The Kingdom Tower, operated by Kingdom Holding Co., centre, stands on the skyline above the King Fahd highway in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
(Bloomberg) — In public, finance industry leaders have bailed on a key Saudi Arabian investment conference next week. Behind the scenes, dealmakers bringing in the hard cash are fretting — and still going.
Senior investment bankers from HSBC Holdings Plc, Societe Generale SA and Credit Suisse Group AG are planning to attend the Future Investment Initiative — dubbed “Davos in the Desert” — even though their chief executives have told the world they’ve canceled appearances there.
Wall Street firms such as Morgan Stanley and Citigroup Inc., which have yet to publicly signal their intentions, are also expecting to send executives, people familiar with the companies said, asking not to be identified because the details are private. However, the situation remains fluid, they said.
The conference, expected to be the stage for announcing new ventures and billion-dollar contracts, has been overshadowed by the disappearance of a dissident Saudi journalist. At stake are hundreds of millions in fees up for grabs over coming years as the kingdom reorganizes the economy away from its dependence on oil. In the meantime, international lenders have been seeking licenses in what is the largest economy in the Middle East, as well as managing money for its ultra-wealthy families.
Spokespeople for the banks declined to comment.
“The banks clearly think the potential deals on offer outweigh any reputational risk that is associated with attending the FII in light of the Khashoggi affair,” said Jason Tuvey, senior emerging-markets economist at Capital Economics. "Many will be keen to ensure that they maintain close ties with the government.”
Privately, dealmakers in the region are anxious that pulling out will damage lucrative client relations in a region where loyalty during difficult times is rewarded, according to people who work in the Middle East. A string of international banks had been hoping for a mandate from oil giant Saudi Arabian Oil Co., or Aramco, which could be the largest ever initial public offering should the stalled plan eventually move forward.
Preparations to set up high-level meetings with government ministers, and in some cases the Saudi crown prince, have all had to be reviewed, the people said. The discussions between the Saudis and the bankers may not go ahead without their top brass in attendance, they said.
The event organizers have taken down a list of attendees from the website, creating a shroud of secrecy around the conference. The gathering in Riyadh has been likened to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, because of the high-profile attendees, but there is no connection between the events.
The controversy shows how the kingdom is coming under mounting pressure to explain what happened to journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a government critic who disappeared two weeks ago.