Attending Saudi Arabia’s “Davos in the Desert” Amidst Regional Tensions

As President Biden prepares for a visit to Israel and diplomats work to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, high-profile CEOs are grappling with a challenging decision: whether to attend the Future Investment Initiative, a prominent conference in Saudi Arabia often referred to as “Davos in the desert.” Scheduled to commence on October 24, this annual event aims to promote Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious economic agenda while highlighting his influence over global business leaders. However, the decision to participate is far from straightforward.

The conference boasts a lineup of distinguished names, including Larry Fink of BlackRock, David Rubenstein of Carlyle, David Solomon of Goldman Sachs, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, and Bill Winters of Standard Chartered. A representative for Bill Winters confirmed his attendance, but others remained tight-lipped or unresponsive regarding their plans.

For these executives, attending goes beyond networking; it signifies an endorsement of Crown Prince Mohammed’s leadership. Saudi Arabia is a significant client for the world’s largest banks and industrial conglomerates, with investments spanning finance, media, sports, and more. However, some CEOs are concerned about the optics, particularly in light of Riyadh’s initial statement on the October 7 Hamas attacks, which appeared to implicate Israel. Diplomatic talks on normalizing relations with Israel have stalled, and the Crown Prince has reportedly engaged in discussions with the Iranian government to prevent the escalation of the conflict.

“The headlines emerging from the region at this moment are not quite constructive,” noted Ayham Kamel, head of the Eurasia Group’s Middle East and North Africa research team.

Yet, attending may not carry the same stigma as in the past. In 2018, numerous top executives withdrew from the conference following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. However, the perception of attending has shifted over time, as Crown Prince Mohammed publicly advocates for economic modernization and talks of normalizing relations with Israel. Additionally, Saudi Arabia’s billion-dollar economic initiatives have become appealing to many.

As of now, most executives plan to attend, viewing their presence as a potential catalyst for Saudi Arabia’s modernization efforts. Only two of approximately 5,000 expected attendees have canceled their participation, according to Reuters. However, the situation could change if casualties in Gaza continue to mount, increasing pressure on Arab leaders to adopt a tougher stance on Israel to appease their pro-Palestinian populations. Crown Prince Mohammed may prove more resilient in the face of public opinion, according to F. Gregory Gause III of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

Any shift in Saudi Arabia’s approach could raise the stakes for corporate leaders, especially given their recent outspoken support for Israel. Simultaneously, the Saudi government is likely to take note of which executives decide not to attend, as Nader Hashemi, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at Georgetown, pointed out: “They will take it a bit personally.”

At present, most CEOs are adopting a cautious approach, with some even hoping that the Crown Prince might choose to cancel the event. As the situation unfolds, DealBook will continue to provide updates throughout the week.

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