Pressure Mounts on Hollywood to Distance Itself From Saudi Arabia

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Prince Mohammed bin Salman

As the investigation into the disappearance — and alleged murder — of journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi intensifies, activists are questioning the relationship between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and multiple Hollywood heavyweights, including Endeavor and AMC.

The investigation into the circumstances surrounding the disappearance — and possible murder — of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has drawn increased scrutiny to Hollywood's various business partnerships with Saudi Arabia.

Khashoggi hasn't been seen since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Turkish authorities have accused Saudi Arabia of carrying out a brutal murder of the Washington Post columnist, a noted critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Multiple outlets with business interests in Saudi Arabia contacted by The Hollywood Reporter — including Endeavor, AMC, Imax, World Wrestling Entertainment and others — either refused to comment on the Khashoggi situation or issued statements that they were "monitoring the situation."

MBS, as the Crown Prince is widely known, was welcomed in Los Angeles during a whirlwind three-week tour of the U.S. in April. During the trip, the Prince was feted by everyone from Disney's Bob Iger to Rupert Murdoch, who hosted a dinner party at his Bel Estate that drew the likes of Universal film chairman Jeff Shell, Fox TV exec Peter Rice and film studio chief Stacey Snider, as well as actors Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Elsewhere during the trip, MBS also met with Brian Grazer, Ari Emanuel, Jeff Bezos and Snapchat's Evan Spiegel, as well as Kobe Bryant, whom the prince reportedly made a special request to meet.

MBS was widely praised for his efforts to reform Saudi Arabia's historically repressive culture and open his previously insular country up to outside investment. Among the reforms touted by the prince, which include allowing women to drive and attend soccer games, Hollywood was perhaps most enthusiastic about the removal of a 35-year ban on theatrical movies, which was celebrated with a gala screening of Marvel's Black Panther in Riyadh on April 18. Removal of the ban ostensibly created an entirely new theatrical market for Hollywood. Analysts have suggested that Saudi’s untapped market could reach $1 billion in ticket sales (making it the 10th biggest globally), and, much like other regional box offices, U.S. studio fare is likely to dominate.

A flurry of business deals between Hollywood and the Middle Eastern kingdom kicked off in January with reports that Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund was acquiring a five to 10 percent stake in Endeavor holding company Endeavor for $400 million. In December, AMC Entertainment announced that it had signed a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding to explore building theaters in Saudi Arabia. Following a live entertainment pact with Cirque du Soliel in April, Imax and Dubai-based VOX Cinemas in May unveiled a four-theater deal to become the country's second cinema chain, while European giant Vue also announced it was among those looking to open up numerous sites. 

Five months after MBS’ star-studded L.A. visit, activists and observers are questioning whether the Saudi-Hollywood business partnerships should endure in light of the Khashoggi scandal, as well as Saudi Arabia's ongoing war against Yemen, which has led to thousands of civilian deaths and what many organizations have described as a humanitarian crisis.

Jodie Evans of activist group Code Pink, which protested MBS' L.A. visit, says it's time for Hollywood to reassess its relationship to Saudi Arabia.

“When Saudi crown prince — MBS — came to Hollywood, we were outside his receptions saying, ‘There's nothing charming about this prince.’ That was when the Saudis were bombing civilians in Yemen and creating a famine. But the Hollywood elite only cared about Saudi money,” says Evans. "Since then, MBS has cracked down on women activists and human rights leaders, throwing them in prison, and now he has murdered a prominent journalist. When will Hollywood value life over money and cut its ties with this murderous regime?”

Joel Simon, executive director with the Committee to Protect Journalists, argues that if the allegations against Saudi Arabia in the Khashoggi scandal are true, then "everything needs to change."

“Under the current circumstances, everyone who has any relationship with Saudi Arabia needs to do a radical reassessment,” says Simon. “Everyone who had investments or relationships with Saudi Arabia knew their human rights record. If there isn’t a global and unified outcry if this is confirmed — and every day it looks more likely that it will be — then everything needs to change. It doesn’t matter if you’re Hollywood or Silicon Valley or the U.S. government.”

The Khashoggi scandal has led to a number of Western media outlets and attendees canceling plans to attend the Future Investment Initiative, a high-profile conference in Riyadh dubbed the "Davos of the Middle East." On Friday, STX CEO Bob Simonds became the latest executive to drop out of the conference, following departures by Viacom's Bob Bakish, Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong and CNBC anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin. CNN, CNBC, Bloomberg and The Financial Times have all withdrawn as media sponsors from the Oct. 23-25 event, joining The New York Times, which pulled out as a partner earlier this week.

On Friday, Bloomberg Media CEO Justin B. Smith tweeted: "Bloomberg will no longer serve as a media partner for the Future Investment Initiative and I will no longer be attending as a Speaker. As we do with every major event in the region, we plan to cover any news from our regional news bureau."

Separate from the conference, Richard Branson on Friday became the highest-profile business figure to put his business with Saudi Arabia on hold, revealing he had pulled out of talks over a $1 billion deal with the country's Public Investment Fund over potential space projects.   

"What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi Government," Branson said in a statement.

The Khashoggi scandal has also drawn the scrutiny of lawmakers. On Wednesday, a bipartisan coalition of 22 senators called for an inquiry into the matter, which could reportedly lead to sanctions. On Thursday, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky called on Congress to halt arms sales to the country.

L.A.-based Democratic congressman Adam Schiff has been critical of the Trump administration’s restrained approach to Saudi Arabia. When asked if the Khashoggi scandal should prompt Hollywood to rethink its various partnerships with the Kingdom, the congressman issued the following statement to THR: “Saudi Arabia has made large direct investments in a variety of U.S. industries, including Hollywood, particularly under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. If Saudi journalist Jamal Khagosshi was indeed murdered by the Saudi regime, it will cause a reorientation of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, and will also cause American business interests to reconsider entering into financial arrangements with the Saudi sovereign wealth fund or other entities tied directly to the state. Many in the United States, including Hollywood, would justifiably conclude that the Crown Prince’s reformist messages were simply rhetoric, and choose to disassociate with a regime that would so viciously silence a dissenter.”