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From Wall Street to K Street, Companies Gauge the Risks of Doing Business With Saudi Arabia

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From Wall Street to K Street, Companies Gauge the Risks of Doing Business With Saudi Arabia

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The Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The Harbour Group, one of the lobbying firms that represent the Saudi government, has dropped it as a client, according to people familiar with discussions.CreditCreditSedat Suna/EPA, via Shutterstock
  • Oct. 11, 2018

WASHINGTON — The mysterious disappearance and possible murder of a Saudi journalist in Turkey is reverberating from Wall Street and Silicon Valley to Washington’s K Street, with lobbyists, financiers, high-tech executives and media figures confronting the risk of doing business with Saudi Arabia when it is under harsh scrutiny for its role in the case.

One of the roughly 10 lobbying firms that represent the Saudi government, the Harbour Group, has dropped it as a client, and others are considering following suit, according to people familiar with discussions, as Saudi Arabia struggles with a backlash over allegations that it murdered the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

The lobbying firms are privately discussing how to proceed, these people said. But some have already decided that the prospect of continued paychecks from Saudi Arabia — once a prized and profitable client — is not worth the risk to their reputations.

The Harbour Group, which was being paid $80,000 a month to represent the Saudi Embassy in Washington, sent a letter on Thursday ending its contract, said Richard Mintz, the firm’s managing director.

Several news outlets, including The New York Times, canceled their participation in a government-sponsored investor conference in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, in two weeks, where the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is expected to speak. The Los Angeles Times and The Economist also announced they would not attend.

But for financial and technology companies, several of which have multibillion-dollar ties to Saudi Arabia, the calculus is more complicated. Few executives have backed out of the conference, which is called the Future Investment Initiative but is known colloquially as Davos in the Desert.

Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, was one of the few to announce that they would back out.

“Unless a substantially different set of facts emerges, I won’t be attending,” he said in a statement late Thursday night.

The company’s relationship with the Saudis is also perhaps one of the most complex. The Public Investment Fund, a large Saudi sovereign wealth fund, invested $3.5 billion for a 5.6 percent share in Uber in June 2016. The fund’s managing director, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, took a seat on Uber’s board. Prince Mohammed is the chairman of the Public Investment Fund.

Last year, SoftBank, the Japanese telecommunications conglomerate, purchased a large stake in Uber as well, and took two seats on the company’s board. SoftBank’s Vision Fund investment arm is largely backed by capital from the Public Investment Fund.

By contrast, the Blackstone Group, the large private equity firm in which the Public Investment Fund has invested more than $2.3 billion and committed a total of $20 billion to a new Blackstone fund, plans to stay involved in the meeting, according to two people familiar with the firm’s plans.

Blackstone’s chief executive, Stephen A. Schwarzman, remains an advisory board member and is expected to speak at the conference, which is held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, where Prince Mohammed locked up hundreds of wealthy Saudis last year in what he called an anti-corruption campaign but critics said was an effort to crush dissent.

Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, is also still planning to attend, according to people familiar with his schedule. JPMorgan has done business in Saudi Arabia since the 1930s, opened an office in Riyadh in 2006 and employs about 70 people in the country.

Other executives with ties to the prince’s initiative are either cutting those ties or keeping their distance.

Mellody Hobson, the president of the firm Ariel Investments, said she resigned from the advisory board, though she had not planned to attend the conference.

Peter Thiel, the technology venture capitalist who was once an ally of President Trump and is known for his independent streak, is still a member of the event’s advisory board but had never planned to attend the gathering, according to a person close to Mr. Thiel.

Richard Branson, the billionaire British entrepreneur, said that he had suspended his directorship at two tourism projects near the Red Sea and that his space ventures would halt their discussions over proposed investments from the Public Investment Fund.

The allegations, if proved true, he said in a statement, “would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government.”

With Mr. Khashoggi’s fate so unclear and so little information available, anxious executives called experts on Saudi Arabia for advice on whether to cancel their flights to Riyadh. One former government official now in the international consulting sector in Washington said she fielded calls all day from chief executives and their top aides seeking counsel.

At least one executive called the White House directly. Officials there said they were not offering advice, though Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is still planning to attend, according to his department.

The Saudi government has denied it had any involvement in Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance after he entered its consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Turkish officials insist that Mr. Khashoggi was killed in the consulate on the orders of officials high in the Saudi royal court.

The Times said on Wednesday that it had canceled a media partnership with the conference. Andrew Ross Sorkin, a business columnist for the paper and an anchor at CNBC, announced Thursday that he had also pulled out, saying on Twitter, “I’m terribly distressed by the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reports of his murder.”

The editor in chief of The Economist, Zanny Minton Beddoes, said she would not attend, as did the owner of The Los Angeles Times, Patrick Soon-Shiong. Arianna Huffington, the author and co-founder of HuffPost, said she, too, would no longer take part.

It is notable that the queasiness about Saudi Arabia has spread to K Street, the lobbyists’ corridor, since even clients with the most toxic reputations are normally able to secure representation if their checks clear.

Saudi Arabia has been a coveted client, thanks to its reputation for paying above-market rates and its status as one of the United States’ most reliable allies in an unstable region, which seemed cemented by the ties between Prince Mohammed and the Trump administration.

The debates about dropping the Saudi account also reflect the skittishness of the lobbying industry at a time when it has faced mounting scrutiny from federal investigators, including the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, about how foreign interests try to shape American politics and policy.

The highest-paid firms representing the Saudis in Washington are the international public affairs consultancy Qorvis MSLGroup, which is being paid $279,500 a month, and the Glover Park Group, which was started by former Clinton administration officials and is being paid $150,000 a month, according to filings with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Another two firms are being paid $125,000 a month — Hogan Lovells, which has Norm Coleman, a former senator of Minnesota, as its point person for Saudi work, and Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which has a bipartisan team composed of Marc S. Lampkin, a former aide to the former House speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, and Alfred E. Mottur, a top fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Not all of these firms will drop the Saudis. Some are leaning toward maintaining their contracts, in part because they predict that if they were to abandon the country en masse, it could lead to reduced cooperation from the Saudi government.

Mark Landler and Kenneth P. Vogel reported from Washington, and Kate Kelly from New York. Eric Schmitt and Alan Rappeport contributed reporting from Washington, David Streitfeld and Mike Isaac from San Francisco, Michael M. Grynbaum from New York and Carlos Tejada from Hong Kong.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. Businesses Rethink Risk of Dealing With Nation Under Scrutiny. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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