Jake Tapper: Are US leaders getting played?

CNN's Jake Tapper discusses missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi and President Trump's defense of Saudi Arabia.

Posted: Oct 18, 2018 9:06 AM
Updated: Oct 18, 2018 9:37 AM

Saudi Arabia's big investment conference is losing more high-profile guests as the international crisis over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi intensifies.

The latest to drop out are the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and the heads of two major French banks.

The Saudi event, known as "Davos in the desert," has suffered an exodus of global business leaders, including the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Uber, in the past week as questions have mounted over the fate of Khashoggi, a prominent critic of the Saudi government.

The IMF said in a statement late Tuesday that Managing Director Christine Lagarde's trip to the Middle East for the conference next week "is being deferred."

It's an abrupt change of position from Lagarde, who said as recently as Saturday that she still planned to speak at the event in Riyadh despite being horrified by reports about Khashoggi's disappearance.

BNP Paribas (BNPQY), France's largest bank by assets, said Wednesday that Chairman Jean Lemierre will no longer attend. Société Générale (SCGLY) CEO Fréderic Oudéa also dropped out Wednesday. Both were listed as speakers as recently as last week.

Khashoggi, a former Saudi royal court insider who contributed to The Washington Post, hasn't been seen since he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.

Turkish officials have told CNN he was killed inside the consulate. Saudi authorities have so far maintained that Khashoggi left the consulate the same day he went in, but they have provided no evidence to support the claim.

Lagarde said Saturday that her job is "to conduct the business of the IMF in all corners of the world, and with many governments." But she added that she would "be very attentive to the information that is coming out" in the next few days.

The IMF didn't immediately respond late Tuesday to a request for further comment about her change of plans.

The Saudi conference, officially titled the Future Investment Initiative, is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambitious plan to revamp the country's oil-dependent economy.

Earlier Tuesday, the CEOs of top European banks HSBC (HSBC), Credit Suisse (CS) and Standard Chartered (SCBFF) all pulled out of the event, as did the head of the London Stock Exchange (LNSTY).

Most of the event's international media partners, including CNN, withdrew their support last week.

Will Mnuchin and others still go?

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is among the high-profile figures who have said they still expect to attend the Saudi conference.

But President Donald Trump on Monday opened the door to the possibility that Mnuchin may withdraw, telling reporters that "we haven't made a decision about going yet." He said a final call would be made by Friday.

On Wednesday, foreign ministers from the G7 nations, including the United States, issued a statement saying they "remain very troubled by the disappearance of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi."

"Those bearing responsibility for the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi must be held to account," the statement said. "We encourage Turkish-Saudi collaboration and look forward to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia conducting a thorough, credible, transparent, and prompt investigation."

Business leaders who have said they still plan to go to the Saudi conference include Joe Kaeser, the CEO of German engineering conglomerate Siemens (SIEGY), and Jean-Bernard Lévy, the CEO of French energy company EDF.

Japanese tech group SoftBank (SFTBF) has failed to respond to repeated requests for comment about the attendance of several of its senior executives, including CEO and founder, Masayoshi Son. The company has become one of the world's most powerful tech investors, thanks to Saudi money.

SoftBank Chief Operating Officer Marcelo Claure said Tuesday at a tech event in California that the company is "anxiously looking at what is happening" in relation to Khashoggi's disappearance, according to Reuters.

"We, like most parties in the world, are watching events unfold," said Claure, who is one of the SoftBank executives scheduled to speak at the Saudi conference. "We are just monitoring."

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