more to lose from the recent Saudi spiral than Masayoshi Son, the world’s biggest tech investor. The kingdom is the biggest backer of Son’s Vision Fund, which has heavy stakes in startups like Uber, WeWork, and Slack. A last-minute decision to back out could prove an early sign that the tech sector, which has had its share of politically-motivated problems of late, is truly starting to sour on Saudi.

 

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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