RIYADH: What a difference a year makes. There was standing room only in the expansive halls of Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel on Tuesday as the world’s financial royalty attended Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference, aimed at courting global investors.

Saudi Arabia said it signed more than two dozen investment deals worth $15 billion in total, mostly in manufacturing, as the kingdom strives to show Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s diversification plan is on track after limited progress since the first FII forum in 2017.

Last year’s event was overshadowed by the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi as dozens of Western leaders and executives boycotted the gathering.

On Tuesday, bosses of HSBC, Blackstone, BlackRock, Colony Capital and Evercore were among the crowd at the luxury hotel that less than 24 months ago served as one of the detention centres for more than 200 businessmen, ministers and princes during a corruption purge that had unnerved investors.

The United States sent a big delegation including its energy and treasury secretaries, and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are also participating in the Oct 29-31 event, as is the head of the World Bank.

Prince Mohammed in 2016 launched a plan to transform the economy of the world’s largest crude exporter by developing non-energy industries. But state oil giant Aramco remains the biggest draw for investors eager for news on its initial public offering which has had several false starts.

Aramco CEO Amin Nasser was absent from the conference as he was meeting investors abroad to secure a domestic IPO on Nov 3 after a delay earlier this month, three people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

It could be the largest listing in history, if the $2 trillion valuation target sought by the crown prince is met.

“There are several Russian pensions funds who are interested to invest in the Aramco IPO and we have also received indications from our Russia-China fund of some Chinese major institutions also interested,” Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, said on the sidelines of the meeting.

In addition to deals announced on Tuesday, which include a $120 million investment deal between the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority and BRF Brazil Foods, other agreements include a memorandum of understanding between Samsung and Saudi entertainment resort Qiddiya.

One attendee who declined to be named said that while FII drew more participants this year, “the challenge is to see whether people will continue to come going forward, especially once the Aramco deal is out of the way”.

Some foreign investors have been wary of ploughing money into Saudi Arabia due to concern over its human rights record and the commercial viability of some projects.

But attendees on Tuesday said the turnout was impressive and reflected reforms to modernise the largest Arab economy.

Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2019