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Saudis trumpet US$56b worth of deals as investment conference ends amid partial boycott

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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia (right) is joined onstage by Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon on the second day of the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh on Wednesday. The three- day meet drew hundreds of businessmen and government officials from around the world.

Riyadh

SAUDI Arabia said it signed US$56 billion of deals at an investment conference this week and expected the United States to remain a key business partner despite a partial boycott of the event over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

More than two dozen top officials and executives from the US and Europe, including US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and chief executives of big banks, boycotted the investment conference over the killing of Mr Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2.

There was concern that, temporarily at least, commercial ties with the West could be damaged as the blow to Riyadh's reputation and the risk of economic sanctions over the Khashoggi affair made it harder to enter into new deals.

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Still, the three-day Future Investment Initiative conference drew hundreds of businessmen and government officials from around the world to a palatial venue in Riyadh, aiming to attract foreign capital to support Saudi economic reforms.

"There were more than 25 deals signed worth US$56 billion," Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih told state television on Thursday, adding that US companies accounted for most of those contracts. He added: "The US will remain a key part of the Saudi economy because the interests that tie us are bigger than what is being weakened by the failed boycotting campaign of the conference."

Saudi state oil giant Saudi Aramco said it had signed deals with 15 international partners worth more than US$34 billion.

Saudi Arabia at first denied any involvement in Mr Khashoggi's death but a Saudi official eventually attributed it to a botched attempt to return him to the kingdom.

Striking a defiant tone, powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told international investors at the conference that the furore over Mr Khashoggi's killing would not derail the kingdom's reform drive.

In protest at the Khashoggi case, British billionaire Richard Branson suspended discussions with Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, which hosted the conference, over a planned US$1 billion investment in his group's space ventures.

However, Saudi officials mounted a business-as-usual campaign to persuade foreign companies to attend the kingdom's premier investment event despite the international outcry over Mr Khashoggi's death.

Many of the big Western banks whose top executives boycotted the conference sent sizeable teams of lower-ranking executives, and continued to meet Saudi officials on the sidelines of the event, bankers said.

A senior European banker at the conference said that while the Saudi image among some international bond investors had been damaged, investment patterns would probably return to normal in a couple of months. "Business has a short memory," he added. REUTERS