This year’s Future Investment Initiative (FII), a high-level conference and platform for discussion among the world’s most influential business and government leaders, took place from October 26-28 in Riyadh. Launched in 2016, the annual event is run by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion sovereign wealth fund. The fifth annual FII kicked off under the theme of “Invest in Humanity” and featured over 250 expert speakers from the fields of business, education, and government. Talks at the forum centered around emerging sectors such as artificial intelligence, robotics, education, healthcare, and sustainability.
Other speakers throughout the day touched on a range of subjects, such as sustainability funding, the global response to the pandemic, adjusting to supply chain challenges, cryptocurrency, and the shape of the post-pandemic world economy. Notable speakers included Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis; Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, CEO and Managing Director of UAE-based Mubadala Investment Company; Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, Inc.; David Solomon, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs; and Nadhmi Al-Nasr, CEO of NEOM. Al-Nasr reported that NEOM, the $500 billion Saudi gigaproject to build a futuristic, sustainable city along the Red Sea in the country’s northwest, is meeting its goals and making quick progress.
The second day’s featured speakers included Saudi Minister of Energy H.R.H. Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman; Lorenzo Simonelli, Chairman and CEO of Baker Hughes; Matt Harris, Founding Partner of Global Infrastructure Partners; and Dr. Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech.
Talks on the second day of the FII focused on the circular carbon economy, green technologies, sustainable tourism, digitalization, environmental and social governance (ESG), and investing in equality. The circular carbon economy was described at the Forum as “an integrated and inclusive approach to transitioning toward more climate-friendly energy systems that support and enable sustainable development” that revolves around the four ‘R’s: reducing the carbon used in the first place; reusing carbon outputs as input for feedstock and fuel; recycling carbon for use in bioenergy and through the natural carbon cycle; and removing excess carbon for storage.
The theme of Vision 2030 was prevalent throughout the conference, and H.E. Khalid Al Mudaifer, Vice Minister for Mining Affairs for the Ministry of Industry and Mineral Resources, noted that the Saudi government has taken the step of updating over 400 of its policies in support of Vision 2030’s diversification goals. Other officials highlighted Saudi achievements in diversifying and transforming its economy, with one noting that 44 multinational companies have recently chosen Riyadh for their regional headquarters. H.R.H. Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud declared that technological developments could allow Saudi Arabia to reach its goal of net-zero carbon before its self-declared deadline of 2060. The Minister also announced plans for a micro-financing program, with a size of $500 million to $2 billion, for energy projects targeted at improving green energy supply and security for 750 million people.
The opening session on the third day featured John Selby, Managing Director of Thiel Capital; Fadi Ali Ghandour, Executive Chairman of WAMDA; Ronaldo Mouchawarm, Vice President of Amazon MENA; Akash Shah, Chief Growth Officer at The Bank of New York Mellon; and Dr. Hani Enaya, Head of Private Investments at Sanabil Investments. Speakers and sessions on the final day focused on venture capital, digital finance, digital healthcare, digital education, entertainment and tourism, artificial intelligence and its applications in fields such as self-driving vehicles, and emerging green technologies.
Ahmad Al-Khowaiter, Chief Technology Officer of Saudi Aramco, held a parallel session on green, low-carbon hydrogen production, remarking on the challenges and cost of investing and scaling the technology. Al-Khowaiter also said that the technology of carbon capture technology is both feasible and scalable at present. Tony F. Chan, President of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), highlighted the institution’s recent efforts in green technology and energy investments, notably the $10 million it raised to develop technology to hydroponically grow plants from seawater, and called upon universities worldwide to take a leading role in developing the green technologies.
Another parallel session included international executives from the entertainment industry, who held a panel discussion on the region’s future of entertainment and the region’s rapid growth of quality, original content. Fawaz Farooqui, Managing Director of Cruise Saudi, has set a goal of attracting one million tourists per year on cruise ships by 2028, as well as creating 50,000 direct and indirect jobs in the industry by 2035 and opening a total of five cruise ports in the country by 2025; this statement follows the Kingdom’s recent admittance as a member of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). Peter Rawlinson, CEO of PIF-backed Lucid Motors, spoke to the future of electric vehicles (EV) and predicted that “the future will be defined by a tech race between the companies that adopt and embrace EV technology;” Rawlinson also reaffirmed Lucid’s plans to produce EVs in Saudi Arabia by 2024 in a price range competitive to that of Tesla’s.
Since the FII was first held, the total value of related agreements and investments have reached $125 billion, according to FII Institute CEO Richard Attias. This year’s FII has already led to several new major announcements. In the sectors of tourism and entertainment, the WTTC announced that Saudi Arabia, its newest member, will be the host for the 2022 WTTC Summit. The Royal Commission for Al Ula announced the start of a long-term partnership with a consortium of French development companies to oversee infrastructure works at Al Ula, the country’s tourism megaproject focused on making the historic, ancient Nabatean archeological site in the desert more accessible to tourism. NEOM’s Tech and Digital Holding Company announced a major $200 million joint venture (JV) agreement with OneWeb, the world’s second largest satellite operator, to provide high-speed internet connectivity to the city via low earth orbit satellites.
The FII has also led to some notable investments in the sphere of sustainability, with Saudi Aramco signing a total of five agreements with the following group of companies: Modern Industrial Investment Holding Group, and Intercontinental Energy, South Pole Carbon Asset Management Ltd., Yousef Abdulrahman alDhabyan Agricultural Est., BFG International, and ABB Group. These agreements were signed to develop a new green hydrogen and ammonia project, develop agreements for research and development of natural solutions to reduce emissions, localize manufacturing of advanced building materials, and localize digital technologies used in the oil and gas sector. In addition, the Saudi government hired BlackRock advise its new National Infrastructure Fund, established to fund $53 billion worth of projects in water, transportation, energy, health, and other critical sectors over the next decade.
The closing session ended on a positive, hopeful note while recognizing the challenges ahead of the world’s rapidly changing social, economic, and environmental landscape.