You would think that doing business with Saudi Arabia has always been a risky proposition for many of the largest and most well-known companies in the United States, with, among others, human rights violations, the Saudis’ penchant for impromptu incarceration, random murders, and the second-class treatment offered the most women in the oil-rich nation. But it really wasn’t. Most American companies have done business with Saudi Arabia regardless.
This calculation eventually became much more difficult following the brutal murder, in October 2018, of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by Saudi government agents. (A CIA report connecting directly the Saudi government at Khashoggi’s murder was published Friday by the Biden administration.) It was then that Wall Street found itself in the crosshairs of the calculation as to whether to pamper Saudi royalty, now ruled, in practice, by the ruthless. Mohammed ben Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, or MBS as it is called, or to stand up for what is right by refusing to do business with the Saudis and avoiding participating in their media events. For Wall Street, these calls have apparently become difficult. There is so much money to be made by going for IPOs of Saudi companies or taking investments from Saudi Arabia massive sovereign wealth fund that high-value ideals are often the first to be compromised.
More than two years after Khashoggi’s murder, there have been litmus tests for Wall Street. One came with the gargantuan IPO of Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, in December 2019, which raised over $ 29 billion, one of the largest IPOs ever. The five largest Wall Street banks – JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Citigroup – all participated in the underwriting as global coordinators. The underwriters’ salary was not as big as they planned but none could risk being left out, to boast at least.
Another test came with what has come to be known as “Davos in the Desert,” a Davos-like investment conference held in Riyadh with the official title of Future Investment Initiative. Many business leaders, including Wall Street executives, bailed out the 2018 Davos in the Desert, which took place weeks after Khashoggi’s murder. Stephen Schwarzman, the CEO of Blackstone, and Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, refused to attend the 2018 event. Many bankers who participated keep a low profile, avoiding talking with the media. A year later, in October 2019, many Wall Street executives, or their key surrogates, reverse course and decided to attend Davos in the Wilderness, tacitly acknowledging that MBS was forgiven, or that with Aramco’s IPO on the horizon, they couldn’t risk offending the hosts.
The October 2020 installment of Davos in the desert was postponed to last month due to the COVID-19 pandemic and was held for two days from January 27. the New York Times Put the, once again Wall Street leaders were faced with the question: “Is there a statute of limitations for associating with a country accused of human rights violations?” Apparently there are, if attending the event – virtual or in person – is any indication. David Rubenstein, the co-founder of the Carlyle Group, moderate a panel that included Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s largest hedge funds. Other participants to the 2021 edition of Davos in the desert included David Solomon, the CEO of Goldman Sachs; Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock; Thomas Gottstein, the CEO of Credit Suisse; and James Gorman, the CEO of Morgan Stanley. Schwarzman from Blackstone was also present.
The participation of these top Wall Street leaders in the latest Davos in the desert infuriated two filmmakers behind the documentary The Dissident, a shocking and revealing portrait of the life and death of Jamal Khashoggi that leaves little doubt that MBS and other senior Saudi leaders were behind Khashoggi’s execution. Bryan Fogel, the director of The Dissident, and Thor Halvorssen, the director of the Human Rights Foundation and one of the film’s producers believe that the continued support of US business leaders for MBS and the Saudi regime stems from greed. “It’s pretty simple,” Fogel told me. “You have a country that could arguably have the most liquid amount to invest on planet Earth. He says Saudi Arabia controls one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds and has the biggest investment in SoftBank‘s Vision Fund, one of the largest venture capital funds in the world, and it has shown “time and time again” that it is willing to take big risks with its investments.