Saudi Arabia has found itself further isolated over the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi after the business world turned its back on a high-profile investment conference in the kingdom and US officials claimed audio and video recordings had captured the moment the journalist was murdered in Istanbul.
The Future Investment Initiative conference to be held in Riyadh later this month was rapidly turning into a fiasco on Friday after most media partners and several top business allies pulled out. More were expected to follow. All said they had been disturbed by the circumstances of Khashoggi’s disappearance from the Saudi consulate in Turkey and the lack of credible responses.
Saudi Arabia has been under pressure to explain what happened to Khashoggi after he entered the consulate building at 1.14pm on 2 October. Turkey has insisted that the exiled journalist and critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was murdered by a hit squad sent from Riyadh. Authorities in Istanbul have hinted they hold undisclosed evidence that proves what took place.
On Friday, US officials revealed to Khashoggi’s employer, the Washington Post, that Turkish investigators had claimed audio and videotapes existed of conversations between the missing 59-year-old and his alleged killers.
“You can hear his voice and the voices of men speaking Arabic,” an official said. “You can hear how he was interrogated, tortured and then murdered.”
The oblique references to recordings appear to suggest that Turkish intelligence officers had bugged the consulate, or some of the accused killers.
Meanwhile, Ankara and Riyadh have been assembling a joint investigation team, with Turkish officials saying they would give the kingdom until Saturday to agree to terms.
As discussions continued on Friday, the Saudi monarch, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, sent the senior royal Khaled al-Faisal to meet the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The move was regarded as an attempt by King Salman to reintroduce the older generation, with whom the kingdom traditionally wielded regional influence before the rise of the 33-year-old crown prince and de facto ruler, Bin Salman.
Also on Friday, a Turkish court freed a US pastor whose detention on terrorism charges had prompted a bitter dispute between Washington and Ankara. The surprise release of Andrew Brunson prompted speculation that Turkey was seeking US support in its face-off over Khashoggi.
However, the US national security adviser, John Bolton, appeared to cast doubt on Turkey’s version of events, suggesting that, because Turkey and Saudi Arabia had been historical foes, another “operation” may have taken place.
“You know, honestly, we just don’t know what the facts are,” Bolton told the rightwing radio host Hugh Hewitt. “And that was one of the points that I made to the crown prince. We need to find out what the facts are, and we need to get this resolved quickly, because if it is another operation, people need to understand that.
“I think the Saudis themselves are being damaged, because we don’t have the facts out. There’s obviously been historical animosity between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. We have our own difficulties with Turkey at the moment.”
While business groups had withdrawn from the Riyadh conference, the US treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, said he still planned to attend.
The comments further fuelled concerns that Washington’s close relationship with Riyadh may cast a shadow over the investigation.
Donald Trump explicitly linked his response to the allegations to Washington’s $110bnworth of arms supply deals with Riyadh. Ankara also has significant trade and political ties with the kingdom, with which it maintains a cautious rivalry.
Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030, under Bin Salman, is strongly dependent on overseas investment, and the apparent shunning of the conference will be as disturbing to Saudi policymakers as the more distant threat of a US Congress-imposed ban on future US arms sales.
Some of the companies said their withdrawal from the conference on 23 October was dependent on the outcome of the investigation, while others put no condition on their decision.
The president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, announced he would not be attending, soon after the Financial Times and CNN said they were pulling out as media sponsors, with all CNN’s anchors withdrawing from the event. Bloomberg also pulled out.
The New York Times withdrew its sponsorship two days ago, sparking a string of withdrawals across the globe, including Ariana Huffington, the LA Times owner, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, and the CNBC anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin.
On the corporate side, Sir Richard Branson and Viacom announced their withdrawal, as did Uber, which is part-owned by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund.
Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, is listed as a speaker at the conference, but Jihad Azour, the head of the IMF Middle East department, would not say if she would be present. “Like most of the people here and everywhere, we are waiting to have more information on this recent development,” Azour said.
Organisers suggested the conference would still go ahead because the long-term political cost of cancelling would be greater than the embarrassment of a poor turnout.