Saudis plan energy, metals deals to salvage forum facing outcry

Saudi Arabia plans to announce a raft of deals in energy and base metals on Tuesday as it tries to spotlight its annual investment conference, an event overshadowed by international outrage over the killing of a journalist critical of the government. 

The deals include agreements with French oil giant Total SA, commodities trading house Trafigura Group and several Chinese and South Korean companies, according to people familiar with the situation, who asked not to be identified because the matter hasn’t been officially disclosed.

Some of the deals totaling about $50bn have already been announced, while others mark progressive steps on existing agreements. A few of the announcements are for new ventures.

 Trafigura declined to comment, and Total didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, seeks to portray an image of business as usual at the conference, which has endured dozens of cancellations from top bankers, chief executives, and foreign dignitaries.

The gathering gained the moniker of “Davos in the desert” last year after it attracted some of the same business elite who frequent the unrelated World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The event is the brainchild of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who runs day-to-day business in the kingdom.  

Participants cancel

The 33-year royal has come under pressure since the Saudi government acknowledged after days of denials that a group of his own intelligence officers had killed a Washington Post contributor, Jamal Khashoggi, at the country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. 

While global business leaders commended the crown prince last year for his efforts to reform the nation’s economy, executives in industries from banking to new technologies are skipping the conference this time.

Top oil industry officials, however, are still participating, including Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne and the CEOs of Schlumberger and Baker Hughes, two of the world’s top oil services groups.

The Saudi government plans a public signing ceremony for some of the deals - mostly memorandums of understanding rather than final investment decisions - during the conference, in what appears to be an effort to shore up confidence among international business leaders.

Saudi Arabia pumps one of every ten barrels of oil consumed worldwide.

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