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Saudi Arabia tries to salvage its investment conference after A-listers pull out

Posted at 12:53 PM, Oct 21, 2018

(CNN) -- Saudi Arabia's investment conference this week was once the hottest ticket in business and finance.

Now the program has been stripped of names and a guest list, once a who's who of global business, was removed from the conference website.

Most of the top global CEOs and finance officials who were due to participate in the Future Investment Initiative, dubbed "Davos in the desert," pulled out in the last 10 days following the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2.

Saudi Arabia initially denied any knowledge of what happened to him, but late on Friday admitted that the Washington Post columnist died inside the consulate. Members of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's inner circle have been blamed for his death.

Conference organizers insist it will be business as usual when the event starts on Tuesday. The website of the Future Investment Initiative promises a detailed program for the three-day event will be published Sunday.

"[The conference] will immerse thousands of delegates from all over the world in a rich agenda comprised of more than 40 individual plenaries, summits, open discussions and taskforce sessions," the Future Investment Initiative said in a statement last week.

Bin Salman is due to host the conference. But if he attends, he'll be rubbing shoulders with a much less famous crowd than this time last year, when he used the conference to promote his Vision 2030 plan to wean Saudi Arabia's economy off oil.

Among the A-list executives who have pulled out are JPMorgan (JPM) CEO Jamie Dimon, HSBC (HSBC) CEO John Flint, Blackrock (BLK) CEO Larry Fink and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and IMF managing director Christine Lagarde are also skipping the event.

"The Khashoggi story has damaged the reputation of the kingdom and has increased political uncertainty," said Garbis Iradian, the chief economist for Middle East and North Africa at the Institute of International Finance. "[Businesses] may postpone or reduce doing business dealings in the kingdom and adopt a wait and see attitude," he added.

But the absence of top names won't put a halt to discussions about future business opportunities. Some companies are sending less senior executives or bankers. Others, such as Airbus (EADSF) — which has 1,000 employees in the kingdom — want to keep channels of communication open despite pulling top executives.

Officials from regional governments such as the United Arab Emirates will also be present. Many of them have expressed solidarity with Saudi Arabia's stance on Khashoggi's death.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund -— a sovereign wealth fund — will lead a delegation including more than 30 Russian entrepreneurs, executives and officials.

"We appreciate the constructive dialogue and are happy to share experiences, identify new joint projects and discuss promising areas for the development of comprehensive cooperation between a wide range of partners from Russia, Saudi Arabia and other countries," RDIF CEO Kirill Dmitriev said in a statement on Friday.

And the United States and the United Kingdom have indicated they have no intention of disrupting lucrative arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Defense contractors from both countries are likely to attend.

UK government minister Dominic Raab said on Sunday that Britain isn't going to "terminate" its relationship with Saudi Arabia, not just because of the "huge number of British jobs" that depend on the relationship but because to "exert influence over your partners you need to be able to talk to them."

But the kingdom's budding relationship with the global tech world is coming under pressure, and could be damaged.

At the conference a year ago, SoftBank (SFTBF) CEO Masayoshi Son sat alongside bin Salman as the prince announced plans for a $500 billion futuristic city, NEOM.

Son has also launched a $93 billion mega tech fund with nearly half the money coming from the Saudi government. It has already made big investments in dozens of startups such as WeWork and Slack. Son was already planning for a second such fund. Now, that looks unlikely to happen.

SoftBank has remained silent over whether Son and other top executives still plan to attend the FII. The company declined to comment on the matter Friday.

The kingdom urgently needs to reverse a decline in foreign investment to diversify its economy and end what the crown prince once called an "addiction" to oil. Under Vision 2030, bin Salman wants to grow the private sector, boost tourism and reduce unemployment over the next decade.

The plan caught the imagination of many international players, including billionaire Richard Branson, who jumped on opportunities for two tourism projects and was in talks for a $1 billion investment in his space company.

But Branson was one of the first to suspend his links with Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi's disappearance, and he has questioned whether anyone in the West can continue to do business there.

Many international investors were convinced this time last year that Saudi Arabia was open for business. It will be a much harder sell this time around.

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