In the absence of the US administration, Saudi Arabia awaits the “Davos in the desert” conference

Hundreds of CEOs and financial sector leaders are expected to arrive in Riyadh this week for an investment conference dubbed “Davos in the desert” with the notable absence of any official US presence, which analysts say will highlight Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical strength despite its strained relationship with the United States. .

The Future Investment Initiative was launched in 2017 as a window on the world for the world’s biggest oil exporter as it seeks to diversify its economy away from black gold under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

But the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi largely overshadowed next year’s edition, as many potential participants from outside the region distanced themselves from the conference.

However, interest in attendance quickly picked up again in the 2019 edition, but a number of attendees chose to participate without attracting attention, highlighting fears of a negative impact of doing business with the Kingdom on their reputation at the time.

This year’s edition of the conference comes after a months-long operation to end the Western isolation imposed on Prince Mohammed, who a US intelligence report says approved the Khashoggi murder, a charge Riyadh denies.

This year, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia received visits from then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Joe Biden, who previously pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” country .

These visits highlight growing Saudi influence amid the energy crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This also applies to attendance during the investment conference, which takes place between Tuesday and Thursday, and includes more than 6 thousand participants and 500 speakers, an increase of 200 speakers over the previous record number.

“The interweaving of the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis and high oil prices has given Saudi Arabia a greater level of geopolitical and economic influence this year than in every previous edition except for the first in 2017,” says Christian Ulrichsen, a researcher at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

‘We don’t have an agenda’

The Institute of the Future Investment Initiative, the organizer of the conference, sought to establish an independent identity for the event beyond its close association with the Crown Prince.

These efforts included setting up an investment group and holding events in places as diverse as London and New York in addition to the main event in Riyadh.

In a press conference to introduce the details of the conference, the Institute’s CEO, Richard Attias, emphasized that the “Future Investment Initiative” is not a conference about Saudi Arabia, but rather “an international conference that held in Saudi Arabia, which shows that Riyadh and the Kingdom have definitely become a global center.”

Atias noted that the list of participants includes business leaders from Latin American countries that have not been represented in recent years, in addition to a “large delegation from China” that includes more than 80 Chinese CEOs.

Atias, the former executive director of the World Economic Forum in Davos, told AFP in an interview that he did not think participants were afraid that their presence would cause them to lose their reputation.

“I think we have proven the fact that we are an independent body. We have no agenda. We are here to help,” he added.

“I’m very happy that so many business leaders think like me. We don’t ignore world issues. Nobody ignores them. But boycotting any platform will not enable us to solve any problem in the world.”

The Saudi-American dispute

Despite Atias’ desire to keep politics out of the conference, they are likely to overlap as Saudi Arabia finds itself in a sensitive position with the United States over the decision to cut oil production made by “OPEC Plus”. the alliance led by Riyadh with Moscow earlier this month.

The White House considered the decision to side with Russia in the Ukraine war, an accusation Saudi officials strongly rejected, saying the decision was made for “purely economic rather than political” motives.

In 2017, the investment conference was usually attended by US government officials, especially former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and last year’s edition was attended by Don Greaves, deputy secretary of commerce under the Biden presidency.

But this year, U.S. officials were not invited, something Atias said reflected a broader effort to focus on business leaders rather than politicians.

He pointed out that the conference is expected to see the participation of up to 400 US executives.

The US Embassy in Riyadh did not respond to AFP’s requests for comment on the US participation.

Ulrichsen, of the Baker Institute, said he was not surprised that the US private sector was well represented despite ongoing bilateral tensions.

“I can imagine that CEOs will decide that if Biden himself can go to Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi’s murder, so can they,” he said.

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