Several US media organisations and business leaders have pulled out a major Saudi investment conference over the disappearance and suspected murder of Jamal Khashoggi, as global pressure for answers about the whereabouts of the prominent journalist mounts on the Gulf kingdom.
Khashoggi, a Saudi writer and critic, disappeared on October 2 after entering Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul to obtain necessary documents for his upcoming marriage.
Turkish officials said police believed the Saudi journalist was killed inside the consulate, a claim denied by Saudi authorities.
Amid an ongoing investigation, the Financial Times, Bloomberg, CNN and The New York Times, as well as reporters and editors from the Economist and CNBC said on Friday they were no longer participating in the high-profile Future Investment Initiative conference in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, scheduled to begin on October 23.
Dara Khosrowshahi, CEO of ride-sharing company Uber, Bob Bakish, CEO of US mass media conglomerate Viacom and billionaire Steve Case, one of the founders of AOL, also said they were dropping out of this month’s event.
“I’m very troubled by the reports to date about Jamal Khashoggi,” said Khosrowshahi, who was one of the speakers at the conference.
“We are following the situation closely, and unless a substantially different set of facts emerges, I won’t be attending the FII conference in Riyadh.”
Despite the “disappointing” withdrawals, organisers said the conference will go ahead as planned.
“Whilst it is disappointing that some speakers and partners have pulled out, we are looking forward to welcoming thousands of speakers, moderators and guests from all over the world to Riyadh,” a conference spokesperson said in a statement.
Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett, reporting from Washington, DC, said that “there has been a groundswell of pushback from the business community, many feeling it is not the time to go”.
World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, who was scheduled to speak at the conference, also informed Saudi authorities he would not attend, citing a scheduling conflict, a World Bank official told Reuters news agency on Friday.
The disappearance of Khashoggi, who has been living in self-imposed exile in the United States since fleeing Saudi Arabia last year, has cast a shadow over the three-day conference known as “Davos in the Desert.”
Anonymous Turkish officials have described the alleged killing as a “premeditated murder”, saying the journalist’s body was dismembered in the consulate and subsequently moved out of the building.
Saudi officials say the journalist left the consulate after his brief visit, rejecting the Turkish claims as baseless.
Meanwhile, Turkish media have shared photos, video footage and the identities of 15 Saudis who allegedly partook in the suspected assassination, all of whom reportedly travelled to Istanbul the day of Khashoggi’s visit to the consulate.
On Thursday, the Washington Post – for whom Khashoggi wrote columns – reported that Turkish government officials told US officials that it had audio and video recordings that prove Khashoggi was killed in the consulate.
Businesses reassess ties with kingdom
“Davos in the desert” has become the biggest show for investors to promote Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform vision.
It has attracted some of the world’s business elite including Wall Street’s top bosses and executives from multinational media, tech and financial services companies.
But amid the controversy, global business leaders are also reassessing their ties with Saudi Arabia in other projects.
British billionaire Richard Branson said his Virgin Group would suspend its discussions with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund over a planned $1bn investment in the group’s space ventures.
“What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government,” Branson said in a statement on Thursday
Branson also said he would suspend his directorship in two Saudi tourism projects around the Red Sea, citing Khashoggi’s disappearance.
On Wednesday, former US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said that he had suspended his role on the board of Saudi Arabia’s planned mega business zone NEOM until more is known about what happened.
Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, said the crown prince will be feeling the pressure from all sides.
“Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars trying to build up his (bin Salman’s) reputation as a new visionary leader and now all of that has effectively been flushed down the toilet by this apparent assassination attempt that he has overseen,” Hashemi told Al Jazeera in an interview from Istanbul.
US Treasury secretary to attend conference
While media and technology executives abandoned the event, the financial industry showed no signs of making a similar statement of protest.
None of the financial firms whose senior executives were scheduled to speak said they had made any changes to those plans.
US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchins and top Wall Street banks also said they will attend.
“I am planning on going at this point. If more information comes out and changes, we can look at that, but I am planning on going,” Mnuchin said in an interview with CNBC on Friday.
US President Donald Trump said on Thursday that the US had investigators overseas to assist Turkey in its probe into Khashoggi’s disappearance, but has appeared reluctant to take punitive measures against Saudi Arabia, despite pressure from both parties.
Hashemi said Trump will not be able to “bail bin Salman out” of this situation, viewed by “many around the world as a bridge too far”.
“Saudi Arabia is now being viewed as a rogue nation that is generating global instability, and so, I don’t think Trump, despite his preference to try and save the crown prince, will be able to rescue him,” he added.