The disappearance and possible murder of the prominent Saudi journalist has forced international firms and top executives to distance themselves from Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia has spent millions of dollars to deal with critical press but its foreign policies continue to be criticised in west.
Saudi Arabia has spent millions of dollars to deal with critical press but its foreign policies continue to be criticised in west. (AP)

The Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman has spent millions of dollars to boost his image as a reformer since becoming the de facto leader of the kingdom in 2017. 

Riyadh has hired influential PR firms and powerful lobbyists to publicise his decisions to let women drive for the first time and allow pop concerts to take place in the conservative country. 

When he went to United Kingdom and the United Sates on an official visit earlier this year, full-page advertisements were taken out in leading newspapers lauding how he had opened up the country to foreign investors. 

Prince Salman, also known as MBS, has tried to lure global companies and investors in his attempt to diversify the Saudi economy and reduce its dependence on oil.

But the disappearance and possible murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 but never emerged, seems to have upended much of those efforts. 

The incident took place just days before the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference where Riyadh was hoping to attract leading executives. 

Some of the participants have now announced that they won’t be attending because of the Khashoggi case. 

“Because of the publicity of the case and the gruesome elements about it, the companies are a bit embarrassed about their association with the conference,” David Butter, an associate fellow at the Chatham House told TRT World

MBS had met CEOs of many top companies when he was in the US, he says. 

“And his pitch was that Saudi Arabia is a country of future and its progressive. I think the CEOs bought into the story and then it suddenly appears that there is a much more dark side to it.”

Deserted in the desert

The conference dubbed “Davos in the desert” has been organised by Saudi government’s Public Investment Fund, its international investment arm being used to invest around the world.

Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has announced he won’t be attending the conference. 

"I'm very troubled by the reports to date about Jamal Khashoggi," Khosrowshahi said in an emailed statement to CNBC on Friday. 

"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.”

Saudi Arabia is one of Uber’s largest markets in Europe, Middle East and Africa region. 

Uber has made the decision despite taking $3.5 billion in investment from the Public Investment Fund, which also has its representative on the board of the ride-hailing company.

Viacom’s CEO Bob Bakish and the editor-in-chief of The Economist Zanny Minton Beddoes are also among those who have backed out of the conference.

Major media organisations including The New York Times, The Financial Times and LA Times have all distanced themselves from the event. 

Almost every single media sponsor has pulled out of the conference at the time of writing this article.

No Thanks 

Other business leaders who had been involved with Saudi Arabia’s investment projects have also distanced themselves from Riyadh. 

Billionaire investor Richard Branson of Virgin Group has stepped down from the directorships of two tourism projects based around the Red Sea.

He has also suspended discussions with the Public Investment Fund on the proposed investments in his space projects Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit. 

“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.”

Former US energy secretary Ernest Moniz said he won’t serve on the board of a company building a futuristic city in Saudi Arabia. 

The $500 billion NEOM project is a brainchild of MBS and has been marketed as a “smart city.” 

Dan Doctoroff, the founder of Sidewalk Labs, also disassociated himself from NEOM. 

Neelie Kroes, former Vice President of the European Commission, wont be working on the project either.

While Saudi Arabia is known to have illegally detained and forcefully deported dissidents from other countries before, it has not faced such a reaction. 

It has also been able to withstand confrontations with other countries - the blockade of Qatar, the deadly war in Yemen and diplomatic spat with Canada over human rights. 

“This reaction is to do with how Saudi Arabia has tried to place itself as being a citizen of the world,” says Butter. 

“And when it comes to PR then what has happened in Istanbul is not good.” 

Source: TRT World