A full 12 months on from the Khashoggi affair, has the mood changed at "Davos in the Desert"?
The 2018 FII Forum in Riyadh was rightly impacted by the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Nearly all the high-profile invitees stayed away and the key objectives of the event were overshadowed by the story. Consequently many of us Saudi-observers were interested to see whether the 2019 edition would signal a shift in sentiment.
From a participation perspective, HH Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi government should see this year as a significant success. The country's rehabilitation on the world stage is certainly underway, with global political heavyweights like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and British Ex-Prime Minister David Cameron amongst the attendees. Many of the Banking CEO's who steered clear in 2018 were back in Riyadh THIS YEAR, although typically keeping a lower profile than usual. Overall attendance was definitely up showing that 12 months is a long-time in high-finance and global politics.
Whilst participation can be be considered a positive, the amount of inward foreign investment deals announced at the conference tells a different story. The official press release from the FII gives a number of $15billion as the accumulated total of deals announced. Whilst this would on most metrics be considered a significant value, it's worth remembering that the Kingdom has publicly committed to over $700 billion of domestic projects as part of the Vision 2030 plan. Clearly they will want to see FDI playing a much larger role in the investment mix of this development and may be concerned by the relative lack of enthusiasm at this years event. It is possible that the global finance community were more interested in the Aramco IPO, its valuation and the potential rewards than exploring other opportunities this year. Expect to see FDI targeted much more aggressively over the next 12 months and a significant increase in announcements at next year's event.
Overall, and based on the low-bar of 2018, Saudi Arabia will likely view FII 2019 as a major success. High-profile visitors, positive media coverage and key relationships rehabilitated will have been key objectives for the Crown Prince and Government. Based on our analysis all of these were achieved, laying the groundwork for a different focus next year.