IMF managing director Christine Lagarde risked international condemnation yesterday after she insisted she would go ahead with a visit to a Saudi Arabian investment conference, amid claims that the Kingdom was behind the brutal murder of a journalist in Turkey.
Business leaders such as Richard Branson and the head of Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi, rushed to pull out of the event, leaving Saudi Arabia’s flagship business conference, the Future Investment Initiative, in tatters. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim will no longer attend the summit.
Branson has suspended talks over a $1bn investment in Virgin’s space travel operations. Uber has substantial investments from SoftBank’s Saudi-backed Vision Fund and from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund directly.
Asked directly whether she would cancel her visit, Lagarde said that human rights and freedom of information were “essential rights”, adding: “Horrifying things have been reported and I am horrified.”
“But I have to conduct the business of the IMF in all corners of the world and with many governments. When I visit a country, I always speak my mind. You know me, I do. At this point in time, my intention is not to change my plan and to be very attentive to the information that is coming out of the next few days. I speak my mind.”
A growing number of executives have distanced themselves from Saudi Arabia’s business ventures amid outrage over the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Turkish intelligence reportedly has audio and video recordings from inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where Khashoggi’s Saudi captors can be heard interrogating, torturing and ultimately murdering him. Saudi Arabia has vehemently denied that it was involved.
Saudi Arabia has 2.79% of the votes on the board of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development — the World Bank institution — the same as Russia, which has a population more than four times larger. It has 2.02% of IMF votes.
International business leaders still listed on the conference advisory board include Tidjane Thiam, chief executive of Credit Suisse, which applied for a Saudi banking licence over the summer; Blackstone boss Stephen Schwarzman; Siemens president Joe Kaeser; and SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son.
Former media partners of the event including the Financial Times, CNN, CNBC, the New York Times and Bloomberg have also deserted it. The conference is due to take place at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, the hotel in which Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman detained 200 businessmen, officials and members of the royal family for months.
International bankers have been hoping for a big payday from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The prized IPO of state oil firm Aramco has been shelved, but the company has been raising large dollar loans to fund the purchase of a stake in Sabic, the state petrochemicals company, from the sovereign wealth fund.