‘Davos in the Desert’ is back
It’s been more than two years since bankers kept their name badges obscured behind ties at a high-profile investment conference in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, held weeks after the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents at the country’s consulate in Istanbul. After a wave of cancellations at the 2018 event, the next year’s Future Investment Initiative, often called “Davos in the Desert,” saw many business leaders attend as the immediate furor over the killing subsided.
The next installment of the conference begins in Riyadh on Wednesday, and even more — and more senior — executives are expected to appear, both virtually and in person. It raises the question: Is there a statute of limitations in associating with a country accused of human rights abuses?
Who’s going: Some of Wall Street’s biggest names are scheduled to attend, mostly virtually, according to the conference’s itinerary. David Rubenstein of Carlyle is moderating a keynote panel that also includes Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates, Larry Fink of BlackRock, David Solomon of Goldman Sachs and Thomas Gottstein of Credit Suisse. James Gorman of Morgan Stanley will be interviewed by the CNN anchor Erin Burnett. Other executives set to appear are Steve Schwarzman of Blackstone, Masa Son of SoftBank, Adena Friedman of Nasdaq, Tom Barrack of Colony Capital and Jeffrey Ubben of Inclusive Capital.
A possible morality test for business in a new administration. Joe Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the campaign trail, and, while the new president may not drastically disrupt relations with the country — whose support he may need to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal — “the atmospherics are going to change,” said Gregory Gause of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.
On Friday, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, Adam Schiff, asked for declassification of a U.S. government report on the Khashoggi killing.
What companies are saying. Companies contacted by DealBook pointed to the important business relationships they have with cash-rich Saudi Arabia and others in the region. Some of those ties are long established — Nasdaq has partnered with the Saudi stock exchange for two decades — while others are related to the kingdom’s more recent efforts to diversify its economy beyond oil.
A representative for BlackRock said that Mr. Fink “has been very public about the need for continued reform in Saudi Arabia and believes that engagement and public dialogue by global leaders like himself can help encourage Saudi Arabia’s path of reform.”
“We have long standing clients in the region and continue to serve them,” a Goldman spokesman said.
Representatives for Blackstone, Bridgewater, Carlyle, Nasdaq and Mr. Barrack declined to comment. Representatives for CNN, Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, SoftBank and Mr. Ubben did not return requests for a comment.
Legitimacy by association? “M.B.S. is going to be running Saudi Arabia no matter what David Solomon says or doesn’t say,” Mr. Gause of Texas A&M said, referring to the nickname of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. He questioned the logic of withdrawing corporate ties from Saudi Arabia but keeping them in, say, China, which faces its own criticisms over human rights abuses.
Thor Halvorssen, the founder of the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation, which has funded “The Dissident,” a documentary about Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, said that those attending the event gave the crown prince valuable legitimacy. “The message is, ‘Look, the world’s money and the powerhouses of finance and industry are my puppets,’” he said.
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President Biden unveils a “Buy American” executive order. The action strengthens requirements for government contracts to buy domestic products. America’s trade partners will be watching to see how that meshes with Mr. Biden’s efforts to unwind the Trump trade wars.