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‘Davos in the Desert’ Attracts US Business Leaders Despite Political Concerns: NPR


Attendees watch David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs & Co., on a screen as he speaks during a panel discussion at the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, October 25 2022.

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'Davos in the Desert' Attracts US Business Leaders Despite Political Concerns: NPR

Attendees watch David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs & Co., on a screen as he speaks during a panel discussion at the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, October 25 2022.

Tasneem Alsultan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is at its lowest point in decades. But that hasn’t stopped Wall Street executives and some of the world’s wealthiest investors from gathering in Riyadh for a conference dubbed “Davos in the Desert.”

On Tuesday, Jamie Dimon and David Solomon, CEOs of JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, respectively, shared a stage with billionaires Stephen Schwarzman, of The Blackstone Group, and Ray Dalio, who founded the world’s largest hedge fund.

Former President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner also attended the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference, and former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is expected to speak on Wednesday. Kushner and Mnuchin now manage private equity funds backed by Saudi Arabia.

But no cabinet member or senior Biden administration official is there, as the White House is currently reassessing its partnership with Saudi Arabia.

'Davos in the Desert' Attracts US Business Leaders Despite Political Concerns: NPR

Former President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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'Davos in the Desert' Attracts US Business Leaders Despite Political Concerns: NPR

Former President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Fatez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s definitely one of the weak points in the US-Saudi relationship,” says Karen Young, senior fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

Biden’s disappointment with Saudi oil production cuts

President Biden, who has expressed concern about the country’s human rights record, is upset that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman pushed for deep oil production cuts earlier this month, which has led to higher energy prices.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia has a $600 billion government investment fund and the country is telegraphing its ambitions beyond traditional energy.

There are panels at the conference on artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, tourism and hospitality, and investing. Other speakers include Sam Bankman-Fried, the CEO of cryptocurrency exchange FTX, and Ben Horowitz, one of the world’s best-known venture capitalists.

'Davos in the Desert' Attracts US Business Leaders Despite Political Concerns: NPR

The Future Investment Initiative conference attracts US business leaders, former government officials and investors.

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'Davos in the Desert' Attracts US Business Leaders Despite Political Concerns: NPR

The Future Investment Initiative conference attracts US business leaders, former government officials and investors.

Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images

A more assertive and confident Saudi Arabia has emerged

Young says Saudi Arabia is trying to signal to the rest of the world that it “has changed”.

“It’s a self-affirmation in foreign policy,” she observes. “It’s a confidence in the Kingdom’s ability to attract investment and to be a player in a much larger field.”

This week, there are opportunities to negotiate deals on the sidelines of the conference, but Young says the conference is primarily a public relations tool.

“It’s much more a question of image,” she says. “It’s kind of an ideology of the future of the Kingdom, and frankly, more of a PR effort than somewhere I think we’ll see real foreign direct investment commitments in construction companies in the Kingdom.

Despite its recent reservations about Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration says it has not advised American companies to stay away from the conference or the country.

“American companies will make their own decisions about where to go and where to invest, taking into account a range of factors, including legal constraints, the business environment and reputational issues that may arise from public policy choices made. by host countries,” said Karine Jean. -Pierre, the White House press secretary.

'Davos in the Desert' Attracts US Business Leaders Despite Political Concerns: NPR

President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met in Saudi Arabia in July. Since then, the partnership between the two countries has deteriorated.

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'Davos in the Desert' Attracts US Business Leaders Despite Political Concerns: NPR

President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met in Saudi Arabia in July. Since then, the partnership between the two countries has deteriorated.

Mandel Ngan/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

It wasn’t easy for Davos in the desert

The conference, which started in 2017, aspires to rival the annual meetings of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which have been held for more than half a century. They regularly attract a who’s who of world leaders, economists and political scientists and media personalities.

Saudi Arabia’s FII conference has suffered setbacks from the start.

In 2018, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed three weeks before the conference was scheduled to start, and at the last minute many leaders decided not to attend. The US intelligence community has since determined that the killing was authorized by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

But in recent years, many CEOs have returned to Riyadh, lured by the opportunity to mingle and land lucrative contracts with the Saudi government.

Someone who has never stayed away is Anthony Scaramucci, who is perhaps best known for his days tenure as former President Trump’s communications director. He is currently a managing partner at SkyBridge, an investment firm he founded.

In an interview before traveling to Saudi Arabia, Scaramucci said the country was “not perfect”. But he suggested his recent modernization efforts under the crown prince are laudable.

“It’s going in the right direction,” he said. “And as business people, I think we need to do our best to help them continue that progress.”

'Davos in the Desert' Attracts US Business Leaders Despite Political Concerns: NPR

Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as former President Trump’s communications director, calls the killing of Jamal Khoshogghi a “tragedy”.

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'Davos in the Desert' Attracts US Business Leaders Despite Political Concerns: NPR

Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as former President Trump’s communications director, calls the killing of Jamal Khoshogghi a “tragedy”.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Asked about Khashoggi’s murder, Scaramucci called it a “tragedy”. But then asked, “Are we able to get past this now?”

“It is an event that must be recognized as a tragedy,” he continued. “But I think we have to look at the longer term goals and the longer term interests of world peace, world prosperity and, frankly, world progress.”

The murder was not brought up during a panel discussion moderated by CNN’s Richard Quest, featuring Dimon, Solomon, Schwarzman, Dalio and a handful of other executives. Several attendees said they were happy to reunite in person, after years of COVID-related travel restrictions.

Asked about the future of US-Saudi relations, Dimon said he was optimistic.

“Saudi Arabia and the United States have been allies for 75 years,” he noted. “I can’t imagine allies agreeing on everything and having no problems. They’ll get through this.”

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