Of Fink and finance: The Riyadh Ritz-Carlton’s latest forum success
The Financial Sector Conference that just finished at the Ritz-Carlton hotel and King Abdul Aziz Conference Center in Riyadh was the fourth big event I’ve attended at the same venue in the past 18 months. I feel almost a seasoned Ritz guest now, and am used to the extravagant layout of the grand building and the pleasant stroll between the hotel and conference center. In fact, when I first walked in bright and early on the morning of the opening day, I was made to feel especially welcome.
“Mr. Fink, welcome back to the Ritz-Carlton,” the lobby greeter gushed. A bit taken aback, I explained I was not staying at the hotel, merely attending the conference. He took a closer look at my badge. “I’m sorry, I thought it said Fink,” he apologized. I suppose I don’t mind being mistaken for Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of multibillion-dollar investment firm BlackRock. But honestly, Google him — do I look anything like that?
It was an amusing start to an eventful couple of days. Here are my main take-aways from the event.
1. The Ritz-Carlton is getting pretty good at this sort of thing. The first Future Investment Initiative (FII) in 2017 — the famed “Davos in the desert” — was star-studded and exciting, but fairly chaotic. The second FII last year was better organized and much more manageable. The National Industrial Development and Logistics Program one-day event in January was a steep learning curve from which the Financial Sector Conference has benefited. Entry and exit to the Ritz complex was easy, registration a breeze, and sessions started — more or less — on time. The facilities for media were as good as ever, with one exception: Somebody should really tell the organizers that journalists often work after 7 p.m., which was the time the free Internet was cut off.
2. The bankers are back — if they ever really went away. Last year’s FII — held in the immediate aftermath of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — was missing a few big names, even if their organizations were well represented. Two of the notable absentees from 2018 — the above-mentioned Fink and John Flint, chief executive of HSBC — looked rather apologetic for their previous stance, with Flint in particular almost gushing from the stage about the fantastic business opportunities in the Kingdom. There was much wry amusement from other banking executives who never stayed away. One senior executive from a US bank who advised on Saudi Aramco’s record-breaking $12 billion bond, whose permanent family base is in Dubai, told me: “I wish I knew we were supposed to be staying away — I’ve virtually lived in Riyadh for the past six months.”
There was a general impression, among Saudi bankers and their Western counterparts, that some kind of corner has been turned in the slowdown that has hung over the Kingdom since the collapse of oil prices five years ago.
3. There was a general impression, among Saudi bankers and their Western counterparts, that some kind of corner has been turned in the slowdown that has hung over the Kingdom since the collapse of oil prices five years ago. Maybe it was the lingering feel-good factor from the recent Aramco bond, maybe it was the pleasant surprise served up by Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan on the opening day, with the announcement of the Kingdom’s first quarterly budget surplus for five years. Whichever, it was a welcome pick-up, accentuated by a burst of surprisingly cool weather for Riyadh at the end of April. One outdoor restaurant ran out of blankets for its shivering clientele.
4. Aramco is riding the crest of a wave. In all this bonhomie, executives from the world’s biggest and most profitable company swaggered around the conference center like heroes. Their bond has restored the Kingdom’s self confidence in finance, and they are proud of the role they have played. One hot item was the possibility that Aramco and its shareholder might decide to strike while the iron is hot, and go for the initial public offering next year, rather than 2021, as has been officially slated. Khalid Al-Falih, Aramco chairman and Saudi energy minister, did nothing to dispel that notion on day one of the conference; Amin Nasser, Aramco president and CEO, pointedly missed the opportunity to explain that the IPO would have to wait for one full year of financials from the Aramco-SABIC enlarged entity. Maybe the Financial Sector Conference in 2020 will take place amid frantic roadshows and investor meetings for an Aramco IPO later that year.
- Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai