Global leaders, tycoons attend Saudi 'Davos in desert'
Top finance moguls and political leaders attended a Davos-style Saudi investment summit on Tuesday, in stark contrast to last year when outrage over critic Jamal Khashoggi's murder sparked a mass boycott of the forum.
Organisers say 300 speakers from over 30 countries - including American officials and heads of global banks and major sovereign wealth funds - are attending the three-day Future Investment Initiative (FII), nicknamed "Davos in the desert".
A strong turnout at the annual conference, aimed at projecting the insular kingdom as a dynamic investment destination, will help repair de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's global image that was tainted by Khashoggi's killing last October.
"I have been coming to Saudi Arabia for 20 years but what I have been seeing particularly in the past two or three years is (economic) transformation," Indian tycoon Mukesh Ambani told the conference, lauding the kingdom's leaders.
"As a businessman and as an investor I'm all in."
The murder at Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate triggered one of the top crude exporter's worst crises and prompted a wave of business and political leaders to pull out of the 2018 conference at the last minute.
But the event is set for a reboot this year as global outrage fades.
"More than 6,000 executives and participants are attending," said Yasir al-Rumayyan, chief of the kingdom's vast Public Investment Fund which organised the conference.
"This is more than double the first FII. The growth has been incredible."
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, leaders of key emerging markets, are set to speak along with King Abdullah II of Jordan and four African leaders.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin leads a high-powered American delegation that includes Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior advisor to President Donald Trump.
The CEOs of asset management firms Blackstone and SoftBank, as well as chairs of the sovereign wealth funds of Kuwait, UAE, Singapore and Russia are also expected to attend.
Top executives from blue chips Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, both working on the much-anticipated flotation of state oil behemoth Saudi Aramco, are on a long list of global bank representatives at the forum.
Attention on Aramco IPO
"This year's FII is very different from last year," said Ryan Bohl, from the US geopolitical think tank Stratfor.
"The sanctions threat over Saudi Arabia's human rights record, which led to boycotts last year, is currently over. Many delegates this year have no qualms about getting close to Saudi," he told AFP.
Global banks and consultants are vying for business around the much-delayed initial public offering of state oil giant Aramco, the world's most profitable company.
Read more: UN investigator regrets failure to probe 'chain of command' in Khashoggi murder
The kingdom plans to list as much as five percent of Aramco, which analysts say could be worth between $1.5 trillion and $2 trillion.
Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television said on Tuesday that Aramco will finally make its stock market debut on 11 December, on the Saudi Tadawul exchange.
"I expect that many international observers as well as most attendees will pay more attention to the delayed Aramco IPO than to the Khashoggi legacy," said Steffen Hertog, an associate professor at the London School of Economics.
The global fall-out over Khashoggi's killing rendered Prince Mohammed a pariah, testing alliances with Western powers and casting a shadow on his ambitious reform agenda aimed at weaning the kingdom off its dependence on oil.
The CIA has reportedly concluded that the crown prince, who controls all major levers of power in the Saudi government, likely ordered the gruesome killing.
A report by United Nations Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard also said there was "credible evidence" linking him to the murder and an attempted cover up.
Prince Mohammed has said that he accepts responsibility, because it happened "under my watch" - but denied having ordered it.
Eleven suspects have been put on trial in Riyadh over Khashoggi's murder, five of whom face the death penalty, but hearings are held behind closed doors and the names of the defendants have not been released.
Amnesty International has denounced the trial in Riyadh as a "sham" and "a mockery of justice".
The event comes amid an effort by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to change the ultra-conservative kingdom through a sweeping liberalisation drive that has brought new cinemas, mixed-gender concerts and sporting extravaganzas to Saudi Arabia in a bid to diversify the economy away from oil.
Last month, Saudi Arabia launched a visa programme allowing holidaymakers from 49 countries to visit one of the world's most closed-off countries. For years, the only foreigners allowed into the country were mainly Muslim pilgrims and business people.
"Opening Saudi Arabia to international tourists is a historic moment for our country," tourism chief Ahmed al-Khateeb said in a statement.
"Visitors will be surprised... by the treasures we have to share - five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty."
Khateeb said the kingdom will also ease its strict dress code for foreign women, allowing them to go without the body-shrouding abaya robe that is still mandatory public wear for Saudi women.
Foreign women, however, will be required to wear "modest clothing", he added, without elaborating.
Despite the kingdom's efforts, international criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, including the gruesome murder of Khashoggi and a crackdown on female activists, could put off foreign visitors, observers say.