Davos in the Desert: To Attend or Not, That is Not the Question

The disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul amid published reports that he was murdered and dismembered by representatives of the Saudi government has caused a dilemma for many announced participants at a glittery investor’s conference. Is it the right thing to do to attend a meeting in Riyadh when doubts exist about Khashoggi’s assassination by orders of the royal family? How would it look for a leading businessman to be seen next to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman when investigators are examining his personal role in Khashoggi’s disappearance?

Business and ethics, the common narrative tells us, are distinctly different. The object of business is to maximize profits, the object of ethics is to behave according to moral principles. The businessman is concerned with the bottom line; the ethicist is concerned with higher values. Attendance at a conference in Saudi Arabia, officially the Future Investment Initiative but colloquially called the “Davos in the Desert, appears to highlight the traditional tension between the two.

The monetary stakes are high. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil producer and biggest economy in the Middle East. At last year’s meeting in Riyadh, the prince presented a blueprint for a futuristic city to rise from the desert costing $500 billion. There are huge interests involved in doing business in and with Saudi Arabia. And yet, businessmen Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase, Dara Khosrowshahi of Uber, Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone Group and Lawrence D. Fink of BlackRock have withdrawn from the conference. The British trade minister, the French and Dutch finance ministers and the president of the International Monetary Fund have also cancelled.

What about the United States? President Trump, not surprisingly, has wavered. Financial interests came first. “When I went there, they committed to purchase $400 billion worth of things, and $110 billion worth of military,” he said.  His concern that Congress would impose sanctions led him to not only send Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to speak to the Saudi leaders but to cancel the participation of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in the conference.

Trump declared that the US will inflict “severe punishment” on Saudi Arabia if the kingdom’s leaders are found responsible for the death of Khashoggi.Torn between the traditional American policy of favoring Saudi Arabia as a lynchpin in the Middle East against Iran and the horrors of what probably happened to the Washington Postjournalist and U.S. permanent resident, Trump is caught between the businessman’s bottom line and bad publicity.

The president has not turned to higher values. Saudi Arabia was the first country he visited after becoming president. He has never criticized Saudi Arabia for its actions in Yemen that have caused a disastrous humanitarian crisis. He has never criticized the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia where the leaders of the movement to let women drive have been imprisoned. Nor has attention been drawn to the arrest of important Saudis in a hotel for three months until they paid ransoms to be released or the kidnapping of the prime minister of Lebanon. And he has certainly not brought up the role of Saudi Arabia in 9/11 when only Saudis were allowed to fly out of the United States right after the attacks.

The cancellations to the conference are short-term reactions to a long-term situation. Granted that Saudi Arabia is an important geopolitical ally of the United States in the region. But is this a reason to ignore flagrant violations of human rights within the country and its foreign policy? The Khashoggi disappearance is not an isolated incident.

The separation of business from ethics, like the separation of geopolitics from ethics, is a false, binary distinction. Values, such as human rights and sustainable development, are part and parcel of today’s world. Companies that use child laborers or companies that purposely commit environmental degradation are realizing the price they pay for their actions. Witness Philip Morris International’s statement that “We’re building PMI’s future on smoke-free products that are a much better choice than cigarette smoking.” Look at how Canada protested the arrest of human rights activists in Saudi Arabia.

The conference in Riyadh was problematic from the start because the companies’ interest in doing business with the Saudi government was as questionable as the United States’ uncritical promotion of Saudi Arabia as an important ally. Because of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance, there is a realization that years of turning a blind eye to a repressive regime was mistaken. It looks as though the Crown Prince is the latest version of Franklin Roosevelt’s supposed 1939 remark about the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: “He may be a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch.”

“Oh, when will they ever learn?” sang Peter, Paul & Mary.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.