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In the Saudi Desert, World’s Business Leaders Follow the Money

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Joshua Roberts | Reuters
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Private jets ferrying business titans from all over the globe began landing Monday in this sand-swept Saudi capital.

For the next several days, the world's power center will shift from places like New York and London to this desert city for an event that many invitees are privately calling "Davos in the Desert." Saudi Arabia's 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has summoned a Who's Who from industry and politics to take part in a series of meetings, conversations and panels.

Among those making the pilgrimage are Stephen A. Schwarzman, co-founder of the private equity giant Blackstone Group; Masayoshi Son, founder of Japan's SoftBank; the United States Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin; the venture capitalist Peter Thiel; Laurence D. Fink, founder of BlackRock; Leon Black of Apollo Group; Thomas J. Barrack Jr., the head of Colony NorthStar; and the entrepreneur Richard Branson. And that's an abbreviated list. All told, the group of 3,500 invitees is estimated to control $22 trillion in assets.

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A red carpet and dozens of emissaries for the royal family waited as guests began streaming into the Ritz-Carlton here, a palatial hotel originally planned as a palace for guests of the royal family and state dignitaries.

The gathering is an illustration of the new power and influence that Saudi Arabia wields in the business world. The goal is to demonstrate the kingdom's transformation as it embarks on a massive experiment: to open up its economy and move away from being a nation that is almost entirely dependent on oil.

"Saudi Arabia is moving aggressively to diversify its economy and implement important reforms," Mr. Schwarzman told me, explaining why so much of the world's business community has become intrigued by the kingdom as an economic and business partner.

Among those reforms is the recent decision to allow women to drive. One senior Saudi female executive told me that she had owned a Mercedes for years and couldn't wait to learn how to drive it; like many women here, she has needed a driver to take her to and from work.

But to truly understand where the country's new influence over the business community comes from, you simply need to follow the money.

With Saudi Arabia looking to invest the proceeds of its oil sales in new businesses and industries — it is planning an initial public offering for its state-owned oil company, Aramco, next year — the kingdom represents perhaps the largest honey pot in history. Virtually everyone here will have his or her pitch book at the ready and a hand out.

"They think of the Saudis as big money," said Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia Group, a political research and consulting firm. "Not smart, not dumb, but really big money that's ready to move. And that attracts an extraordinary number of people who'd like a little piece."

Wall Street's biggest companies are sending swarms of bankers here, as are private equity firms and hedge funds. One executive described the gathering as "a ring-kissing exercise," an effort by businesses to prove their loyalty as the country's Public Investment Fund — which is the formal sponsor of the event — begins to dole out hundreds of billions of dollars as part of its diversification plan, known as Vision 2030.

Mr. Schwarzman's Blackstone and Mr. Son's SoftBank have so far been the biggest beneficiaries of Saudi Arabia's largess. This year, the country committed $20 billion to a new Blackstone fund to be used, in part, to fix aging infrastructure in the United States. And it gave $45 billion to Mr. Son's SoftBank Vision Fund, the largest technology fund in the world.

It has already made investments in WeWork, SoFi and Fanatics, and is negotiating an investment in Uber. Speaking of Uber, Travis Kalanick, its former chief executive and a current board member, is expected here; the Saudis invested $3.5 billion directly in Uber last year.

A number of participants, speaking anonymously so as not to offend their hosts, grumbled about what they described as having to trek to the desert to get their picture taken. Others said attendance was mandatory because the kingdom was a client. One executive, unprompted, said bankers would be taking selfies to put in pitch books for future business in Saudi Arabia.

Journalists from around the world are also here at the conference. (I'm among the many journalists interviewing executives and officials on panels.)

Topic A in the hallways is the initial public offering for Aramco. There have been reports recently that the I.P.O. might be delayed or that the government might sell a stake in the company to the Chinese, either as an alternative to the public offering or as a way to help establish a valuation.

The kingdom is said to be seeking a valuation of $2 trillion for Aramco, which would make it the largest company in the world — and give the government enough money to pursue its diversification strategy. But some investors and analysts, who have yet to see any of Aramco's financials, have warned that such a valuation is far too high.

At stake is Saudi Arabia's ability to pay for its transformation. And for many of the attendees, the kingdom's ability to pay huge fees to Wall Street also hangs in the balance. The fees from the I.P.O. offering are estimated to be worth as much $1 billion, which would make it the biggest payday ever for an offering. With questions still lingering about where the I.P.O will be listed, it is notable that Thomas W. Farley, the president of the New York Stock Exchange, and Xavier Rolet, the chief executive of the London Stock Exchange, are both scheduled to attend.

In an interview over the weekend, Aramco's chief executive, Amin H. Nasser, insisted the I.P.O. was still on track for next year.

"We have always said that we will be listing in 2018 and, to be more specific, in the second half of 2018," he said. "However, I think journalists and writers — they are expecting more and more information, and we are governed by, you know, certain rules with regard to talking about the I.P.O. and all of that."

When Aramco will go public and at what price will most likely be the chatter of the week, if not a full-fledged parlor game, but the real question, Mr. Bremmer said, "is what anyone can learn about the internal dynamics of the royal family?"

There are continuing questions about whether the kingdom's investments in new industries and businesses will be able to produce the kind of returns that oil has for generations here.

And just as important, there are questions about whether the diversification strategy can create enough jobs to keep the population employed and expand the domestic economy.

"How much support is there for the aggressive across-the-board reforms of Vision 2030?" Mr. Bremmer asked. "Do attendees come away with any more confidence that Saudi isn't only on the right track but that they can execute on it? We shall see."

The answer will have a huge impact on the future of this country — and will be worth a lot of money.