Despite boycotts, ‘Davos in the Desert’ didn’t end up deserted
For all that was said in the build-up to the 2018 “Davos in the Desert,” from where I’m sitting writing this — the foyer of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh — it does not look very deserted.
Saudi business people are saying their goodbyes to their visitors from the four corners of the world, and there is still a buzz of transactional activity about the place that belies all those doomsayers.
From personal experience over the past few days, the Future Investment Initiative (FII) has been every bit as interesting and thought provoking as the inaugural event last year. The flavor has been different and the geopolitical context more challenging, but with the eyes of the world on the Kingdom as never before, it was the only place to be.
Here are my six key takeaways from the 2018 event.
1. Don’t read too much into attendance figures. Last year’s official estimate was 3,800; this year — according to the event’s official app — it was more than 4,100. If last year was a big enough event to earn the “Davos” accolade, what exactly would you call this year’s version? Will we have to invent a new category on the Davosian register? Or maybe just drop the whole silly Davos comparison altogether — they are entirely different events anyway.
2. Variety is the spice of life. While FII 2017 was a triumphal procession of the big beasts — mainly American — of the corporate world, this was a far more nuanced affair. The big beasts from the US and Europe stayed away, but virtually all of them sent quite senior beasts in their stead to do their business for them. On top of that, there were plenty of new faces from Asia to make up for the Caucasian stay-away. It was probably better for business — all those huge egos often get in the way of the transactional nitty-gritty.
The Arabs can circle their wagons just as well as the American cowboys. The event turned into a display of fraternal solidarity between the leaders of virtually every Middle East country, disappointed at what they perceive to be disproportionate hostility from the West.
3. The media corps stayed true to their news-gathering roots. While most of the editors, marketing men and proprietors decided to give the event a miss, pulling out of sponsorship and presentation duties, the hard-nosed news hacks of the world’s press and TV were there in as much force as last year. In fact, many of them were very happy at the opportunity to get down to the real news, rather than being adjutants to their bosses. With the crown prince of Saudi Arabia putting in two appearances at the event this year, there was plenty to write about, and they took advantage of the fact.
4. The Russians are coming — in fact, they’ve already arrived in Saudi Arabia. The Russians were at FII in great strength, taking advantage of the business opportunities presented by the stay-aways from their great rivals in the US. The Russian Direct Investment Fund made most of the financial headlines, but there was a great example of Russian “soft power” as well — a display of works by the Russian avant-garde artist Wassily Kandinsky. In partnership with the Saudi Public Investment Fund, the Russians put on a show every bit as stunning as last year’s headline-grabbing female robot Sophia — if a little more abstract.
5. The Arabs can circle their wagons just as well as the American cowboys. The event turned into a display of fraternal solidarity between the leaders of virtually every Middle East country, disappointed at what they perceive to be disproportionate hostility from the West. One Saudi joked that only two things can bring so many Arabs together in such a show of communality: An American threat, and a wedding.
6. The Ritz-Carlton has a lot more going for it than just a rich history. It is the perfect place to do business, and to network. During the FII, the lobby and dining areas around the entrance were a trove of contacts and power-brokers to rival the famous Belvedere in Davos. One good way to spend an FII would be to check into the hotel for the duration and spend the whole time just cruising the hotel’s cavernous halls and filling the contacts book with illustrious names.
• Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai