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Cameron, Will.i.am and the elite financiers at 'Davos in the Desert'

Narendra Modi and the golfer Ernie Els also present at the Saudi conference, as political and financial elites chose to forget murder of Jamal Khashoggi
A bevvy of talking robots and self-driving sweepers to clean the conference area were on display in Riyadh (AFP)

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron, rapper Will.i.am and Indian premier Narendra Modi are among a host of well known figures attending Saudi Arabia's "Davos in the Desert" conference, which began on Tuesday.

Attendees have flocked back to the Future Investment Initiative (FII) just a year after the conference was heavily boycotted amid an outcry over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. 

Organisers have boasted that 300 speakers from over 30 countries are taking part in the event hosted by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the CIA have concluded was responsible for Khashoggi's killing. Bin Salman denies the charge.

Earlier this year, Khashoggi's fiancee Hatice Cengiz said that she had been left "highly disappointed" by the indifference shown by world leaders to his death.

Business as usual 

Most notable in their rapid return have been the Wall Street executives who packed Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton hotel, bedecked with frescoed ceilings and glittering chandeliers, for the three-day event.

Despite boycotting the event last year, bosses at HSBC, Standard Chartered, Credit Suisse and the London Stock Exchange are due to attend the summit, according to the FII's programme.

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American asset management company Blackrock’s chief executive Larry Fink and Stephen Schwarzman, head of private equity firm Blackstone, participated in panels cheerleading Saudi reforms, despite having backed the boycott in 2018.

Delegates were greeted in the Saudi capital by facial recognition software, which welcomed them by name as they walked into the palatial hotel. 

A bevvy of talking robots and self-driving sweepers to clean the conference area were also on display.

Many of those attending this year are chasing a potential windfall from the upcoming stock market listing of state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco, the world's most profitable company.

Financiers have continued to work on the delayed listing of the company, with dozens of banks hired for a deal that could reap them hundreds of millions of dollars in fees.

Another expected guest is Tom Barrack, executive chairman of Colony Capital and an ally of US President Donald Trump, who was forced to apologise after suggesting it was a "mistake" to criticise Riyadh over Khashoggi’s killing.

Other attendees include David Malpass, president of the World Bank, and Trump's outspoken former communications chief Anthony Scaramucci.

Hidden name cards

Despite the ebullient mood on the stage, many delegates were squeamish about being named in media interviews, in a sign of the lingering public relations risk of being seen to do business in Saudi Arabia.

Some sought to fly under the radar, flipping their name cards behind their coats or hiding them behind their ties, the AFP news agency reported. 

The Saudi organisers also sought to avoid media scrutiny, banning journalists with cameras from entering the main conference hall and from a gala dinner organised for delegates.

Despite the number of financial attendees, the Saudi economy is close to its second recession in three years and foreign direct investment has been falling.  

Earlier this month, the IMF slashed its 2019 growth forecast for the kingdom from 1.9 percent to just 0.2 percent. 

Meanwhile, last month's drone attacks on the Saudi oil industry have highlighted the country's geopolitical risks, causing ratings agency Fitch to downgrade the kingdom’s credit rating.

The delayed listing of Aramco suffered a further blow on Wednesday when Norway's sovereign wealth fund announced it would not be investing in the IPO.

Call me Daveos

David Cameron, the former British prime minister, is among the former and current politicians attending the event.

Cameron will close the summit on Thursday with a debate on economic diplomacy and the G-20 alongside fellow former prime ministers Francois Fillon of France, Matteo Renzi of Italy and Kevin Rudd of Australia.

Amnesty International said Cameron's attendance at the event 'will be interpreted as showing support for the Saudi regime' (AFP)
Amnesty International said Cameron's attendance 'will be interpreted as showing support for the Saudi regime' (AFP)

Allan Hogarth, Amnesty International's UK head of policy and government affairs, said that Cameron should be aware that his attendance at the event "will be interpreted as showing support for the Saudi regime".

Hogarth urged all British businesses to "seriously re-appraise the relationships they are willing to maintain with Saudi Arabia" due to its "appalling human rights record".

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner is among a large US contingent including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and outgoing Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

The presence of Modi, who is seeking energy deals with the kingdom, and executives from state-backed Chinese firms in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, appear controversial given government crackdowns on Muslim populations in India and China.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, hoping to turn the page on a diplomatic storm last year with Arab nations over a proposal to move Brazil’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, is also attending the event.

Such dreams of diplomacy were thrown into disarray when a furious Bolsonaro launched a virulent attack on his country's media from his hotel room in Riyadh. The attacks were posted to his social media channels just before 4am local time.

Speaking to Public Radio International, Sunjeev Bery, executive director for Freedom Forward, said: “The ‘Davos for Dictators’ agenda is a case study in mass hypocrisy. 

"There are event panels on food security, women in the workplace, and global sustainability. 

"Meanwhile, the Saudi dictatorship starves Yemeni civilians, jails women’s rights activists and Saudi Aramco is the largest contributor to fossil fuel emissions on the planet,” said Bery, who launched an online petition to dissuade Kushner and other Trump administration officials from attending the event.

Not so intelligent

Despite the return of representatives of the political and business world, this year's FII has few names from the world's largest technology companies or from Hollywood, key areas of Saudi investment.

The draft programme for the conference has no mention of Facebook, Google, Apple or Microsoft.

The lack of leading actors in attendance will also be a blow to the Saudi crown prince, who is said to be a close friend of American actor Lindsay Lohan.

A keen fan of films, the prince allowed the opening of cinemas in the kingdom last year.

Pop star and Black Eyed Peas founding member Will.i.am, who set up the tech company i.am+ in 2012, is set to be a member of a panel about artificial intelligence at the FII.

Among other delegates in attendance are the South African golfer Ernie Els, and Terry Virts Jr, a former Nasa astronaut who will debate the future of space exploration.