The third annual Future Investment Initiative (FII) forum in Riyadh last week came at an important time for Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom had just leapt 30 places in the World Bank’s index for ease of doing business, and the focus of the FII — technology and innovative thinking — are precisely the issues that will further advance it.
Technology such as 5G and hyperloop will improve access and connectivity throughout the country, including new cities such as Neom and Qiddiya, and there are also ecologically orientated tourism undertakings such as the Red Sea project.
All of it should be seen through the prism of Vision 2030, the drive to diversify away from dependence on oil revenue and create employment for the Kingdom’s educated and ambitious young people.
Moreover, next year Saudi Arabia will assume the presidency of the G20, and the FII was a good testing ground for ideas. For example, the Energy Minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, introduced his sustainability concept of the circular carbon economy, a closed-loop system to reduce, reuse, recycle and remove all types of greenhouse gases.
This approach is likely to be a pillar of the discussions at the G20 summit, building a bridge between consumers of energy and world leaders for whom climate change is top of the agenda, and energy producers. It is precisely this sort of thought leadership that can become an important pillar of the Kingdom’s soft power.
The 2020 summit will not only be the first to be led by an Arab nation, it will also be a summit at which the torch may be passed to new leaders: Ursula von der Leyen will have assumed the presidency of the EU commission, a British government will have been in office for a year, and the outcome of the US presidential election will be known.
Next year Saudi Arabia will assume the presidency of the G20, and the FII was a good testing ground for ideas.
The FII assembled former heads of government of G20 countries with plenty of summit experience: David Cameron of the UK, Matteo Renzi from Italy, Francois Fillon from France and Kevin Rudd from Australia. They spoke of their experience in previous summits and imparted their wisdom to Ibrahim Abdulaziz Al-Assaf, the Saudi minister of state and former foreign minister. It was a timely and far sighted idea to prepare for the Saudi presidency.
Three ideas really gained traction. First, that the FII is a great opportunity to focus global attention on the MENA region and its objectives, such as job creation. Second, that it would be a good idea for the “G18” to impress upon the “G2” — the US and China — that a resolution of their disputes is important, because a trade war between the two largest economies is a problem for the whole world. Third, that the environmental and climate change agenda will be topical. This gives an opening for Prince Abdulaziz’s initiative, and others, such as cleaning up the oceans.
The FII achieved two goals, working toward implementing Vision 2030 and preparing for the Kingdom’s G20 presidency. Assembling this many leaders from business, politics and academia was a clever way of building Saudi Arabia’s soft power. Conferences have become prominent throughout the GCC.
They achieve two things: For one, they showcase the GCC in the best light, thus working against preconceived stereotypes. Second, by assembling the best and the brightest, the organizers are able to make use of their collective brainpower and ingenuity to drive national agendas forward. In a world dominated by economic friction and conflict, the impact of soft power should not be underestimated.
Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources