Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, looks on during a meeting at An Nasiriyah Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Saudi Crown Prince All Smiles at Summit as Erdogan Cries Murder

(Bloomberg) -- A smiling Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman showed up at a global investment summit in Riyadh on Tuesday, drawing applause and posing for photographs, as the kingdom sought to restrict the damage from the murder of a leading Saudi critic.

International outrage over the fate of Jamal Khashoggi has overshadowed the conference, with dozens of bankers, executives and foreign dignitaries dropping out as it emerged the Washington Post columnist was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. In a lengthy televised address timed to coincide with the event’s opening day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejected Saudi Arabia’s shifting narratives, saying the killing was premeditated and that those responsible must be punished, even if “at the very top.”

Saudi Crown Prince All Smiles at Summit as Erdogan Cries Murder

“We have strong indications that this murder wasn’t the result of a sudden incident, but rather, was the product of a planned operation,” Erdogan told lawmakers in Ankara.

Saudi Arabia quickly said it would take unspecified “corrective measures” and the king and crown prince met Khashoggi’s son and brother to offer their condolences. All the while, in the marbled halls of the Ritz-Carlton hotel, officials sought to show it was business as usual, parading some $50 billion in deals before those business leaders who attended the event.

Drawing a Crowd

A brainchild of MbS, as Saudi Arabia’s 33-year-old de facto ruler is known, the Future Investment Initiative was envisaged as a forum for international investors to engage with his ambitious economic agenda. At the inaugural event last year, the world’s largest oil exporter unveiled plans for a $500 billion futuristic city called Neom. This year, though people queued through an hour-long traffic jam to get to the early sessions, minds were often elsewhere, with attendees checking their phones for the latest news on Khashoggi.

The crown prince made his unexpected appearance toward the end of the day, drawing a crowd as people craned to catch a glimpse or take a photo. He sat next to King Abdullah of Jordan and they left together soon after, followed by onlookers and without the prince commenting publicly.

Prince Mohammed is due to speak on Wednesday, organizers later announced. It was not clear if he would respond to Erdogan’s accusations, which came closer than ever to laying the blame for Khashoggi’s death at the ambitious young leader’s feet.

After insisting for two weeks that Khashoggi had left the consulate shortly after entering on Oct. 2 to get papers for his upcoming wedding, Saudi Arabia said on Saturday that he had been killed when a discussion escalated into an altercation. Eighteen people were arrested and an adviser to Prince Mohammed as well as a senior intelligence official were removed from their posts. But many questions remained unanswered and the changing Saudi explanations have been met with skepticism, even among Saudi allies.

On Tuesday, foreign ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized nations said a credible investigation was needed and measures should be taken to ensure the incident could never be repeated.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called Khashoggi’s death a “brutal, tragic” murder that would not go without a response. But the controversy has created a dilemma for the White House as lawmakers from both parties seek to halt arms sales to the kingdom.

Representative Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced legislation Tuesday that his staff said would “immediately stop all military sales to the government of Saudi Arabia.”

“This new bill is stronger than the one Congressman McGovern introduced last week that would have tied arms sales to a U.S. determination of the Saudi government’s role in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder,” McGovern’s office said in a statement.

President Donald Trump has said he would consider punitive measures against Saudi Arabia but that he opposes cutting off what he bills as $110 billion in U.S. arms sales to the kingdom, arguing this would hurt U.S. defense contractors and workers.

Those concerns were echoed in Spain, where parliament rejected on Tuesday a proposal to stop selling weapons to Riyadh, and in Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it would be “very difficult” and costly to cancel a contract to sell it armored vehicles.

“I do not want to leave Canadians holding a billion dollar bill because we’re trying to move forward on doing the right thing, so we are navigating this very carefully and that’s pretty much all I can say on that,” Trudeau said in an interview with CBC radio.

Though many executives distanced themselves from the Saudi investment conference, others did not. Among international business leaders who showed up was Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne. Commodities trader Trafigura Group signed a venture to develop a refinery and smelter. And state oil giant Saudi Aramco made a number of deals while Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih assuaged concerns that his country might use its oil wealth as political leverage if threatened with punitive actions.

Oil fell four percent to its lowest level since September after Saudi Arabia pledged to meet any supply shortfall from Iranian sanctions.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.