Richard Branson drops Saudi deals after journalist disappears

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Virgin Group founder Richard Branson has joined such prominent Western business leaders as technology investor Steve Case and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi in backing away from projects with Saudi Arabia after the disappearance and alleged killing of journalist Jamal Kashoggi. 

Turkish officials reportedly have told the U.S. government that they have audio and video recordings proving the Washington Post columnist and dissident was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul this month. The alleged slaying threatens to derail efforts by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to redefine Saudi Arabia to foreign investors as a more open and tolerant place to visit and do business. The 33-year-old crown prince hopes to grow his country’s $500 billion sovereign wealth fund — pounded by falling oil prices earlier this decade — into a $2 trillion global investment fund over the next dozen years. 

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Branson said he is suspending his work overseeing two Saudi tourism projects as well as talks with the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund about possible investments in his space ventures Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.

“I had high hopes for the current government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and it is why I was delighted to accept two directorships in the tourism projects around the Red Sea. I felt that I could give practical development advice and also help protect the precious environment around the coastline and islands,” Branson wrote Thursday in a blog post. “What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi Government. We have asked for more information from the authorities in Saudi and to clarify their position.”

Technology executive Case was among those echoing Branson’s move, with the onetime AOL head icing plans to address a conference in Riyadh later this month. 

Uber Chief Executive Khosrowshahi also said he would be bowing out of the Future Investment Initiative conference, a three-day affair scheduled to begin Oct. 23 that has dozens of business executives on its agenda as speakers, according to its website

“I’m very troubled by the reports to date about Jamal Khashoggi. We are following the situation closely, and unless a substantially different set of facts emerges, I won’t be attending the FII conference in Riyadh,” Khosrowshahi said in a statement emailed to CBS MoneyWatch.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, however, still intends to go to next week’s event, telling CNBC on Friday that the administration is “concerned about what is the status of Mr. Khashoggi. If more information comes out and changes, we could look at that, but I am planning on going.”

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