The Future Investment Initiative Forum returned to Riyadh on Tuesday, two years after the city last hosted the event, at which powerful and affluent people from around the world traditionally gather to look for big contract opportunities.
But this year, the fifth staging of the forum, is different. There was no talk about big contracts; instead, the powerful participants were discussing how can we give back to humanity and solve big problems at a global level. It is all about sustainability and investing in humanity.
The return of the FII after a postponement of a year caused by the pandemic, is a sign that the worst is behind us — at least in Saudi Arabia, which is going through a deep transformation.
Riyadh is no longer talking a language all of its own. It is now talking a global language that includes terms such as “saving the planet,” “sustainability,” “carbon emissions reduction” and “planning for a better world.”
The Saudis wanted to make sure that the launch of this year’s forum would send a strong message and they found no better way of achieving than by having renowned singer Gloria Gaynor appear and perform her famous song, “I Will Survive,” during the opening.
The world, and Saudi Arabia, has survived the pandemic, with all the hard decisions and tough measures this took, from the rapid development of vaccines to prohibiting Muslims from gathering in mosques to pray.
It is perhaps hard to imagine that big asset-management businesses such as BlackRock and Blackstone might exist for anything other than making big deals, but their respective bosses Larry Fink and Stephen Schwarzman are talking about subjects such as inequality and future generations at the forum.
Still, some things at the FII remain the same. The corridors are filled with people in fancy suits and dresses and the event is still a gathering place for the biggest deal-makers on the planet, who collectively manage trillions of dollars in assets.
Empowerment of women is another hot topic, and it was surprising to hear Schwarzman, Blackstone’s co-founder, talk candidly about how his company has had trouble recruiting women.
“Like many people in finance, we were having a lot of trouble hiring women,” he said during the opening panel discussion on Tuesday. “It was a male-dominated business and we made a decision to change that in 2015.
“We analyzed it and what we realized is that women weren’t applying to Blackstone. We tried to find out why and we found out that they were scared of us. I don’t think I’m very scary.”
Ana Botin, chairperson of Banco Santander, was the only woman on the eight-person panel, although there were female speakers at the opening of the forum.
As the first day of the event was ending, Saudi Aramco announced deals that will help it become more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
Indeed, the world has changed.