Khashoggi death triggered Business world deserting Saudi investment event. But will Saudi’s isolation be continued?
The death of Jamal Khashoggi- the protest against which has become synonymous with the protest against the Desert Kingdom of Saudi Arabia- has snowballed into a full-blown trouble with obvious ramification on the international level. It has drawn condemnation from the West and a severe dent to its reputation as a budding reformative country. Now, the international scepticism over Khashoggi’s death and Riyadh’s culpability has had the business world isolating the upcoming investment summit. In a what can be called as a Public Relation disaster, the biggies of the business and finance sphere have pulled out of the Future Investment Initiative conference which was self-proclaimed by Saudi Arab as the “Davos in the Desert”.
On October 2, Khashoggi entered the Istanbul Consulate while his fiancée waited for him outside. The CCTV footage of which is now is being flashed on every TV channel and social media. However, he never came out. Initially, what was believed to be a kidnapping incident, soon turned into a murder mystery as the Turkish officials said he was killed inside. The Turkish officials even claimed that they had audio and visual evidence of the 15 men (believed to be Saudi men) speaking in Arabic and trying to intimidate, torture Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi government though after initial weak denials have admitted that he was killed after “discussions” turned physical.
But, who was Jamal Khashoggi and why were Saudi officials after him?
Who was Jamal Khashoggi?
The 59 years-old Jamal Khashoggi hails from one of the influential and affluent families of Middle East. His most family members have made their name in either business or literary world. His families had also been one of the closest to the Saudi royals. Jamal, however, was one of the sternest critics of Saudi Arabia’s current leadership. He had served at the top Saudi news channels and Newspapers. His journalistic stint also includes the interview of Osama bin Laden who went on to become al-Qaeda chief in the 1980s. Due to his criticism of the government and rampant religious extremism, he was oftentimes fired from his job.
In between his journalism career, Khashoggi also served as an adviser to the Saudi ambassador to London, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, a former long-serving intelligence chief. Then, in 2005, when the prince was appointed the Saudi envoy to the U.S., Khashoggi joined him as a media aide. After the Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman began running the show, Khashoggi constantly criticised him for the shrinking space for freedom of speech under his regime. He ended up self-imposing exile on himself after he told his friends and family that he feared for his life in Saudi Arabia. Since last year, he was employed with The Washington Post as a columnist and commentator on the geopolitics of middle-east. Many of his columns were critical of the Saudi leadership which would be translated into Arabic as well. In one of his last columns, he urged Prince Mohammad to end the war he started on Yemen more than three and a half years ago: “The longer this cruel war lasts in Yemen, the more permanent the damage will be. The people of Yemen will be busy fighting poverty, cholera and water scarcity and rebuilding their country. The crown prince must bring an end to the violence and restore the dignity of the birthplace of Islam.”
The Saudi Explanation:
The Saudi authorities initially distanced themselves from the death of Khashoggi. Prince Mohammad talking to Bloomberg in Riyadh a day after Khashoggi’s mysterious disappearance said that the Saudi government is very keen to know what happened to him.” His brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, who’s the kingdom’s ambassador to Washington, called Khashoggi a “friend” and praised him for dedicating “a great portion of his life to serve his country.”
It wasn’t until Friday that Riyadh admitted Mr Khashoggi was dead. The authorities said he was killed in a “fist fight” in its Istanbul consulate. Saudi aid a fight broke out between Mr Khashoggi, who had fallen out of favour with the Saudi government, and people who met him in the consulate – ending with his death. It claims that investigations are going on and so far 18 Saudi nationals have been arrested.
However, some anonymous Saudi officials have revealed it to the Reuters news agency that he was indeed killed inside the consulate and the body was disposed of as a part of the cover-up.
After the reports emerged that Jamal Khashoggi was allegedly murdered in the Istanbul consulate, Saudi Arabia faced a strong verbal ire from the countries around the world especially the West. Even the Saudi Arabia allies have criticised and sought more explanation from Saudi.
While German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticised Riyadh’s explanation as “inadequate”, the UK foreign office described it as “a terrible act” and demanded people responsible for this to be held accountable. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian responded saying many questions “remain unanswered”. The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, called for the truth to be made clear.
The United States’ stand, however, has been guarded. While the US President Donald Trump said he is not satisfied until they find the answer, he avoided clarity on sanctions against Saudi. He said that sanctions were a possibility quickly adding that halting an arms deal would “hurt us more than it would hurt them”. It is to be noted that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law has close business ties with Saudi Arabia.
India has yet not taken cognizance of the issue and has so far given no response or comment.
Business world isolates the Riyadh event:
The controversy surrounding Khashoggi’s death and alleged state culpability has taken a heavy toll on Saudi Arabia’s big Public Relation exercise that is to be held at country’s capital later this month. Many business groups have already withdrawn from the Riyadh conference. Some of the business big-wigs that have pulled out of the event are The World Bank, The Financial Times, CNN, Bloomberg, The New York Times, Ariana Huffington- the LA Times owner, Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong, CNBC anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin.
Sir Richard Branson, Viacom and even Uber (which has the Saudi Kingdom as the investor) announced their withdrawal. Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund head, is listed as a speaker at the conference, however, her presence at the event is not confirmed. On the other hand, the US treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, said he still planned to attend.
The conference was looked forward to from the point of view of the Vision 2030 document presented by the Saudi crown prince MBS. The vision document laid out plans to make the Saudi economy less dependent on oil exports and focused on substantial growth. Many projects in the vision document heavily relied on overseas investment. The conference would have been an excellent PR for the country that is being projected as reforming under MBS. With the event now being deserted by the Business community, it is indeed an international embarrassment for the country.
Will Saudi’s isolation continue?
Saudi has often been criticised for its Islamic conservatism and lack of reverence to Human Rights. There have been demands for more accountability from the Saudi kingdom. However, as the Middle-Eastern country had deep pockets that satisfied the West’s thirst for capital, no serious action was taken against the country. The shine of capital inflow from the Saudi Kingdom blinded the West and governments around the world to its Human Rights violations. Khashoggi’s death changed that. But will Saudi’s isolation be continued? Hardly anyone differs that it may not.
As Mihir Sharma points out in this Bloomberg column, many countries do not want to run the risk of being seen on the side of the bad guy (Saudi) at the moment. He asks an important question,”- that are we going to somehow isolate Saudi Arabia from the global economy?” Adding the most obvious answer further, “That’s not going to work as long as the country remains is the world’s largest oil exporter.” Defence and strategic expert, Seshadri Chari says, “It is a catch-22 situation for the West. It cannot isolate Saudi Arabia as it represents the Sunni world as against Shia power representative Iran. Since WW2 the US and Europe have not been able to balance both.” He further adds, “Ironically, both these countries are the biggest energy suppliers to most of the countries around the world.”
Sharma further points out, “The Saudis are already the biggest investors in Silicon Valley start-ups; AI industry insiders say they will likely end up owning crucial intellectual property going forward.” Not only the big businesses but the Saudi’s are also funnelling money to various governments around the world for various infrastructure projects. The Saudis are pouring $20 billion the into U.S. infrastructure. Even India’s big renewable energy push — 175 gigawatts of capacity by 2022, of which 100 gigawatts is meant to be solar — depends crucially on at least $100 billion of Saudi investment in the sector.
He further argues, “Across the world, long-term capital is thin on the ground and absolutely everyone wants it. The Saudis represent the motherlode.” Thus, it is hard for the world to isolate or even abandon the Saudi Kingdom who is sitting on the power source of funds and oil. As Mr Chari says, “The supposed isolation is temporary and once the dust settles down, it will be back to business.”