Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi went missing after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He hasn’t been seen since and unnamed Turkish officials believe that he was murdered. Government officials, including President Trump and the Senate, have called for investigations, sanctions, and even all out bans on arms sales. While the government sorts out its response, companies and individuals are already pulling funds and support for conferences and deals involving the kingdom, bringing economic pressure to bear.
Much of Saudi Arabia’s current standing is predicated on support for its leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. At first, his leadership held the promise of long anticipated reforms: women, for example, were allowed to drive for the first time. It quickly became apparent, however, that crackdowns on dissent accompanied these reforms drawing criticism from the West who had hoped to have finally found a reform-minded ally in the Saudi royal family.
Now, with Khashoggi’s disappearance and an ongoing war in Yemen, rife with human rights abuses, that promise has paled.
As more facts come out and days pass without signs of life from Khashoggi, governments are likely to impose sanctions and push the Saudi’s to follow international laws and norms. But as bin Salman loses trust, he is also going to face economic consequences.
Already, the New York Times has walked away as a sponsor from the Future Investment Initiative, known as “Davos in the Desert.” Several speakers, including the editor-in-chief of the Economist, Zanny Minton Beddoes, have pulled out with Arianna Huffington, a member of the advisory board, cutting ties as well.
While the conference is the next big publicity point for the kingdom, on other projects, trust for the Saudi’s are faltering as well. For example, Obama’s former energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, who was advising the country on smart cities has suspended his role. Other departures from involvement with the kingdom seem likely.
Together, these high profile retreats from association with flagship projects in Saudi Arabia adds to the growing diplomatic pressure on the kingdom to provide clear answers on what is becoming a full blown scandal.
Whatever the U.S. government decides to do about it, economic pressure, not just diplomatic pressure, will play a key role in pressuring the Saudi government, hungry for standing, influence and expertise, to release details and avoid future breaches of International laws and norms.