Media sponsors drop out of Saudi conference after journalist goes missing
Media companies are pulling out of a high-profile business conference in Saudi Arabia as questions mount about the kingdom’s role in the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Future Investment Initiative, also known as “Davos in the desert,” is hosted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and is part of his Vision 2030 plan to break the country’s dependence on oil.
The conference is scheduled to take place between October 23 and October 25 in Riyadh. Major political and business figures have been invited to speak and several big companies, including Siemens (SIEGY), MasterCard (MA) and Deloitte are listed as “strategic partners” for the event on its website.
But media partners for the conference have come under particular scrutiny, since Khashoggi is a prominent Saudi journalist, contributor to the Washington Post and critic of the Saudi regime.
The New York Times has pulled its partnership, telling CNN Business in a statement that the newspaper is “no longer a media sponsor.”
“In light of the current situation related to the disappearance of the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey, we are no longer comfortable being associated with the event,” a Times spokesperson said.
On Friday, CNN also canceled its partnership, and said its anchors and reporters would no longer moderate panels.
“CNN has withdrawn its participation in the Saudi Future Investment Initiative Conference,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
Khashoggi has been missing for more than a week after going to the Saudi consulate general in Istanbul to obtain wedding papers. Turkish officials privately believe he was killed at the consulate, an allegation denied by Saudi Arabia.
The United States has intercepts of Saudi officials discussing a plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and detain him, according to a US official familiar with the intelligence.
Andrew Ross Sorkin, a columnist for the New York Times and anchor for CNBC, tweeted Thursday that he was “terribly distressed” by the disappearance of Khashoggi and would no longer participate. He had been due to moderate three sessions.
Viacom (VIAB) CEO Bob Bakish, who was also scheduled to speak at the conference, will not attend, a company spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, Arianna Huffington has pulled out of the conference, according to a spokesperson for her company Thrive Global. Huffington, the founder of the Huffington Post and an Uber board member, has also resigned from the advisory board of the Saudi conference.
Zanny Minton Beddoes, the editor-in-chief of The Economist, will also no longer speak at the event as previously scheduled, a spokesperson told CNN Business.
Other media partners for the Saudi investment conference include Bloomberg, CNBC, Fox Business Network, Financial Times, Nikkei and Al Arabiya.
Journalists from Fox Business Network and CNBC are listed as moderators for the event. Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, who had been scheduled to speak at the conference, will not be attending the event either, according to a spokesman for the newspaper.
Fox Business Network, Bloomberg and CNBC are monitoring the situation, according to spokespeople for the networks.
The Financial Times did not respond to a request for comment, but a spokesperson was cited by BuzzFeed as saying that the newspaper was also monitoring the situation.
Companies beyond the media industry are also rethinking their involvement.
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who was scheduled to speak at the event about the future of transportation, said he was also withdrawing.
“I’m very troubled by the reports to date about Jamal Khashoggi,” Khosrowshahi said in a statement late Thursday. “We are following the situation closely, and unless a substantially different set of facts emerges, I won’t be attending the FII conference in Riyadh.”
Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is a major investor in Uber.
Siemens said it was monitoring the situation. “As of now, our plans haven’t changed and the CEO will be attending,” said Tamara Hamdan, Siemens spokesperson in the Middle East.
MasterCard did not respond to requests for comment.