Saudi Arabia hosts top global economy amid tensions with US

The Saudi kingdom is organizing an economic forum on the model of that of Davos from Tuesday. Big bosses from all over the world will be present as the host country becomes an epicenter of the international chessboard in a context of crisis around energy raw materials.

Big CEOs and wealthy tycoons are taking part from this Tuesday in a “Davos-style” forum in Saudi Arabia, the wealthy Gulf oil monarchy seeking to shine after human rights scandals and tensions with the United States.

The Future Investment Initiative (FII) was launched in 2017 as a Middle Eastern counterpart to the famous economic forum held annually in Switzerland as the Saudi kingdom, the world’s largest crude oil exporter, attempts to restore its image.

It was Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, who spearheaded the initiative, one of many aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy. But it had been largely overshadowed by accusations of serious human rights violations, in particular the 2018 assassination of Saudi journalist and critic Jamal Khashoggi killed at his country’s consulate in Istanbul.

Almost twice as many speakers as before

This year, the FII, nicknamed the “Davos of the desert”, comes after a return to the forefront of the international scene of Prince Mohammed, who received former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and President American Joe Biden.

Before his election, Joe Biden had promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” because of accusations by American intelligence services implicating the crown prince in the murder of Khashoggi. But with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, followed by rising oil prices and global inflation, Prince Mohammed has become unavoidable.

At the new edition of the FII scheduled for Tuesday to Thursday, there will be 200 additional speakers compared to the previous ones, or 500 in total, among some 6,000 participants.

“The combination of the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis and rising oil prices has increased Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical and economic influence,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a researcher at the Baker Institute think tank.

Saudi Arabia, a new “world center”

For the famous publicist Richard Attias, who organizes the forum, the latter shows that Saudi Arabia is “in the process of becoming a world center”. Among the participants are many business leaders from South American countries as well as “a huge Chinese delegation”, including more than 80 CEOs, said Richard Attias during a press conference this week in Riyadh.

“We are not ignorant of the problems that arise in the world. But it is not by boycotting any platform that you will solve a problem”, argued this former executive producer of Davos.

However, the discord between Washington and Ryad could well weigh on the FII, no American politician having been invited this year, unlike previous editions. For Richard Attias, it’s just about emphasizing the business world. Up to 400 US CEOs are expected to attend the forum, he said.

US-Saudi tensions

Close partners, the United States and Saudi Arabia have a frosty relationship due to the relentless crackdown on political dissent in the kingdom. In recent weeks, relations have soured further due to the decision of oil-exporting countries, Saudi Arabia and Russia in the lead, to cut production to support prices that were falling.

A decision that provoked the ire of the United States. The latter accused Ryad of “aligning” with Russia, which seeks to finance its war in Ukraine through the sale of hydrocarbons. But the Saudi kingdom, backed by other oil-producing Gulf countries, rejected the accusations, saying the decision was motivated by “purely economic” reasons.

Asked by AFP, the US Embassy in Riyadh did not respond to questions about US participation in the FII. As for American businessmen and women, researcher Kristian Ulrichsen is not surprised by their participation.

“I imagine the CEOs will think that if Biden himself can go to Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi’s murder, they can go too.”

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