What Happened When Saudi Arabia Took its Money and Influence to Miami

Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, with President Biden in 2022. The prince didn’t attend a big investor conference in Miami last week, but his name was on the lips of attendees.Credit…Saudi Royal Court/Via Reuters

Toeing the line in Miami Beach

America’s corporate elite were everywhere in Miami at the Future Investment Initiative conference, Saudi Arabia’s latest bid to showcase its extensive wealth and deepen ties with Western business.

The event last week showed how far the Saudis have shifted the narrative after murdering the journalist Jamal Khashoggi — and how willing executives are to kiss the ring of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, in return for cash. DealBook’s Lauren Hirsch was on hand to report on the financiers and Hollywood A-listers who made the trip.

Everyone wanted everything to look normal. The Saudis are using their vast oil wealth to become one the world’s biggest investors and forge closer relationships with Wall Street, Silicon Valley and more.

Lots of big names showed up: Steve Schwarzman of Blackstone, Barry Sternlicht of Starwood, Alex Karp of Palantir and Hollywood royalty like Brian Grazer and Gwyneth Paltrow. (So too did former Trump officials including Steven Mnuchin, the former Treasury secretary; Mike Pompeo, a previous secretary of state; and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.) Attendees mingled over wine, which is banned in Saudi Arabia, and Carbone’s spicy rigatoni.

But everything isn’t entirely normal. One guest who works with a Saudi family office told DealBook he couldn’t invest in an artificial intelligence company because its owners were wary of being connected to the kingdom. Another said that the real test of Saudi’s makeover is the level of her family’s concern when she visits the country.

Saudi demands that its partners set foot in the kingdom in return for cash. Some guests whispered that the Saudis expect private equity firms to set up offices there and make sure their C.E.O. makes at least one annual visit as part of any deal.

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