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Saudi Arabia reassures boycotting banks, prince to address forum

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia said on Wednesday it would not penalize foreign banks boycotting an investment forum in a message of reassurance for a gathering overshadowed by a global outcry over slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the investment conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 23, 2018. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

The kingdom’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is due to speak later at the meeting of international investors in his most high profile remarks since the columnist, one of his most prominent critics, was killed in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

The world’s top oil exporter has come under increasing pressure over the killing of Khashoggi in a crisis that has strained its ties with the West.

Turkey on Tuesday urged Riyadh to search “top to bottom” for those responsible for his killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. President Donald Trump said Saudi authorities had staged the “worst cover-up ever” in Khashoggi’s death as the United States vowed to revoke the visas of some Saudi suspects.

Dozens of Western politicians, top world bankers and company executives boycotted this year’s Future Investment Initiative conference that opened in Riyadh on Tuesday, but the kingdom showed it could still do business by signing deals worth $50 billion on the first day.

The Saudi central bank chief said foreign banks abstaining from the event would not be penalized and may apply for licenses to operate in the Gulf state, the Middle East’s largest economy.

“We, at the central bank, deal in complete professional manner whether with local or international banks,” Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority Governor Ahmed al-Kholifey told Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television.

The crown prince, the kingdom’s de facto ruler and architect of its reform drive, is scheduled to speak at the event in the late afternoon after making a brief appearance on the opening day, declaring the event as “great – more people more money”.

The prince, known as MbS, did not address the forum on Tuesday. He had arrived after attending a meeting at which his father and strongest supporter King Salman received members of Khashoggi’s family, including his son Salah. State news agency SPA published pictures of the meeting, including one of the crown prince shaking hands with Salah, who seemed ill at ease.

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud , Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman receive Khashoggi family in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 23, 2018. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

The prince told Bloomberg earlier this month that Riyadh would announce an “amazing deal” at FII this year, where the mood has been subdued compared to the 2017 inaugural event.

Khashoggi, a critic of the crown prince, vanished after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2. After Riyadh first denied any involvement in his disappearance, a Saudi official eventually attributed the death to a chokehold.

Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan, on Tuesday dismissed Saudi efforts to blame Khashoggi’s death on rogue operatives, calling the operation a planned, “savage killing”, and demanded Riyadh punish those responsible, no matter how highly placed.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States had identified some of the Saudi government and security officials it believed were involved in Khashoggi’s murder and would take appropriate actions including revoking U.S. visas.

Despite the boycott by big hitters, including in Wall Street, of the investment conference, some senior international bankers were in Riyadh in a sign that global banks were reluctant to walk away from lucrative Saudi deals.

Saudi finance minister, Mohammed al-Jadaan, met the chief executive of HSBC’s global banking and markets’ unit and the deputy chairman of Japan’s biggest lender MUFG to discuss investment opportunities, the ministry said in Twitter posts.

Russia sent a large delegation to FII led by Direct Investment Fund head Kirill Dmitriev. He said on Tuesday that while Khashoggi’s killing needed to be investigated and the culprits punished, the Saudi drive for economic and social reforms could not be ignored.

Additional reporting by Hadeel Al Sayegh, Aziz El Yaakoubi and Asma Alsharif in Dubai; Writing by Saeed Azhar; Editing by Ghaida Ghantous, William Maclean

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