'Davos in the Desert' summit loses media, business support over missing journalist

A number of international business leaders and media companies are distancing themselves from Saudi Arabia ahead of an investment summit in the kingdom later this month, stoking pressure on the Gulf kingdom to explain what happened to a dissident writer who disappeared after visiting its consulate in Istanbul.

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends last year's Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh. A number of business leaders and media outlet have backed out of this year's event, in the wake of Khashoggi's disappearance. (Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters)

A number of international business leaders and media companies are distancing themselves from Saudi Arabia ahead of an investment summit in the kingdom later this month.

The pullback from projects with the Saudi government or attendance at the three-day event that begins Oct. 23 in Riyadh follows the disappearance of a Saudi journalist, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

Turkish authorities say they have evidence Khashoggi was tortured and killed in the consulate. The Gulf kingdom has called allegations the writer may have been slain "baseless."

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 33, has aggressively pitched the kingdom as a destination for foreign investment, inviting members of the global business elite to the inaugural Future Investment Initiative last year as a way to bolster non-oil revenue.

Last October, the World Bank reported the kingdom had carried out a record number of business reforms during the past year to attract foreign investment.

But Khashoggi's disappearance, and suspicions he may have been targeted over his criticism of the crown prince, have led several business leaders and media outlets to back out of the upcoming high-profile investment conference.

Turkish officials say they fear that Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist who had been living in self-imposed exile in the United States, was killed and dismembered after he entered the consulate. (Hasan Jamali/Associated Press)

Investment talks on hold 

Last Thursday, U.K. billionaire Richard Branson said he was stepping away from the directorship in two tourism projects in Saudi Arabia. He also said he was suspending talks over possible Saudi investment in his space companies Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.

Bloomberg on Friday announced it was withdrawing from the conference.

"Bloomberg will no longer serve as a media partner for the Future Investment Initiative. As we do with every major event in the region, we plan to cover any news from our regional news bureau," a Bloomberg News spokesperson told Reuters.

At the same time, CNN, the Financial Times, the New York Times and CNBC, as well as reporters and editors from the Economist, said they were no longer participating in the conference, which relies heavily on journalists to moderate top sessions.

British businessman and founder of Virgin Group, Richard Branson, left, poses for a picture with a Saudi man during the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh on Oct. 26, 2017. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

Tech companies withdrawing

Uber Technologies Inc. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, U.S. mass media conglomerate Viacom Inc. CEO Bob Bakish and billionaire Steve Case, one of the founders of AOL, said they were no longer going.

Entrepreneur Arianna Huffington will also not participate and has resigned from the conference advisory board, her company Thrive Global said.

On Friday, conference organizers removed all the names of attendees from its website as the number of cancellations grew. But on Sunday, their website was still promising "deep engagement with global media."

World Bank cites scheduling conflict

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, listed as a speaker, will not go to Riyadh due to a scheduling conflict, a World Bank official said on Friday.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and top Wall Street banks will attend the conference, and U.S. President Donald Trump has said he sees no reason to block Saudi Arabian investments in the United States despite concern over the whereabouts of Khashoggi.

Europe's biggest bank HSBC declined to comment on whether CEO John Flint is still attending. HSBC is a "Strategic Partner" of the event, along with Credit Suisse whose CEO Tidjane Thiam is still planning to attend, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Bill Winters, CEO of Asia, Africa and Middle East-focused bank Standard Chartered is likewise still planning to go, a spokesperson at the lender told Reuters.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon is scheduled to speak, as is Mastercard Inc. CEO Ajay Banga. Representatives for those companies, as well as Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley did not respond to requests for comment.

Siemens said there were no changes to the plans so far for CEO Joe Kaeser to attend.

With files from CBC News