From Aramco IPO to sustainability: five key takeaways from Saudi Arabia’s FII 2019 conference

Participants at the Future Investment Initiative (FII) summit at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh. (AFP)
Updated 02 November 2019

From Aramco IPO to sustainability: five key takeaways from Saudi Arabia’s FII 2019 conference

  • Virtually every financial panel had some line on the Saudi Aramco IPO, and it was the top dinner-table topic of conversation too
  • One of the mind-boggling facts on offer was that Saudi Arabia has the second-highest level of per capital spend on technology, only behind gadget-crazy Japan

RIYADH: The time has come to hang another Future Investment Initiative badge on the lanyard tree in Kane Castle, and wrap up from Riyadh for another year. That’s three in a row I’ve attended now. If the event is staged in the same form next year (see below) surely I’ll qualify for some kind of loyalty reward — maybe special “light search” status through the airport-type security on each entrance to the Ritz Carlton? Or diner a deux with Pepper the robot?

You can probably tell my mind is wandering, but FII has that effect on you. A combination of early-morning starts, Riyadh rush-hour driving and Ritz Carlton security — followed by the zappy mind blast that is the FII experience — tend to make your train of thought a bit random. So, in an effort to bring some order, here is a list of my five top takeaways from FII 2019.

1. The IPO of Saudi Aramco was by far the hottest topic at the show. From the very first morning, when local media reported that a date had been set for the long-awaited share sale, the question I heard most over the three days was: Is it on? Virtually every financial panel had some line on the IPO, and it was the top dinner-table topic of conversation too. Over the past three years, the future of the Kingdom has become inexorably intertwined with the Aramco IPO. We should not have much longer to wait now.

2. Sustainability has come off the tick-box list and is now being taken seriously by the world’s big decision-makers. In 2017, at the first FII, concerns about climate change and the environment were paid lip-service, but you got the impression it was only to put a cross in the appropriate ESG box. In 2019, many speakers made sustainability the top items in their keynotes, including the Saudi energy minister Abdul Aziz bin Salman with his “circular carbon economy.” There is nothing so potent as an idea whose time has come.

3. The future will be smart, and automated. Aramco was the biggest single conversation topic, but more official time was taken up by technological innovation, artificial intelligence, robotics, digital infrastructure and the rest of the “smart” revolution. One of the mind-boggling facts on offer was that Saudi Arabia has the second-highest level of per capital spend on technology, only behind gadget-crazy Japan. Pepper the robot was only the tip of an iceberg of automated floor cleaners, autonomous cars and more apps than you could imagine existed.

4. It’s still the people that make FII a success. One of the great pleasures of walking the hangar-like halls and corridors of the Ritz Carlton complex is the random meeting. You’re having a quick nicotine fix on the terrace and find yourself beside Masayoshi Son of SoftBank (there purely to get some air and escape the frigid air-conditioning). It’s disconcerting, to say the least. Some of the best meetings begin this way. I randomly bumped into British businesswoman Amanda Staveley, for example, and heard intriguing whispers of big deals ahead the football world. A few candid minutes with former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci produced some unprintable anecdotes and a firm conviction that Donald Trump would not be president again.

5. There are some serious choices to be made about FII 2020. After a successful third event in which it has established itself as the premier thought-leadership event in the Middle East — living up to the “Davos in the Desert” sobriquet — in 2020 FII will find itself with come serious competition. Next November, the Kingdom will host the G20 gathering of world leaders, perhaps the ultimate event in the global forum space. Is Riyadh big enough for both of them within a few weeks of each other? We shall see.


US trade offensive takes out WTO as global arbiter

Updated 10 December 2019

US trade offensive takes out WTO as global arbiter

  • Two years after starting to block appointments, the US will finally paralyze the WTO’s Appellate Body
  • Two of three members of Appellate Body exit and leave it unable to issue rulings

BRUSSELS: US disruption of the global economic order reaches a major milestone on Tuesday as the World Trade Organization (WTO) loses its ability to intervene in trade wars, threatening the future of the Geneva-based body.
Two years after starting to block appointments, the United States will finally paralyze the WTO’s Appellate Body, which acts as the supreme court for international trade, as two of three members exit and leave it unable to issue rulings.
Major trade disputes, including the US conflict with China and metal tariffs imposed by US President Donald Trump, will not be resolved by the global trade arbiter.
Stephen Vaughn, who served as general counsel to the US Trade Representative during Trump’s first two years, said many disputes would be settled in future by negotiations.
Critics say this means a return to a post-war period of inconsistent settlements, problems the WTO’s creation in 1995 was designed to fix.
The EU ambassador to the WTO told counterparts in Geneva on Monday the Appellate Body’s paralysis risked creating a system of economic relations based on power rather than rules.
The crippling of dispute settlement comes as the WTO also struggles in its other major role of opening markets.
The WTO club of 164 has not produced any international accord since abandoning “Doha Round” negotiations in 2015.
Trade-restrictive measures among the G20 group of largest economies are at historic highs, compounded by Trump’s “America First” agenda and the trade war with China.
Phil Hogan, the European Union’s new trade commissioner, said on Friday the WTO was no longer fit for purpose and in dire need of reforms going beyond just fixing the appeals mechanism.
For developed countries, in particular, the WTO’s rules must change to take account of state-controlled enterprises.
In 2017, Japan brought together the United States and the European Union in a joint bid to set new global rules on state subsidies and forced technology transfers.
The US is also pushing to limit the ability of WTO members to grant themselves developing status, which for example gives them longer to implement WTO agreements.
Such “developing countries” include Singapore and Israel, but China is the clear focus.
US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Reuters last week the United States wanted to end concessions given to then struggling economies that were no longer appropriate.
“We’ve been spoiling countries for a very, very long time, so naturally they’re pushing back as we try to change things,” he said.
The trouble with WTO reform is that changes require consensus to pass. That includes Chinese backing.
Beijing has published its own reform proposals with a string of grievances against US actions. Reform should resolve crucial issues threatening the WTO’s existence, while preserving the interests of developing countries.
Many observers believe the WTO faces a pivotal moment in mid-2020 when its trade ministers gather in a drive to push through a multinational deal — on cutting fishing subsidies.
“It’s not the WTO that will save the fish. It’s the fish that are going to save the WTO,” said one ambassador.