RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia's investment forum was supposed to showcase the kingdom's new future away from oil, but it was black gold and old allies who rescued the event this week from the rebel Jamal Khashoggi.
A Saudi man walks past the sign of the Future Investment Initiative on the final day of the Investment Conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 25, 2018. REUTERS / Faisal Al Nasser
Riyadh has signed several billion dollar deals, mainly energy deals, though dozens of senior Western politicians, bankers and top executives have boycotted the event during the three-day meeting that ended Thursday.
But the event faded compared to the founding conference in 2017, when robots roamed the venue, while the kingdom focused on 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, said earlier this month Bloomberg that Riyadh will announce an "amazing deal" this year at the Forum for the Future Investment Initiative (FII) and "big numbers" in a sector "away from oil".
But when the last session ended, no such announcement had been made.
"It goes back to the old economy, while the FII should think about the future, old economy comes to the rescue of the New Economy," said one participant in the investment conference.
Saudi Arabia signed 25 deals over $ 55 billion on Tuesday in the energy, petrochemical, infrastructure and transportation sectors.
Ironically, state oil giant Saudi Aramco has signed a $ 34 billion memorandum of understanding with some of its key long-term partners, including France's Total (TOTF.PA) and the international service companies Schlumberger, Halliburton (HAL.N) and Baker Hughes (BHGE.N).
Asked by reporters about the impact of Khashoggi's killing on Aramco, Managing Director Amin Nasser responded with a separate question: "How much did we sign today? … How much was signed by Aramco? $ 34 billion."
Another conference participant said that the lack of high-tech investment was "tangible".
"It was like 'Aramco to the rescue'. They pulled out old deals … put al-Falih, Nasser and Total on stage (Energy Minister Khalid) and had them sign stuff that those who know energy , already knew. "
In total, contracts for engineering studies have been signed for the construction of a petrochemical complex in Jubail, where there is already a refinery project with Aramco on the east coast of Saudi Arabia.
In addition, the company has signed an agreement for a potential investment in a gas station network with Aramco.
Both announcements are not new and have been in the works for months.
TEST OF FRIENDSHIP
Patrick Pouyanné, chief executive of the French oil company, made a statement in support of Saudi Arabia, which faces one of the toughest political crises in decades before fleeing to Riyad for participation in the event.
"Some business leaders have decided that circumstances will not allow them to visit Riyadh, I respect their choices, Total has never advocated sanctions and isolation – for example against Russia, Iran or Qatar – and we do not support a boycott" said Pouyanné.
"Total has been working with Saudi Aramco for 40 years."
Several Western countries, including the United States' most important ally, discussed the prospect of sanctions against the world's largest oil exporter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country worked closely with the kingdom on the oil markets, said he could not justify 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 + association in the management of the oil market, and the two major producers are closely coordinating production policy.
African and Arab leaders, including close ally King Abdullah of Jordan, also rallied in Riyadh. Leaders from Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon walked alongside Prince Mohammed when 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 on stage.
In areas such as banking and advice, where Western companies have a strong presence in the Kingdom, senior executives announced their commitments at the conference, but sent regional representatives for appearances and meetings.
Credit Suisse, HSBC, Mastercard and Siemens remained "strategic partners" for the event, while the consulting firms Deloitte, EY, McKinsey, Oliver Wyman, PwC, Strategy & and the Boston Consulting Group remained as "knowledge partners".
Global investment banks, which have been earning $ 2.7 billion in fees since 2000, according to refinancing data in Saudi Arabia, sent all delegations, even though their top bosses were absent.
HSBC, which owns 40 percent of a Saudi bank and has played an active role in the UK in recent years, had one of the largest teams of around 10 employees, including Samir Assaf, the head of its investment bank.
A manager from a Chinese financial firm said that some western executives have lower profiles because of the Khashoggi affair: "Many of the creators are represented here, you just can not see them."
On the first day, Saudi officials thanked friends who came.
"First of all, express my gratitude and gratitude to the many friends and partners who are with us today, as we all know that these are difficult days for us in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," Falih said.
"We are going through a kind of crisis."
On Wednesday, Prince Mohammed broke his silence over the killing of Khashoggi, one of his prominent critics, and vowed to bring those responsible to justice.
With a defiant tone, he took the stage for a panel discussion, addressed Saudi Arabia's reform efforts, and highlighted the promises of the Middle East economies, even Qatar, with which the kingdom is in 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 made up a larger proportion than in 2017, Prince Mohammed added, "I think the new Europe is the Middle East."
Reporting by Rania El Gamal with additional reports by David Gaffen in New York, Marwa Rashad, Stephen Kalin and Andrew Torchia in Riyadh, edited by William Maclean