Companies and media distance selves from Saudi kingdom over journalist's disappearance

Reuters, AFP-JIJI, Bloomberg

As Saudi Arabia faces increasing international pressure to clarify what happened to missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, British billionaire Richard Branson said on Thursday that his Virgin Group would suspend its discussions with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund over a planned $1 billion investment in the group’s space ventures.

Turkish officials have alleged that Khashoggi, a well-known former Saudi insider who wrote for The Washington Post, was murdered on Oct. 2 inside the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul, where he went to get documents for his planned marriage.

Riyadh has said the claims are baseless.

The Turkish government has told U.S. officials it has audio and video recordings that prove Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, The Washington Post reported, citing unidentified U.S. and Turkish officials.

Recordings show a Saudi security team detained Khashoggi before killing him and dismembering his body, the Post reported.

“You can hear his voice and the voices of men speaking Arabic,” the Post quoted one person with knowledge of the recording, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, as saying. “You can hear how he was interrogated, tortured and then murdered.”

Branson said in a statement, “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.” He also said he would suspend his directorship in two Saudi tourism projects around the Red Sea.

Elsewhere, media companies and representatives announced they were pulling out of a Saudi investment conference as outrage grows over the missing journalist.

Economist Editor-in-Chief Zanny Minton Beddoes will not participate in the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, a spokeswoman said.

Andrew Ross Sorkin, a CNBC anchor and New York Times business journalist, tweeted that he was also not attending the conference, saying he was “terribly distressed by the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reports of his murder.”

The New York Times Co. has also decided to pull out of the event as a media sponsor.

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

Viacom, whose CEO, Bob Bakish, is slated to speak at the conference, said it was closely monitoring the situation in Saudi Arabia.

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

The disappearance of the journalist has cast a shadow over the three-day conference, known as “Davos in the desert,” which is scheduled to begin on Oct. 23. The event, in its sophomore year, attracts some of the world’s business elite.

The disappearance has also led officials and business leaders to drop out of another one of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s large projects.

On Wednesday, former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said 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 Tuesday as one of 18 people advising the $500 billion 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.

In Turkey and the United States, officials ratcheted up pressure on Saudi Arabia to explain how Khashoggi vanished, with U.S. lawmakers warning that military ties were at risk. President Donald Trump became more forceful in his call for answers from Saudi Arabia but he also rebuffed calls from the U.S. Congress to show more resolve, saying he would not jeopardize arms sales to the close ally.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators is forcing the Trump administration to investigate the disappearance of the journalist, triggering a human rights probe that could result in sanctions against Saudi officials and entities.

Even before Khashoggi’s disappearance, lawmakers had soured on a Saudi government they view as having a high-handed attitude. Some have been incredulous at its denials of wrongdoing and contention it has no recorded video footage from the consulate showing Khashoggi, who had been living in self-exile in Virginia for the past year.

“There’s a sense of entitlement — I hate to use the word ‘arrogance’ — that comes with dealing with them,” said Sen. Bob Corker, Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Part of that may be that they have an incredibly close relationship with the administration.”

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy voiced doubt there would be support in Congress to approve another arms sale to Saudi Arabia — although lawmakers haven’t blocked sales before. He also called for at least a temporary halt in U.S. military support for the Saudi bombing campaign against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen.

Trump appeared reluctant to rock the boat in a relationship that has been key to his strategy in the Middle East and which he described as “excellent.” He also said withholding sales would hurt the U.S. economy.

“I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s been pouring into our country. They are spending $110 billion on military equipment,” Trump said, referring to proposed sales announced in May 2017 when he went to Saudi Arabia in the first overseas trip of his presidency. He warned that the Saudis could instead buy from Russia or China.

Trump maintained that the U.S. is being “very tough” as it looks into the case of Khashoggi.

Khashoggi is a former government adviser who fled Saudi Arabia in September 2017 and lived in suburban Washington, fearing arrest back home.

In his columns for The Washington Post and comments elsewhere, he was critical of some policies of Mohammed as well as Riyadh’s role in the bloody war in Yemen.

In Istanbul, Turkish media said that Saudi royal guards, intelligence officers, soldiers and an autopsy expert had been part of the team flown in and targeting Khashoggi.

Those reported details, along with comments from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appeared aimed at gradually pressuring Saudi Arabia to reveal what happened while also balancing a need to maintain Saudi investments in Turkey and relations on other issues.

A spokesman for Erdogan told the state-run Anadolu Agency that Turkey and Saudi Arabia would form a “joint working group” to look into the disappearance.