MUNICH — A business conference will take place next week in Saudi Arabia, dubbed "Davos in the Desert." It comes at a delicate moment to say the least: Nearly two weeks ago, the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared from a Saudi consulate in Turkey, and is now feared dead. Many have accused the regime in Riyadh of having a role in his death.
Multiple top U.S. executives were quick to cancel their participation in the Saudi business event, including Bob Bakish, head of the media group Viacom, and Dara Khosrowshahi, who leads the transport service provider Uber. The New York Times has withdrawn as a media partner.
In Germany, on the other hand, restraint has initially prevailed.
The industrial giant Siemens and the consulting firm Roland Berger say their respective CEOs Joe Kaeser and Edouard Bouée have not made a decision yet. They are supposedly waiting for more information on the Khashoggi case.
But what are Kaeser and Bouée waiting for? If a Saudi journalist disappears from his country's consulate in Turkey, and the Turkish authorities say Khashoggi was killed in the building, suspecting a targeted crime on behalf of the government in Riyadh seems like the obvious thing to do. The horrifying dossier should be a good enough reason to discuss action against the kingdom, which is one of the world's richest countries, but also among the most totalitarian, in which the ultimate measure of the law is Islamic sharia.
Saudi Arabia does not get to decide whether they get weapons or not.
Reasons to sanction this kingdom have existed for decades. But the governments of the world have opted for leniency, mostly because Saudi Arabia has long been the largest oil producer in the world. No one wanted to offend the supplier of the fuel of the economy — especially as the regime in Riyadh was usually a reliable partner of the industrialized countries in multiple crises in the region. This traditionally gave the Saudis an exceptional position in the Gulf region, also as a customer: Americans and Germans especially like to sell modern weapons and cars to the rich desert state.
It would be unrealistic to think that because of the Khashoggi case, we would pull out the moral cudgel and finally call out the Saudis for their human rights abuses. The West has sinned so thoroughly on this issue that the impression around the world holds that principles ultimately have no meaning in politics, when it's linked to the supply of oil.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with King Salman on Oct. 16 — Photo: U.S. Department of State
Even before the Khashoggi affair, former Federal Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (of left-center Social Democrats) had already demanded that German arms supplies to the kingdom be restricted. He was quickly criticized, but not only in Saudi Arabia. Germany's ruling center-right CDU is always happy to take into account the interests of the German defense companies, while the Social Democrats are quick to back the workers in the arms industry. A few weeks after, the strained relations with Saudi Arabia had recovered from Sigmar Gabriel's attack, and the embassies in Riyadh and Berlin are once again occupied.
But with the Khashoggi case, the federal government should take a stand and stop dealing with the Saudis — especially since they can now afford to more than in the past. The Middle Eastern kingdom is not as economically crucial for Germany as it once was. Saudi Arabia is currently only Germany's 10th largest supplier of oil.
Ultimately it is not up to private companies to do the bidding of Middle East diplomacy. Saudi Arabia does not get to decide whether they get Western-built weapons or not. This is the responsibility of governments, which must finally take a clear and critical stance.
Nevertheless, top German CEOs can at least chip in for the fight for human rights: by not making the trip to "Davos in the Desert." That would not plunge their corporations into the abyss, and shareholders would get over it. Many employees would be happy if their respective boss took a stand. And above all, it would finally give a chance to the forces of reform inside Saudi Arabia.