Saudi crown prince decries ‘heinous’ Khashoggi killing

Businesspeople in the kingdom say case is tragic but will blow over like ‘a passing wind’

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photograph: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photograph: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

 

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman pledged to work with Turkey to investigate the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which he described as a “heinous crime that cannot be justified”.

In his first remarks since the murder of the dissident journalist, Prince Mohammed said the “painful” episode had been used by some to drive a wedge between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

“They will not be able to do so as long as there is a King Salman, a Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a president in Turkey called Erdogan,” he said while speaking on a panel at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh.

“Justice will be seen in the end,” added the prince, who is Saudi Arabia’s day-to-day ruler.

His remarks come after US president Donald Trump said the Saudi operation had “ been the worst cover-up ever”, signalling his increasing reluctance to accept the kingdom’s denial of senior responsibility for the killing.

Before taking the stage, Prince Mohammed spoke to Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan by telephone for the first time since the death of Mr Khashoggi.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said the call took place at the behest of Prince Mohammed. It said they discussed the need to shed light on all aspects of the killing, which took place at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul three weeks ago.

The conversation between the two men, who have found themselves on opposing sides of a series of regional power struggles, came the day after Mr Erdogan warned that Ankara could not accept the Saudi claim that Mr Khashoggi had died in a fight.

The Turkish president did not mention Prince Mohammed by name in a speech that laid out a series of unanswered questions that he challenged Riyadh to answer.

Grave damage

Earlier in the day Saudi Arabia had sought to overcome grave damage to the kingdom’s image by pitching its credentials as a business-friendly environment for investors at the conference.

Officials turned the focus to regulatory reform on day two of the event, highlighting a new insolvency law and a commercial arbitration centre as examples of pro-investor Saudi efforts to streamline bureaucracy.

Foreign direct investment in Saudi Arabia, the region’s biggest economy, collapsed in 2017 as investor sentiment weakened amid slowing economic growth.

Ibrahim Al Omar, governor of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, told the conference: “We are open for business. This is a golden opportunity for all investors to join us on our historic journey.”

But the call is a hard sell for many attendees at the conference, who have seen agreed investment deals fall apart in the wake of the Khashoggi case.

“I am working on a deal now, but we have put that on hold,” said one private equity executive. “And our banker colleagues say foreigners are pulling out of deals until this storm passes.”

Others doing business in the kingdom continue to complain of late payments and excessive bureaucracy as day-to-day barriers to doing business.

The private sector has been weakened by government austerity and low growth, as well as the shock of last year’s anti-corruption crackdown at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, in which hundreds of business magnates were held alongside royals.

Online groceries

Regional companies were nonetheless unveiling deals in the kingdom ahead of the crown prince’s appearance at the forum on Wednesday.

Dubai conglomerate Majid Al Futtaim, which operates Carrefour stores in the Middle East, announced a lead role in a $30 million investment round in Wadi Grocery, a Saudi online grocery delivery service, which is seeking to expand in the kingdom.

Carrefour, the fourth-largest grocer in Saudi Arabia with 18 outlets, is seeking to accelerate its expansion into the kingdom’s small but growing online grocery sector.

“Saudi Arabia continues to be a great market, and we are committed – we are seeing reforms becoming reality,” said Alain Bejjani, chief executive of Majid Al Futtaim, which is investing about $5 billion into Saudi malls, residential and cinemas.

Some businesspeople in the kingdom said that, while the Khashoggi case was tragic, it would blow over, with one person in the energy sector saying it was like “a passing wind”.

A foreign executive based in Riyadh said the country remained on a trajectory of change but added that the journalist’s killing should serve as a moment of reflection for the kingdom’s leaders.

“This crisis has shown that Saudi Arabia has a hell of a lot [to] learn about how to conduct itself and how to communicate with the world,” he said. “Let’s hope they will learn.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018