DAVOS, Switzerland — Just a few months ago, Saudi Arabia was placed under the heat lamps of international scrutiny. The steady drip of revelations surrounding the covert abduction and killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inflamed the U.S. Congress, led to protests in various capitals around the world and blackened the reputation of the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who the CIA found had ordered the plot.
But Mohammed and the Saudis were defiant in the face of international censure. They were defended by the Trump administration, which focused its ire instead on Iran, and received only timid reproach from European governments wary of isolating a key customer for military hardware. And if it wasn’t clear that the West had largely moved on beyond the whole Khashoggi affair, events this week at the World Economic Forum made it all the more obvious.
The Saudis sent a large delegation to the Swiss Alps, including their economy, finance and foreign ministers. The country’s oil giant, Aramco, staged a lavish party Wednesday evening for executives and bankers attending the forum. In various conversations, Western politicians and business executives indicated their unwillingness to turn their back on the kingdom.
“We have long since dealt with the Khashoggi case,” Swiss President Ueli Maurer told local news agency SDA. “We have agreed to continue the financial dialogue and normalize relations again.”
At a panel alongside two Saudi ministers and Morgan Stanley chief James Gorman, the head of French oil company Total, Patrick Pouyanne, urged the audience to put the nastiness of Khashoggi’s killing behind them: “Let’s look more positively and move forward.”
No wonder Saudi officials could feel confident. “I don’t see any issues — quite the opposite — in terms of our investment, it’s welcomed,” said Amin Nasser, Aramco’s chief executive.
At a forum driven by business concerns, this ought not be surprising. In an interview with WorldViews, Alain Bejjani, chief executive of Majid Al Futtaim — a Middle East retail giant that owns shopping malls, cinemas and other properties throughout the region — dismissed negative coverage of the Saudi crown prince as “very unfair” and “biased.”
Bejjani’s company opened the first cinema in Saudi Arabia and has plans to expand rapidly in the kingdom. He credits Mohammed for spurring “deep reform,” citing his moves to curb corruption, open up the country’s economy and allow women to drive.
“As an investor, and as the CEO of one of the most prominent private-sector organizations that operates in this part of the world, I can see a crown prince that came to power with a clear agenda,” Bejjani said. He hailed the kingdom’s political leadership for “actually delivering” in a “methodical” way on its ambitious plans to reshape the country’s economy by the end of the next decade.
And what about the kingdom’s missteps — its detention of civil society activists, its calamitous wars abroad, its provoking of a regional crisis with Qatar? That comes with the territory, Bejjani seemed to suggest.
“Did things happen in the perfect way? Of course not,” he said. “But any transformation has its own challenges.”
The Khashoggi killing now seems only a bump in the road for Riyadh.
“Speaking not just as a government employee but as a Saudi citizen, everyone in Saudi has been absolutely horrified by what happened,” Mohammed El Kuwaiz, chairman of the Saudi Capital Market Authority, told Reuters in Davos. “But a country of 30 million people should not be held hostage by an event, no matter how heinous, particularly at this point in time when we have been working very hard to set a new course for the country.”
But activists and humanitarians in Davos weren’t so tolerant.
Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, pointed an accusing finger at the forum for not raising the Khashoggi issue more directly. “It is classic WEF not to make it an official topic of conversation,” he told AFP.
David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, said Khashoggi’s killing was in part the consequence of the Trump administration’s moral retreat, which has emboldened autocrats to behave badly. “The vacuum is too often filled by impunity,” he said in an interview with WorldViews.
When that impunity, said Kumi Naidoo, head of Amnesty International, is also enabled by the business elites of the forum, it casts the whole project of Davos in a bad light.
“It makes what’s happening here seem like the rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic,” Naidoo told WorldViews.