Steven Mnuchin withdraws from Saudi conference over missing journalist

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has cancelled an upcoming trip to an economic conference in Saudi Arabia amid the controversy involving missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

  • Saudi Arabia's economic conference has been dubbed "Davos in the Desert".
  • Mnuchin joins a growing list of officials and industry executives who've dropped out of the event.
  • It's turning into a PR nightmare for the nation, particularly for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has cancelled his appearance at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh next week amid allegations claiming that Saudi Arabian officials murdered missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Mnuchin, who's been facing pressure from officials and business leaders not to attend the conference, said he made the decision after speaking with President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who recently returned from a meeting in Saudi Arabia with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, both of whom denied the kingdom's involvement in the Khashoggi disappearance.

The Future Investment Initiative conference, often dubbed "Davos in the Desert" after the annual economic forum held in Switzerland, was founded in 2017 as part of Saudi Arabia's effort to broaden and diversify its economy. The first event hosted nearly 4,000 attendees from 90 countries, covering topics including the international economy, artificial intelligence, climate change and cryptocurrencies.

But as evidence continues to emerge showing Saudi operatives likely killed Saudi journalist Khashoggi, who sometimes criticized the kingdom in his Washington Post column, this year's event is turning into a public relations nightmare for the desert nation as high-profile officials and executives refuse to attend.

It looks especially bad for Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed, who's tried to frame himself in recent years as a modernizing force in the often violent and religiously dominated country. Unsurprisingly, the conference website makes no mention of the high-profile cancellations.

An increasingly short list of attendees

The executives and officials who've cancelled their upcoming appearances to the Future Investment Initiative conference include, as CNN reports:

  • JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon
  • Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford
  • Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi
  • Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman
  • Blackrock CEO Larry Fink
  • MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga
  • Viacom CEO Bob Bakish
  • HSBC CEO John Flint
  • Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam
  • BNP Paribas Chairman Jean Lemierre
  • Standard Chartered CEO William Winters
  • London Stock Exchange CEO David Schwimmer
  • IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde
  • Thrive CEO Ariana Huffington
  • Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene
  • Sinovation Ventures CEO Kai-Fu Lee
  • World Bank President Jim Yong Kim
  • Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong
  • Economist Editor-in-Chief Zanny Minton Beddoes
  • New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin

However, not all high-profile U.S. executives have withdrawn from the conference. Dina Powell, a partner at Goldman Sachs and former senior advisor to Trump, still plans to attend the event, though not in a speaking role. Axios reports that Powell likely hopes to attend because "sovereign funds are part of her coverage area, and out of a responsibility she feels to the U.S.-MBS relationship she helped to foster."

The Western response

In addition to cancellations for the upcoming conference, other Western forces are distancing themselves from economic engagement with Saudi Arabia. Billionaire Richard Branson recently said he's freezing a $1 billion investment from the country into his space tourism venture Virgin Galactic. The Dutch government also cancelled an upcoming trade mission to the country.

"All trade missions to the country have been suspended for now," a spokeswoman for PSPS Consultants, which had organized the trip for the government, told Reuters.

Trump has promised "severe punishment" against Saudi Arabia if the allegations are proven true, though the president has been quick to give the kingdom the benefit of the doubt.

However, following claims that Turkish officials had obtained audio recordings proving that Saudi operatives had tortured, killed and dismembered Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Trump said he had requested copies of the recordings.

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Sponsored by Northwell Health
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
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Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash
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