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Soft diplomacy rose to new levels at Saudi Arabia’s sixth FII forum

The Future Investment Initiative was a networking forum for entrepreneurs and leaders shaping the global economy

Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the US, Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, speaks at the FII conference Reuters/ Ahmed Yosri
Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the US, Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, speaks at the FII conference

Good conferences can take many forms: some are interesting, others informative or insightful, others have purpose, and others are superb networking opportunities. The sixth instalment of the Future Investment Initiative (FII), the big annual showcase of Saudi Arabia’s FII institute, was all of the above.

The backdrop was investment and Saudi Arabia, but the organisers understood that the world is an interconnected and complex place. The theme of this year’s conference was investing in humanity – enabling a new global order. 

This makes sense in the context that recent geopolitical / geoeconomic events, with a war in Ukraine and rising tensions between the world’s largest and second largest economies (USA and China), will lead to a realignment of geopolitical centres of gravity. 

The genius of this summit was to connect the (geo)economic dimension with humanity. This brought home to the audience that economic activity should benefit humankind.

FII president Richard Attias and PIF chairman Yasser al Rumayyan kicked off the conference. They were followed by three Nobel Prize laureates.

All of them nicely framed the issue of what the current cost of living crisis and de-globalisation meant for people on the ground and what it would take to create a more equitable world.

The ensuing “boardroom” discussion featured the likes of Steven Schwarzman from Blackstone Group, David Solomon from Goldman Sachs and Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak of the Mubadala Investment Company.

They delineated how investment parameters were shaped by the emerging new world order and the new economic realities on the ground: realignment of supply chains, inflation and rising interest rates.

The three days were jam-packed with investment, sectoral, technology and geographic discussions.

The FII struck the right balance between addressing the big macroeconomic geopolitical questions of the day and the pragmatic conversations affecting decisions at the investment level.

The kingdom did a fine job showcasing investment opportunities as well as the best of the senior talent the country had to offer like Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the energy minister, Yasser al Rumayyan, chairman of the PIF and Aramco, and Amin Nasser, Aramco’s CEO. 

The audience would have done well to heed the prince and Nasser’s warnings about underinvestment in the oil and gas sector and what that means for the supply picture over the coming decade.

Prince Abdulaziz also made a valid point in that releasing strategic petroleum reserves to modulate rising oil prices was a dangerous game, because these barrels might be needed at a later time when the issue was not price but insufficient supplies.

While there was a lot going on at various stages the venue was compact enough and the programme devised such that delegates could tailor their own schedule to suit their priorities.

This brings us to the delegates: around 7,000 attended this year’s FII.

The pool of people was diverse in terms of geography and gender. Most shared a common interest in investing in general.

Many also came for the first time to the region or to Saudi Arabia. In this context, the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund, which power’s the institute, and the FII did a great job showcasing not only the region but also the country as a place with a vision where things get done.

The interest in getting things done by implementing great visions is probably what produced such an esprit de corps among the delegates.

People were open and the networking was fantastic because one felt each and every time that one engaged with an open- and like-minded person.

All the delegates I approached were somewhere between happy to have attended to outright blown away.

The setting might have helped this feeling: the plenary hall was friendly with a plant themed decor featuring two stages and chairs that swiveled 360 degrees, enabling a unique visual and networking experience.

To sum up the experience, the FII constituted a masterclass in soft economic diplomacy. This sort of soft power should become de rigeur in an increasingly divided world with huge economic challenges.

Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and CEO of Meyer Resources