Foreign companies and investors are distancing themselves from Saudi Arabia since news of the disappearance and possible murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist critical of the government.
Several companies and individuals have withdrawn from the Saudi Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh later this month. The conference, which is now in its second year, has been referred to as “Davos in the Desert,” a comparison to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The conference is hosted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) and is part of his plan to reduce the country’s dependence on oil.
On Friday, the Financial Times, Bloomberg, CNBC, CNN became the latest to pull out of the conference, with CNN also announcing that its reporters would no longer be moderating panels at the conference.
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi also said Friday that he was very “troubled by the reports to date about Jamal Khashoggi” and said he would not participate in the conference “unless a substantially different set of fact emerges.” Khsorowshahi’s announcement is particularly significant given Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund invested $5.6 billion in Uber in 2016. The company’s largest shareholder, SoftBank, also received much of its investment capital from Saudi Arabia, according to CNBC.
Earlier in the week, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, HuffPost co-founder Ariana Huffington, Viacom CEO Bob Bakish, AOL co-founder Steve Case, and Economist editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes were all slated to attend but distanced themselves from the conference.
On Friday morning, the Future Investment Initiative website no longer had a dedicated tab for speakers and the program schedule did not list anyone’s names.
The website for the saudi Future Investment Initiative conference no longer has a ‘speakers’ tab and the Program schedule now has no names, just the conversation subject (h/t @IvanaKottasova) https://t.co/TMmX1Ec1mo
— Hadas Gold (@Hadas_Gold) October 12, 2018
Several companies and individuals have also backed away from Neom, a futuristic mega city announced by the Saudi government last year, estimated to cost $500 billion. On Tuesday, the Saudi government revealed the project’s 18-member advisory board, as many were still demanding to know what happened to Khashoggi. Since then, a number of the individuals have dropped out of the project or denied their involvement to begin with.
Apple told BuzzFeed News that its design chief, Jony Ive, was never part of the project. He is no longer listed as being part of the advisory board, and the initial press release was amended to remove his name. Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff also denied being part of the project, though he is still listed as a board member.
Former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told Axios that he would suspend his role on the board until more is known about Khashoggi. IDEO CEO Tim Brown and Sam Altman, the president of tech accelerator Y Combinator, have also suspended their involvement in the project, according to BuzzFeed. Altman said he was still interested in building smart cities, but would wait “until the facts regarding Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance are known.”
Virgin Group founder Richard Branson said Thursday that he halted discussion with the Saudi government over possible investment in his space tourism venture. Branson told The Guardian that reports of the Saudi government’s role in Khashoggi’s case “if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government.”
Even lobbying groups in Washington, D.C. have moved to cut ties with Saudi Arabia this week. On Thursday, The Harbour Group, which represented the Saudi Embassy for $80,000 a month, sent a letter ending its contract, the firm’s managing director told The New York Times. The Times reported that some other firms representing the Saudi government are discussing how to proceed or considering doing the same.
Of course, not everyone has backed away as quickly. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told CNBC Friday that he was still planning on attending the Future Investments Initiative conference, and several top banks are also still expected to be present. On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump said he wouldn’t stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of the “massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country.”
The suspension of ties thus far is still significant for such a close U.S. ally, however, especially given that Saudi Arabia has recently has painted itself as reforming under Bin Salman’s new leadership. During a trip to the United States earlier this year, the crown prince was warmly received by the Trump administration, Hollywood executives, and much of the press. The U.S.-Saudi alliance has also lasted despite its invasion and bombing of Yemen, where Saudi has used U.S. weapons and thousands of civilians have been killed.
Khashoggi is a Washington Post contributor and critic of the Saudi government and bin Salman. He disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, seeking needed documents before marrying his Turkish fiancee.
On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that Turkey told U.S. officials it has video and audio proof that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate. The Post also reported on Wednesday that U.S. intelligence reports from before Khashoggi’s disappearance reveal that bin Salman authorized an operation to get him away from his home in Virginia and detain him.
The Saudi government continues to deny any role in his disappearance, saying he left the consulate shortly after entering. His fiancee, who was waiting outside, says she never saw him return.