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Wall Street executives face criticism for returning to 'Davos in the desert'

Businesses accused of 'enabling brutal government', as corporate delegates set to attend conference previously boycotted over murdered journalist
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Future Investment Initiative forum in Riyadh on 30 October 2019.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Future Investment Initiative forum in Riyadh on 30 October 2019 (AFP/File photo)

Wall Street executives have been accused by rights groups of “enabling a brutal government” by participating in Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative (FII) later this week, more than two years after many boycotted the conference over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

A coalition of human rights organisations called on corporate executives to drop out of the event, dubbed ‘Davos in the Desert’, which takes place in Riyadh and virtually on 27-28 January. 

'At a time when the Saudi monarchy continues to imprison women's rights activists like Loujain al-Hathloul, no company should be lending their credibility to the dictatorship's Future Investment Initiative'

- Sunjeev Bery, executive director of Freedom Forward

Groups including Freedom Forward, Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn) and MENA Rights Group cited concerns about Riyadh using the event to distract the public from human rights concerns.

“Businesses that partner with Saudi Arabia's dictatorship are enabling a brutal government that uses its power to smash the democratic aspirations of people both inside and outside of Saudi Arabia's borders,” Sunjeev Bery, the executive director of Freedom Forward, told Middle East Eye.

“At a time when the Saudi monarchy continues to imprison women's rights activists like Loujain al-Hathloul, no company should be lending their credibility to the dictatorship's Future Investment Initiative.”

A petition calling on executives to boycott the event has reached over 12,000 signatures. 

Executives and media return despite backlash

This year, the economic conference lists executives and leaders from the Carlyle Group, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley, among 140 international speakers who will attend either in person or virtually, according to the New York Times.

Tom Barrack, executive chairman of Colony Capital and an ally of former US President Donald Trump, is also set to take part, the Times reported. Barrack was forced to apologise in 2019 after suggesting it was a "mistake" to criticise Riyadh over Khashoggi's killing. 

Bery said that the International Monetary Fund and the news network CNBC had confirmed to Freedom Forward that it would not be participating in the event. However, CNN news anchor Erin Burnett has faced criticism on social media after it was confirmed she would be participating. 

In October 2018, CNN was among several organisations to pull out of FII over the murder of Washington Post and Middle East Eye columnist Khashoggi, who was killed by Saudi agents at the consulate in Istanbul just days before the event. 

“It is astonishing that a major media institution would patronise a dictator's propaganda event, especially when that dictator has imprisoned and killed journalists and writers,” Bery said. 

Many returned to the investment forum in 2019, although delegates were squeamish about being named in media interviews and some even hid their name badges behind their ties.

A Goldman Sachs spokesman appeared to justify the firm's attendance at this year’s edition, telling the Times that the firm has "long-standing clients in the region and continue to serve them".

A representative for BlackRock said that Larry Fink, the company's CEO, "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".

'Negative impact on humanity'

Among the themes of this year’s discussions is “Impact on Humanity”, with attendees expected to discuss sustainability. Earlier this month, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched an eco-friendly city in the shape of a straight line, which was widely criticised on social media. 

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“Saudi Arabia's monarchy has had a profoundly negative impact on humanity,” Bery told MEE. 

“The Saudi dictatorship has supported dictatorships and blocked democracy in multiple Muslim and Arab-majority countries, condemning millions of people across the Middle East to repression, poverty and state corruption.”

“To make matters worse, the Saudi monarchy's oil company Aramco is one of the planet's biggest drivers of climate change, condemning millions more to the dramatic shifts in climate that will adversely affect the global poor for decades to come.”

"Davos in the desert" comes at a time of economic decline for the petrol-state, which is fighting high rates of unemployment after the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country's labour market. 

Joblessness in Saudi Arabia reached nearly 15 percent in the third quarter of 2020, according to official data.