Top U.S. companies have been taking concrete action on climate change, gun control, police violence and other key national issues. As horrific details about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi emerge, more American companies are now raising the CSR bar to respond to an international outrage -- with a boycott.
The question is, will this boycott work? And what will success look like?
Triple Pundit has been following boycott issues since the #grabyourwallet campaign launched in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, and two patterns have clearly emerged.
One is that consumer boycotts are notoriously ineffective and difficult to sustain, unless the target is a company that is already suffering reputational issues.
The other is that business-to-business boycotts have a very good chance of succeeding, in that they highlight CSR issues that force the target to change its behavior.
The business-to-business factor is clearly at work in the Khashoggi case.
Media companies were among the first to drop out. By October, 13, CNN was reporting that "most of the news outlets that had agreed to sponsor a high-profile business conference in Saudi Arabia have now pulled out," and the sponsor list was scrubbed from the conference website.
That doesn't mean the conference will suffer a news blackout -- Bloomberg, for example, will still cover the event. However, Bloomberg has dropped its "media partner" status (CNN also notes that Bloomberg has no comment on the status of its recent deal for an Arabic-language news network).
Several top U.S. journalists will also no longer participate in the conference, including New York Times columnist and CNBC anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin, Economist editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes and Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong have also canceled plans to speak.
CNN has compiled a running list of other businesses that are ditching the conference in response to the Khashoggi murder. The latest update comes under the headline, "Business is boycotting Saudi Arabia's big conference. Here's who's still going."
It's unclear if some of those on the not-going list will provide a lower level of representation at the conference, but there will be no high level presence from key several players.
That includes U.S. businesses JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga and Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene.
In addition, CNN reports that the chief executives of three top European bankers have pulled out (HSBC, Credit Suisse and Standard Chartered), as well as the heads of the IMF and the London Stock Exchange.
For those of you new to the topic, Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian citizen, U.S. resident and columnist for The Washington Post. He left his home country after his situation as an activist and journalist became unsafe. He was critical of Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince and First Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman.
Two weeks ago, Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and never emerged.
Saudi officials at first denied knowledge of his whereabouts, but they have been forced to revise their story as evidence grows that Khashoggi was tortured, murdered and cut into pieces within the consulate.
The Saudi government is reportedly preparing to describe the murder as an unsanctioned, “rogue” operation.
Other repressive regimes have been linked to the murder of journalists, so it's fair to ask why this one has sparked such an extreme outburst of condemnation.
Aside from the particularly revolting circumstances of the Khashoggi case, one circumstantial factor has provided the business community with a clear and immediate way to broadcast outrage: Saudi Arabia's Future Investment Initiative, a high level conference dubbed "Davos in the Desert," to be held later this month in Riyadh.
Here's the pitch from FII (break added for readability):
Hosted under the leadership of HRH Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, Crown Prince, Chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs and Chairman of the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the second-annual Future Investment Initiative (FII) will serve as a platform to drive expert-led debate, discussion, and partnerships among the world’s most visionary and influential leaders in business, government, and civil society.
FII will continue to shape the future of global investment through an immersive three-day program featuring interactive conversations with global leaders, private meetings, curated roundtables, world-class entertainment, unparalleled CEO networking, and deep engagement with global media.
Well, that was then.
With the media spotlight on Saudi Arabia now turned up to an 11 on a scale of 10, it's little wonder that top U.S. business leaders, and others around the world, do not want their names attached to the Saudi vision for the future of global investment.
However, until something more concrete takes shape -- a divestment movement, for example -- it's difficult to see how boycotting one financial conference will have any long term impact on Saudi stakeholders.
That's even more likely if you flip the common wisdom on the Khashoggi case. The accepted wisdom is that the Saudi government is directly responsible for the murder and that it was deliberately planned, including plans for covering up the crime and enabling the murderers to escape from Turkey.
Considering how many damning details have quickly leaked out, it's beginning to look more like there was no real intention to cover up the murder from the beginning. It was intended to send a message to the world, in advance of the conference.
The message is a simple one: We are very powerful and we can get away with anything, even murder.
If that sounds familiar, you may be thinking of a statement that then-candidate Donald Trump made in January 23, 2016, as the primary election season was heating up:
"I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters."
Indeed. If that was the intended message, then the Saudi government has achieved its aim, boycott or no boycott.
It's also worth noting that Trump himself has cultivated a culture of violence against journalists and media organizations here in the U.S.
So far Trump has defended the Saudi government, which appears to have reciprocated by depositing $100 million in American bank accounts.
As of this writing, the Trump administration also still plans to send a top official, Treasury, Secretary Steven Mnuchin, to represent the U.S. and potential investors at the conference.
All of this adds yet more fuel to the multiple scandals enveloping the Trump administration, including his (and his family's) financial ties to Saudi Arabia.
With the U.S. midterm elections approaching, the Future Investment boycott may not have much of an impact on the Saudi government, but blowback from the Khashoggi murder could play a role in the future of the Trump presidency.
Photo: Future Investment Initiative.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.