Joe Kaeser. Picture: REUTERS
Joe Kaeser. Picture: REUTERS

Munich/Frankfurt/Berlin — The heads of Deutsche Bank and Siemens, two of Germany’s largest companies, are among a dwindling number of prominent delegates still scheduled to attend an investment conference in Saudi Arabia following the disappearance of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser said he is torn about whether to stick with his plan to go to next week’s event in Riyadh. His counterpart at Deutsche Bank, Christian Sewing, has not made up his mind, according to a person briefed on the matter who declined to be named.

Their hesitation comes as a range of top global business leaders have pulled out since Khashoggi vanished after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.

The conference comes at a critical juncture in the relationship between the two countries, making the decision more difficult for the two CEOs. Germany and Saudi Arabia just this month took the first steps to repair relations following a nearly year-long diplomatic feud that had damaged business ties.

Kaeser’s engineering behemoth is the only international "strategic partner" of the kingdom’s Future Investment Initiative conference that has not pulled out. Many of the speakers at next week’s event, including JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon and BlackRock’s Laurence Fink have cancelled. IMF head Christine Lagarde deferred a trip to the kingdom that would have included a visit to the conference, which is designed to highlight modernisation plans.

‘Very serious topic’

"This is a very serious topic where you cannot win," Kaeser told a conference in Toronto on Tuesday. "I haven’t made up my mind yet, but I need to."

A representative of Deutsche Bank declined to comment on whether Sewing will attend. Other executives from major European banks – including BNP Paribas, Credit Suisse, HSBC and Societe Generale – have dropped out.

Kaeser put his chances of attending at 50%, saying he would make a decision "in the next day or two".

The executive has often touted his company’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia. In 2017 Siemens received a blockbuster order for five gas turbines that will be used in a gas extraction plant in Fadhili and the company has a gas turbine manufacturing plant in the country’s Eastern Province.

"If we skip communicating with countries where people are missing, I can just stay home," he said in Toronto. "If I go, I am going to address and speak up in this country because I want my people, the thousands of people who work there, to be able to speak up and speak their mind."

Turkish officials have said privately, without offering evidence, that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate.

Saudi Arabia initially said the Washington Post contributor exited the building alive, without backing up that claim.

However, they have since undertaken an internal probe, and some Saudi officials have floated an alternative narrative suggesting he died in a botched interrogation.