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Saudi Dissident’s Disappearance Casts Shadow on Riyadh Conference

Prominent figures in media and entertainment are weighing whether to go forward with plans to attend a Saudi investment conference, in the wake of the disappearance of dissident Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

On Wednesday, the New York Times announced that it has withdrawn as a media partner of the event, which will be held Oct. 23-25 in Riyadh.

“The Times is no longer a media sponsor of the Future Investment Initiative,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.

Other media companies, including CNBC, Bloomberg, Fox Business, and Viacom, are monitoring the situation closely and deciding whether to participate. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the owner of the Los Angeles Times, was slated to appear, and was listed on the conference’s advisory board. However, on Thursday he too withdrew from the conference.

“Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong will not be attending the upcoming Future Investment Initiative event in Riyadh,” a Los Angeles Times spokesperson said.

Mellody Hobson, the president of Ariel Investments and wife of director George Lucas, has also resigned from the advisory board, a spokesperson said.

Khashoggi wrote critically of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in columns for the Washington Post, and lived in self-imposed exile in the U.S. He has not been seen since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Reports citing Turkish government sources state that he was murdered and dismembered by a state-sponsored hit squad, which Saudi Arabia denies.

Among the speakers scheduled to appear at the conference are Viacom CEO Bob Bakish, and STX Entertainment CEO Robert Simonds. Andrew Ross Sorkin, a New York Times columnist and co-anchor of “Squawk Box” on CNBC, said Thursday that he would not attend.

“I’m terribly distressed by the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reports of his murder,” Sorkin said on Twitter.

Several participants said they were following the news of Khashoggi’s disappearance.

“We are aware of the reports regarding Jamal Khashoggi, and we are monitoring the situation closely,” said a Viacom spokesman.

CNBC, which is also listed as a media partner, said in a statement that “We are monitoring the situation.” CNN, another media partner, declined to comment.

“We’re evaluating,” said a Fox Business Network spokesperson.

Western media partners may face pressure to withdraw from the conference as the situation develops.

The conference is hosted by the Public Investment Fund, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. Dubbed “Davos in the Desert,” the conference was first held last year, and was an opportunity for bin Salman to showcase his modernization efforts.

Bin Salman was feted by Hollywood figures during a visit to Los Angeles in April. He was hailed for ending a 35-year ban on film exhibition in the kingdom. Hollywood has also shown renewed interest in tapping Saudi oil wealth as Chinese overseas investment has slowed to a trickle.

Earlier this year, AMC was granted a permit to build the kingdom’s first movie theater. “Black Panther” was the first film to be publicly screened there in a generation. Distributors have raised hopes of establishing a significant film business there over the next decade.

This spring, PIF also made a $400 million investment in Endeavor, the holding company that owns WME. PIF is also an investor in Penske Media Corp., the parent company of Variety.

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