Ryad (AFP)

In the Saudi "desert Davos", some participants are low profile, seeming afraid to be pinned for their presence in Ryad where the clouds of murder a year ago, Jamal Khashoggi, have not fully dissipated.

This Saudi journalist critic of power was killed and dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, leading to a massive boycott of Western participants in the 2018 Future Investment Initiative (FII).

This year, thousands of delegates from over 30 countries flocked to Ryad for the third edition and the atmosphere contrasts with that of last year: the Ritz-Carlton of the Saudi capital was essentially filled with Arab delegates.

But in the corridors of this palace with frescoed ceilings and glittering chandeliers that host the event, some participants prefer not to be identified.

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, whose responsibility was later recognized by Ryad, forced companies to strike a balance between dealing with Saudi Arabia and preserving their reputation.

Many delegates refuse this year to be quoted in the media. Some seek to escape radar, turning over their badges or hiding behind their ties. Others are reluctant to give their business card to journalists.

- "Acceptable to come back" -

Saudi organizers also restricted media access to delegates and barred journalists with cameras from accessing the main plenary session and a gala dinner.

"The threat of sanctions against Saudi Arabia because of its record in human rights is now over but the risk to reputation is still there," says AFP Ryan Bohl, the American think tank Stratfor .

"Most companies have decided to take this risk, and those who did not accept it have stayed away," he says.

"The ones we notice the most are those who came for the first edition (in 2017), who boycotted the second and who are now back," said a US finance official who refused to be named.

"It's as if they were giving their guaranty to others saying, it's okay to return to Saudi Arabia."

In particular, he refers to Larry Fink, CEO of US asset management firm Blackrock, and Stephen Schwarzman, director of investment firm Blackstone, who participated in expert panels to promote Saudi reforms. undertaken by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

KPMG, a heavyweight in the audit industry, sent around 25 executives, up from five last year, one of its managers told AFP.

- "Huge potential" -

Many IFI participants are also Wall Street financiers on the lookout for the Aramco IPO, the Saudi oil giant described as the most profitable company in the world.

"There is a huge potential," says AFP a cadre of a technical equipment manufacturer based in Singapore. "It's Saudi Arabia and it's Aramco and there's nothing bigger."

However, the big names in technology or entertainment, key sectors for the diversification of the Saudi economy, are absent, as well as media companies that had sponsored or moderated panels in previous years.

For those in search of new contracts, the question of the image seems however to be secondary.

"Risk to reputation? No," says Christian Giannini of the European investor 01 Ventures, specializing in the technology sector.

His company received an authorization from the IFI to create a multi-million dollar investment fund in Saudi Arabia.

The three-day forum testifies to the kingdom's desire to get out of the oil business.

"It's better to help the Saudis build their future than to sit back and do nothing," says Rudolph Waels, founder of the consultancy Armalia Partners, who has participated in three editions of the "Davos of the Desert".

"I do not hesitate to come here."

© 2019 AFP