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Top bankers quietly prep for Saudi conference while their bosses skip event

[LONDON] In public, finance industry leaders have bailed on a key Saudi Arabian investment conference next week. Behind the scenes, dealmakers bringing in the hard cash are fretting - and still going.

Senior investment bankers from HSBC Holdings, Societe Generale and Credit Suisse Group are planning to attend the Future Investment Initiative - dubbed "Davos in the Desert" - even though their chief executives have told the world they've canceled appearances there.

Wall Street firms such as Morgan Stanley and Citigroup, which have yet to publicly signal their intentions, are also expecting to send executives, people familiar with the companies said, asking not to be identified because the details are private. However, the situation remains fluid, they said.

The conference, expected to be the stage for announcing new ventures and billion-dollar contracts, has been overshadowed by the disappearance of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. At stake are hundreds of millions in fees up for grabs over coming years as the kingdom reorganizes the economy away from its dependence on oil. In the meantime, international lenders have been seeking licenses in what is the largest economy in the Middle East, as well as managing money for its ultra-wealthy families.

Spokespeople for the banks declined to comment.

"The banks clearly think the potential deals on offer outweigh any reputational risk that is associated with attending the FII in light of the Khashoggi affair," said Jason Tuvey, senior emerging-markets economist at Capital Economics. "Many will be keen to ensure that they maintain close ties with the government."

Privately, dealmakers in the region are anxious that pulling out will damage lucrative client relations in a region where loyalty during difficult times is rewarded, according to people who work in the Middle East. A string of international banks had been hoping for a mandate from oil giant Saudi Arabian Oil Co, or Aramco, which could be the largest ever initial public offering should the stalled plan eventually move forward.

Preparations to set up high-level meetings with government ministers, and in some cases the Saudi crown prince, have all had to be reviewed, the people said. The discussions between the Saudis and the bankers may not go ahead without their top brass in attendance, they said.

The event organizers have taken down a list of attendees from the website, creating a shroud of secrecy around the conference. The gathering in Riyadh has been likened to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, because of the high-profile attendees, but there is no connection between the events.

The controversy shows how the kingdom is coming under mounting pressure to explain what happened to journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a government critic who disappeared two weeks ago.

His disappearance is the latest in a series of developments that have undermined Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's self-styled image as a modernizer, including his jailing of hundreds of businessmen, royals and activists over the past year in an alleged crackdown on corruption.

Attendance at the FII became a hot topic on US banks' third-quarter earnings conference calls over the past week, though the lenders weren't eager to engage. Bank of America Corp's chief financial officer told reporters the bank was "still evaluating" whether to participate, while spokespeople jumped in to decline comment when JPMorgan Chase & Co and Morgan Stanley executives were asked about their decisions.

Relations with Saudi Arabia are of key importance for banks including London-based HSBC. The bank is one of the most active international banks in the kingdom and has been a top adviser for IPOs since 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Earlier this year, the Saudi crown prince asked HSBC chief John Flint and other British bank leaders for an impromptu meeting in London, people with knowledge of the matter said. Flint canceled his appearance at another event so he could attend, the people said at that time.

The head of Deutsche Bank is still scheduled to attend, along with Siemens AG, two of Germany's biggest companies. Siemens is the only international "strategic partner" of FII that hasn't pulled out.

"If we skip communicating with countries where people are missing, I can just stay home," said Siemens chief executive officer Joe Kaeser, who said he's torn about whether to attend the event. If he goes, Mr Kaeser said he's going to "speak up."

"I want my people, the thousands of people who work there, to be able to speak up and speak their mind," he said.


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