The nameless consulting firms at Saudi Arabia's 'Davos in the Desert'

26 October 2019 4 min. read
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Saudi Arabia's Future Investment Initiative summit is back . . . and kicking another own goal.  

The Saudi Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference – or ‘Davos in the Desert’ – is back this coming week after last year’s intense media scrutiny and series of withdrawals – for what is likely to be another year of intense media scrutiny and series of withdrawals. The issue is, as of late on Friday (Gulf Standard Time), there’s still no official public information available on which participating companies there are to scrutinise and who could be potentially pushed to withdraw.

The ‘strategic’ and ‘knowledge’ partners sections of the FII website remain populated alone with the words ‘coming soon’ – despite the large-scale international event being scheduled from this Tuesday to Friday – while the 2019 ‘speakers’ section describes a roster of leading decision-makers, investors and global experts but refers to nobody in particular. Presumably they’ve all been booked in advance. The plenary sessions also appear to be panellist-free.

With last year’s boycott calls driven by allegations surrounding the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and so more broadly then the suppression of information, the secrecy around this year’s event – or even if mere oversight – is at the very least poor ‘optics’ for all parties involved, including the eleven 'world-leading' but nameless professional services firms noted as partners in a passing reference buried deep down on an single page of the site.

There is absolutely no allegation being levelled here that the participating consultancies have requested the omission themselves – which would of course be silly considering they’ve all (likely, we don’t formally know who they are) been openly active in the Kingdom in the twelve months since the last summit, many in cooperation with the government, as can be noted on’s Saudi Arabia news page, which draws a portion of its content from official company releases.

Still, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and all that.  A quick whip around the websites and social media channels of some of the (likely) 2019 FII’ Knowledge Partners – picking say those which performed in the role last year – reveals almost no mention whatsoever of the event (in English) going back for at the least the past couple of weeks; the exception being Ernst & Young, which posted of being a proud partner on Thursday, less than five days prior to kick-off.

Whether related or not, EY’s twitter-post also came a day after details of the event programme were leaked online. Cue intense media scrutiny and the likely withdrawals to come. While security concerns may have been a potential factor in not announcing participation earlier in the lead-up (and so won’t publish the names of individual speakers if that is the case), any such concern would still surely persist, and so is it responsible then to send the staff in at all?

Or perhaps, otherwise, these consultancies have been contractually obliged to keep quiet? Whichever way you swing it, it’s not a good look, and especially not in the context of last year and the current climate of public distrust. It would appear, on the face of it, that either some of the world’s biggest consulting firms have deliberately sought to avoid bad press, or willingly signed up to an event which has for whatever reason chosen to conceal the details of their involvement. Either way, own goal kicked.

McKinsey & Company, which may or may not be participating this year (but probably is), copped most of the brunt last year, and in general among consultancies for the firm’s activities in the Kingdom – a position which it has publicly defended. The events of last year, among other issues, have led to sustained criticism of the traditionally guarded firm, which it has since sought to address through a widely stated intent for greater transparency. The FII conference of 2019 was the perfect opportunity. 

This year’s summit will – officially – focus on three pillars; ‘Sustainable Future’, exploring new investment models that can support profit, people and planet; ‘Technology for Good’, concerning business and policy frameworks that can guide the growth of the tech industry, and; ‘Advanced Society’, covering cultural and organisational systems that can inspire humanity in the 'age of machines'. All three of these goals will require greater openness and trust, in both the world's power-brokers and those who advise them.