Global business relationships that were carefully cultivated by Saudi Arabia have been badly damaged by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, casting the kingdom’s economic reforms into serious doubt.
The kingdom had hoped an investment conference in Riyadh this week would be a star-studded celebration of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 program to transform the economy, attended by a who’s who of Silicon Valley, Wall Street and multinational corporations.
Most of the big names pulled out as details of Khashoggi’s death at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul emerged. Having previously denied any knowledge of his death, Saudi Arabia now admits the killing was premeditated, and has promised to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Riyadh has maintained that neither bin Salman nor his father, King Salman, knew of the operation to target Khashoggi. US officials have told CNN it is highly unlikely that the operation could have taken place without the awareness of the prince, who controls the country’s security apparatus and is leading the investigation.
At the Riyadh conference, widely known as “Davos in the desert,” organizers scrambled to keep the program running, despite the loss of dozens of speakers and moderators. Saudi government officials put on a brave face.
“We are undertaking a hit but we are standing strong and we are moving forward. I am sure we will come out of this stronger,” Saudi energy minister Khalid Al-Falih told CNN Business.
The organizers said more than 3,500 people took part in the Future Investment Initiative, and many of them packed into the conference center to cheer bin Salman when he spoke during a panel discussion on Wednesday.
But the overall mood was subdued and the crowds were largely made up of less senior executives and officials from regional governments, such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Russia, which says there is no reason to question Riyadh’s version of the Khashoggi killing, also sent a 30-strong delegation.
Mahmood Alkooheji, CEO of Mumtalakat, Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund acknowledged that international investors would “need time.”
Some are undeterred by the controversy.
“It’s a period that they are going through but luckily there’s a tomorrow,” said Christos Marafatsos, president of brokerage Blue Sky Capital and vice-chairman of the National Diversity Coalition for Trump.
His company has not yet invested in the kingdom but is interested in media and entertainment, sectors that are central to bin Salman’s vision to create more opportunities for the country’s growing and youthful population.
“There’s a lot of opportunity in the kingdom right now especially with [bin Salman’s] leadership and the reforms,” said Marafatsos.
But global companies that skipped the Riyadh meeting won’t be rushing back, despite that enormous potential.
Credit Suisse (CS) was a strategic partner of the conference, and one of its leading shareholders is Saudi Arabia’s Olayan group. CEO Tidjane Thiam decided not to attend.
Truth must be found
The Swiss bank’s chairman, Urs Rohner, told CNNMoney Switzerland he would need more facts about the Khashoggi case before coming to a decision about future business.
“We’ll have to see what in the end the outcome will be,” he said. “That’s something which we monitor very carefully. We’ll continue to do that and then we’ll ultimately form an opinion and come to a conclusion as to what to do.”
It’s a complex call, even for companies with thousands of Saudi employees, and local partners.
“The truth must be found and justice must be served,” said Siemens (SIEGY) CEO Joe Kaeser on Monday, explaining his decision not to attend the conference. “Time will tell how things will develop. And I do hope there will be clarity, transparency, and justice sooner rather than later.”
Speaking at the conference on Wednesday, bin Salman said the kingdom would overcome any challenge and that his projects and reforms would continue.
Central to the diversification plan are projects to develop Red Sea tourism, build the world’s largest entertainment city (known as Qiddiya) near Riyadh, and Neom, a futuristic $500 billion mega metropolis spanning three countries.
No new international partners were announced this week, and some of the initiatives have lost high-profile backers since the Khashoggi uproar began.
Billionaire Richard Branson has pulled back from the Red Sea project and suspended talks with the Saudi government on a $1 billion investment in Virgin’s space companies. Neom lost several members of its advisory board in the wake of Khashoggi’s death.
Another billionaire, SoftBank (SFTBF) CEO Masayoshi Son, was one of the first to endorse the Neom project when it was unveiled last year.
Son was originally listed as a speaker at this year’s event, but left Riyadh after meeting government officials before the conference began.
Closed door meetings
Neom CEO Nadhmi al-Nasr insisted his business had not been impacted by the chill in relations.
“We’ve had tens of meetings with our partners behind closed doors here … and the emphasis of all those meetings are commitment and let’s go, let’s move on,” he said on Thursday
Analysts are less bullish about the progress bin Salman is making in weaning the economy off what he once called its “addiction to oil.”
Deals were signed in Riyadh this week, but most of them were with state-owned oil giant Aramco.
“Our data leaves little doubt that Vision 2030 is off to a very slow start,” wrote Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk advisory firm, in a report published on Thursday.
“Without a viable reform program, Saudi Arabia risks being left with a weakened king-in-waiting and still in search of a clear path away from its over reliance on oil exports.”
Mark Thompson and John Defterios contributed to this article.