RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s crown prince trumpeted on Tuesday a conference that has drawn investment deals worth $50 billion despite a boycott over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, declaring the event as “great - more people more money”.
This year’s Future Investment Initiative was overshadowed by the death of the Saudi journalist, a critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who vanished after he entered the country’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2.
A number of Western politicians and global business chiefs stayed away from Saudi Arabia’s premier investment event over the Khashoggi case.
After first denying any involvement, Riyadh said on Saturday Khashoggi died during a fight in the consulate. Later, a Saudi official attributed the death to a chokehold.
On Tuesday the Saudi cabinet, after a meeting headed by King Salman, promised to hold to account those who where responsible for Khashoggi’s death and those who “failed in their duties” in the case that has provoked an international furor and strained ties between Riyadh and the West.
Prince Mohammed, known as MbS, arrived at the conference late in the day after attending a meeting at which the king received members of Khashoggi’s family, including his son Salah.
Many in the audience of over 2,000 clapped or cheered as the prince, the kingdom’s de facto ruler and architect of its reform drive, entered the main hall, smiling as he sat down.
The crown prince, who praised the conference in comments to reporters as he toured the venue, will participate in a panel on Wednesday.
The event is being held at the opulent Ritz-Carlton, where scores of princes, businessmen and officials were detained in a crackdown on corruption soon after last year’s conference ended, unnerving investors and raising concern about transparency.
Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who was among those detained, appeared at the forum beside MbS, who led the anti-corruption drive.
Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih assured the conference that the world’s top crude exporter was passing through a “crisis of a sort” but would power ahead with economic reforms.
The chief executive of Saudi Aramco, Amin Nasser, said the government remained committed to a partial flotation of the oil giant but that the timing would depend on market conditions and other factors.
Hundreds of bankers and company executives joined officials for the Future Investment Initiative. But while last year’s inaugural conference drew the global business elite, this year’s event has been marred by the withdrawal of more than two dozen high-level speakers.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday dismissed attempts by Riyadh to blame Khashoggi’s “savage” killing on rogue operatives, saying the person who ordered the death must “be brought to account”.
Many foreign investors see a risk that the Khashoggi case could damage Riyadh’s ties with Western governments. Saudi Arabia’s stock index was down 1.3 percent in late trading on persistent investor concern.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and senior ministers from Britain and France pulled out of the event along with chief executives or chairmen of about a dozen big financial firms such as JP Morgan Chase and HSBC, and International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde.
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who also withdrew from the event, said the firm was awaiting the full facts on Khashoggi’s case before deciding whether that would affect Saudi involvement in the ride-hailing service. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has invested in Uber and its managing director sits on the app’s board.
Russia sent a large delegation led by Direct Investment Fund head Kirill Dmitriev. He said Khashoggi’s killing needed to be investigated and the culprits punished, but that the Saudi drive for economic and social reform could not be ignored.
“Saudi Arabia’s reforms are important and they are worth supporting,” he told Reuters.
Saudi Arabia signed 25 deals in the oil and gas industries and infrastructure sectors with firms such as Trafigura, Total, Hyundai, Norinco, Schlumberger, Halliburton and Baker Hughes.
Saudi Aramco said it signed 15 memoranda of understanding worth $34 billion.
Total Chief Executive Patrick Pouyanné, a panelist on Tuesday, said the French oil and gas producer would announce a retail network in the kingdom with Saudi Aramco.
The managing director of the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, the main backer of the event, said the country was becoming more transparent and that the Saudi Public Investment Fund continued to develop new industries under economic reforms launched by the crown prince.
Yasir al-Rumayyan said the fund has invested in 50 or 60 firms via SoftBank Group’s Vision Fund and would bring most of those businesses to the kingdom. PIF has committed to invest $45 billion in Vision Fund.
Many Western banks and other companies, fearful of losing business such as fees from arranging deals for Saudi Arabia’s $250 billion wealth fund, sent lower-level executives even as their top people stayed away.
Top executives of Asian firms have been hesitant to pull out, so the participation of Chinese and Japanese institutions may help Riyadh claim the three-day conference as a success.
For these reasons, the Western boycott may have little long-term impact on Saudi economic prospects.
(This version of the story was refiled to add the name of Saudi Aramco chief executive in paragraph 12)
Reporting by Andrew Torchia, Stephen Kalin, Katie Paul, Rania El Gamal and Marwa Rashad, Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Michael Georgy and David Stamp