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'Davos in the Desert': Rights advocates decry attendance of Kushner and Mnuchin

Congressman Jim McGovern says US treasury secretary should not 'rub elbows with murderous regime'
Steven Mnuchin, left, and Jared Kushner flank US President Donald Trump at meeting on 25 July (AFP/file photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

Advocates seeking justice for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi say that Saudi Arabia has still not faced accountability for the crime. 

Riyadh has yet to deal with any serious repercussions over the killing, the kingdom has not carried out a transparent investigation into the murder and the slain journalist's body has not been found.

Still, US officials who skipped Saudi Arabia's so-called "Davos in the Desert" last year over the murder - including White House adviser Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin - plan to attend the luxurious investment conference next week.

US legislators and rights groups have slammed the administration of President Donald Trump for sending representatives to the Saudi conference, which is set to take place at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh.

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"Putting personal interests over the common interest of our country is a shameful tradition of Trump’s administration," Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar told Middle East Eye in an email. 

Khashoggi, one year later: 'A promise not yet fulfilled'
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"Continuing to cozy up to and prop up brutal dictators that murder their own citizens and US residents is just another example of it," she added.

Congressman Jim McGovern, a Democrat who co-chairs the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, also condemned the attendance of US officials at the lavish Saudi conference.

"I’m disappointed but not surprised, given this administration’s awful record of selling out US values and cozying up to dictators and authoritarians," McGovern told Middle East Eye in an emailed statement.

"The Treasury secretary should be sanctioning Saudi Arabia for their shameful human rights record – not travelling there to rub elbows with a murderous regime that killed and dismembered a Washington Post journalist," he said.

'Horrible message'

Saudi government agents murdered and dismembered Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul last October. The journalist, who was a Virginia resident, wrote for the Washington Post and was critical of some Saudi policies.

Despite the outcry from advocates and lawmakers, Trump has defended the kingdom from the backlash that followed the murder, saying that he will not compromise Washington's relationship with Riyadh, including hefty weapons contracts, because of the killing.

Sending top officials to the event in Riyadh is Trump's latest move towards normalising US-Saudi relations after the murder.

The conference, formally known as the Future Investment Initiative, will host more than 275 speakers, including at least 30 "international public figures", the event's website says.

According to a draft schedule of the conference obtained by Axios, Indian Prime Minister Marendra Modi and Brazil's right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro will be among those public figures. The document also confirmed the attendance of Kushner and Mnuchin, which was first reported by Quartz.

Dozens of CEOs and Wall Street executives will also be at the conference.  

'Putting personal interests over the common interest of our country is a shameful tradition of Trump’s administration'

- Ilhan Omar, US congresswoman

Ahmed Benchemsi, advocacy and communications director for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, said businesses have a responsibility to ensure that they do not benefit from rights abuses.

Benchemsi also decried the attendance of US officials, saying that it "gives an additional stamp of approval" to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite all the rights violations that have occurred under his watch.

"It sends a horrible message, which is making clear that there are minimal costs to abuses," Benchemsi told MEE in a phone interview. 

The CIA and some western governments have said they believe the crown prince ordered the operation, an assertion Saudi officials have repeatedly denied.

Rights abuses

While the gruesome killing of Khashoggi captured the world's attention, Saudi Arabia has been accused of a myriad of other abuses by rights groups, including jailing and torturing dissidents and women's rights advocates and committing war crimes in Yemen.

Win Without War, an advocacy group that promotes progressive national security strategies, noted on Saturday that Yemen is on the verge of famine because of the Saudi-led war.

In May, Trump blocked a resolution by Congress to end Washington's support for Riyadh's coalition in Yemen - one of two vetoes he has used this year to defend the kingdom from political pressure.

The US president made his first foreign trip after his inauguration in 2017 to Saudi Arabia, and the kingdom's rulers' are said to also enjoy close relations with Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and adviser.

"Jared Kushner plans to attend an economic conference in Saudi Arabia starting Tuesday, which raises plenty of ethics and national security questions," Citizens for Ethics, a Washington-based watchdog, wrote in a tweet on Saturday.

"Unfortunately, alas, it seems like there's less mobilisation today around the necessity to provide transparency and accountability around Jamal Khashoggi's murder than there was a year ago," HRW's Benchemsi said.

"We obviously deplore that. The pressure should be sustained. The pressure should continue because nothing has been solved in regards to what happened to Jamal."

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