When major global financiers withdrew from a Saudi investment summit in October over the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, questions were asked about the sincerity of their moral outrage. Six months on, some of the biggest names in finance have brushed aside reputational concerns and returned to the Kingdom for a piece of the Saudi investment pie that is too good to be missed.
BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, HSBC CEO John Flint and JPMorgan’s Chief Operating Officer Daniel Pinto all appeared on stage alongside Saudi ministers at the Financial Sector Conference organised by the government in Riyadh yesterday. This was just hours after the news broke that the Kingdom had executed 37 people in one day for “terrorism” offences.
The sentences were carried out in various cities around the Kingdom, and included at least one body being nailed to a post in a public location for several hours in a “crucifixion” as a warning to others. Despite global outcry over the executions and other major human rights abuses within Saudi Arabia, the heads of the aforementioned financial companies expressed their commitment to invest there.
“It’s a privilege to be back in Saudi Arabia,” said Flint in the Financial Times. “We are committed, this is an economy we have a lot of confidence in.”
Fink, who had also pulled out of October’s “Davos in the Desert” event, was reported as saying that the region was “not perfect”, but that changes in the Kingdom over the past two years had been “pretty amazing” and offered “great opportunities.”
In what appears to be an attempt to downplay Khashoggi’s murder, the BlackRock CEO was reported by the FT to have said, “The fact that there are issues in the press does not tell me I must run away from a place. In many cases it tells me I should run to [it] and invest because what we are most frightened of are things that we don’t talk about.”
According to CNN, none of the finance executives were asked about human rights whilst they were on the conference stage. JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley declined to say anything in public, while HSBC and BlackRock did not respond to a request for a comment.
Karen Young, a Gulf expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told the FT that the Saudi market was too important for industries such as oil and finance to ignore. In remarks which appeared to suggest that global financiers always put profits before everything else, Young added: “Given the opportunities and fees from the bond issuances and loans, as a relationship manager you can’t leave that on the table. It’s a simple understanding [that] this is an important client and as long as these opportunities are forthcoming ‘we have to be there’.”