By Rebecca Evans
BBC News, Jeddah
The conference follows a series of raids on suspected Islamist militants Millions of westerners were planning to attend the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference taking place in the Saudi capital Jeddah this week. But with the arrests and raids on suspected militant cells in the last few weeks, less than half the numbers planning to attend appear to have come. The Kingdom’s young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is in the job for the long haul – he has pledged to overhaul Saudi Arabia’s government and run the country according to a more liberal programme. The prince’s conference aims to showcase Saudi Arabia’s vast oil wealth and showcase the tourism, and investment potential that the oil riches that the kingdom generates. But the terrorism concerns could hamper his plans. Meet the royal A young Saudi businessman’s picture and name is on billboards across Jeddah and its shopping districts, while a Saudi prince’s brand image is plastered all over the city’s silver-wall hotels. But the cost of attending a conference of which you do not really know anything is enormous. And it is striking how many Gulf and Asian corporations, defence companies and investors who have businesses all over the world have come to meet, to negotiate and to want to invest. The now-infamous private Saudi school, Dar Al-Hekma Academy, is setting up satellite schools in the west – around half of the students attending the school in Jeddah are in Dubai, with a big chunk sent to the US, and the rest in Germany. Any significant slide in the Gulf states’ economy and declining oil prices would have a dramatic effect on their ability to sustain the government spending which is sustaining its social welfare state, which is currently overstretched and exploding in size. Many here say they are concerned about Westerners attending an event which is at the centre of a national debate about how Saudi Arabia treats and finances terrorism. The crown prince is out to secure Saudi Arabia’s future, which also includes less reliance on oil to fuel growth, and reforming and modernising Saudi Arabia’s social fabric and economy. But many here worry that the Westerners he wants to attract may prove to be an embarrassing embarrassment if the harsh attitude to women that has been in evidence over the last few weeks, becomes a reality. Events in Jeddah have been hosted by Western business leaders and decision-makers, like Nissan’s Deputy Chairwoman Mitsuo Kinoshita. He says the arrests and raids that have taken place are to blame for the low attendance. They are affecting our country not just our kingdom
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Radio 4’s The World Today podcast: The FII The extent of the damage caused by the crackdown is now becoming clear – the first festival in recent years, to celebrate the iconic Madinah square, was cancelled as a result. After the festival was cancelled this week, the prince is believed to have commissioned the government to build a giant sand mosque in the ancient holy city, to replace the burnt-out charred shrine. And ahead of the closing day of the conference on Friday the New York Times newspaper has announced that it is pulling its journalists from the conference. Some other Western journalists are boycotting, but most western business journalists are coming. But will the economic crisis be a disincentive for Westerners to come? We’ll find out next year. The conference opened on Thursday with a historic speech by Prince Mohammed about the country’s first-ever central bank and the reorganisation of some key economic institutions. He is using this once-a-decade event to offer reassurances about Saudi Arabia’s safety, but is coming up against a continuing unease amongst many in the West about the extent to which Saudi Arabia is cracking down on extremist groups like the radical Islamist movement known as Islamic State. After the recent police raids on suspected militants, we heard Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef say that the kingdom had taken necessary and proportionate measures to defend itself against Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. But the heir to the throne also announced the creation of a new powerful intelligence services ministry, which will become the main intelligence organisation in the country. For many in the West, the fear is that this kind of clampdown is farcical. That Saudi Arabia cannot be the friend the West will need, and that Prince Mohammed may have created a repressive society – even one that draws oil, the principalstay of most western economies.
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