Magda Wierzycka on why she opted out of ‘Davos in the desert’

Sygnia chief executive Magda Wierzycka has joined a long list of global business leaders, who have opted out of a major investment summit in Saudi Arabia scheduled for next week, after the alarming disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Future Investment Initiative — dubbed ‘Davos in the desert’ — is a project driven by the kingdom’s controversial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. According to its website, it attracted over 3 800 attendees and funds representing 25% of the global economy to last year’s inaugural event.

This year’s gathering however, is being towed under by allegations that Saudi authorities had a hand in the disappearance, and possible murder, of Khashoggi, a critic of the regime.

Earlier this week Wierzycka, joined the exodus of attendees, tweeting that she had decided not to attend the conference, as a gesture to support a free media.

Going to the event and interacting with people who may have sanctioned such an act “is just unfathomable”, she told the Mail & Guardian on Thursday. She was due to attend in her capacity as Sygnia CEO, she said, and was not part of any South African led government delegation.

In the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance, business leaders from companies and organisations across the globe— including the heads of companies partnering on the event — have pulled out.

CNN reports the names include chief executive officer (CEO) of JP Morgan Chase, Jamie Dimon, who was scheduled to speak at the event. So too was banking group HSBC’s CEO John Flint, before he pulled out — although as of Thursday morning HSBC was still listed as a strategic partner on the initiative’s website.

Others include Uber chief Dara Khosrowshahi, managing director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. Major media groups including the Financial Times, Bloomberg and CNN have also pulled out.

There was little an individual could do in their personal capacities except to make a gesture said Wierzycka. “But I think gestures count,” she argued. And while political assassinations take place around the world, the Khashoggi case is different, she said.

“This is a cold-blooded murder by a government of one of its citizens, in an embassy, which actually is meant to be a sanctuary,” Wierzycka said, adding that it appeared intended to intimidate journalists and other activists.

According to a number of international news outlets Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post, went into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2, to obtain documents in order to marry his fiancée. It appears he never left.

Subsequent reports, citing Turkish officials, claim that he was instead murdered inside the embassy, allegedly at the hands of a 15-man hit squad.

Saudi authorities have denied the reports however, saying instead that Khashoggie left the embassy.

The South African government meanwhile has said that despite the growing international outcry, it will continue to support business ties to the Gulf state.  

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Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.
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