Saudi Arabia is in “crisis” in the face of international outrage over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said Tuesday at an investment summit boycotted by a host of global CEOs and policymakers.
The three-day Future Investment Initiative (FII) was meant to project the historically insular petro-state as a lucrative business destination and set the stage for new ventures and multi-billion dollar contracts.
But the summit, nicknamed “Davos in the desert”, has been overshadowed by the outcry over the murder of Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2, with a string of leading international investors pulling out over the case.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s powerful son whose reform credentials have been heavily damaged by the scandal despite repeated denials he had any involvement in the killing, was a no-show at the opening session.
“As we know these are difficult days. We are going through a crisis,” Falih said in his speech.
Falih said the murder of Khashoggi was regrettable, adding that “nobody in the kingdom can justify it”.
The comments come as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded to know who gave the order for Khashoggi’s killing in his country and the location of the slain journalist’s corpse.
The Riyadh conference opened amid tight security at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, with Russian Direct Investment Fund chief Kirill Dmitriyev and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan headlining.
Falih heaped praise on the CEO of French energy giant Total, Patrick Pouyanne, for standing by Saudi Arabia in this difficult period.
“We see what partnership means when you have difficult times,” Pouyanne responded as he shared the stage with Falih. “This is when you really strengthen a partnership.”
But a long list of investors and international policymakers have declined to show up in Riyadh in apparent protest against the Khashoggi killing.
Siemens chief executive Joe Kaeser, corporate chiefs from JP Morgan, Ford and Uber, and media powerhouses like Bloomberg, CNN and the Financial Times all scrapped plans to attend.
Ministers from Britain and France and the United States, which have huge defence deals at stake with Saudi Arabia, have stayed away.
A wider Western boycott of the conference suggests rising political risks in Saudi Arabia that could hit foreign direct investment, which already plunged to a 14-year low last year, according to a UN body.
“Despite talk of reform, FDI inflows into Saudi have stayed low and the scandal will only increase investor uncertainty,” said research firm Capital Economics.
And in a fresh setback, the forum’s website went down on Monday after an apparent cyberattack. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. It was back up with reduced content when the conference opened.
This year’s conference contrasts with last year’s inaugural FII — a star-studded event at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, where Prince Mohammed was lionised as a visionary by speakers.
But many Western firms have too much at stake to abandon the Arab world’s biggest economy, and some have decided to send lower-level executives.
Companies from China and Russia have also shown little interest in withdrawing from the event, an organiser said.
“The high profile withdrawal of so many American CEOs from the conference certainly presents opportunities for Asian and Russian companies to make a splash,” Ellen Wald, author of the book “Saudi Inc.”, told AFP.
The crown prince, widely known by his initials MBS, faces what the risk consultancy Eurasia Group has called “an acute public relations crisis” over Khashoggi’s murder.
After more than two weeks of vehement denials, Saudi Arabia has now admitted Khashoggi was killed in the consulate.
In the past weeks, Turkish media and officials speaking to international media have said audio recordings prove Khashoggi was tortured before being decapitated although no concrete evidence of their existence has emerged.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Tuesday the killing of a critic must “never happen again”, as he pledged a “thorough and complete” investigation.
Khashoggi’s killing fits the pattern of a recent crackdown on dissent in the kingdom, in which clerics, business high-fliers and women activists have been detained.
Further stoking investor anxiety, the kingdom is embroiled in an expensive war in Yemen and is leading an embargo against neighbouring Qatar.