US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner plan to attend this year’s “Davos in the Desert,” a Saudi Arabian economic conference the US and many others skipped last year after Saudi security agents murdered Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.
According to a federal procurement filing reviewed by Quartz, the State Department recently booked 45 rooms at Riyadh’s Burj Rafal Hotel in support of the two “VVIP visitors” taking part in the kingdom’s third annual Future Investment Initiative, as the event is officially known.
Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen who lived in the United States, was a vocal critic of the kingdom and its de facto ruler, crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. In October 2018, Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey by Saudi security agents. He was then murdered and dismembered.
“What I saw with Jamal was that he kept getting himself in trouble by speaking his mind,” David Ignatius, a friend and colleague of Khashoggi’s, told the BBC.
Khashoggi’s former fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, says the Trump administration has failed to hold anyone accountable for the crime. She met with US lawmakers last week on Capitol Hill, where she asked them to do more to ensure the Saudis face “real consequences” for Khashoggi’s murder.
Certain members of the business community are reportedly wrestling with whether or not to attend the gathering.
While several big names in Silicon Valley have again decided not to go, more than 150 other global business executives—many of whom stayed away last year because of the Khashoggi killing—have been confirmed as attendees, including representatives from Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and BlackRock, according to a guest list seen by the Washington Post.
They will be there even though little has been done to prosecute those responsible for the murder. Human Rights Watch said in a recent statement that the Saudis have not seriously investigated the crime and have, in fact, “obstructed meaningful accountability for Khashoggi’s murder.” The government has “refused to cooperate with an investigation led by the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial killings,” according to the nonprofit, and Saudi authorities continue their “sweeping campaign of repression against dissidents and activists.”
Some American business executives, meanwhile, have defended their choice to engage with the kingdom.
“Global companies operating in Saudi Arabia today often want to operate under the radar or avoid talking about their business there,” BlackRock CEO Larry Fink wrote in a blog post last May. “I believe just the opposite. Corporate leaders should be having a public dialogue about it. Not because everything in Saudi Arabia is perfect—but precisely because everything is not.”
The Burj Rafal was apparently not Mnuchin and Kushner’s first choice for lodging, per the State Department filing. The conference is taking place at the Ritz-Carlton, but the Saudis declined to let the Mnuchin-Kushner entourage stay at the property.
“The government of Saudi Arabia controls the Ritz-Carlton, where the visitors are attending a conference, and has not authorized use of the hotel by our delegation,” the filing says.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington, DC.