Saudi Arabia has brushed off an outcry over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and went forward with an investment conference boycotted by Western political figures, leading international bankers and A-list executives.
The three-day conference – a brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is under intense scrutiny over Khashoggi’s killing, kicked off on Tuesday.
Future Investment Initiative (FII), dubbed “Davos in the Desert”, is being held in the capital Riyadh as part of bin Salman’s much-touted Vision 2030 and is intended to attract foreign investments in the kingdom heavily dependent on oil revenues.
Analysts say the lofty vision for the Saudi economy largely rests on the country’s ability to attract foreign direct investment and create enough jobs for the next generation of young Saudis who will be entering the work market in the coming years.
According to management consultancy firm McKinsey and Co, Riyadh needs to invest some four trillion dollars to create 6 million new jobs for Saudis by 2030.
That’s almost three times as many jobs as Saudi Arabia created in the decade leading up to 2013, when oil prices soared.
But with Saudi authorities admitting to the killing of Khashoggi, the summit has been overshadowed by a number of high-profile attendees dropping out.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and senior ministers from Britain and France pulled out of the event along with chief executives or chairmen of about a dozen big financial firms such as JP Morgan Chase and HSBC, and International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde.
SoftBank Group Corp Chief Executive Masayoshi Son has also cancelled a speaking engagement at the conference but could still attend, the Wall Street Journal said on Tuesday, citing a conference representative.
Nearly half of the more than $93bn raised last year to create SoftBank’s Vision Fund came from Saudi Arabia.
Many Western banks and other companies, fearful of losing business such as fees from arranging deals for Saudi Arabia’s $250bn sovereign wealth fund, sent lower-level executives even as their top people stayed away.
This year’s conference contrasts with last year’s inaugural FII where the crown prince was hailed as a visionary, wowing investors with talking robots and plans for a futuristic mega-city.
Crown Prince bin Salman, widely known as MBS, faces what the risk consultancy Eurasia Group has called “an acute public relations crisis” over Khashoggi killing.
After more than two weeks of vehement denials, Saudi Arabia last week 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 on Tuesday the killing of a critic must “never happen again”, as he pledged a “thorough and complete” investigation into the journalist’s murder.
Khashoggi’s killing fits a pattern of a recent crackdown on dissent in the kingdom, with MBS, King Salman’s son and the de facto ruler, arresting Muslim leaders, business high-fliers and women’s rights activists.