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Google, HSBC and Credit Suisse pull out of Saudi business conference over journalist's disappearance

Ben Chapman
The build-up has been calamitous for de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as a host of big names have pulled out: Getty

Google, HSBC, Credit Suisse and Standard Chartered have all pulled out of a technology and business conference in Saudi Arabia as pressure mounts on the Gulf kingdom to explain the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Billed as “Davos in the Desert”, the lavish Future Investment Initiative (FII) summit is meant to showcase Saudi Arabia’s modernising drive under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

But the build-up has been calamitous for the de facto Saudi ruler as a string of big-name sponsors, speakers and partners have dropped out after Mr Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October and never re-emerged.

Just days ago, the attendee's list read like a who’s who of the corporate, media and technology worlds but on Monday the boss of Google’s cloud services business, Diane Greene, became the latest name to be crossed out.

When the curtain is pulled up next week the conference will likely be somewhat more sparsely populated than Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince would have hoped.

There will be no John Flint from HSBC, nor Tidjane Thiam of Credit Suisse or Bill Winters of Standard Chartered; all three all pulled out on Tuesday.

JPMorgan boss Jamie Dimon said on Monday he would no longer attend while BlackRock chief executive Larry Fink, Ford chairman Bill Ford and Uber boss Dara Khosrowshahi are among others to have already pulled out as international pressure mounted on the Saudi regime.

The PII is supposed to demonstrate Riyadh’s move away from a dependence on oil towards a more broad-based, high-tech economy.

Alongside sweeping economic reforms, the Crown Prince, often referred to by his initials MBS, has been keen to trumpet a liberalisation of social values in the conservative kingdom.

But the withdrawal of vast dozens of the world’s leading media outlets and companies from the high-profile event suggests that his Saudi rebrand has already been badly, perhaps fatally, damaged by events in Istanbul.

Allegations that senior Saudi officials ordered the murder of a journalist and prominent critic will, if proved correct, pile further pressure on firms to distance themselves from the country and its billions.

Dozens of Turkish and Saudi officials entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Monday to begin a joint investigation into the disappearance of Mr Khashoggi.

That came after claims that the Saudis may be ready to admit the dissident journalist was killed during an interrogation that went wrong.

CNN cited an unnamed source as saying the Saudis would claim the operation was carried out “without clearance or transparency” and that those involved would be punished – although another source cautioned that Riyadh could change its version of events.

Hours before the 60-year-old’s scheduled consular visit, 15 Saudis – some of whom were later identified as security officials – arrived in Istanbul, leaving the country shortly after he disappeared, according to information published by Turkish media close to the government.