Donald Trump dispatched his top diplomat to Saudi Arabia to “get to the bottom” of the disappearance of dissident Jamal Khashoggi even as the US president signalled he was prepared to accept the kingdom’s denials of responsibility.
Mr Trump’s move to send Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, to Riyadh came as the Khashoggi case threatened to isolate Riyadh internationally. Some of Wall Street’s highest-profile financiers, including Blackstone chief Stephen Schwarzman, have withdrawn from a major Saudi conference.
Mr Pompeo was to meet King Salman as early as Tuesday amid allegations that the kingdom’s leadership orchestrated Mr Khashoggi’s killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month.
But while Mr Trump said Mr Pompeo was on a fact-finding mission, he added that “rogue killers” could be responsible. He noted that King Salman, during a phone call, had “firmly” denied culpability for Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance.
“We are going to leave nothing uncovered,” Mr Trump said. “We’re going to try to get to the bottom of it very soon, but his was a flat denial.”
The comments came after reports that Saudi Arabia was considering saying that Mr Khashoggi was killed by mistake during an interrogation carried out by rogue operatives.
One person briefed by a senior official in Riyadh said the emerging explanation was that the operation appeared to have gone awry. The person said that the senior official who carried out the Istanbul operation had exceeded his authority and made a massive mistake.
The case threatens to scupper the Future Investment Initiative, a star-studded “Davos in the desert” chaired by Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince. The young heir to King Salman has worked to attract foreign investment to the kingdom and open up its economy.
In addition to Mr Schwartzman, Larry Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, and JPMorgan boss Jamie Dimon have withdrawn from the forum, scheduled for the end of the month. All three have close ties to the Saudi regime and discussed the situation over the weekend, according to people briefed on the talks.
Mr Fink gives regular briefings on the global economy to Yasir al-Rumayyan, managing director of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. JPMorgan has won advisory and financing roles for Saudi deals, while Blackstone and the Saudi sovereign wealth fund agreed last year to a $40bn infrastructure fund primarily to invest in the US. The Saudis committed $20bn to the fund.
A FII spokesperson said the event would go ahead. “Whilst it is disappointing that some speakers and partners have pulled out, we are looking forward to welcoming thousands of speakers, moderators and guests from all over the world to Riyadh.”
King Salman tried to head off international criticism of Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance by announcing the kingdom’s own internal investigation. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Monday that a joint Saudi-Turkish inspection of the diplomatic mission would take place.
Photographers camped outside the consulate captured what appeared to be a group of cleaners wheeling a trolley filled with buckets and mops through the building’s main entrance. Later, the news agency said Turkish investigators had arrived.
Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said his government was not yet prepared to declare publicly that Saudi agents had killed Mr Khashoggi. “I cannot say that until we see the concrete evidence,” he said in an interview. “Suspicion is something else, but this is a very serious matter, so we can only say something on the basis of the investigation.”
The Khashoggi case has sparked a significant problem for US-Saudi relations. In breaking with tradition, Mr Trump travelled to Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as president. He had also enlisted his son-in-law Jared Kushner to manage relations with Riyadh and particularly Crown Prince Mohammed.
At the weekend, Mr Trump said there would be “severe punishment” if it transpired that Riyadh was behind the disappearance of Mr Khashoggi, who wrote regular columns for the Washington Post and was critical of Saudi authorities.
Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance has increased scrutiny on the direction that the crown prince is taking the country. The heir apparent has pledged to modernise the conservative kingdom with a range of ambitious economic reforms.
But under his watch, Riyadh has also pursued a much more assertive foreign policy and displayed increasingly autocratic tendencies as the authorities crack down on all forms of dissent. Members of the royal family, businessmen, academics, clerics and activists have been jailed.
Although those jailings have garnered little international condemnation, the Khashoggi case has triggered widespread concern and led multiple financial institutions and media organisations, including the Financial Times, to withdraw from the FII forum.
David Petraeus, the former commander of US troops in the Middle East and now at private equity group KKR and a scheduled FII speaker, has pulled out, as has Joe Bae, KKR’s co-president, according to a person briefed on KKR’s decision.
Not all participants are withdrawing, however. The Saudi sovereign investment fund released a full schedule for the three-day forum, saying that speakers included “global leaders, investors and innovators from more than 140 different organizations”.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund, a $10bn sovereign fund, said its chief executive Kirill Dmitriev was still planning to take “an active part” in the FII. Russia has been tight lipped on the incident as Moscow is wary of siding against either Turkey or Saudi Arabia, both trade allies and critical elements of Russia’s Middle Eastern policy.
Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr in Dubai, Laura Pitel in Ankara, Arash Massoudi and David Crow in London, Laura Noonan in New York, Anjli Raval in New Orleans and Patti Waldmeir in Chicago
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