The disappearance of a Saudi journalist—and reports of his murder—have prompted several companies, news outlets and business leaders to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia.
Many organizations and leaders have pulled out of the kingdom’s Future Investment Initiative, a conference scheduled for Oct. 23–25, following reports that missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been murdered.
Khashoggi, a former Saudi government advisor-turned-critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was last seen Oct. 2 entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Fears of Khashoggi’s disappearance have also intensified amid reports that he was also killed by Saudi agents in the consulate. A report by the Washington Post on Thursday said that Turkey had notified the U.S. that it holds audio and video evidence of Khashoggi being killed inside the consulate. Saudi Arabia has denied involvement in his disappearance.
Though the White House has been careful not to condemn Saudi Arabian leaders, the backlash in the news media and business world has been swift.
Several news outlets, including The New York Times, canceled their participation in a government-sponsored investor conference in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, in two weeks, where the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is expected to speak. The Los Angeles Times and The Economist also announced they would not attend.
Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, also said he probably will back out of the event.
“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.”
Virgin Group’s chief executive, Richard Branson, wrote in a blog post:
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. I felt that I could give practical development advice and also help protect the precious environment around the coastline and islands.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.
While those investigations are ongoing and Mr Khashoggi’s whereabouts are not known, I will suspend my directorships of the two tourism projects. Virgin will also suspend its discussions with the Public Investment Fund over the proposed investment in our space companies Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.
“Bloomberg will no longer serve as a media partner for the Future Investment Initiative. As we do with every major event in the region, we plan to cover any news from our regional news bureau,” a Bloomberg News spokesperson told Reuters.
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.)
Several organizations and leaders tweeted that they were no longer planning to attend the event, including CNBC, AOL co-founder Steve Case, CNN, and New York Times columnist and CNBC anchor Andrew Sorkin:
CNBC will no longer participate in the FII in Riyadh due to the continuing questions surrounding the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
— CNBC (@CNBC) October 12, 2018
I was looking forward to returning to Riyadh this month to speak at the Future Investment Initiative conference, and participate in a Red Sea Project meeting. In light of recent events, I have decided to put my plans on hold, pending further information regarding Jamal Khashoggi.
— Steve Case (@SteveCase) October 11, 2018
I’m terribly distressed by the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reports of his murder. I will no longer be participating in the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh.
— Andrew Ross Sorkin (@andrewrsorkin) October 11, 2018
CNN has withdrawn its participation in the Saudi Future Investment Initiative Conference.
— CNN Communications (@CNNPR) October 12, 2018
Though rumors of Khashoggi’s murder sparked an exodus from the event, several political, news media, financial and technology organizations are still attending—and attempting to sidestep criticism.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, meanwhile, still plans to attend FII next week.“We are concerned about what is the status of Mr Khashoggi,” Mnuchin told CNBC on Friday morning. “If more information comes out and changes, we could look at that, but I am planning on going.”
Fox Business Network — another media sponsor 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.
“… [F]or financial and technology companies, several of which have multibillion-dollar ties to Saudi Arabia, the calculus is more complicated,” The New York Times reported.
How would you advise those organizations to proceed, Ragan/PR Daily readers?