Top execs in a bind over Saudi investment summit

RIYADH • Mr Ken Moelis showed up. The founder and chief of his eponymous investment bank travelled to Riyadh to extol the virtues of friendship. He stood out as many of the titans of US finance sat out the kingdom's signature investment summit amid international outrage over the killing of government critic Jamal Khashoggi.

As the conference kicked off on Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his lawmakers that he rejected the Saudis' explanations for The Washington Post columnist's death in their consulate in Istanbul.

Speaking on a panel that included the head of Russia's VTB Bank, which is operating under US sanctions, Mr Moelis told the audience in the crowded conference room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel that relationships are a company's most valuable asset - even if there is no way to account for them on the balance sheet. He subsequently declined to answer reporters' questions.

His appearance underscored the dilemma faced by those who decided to avoid the gathering, including US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

NO-SHOWS Bank of America's chief operating officer Thomas Montag and Evercore's chief executive officer Ralph Schlosstein were the latest to skip the event - the brainchild of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to showcase the kingdom's investment opportunities.

Others who did not show up included the CEOs of some of the Saudis' main financiers and business partners: Blackstone Group's Mr Steve Schwarzman, JPMorgan Chase & Co's Mr Jamie Dimon, HSBC Holdings' Mr John Flint and BlackRock's Mr Larry Fink.

While those executives head firms with the balance sheet and history to weather any potential storm, Mr Moelis, 60, leads a boutique investment bank with fewer than 1,000 employees.

 
 
 

Winning a 2017 mandate to advise on the planned initial public offering of Saudi Aramco was a coup that promised Moelis & Co its biggest payday ever. While the date for the largest-ever IPO has receded into the future, the mandate earned him the nickname "Ken of Arabia".

Most financial firms opted to send regional executives to the conference as they attempt to walk a fine line between the risks of stoking the outcry over the killing of Mr Khashoggi and losing future business in Saudi Arabia.

Mr Samir Assaf, who heads HSBC's investment bank, is set to take part in the summit, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. HSBC declined comment.

Key executives taking part in the summit or scheduled to do so are:

• Mr Patrick Pouyanne, CEO of Total;

• Mr Lorenzo Simonelli, CEO of Baker Hughes;

• Mr Paal Kibsgaard, CEO of Schlumberger;

• Mr Loh Boon Chye, CEO of Singapore Exchange;

• Mr Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of Russian Direct Investment Fund;

• Mr Jim Breyer, CEO of Breyer Capital; and

• Mr Alberto Galassi, CEO of Feretti.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2018, with the headline 'Top execs in a bind over Saudi investment summit'. Print Edition | Subscribe