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Saudi Aramco CEO on Khashoggi's death

Saudi Aramco CEO Amin Nasser speaks with CNN's John Defterios at the Future Investment Initiative. Dozens of business leaders from around the world pulled out of the conference following the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Posted: Oct 24, 2018 6:29 AM
Updated: Oct 24, 2018 6:53 AM

The crown prince of Saudi Arabia is trying to salvage plans for a dramatic overhaul of his country's economy as top corporate leaders and investors distance themselves following the killing of a critical journalist.

Mohammed bin Salman is expected to make his case Wednesday at an investor conference in Saudi Arabia that was supposed to bring together many of the biggest names in global business.

The crown prince is scheduled to participate in a panel discussion expected at 5.30 pm local time (10.30 am ET) on how "visionary leadership" will "transform the Arab world into a global economic powerhouse." But he will be speaking to a crowd with much less financial power than originally planned.

Investors and corporate executives have distanced themselves from the crown prince after members of his inner circle were blamed for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia says the journalist was killed by rogue operatives during an interrogation gone wrong. Several US officials told CNN that any such operation could not have happened without bin Salman's direct knowledge.

SoftBank (SFTBF) founder Masayoshi Son, who has been give $45 billion of Saudi money to invest through his Vision Fund, has pulled out of the event. Other top executives, including the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Uber and Siemens (SIEGY), also canceled plans to attend.

The Future Investment Initiative conference, widely known as "Davos in the desert," was a way for the young prince to showcase his country as being "open for business" as it undergoes massive transformation to diversify the economy away from oil.

But the mood has been subdued this week in Riyadh despite Saudi Arabia announcing $50 billion worth of deals, mainly to develop its oil and chemicals industry.

Some companies have sent less senior executives. JPMorgan and HSBC (HSBC) are sending representatives, despite their CEOs pulling out, for example.

"We can't ignore Saudi Arabia," a senior executive for an international bank told CNN Business at the event.

Regional governments, including the United Arab Emirates, dispatched delegations to the event, and bin Salman is expected to share the stage on Wednesday with the crown prince of Bahrain and the prime minister of Lebanon.

"There is loyalty, but the loyalty is is well deserved," said Mahmood Alkooheji, CEO of Mumtalakat, Bahrain's sovereign wealth fund. "Our presence here in the forum is really to look at the investment opportunities."

As for international investors, he said they "need time."

Saudi Arabia urgently needs to reverse a decline in foreign investment to diversify its economy and end its dependence on oil. Under his Vision 2030 plan, bin Salman wants to grow the private sector, boost tourism and reduce unemployment over the next decade.

The plan caught the imagination of many international players, including billionaire Richard Branson, who jumped on opportunities for two tourism projects and was in talks for a $1 billion investment in his space company.

But Branson was one of the first to suspend his links with Saudi Arabia following Khashoggi's disappearance.

"What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi Government," Branson said earlier this month.

Last year, bin Salman used the conference to introduce a $500 billion futuristic mega-city sitting alongside some of the world's top executives, including Son. The young prince told the audience that the city, NEOM, would be a place for "dreamers."

The announcement received loud cheers and applause from the energized crowd.

But at least six of 18 NEOM's international advisers — including Silicon Valley stars such as Sam Altman — have backed out temporarily or permanently.

Now the prince will need to make an equally forceful argument for why investors should buy into his vision. And if it turns out he really did know about the operation against Khashoggi, the kingdom may be back to square one.

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