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An investment conference nicknamed Davos in the Desert is under way in Saudi Arabia


An investment conference nicknamed Davos in the Desert is underway in Saudi Arabia.


Top executives from some of the world's largest banks are there, along with billionaire investors. They're laying the groundwork for deals. On one level, it's an obvious move. Saudi Arabia ranks as one of the richest countries in the world. But the gathering comes as the U.S. harshly criticizes Saudi Arabia for its policies.

INSKEEP: NPR's David Gura is covering this story. David, good morning.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So who's attending?

GURA: Well, a lot of boldface names - Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase; David Solomon of Goldman Sachs; Charles Scharf of Wells Fargo. Billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, the CEO of the private equity firm Blackstone, is there. So is Ray Dalio, who ran the world's largest hedge fund until recently. Former President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is also on the agenda; former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as well. Saudi Arabia is invested in both of their multibillion-dollar private equity funds. So that gives you a sense of who's there, Steve. Who's not there is anyone from the current administration, which is currently reevaluating its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

INSKEEP: Well, given the anger at the Saudis right now, why would the business leaders be going?

GURA: Well, there's money to be made. Let's not dance around that. One participant told me Saudi Arabia is pouring a gazillion dollars into renewable energy. The country has more than half-a-trillion dollars in a government-controlled investment fund. And Karen Young, who's with Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, told me this conference is a way for Saudi Arabia to show off its ambitions beyond oil.

KAREN YOUNG: A new identity for the kingdom and the kingdom trying to get into what it sees as kind of futuristic sectors.

GURA: So there are panels on artificial intelligence and crypto and sports. Saudi Arabia is pouring tens of millions of dollars into a golf league it hopes will rival the PGA. And Karen Young told me Saudi Arabia sees itself now as a country with a more assertive foreign policy than before, and it's more confident in its ability to attract outside investment.

INSKEEP: Which is interesting given the trouble Saudi Arabia has been in in recent years for ordering the murder of a journalist and any number of other things. How does this fit with the U.S. approach, the government approach, to Saudi Arabia?

GURA: Yeah, the contrast is very stark, going back to that trip President Biden took to Saudi Arabia in July. He met with the crown prince. There was that fist bump. The administration was optimistic that visit would lead to Saudi Arabia helping at a time when oil has gotten more expensive because of the fallout from the war in Ukraine. But a couple of months later, it did the opposite. Saudi Arabia pushed for deep production cuts, and prices have gone up again. So the decades-long relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is at a low point. But the White House has said repeatedly, Steve, it's not up to them to tell business leaders if they should steer clear of this conference.

INSKEEP: I guess President Biden can't criticize them too much for going to Saudi Arabia since he recently went to Saudi Arabia. But Biden has been pretty outspoken about Saudi Arabia's human rights record all along.

GURA: Yeah. It's also about this, the country's human rights record. After the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, many executives pulled out of the conference. But someone who has not stayed away is Anthony Scaramucci, perhaps best known for the 10 days or so he spent as former President Trump's communications director. He has spent most of his career as an investor.

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI: To me, it's a tragedy. It's an event that has to be recognized as a tragedy. But I think we have to look at the longer-term goals and the longer-term interests of global peace, global prosperity and, frankly, global progress.

GURA: Scaramucci applauds Saudi Arabia for making some progress in recent years. He says he's optimistic about the role it wants to play in the wider world. But when it comes to the killing of Khashoggi, which the U.S. intelligence community says the crown prince approved, Scaramucci says the broader issue is, are we capable of moving past that? Those are his words. And, Steve, Scaramucci thinks we should be.

INSKEEP: David Gura. Thanks so much.

GURA: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.