Last year’s event was shunned by most leading financiers due to disgust over the shocking murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi-born critic and Post contributing columnist.
So, what has changed this year to entice President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and top executives of BlackRock, Blackstone and Goldman Sachs to show up?
Well, here’s what hasn’t changed: The CIA’s finding that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s effective ruler, was the one who ordered Khashoggi’s brutal execution in Istanbul. To date, none of those implicated has faced any serious punishment or accountability.
What has also not changed: Saudi Arabia remains not only a rogue state by most international standards — it also makes an unstable strategic partner for the United States and others, fundamentally incompatible with Western business practices. The entire kingdom is now controlled by a ruthless 30-something whose first instinct is to imprison, torture, expropriate and murder.
Those attending will explain that the prince, known as MBS, is a reformer who has freed women to drive and is shepherding the royal family’s oil giant, Aramco, toward the biggest IPO in history. What they cannot explain is how such a reformer could have detained and coerced his political opponents and family members — in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton, the very hotel where the investment conference is taking place — to clear the way to the throne for him.
Of course his defenders would say it was all part of an “anti-corruption campaign.” MBS has said the ordeal convinced the detained royals to part with $100 billion — but he has offered no evidence to back this.
While he has pushed a change to allow women to drive cars for the first time, MBS has imprisoned and tortured the same rights activists who had been demonstrating to achieve that. Many others, including U.S. citizens — among them my cousin Badr al-Ibrahim, a physician and writer — are being held in secret, and relatives have no information on their condition, status or place of imprisonment. These are the disappeared.
Every day in Saudi schools, 6 million children are being indoctrinated by textbooks preaching hatred and extermination of Jews, Christians and all Muslims who don’t follow the narrowest interpretation of Wahhabi precepts. The same kingdom that supposedly opens to the West is simultaneously raising generation after generation to despise it. And it is not providing them basic modern life skills like critical thinking, intercultural respect and intellectual curiosity. In very real terms, Saudi children are not being taught very differently than they would be under al-Qaeda or the Islamic State — a ticking time bomb for anti-Western terror and for bringing down the kingdom itself.
Taken altogether, this makes a very strange recipe for hosting the debutante’s ball of 21st-century business. We do need Saudi investment and engagement with the West. We will need access to fossil fuels for the foreseeable future, and a strong U.S.-Saudi alliance is critical to advancing stability in the Middle East and beyond. But rewarding the worst inclinations of the most autocratic Saudi ruler in living history risks each of these priorities.