AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made his first public comments today on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN: (Speaking Arabic).
CHANG: Speaking at a conference in Riyadh, the crown prince said it was painful to all Saudi citizens. He called the killing a heinous crime. The killing prompted many Western CEOs to cancel their plans to attend this high-profile gathering. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin canceled his appearance, but many U.S. business executives did show up. And to find out more about what has happened at this conference, we reached New York Times reporter Alan Rappeport. He's in Riyadh. Welcome.
ALAN RAPPEPORT: Thanks for having me.
CHANG: So let's first talk about what this conference is for. The Saudis want global companies to invest their money in the kingdom. That's the basic objective, right?
RAPPEPORT: Exactly. It's called the Future Investment Initiative. And it's the second year that they've done it. It's become known sort of colloquially as the Davos in the Desert conference.
RAPPEPORT: And it's drawing about 3,000 people this week from all over the world.
CHANG: Wow. Wow. And part of the deal is the Saudis want to diversify their economy so they're not as reliant on oil, I imagine.
RAPPEPORT: Exactly. So there's lots of panels going on at the conference where they talk about capital markets, investing in technology and, you know, efforts to make Saudi Arabia a hub for these kinds of industries to come here and set up shop.
CHANG: Now, this year, of course, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi cast a shadow over the conference. But today the crown prince directly confronted the issue in his comments. What did you make of his remarks today?
RAPPEPORT: It was quite interesting. Everybody was kind of wondering first of all whether or not he would speak or not, and if he did, whether or not he would address the situation. And he did address it head-on.
He did not take any responsibility personally for it, which was interesting. But he called it a heinous act, and he did promise to bring whoever did it to justice. So I think that was his attempt to try and allay concerns among people from all around the world who think that this is sort of part of the Saudi culture to violate human rights in this way.
CHANG: And how was the audience reacting as the crown prince was speaking today?
RAPPEPORT: It was a very positive, you know, sort of ebullient audience in favor of the crown prince. He got standing ovations after he discussed the situation, as well as when he was talking about the Saudi economy and how, you know, he wanted to lead the charge to make it an economic powerhouse in the Middle East.
CHANG: You mentioned that it was a very supportive audience. I want to talk about what American companies did show up. Who did you see there?
RAPPEPORT: There was a broad range of executives from all different kinds of companies. The big names from, like, JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs were not there. Some of the banks did send lower-level executives. But I think some people were definitely shy about being there. They were in many cases concealing the names on their name tags behind their ties or keeping their jackets buttoned up, which you might not do in Saudi Arabia, where it's pretty hot these days.
CHANG: (Laughter) Right. Were people willing to talk about why they did show up, what they hoped to get out of the conference?
RAPPEPORT: Yeah, some were. I mean, there was definitely a sense - people that I spoke to - that, you know, this is an important business opportunity, an important investing opportunity. And they didn't want to sour relations with the Saudis. And I think some people felt that, you know, their attendance if they didn't show up wouldn't necessarily be noticed or make a statement. So they felt like they were going to go and see what happened anyway.
And there were others who felt that, you know, it's unclear at this point exactly what did happen. And, you know, until an investigation is conclusive, they were going to give the Saudis the benefit of the doubt.
CHANG: Have you heard anything yet at this conference that makes you think Khashoggi's death will deter new American investment in Saudi Arabia or hurt existing ties with the kingdom?
RAPPEPORT: I think so. I mean, I think it will depend somewhat what additional evidence comes out going forward. But, you know, people said that the big banks and biggest brands in business are going to be reluctant to jump back in right away because of the potential damage to those brands, as well as companies in Silicon Valley, which are very focused on, you know, ethical investing.
The defense companies were less reluctant than the big banks to step away from the conference. I think they just seemed less concerned about the backlash against their brands. And this is such a important market for them to be involved in. I think it would be economically dangerous for them to step away.
CHANG: That's Alan Rappeport of the New York Times. Thank you so much for joining us today.
RAPPEPORT: Thank you for having me.
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