Britain's trade minister has pulled out of a Saudi investment conference amid questions over the kingdom's involvement in the disappearance of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox is the latest high-level Western official to drop out of attending next week's summit in Riyadh.
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra have also canceled, along with several senior business executives.
Britain's Department for International Trade says Fox "has decided the time is not right for him to attend the Future Investment Initiative." Britain says it is "very concerned" about the disappearance of Khashoggi, who was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month. Le Maire said yesterday on French TV channel Public Senat that "I will not go to Riyadh next week" for the conference known as "Davos in the Desert."
Several top business executives have also cancelled their plans to attend, as has the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde.
The scale of the executives' cancellations, however, has raised questions about whether the event will actually go ahead – and how that could affect longer-term business relations with Saudi Arabia.
Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra canceled after discussing the issue with Le Maire, the Dutch foreign minister said. Foreign Minister Stef Blok wrote that a Dutch trade mission planned for December to Saudi Arabia also likely will not go ahead. Le Maire said the disappearance of Khashoggi is "serious" and facts about it need to be explained by the Saudi authorities. He added his decision on the investment conference doesn't call into question the strategic partnership between France and Saudi Arabia.
The Future Investment Initiative was set up last year as a kind of "Davos in the Desert" for the world's business elite to network. At last year's inaugural event the country announced the creation of a whole new city in the desert that would showcase new technologies like renewable energies.
The conference is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's attempt to diversify the country's oil-based economy.
It is organized by Saudi Arabia's mammoth sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), and has been billed as a showcase for the economic reforms of the crown prince.
But it has been thrown into confusion since Khashoggi, a Saudi national and U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist critical of Riyadh's policies, failed to emerge from a visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Speculation continues to grow that Khashoggi was killed by Saudi authorities after entering the consulate. Saudi authorities have yet to give a clear explanation of Khashoggi's fate, while several countries – particularly Turkey, the U.S. and the U.K. – have expressed their desire for the matter to be clarified as soon as possible.