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.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
  • 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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