Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman  at the 2017 Future Investment Initiative  conference in Riyadh. Photo: AFP
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman at the 2017 Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh. Photo: AFP

More business leaders have pulled out of Saudi Arabia’s flagship investment conference in protest at the reported killing of Jamal Khashoggi, dealing a further blow to a high-profile event tagged as Davos in the Desert.

JPMorgan Chase & Company chief executive officer Jamie Dimon and Ford Motor Company chairman Bill Ford said Monday they would not be going, joining a list that also includes Viacom CEO Bob Bakish, HP executive Joanna Popper and Android’s creator Andy Rubin. 

The Future Investment Initiative was supposed to showcase Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s modernization plans for Saudi Arabia, but instead has highlighted its dubious human rights record since the disappearance of Khashoggi, one of the kingdom’s most vocal critics.

A prominent Saudi journalist living in Turkey, Khashoggi has not been seen since he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. Turkey says it has proof that he was murdered and dismembered.

Daily Sabah, a Turkish newspaper close to the government, has published the names of 15 Saudis who it says entered Turkey that day and flew out following the attack; it also screened surveillance footage. Saudi Arabia insists that Khashoggi left the consulate unharmed but has not allowed Turkish investigators to enter the building.

President Donald Trump, who has pegged his Middle East strategy around Saudi Arabia — and specifically Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — has said the incident is being investigated, but ruled out halting his country’s multi-billion dollar arms deals with Riyadh.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in Bali on Saturday he would still attend the conference, which its hosted on October 23-25 by the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, under the theme “A blueprint for the twenty-second century”.

But corporate executives are voting with their feet. Some, like Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, will not attend unless Riyadh responds to demands for clarification on Khashoggi’s fate. “We are following the situation closely, and unless a substantially different set of fact emerges, I won’t be attending the FII conference in Riyadh,” he said.

American media groups Bloomberg, the New York Times and CNN have also withdrawn their participation, and the London-based Financial Times will no longer partner the event. Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong confirmed he has also withdrawn.

Sir Richard Branson, who attended the inaugural conference last October and had wanted the fund to invest in two of his space ventures, last week suspended Virgin’s business dealings with the kingdom. These include involvement in two Red Sea tourism projects.

“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,” he said in a statement posted to Twitter.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, insists that the show will go on. The wealthy oil exporter has warned that it will enact harsh measures against any country that dares to implement sanctions over the Khashoggi affair.

“If the kingdom is subject to any action, it will respond with greater action. The kingdom’s economy is influential and vital in the global economy,” it said in a statement attributed to a Saudi official and published by the state news agency on Sunday. 

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