Here’s a shocker. After largely taking off last year due to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, business executives and political figures from around the globe are attending a major Saudi investment forum in big numbers. “Five presidents and the heads of some of the world’s biggest banks and weapons makers are among those beating a path to Riyadh this week as Saudi Arabia uses its financial clout to lure heavyweights to its ‘Davos in the Desert’ conference,” the Financial Times reported.
The event, officially called the Future Investment Initiative, begins today and “will be the biggest yet,” the newspaper said. Americans will comprise about 40 percent of the speakers and will include Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman, BlackRock’s Larry Fink and Eric Cantor, the former GOP House majority leader who’s now an investment banker. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Energy Secretary Rick Perry will also be on hand, as will Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and India’s prime minister Narendra Modi.
Of course, there was never any chance that Khashoggi’s murder by Saudi agents at Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul was going to disrupt U.S.-Saudi ties.
The crux of the “special relationship,” if not its entirety, is based on oil as FDR made clear in 1943 when he said “the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States.” Secretary of State Cordell Hull told FDR the same year, “In view of the rapid decline of the oil resources of the United States, the War and Navy Departments are interested in obtaining military and naval reserves in the ground in Saudi Arabia.”
Oil imports from Saudi Arabia have been dropping in recent years but it’s still the second biggest supplier to the United States, providing about 11 percent. There’s also Saudi Arabia’s role as one of the U.S. defense industry’s biggest clients, it’s long-time support for U.S. covert operations and its alliance with the United States in Iran, Syria and Yemen, among other places.
Human rights have obviously never been a big concern of the U.S. government. “The U.S.-Saudi Arabia alliance is built on decades of security cooperation and strong business ties,” as the Council on Foreign Relations puts it. “The relationship has survived severe challenges, including the 1973 oil embargo and 9/11 attacks, in which fifteen of the nineteen passenger jet hijackers were Saudi citizens. Successive U.S. administrations have held that Saudi Arabia is a critical strategic partner in the region.”
The U.S. and Saudis have their disagreements from time to time, and every few years congress of whoever is in the White House threatens that the “special relationship” will be reevaluated. But business is business and it never happens. (Israel is probably the only country in the world that gets’ a bigger blank check from the U.S. government than the Saudis.)
“We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” President Trump said not long after his murder. “In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” The Obama’s administration offered the Saudis more than $115 billion in weapons, other military equipment and training, “the most of any U.S. administration in the 71-year U.S.-Saudi alliance,” according to a 2016 report by William Hartung of the Center for International Policy. (Not all of the weapons were delivered.)
A lot of VIPS cancelled before last year’s Saudi investment event because Khashoggi’s murder came too embarrassingly close to the opening. But that doesn’t mean business dried up. “The prospect of fee-generating deals meant the bankers never really left, even after Khashoggi’s killing,” the Financial Times story said. “Financiers have continued to work on the delayed listing of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, with dozens of banks hired for a deal that could reap them hundreds of millions of dollars in fees.
And so it goes. There were still a few corporate holdouts for the conference that opened today, but give it another year. They’ll be back.