Davos in the Desert: has the world forgiven Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi?

High-profile delegates return to annual investment summit following last year’s boycott over journalist’s murder

Protestors outside the Saudi embassy in Washington D.C.
(Image credit: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Some of the world’s biggest names in finance and politics are attending a Davos-style Saudi investment conference this week, a year on from a mass boycott of the event following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The killing of Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian columnist for The Washington Post, in October 2018 caused a wave of business and political leaders to pull out of the subsequent summit, officially known as the Future Investment Initiative.

The journalist was assassinated while visiting the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, in an attack that the CIA reportedly concluded was ordered by the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Salman has said he takes “full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia” but has denied any involvement.

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The murder “triggered Riyadh’s biggest diplomatic crisis since the 2001 attacks on the US”, with a host of executives refusing to attend the Saudi conference, says the Financial Times. The World Economic Forum, which organises the Davos summit in Switzerland, sent out a press statement last year objecting to the use of the nickname “Davos in the Desert” and noting that there was no association between the two.

However, many of those who steered clear of the Saudi event are back this year, the newspaper notes.

Al Jazeera agrees that the annual summit, launched in 2017, is “set for a reboot this year, as global outrage over the killing fades”. The news site adds that a strong turnout will “further rehabilitate de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s global image”.

Around 300 speakers from 30 countries are expected to attend, including five presidents, a British MP and heads of global banks.

Although some big names have decided to stay away, those set to return are doing so “even though little has been done to prosecute those responsible for the murder”, says Quartz. Although 11 people have been put on trial, Human Rights Watch says that the prosecution does not meet international standards and that Saudi authorities have “obstructed meaningful accountability”.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro are due to speak at this week’s summit, which runs from today until Thursday.

Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, is also “apparently over [the] Khashoggi killing” and is to speak on a panel at the conference, says Quartz. The moderator will be Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive of the leading investment firm Blackstone, who was among the attendees who pulled out of last year’s event.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will also return. He will be joined by a host of former prime ministers - including the UK’s David Cameron, France’s Francois Fillon, Italy’s Matteo Renzi and Australia’s Kevin Rudd - along with Conservative MP Graham Stuart and American musician will.i.am.

“As the conference kicks off, the challenge for the crown prince is to turn the glitz and celebrity into inward investment as Riyadh struggles to deliver on an ambitious plan to overhaul its oil-dependent economy,” says the FT.

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