In Momentum Works’ Middle East Predictions for 2019, we wrote “Everyone goes back to the third Future Investment Initiative – BAU”.
When we attended the FII summit last year, many were boycotting because of the high profile murder case of Jamal Khashoggi. Some confirmed speakers and guest had to withdraw their attendance at the very last minute.
In the past week, the third FII was held in Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Although MBS and the PMs of Pakistan and Lebanon did not attend, from what we saw at the event – last year’s shadow was nowhere to be seen.
More and higher profile political leaders showed up. King of Jordon, President of Brazil, and Narendra Modi all spoke. In fact, so many wanted to attend the Modi speech that the organisers had to set up live streaming next door.
Mukesh Ambani was there as well, defending a number of policy moves of the Modi administration.
Masayoshi Son was on stage too, although he barely spoke.
However, Rajeev Misra, who leads Vision Fund, did a panel with Ritesh Agarwal of OYO and Jean Liu of Didi, among others. The recent episode of WeWork cast some doubts on Softbank and Vision Fund, and there are a lot of speculations about Saudi’s investment in the Fund.
However, it seems it is still too early to draw a conclusion whether the bubble has burst, or these are barely humps that an ambitious project will surely encounter.
Founders of Snapdeal, Bukalapak and Careem are on stage, as well as Wall Street big shots such as Dalio and Schwarzman.
China + AI?
A notable change this year is the strong Chinese presence, such that in addition to English and Arabic, the organisers added Chinese to the simulation interpretation offered. With doubts on US reliability, and technical superiority of especially Chinese AI companies, the gulf countries are very much willing to work with China.
There is even a Chinese number plated (somewhere in Guangdong) autonomous vehicle stationed right outside the conference centre.
Nobody should underestimate gulf countries’ desire to be relevant in the age of AI, although many do agree some of the countries still have a lot of catch up to do.
Some friends attending complained that the conference content was a bit too superficial. Well, what else do you expect? The main purpose is to show a stance and deliver a message.
One of the Saudi ministers attending said: the first FII was about Saudi Arabia open to business; the 2nd FII was about openness to culture and entertainment, and this year it is about opening to innovation.
In anyways, the gradual but still speedy opening up of Saudi Arabia presents very interesting challenges and opportunities. Let’s see who can seize these.