Saudi Arabia is signing trade deals worth $50bn (£38bn) on the first day of an investment conference, despite boycotts by some delegates after the killing of a journalist.
The Future Investment Initiative forum, dubbed “Davos in the desert”, began in Riyadh on Tuesday and, despite dozens of high-level speakers and other delegates pulling out, there were still others willing to deal with the Saudis.
Among the 25 deals made with the kingdom were those with Trafigura, Total, Hyundai, Norinco, Schlumberger, Halliburton and Baker Hughes.
Oil giant Saudi Aramco said it signed 15 memoranda of understandings worth $34bn (£26bn). The company said these entities were from eight countries, including the US, Japan, China, India and the UAE.
Senior politicians from the UK, US and some European countries had refused to attend the event following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the country’s regime.
But, while many western banks and businesses kept their top bosses away, they still wanted a piece of Saudi Arabia’s $250bn sovereign wealth fund, so they sent lower-level executives instead.
Asian executives were also reluctant to be left out, particularly those from China and Japan, and their numbers may help the Saudis claim the event as a success, despite some western absences.
But Mr Khashoggi’s name still loomed over the event, weeks after he went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and disappeared.
Saudi Arabia’s energy minister Khalid al Falih described the fallout as a “crisis of a sort”, saying “nobody in the kingdom can justify it or explain it” and Saudi businesswoman Lubna Olayan said the killing was “alien to our culture”.
Pressure on Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has grown since Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance and it grew further after the Saudis finally admitted the journalist had been killed, blaming a “fist fight”.
Bin Salman appeared at the conference in Riyadh on Tuesday and told Reuters the event was “great – more people, more money”.
But last week the money was leaving the country – foreigners sold a net 4bn riyals (£821m) of Saudi equities, the biggest amount since the market opened to direct foreign investment in 2015.
The main driver of Saudi Arabia’s economy is oil and, since it was discovered in the Arabian desert in 1938, the country has relied heavily on it.
The oil wealth funds heavy subsidies for Saudis on things like food without leaders imposing income or corporate tax, although a 5% VAT was brought in earlier this year.
Recent moves by the crown prince, such as giving women the right to drive cars, were hailed as liberalising Saudi society but his eye will also have been on the country’s financial future.
As other countries begin to look away from oil and its price falters, the crown prince knows he has to look elsewhere to fund Saudi prosperity and that’s hard if female workforce participation is stuck at 22% because so few can get to work.