Home » Business » Wall Street executives will return to Saudi Arabia’s ‘Davos in the Desert’ conference this week.
Wall Street executives will return to Saudi Arabia’s ‘Davos in the Desert’ conference this week.
January 25, 2021
By Lauren Hirsch and Michael J. de la Merced
It’s been more than two years since bankers kept their name badges obscured behind ties at a high-profile investment conference in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, held weeks after the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.
After a wave of cancellations at that 2018 event, the following year’s Future Investment Initiative, often called “Davos in the Desert,” saw many business leaders attend as the immediate furor over the killing subsided.
The next installment of the two-day conference begins on Wednesday, and even more — and more senior — executives are expected to appear.
Some of Wall Street’s biggest names are scheduled to attend, mostly virtually, according to the conference’s itinerary. Executives on the program include David Rubenstein of Carlyle, Ray Dalio of Bridgewater, Larry Fink of BlackRock, David Solomon of Goldman Sachs and James Gorman of Morgan Stanley. In 2019, Morgan Stanley and Goldman sent lower-ranking execs to the conference, not their C.E.O.s.
The event could serve as a morality test for business under a new White House administration. Joseph R. Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the campaign trail, and “the atmospherics are going to change,” said Gregory Gause of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Last Friday, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, Adam Schiff, asked for declassification of a U.S. government report on the Khashoggi killing.
Companies contacted by DealBook often pointed to the important business relationships they have with cash-rich Saudi Arabia and others in the region.
“We have long standing clients in the region and continue to serve them,” a Goldman Sachs spokesman said.
A representative for BlackRock said that Mr. Fink “has been very public about the need for continued reform in Saudi Arabia and believes that engagement and public dialogue by global leaders like himself can help encourage Saudi Arabia’s path of reform.”
Representatives for Carlyle and Bridgewater declined to comment, while a representative for Morgan Stanley did not return a request for a comment.
Mr. Gause of Texas A&M questioned the logic of withdrawing corporate ties from Saudi Arabia but keeping them in, say, China, which faces its own criticisms over human rights abuses. But Thor Halvorssen, the founder of the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation, which has funded “The Dissident,” a documentary about Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, said that those attending the event gave the crown prince valuable legitimacy. “The message is, ‘Look, the world’s money and the powerhouses of finance and industry are my puppets,’” he said.