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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Saudi Arabia entertains world's business chiefs with robots and future cities 

"All the success factors are there to create something big in Saudi Arabia,” crown prince Mohammed tells Future Investment Initiative attendees

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Masayoshi Son, SoftBank Group Corp. Chairman and CEO, attend the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh. Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Masayoshi Son, SoftBank Group Corp. Chairman and CEO, attend the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh. Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters

A futuristic video featuring the disruptive powers of technology with Muhammed Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan scholar who travelled the medieval world, and Albert Einstein talking about a changing world and embracing change, welcomed more than 3,000 people from across the globe at Saudi Arabia’s three-day Future Investment Initiative summit in Riyadh this past week.

“Come with us the future is happening”, “We’re all in this together” are some of the clip’s messages that echo the forward-looking "can do" attitude of 32-year-old crown prince Mohammad bin Salman.

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In the lobby of the palatial Ritz Carlton hotel and adjacent convention centre, people could be excused for thinking they were at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos or an event in Washington DC. Hundreds of women engaged in discussion with other guests. Outside one plenary session, amused visitors stopped to interact with a robot, while others sought help from a digital concierge. Some event organisers dressed in traditional garb held country flags offering to help those who spoke Spanish, German, Russian among other languages.

Attendees included Sir Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, Ariana Huffington, the co-founder of Huffington Post, Mohammed El Erian, the chief economic adviser at Allianz and the former chief executive of Pimco, Tom Barrack, the founder and the chairman of Colony Capital, and Christine Lagarde the managing director of the IMF.

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At a welcome gala dinner on day one of the event, dozens of people leaped to take selfies with the enigmatic prince Mohammed - public light-hearted courting no other royal of his stature had ever engaged in. His proactive nature, outward outlook and desire to chip away at bureaucracy and any notion of reclusiveness that may have characterised the country decades earlier, is real and tangible.

Earlier in the day, prince Mohammed took to the stage for a panel discussion dubbed "The Pulse of Change" that included the Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son, who convinced the kingdom to invest US$45 billion in his technology fund. Mr Son, who once nearly went bankrupt, is the richest man in Japan and has a record rate of return on his investments averaging 44 per cent over 18 years.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Masayoshi Son, SoftBank Group Corp. Chairman and CEO, attend the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh. Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters
Saudi crown prince Mohammed and Masayoshi Son. Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters

In the context of a discussion about a $500bn futuristic mega-project in the Red Sea called NEOM that will extend to Jordan and Egypt, Mr Son emphasised the importance of the project and how technology was key.

“We have to create the next century city so we can expand and extend the wealth … we can make it happen with technology,” Mr Son told delegates. “I don’t know why God keeps on giving to this kingdom: oil; sun; and sunshine,” he added, as the audience erupted in laughter. “We are planning the cities of tomorrow with the newest technology,” he added.

The 26,500 square kilometre NEOM zone, which will include nine specialised sectors and integrate the latest technology, will be funded by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), in addition to local and international investors.

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PIF is the engine of growth that is helping to fuel change in the kingdom. The fund, which currently has $230bn in assets, has entered into strategic partnerships and is diversifying its investments beyond conventional sectors with the aim of generating returns, nurturing a manufacturing base in the kingdom and creating jobs for 70 per cent of Saudis who are under the age of 30. The fund agreed to invest around US$1 billion in Virgin Galactic, British billionaire businessman Richard Branson’s spaceship company and small satellite launcher Virgin Orbit.

“All the success factors are there to create something big in Saudi Arabia,” prince Mohammed told the gathered audience. The location of NEOM is enough to create any amount of energy. Only 3 per cent of Saudi Arabia can provide 50 per cent of the world’s electricity, Mr Son pointed out.

It is a “place for dreamers that want to create something new in the world”, prince Mohammed said.

“It’s easy to dream, to make it a reality is different,” he acknowledged before adding, “this is the challenge, we will pass this challenge we will overcome it.”