Jared Kushner did not want to talk about Jamal Khashoggi.
I saw him in the audience in late September at a conference hosted by an offshoot of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Institute for the Future Investment Initiative.
It was in a boutique hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, filled with investors, non-profit leaders and thought leaders. When I asked Kushner to comment on Khashoggi—the journalist the CIA determined tortured and killed Saudi agents while Kushner served his father-in-law in the White House— Get away from me.
Kushner’s response was consistent with the conference’s mission. With such a long and complex name, FII as an organization seems dependent on reframing the conversation away from Saudi Arabia as part of a global rebranding and public relations effort. None of the leaflets, banners or labels mentioned the Oppressive Kingdom by name. But make no mistake: This forward-looking think tank is backed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, or Mohammed bin Salman as he is known.
In 2018, just weeks after Khashoggi’s murder, businessmen who attended the summit edition in the Saudi capital – nicknamed the Davos of the Desert – hid their name badges from their ties. It was still unfortunate to be associated with Mohammed bin Salman.
Four years later, the rehabilitation of the Saudi crown prince was completed. After vowing in his 2020 campaign to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” President Joe Biden relented and traveled to the country in July on a visit that gave Mohammed bin Salman the legitimacy he craves . The United States sent large quantities of weapons to the kingdom. Serious concerns about human rights appear in the summaries of the leaders of the United States and Saudi Arabia, but they hardly rise to the level of the highest priority of Biden’s foreign policy team.
The Biden administration did not send any representatives to the FII summit on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week. But in October 2021, Deputy Minister of Trade Don Graves Join Davos in the desert in Riyadh side by side BlackRock, Blackstone, Goldman Sachs and CNN.
Discussions at the Manhattan summit centered on the future—largely the climate crisis and technological advances—without any acknowledgment of the political repression in Saudi Arabia that the rally inadvertently supported. Operation Greenwash cemented Mohammed bin Salman’s return to the fold.
Richard Attias, CEO of the FII who previously served as executive producer for the World Economic Summit in Davos, said he was proud of the conference’s “unique platform” to discuss global challenges and bring diverse influencers together. He told me, “We never confuse any political issues with what we do.” “So there is no reason for us to be affected by any other drama that happens.” The drama he referred to in a euphemism: the Khashoggi murder.
Those who want to support the rehabilitation of Saudi Arabia
From an investor perspective, money in Saudi Arabia is too big to ignore.
FII called the New York conference the priority conference, and focused on the release of a 13-country survey of 130,000 respondents who, according to the institute, represent half of the world’s population. The institute asked them: What is your top priority? It’s an incredible act of denial done in the service of resetting the conversation away from politics and rights. Of course, one can imagine that the top priority for many people is to live free and not be killed.
MBS was not present, nor did he come to New York for the United Nations – perhaps because the IFI conference would run more smoothly without him there; Perhaps because he will only come to the United States if it is combined with an invitation from the White House, which apparently is not offered to Biden; There are probably several lawsuits against him. (In a cabinet reshuffle last month, Mohammed bin Salman’s father, the king, named Mohammed bin Salman as Saudi Arabia’s prime minister, which could give him immunity from a lawsuit against Khashoggi.)
Instead, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the United States, Princess Rima bint Bandar Al Saud, I made a video. “My message to investors everywhere is that you don’t know what you’re missing before you come to Saudi Arabia,” Saudi Investment Minister Khalid Al-Falih said clearly.
Kushner attended the first session with Yasser Al-Rumayyan, head of the FII’s Public Investment Fund. According to the New York Times, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund provided $2 billion to Kushner’s investment firm Affinity Partners, raising major conflict-of-interest questions.
Al-Rumayyan was in conversation with Judith Rudin, former president of the University of Pennsylvania, who declined to be interviewed by Vox. But a quote she posted on FII’s social media resonated with me in terms of the dissonance between Saudi Arabia under MBS and the new restoration of its reputation. “How can we grow and prosper if the crisis falls?” Rodin said. “Rather than trying to get back to normal, because normal often has the characteristics of what got you into trouble in the first place.” It was an incomplete sentence that summed up the new Saudi reality.
Saudi Arabia keeps its money with an incredible capacity to hold meetings. Throughout the day, we heard from Dina Paul McCormick, former Trump official and current CEO of Goldman, economist Nouriel Roubini, crypto-billionaire and philanthropist Sam Bankman-Fried, Nobel laureate Paul Romer and prominent think tank leader Michael Milken.
There was optimism for reform in Saudi Arabia, despite all indications to the contrary. Irina Bokova, the former director-general of UNESCO, told me she has been visiting Saudi Arabia since 2008 and is impressed by MBS’s investments in cultural renewal. I think the country is changing from within, and it doesn’t happen overnight. So I thought it was really important that we, you know, support that kind of openness to change.”
But the conference theme on environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing showed that the world’s technocrats would be willing to come out. “For example, meeting the head of ESG at HSBC is something that really made sense for us,” Daniel Kleinman, founder of the Miami-based startup community Seaworthy Collective, told me. “When we look, especially at these issues that need to be solved, especially in terms of climate, we don’t necessarily have the time to push through. [attention to] Where does the money come from as far as the impact it has.”
Beneath two charming chandeliers, waiters in white jackets and black ties served bountiful plates of freshly fried noodles, potpourri salads and generous portions of salmon. It was all very elegant, with murals painted in one direction and views of Central Park in the other, but the idea of getting a free lunch from MBS made me sick.
Everyone else digs in.
“It’s about funding,” Maximo Mazzuko, climate activist and global youth ambassador for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) told me. “There are many resources here, many, many resources. I’m talking millions upon millions. So many people here have the potential to make real change on a global scale.”
One of the speakers, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, told me that they were initially skeptical about joining a Saudi-sponsored event because of human rights concerns. “I don’t want to be used as PR material. I’m not a golfer. They told me, “I don’t want to run.” Instead, they wanted to see if it was possible to go ahead and do good work with Saudi money.
What does the future look like for Mohammed bin Salman?
MBS may not yet be welcome in the White House, but his money, his government officials and his message are being taken care of in the United States.
Attias, who has sponsored the FII conferences since 2017, was quick to tell me that he also produced the historic 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing. “It was probably one of the best celebrations,” he told me. Everyone called for a boycott, but they came at the end of the day. why? Because they realized that you cannot take a world or international event – like the Olympics or the FII – hostage to any other issues. There is no reason to jeopardize the global dialogue.”
It was, by accident, a wonderful confession. MBS, like China, is a heavy human rights burden that can maintain its global commitment despite all its moral failings.
The New York summit concluded with an invitation to travel to Saudi Arabia at the end of October for the next installment of FII events. The institute says in a press release that more than 300 speakers and 5,000 participants will join.
Attias told me: “This is not about His Highness the Crown Prince. “It’s about a global international event taking place in Saudi Arabia.”