On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pulled out of Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative conference better known as “Davos in the Desert.” It's a wise decision. As Saudi authorities have yet to come clean about what happened to Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the U.S. must make clear that the apparent murder and subsequent lies are unacceptable.
Although the conference is only a conference and not broader sanctions or the end of arms deals that some lawmakers have advocated for, it does signal a growing willingness from the Trump administration to consider action against the kingdom.
That's an improvement over recent wavering from the White House including arguments from Trump that the Saudi government should remain guilty until proven innocent and linked accusations to those made against Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Mounting evidence indicates that Khashoggi was indeed murdered on the orders of Saudi officials – and likely orders from the acting ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Prior to Mnuchin’s withdrawal from the conference, other prominent participants and sponsors also withdrew their support from Davos in the Dessert, adding economic pressure to building international diplomatic outcry.
Mnuchin, however, did not join the early clamor to build distance with the kingdom. Instead, Trump opted to send Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia to try to get to the bottom of the incident before pulling the participation of a Cabinet official from a high profile conference with a long-time ally.
Amid what appears to have been a tense conversation between Pompeo, the top Saudi leadership including King Salman, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as well as mounting bipartisan pressure from Congress to hold the kingdom accountable, the Trump administration finally made the right call and pulled Mnuchin out of the lineup.
High-profile participants walking away from the initiative are a blow for both the credibility of Saudi leadership and signal growing international distrust in the promises of the crown prince, who has billed himself as a reformer. The Future Investment Initiative was supposed to be a key element of Saudi Arabia's plan for the future to diversify its economic power away from oil and reaffirm its relationship with western stakeholders in prospective financial deals.
By not participating in the conference, the businesses and the U.S. government have taken the first steps towards actually holding Saudi Arabia accountable on the international stage. That sends at least the symbolic message that a brutal murder of a dissident journalist in violation of international norms and laws will not be tolerated and is an important step in pushing back on emboldened human rights violations from the kingdom.
Although it's good that Mnuchin and other business leaders won't be making the trip to Saudi Arabia, the relatively easy step of walking away from a conference must not be the end to pressure on the Saudi government – It must be paired with real diplomatic and economic consequences.