Nation & World

Western walkout of Saudi 'Davos in the Desert' conference over reported death of Jamal Khashoggi undermines kingdom's modernization plans

FILE PHOTO: Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London Britain, September 29, 2018. Picture taken September 29, 2018. Middle East Monitor/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London Britain, September 29, 2018. Picture taken September 29, 2018. Middle East Monitor/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

The growing number of Western companies distancing themselves from Saudi Arabia over the alleged killing of dissident Jamal Khashoggi is throwing a wrench in the kingdom’s push to modernize its economy and lessen its dependence on oil.

Nearly a dozen executives and companies in the tech, media and entertainment fields, including Uber Technologies, Viacom and The New York Times, have announced they will no longer participate in a Saudi investment conference nicknamed Davos in the Desert this month, with most attributing their decision to Khashoggi’s apparent murder.

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and tech investor Steve Case have also suspended dealings with the kingdom, saying they won’t participate in Saudi tourism projects or, in Branson’s case, continue discussions with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund about possible investments. Branson said that reports that Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, if true, “would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi Government.”

Well-known figures in the U.S. tech world also backed away from a Saudi project called NEOM aimed at building a tech and tourism hub in the northwestern corner of the country. Sam Altman, president of startup investment firm Y Combinator, said he was suspending involvement with NEOM’s advisory board “until the facts regarding Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance are known.”

Those industries are the very ones Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sought to cultivate over the past year as the kingdom attempts to lessen its dependence on oil revenue and ensure jobs for the kingdom’s young population, more than 60 percent of which is under age 30, according to Karen Young, a Saudi expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

The Future Investment Initiative conference, taking place Oct. 23-25 in Riyadh, had been a centerpiece of those efforts. Before the protests against Khashoggi’s disappearance began gathering momentum, the conference website showed dozens of top Western business officials scheduled to attend as speakers. It also listed more than a dozen Western companies as “partners” of the event.

Viacom chief executive Bob Bakish, who was listed among the speakers, said through a spokesman Thursday he would no longer be attending the conference. Earlier Thursday, Viacom said it was “aware of the reports regarding Jamal Khashoggi” and “monitoring the situation closely.”

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Another scheduled speaker, Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi, said in a statement Thursday that he was also withdrawing, and that he was “very troubled” by the reports about Khashoggi. “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,” Khosrowshahi said.

The companies’ announcements follow some by U.S. media organizations and executives, including the New York Times and Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, that they would not participate in the Saudi conference. Friday morning CNN and and Bloomberg also pulled out of the event.

The Turkish government has told U.S. officials it has audio and video recordings proving Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul this month.

Branson was one of the first non-journalism executives to break with the Saudis. “I had high hopes for the current government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and it is why I was delighted to accept two directorships in the tourism projects around the Red Sea,” Branson said in a blog post Thursday.

“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. We have asked for more information from the authorities in Saudi and to clarify their position in relation to Mr. Khashoggi.”

A spokesman for JPMorgan Chase said Thursday the bank had no comment on whether the Khashoggi case would affect chief executive Jamie Dimon’s plans to speak at the Saudi conference.

Investment firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. also declined to comment Thursday. Its chairman, Gen. David Petraeus, and co-president, Joseph Bae, are scheduled to speak at the Saudi event.

More than 30 other U.S. and European companies and executives listed as sponsors or speakers for the conference, including MasterCard, McKinsey & Company and Deloitte, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

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