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Companies Are Saying No to ‘Davos in the Desert’

leonkaye headshotWords by Leon Kaye
Leadership & Transparency
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In the wake of reports suggesting that the government of Saudi Arabia is close to admitting that Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was somehow killed at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, and ongoing criticism of the action, or non-action, taken by the Trump White House, U.S. companies are responding to the global outcry with far more rigor than the federal government.

Companies are taking a stand on how they feel about Khashoggi’s death by pulling out of the Future Investment Initiative (FII), or as many prefer to call it, “Davos in the Desert.” This is a quick reversal in fortune for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who had been seen by many foreign policy experts and business leaders as a reformer. But now, the focus is not on his vision for a prosperous Saudi Arabia fully weaned off of oil by 2030 – instead, global leaders are shaken by the latest volatile chapter in Middle East politics.

“If last year’s conference served as a grand coming-out party for Crown Prince Mohammed, this year’s gathering is a symbol of the West’s deepening disillusionment with the young leader,” wrote reporters Mark Landler and Kate Kelly for the New York Times on October 13.

Companies are now deciding not to attend the Future Investment Initiative, an exodus started by the likes of JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, Ford’s executive chairman Bill Ford and MasterCard’s Ajay Banga. Those companies shed little light on why those executives decided to change their plans for the October 23-25 event, but the message was clear. Leaders of Blackstone, BlackRock and Bain Capital also announced they decided against attending.

Other executives were far more direct about why they decided not to attend the glitzy event in Riyadh. According to the Times, Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s CEO, described the events surrounding Khashoggi’s sudden disappearance as “terrible,” and told the FII’s sponsor he would not attend the conference unless questions about the journalist’s fate were answered. That same sponsor, Yasir Al Rumayyan, runs a fund that has invested $3.5 billion in Uber and has a seat on the ridesharing company’s board. Al Rumayyan reportedly assured Khosrowshahi that the Saudi government had nothing to do with what occurred in Istanbul – nevertheless, as of press time Uber will not have any representation at the event, either.

Meanwhile, according to the Financial Times, the heads of the private investment firm EL Rothschild; Arianna Huffington, the chief of Thrive Global who also sits with Al Rumayyan on Uber’s board; and Virgin Group’s Richard Branson, who was not scheduled to attend FII but suspended his involvement with his directorships of two Red Sea tourism projects, also distanced themselves from the event.

As the list of those declining to go to Riyadh next week continues to grow, media partners such as the Times, Bloomberg and Financial Times have also announced they will be no-shows.

While news sites including Axios are keeping tabs on who is spurning the event, and who still plans on attending (including U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin), the fallout from Khashoggi’s disappearance reaches far beyond FII. Many companies, for example, are nixing their involvement with Saudi projects such as Neom, a $500 billion smart city initiative.

Will we see more companies begin to draw a line in the sand on foreign policy and stand up when Washington, DC is perceived as moving too slow or looking the other way at atrocities committed abroad? We’ve been seeing brands taking stands on political and social issues, and now the same is starting to happen with economic and foreign policy – namely, over the China tariffs that have put many U.S. companies on edge.

True, the Khashoggi case is a tragic, and in the grand scheme of things, an extreme case. But as consumers become even more vocal of where they stand on the issues and demand that companies follow their lead, we could very well see more episodes like this unfold in the near future.

Stay informed about ongoing cases of corporate activism in the weekly Brands Taking Stands newsletter.

Image credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The GuardianSustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye