Big Business Drops Saudi ‘Davos in the Desert’ as Outcry over Murdered Journalist Builds, Sanctions Mooted

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) and US journalist Maria Bartiromo attend the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh, on October 24, 2017. The Crown Prince pledged a 'moderate, open' Saudi Arabia, breaking with ultra-conservative clerics in favour of an image catering to foreign investors and Saudi youth. …

Saudi Arabia is scrambling to rescue a key investment summit set to begin on Tuesday, as the fallout from the murder of critic Jamal Khashoggi drives a building wave of policymakers and corporate giants to withdraw.

The three-day Future Investment Initiative (FII), dubbed “Davos in the desert”, has seen dozens of executives — from bankers JP Morgan to carmaker Ford and ride-hailing app Uber — scrapping plans to attend.

Media giants Bloomberg, CNN and the Financial Times have walked away, while Australia withdrew its representatives, saying it was “no longer appropriate” to attend, due to the Jamal Khashoggi affair.

Turkey claims the writer and critic of the Saudi regime, who was a columnist for the Washington Post, was killed and dismembered by a “hit squad” on a visit to the Kingdom’s embassy in Istanbul.

Saudi authorities maintain he died in a “brawl” with local consular officials, the latest in a series of conflicting explanations for his death. Turkish officials suspect a team of Saudi agents was sent to assassinate him.

As the controversy swirls on, the non-attendees are all following the lead set by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin who ended speculation Thursday morning when he announced he will be skipping the event.

On Saturday, Saudi organisers said more than 120 speakers and moderators will participate. Last Monday, they had listed more than 150 speakers. The event’s website has now been taken down.

As western companies show increasing reluctance to be involved, China and Russia are still sure to be represented.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has also said he will definitely attend as Islamabad seeks funding to plug its deteriorating finances.

At last year’s inaugural FII — a star-studded event at Riyadh’s glittering Ritz-Carlton hotel- Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was lionised as a visionary as he wowed investors with talking robots and plans for a futuristic mega-city called NEOM.

At the same event, Saudi Arabia became the first country to grant a robot citizenship, prompting critics to note the robot may have more rights than women in the country.

The robot, named “Sophia,” took to the stage where it was interviewed in what many speculated to be a scripted conversation.

The UK’s international trade secretary Dr Liam Fox  pulled out of the conference last week, with the Department for International Trade saying Dr Fox had decided it was not “the right time” to visit, urging Saudi leaders to conduct a “credible” investigation into Mr Khashoggi’s suspected murder.

Meanwhile Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based risk consultancy Cornerstone Global Associates who has vigorously defended the kingdom’s stand on Khashoggi, said western companies abandoning Saudi are causing “irreparable damage” to their own business interests in the kingdom, said

“It will soon be business as usual,” he said.

The UK may not be as willing as Mr. Nuseibeh to see things return to how they were.

Saudi officials found to have been involved in the killing should be targeted by new sanctions introduced by Theresa May in the wake of the Salisbury attack, MPs and campaigners said on Saturday.

The Daily Telegraph reports Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary, led calls for the Magnitsky law, which mirrors similar legislation in the US and Canada, to be used against any individuals complicit in the death of Mr. Khashoggi.

AFP contributed to this report

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