Middle East

Media companies, executives drop out of Saudi event over missing journalist

Virgin group founder Richard Branson has halted discussions with Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (AFP)

Media companies are pulling out of a Saudi investment conference because of growing outrage over the disappearance of a prominent Saudi journalist in Turkey.

British billionaire Richard Branson has also announced that his Virgin Group would suspend its discussions with Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund over a planned $1bn investment in the group's space ventures in light of events involving Jamal Khashoggi.

What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government

– Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder

"What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government," Branson said in a statement on Thursday evening.

The veteran Saudi journalist, 59, has been missing since last Tuesday when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain paperwork so he could remarry, and has not been seen since.

Turkish officials have told Middle East Eye that they know when and where in the building the veteran Saudi journalist was killed and are considering whether to dig up the consul-general's garden to see whether his remains are buried there.

Saudi officials have strongly denied any involvement in his disappearance and say that he left the consulate soon after arriving. However they have not presented any evidence to corroborate their claim and say that video cameras at the consolate were not recording at the time.

As leaks have emerged, focus has turned to the kingdom's high-profile Future Investment Initiative conference, scheduled to be held in Riyadh later this month, with a handful of participants pulling out of the event over the past 24 hours.

Among those who have said they will no longer participate are Economist editor-In-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes and Andrew Ross Sorkin, a CNBC anchor and New York Times business journalist.

Im terribly distressed by the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reports of his murder. I will no longer be participating in the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh.

— Andrew Ross Sorkin (@andrewrsorkin) October 11, 2018

Pressure has mounted on Saudi Arabia since Khashoggi went missing. He was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.

The New York Times Co has also decided to pull out of the event as a media sponsor, spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said.

The Financial Times said in a statement that it was reviewing its involvement as a media partner.

Uber Technologies Inc chief executive officer Dara Khosrowshahi said in a statement he won't attend the FII conference in Riyadh unless substantially different set of facts emerge. Arianna Huffington, who sits on Uber's board, has also reportedly said she will no longer attend.

Viacom Inc CEO Bob Bakish, who was slated to speak at the conference, has decided to not attend the event, company spokesman Justin Dini said.

Other media companies slated to appear at the conference include CNN and Bloomberg, according to the event's website.

'Davos in the desert'

The disappearance of Khashoggi, a US resident who wrote columns for the Washington Post, has cast a shadow over the three-day conference known as "Davos in the desert". The Post is owned by Amazon.com Inc founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos.

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Why Jamal Khashoggi's ruthless killing is a global issue

The event attracted some of the world's business elite including Wall Street's top bosses and executives from multinational media, tech and financial services companies.

JPMorgan Chase & Co CEO Jamie Dimon is scheduled to speak, as is Mastercard Inc CEO Ajay Banga. Representatives for both companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Another billionaire, Steve Case, one of the founders of AOL, also decided to distance himself from Saudi Arabia, saying he would no longer attend the event.

"In light of recent events, I have decided to put my plans on hold, pending further information regarding Jamal Khashoggi."

Khashoggi's disappearance has led officials and business leaders to drop out of another one of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's large projects.

On Wednesday, former US energy secretary Ernest Moniz said that he had suspended his role on the board of Saudi Arabia's planned mega business zone NEOM until more is known about what happened.

Moniz was named on Tuesday as one of 18 people advising the $500bn NEOM project. The crown prince said last week that the NEOM business zone would build two to three towns each year starting in 2020 and be completed by 2025.

The Harbour Group, a Washington firm that has been advising Saudi Arabia since April 2017, ended its $80,000 a month contract on Thursday.

"We have terminated the relationship," managing director Richard Mintz said.

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