Endeavor, the Beverly Hills holding company for entertainment agencies, sent its co-chief executive, Ariel Emanuel, to help push along negotiations for a Saudi investment.
Unlike Davos, the conference in Switzerland that draws a roster of the world’s wealthy and prominent, the Saudi event has struggled to attract heads of state. This year, the organizers hoped to lure President Emmanuel Macron of France and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan; neither was available. Last year, Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Britain, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France, attended.
The Ritz-Carlton, originally built as a palace for guests of the royal family and foreign dignitaries, is a fitting venue. Visitors walk on a red carpet into a vast, cathedral-like lobby, with frescoed ceilings and glittering chandeliers.
Inside the hotel, female guests are encouraged to wear business attire. But outside, they stick to the more typical Saudi dress, known as an abaya, keeping their arms and legs covered. Last year, some women were redirected to side entrances of the hotel’s conference center, rather than the main entrance to the building.
Much of the conference was a familiar mix of speeches and panel discussions. But some recalled the hallway chatter after Crown Prince Mohammed’s presentation on Neom: They joked that it was a giant sand castle. Even stranger were the large robots that the organizers placed in the lobby, where they engaged in conversations with the bemused guests.
In retrospect, clouds were gathering on the horizon. A few days after the foreigners checked out of the Ritz-Carlton, Crown Prince Mohammed converted it into a high-end prison for hundreds of wealthy Saudis. For weeks, guards kept them locked up — roughing up some — until they handed over billions of dollars in what the prince insisted were ill-gotten gains.
Steven A. Cook, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the conference, like Crown Prince Mohammed’s decision to allow women to drive, was calculated to put an appealing face on what is a ruthless attempt to transform his society.