Trade Secretary Liam Fox is facing mounting pressure to withdraw from a high-level Saudi trade conference next week in the wake of the Jamal Khashoggi scandal.
Turkey claims that Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and vocal critic of the regime, was murdered inside the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul before his body was dismembered by a hit squad acting on the authority of Riyadh.
Amid growing international outrage, some of the world’s top business leaders and banks have joined media companies in boycotting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Future Investment Initiative, dubbed “Davos of the desert”.
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The managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, as well as bosses of HSBC, Standard Chartered, and the London Stock Exchange are just some of the high-profile names to have withdrawn, despite Salman denying any knowledge of Khashoggi's fate.
The UK and the US are now “considering” pulling out of the conference as well, reports the BBC. Diplomatic sources told the broadcaster that Fox and the US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin might not attend the event.
The Daily Telegraph reports that for several days officials have told journalists that Fox’s diary was “being updated”, while Buzzfeed News says the trade secretary himself has so far “remained silent on the issue”.
Former international development minister Andrew Mitchell told BuzzFeed that no British minister could attend the event in Riyadh “in all conscience” until the full circumstances of Khashoggi's disappearance are known.
With the likes of Lagarde now not attending, Labour MP Yvette Cooper told the Telegraph that Fox should not go. “We have to send a message to the regime about the seriousness of this,” she said.
Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, agreed that Fox should “stay away” from the Saudi conference.
"Britain’s prosperity and freedom depends on a network of alliances and partnerships and the rules that tie them together,” Tugendhat said. “We cannot continue normal relations with any country that violates those rules so violently. If we do, we encourage worse action from others. As a first step, ministers should follow business and stay away from the conference in Riyadh.”
Yet Fox will be wary of making a decision that could have long-term economic implications, given he has put great stock in fostering closer ties with Riyadh as the UK looks to strike new trade deals with the rest of the world after Brexit.
The Daily Telegraph says the UK and US “consider Saudi Arabia a major strategic ally in the Middle East and an important trade partner”.
Last year, the UK agreed a £65bn trade and investment agreement with Riyadh, while BAE Systems, one of Britain’s biggest companies, generated more than a fifth of its £19bn revenue last year from Saudi contracts.
Writing in the London Evening Standard in May, Fox said that “for a more liberal, safer Middle East we must be with Saudi Arabia”.
In words that might come back to haunt him, he said: “The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the UK is built on an enduring partnership. Today both kingdoms are transforming their economic prospects and roles in the world.”
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