Saudi faces backlash amid Khashoggi investigation

With nothing yet determined about the fate of prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia is nevertheless facing a backlash from media previously supportive of the Crown Prince's reform drive.

ANKARA - A delegation from Saudi Arabia has arrived in Turkey as part of a joint investigation into the disappearance of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, two Turkish sources said on Friday, as Saudi Arabia faces a backlash over what many see as its inadequate response to accusations that it is responsible.

A Saudi source also said a senior royal, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, visited Turkey on Thursday for talks. Later the same day Turkey said the two countries had agreed to form a joint working group - at Riyadh's initiative - to investigate the case.

Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to get documents for his forthcoming marriage. Saudi officials say he left shortly afterwards but Turkish officials and his fiancee, who was waiting outside, said he never came out.

Turkish officials have said they believe Khashoggi -- a contributor to the Washington Post who has on occasion penned articles critical of powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman -- was killed inside the consulate. Saudi Arabia has strongly denied this, but has so far failed to explain the journalist's fate.

On Thursday, Prince Khaled, the governor of Mecca, made a brief visit to Turkey in his capacity as special adviser to King Salman, a source with links to the prince's family said, a move that would suggest the monarch was handling the issue as a priority.

A Saudi delegation arrived in Turkey on Friday as part of an agreement between Ankara and Riyadh to investigate the case, two Turkish sources said. They did not give details about who was included in the group.

"A delegation has arrived in Turkey as part of efforts to form a joint working group with Saudi Arabia," one of the sources said.

Turkey's state-owned Anadolu news agency said the delegation would hold talks with Turkish officials over the weekend.

Erdogan has previously said that Turkey could not remain silent over Khashoggi's disappearance and called on officials at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to prove he had left the building.

On Tuesday, Turkey's foreign ministry also said the Saudi consulate in Istanbul would be searched as part of the investigation.

Business backlash

Mohammed bin Salman is facing a backlash over Khashoggi's disappearance from business and media previously supportive of his reform drive, with partnerships at risk and big names boycotting a major conference this month.

The crown prince, the son of King Salman, has spearheaded an ambitious programme known as Vision 2030, aiming to make the oil-rich conservative kingdom a hub for global innovation and better able to respond to the demands of its increasingly youthful population.

Despite enduring criticism of Saudi's human rights record and its role in the war in Yemen, business chiefs, investors and prominent media figures have been impressed by the crown prince's rhetoric and backed his vision of a new Saudi Arabia.

The showcase of this international support was set to be on October 23-25 at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, a lavish conference to be attended by top foreign business leaders and dubbed the "Davos in the Desert" after the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort.

But the disappearance of Khashoggi has given chills even to those who strongly supported Mohammed bin Salman's plans.

'Change ability to do business'

Charismatic British entrepreneur Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, announced he is suspending two directorships linked to tourism projects in Saudi Arabia around the Red Sea due to the unexplained disappearance of Khashoggi.

Branson said he had "high hopes" for Saudi Arabia under the crown prince but added if the claims about Khashoggi's disappearance were true it would "clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government."

He added Virgin would suspend discussions with Saudi Arabia over a proposed investment in Virgin Galactic, which is set to carry out its first space flight within weeks.

Meanwhile the Future Investment Initiative has seen a litany of cancellations from prominent names who decided it best not to be associated with Saudi Arabia at this time.

The CEO of ride-hailing app Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi, said that he will no longer be attending the event unless "a substantially different set of facts emerges", explaining he was "very troubled by the reports".

His absence will be hugely symbolic as Saudi Arabia's mammoth sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), invested $3.5 billion in Uber in 2016.

An increasingly key player, the PIF also has a stake in Tesla, the electric car company headed by Elon Musk while also taking a shareholding in its rival Lucid.

'Terribly distressed'

Media organisations, some of whose writers played some part in cheering the reforms of Mohammed bin Salman, are also deserting the Riyadh event, with the New York Times pulling out as a sponsor and Viacom CEO Bob Bakish cancelling plans to appear.

Meanwhile celebrity journalists who were invited are also staying away. New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin said on Twitter he would not be attending after being "terribly distressed by the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reports of his murder."

The ambiance is set to be a far cry from the first edition of the meeting in 2017, where Saudi Arabia wowed some 3,500 executives with talking robots and plans for a new city.

The tensions also create new doubts about the much-heralded IPO of state oil giant Aramco, expected to be the largest share offering in history, and which the crown prince has insisted will go ahead by early 2021.

But not all big names are staying away so far. German industrial giant Siemens, whose chief executive Joe Kaeser is invited, said it had not cancelled its participation but was following the situation closely.

JPMorgan Chase chief Jamie Dimon and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are still scheduled to attend.

And US President Donald Trump underlined in comments which outraged supporters of Khashoggi that there would be limits to any backlash from the US, saying he was not minded to limit arms sales to the key American ally.

'Other ways' to handle situation

"They are spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs," Trump said Thursday. The Saudis will "take that money and spend it in Russia or China or someplace else," he warned.

"If it turns out to be as bad as it might be, there are certainly other ways of handling this situation," he said without elaborating.

Much of how the US responds will depend on whether evidence surfaces that proves Saudi Arabia is responsible for Khashoggi's death.

Relations between the two countries are complex because they are entwined on energy, military, economic and intelligence issues. The Trump administration has aggressively courted the Saudis for support of its Middle East agenda to counter Iranian influence, fight extremism and forge peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

"We want to have a relationship with Saudi Arabia. They're a strategic partner. They're a mortal enemy of the Iranians. They're helping us on terrorism," said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump supporter and top member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"Having said all that, if this did happen — and it's increasingly likely that something bad happened to this man at the hands of the Saudi government — that shows contempt for us. That's disrespectful to us. It puts people like me in a box who've been one of the leading champions of the relationship."

It's not just Graham who's in a box. It's also Trump, who has long-standing business ties to Saudi Arabia.

Trump will have to craft a "calibrated response," said Jon Alterman, who directs the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "He doesn't like that approach. The president likes complete wins."