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How the Saudi crown prince erased the stigma of a murder

Four years after Khashoggi’s killing, the rehabilitation of MBS is complete.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh on October 24, 2017. 
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh on October 24, 2017. 
Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images
Jonathan Guyer covers foreign policy, national security, and global affairs for Vox. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at the American Prospect, where as managing editor he reported on Biden’s and Trump's foreign policy teams.

Jared Kushner did not want to talk about Jamal Khashoggi.

I spotted him in the audience in late September at a conference hosted by an offshoot of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Future Investment Initiative Institute.

It was at a boutique hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, filled with investors, nonprofit leaders, and thought leaders. When I asked Kushner to comment about Khashoggi — the journalist whom the CIA determined that Saudi agents had tortured and killed while Kushner was serving in his father-in-law’s White House — he walked away from me.

Kushner’s response was in keeping with the conference’s mission. With such a long, convoluted name, the FII Institute as an organization seems to be banking on reframing the conversation away from Saudi Arabia as part of a global rebrand and PR push. None of the flyers, banners, or name tags mention the repressive kingdom by name. But make no mistake: This think tank focused on the future is powered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, or MBS as he is known.

In 2018, just weeks after Khashoggi’s killing, the businesspeople who attended the summit’s edition in the Saudi capital — nicknamed Davos in the Desert — shielded their name badges from view with their ties. It was still considered shameful to be associated with MBS.

Four years later, the rehabilitation of the Saudi crown prince is complete. President Joe Biden, after pledging on the 2020 campaign trail to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” capitulated and traveled to the country in July, in a visit that gave MBS the legitimacy he craves. The US has been sending huge amounts of weapons to the kingdom. And the grave human rights concerns do appear in summaries of the leaders of the US and Saudi Arabia but hardly rise to the level of a top priority for Biden’s foreign policy team.

The Biden administration didn’t send any representatives to the FII Institute summit on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week. But in October 2021, Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves joined Davos in the Desert in Riyadh alongside BlackRock, Blackstone, Goldman Sachs, and CNN.

The conversations at the Manhattan summit were centered on the future — largely the climate crisis and technological advances — without any recognition of the political repression in Saudi Arabia that was inadvertently supporting the gathering. Greenwashing has advanced MBS’s return into the fold.

Richard Attias, CEO of the FII institute who previously worked as the executive producer of the World Economic Summit in Davos, said he was proud of the conference’s “unique platform” for discussing global challenges and bringing together diverse influencers. “We don’t mix at all any political issues with what we are doing,” he told me. “So there is no reason for us to be impacted by any other drama happening.” The drama he was referencing in euphemism: Khashoggi’s murder.

Those willing to support Saudi’s rehabilitation

From the perspective of investors, the money in Saudi Arabia is too big to ignore.

The FII Institute called the New York gathering the Priority Conference, and it centered on the release of a 13-country survey of 130,000 respondents’ attitudes that the institute says represents half of the world’s population. The institute asked them: What’s your top priority? It’s an incredible feat of denial done in the service of reframing the conversation away from politics and rights. Of course, one might imagine that many people’s top priority is to live freely and not be murdered.

MBS wasn’t in attendance, and he didn’t come to New York for the United Nations — perhaps because the FII Institute conference would operate more smoothly without him there; perhaps because he would only come to the US if it was paired with a White House invitation, which is apparently not on offer from Biden; and more likely because there are several court cases against him. (In a cabinet reshuffle last month, MBS’s father, the king, did make MBS Saudi’s prime minister, which may provide him immunity from a Khashoggi lawsuit.)

Instead, the Saudi ambassador to the US, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, provided a video. And Saudi Minister of Investment Khalid Al-Falih said all too clearly, “My message to investors everywhere, is you don’t know what you’re missing until you come to Saudi Arabia.”

Kushner attended the first session with the head of the FII’s parent Public Investment Fund, Yasir Al-Rumayyan. The Saudi PIF, according to the New York Times, provided $2 billion to Kushner’s investment firm Affinity Partners, which raises major conflict of interest questions.

Al-Rumayyan was in conversation with former University of Pennsylvania president Judith Rodin, who declined an interview with Vox. But a quote of hers that was posted on the FII’s social media resonated with me in terms of the dissonance between Saudi Arabia under MBS and the new recovery of his reputation. “How do we grow and thrive if crisis falls?” Rodin said. “Rather than trying to go back to normal, because normal often has features of what got you into problems in the first place.” It was an incomplete sentence that summed up the new Saudi reality.

Saudi Arabia, with its money, retains incredible convening power. Throughout the day we heard from former Trump official and current Goldman executive Dina Powell McCormick, economist Nouriel Roubini, crypto billionaire and philanthropist Sam Bankman-Fried, Nobel Laureate Paul Romer, and prominent think tank leader Michael Milken.

There was an optimism for reform in Saudi Arabia despite all the indicators that suggest otherwise. Irina Bokova, the former director general of UNESCO, told me she has been visiting Saudi Arabia since 2008 and is impressed by MBS’s investments in cultural rejuvenation. “I think that the country transforms from the inside, and it doesn’t happen overnight. So I thought it’s very important to support, you know, this type of openness to change,” she said.

But the conference’s theme around environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investments showed that the world’s technocrats would be willing to come out. “Getting to meet, for example, the head of ESG at HSBC is something that was really meaningful for us,” Daniel Kleinman, founder of the Miami-based startup community Seaworthy Collective, told me. “As we look, especially, at these problems that need to be solved, especially on climate, we don’t necessarily have the time to pay [attention to] where the money is coming from as much as what impact it is creating.”

Under two glamorous chandeliers, waiters in white jackets and black bow ties served bountiful plates of freshly sautéed pasta, a potpourri of salads, and generous portions of salmon. It was all too elegant, with painted murals one way and views of Central Park the other, but the notion of getting a free lunch courtesy of MBS made me sick.

Everyone else dug in.

“This is about funding,” Maximo Mazzocco, a climate activist and a youth global ambassador with the United Nations Development Program, told me. “Here, there are a lot of resources, a lot, a lot of resources. I’m talking millions and millions. A lot of people here have the power to make real change on a global scale.”

One of the speakers, talking to me on the condition of anonymity, told me that they were initially skeptical of joining a Saudi-sponsored event given the human rights concerns. “I don’t want to be used as PR material. I’m not a golfer. I don’t want to be trotted out,” they told me. Rather, they wanted to see if it was possible to move on and do good with Saudi money.

How the future looks for MBS

MBS may not be welcome yet in the White House, but his money, his government officials, and his message are being attended to in the United States.

Attias, who has shepherded FII confabs since 2017, was quick to tell me that he had also produced the opening ceremony for the landmark 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. “This was probably one of the best ceremonies,” he told me. “And everyone was calling for boycott, but at the end of the day, they came. Why? Because they understood that you cannot take a global, international event — as the Olympic Games or as FII — as a hostage of any other issues. There is no reason to jeopardize global dialogue.”

It was, inadvertently, a stunning admission. MBS, like China, is a massive human rights liability who can maintain his global connectivity despite all his moral shortcomings.

The New York summit closed with an invitation to fly to Saudi Arabia for the next installment of the FII events in late October. The institute says, in a press release, that more than 300 speakers and 5,000 participants will join.

“It’s not about his royal highness the crown prince,” Attias told me. “It’s about a global international event happening in Saudi Arabia.”

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