(RIYADH, Saudi Arabia) — Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince on Wednesday called the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi a “heinous crime that cannot be justified.”
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, addressing the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, said separately that the killing will not “drive a wedge” between the kingdom and Turkey.
This year’s summit has been overshadowed by the killing on Oct. 2. Turkish officials say a 15-man Saudi team killed the writer at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. A member of Prince Mohammed’s entourage was allegedly at the consulate at the time.
International business leaders have pulled out from attending the summit over the killing.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly spoke by phone with Prince Mohammed just before he arrived with other Arab leaders at the summit. The event, which debuted last year with global business titans in attendance, has been overshadowed by Khashoggi’s slaying and the international outrage over it.
Prince Mohammed immediately addressed the killing after taking the stage.
“The crime was really painful to all Saudis. I believe it is painful for every human in the world,” he said. “It is a heinous crime that cannot be justified.”
He also promised Saudi-Turkish relations would not be hurt.
“We know that many are trying to use this painful thing to create a kind of wedge between Saudi Arabia and Turkey,” he said. “I want to send them a message: They will not be able to do that as long as there is king called King Salman bin Abdul Aziz and a crown prince called Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia.”
Erdogan focused in again Wednesday on Khashoggi’s death.
“We are determined not to allow the murder to be covered up and for those responsible — from the person who gave the order to those who executed it — not to escape justice,” he said in the capital, Ankara.
The announcement of the call came just before Prince Mohammed, Bahrain’s crown prince and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri walked into the Riyadh summit.
Erdogan has said that 15 Saudi officials arrived in Istanbul shortly before Khashoggi’s death and that a man, apparently dressed in the writer’s clothes, acted as a possible decoy by walking out of the consulate on the day of the disappearance.
Turkish officials say the 15 men comprised a Saudi hit squad that included a member of Prince Mohammed’s entourage on overseas trips. Saudi Arabia has suggested, without offering evidence, that the team went rogue.
With the crown prince’s standing marred, his ability to draw needed investment to the kingdom could be affected.
Economists say Saudi Arabia will need trillions of dollars in investments to create millions of new jobs for young Saudis entering the workforce in coming years. The investment forum is aimed at attracting investors to help underwrite that effort.
The event’s first day saw several speakers acknowledge the killing of the Saudi writer whose columns criticized the crown prince’s crackdown on dissent. Dozens of Saudi activists, writers, clerics and even women who were behind calls for the right to drive have been detained.
At one summit session, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih described Khashoggi’s slaying as “abhorrent.”
In the wake of Khashoggi’s killing, many international business leaders and Western officials pulled out of the forum, including the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase, Uber, Siemens and Blackrock. Western media outlets withdrew as partners for the event.
The chief executive of U.S. private equity fund Blackstone, Stephen Schwarzman, and Japan’s technology giant Softbank, Masayoshi Son, joined the long list of big speakers who backed out of speaking at this year’s forum. Just last year they’d shared the stage with Prince Mohammed at the event. The kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, which the crown prince oversees, has invested billions of dollars with both.
Rather than cancel their participation altogether, some companies sent mid-level executives to keep lines of communication and business open with Saudi Arabia. Outside the ornate hall of the forum, hushed conversations over coffee and dates, and a flurry of business cards were being exchanged among participants.
There was a strong showing from Russian, Asian and African nations at the forum.
Some $55 billion in agreements were pledged at the forum, much of that focused on Saudi Arabia’s lucrative energy industry. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s largest exporters of oil, has the Arab world’s largest economy and is a key emerging market.
Several participants in attendance from the U.S., including a California hedge fund manager and staff from a U.S. desalination company, declined to speak with The Associated Press at the forum, reflecting a general nervousness among the Americans in attendance.
“This experience has given everyone pause … to stop, get our breath, take stock and then figure out the most appropriate way forward,” David Hamod, president and CEO of the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview with The Associated Press at the forum.
“At the end of the day, many American companies have stakeholders and shareholders to which they need to be very sensitive. So they will listen to those stakeholders and shareholders,” Hamod said.
“But timing is everything. A fair number of U.S. companies didn’t make the trip, as you know, and that’s an issue of timing,” he said, adding that he believes over the long-term the relationship will be “very positive.”
The forum’s subdued atmosphere received a jolt Tuesday when Prince Mohammed made a brief appearance and received a standing ovation from the audience. He was followed around by a crowd of mostly young Saudi men trying to catch an up-close glimpse of their country’s most powerful prince. He even posed for selfies.
In the U.S., pressure continued to mount against Saudi Arabia’s account of Khashoggi’s killing.
“The cover-up was horrible. The execution was horrible,” President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House on Tuesday night. “But there should have never been an execution or a cover-up because it should have never happened.”
Trump later was asked about Prince Mohammed in an Oval Office interview with The Wall Street Journal.
“Well, the prince is running things over there more so at this stage. He’s running things and so if anybody were going to be, it would be him,” Trump told the newspaper.
Shortly after Trump’s remarks, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the United States was revoking the visas of some Saudi officials implicated in Khashoggi’s death. The visa revocations are the Trump administration’s first punitive measures against the Saudis, who are seen as key allies in U.S. efforts to isolate Iran, since Khashoggi disappeared.
The foreign ministers of the G7 group of nations said Saudi Arabia should conduct a credible investigation, “in full collaboration with the Turkish authorities.”
Three days after Saudi Arabia acknowledged Khashoggi had been killed by Saudi agents at its consulate in Istanbul, King Salman and Prince Mohammed met with Khashoggi’s son, Salah, and his brother, Sahel, at the Yamama Palace, where the royals expressed their condolences, according to state-run Saudi news.
A friend of the Khashoggi family told The Associated Press that Salah has been under a travel ban since last year. The individual spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal.
Manal Al-Sharif, a Saudi women’s rights activist and a friend of Khashoggi, said he “was really assassinated for being outspoken.”
“This is a new level the Saudi government is reaching,” she said, adding that people inside the kingdom “are so afraid to speak up.”
Al-Sharif, who was jailed in Saudi Arabia after getting behind a wheel before the kingdom’s ban on women driving was lifted this year, spoke Wednesday in Denmark where she was promoting her book “Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.”
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; contributed to this report.