RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s investment forum was designed to showcase the kingdom’s new future away from oil, but it was black gold and old allies that rescued this week’s event from the furore over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Riyadh inked multi-billion dollar agreements, mainly energy deals, despite a boycott of the event by dozens of high-level Western politicians, bankers and top executives scheduled to speak at the three-day gathering that ended on Thursday.
Yet the event paled in comparison to the 2017 inaugural investment conference, when robots roamed the venue as the kingdom turned its focus to the promise of new technology and announced plans to build a $500 billion mega city of the future.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, told Bloomberg earlier this month that Riyadh would announce an “amazing deal” at the Future Investment Initiative (FII) forum this year, vowing “big numbers” in a sector “far away from oil”.
But when the final session ended, no such announcement had been made.
“It’s going back to old economy while the FII was supposed to be about the future. Old economy coming to the rescue of the new economy,” said one participant at the investment conference.
Saudi Arabia signed 25 agreements on Tuesday worth more than $55 billion in the energy, petrochemicals, infrastructure and transportation sectors.
Out of the total, state oil giant Saudi Aramco alone signed memoranda of understanding worth $34 billion with some of its key longtime partners such as France’s Total, and international service companies Schlumberger, Halliburton and Baker Hughes.
Asked by reporters about the impact of the Khashoggi killing on Aramco, chief executive Amin Nasser answered with a question of his own: “How much did we sign today?... How much was signed by Aramco? 34 billion dollars.”
Another conference attendee said that the lack of high-tech investments was “palpable”.
“It was like ‘Aramco to the rescue’. They pulled out old deals... put (Energy Minister Khalid) al-Falih, Nasser and Total up on stage, and had them sign stuff that those who know energy already knew.”
Total signed deals for engineering studies to build a petrochemical complex in Jubail, where it already has a refinery venture with Aramco on the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia.
It also signed an agreement for a possible investment of a retail service station network with Aramco.
Both announcements are not new and have been in the works for months.
The French oil major’s Chief Executive Patrick Pouyanné issued a statement in support of Saudi Arabia, which is facing one of its toughest political crises in decades, before he flew to Riyadh to take part in the event as a panelist.
“Some business leaders have decided that the circumstances do not allow them to visit Riyadh. I respect their choice. Total has never been in favour of sanctions and isolation - for example, against Russia, Iran or Qatar - and nor do we support boycotts,” Pouyanné said.
“Total has partnered with Saudi Aramco for 40 years.”
Several Western countries including key ally the United States were discussing the prospect of sanctions against the world’s top oil exporter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country has been cooperating closely with the kingdom on oil markets, said he could not justify ruining relations with Riyadh.
Russia sent a delegation of more than 30 entrepreneurs and leaders of major Russian companies to the FII.
Riyadh and Moscow are leading the so-called OPEC+ alliance in managing the oil market and the two major producers coordinate on output policies closely.
African and Arab leaders, including close ally King Abdullah of Jordan, also rallied around Riyadh. Leaders from Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon walked beside Prince Mohammed as he entered the main hall on Wednesday.
The prime minister of Pakistan, the presidents of Gabon and Senegal and the deputy prime minister of Ethiopia spoke onstage.
In sectors like banking and consulting, where Western companies have a deep presence in the kingdom, senior executives cancelled their engagements at the conference but still sent regional representatives for appearances and meetings.
Credit Suisse, HSBC, Mastercard and Siemens remained “strategic partners” for the event, while consulting firms Deloitte, EY, McKinsey, Oliver Wyman, PwC, Strategy& and the Boston Consulting Group stayed on as “knowledge partners.”
Global investment banks, which according to Refinitiv data earned $2.7 billion in fees in Saudi Arabia since 2000, all sent delegations, even if their top bosses stayed away.
HSBC, which has a 40 percent stake in a Saudi bank and has played an active role in the kingdom in recent years, had one of the largest teams with around 10 people, including Samir Assaf, the head of its investment bank.
An executive from a Chinese financial firm said some Western executives there were keeping lower profiles because of the Khashoggi affair: “A lot of the movers and shakers are represented here, you just don’t see them.”
On the first day, Saudi officials thanked friends who came.
“Let me first express my appreciation and gratitude for the many friends and partners who are with us today as we all know these are difficult days for us in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” said Falih.
“We are going through a crisis of sorts.”
On Wednesday, Prince Mohammed broke his silence about the killing of Khashoggi, one of his prominent critics, vowing to bring those responsible to justice.
Striking a defiant tone, he took the stage for a panel discussion, touting Saudi Arabia’s reform drive and highlighting the promise of Middle East economies, even Qatar’s with which the kingdom is in a protracted dispute.
“Any success for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is very contagious to the region,” said Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa.
In a remark that played well in the main conference chamber, where Saudis formed a larger proportion than in 2017, Prince Mohammed added: “I think that the new Europe is the Middle East.”
Reporting by Rania El Gamal with additional reporting by David Gaffen in New York, Marwa Rashad, Stephen Kalin and Andrew Torchia in Riyadh, Editing by William Maclean