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Saudi faces business backlash over Khashoggi disappearance

AFP  |  Paris 

Saudi Arabia's is facing a backlash over the disappearance of from business and media previously supportive of his reform drive, with partnerships at risk and big names boycotting a major conference this month.

The crown prince, the son of Salman, has spearheaded an ambitious programme known as Vision 2030, aiming to make the a hub for global innovation and better able to respond to the demands of its increasingly youthful population.

Despite enduring criticism of Saudi's human rights record and its role in the war in Yemen, business chiefs, investors and have been impressed by the crown prince's rhetoric and backed his vision of a new

The showcase of this international support was set to be on October 23-25 at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, a lavish conference to be attended by top foreign business leaders and dubbed the "in the Desert" after the in the Swiss resort.

But the disappearance of -- who has not been seen since he walked into the on October 2 -- has given chills even to those who strongly supported Mohammed bin Salman's plans.

Turkish officials have said they believe -- a contributor to who has on occasion penned articles critical of -- was killed inside the consulate. has strongly denied this but has failed to explain the journalist's fate.

Charismatic British Richard Branson, the founder of the Group, announced he is suspending two directorships linked to tourism projects in around the due to the unexplained disappearance of Khashoggi.

Branson said he had "high hopes" for Saudi Arabia under the but added if the claims about Khashoggi's disappearance were true it would "clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the " He added would suspend discussions with Saudi Arabia over a proposed investment in Galactic, which is set to carry out its first space flight within weeks.

Meanwhile the Future Investment Initiative has seen a litany of cancellations from prominent names who decided it best not to be associated with Saudi Arabia at this time.

The of ride-hailing app Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi, said that he will no longer be attending the event unless "a substantially different set of facts emerges", explaining he was "very troubled by the reports".

His absence will be hugely symbolic as Saudi Arabia's mammoth sovereign wealth fund, the (PIF), invested $3.5 billion in in 2016.

An increasingly key player, the PIF also has a stake in Tesla, the company headed by Elon Musk while also taking a shareholding in its rival

However, US underlined in comments which outraged supporters of Khashoggi that there would be limits to any backlash, saying he was not minded to limit arms sales to the key American ally.

"They are spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs," Trump said Thursday. The Saudis will "take that money and spend it in or or someplace else," he warned.

Media organisations, some of whose writers played some part in cheering the reforms of Mohammed bin Salman, are also deserting the event, with pulling out as a sponsor and cancelling plans to appear.

Meanwhile celebrity journalists who were invited are also staying away. said on he would not be attending after being "terribly distressed by the disappearance of and reports of his murder." The ambiance is set to be a far cry from the first edition of the meeting in 2017, where Saudi Arabia wowed some 3,500 executives with talking robots and plans for a new city.

The tensions also create new doubts about the much-heralded IPO of Aramco, expected to be the largest share offering in history, and which the has insisted will go ahead by early 2021.

But not all big names are staying away so far. German Siemens, whose is invited, told AFP it had not cancelled its participation but was following the situation closely.

chief and are still scheduled to attend.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Fri, October 12 2018. 19:40 IST