Financiers stick to ‘Davos in the Desert’ plans despite Middle East war


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Scores of senior bankers and financiers plan to descend on Riyadh next week for Saudi Arabia’s high-profile investment conference despite rising instability in the region because of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, BlackRock’s Larry Fink, Citigroup’s Jane Fraser, Goldman Sachs’ David Solomon, Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman and Carlyle’s Harvey Schwartz are among the best-known American chief executives expected to attend or speak next week at the seventh annual Future Investment Initiative. The scheduled UK attendees include HSBC’s Noel Quinn and Standard Chartered’s Bill Winters.

Dubbed “Davos in the Desert”, the conference has a strong record of attracting important people in the financial world even when tensions are running high in the region and relations between Saudi Arabia and the west are fraught.

They are attracted by the sheer size of the Public Investment Fund, one of the region’s most active sovereign wealth funds and chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Middle Eastern money has taken on increasing importance for asset managers and bank underwriters in the last couple of years as North American and European institutional investors have turned cautious amid volatile markets and concerns about the impact of higher interest rates.

Between 10 and 20 people have pulled out from among 6,000 who planned to attend the FII, according to Richard Attias, who heads the FII Institute, the event’s organiser.

Among those who have changed their plans recently is Masayoshi Son, the chief executive of SoftBank. The company said this was because of a family health matter.

Those who cancelled have mostly cited issues with safety or their insurance coverage, and many will be providing video messages instead, Attias told an online press briefing earlier this week. One CEO of an unnamed company that had instituted a ban on travel in the region told the FII that he had allowed an exemption for his own travel to the conference, he added.

“I expect all sessions [of the conference] will address the impact of what is going on not only in the region, but also in Ukraine,” Attias said. “It is important to address the impact of conflicts on business.”

He said the FII continued to receive high interest from investors around the world to come to Saudi Arabia to understand the “new Middle East”. “Riyadh is the new hub, it’s a fact,” he said. “It is the centre of the big shift between west and east, north and south.”

Wall Street banks informally checked with the US state department for any guidance around the event and were not discouraged from attending, said one person familiar with the planning.

“All the top names will come but stay less than envisaged,” one top Middle East banker at a major European institution told the Financial Times. “The show will go on. I am leaving on Sunday to [go] to Riyadh.”

Additional reporting by Samer Al-Atrush in Riyadh, Stephen Gandel and Antoine Gara in New York, David Keohane in Tokyo, and Will Louch, Arash Massoudi and Stephen Morris in London

This article has been updated to reflect Goldman Sachs’ confirmation after initial publication of David Solomon’s planned attendance.


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