Letting the Money Talk

Riyadh hopes the lure of cash and trade deals will offset international revulsion over the Khashoggi murder

By Abdel Bari Atwan

It is ironic that Saudi Arabia is holding its Future Investment Initiative conference – the so-called ‘Davos in the Desert’ — at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. That is where Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman detained around 350 Saudi businessmen last year, among them 13 princes including the well-known billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal, and reportedly forced them to hand over some $30 billion in supposedly ill-gotten cash and assets.

Many Western governments such as those of the UK, France, Germany and The Netherlands cancelled the participation of their finance ministers at this event in protest at the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who had said he would not attend, flew to Riyadh anyway and held talks with Bin-Salman, supposedly about the development of economic cooperation between the two countries.

Donald Trump’s fears that Russia and China could conclude huge multi-billion dollar trade deals with Saudi Arabia do not appear to be misplaced. Companies and delegations from the two countries had a dominant presence at at the investment conference, and it is possible that this is what prompted the US treasury secretary go to Riyadh to meet with the crown prince, and ensure that the $110 billion worth of arms deals signed with the US this year alone would go ahead.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has shown little concern about Khashoggi’s fate, wants to accept the official Saudi version of how he died which maintains that no members of the Saudi royal family, and especially not the crown prince, were involved in any aspect of the crime.

This Russian verdict of innocence is intended to demonstrate support for Saudi Arabia as it faces one of its most serious foreign policy crises, in the hope of being rewarded with substantial trade and arms deals. Bin-Salman has, after all, visited Moscow several times and expressed an interest in purchasing S-400 missile defence systems and 15 nuclear reactors from Russia. Perhaps by attending the conference, and absenting himself from a cabinet meeting for the purpose, he was sending a message to the Americans that the Russians and Chinese are ready to do business.

The Saudi commentator Turki al-Dakheel, a close confidant of Bin-Salman, had earlier tweeted that if the US imposed sanctions on Saudi Arabia it would host a Russia military base in Tabuk and buy missiles and warplanes from Moscow – though the Saudi authorities later disowned that tweet and dissociated themselves from its substance.

The attitude of the participants at the investment conference was summed up by Pakistan’s new prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who had presented himself as the champion of the downtrodden and promised a new foreign policy that would end his country’s subservience to any regional axis. He declared quite candidly in a press interview that while he regretted the killing of Khashoggi, his country was badly in need of money, and that is why he went off to Riyadh. He was right. He was rewarded for his visit and attendance with $3 billion, as Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday.

We have said this before and will repeat it: money and deals take precedence over human rights and values. Many of those attending the conference hope to take advantage of the absence of top Western executives, bankers and officials to obtain a bigger slice of the Saudi financial cake for themselves.

We do not know where the Saudi leadership will get the hundreds of billions that would be needed to satisfy tall of those who are holding out their begging-bowls to it. The country’s financial reserves, which were estimated at $750 billion four years ago, have largely evaporated as a result of heavy expenditure on weapons — the Yemen war is estimated by the famous Brookings Institution to be costing the Saudi treasury $9 billion per month – and it has been running an annual budget deficit of around $90 billion for the past three years.

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Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman, who wants to turn Saudi Arabia into the world’s biggest investment hub, was banking on the part-privatization of the national oil company Saudi Aramco. But this plan has been abandoned or deferred, because Trump wanted the shares to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange but the Saudis demurred. They fear these assets could be frozen at any moment if the JASTA law is put into effect or economic sanctions are imposed on the kingdom.

By going ahead with the investment conference in Riyadh and taking part in person, Bin-Salman is affirming that even though he is the prime suspect in the Khashoggi murder, he is staying put as de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia – and that it is business as usual.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s long-awaited speech on Tuesday provided no new information or revelations about Kashoggi’s murder or the whereabouts of his body. That implies that a deal of sorts – whether permanent or temporary – could still be on the cards.