Even amid reports that agents for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman brazenly killed a Saudi journalist working for The Washington Post, some of the world’s richest and most influential business, media and political figures still plan to attend a Saudi-sponsored schmoozefest in Riyadh this month.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde plan to attend the event, the second annual Future Investment Initiative, scheduled for Oct. 23 through 25. It is a government-backed conference bankrolled by the country’s sovereign wealth fund.
On the agenda at what has been dubbed Davos in the Desert, after a similar gathering of elites every winter in Switzerland, are the sorts of topics beloved by the globe-trotting superrich. “Investing in transformation,” “technology as opportunity” and “advancing human potential” are listed as the conference’s broad themes. The real attraction, to be sure, is the promise of lucrative deals with the Saudi government.
HuffPost reached out to over a dozen companies and individuals set to speak at, sponsor or attend the conference. Only a handful, including The New York Times and The Economist (both media sponsors of the conference), said they had pulled out in light of recent events. CNN, Bloomberg and CNBC, also sponsors, later ended their involvement as well.
Arianna Huffington, who sits on Uber’s board and runs a consulting firm called Thrive Global, said through a spokeswoman she would no longer attend. (Huffington is no longer affiliated with HuffPost.)
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi announced late Thursday evening that he would not be going. “I’m very troubled by the reports to date about Jamal Khashoggi,” Khosrowshahi said in a statement. “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.”
Mellody Hobson, the president of Ariel Investments, resigned from the FII advisory board on Thursday. Steve Case, co-founder of AOL and head of the Case Foundation, tweeted on Thursday that he would be putting his plans to attend on hold pending further information about Khashoggi.
On Friday, a spokeswoman for Rob Lloyd, the CEO of Virgin Hyperloop One, said that he was dropping out of the event, according to a report in Axios.
Fox Business Network — another media sponsors of the event — said they were monitoring the situation. Nikkei, a Japanese conglomerate that owns The Financial Times, did not respond to a request for comment, though the newspaper reportedly said it, too, was monitoring the situation.
In another change to the FII event, the section of its website listing the conference program removed the names of all executives participating in panels. It is unclear whether those executives still plan to attend.
Others didn’t respond to HuffPost’s queries, including investment firms Blackstone, BlackRock and TPG Capital; and former Gen. David Petraeus, currently the chairman of investment firm KKR. (See below for a list of attendees.)
It’s perhaps not surprising that so many companies are sticking with Saudi Arabia, since the White House has so far been unwilling to condemn Mohammed for human rights abuses, including the alleged killing of Khashoggi, who disappeared on Oct. 2. He was last seen entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and has not been seen in public since.
A senior Turkish official told The New York Times that a team of Saudi agents killed him and then dismembered his body with a bone saw. However, those reports have not yet been confirmed.
The Saudi government has reportedly been unhappy with Khashoggi’s columns, which were critical of the country’s recent policies.
The White House has so far given a muted response, with President Donald Trump saying he has discussed the case with Saudi leadership but little else. It’s unclear if the U.S. government plans to introduce any punitive measures against the Saudi government, with which Trump and his family have developed extensive ties in recent years.
Khashoggi’s alleged killing was predated by a string of rights abuses and warning signs of the Saudi government’s willingness to use violence. The FII is being held at the same Ritz-Carlton that Mohammed turned into a makeshift jail during a crackdown late last year, in which the government rounded up hundreds of political and business elites on thin corruption charges. After they were released, some detainees spoke of beatings and constant threats.
Mohammed’s crackdown went beyond his mass sweep at the Ritz, extending to human rights proponents and dissidents, including prominent women’s rights activists. In a bizarre incident last December, the Saudi government essentially kidnapped Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. Saudi Arabia has fiercely contested any international pushback — for example, demolishing its relations with Canada over the summer in response to a fairly milquetoast Canadian statement on the arrest of human rights activists.
Then there is the brutal ongoing Saudi-led military offensive in Yemen, which is one of the deadliest facets of a civil war that has killed thousands of civilians. Saudi bombings have resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties. In August alone, a Saudi airstrike killed 40 young children after one of its U.S.-supplied bombs hit a school bus.
Here is a list of the individuals HuffPost has reached out to who are slated to attend the event:
- David Bonderman, chairman and founding partner, TPG Capital
- Jamie Dimon, CEO, JPMorgan Chase
- Larry Fink, chairman and CEO, BlackRock Inc.
- John M. Flint, executive director and group chief executive, HSBC Holdings PLC
- Christine Lagarde, managing director, International Monetary Fund
- Jean Lemierre, chairman, BNP Paribas
- Kanetsugu Mike, president and CEO, MUFG Bank Ltd.
- Steven Mnuchin, secretary, U.S. Treasury
- Lubna S. Olayan, CEO and deputy chairperson, Olayan Financing Co.
- David Petraeus, chairman, KKR
- Jeremy Weir, executive chairman and CEO, Trafigura Group Pte. Ltd.
- Stephen Schwarzman, CEO, Blackstone
- Peter Thiel, partner, Founders Fund
Alexander Kaufman contributed reporting to this article.
This story has been updated to note that Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Case Foundation chairman Steve Case, Virgin Hyperloop CEO Rob Lloyd, CNN and CNBC will not attend the Saudi conference.