RIYADH: Saudi Arabia kicked off on Tuesday a three-day investment conference that has been overshadowed by the withdrawal of dozens of top business and world leaders over the kingdom's role in the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey earlier this month.
The exodus of executives, including the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Uber and Siemens (SIEGY), has taken the shine off the Future Investment Initiative event hosted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been trying to modernize the country's oil-dependent economy.
The prince is now grappling with the international outcry over what happened to Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and a critic of his policies. The journalist disappeared after he entered the consulate in Istanbul on October 2 to obtain documents for his marriage.
Members of the crown prince's inner circle have been blamed for the journalist's death. The Saudi government, which had initially claimed Khashoggi left the consulate alive, has since admitted he was killed inside the building but insisted it was the result of a "fistfight".
The explanation has drawn skepticism, including from US President Donald Trump who said on Monday he was "not satisfied" with what he'd heard, CNN reported.
Organizers of the conference, widely known as "Davos in the desert", said it will be business as usual at the event despite the loss of top names, including the CEOs of HSBC and Blackrock and International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde.
Richard Branson also halted talks over a $1 billion Saudi investment in Virgin. Several media outlets withdrew their support too, including Bloomberg, CNN and the Financial Times.
The conference is a forum for business figures, politicians and civic society groups to discuss topics related to economic development, including technology, global governance and the environment. It aims to attract more foreign investment into Saudi Arabia.
The list of speakers for Tuesday's sessions featured fewer global figures than an earlier version that was posted on the conference website and has since been scrubbed of names after executives started pulling out.
One of the highest profile CEOs still attending was Patrick Pouyanné, the chief of French oil company Total (TOT).
He said that "boycotts and withdrawing investment only hurt the ordinary people of the country".
Several governments also pulled attendees from the conference including ministers from France, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands. UK International Trade Secretary Liam Fox also withdrew from the event.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said Berlin will suspend exports of military equipment to Saudi Arabia whilst investigations continue into the case.