Endeavor, Beverly Hills Holding for Entertainment Agencies, sent co-chief executive Ariel Emanuel to press ahead with the negotiations for a Saudi investment.

In contrast to Davos, the conference in Switzerland that draws a list of the rich and famous in the world, the Saudi event has difficulty winning heads of state. This year, the organizers hoped to lure President Emmanuel Macron from France and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from Japan; none was available. Last year, Tony Blair, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Nicolas Sarkozy, former President of France, participated.

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 in a large, cathedral-like lobby with frescoed ceilings and glittering chandeliers.

At the hotel, female guests are encouraged to wear business attire. But outside, they stick to the typically Saudi clothing known as the Abaya, and keep their arms and legs covered. Last year, some women were diverted to the side entrances of the hotel's conference center rather than to the main entrance of the building.

Much of the conference was a familiar mix of speeches and podium discussions. But some remembered the chatter after Kronprinz Muhammad's account of Neom: they joked it was a huge sandcastle. Even stranger were the big robots that the organizers put in the lobby, where they talked to the confused guests.

Looking back, clouds gathered on the horizon. A few days after the foreigners checked out of the Ritz-Carlton, Crown Prince Mohammed turned it into a high-end prison for hundreds of wealthy Saudis. For weeks, the guards kept them locked – some shabby – until they handed over billions of dollars, whereupon the prince claimed they were unlawful profits.

Steven A. Cook, an expert on Saudi Arabia's Council on Foreign Relations, said the conference, like Crown Prince Mohammed's decision to enable women to make an attractive face for a ruthless attempt to transform their society.


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