SPIEF DIARY: Unwrapping the enigma: 5 key takeaways from St. Petersburg forum

Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih and Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak (R) attend a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia on June 7, 2019. (REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov)
Updated 09 June 2019

SPIEF DIARY: Unwrapping the enigma: 5 key takeaways from St. Petersburg forum

  • The Saudi-Russian relationship is strong enough to survive energy or geopolitical vagaries
  • Although the US was not officially there, its presence hung over the forum like a big black cloud

As I passed the Omsk Oblast stand for the last time, and waved farewell to the beautiful Siberian lady whose excellent English had gotten me through some of the trickier sections of the forum guide, I had time to reflect on three action-packed days in the Russian city of St. Petersburg.

The International Economic Forum (SPIEF19) had been a steep learning curve, not just in terms of my limited command of the Russian language, but also as a deep immersion in the geopolitics and economics of the country. I felt I had unwrapped some of the mystery and enigma that Sir Winston Churchill famously said surrounds Russia. Here are five riddle-free takeaways from the event.

1. The Saudi-Russian relationship is strong enough to survive energy or geopolitical vagaries. It all began well before the OPEC+ deal of two and a half years ago, and has widened beyond mere coincidence of interests in the global energy market. The 50 or so Saudi delegates to the joint commission on trade and economy taking place in Moscow on Sunday represent virtually all sectors of the Kingdom’s economy, right down to culture and wildlife. There was no mistaking the genuine warmth of the friendship between senior policymakers, even when they had honest differences of opinion on policy options, which was infrequent.

2. The Russia-China alliance is the really big strategic game-changer. The star of the forum, apart from Russian President Vladimir Putin of course, was his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Delegates at the packed plenary hall for their joint address hung on the latter’s every word. It was striking to hear the presidents of what were once the world’s biggest communist powers extolling the virtues of free global markets and the need to repair its battered trading structure. Xi got a big laugh with his analogy for the World Trade Organization. “If you have fleas in your fur coat, you shouldn’t throw it in the oven,” he said in defense of multilateral trade.

3. Antipathy toward President Donald Trump’s America is tangible.

Although the US was not officially there, its presence hung over the forum like a big black cloud. One panel on global trade had a Russian minister accusing the Americans of weaponizing virtually every aspect of the global economy, from the shale oil business, to use of the dollar to exclude parties from world trade, to the use of sanctions against others. The prospect of big economic powers such as China, Russia and maybe even the Europeans developing their own currency for global trade in opposition to the domineering dollar was raised time and again. Uncle Sam has been warned. 

4. The Russians are as good as anybody at the global forum business. The SPIEF has been going in some form since 1997, but only really took off when Putin gave it his personal endorsement in 2005. It is a well-organized and productive event, with enough to keep the interest of a non-Russian generalist like me over three days. There was even a panel on “football in the city interiors,” with former England player Sol Campbell in attendance. Unfortunately for me, it coincided with the big global energy session with Saudi and Russian ministers, so I never got the chance to ask the former Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal star any questions.

5. St. Petersburg has not shaken off its communist and imperial past, and nor should it. If anything, Peter the Great’s city appears to be rediscovering its historical heritage. Monuments to the World War II siege are ubiquitous. Statues to Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, aka Lenin, are prominent. 

Streets and districts are named after the Bolshevik leader. The city center is a glittering imperial hub that the Romanovs would have recognized and appreciated. 

Maybe another name change is on the distant horizon for the city that was the birthplace of the Russian president — Putingrad has certainly got a ring to it.


Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai.
Twitter: @frankkanedubai



IMF experts visit Lebanon amid worsening economic crisis

Updated 39 min 32 sec ago

IMF experts visit Lebanon amid worsening economic crisis

  • IMF team will provide broad technical advice
  • Lebanon has not requested IMF financial assistance

BEIRUT: A team of IMF experts met Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Thursday at the start of a visit to provide Lebanon with advice on tackling a deepening financial and economic crisis, an official Lebanese source said.

The IMF has said the team will visit until Feb. 23 and provide broad technical advice. Lebanon has not requested financial assistance from the Fund.

The long-brewing economic crisis spiraled last year as capital flows into the country slowed and protests erupted against the ruling elite over decades of corruption and bad governance.

Diab’s government, which took office last month, must decide what to do about upcoming debt payments, notably a $1.2 billion dollar-denominated sovereign bond due on March 9.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun meanwhile said on Thursday measures would be taken to hold to account all those who contributed to Lebanon’s financial crisis through illegal actions be they transfers abroad, manipulation of Eurobonds or other acts.

“There is information that we are still in need of with regards to the banking situation. There are measures that we will take to hold to account all who participated in bringing the crisis to where it is,” Aoun said, according to his Twitter account.


This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

One of Lebanon’s most influential politicians, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, said on Wednesday that debt restructuring was the best solution for looming maturities.

Lebanon will on Friday review proposals from firms bidding to give it financial and legal advice on its options, a source familiar with the matter said on Thursday. The government aims to take a quick decision on who to appoint, the source said.

So far, firms bidding to be Lebanon’s legal adviser are Dechert, Cleary Gottlieb, and White and Case, the source said.

Lebanon has issued requests for proposals to seven firms to provide it with financial advice.

The government on Wednesday formed a committee tasked with preparing an economic recovery plan that includes ministers, government officials, a central bank representative and economists, according to a copy of a decree seen by Reuters.