Australian officials will be attending and supporting a Saudi government conference that some of the world’s most prominent business figures are boycotting in the wake of growing evidence the theocracy murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. However, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has refused to guarantee the safety of Australian residents who may have to use Saudi diplomatic facilities here.
Hyped as an equivalent to the World Economic Forum’s annual neoliberal gathering in Davos, the Saudi regime’s Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh later this month purports to be “a platform to drive expert-led debate, discussion, and partnerships among the world’s most visionary and influential leaders in business, government, and civil society” and is a personal initiative of Mohammed bin Salman, the dominant autocrat within the regime.
This year, the second for the event, media companies have abandoned it in droves following evidence of the regime’s luring Khashoggi into its Istanbul embassy, murdering him and dismembering his corpse. The Economist, The New York Times, the Financial Times and Bloomberg are all boycotting the event. A number of other high-profile business figures have also withdrawn, including Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan, Stephen Schwarman of Blackstone, Larry Fink of BlackRock, Arianna Huffington, Dara Khosrowshahi of Uber, and Richard Branson.
But the Australian government is supporting the event, despite belatedly expressing concern about Khashoggi last week. Austrade is promoting the event as “a valuable opportunity to explore investment partnerships with Saudi Arabia in priority sectors — services and technology, agriculture and food, and resources and energy”, with Austrade committing to “organise client and investor meetings during FII supporting inward investment to Australia and targeted outward investment projects by Australian businesses”.
Asked for details of Australia’s involvement, Austrade told Crikey the government is expected to be represented by Australia’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Austrade’s general manager for the Middle East & Africa. Our current ambassador is experienced diplomat and PM&C bureaucrat Ridwaan Jadwat, while former food industry businessman Ian Halliday is the relevant general manager.
DFAT, which has promoted Saudi Arabia trade links for many years despite its appalling human rights record, declined to provide a detailed answer to Crikey’s questions about what actions it has taken in the wake of the Khashoggi disappearance regarding safety at Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic facilities in Canberra. Pointing to Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s anodyne expression of concern about Khashoggi, it declined to offer a guarantee for the safety of people who use those facilities. Khashoggi vanished while undertaking a routine administrative requirement within the Istanbul consulate. The Saudis have an embassy in Yarralumla in Canberra, a cultural office in Turner as well as a visa office in Civic near the Australian National University.