October 29, 2019 / 8:35 AM / 16 days ago

Saudi investment forum opens; focus on global wealth disparity, technology

RIYADH, Oct 29 (Reuters) - World leaders and Wall Street heavy hitters gathered for an annual investment forum in Riyadh on Tuesday, with global wealth disparities, central back policy and technology in focus.

Many top Western executives, especially from the financial sector, shunned the Future Investment Initiative (FII) last year amid fallout from the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi.

“Today we have more than 6,000 executives and participants attending, this is more than double the first FII,” Yassir al-Rumayyan, governor of Saudi wealth fund Public Investment Fund (PIF), said in opening remarks.

The forum was launched in 2017 to showcase Saudi Arabia’s future away from oil.

The buzz surrounding that has since faded, with fallout from last year’s murder of Kashoggi and delays in the long-awaited flotation of oil giant Saudi Aramco.

Sources told Reuters on Tuesday that Aramco was planning to kick off the initial public offering (IPO) on Nov. 3 after delaying the deal this month to give advisers the time to secure cornerstone investors.

Rumayyan joined a panel that discussed challenges facing the global economy including disruptive technology, wealth gaps and lack of effective central bank tools amid slowing economic growth. It included HSBC Group Chief Executive Noel Quinn, Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman and Goldman Sachs Group Chief Operating Officer John Waldron

The Oct 29-31 gathering will also include Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner.

Last year’s event was dominated by leaders from Asian and Arab countries.

Modi has said he expects Riyadh to invest in downstream oil and gas projects in India as part of a strategic partnership. He is expected to meet Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday.

Aramco’s chief executive Amin Nasser was not present at FII on Tuesday as he was meeting investors abroad ahead of the offering.

Aramco’s IPO, for which de facto ruler Prince Mohammed is seeking a $2 trillion valuation, remains the biggest lure for investors. It is a pillar of his ambitious economic diversification drive.

In January, Saudi Arabia said it had ended a 15-month crackdown on corruption that he had ordered, noting it had received more than $106 billion in assets through settlements after rounding up almost 400 royals, ministers and executives.

The world’s top oil exporter has struggled to attract foreign investment to fund projects outside the energy sector as investors hesitate over the commercial viability of projects and Riyadh’s human rights record.

Despite last year’s boycott, the kingdom managed to ink multi-billion dollar deals at the 2018 FII although it was Aramco that clinched most of them. A major announcement teased by Prince Mohammed ahead of that event never materialised.

Proceeds from the Aramco IPO will boost the Saudi investment fund’s ability to back domestic mega-projects including NEOM, a futuristic $500 billion city announced at FII in 2017 but on which there has been little progress so far. (Reporting Saeed Azhar, Stephen Kalin, Rania El Gamal, Marwa Rashad and Davide Barbuscia Writing By Maha El Dahan; editing by John Stonestreet)

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