Saudi Arabia’s annual cornerstone investment forum has drawn over 1,000 participants, with big-name U.S. financiers and business leaders back on the stage three years after many stayed away following the international outcry over the killing of a government critic.
The three-day Foreign Investment Initiative, also known as “Davos in the Desert,” wrapped up Thursday with appearances by finance titans such as Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of the world’s biggest asset manager, BlackRock, who joined a panel that featured Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon and South African mining billionaire Patrice Motsepe.
It was a stark turnaround from 2018, when most high-profile guests backed out after it was revealed that aides who worked for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had killed Washington Post columnist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The crown prince has consistently denied any knowledge of the operation, despite a U.S. intelligence assessment to the contrary.
In the years since, the crown prince has faced continued scrutiny over the kingdom’s widespread crackdown on rights activists, business people, senior royals and perceived critics of his policies. At home, though, he remains popular among many Saudis for ushering in reforms that have transformed the kingdom, loosened social restrictions and granted women greater rights.
Most of the women at the conference, held at the exclusive Ritz Carlton Hotel, wore long-flowing robes, or abayas, over business suits, in line with local customs. But abayas are no longer required and several women opted to forgo them. Others wore colorful abayas, but no head scarves. Such a sight would have been unimaginable only a few years ago when nearly all women wore black abayas and headscarves in public, and often a face covering.
On the opening night, guests attended a gala dinner with live music – also a product of recent reforms – in King Abdullah Economic City. The crown prince hopes to lure firms to open their regional offices there and attract much of the capital now concentrated in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, home to Dubai and Abu Dhabi.