Photo: AFP/Ron Sachs
Photo: AFP/Ron Sachs

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman prepared to take the stage before international investors in Riyadh on Wednesday under enormous scrutiny. Less than 24 hours before, his key ally US President Donald Trump suggested he may have ordered the killing of his critic, Jamal Khashoggi.

On the opening day of the Future Investment Initiative, the 33-year-old heir known as MBS struck an upbeat tone, saying the event was going “great” and posing for selfies with attendees.

“More people more money,” he told reporters.

Fifty billion dollars worth of deals were signed on Tuesday with Total, Halliburton, Hyundai, Trafigura, Norinco, Schlumberger, and Baker Hughes, according to the state-run ‘Saudi Gazette’, which did not offer further details.

Saudi Aramco said it signed 15 memoranda of understandings worth $34 billion on Tuesday. It was not clear if that sum was part of the touted $50 billion in deals. Many of the same companies were named as partners, with Total at the top of the list.

The head of France’s Total had gone against the grain of Western executives who sought to distance their companies – at least publicly – from the momentarily toxic atmosphere.

“We see what partnership means when you have difficult times,” CEO Patrick Pouyanné said, adding that the French oil and gas producer was planning for a retail network in the kingdom in partnership with Saudi Aramco.

Saudi Arabia’s minister of energy Khalid Al-Falih highlighted the “heavy attendance” of oil and gas leaders as proof of the “trust” international companies still had in the kingdom.

He also pledged the kingdom would boost oil production if needed to meet global shortfalls as US sanctions on Iranian petroleum come into effect November 5.

Saudi state and government-friendly media, meanwhile, touted the presence of Russian and Chinese business delegations.

Trump points to prince

The second day of the conference carried on in spite of the latest pronouncement from the White House.

President Donald Trump has consistently trusted the bet of his son-in-law Jared Kushner on Saudi Arabia’s 33-year-old crown prince, seen as the ideal partner for Washington’s push to isolate Tehran. But on Tuesday, Trump issued his most pointed condemnation of the Khashoggi murder yet, and even pointed the finger at MBS.

“They had a very bad original concept, it was carried out poorly and the cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups,” he told reporters of the Saudi government. “Whoever thought of that idea, I think is in big trouble. And they should be in big trouble.”

Asked about the Saudi leadership’s role in the killing, Trump told the ‘Wall Street Journal’ he did not believe that King Salman was in the know but suggested it may have been ordered by the crown prince.

“The prince is running things over there more so at this stage. He’s running things and so if anybody were going to be, it would be him,” Trump said.