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FII flexes its convening power in tumultuous times

It is one of the world's premier investment gatherings – but this year's event could be unlike any other

The lobby of the Exhibition and Conference Center of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh on the opening day of last year's FII. This year is the event's seventh Reuters/Ahmed Yosri
The lobby of the Exhibition and Conference Center of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh on the opening day of last year's FII. This is the event's seventh year

The final touch screens have been installed, the rotating globe has been tested and is revolving smoothly, and the sumptuous media centre has been fully equipped with croissants and coffee. Future Investment Initiative 2023 is ready to roll in the swanky environs of Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton.

FII7 (it is the seventh event in the series that began in 2017) is the premier investment gathering certainly in the Middle East, most likely in the “Global South”, and coming up fast in the world business forum stakes.

The “Davos in the desert” nickname given to the event by a journalist back in 2017 has stuck, even though both FII and the World Economic Forum officially frown on it. FII is one of a kind, they say, as is Davos.

The two events are very different, and not just in terms of climate. FII’s origins in Saudi Arabia, at the geographic crossroads of the world and the hinge between East and West, give it the authentic voice of the global emerging markets.

Its power is as a convening phenomenon, able to bring together the vast capital reserves of the West and Middle East with the fast-growing economies of Asia, Africa and Latin America to direct financial flows to where they are most needed.

In some ways, FII7 (for which I must disclose I have acted as a media adviser) is unlike any other that has gone before. The forum was overshadowed by the tragic events in Israel and Gaza, which naturally focused attention on the Middle East for all the wrong reasons.

A war makes a solemn backdrop for investment decisions.

Nonetheless, the event’s organisers have confronted this issue head on. In an interview with the BBC, FII CEO Richard Attias insisted that the gathering is primarily an investment forum, but one which has the power to bring together leaders and power brokers to discuss the great challenges facing the world today.

FII will no doubt stick to its brief, to be an investment gathering with the altruistic motive of benefitting humanity. But it is normal for investors to weigh geopolitical risk as a crucial factor in their vital decisions, and the big money men in Riyadh this week will be no different.

There is no doubt that the elephant in the room at the Ritz Carlton and the adjoining King Abdulaziz International Conference Centre will be the ongoing conflict in Israel and Gaza. It will be fascinating to hear the private, candid thoughts of the assembled movers and shakers on this most urgent of subjects.

Media interest has so far fixated on the question; “Who is coming”, but I can report that, out of 6,000 expected attendees, the dropout rate at time of writing amounts to less than 1 percent. That is well within the normal expected “churn” for a big global forum where the attendees are VIPs with busy schedules.

All the big hitters will be on stage on the morning of day one for the session entitled “Board of Changemakers: Navigating New Norms”, which is a “do not miss” event expected to set the tone for the next three days.

Also on the “must see” list is the Energy Summit in the afternoon of the first day, with an array of the most important people in the global energy business at a crucial time in the discussion about energy transition and climate change.

Two other big themes at FII7 are artificial intelligence, where experts will weigh the potential risks and benefits of AI as the world enters a new phase in this transformational technology; and the ongoing debate over ESG investment principles, where there has been a distinct shift in global sentiment recently towards the need for more inclusive criteria that are appropriate for the whole world.

No doubt, on the sidelines and in the bilaterals, deals will be done and relationships struck that will endure for years, and which could bring enormous benefits to the world. That is the soft but real strength of convening power, even in tumultuous times.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He also acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia

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