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Bosses pull out of Saudi event but banks still seem poised to earn from reforms

JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon may have pulled out of Saudi Arabia's flagship investment conference next week but his bank remains in the top slot for earnings in the country.

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Dimon was the first of a number of high-profile bank CEOs and business leaders who have said they will not attend the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh — dubbed the "Davos in the Desert" — organized by Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, from Oct. 23 to 25.

His decision prompted a flood of other bank bosses to follow suit: John Flint, CEO of HSBC Holdings PLC; Bill Winters, CEO of Standard Chartered PLC; Jean Lemierre, the chairman of BNP Paribas SA; Tidjane Thiam, CEO of Credit Suisse Group AG; Frederic Oudea, CEO of Société Générale SA; and International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde have all said they will not be attending. The U.K.'s international trade secretary Liam Fox pulled out, too, along with France's Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced in a tweet shortly after 12pm E.T. Oct. 18, after a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that he was withdrawing from the conference.

Their announcements follow the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi from Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate Oct. 2. Khashoggi was a critic of the kingdom in his columns for The Washington Post, and Turkish authorities claim that he had been tortured to death by a group of Saudis, many of whom appear to have links to the Saudi government. Saudi Arabia has dismissed the accusations as "lies."

The New York Times has reported that four of the 15 people named by the Turkish authorities as suspects in Khashoggi's disappearance have links to the country's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, son of King Salman. The prince is hosting the conference which was set to feature 150 speakers from 140 countries. At least 30 delegates had dropped out by Oct. 18.

Company ethics

"The fact that these reports are not regarded as wholly out of character should remind us of the ongoing reputational risks of engaging with Saudi Arabia. Whether or not the reports of Khashoggi's murder are accurate, it should re-open debate around the ethics of companies and investment banks operating in Saudi Arabia. The international community cannot continue to allow Saudi Arabia to act with impunity," said Emma Webb, research fellow in the Centre on Radicalization and Terrorism at the London-based Henry Jackson Society think tank.

However, despite the absence of some of the highest profile U.S. and European bank bosses it appeared many of the same banks would still be represented at the conference by more junior executives. None of the banks contacted by S&P Global Market Intelligence would comment on the future of their operations in the country.

HSBC, which declined to comment any further on its involvement with Saudi Arabia, has long been active in the country and has a 40% stake in Saudi British Bank. At $19.17 million, HSBC's fees earned in the country are second only to JPMorgan's $21.85 million. HSBC remains a "strategic partner" — or leading sponsor — of the conference, and senior HSBC bankers are planning to attend the event, according to Bloomberg.

So are bankers from Goldman Sachs, say various media reports, and Credit Suisse which declined to comment but which is also classed as a "strategic partner" at the conference along with other financial services firms including EY, Deloitte, PwC, and management consultants McKinsey, Bain and Co., BCG, and Oliver Wyman.

Japan's banks, meanwhile, including Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc., Mizuho Financial Group Inc. and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group Inc. are among the top 10 investment banks in the country earning $17.20 million, $14.28 million and $14.19 million, respectively, but there have been no statements from them on Khashoggi's disappearance. None replied to requests for comment from S&P Global Market Intelligence.

The CEO of one of the highest profile European banks, Christian Sewing of Germany's Deutsche Bank AG, has yet to make up his mind whether to attend, according to a Bloomberg report.

Investment bank earnings in Saudi

The 20 investment banks which earn the most in fees in Saudi Arabia, accumulate relatively small sums from their work there — just $250.33 million in total to date in 2018, according to information from Refinitiv. Five of the 20 are Saudi banks, the rest include European, Chinese, Japanese and one U.A.E bank.

According to figures from investment bank analytics firm Coalition, Saudi Arabia accounts for about 25% of the £1.3 billion revenue which global investment banks made from clients based in the six countries which make up the Gulf Cooperation Council. The others are Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain.

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While investment banks may not be earning huge sums now, they anticipated great rewards in the future beginning with the fees expected through handling the partial flotation of Saudi Arabian Oil Co., a state-owned company.

The plan to float the company was the centerpiece of the changes introduced by the crown prince since he took charge of the country on behalf of his father in 2015. The sale of 5% of Aramco was billed as the biggest stock market flotation ever after the crown prince valued the company at $2 trillion. Investment banks involved in the flotation were expected to share a fee of about $200 million.

Reports emerged over the summer of 2018 that plans for the float had been shelved or delayed after considerable resistance to the scheme within the country and finally from King Salman himself, but Prince Mohammed subsequently denied these but said it would go ahead by 2021.

The flotation was the key part of the crown prince's Vision 2030 program to turn his country from an oil-dependent state into a private-investment driven economy. Investment banks wanted to work on the flotation because it was seen as a way to win other work from privatizations which were likely to follow as the prince revamped the Saudi economy. The country holds 45% of SoftBank of Japan's $100 billion Vision Fund, for instance, a key investor in tech firms including Uber.

The flotation is on hold, but the banks see no reason, yet, to reduce their presence in the country.

"At the moment it is reasonably easy for the bank bosses to pull out of this conference, it looks the right thing to do. But when there's real money on the line would the banks refuse to do business with the Saudis? I'm not so sure about that," said one European banker whose company operates in Saudi Arabia, but who declined to be named.

It is an approach alluded to by U.S. President Donald Trump in his first comments on the case when he noted that Saudi Arabia is one of corporate America's biggest clients with deals worth $110 billion on the books.

The industry remembers, too, what happens when investment banks pull out of countries. One commentator cited Bank of America Merrill Lynch which pulled out of Turkey during the financial crisis and has struggled to get back: "Banks tend to find that regulators have long memories if they leave a country and then want to return," he said.

Coalition is owned by CRISIL. S&P Global Market Intelligence and CRISIL are owned by S&P Global Inc.