Wall Street titans back in Saudi Arabia as human rights storm erupts

Financial conference goes on after executions

By Zahraa Alkhalisi, CNN Business

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - Some of the biggest names in global finance appeared in Riyadh on Wednesday, hours after news that Saudi Arabia had executed 37 people turned the spotlight back on the kingdom's human rights record.

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, HSBC CEO John Flint and JPMorgan's Chief Operating Officer Daniel Pinto all appeared on stage at a financial conference organized by the Saudi government. Morgan Stanley's Asia managing director, Chin Chou, was also there.

The executed Saudi nationals had all been convicted of terror-related crimes, and one was crucified after execution, the official Saudi news agency said Tuesday. The majority were men from the country's Shia Muslim minority, according to Amnesty International, which dismissed the legal proceedings as "sham trials that violated international fair trial standards which relied on confessions extracted through torture."

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet condemned the mass executions in a statement posted on Twitter on Wednesday. "At least 3 [of the men] were minors when sentenced & one of the men's bodies was put on public display," her office said.

None of the finance executives were asked about human rights on the conference stage. JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley declined to comment. HSBC and BlackRock did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A chill in relations with foreign businesses and investors that followed the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year had begun to thaw recently.

And the scene in Riyadh on Wednesday was very different compared to six months ago, when a public outcry over the killing of Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents in Turkey saw dozens of high profile global CEOs and media organizations pull out of an investment conference. Saudi prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five of the 11 suspects accused of killing Khashoggi.

Dubbed "Davos in the Desert," the event in October was designed to showcase Crown Prince Mohammed's bin Salman's Vision 2030, a plan to diversify the economy over the next decade with the help of foreign investment.

Billionaire Richard Branson pulled back from two tourism projects and suspended discussions with the Saudi government about a $1 billion investment in Virgin's space companies. No major deals have been announced with Western companies since.

Saudi Arabia has in recent months been trying to salvage its image as a nation open for business.

Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon reportedly visited Riyadh in early April, just days before the bank helped arrange a $12.5 billion bond sale for state-owned oil giant, Saudi Aramco.

HSBC, JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley also worked on that deal, which saw demand from international investors for the Aramco bonds top $100 billion.

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink told the conference in Riyadh that his company had bought some of the Aramco bonds and is looking for other "opportunities" in the kingdom.

Even before the executions were revealed, Saudi Arabia was facing renewed criticism over its human rights record. Last month, 36 countries signed an open letter calling for the release of activists, including women, jailed for "exercising their fundamental freedoms."

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