“Davos in the Desert”–Sean Pattwell reports from the Future Investment Initiative (FII) in Saudi Arabia

Guest Blog | Mon 4 Nov | Author – Business & Finance

Rhetoric versus reality–Sean Pattwell discusses his experience at “Davos in the Desert”, last week’s Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Saudi Arabia. 

A fellow entrepreneur invited me to join him as a guest of his company at the much-discussed Future Investment Initiative, the so called “Davos in the Desert” in Riyadh, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The famously conservative kingdom has traditionally been one of the most difficult countries in the world to visit and I was both eager and nervous to see how I would fare. 

Thanks to my clients and contacts globally, I was given the opportunity to attend the actual Davos in January, and have attended numerous major investment and business events including CyberTech in Israel, Web Summit, InvestAsia in Singapore, Ethereal in New York, MWC in Barcelona and the gathering of the Irish Diaspora for the annual Ireland Funds Gala in Washington DC. My attendance at these events has been critical for my business as I have been able to meet new clients and spend time in market with key tier one reporters. 

 Naturally, like anyone who keeps a close eye on current affairs, I was very much aware that last year’s FII in Saudi was largely boycotted due to the brutal murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As a student I studied Arabic in University and I spent almost half a decade in the Middle East from 2009 until 2014 working with Sovereign Wealth Funds and at one stage working for the office of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, but never had the opportunity to travel to Saudi, the mysterious, veiled Kingdom. So, I decided to throw caution to the wind and travel there. 

Opening up to tourism

A former colleague was also going and I met her and a regional reporter on our flight. Rather interestingly pop guru will.i.am [sic] was also on board our flight, one of the speakers at this year’s FII. As we were queuing for our passport control, we were all a little nervous as it was the first time any of us had been in the Kingdom. Our new instantly issued e-Visas,  just launched by the government last month, signifying the official opening up of the region to tourists. We weren’t expecting things to go smoothly. The veiled lady at the passport desk greeted me warmly and to my surprise exclaimed, “Wow you’re from Ireland, I spent three weeks there with my family on vacation, we love Dublin”. We exchanged pleasantries and she told me that I was “going to have a great time in Riyadh, it’s a welcoming place”.

One thing that struck me on the journey into the city centre was the scale of infrastructure projects that were underway. It seemed as though the whole city was a construction site, which we were able to get around quickly despite the major projects. 

From the airport right through to the event itself the next morning, I was indeed welcomed warmly, and everyone was inquisitive as to where I was from and why I was here. 

A packed agenda

I was really intrigued to be attending a conference held in the famous “Ritz Prison” where many of the country’s elite were held for a period of time last year in a crackdown on apparent corruption by some of the ruling elite. 

 The agenda was packed, with some interesting characters in attendance, as well as usual types who turn up to these events including Anthony Scaramucci, the Sky Bridge Capital Founder and former White House Press Secretary, who I have sighted at not one but three events this year alone. Day one was packed with inspiring speeches from Jordan’s King Abdullah II, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi and a panel discussion with Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and White House Advisor. Steve Munchin, US Treasury Secretary was also in attendance. Like Davos, futurist ideas were discussed including how to bring more women into the workforce Saudi Arabia has increased the percentage from 17 to 25 percent in just four years and expect to reach 50 percent in the coming decade), but at the end of the day it was a business gathering–ideas were shared and many deals were done. 

A sign of changing times, there were a number of yarmulkes spotted and I met a few attendees who had come from Tel Aviv, one of which said that despite what we read in the press, the new Middle East is one where Israel and Arab Nations are working closely together on a range of investment opportunities. Israel will even have a pavilion at the Dubai Expo next year. 

Normally at these events you understand why people are there and the usual networking that goes on, but throughout the gilded halls attendees were asking with great excitement, “Why are you here? No really, why are you here? What made you decide to come?” For me it was a chance to get into the heart of a country I never really understood and also one that, to be quite honest, I was a bit of scared of visiting as a gay man. The truth is, we were all there because Saudi is finally opening up. So much so, STC, the Kingdom’s flagship telco had a huge advertisement in the airport arrivals hall saying “Unveil Saudi”. Slightly tongue-in-cheek, but we got the idea. 

Investing in the future

The reality is Saudi is putting its money where its mouth is, with plans to open up, with a $320bn fund mandated to make the kingdom’s economy less dependent on oil. The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund invested $45 billion in the formation of SoftBank’s first Vision Fund in 2016, which notably counts WeWork among its investments, and despite IPO dramas of late, Saudi engaged in advancing talks this week to participate in the second Vision Fund being launched. Saudi has plans for $426bn infrastructure projects over the next ten years. Saudi also has plans in this time to increase GDP from tourism from its current 3 per cent to 10 per cent, that would equate to over $100 billion, and if successful would make it one of the world’s top five tourism destinations.

Things have changed dramatically since 2015–women no longer need permission from male guardians to travel abroad and the ban on female drivers has been lifted resulting in Saudi presenting an increasingly lucrative market opportunity for car manufacturers. The Kingdom is now actively courting outsiders to come in, work with them and essentially help open up their economy. The leaders of the country are realistic–they know, that even though they are rapidly up-skilling the youth in the country, often through university programmes abroad, they will need some help to bring all these ambitious plans to reality. 

There is no summit to their ambition, and if they achieve only 50 percent of the things they want to do, then that will in itself be an incredible achievement.  

As cliché as it sounds, the energy in Riyadh was actually infectious; the young are ambitious, they want to project a different image of their country and slowly but surely, the rigidity of religious norms are unshackling. I met an Irish expert on the region who said to me, if you look at the change in Ireland since the conservative 1980s, Saudi is having its “Church and State moment” much like what we had. 

 Principles in life and in business are essential. But sometimes being principled can result in not getting to know new people because of generalisations or disagreements with some views or cultural practices. My advice is to not let stereotypes to hold you back from meeting new people and visiting new places. This first year of owning my own business has been about embracing the opportunities that I have been given. Irish people are welcome the world over and we have our own signature way of effecting positive change. My advice to any entrepreneur or businessperson who is looking to seize the next exciting opportunity, I would highly recommend a trip to the Kingdom, but go with an open mind and trust me you will leave wanting to return.

About the author:

Seán Pattwell is Founder and Chief Executive of CW8 Communications, a global strategic communications consultancy headquartered in Dublin. Prior to this Seán was Global Head of Communications at aircraft leasing firm, Avolon. He has held senior roles with a range of top tier public relations consultancies all over the World, having spent time in Singapore, Hong Kong, the UAE, Spain and most recently the U.S. From 2014 to 2018, he served on the Board of the EU Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and Macau where he focused on the Financial Services Working Group and he served as Vice Chairman of the Chamber from 2017 to 2018. www.cw8communications.com