Saudis come in from the cold after ‘Davos in the Desert’ flop

Davos 2019 diary: Teen environmental activist unsure is she was listened to by elders

 François Villeroy de Galhau, governor of the  central bank of France; 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and John J Haley, CEO of Willis Tower Watson, during a panel session in Davos.

François Villeroy de Galhau, governor of the central bank of France; 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and John J Haley, CEO of Willis Tower Watson, during a panel session in Davos.

 

Three months after scores of business and political figures shunned a Riyadh investment forum, dubbed “Davos in the Desert”, following the killing of dissident citizen and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia’s time on the naughty step seems to be over, judging by the welcome it’s received at the real deal.

A record delegation from the kingdom scaled the Swiss slopes to the World Economic Forum (WEF), holding scores of private meetings with business chiefs and policy makers and taking to discussion panels.

Morgan Stanley chief executive James Gorman and French oil giant Total’s chief executive Patrick Pouyanné spoke on Thursday in a debate about the Saudi economy with the country’s minister of finance and its minister of economy and planning. For the 3,000 delegates attending the WEF, it’s hard to miss large banners saying “Invest Saudi: The Future-Forward Economy”.

While Saudi prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five suspects detained over Khashoggi’s murder in the state’s embassy in Turkey in early October, the CIA and the US senate have concluded that crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved. This has been denied by Riyadh.

Pouyanné highlighted on the panel that he’s carrying on with multibillion-dollar investments in the oil-rich country, saying: “What is the alternative for a company like Total? To boycott Saudi Arabia? We are always against sanctions and boycotts. Who suffer from boycotts and sanctions? It’s the normal people – the people on the street.”

While Gorman said that Khashoggi’s murder was “utterly unacceptable”, companies need to decide what role they need to play in a country that has “had an incident, versus the 30 million people who are going through an extraordinary reform”.

Investment banks, meanwhile, are licking their lips at the prospects of mega fees from Saudi privatisations, including plans to float state-owned oil company Aramco next year. The kingdom originally targeted the sale of a 5 per cent stake in Aramco on the stock market in 2018, but called it off as investors balked at the $2 billion valuation the crown prince was seeking for the group.

Funds from the deal are earmarked to finance bin Salman’s economic transformation plan, including a pivot towards solar and other renewable energy projects.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (16) with a placard reading ‘School Strike for Climate’, on the last day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Photograph: Laurent Gillieron/EPA
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (16) with a placard reading ‘School Strike for Climate’, on the last day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Photograph: Laurent Gillieron/EPA

Teen talks at climate panel – but are elders listening?

For 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg, a global switch to green can’t come soon enough.

The climate change activist took a 32-hour train journey during the week from Stockholm to Davos, where she pitched a tent in well below freezing conditions and staged a protest before the global elite about the world’s glacial-pace action on climate change.

The teenager, who came to prominence last month as she gave a stirring speech at the UN climate talks in Poland, managed to land a speaking spot on Thursday at a Davos lunch attended by U2 frontman Bono, American rapper and record producer Will.i.am, as well as the chiefs of software giant Salesforce and Goldman Sachs.

On Friday morning, Thunberg found herself on one of the closing panels of the four-day WEF jamboree, titled “Preparing for Climate Disruption”.

“I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day – as if your house is on fire. Because it is,” she said.

Asked by reporters, as the remaining members of the 3,000 delegates that attended Davos began to make their way home, if she felt she’d managed to drive her message home, Thunberg was less than sanguine.

“I think I have been heard,” she said, “but I am not sure I have been listened to.”

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