Empty chairs and solemn tributes remind attendees of Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative conference this week that the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi hangs over the country.
Several prominent figures skipped the conference as a form of protest, including U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the CEOs of HSBC and Blackrock and International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde. JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs also canceled their appearances and Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser said “justice must be served.”
One figure, suspected of having links to Khashoggi’s death, was in attendance: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Conference attendees greeted the crown prince with a standing ovation, The New York Times reported.
Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government and Washington Post columnist, went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. After Saudi officials previously said Khashoggi left the building alive, the Saudi government said Khashoggi spoke with suspects and the discussion “developed in a negative way” into a fight that resulted in his death. Turkish officials say he was killed by a team of 15 hit men from Saudi Arabia.
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called it a “brutal” and “political murder” that requires an independent investigation and trial.
Khashoggi’s death has created a diplomatic crisis for Saudi Arabia as Turkish intelligence links the hitmen to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s inner circle.
But this week’s conference will go on.
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The first speaker at the event was Saudi billionaire Lubna Olayan, one of the richest people in the country. She paid her respects to the slain Washington Post columnist.
“The terrible acts reported in recent weeks are alien to our culture and our DNA,” said Olayan, the deputy chairwoman of the Olayan Financing Company.
She thanked the foreigners who attended the conference under the circumstances.
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Representatives from Russia, China, Pakistan, Senegal and Gabon as well as several Arab countries were in attendance. Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne was one of the most prominent CEOs in attendance.
The French oil executive explained why he attended in a statement posted to Total’s website. France has suspended political visits to Saudi Arabia.
“I fully understand and share the emotions sparked by the death of Jamal Khashoggi under circumstances that must be clarified,” Pouyanne said. “Boycotts and withdrawing investment only hurt the ordinary people of the country. Western companies have a key role to play in this area through their presence in a country. I am convinced that an ’empty chairs at the table’ strategy serves no useful purpose, especially when it comes to respect for human rights.”