Of all the CEOs who are boycotting the “Davos in the Desert” conference next week in Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most important no-show, if not the highest-profile one, will be David Schwimmer. You have probably never heard of him. He is the CEO of the London Stock Exchange, which might seem to have little interest in Saudi Arabia. But it was the LSE that was widely thought to have the edge over New York in securing the initial public offering of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company.
The Aramco IPO, announced more than a year ago, was to be the centrepiece of a sweeping economic overhaul program steered by Mohammed Bin Salman (known as MBS), the 33-year-old Saudi crown prince and son of the octogenarian King Salman. The program – Vision 2030 – was launched shortly after MBS won the power struggle that effectively made him Saudi Arabia’s all-powerful ruler in mid-2017.
Vision 2030 was to wean the country off its overwhelming and risky dependence on oil – Saudi Arabia is a one-product wonder – create an entrepreneurial class, build sustainable cities dominated by innovation centres, and empower women. The Aramco IPO, whose theoretical value was twice that of Apple Inc., the stock market’s first trillion-dollar company, would be instrumental in financing the crown prince’s revolution.
But after a year of false starts, it was clear that the IPO was going nowhere. In August, the share sale was suspended, reportedly indefinitely. If there was any chance that the suspension would be short-lived, you can bet that the LSE would have been very reluctant to yank its executives from MBS’s Davos in the Desert conference, officially called the Future Investment Initiative (FII).
In other words, Vision 2030 was in trouble even before the death of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Now Vision 2030 is in real trouble. Most of the best known CEOs and investors who were to flatter the conference with their appearance have pulled out as the Saudi regime continues to deny that it had any role in the reportedly grisly torture and death of Mr. Khashoggi. If the Aramco IPO was crucial to Vision 2030’s success, so was the hundreds of billions of dollars of potential foreign investment from the world’s biggest companies and funds.
As of Friday, the list of big-name CEOs who cancelled plans to attend also included JPMorgan Chase and Co.’s Jamie Dimon, BlackRock Inc.’s Larry Fink, HSBC Holding PLC’s John Flint, Uber Technologies Inc.’s Dara Khosrowshahi and Blackstone Group LP’s Stephen Schwarzman. Also taking a pass are World Bank president Jim Yong Kim and the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, Christine Lagarde. Even U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin pulled out. While some of their underlings might attend, there is no doubt that MBS’s showpiece conference, the equivalent of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, is wounded, perhaps fatally so.
Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group Ltd., has already severed his links with Saudi Arabia. After he decided to suspend talks over a US$1-billion Saudi investment in Virgin’s space business, the Saudis pulled out of a planned deal with the high-speed transportation system known as Virgin Hyperloop One, according to the Financial Times. More broken deals are inevitable unless the Saudi regime can credibly distance itself from Mr. Khashoggi’s death, however unlikely that now seems.
Vision 2030 actually got off to a good start. While never a democrat – the opposite, in fact – MBS built his reputation fast as a reformer and modernizer by allowing women to drive for the first time, a crucial step in giving working women some independence, and opening the first cinemas in more than 30 years. Then came plans for the Aramco IPO, the launch of the first FII conference, a year ago, and the courting of the world’s most powerful investors. This was a man with a mission who charmed the West. Donald Trump’s first official overseas visit as president of the United States was to Riyadh, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, joined MBS’s inner circle of advisers.
It wasn’t long before MBS’s reputation took one hit after another. The arrest of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri – he was detained in Riyadh last autumn under mysterious circumstances – the botched diplomatic standoff with Qatar, and the house arrest of hundreds of wealthy Saudis, including some of his relatives, delivered the message that MBS was impetuous, power-hungry and amateurish in the diplomatic game. Worst of all was the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Houthi rebels. The war was supposed to be over in a matter of weeks. It has lasted three years, creating the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, oil prices were not high enough to balance the Saudi budget and stock markets around the world, bar those in North America, were starting to sag.
Then came the Khashoggi affair and the possible collapse of the FII conference as shocked CEOs decided they could not be seen supporting MBS and his regime.
To have any chance of restoring his standing, MBS needs to find a way to end the war in Yemen before the ravaged country is hit with mass starvation and disease. An oil rebound would help, as would Republican victories in the Nov. 6 U.S. mid-term elections in the House of Representatives and the Senate. None of those scenarios are certain and most are unlikely. If MBS himself is tied to Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, the crown prince’s reputation may turn permanently toxic.
MBS’s future now looks uncertain. There are rumours that King Salman will clip the prince’s wings or even sideline him. The downgrading of MBS’s powers already seems to be underway. Notice that it was the king, not MBS, who ordered the joint investigation with Turkey into Mr. Khashoggi’s death.
MBS peaked early. So did his Vision 2030 plan. As he loses credibility, so does his economic overhaul plan. Saudi Arabia seems doomed to remain a fossil-fuel economy for a long time.