New York Times Drops Out of Saudi Investment Conference – Will Others Follow?

Donald Trump and Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office. (Photo: White House)

UPDATE: As of the morning of October 12, the Los Angeles Times, Uber, CNN, CBNC, Viacom, Bloomberg, the Financial Times, and Andrew Ross Sorkin have pulled out of the conference. Many of the powerful companies listed below have not pulled out.

The disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — who is believed to have been murdered at the Saudi embassy in Turkey — has put increased pressure on political leaders and businesses to distance themselves from the regime of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Following these reports, the New York Times has pulled its sponsorship from an upcoming investor conference in Riyadh.

However, several other media outlets remain sponsors of the conference and have representatives set to speak:

  • CNBC is a media partner, and correspondent Dan Murphy and “Squawk Box” co-host Andrew Ross Sorkin are both scheduled to speak (Sorkin is also a financial columnist for the New York Times). (UPDATE: Both CNBC and Sorkin have pulled out of the conference.)
  • Bloomberg is a media partner, and Erik Schatzker, editor-at-large of Bloomberg TV, and Justin B. Smith, Bloomberg Media Group CEO, are both scheduled to speak. (UPDATE: Bloomberg has pulled out of the conference.)
  • Los Angeles Times. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who owns the LA Times, is on the conference’s advisory board and is scheduled to speak. Soon-Shiong also owns the The San Diego Union-Tribune(UPDATE: Soon-Shiong and the LA Times have pulled out of the conference.)
  • Fox Business Network is a media partner and Maria Bartiromo, global markets editor of FOX Business, is scheduled to speak.
  • Viacom CEO Bob Bakish is scheduled to speak. (UPDATE: Viacom has pulled out of the conference.)
  • CNN is a media a media partner.  (UPDATE: CNN has pulled out of the conference.)
  • Financial Times is a media partner.  (UPDATE: the Financial Times has pulled out of the conference.)

According to Variety, “CNBC, Fox Business, and Viacom, are monitoring the situation closely and deciding whether to participate,” while the LA Times’s Soon-Shiong did not comment.

Aside from media, there has been little word from dozens of major Wall Street firms – many who have close business relationships with the Saudi regime – and other corporate players who are scheduled to speak at the conference.

The disappearance and possible murder of Khashoggi comes against the backdrop of Saudi Arabia’s US-backed war on Yemen, which has resulted in an unprecedented cholera outbreak and, recently, the killing of 40 school children who were riding a school bus that the Saudis exploded with a Lockheed Martin bomb.

This rising global outcry against Saudi actions raises an important question: will corporate America continue to legitimize Mohammed bin Salman’s repressive regime by attending the investor conference? Or will its leaders pull out of the conference and use their sway – and pocketbooks – in the interest of accountability?

These are a few of the major Wall Street leaders scheduled to speak in Riyadh later this month who are cozy with the Saudi regime:

  • Stephen A. Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone. Schwarzman heads one of the most powerful private equity firms in the world. He has been a friend of the Saudi regime – the Saudis are covering half of a $40 billion Blackstone investment fund to invest in US infrastructure. Some have raised concerns over conflicts of interest in this arrangement since it came right after Jared Kushner finalized a major weapons deal with the Saudis (Blackstone has loaned Kushner’s family business $400 million and, at the time, Schwarzman led Trump’s now-disbanded CEO council and has been a major Trump fundraiser and donor). In January, Schwarzman referred to Mohammed Bin Salman’s reforms as “extraordinary.” Schwarzman is on the advisory board of the investor conference.
  • Larry Fink, Chairman & CEO of BlackRock. Fink heads the biggest money manager in the world, overseeing $6.3 trillion. He recently sent a letter to CEOs that called for companies to “serve a social purpose” and make “a positive contribution to society.” Last year Muhammad bin Salman told Reuters that BlackRock – along with Schwarzman’s Blackstone – announced they were opening offices in Riyadh, “encouraged by the investment opportunities offered by the kingdom.” Fink visited Saudi Arabia earlier this summer and afterwards commented about how excited he was about investing there.
  • Thomas Barrack, Executive Chairman, Colony Capital. Barrack oversees $60 billion in assets, including huge amounts of distressed assets he bought up after the housing crash. Barrack is an unofficial liaison between the Saudi regime and the Trump administration and has a business history with the Gulf state elites that goes back to the 1970s. He has raised millions in funds from Saudi Arabia since Trump was elected.
  • Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorganChase. Dimon is a major Wall Street power player – he heads up the largest US bank measured by assets. Dimon has personally met with Mohammad bin Salman and apparently attended a Washington gala with him earlier this year.
  • David Petraeus, chairman of KKR; Joseph Bae, KKR co-president & co-COO. Two leaders of KKR, a major hedge fund with an office in Riyadh, are speaking, including former general and CIA director David Petraeus. KKR has a Saudi office, and its co-founder Henry Kravis appears to have attended the same gala with bin Salman as Jamie Dimon.

The close relationship with Wall Street is part of a Saudi strategy aimed at cultivating close financial and political ties to US corporate power and Trump-tied elites. These relationships help the Saudi regime get away with everything it does and remain in power.

Other banks and private equity firms that will be represented at the conference with speakers include Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Liontree, TPG Capital, Breyer Capital, Canyon Partners, PGIM, Bain Capital, Warburg Pincus, State Street, and others. Steven Case, who co-founded AOL and is currently the CEO of Revolution, a private equity firm, is also set to speak.

Thomas A. Kennedy, the CEO of Raytheon, which has a close relationship with Saudi Arabia and sells the Saudis thousands of missiles as part of billions in trade deals, will also be speaking.

Other major corporate leaders at the conference include Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, former Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris, and Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene. Magnus Resch, the CEO of app company Magnus, will be also speaking. (UPDATE: Dara Khosrowshahi and Magnus Resch have pulled out of the conference.The outspoken climate progressive and actor Leonardo DiCaprio is a major investor in Magnus.

The Trump administration has been a big supporter of the Saudi regime and approved a $110 billion weapons deal with the Saudis last year. The administration has so far remained silent about Khashoggi’s apparent death. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is stills scheduled to attend the conference.

Also attending the conference is Dina Powell, a former Trump advisor and current Goldman Sachs executive who is close to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Powell’s name is being floated as a possible replacement for Nikki Haley as US ambassador to the UN.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, has drawn particular attention for his central role in promoting Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership. As the New York Times reported today:

More than anyone in the Trump administration, Mr. Kushner has cultivated Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman — whose family may have played a role in the disappearance of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi — elevating the prince into a key ally in the Arab world and the White House’s primary interlocutor to the kingdom.

Mr. Kushner championed Prince Mohammed, 33, when the prince was jockeying to be his father’s heir; had dinner with him in Washington and Riyadh, the Saudi capital; promoted a $110 billion weapons sale to his military; and once even hoped that the future king would put a Saudi stamp of approval on his Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

Mohammed bin Salman was feted by a host of political, corporate, media, and Hollywood elites – from Oprah Winfrey and “The Rock” to Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg – during a tour around the US earlier this year.

Others besides the New York Times have moved to distance themselves from the Saudi regime.  Former Obama energy secretary Ernest Moniz has suspended his role in a Saudi city mega-project in light of Khashoggi’s disappearance.

The fate of Jamal Khashoggi is still unknown for certain, but he disappeared a week ago after he went into the Saudi embassy in Turkey. US intelligence intercepts show that Mohammed bin Salman wanted to lure Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia in order to detain him. Turkish authorities believe that Khashoggi was killed at the embassy, after which his body was dismembered.

It remains to be seen if other media and corporate players – many of whom have real power to pressure the Saudi regime if they so choose – will make similar gestures.