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Riyadh Conference Turnout After Khashoggi's Killing


Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has not let allegations that he was involved in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi derail his effort to encourage foreign investment in his country.


That's right. In fact, he's headlining a major conference that wraps up in Riyadh today. It's called the Future Investment Initiative, and it's part of this attempt by Saudi Arabia to position itself as a place for new investment under a young, energetic crown prince. But a lot of business and finance leaders pulled out after Khashoggi's death.

GREENE: Right. And meanwhile, The Washington Post is reporting that CIA director Gina Haspel, now in Turkey, has listened to surveillance tape of Khashoggi's killing. If true, that confirms the claim by Turkish investigators that such a tape exists. And it also gives greater weight to Turkey's claims that this was a premeditated murder committed by Saudi Arabia. Now, Ben Chu is the economics editor of The Independent, the British newspaper. He is in Riyadh at this conference. And I asked him what the atmosphere has been like.

BEN CHU: Well, it was a day of high drama and anticipation yesterday because these were the first comments by the crown prince since the murder of Khashoggi earlier this month. And the hall here in Riyadh, the convention center, was absolutely packed not only with reporters but with Saudi officials and business leaders all waiting to hear what the crown prince, who is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, was going to say on the subject.

It took him a while to get into it. But eventually, when he did, he condemned it, as you would expect, as a heinous crime. He said that there would be all - that those responsible would be brought to justice. And - I think - very interestingly, he said that there are those who are trying to drive a wedge between Turkey and Saudi Arabia over the issue, of course because Khashoggi was killed in the embassy in Istanbul.

And he struck a very defiant note, saying that those who are trying to drive this wedge will not succeed, not while I am crown prince, not while my father is king and not while President Erdogan is president of Turkey. And I think the context of this is that there are those who feel that his position in Saudi Arabia as the de facto ruler is under threat. I think this was a message sent to those people saying that no, I'm here to stay.

GREENE: Wow. Well, I mean, it sounds like it was a crowd that was receiving what he said well. But we should say, a lot of people who were expected to be there were not there. I mean, there were high-profile speakers, officials who pulled out of this conference because of these allegations. Is that absence being felt?

CHU: The absence is being felt in terms of some of the media partnerships, in terms of the high-profile speakers and sort of the high-profile panel moderators. That said, there are Western business executives here, just not the ones at the top of the organizations who were on the original billing. I have to say, they're keeping quite a low-key profile here. I think there's a sense of trepidation, a sense of they don't know where this is going to go.

I have to say, I also have spoken to some of them. And they are sticking to the original vision. They think that this is a passing storm. And although, you know, it was a mistake, and those perpetrators, as the crown prince said, must be brought to justice, they're not losing faith in the original vision that he laid out two years ago.

GREENE: Is this event really important to Saudi Arabia, this investment conference?

CHU: I think it's hugely important. It's a central part of bin Salman's vision that he wants to get foreign investment into Saudi. He wants to get foreign expertise into Saudi. He's got a $500 billion project to build a high-tech city in the desert. He needs foreign expertise and money to do that. And this was one of his primary forums for drumming up interest and drumming up people to come to Saudi and do it. And this is why it was so essential that this event did not fail despite all those high-profile pullouts.

GREENE: Ben Chu is the economics editor of the British newspaper The Independent, speaking to us from that investment conference in Riyadh. Thanks so much, Ben.

CHU: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.