One of my favourite songs is Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. Aside from the annoyingly catchy chorus, the song is notable for chronicling the turbulent history of the world throughout the 45 years that comprised the end of the Second World War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Joel does this by simply reeling off a list of names or events from any given decade – for example, the late 1940s/early 1950s begins with:
Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe
Rosenbergs, H-bomb, Sugar Ray, Panmunjom
Brando, "The King and I" and "The Catcher in the Rye"
Eisenhower, vaccine, England's got a new queen
Marciano, Liberace, Santayana goodbye
Back in October 2018 I tried to apply the “Joel principle” to the names of the prominent global bankers, executives and politicians who were fleeing the Saudi Future Investment Initiative in their droves. The shocking murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul had been revealed just before thousands were set to descend upon Riyadh to pledge hundreds of billions of dollars in investment, and the backlash was in full swing.
Try as I might, I couldn’t make any kind of rhyme from Jamie Dimon, Larry Fink, Stephen Schwarzman, Bill Ford, Ariana Huffington, Christine Lagarde, Liam Fox, Steve Mnuchin, Andrew Ross Sorkin, David Schwimmer (not that one), Tidjane Thiam and the many others who withdrew just days before they were due to share a stage with the country’s charismatic Crown Prince.
This all comes to mind because of the recent comments made by Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz to a US congressional committee, where she rightly points out that, despite all the global outrage, the calls for severe punishment and the flight of the captains of industry, nothing has changed. No one has been held accountable. Deals that were put on hold are now being quietly resurrected and the leading lights have returned to the desert.
The opening up of the Saudi market in recent years presents opportunities and I get the business case for helping with the modernisation of an economy which has been overly-reliant on a patronage model for far longer than it should have been. I was at the first Future Investment Initiative in 2017 and it was an impressive spectacle. I’m also not so naïve as to ignore the global political picture – like it or not, the west needs Saudi Arabia. What happened here, however, is heinous. There should be proper punishment and a considered, long-term response. What we got instead was another example of a problem that permeates public life in the 21st century: our propensity for instant outrage and demands for action, followed up by…absolutely bugger all.
I’m not telling you anything new when I suggest that our interconnected world and a non-stop news cycle is behind this dynamic. When something happens, because people can share it, talk about it and form opinions instantly, the pressure for an immediate response that shuts the issue down is incredibly strong. One of the greatest fears of a communications or public relations team is a steady drip of negative sentiment that overwhelms everything you have organised and destroys all future plans. Best to say something, do something, and then the pressure is off. However, by sating the hunger for an immediate full-scale reaction, you often run contrary to your long-term strategic goals.
That’s why, as someone who was in favour of the Crown Prince’s proclaimed desire to transform his country’s long-term prospects, I am particularly disappointed at the cynicism on show here. It may be that these international executives will be pleased at how they navigated choppy waters. I don’t agree. Because what happened is so horrible, there is an added ethical question and whilst they may have secured new revenue streams for their paymasters, they have only served to damage their own reputations in the long-term. Especially if something similar happens again, either in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the world where these institutions are active.
It also proves the futility of instant noise. One of our toughest tasks is counselling clients through pressured situations, where immediate action is tempting, but would only serve to diminish credibility and prospects further down the line. The irony here is that the snap decisions taken following the Khashoggi murder were probably the right ones, and should still be applied to this day. By flip flopping once the furore has died down, we can only lament the current climate that prizes the quick fix to the proper, measured solution.
Ultimately though, I doubt that Hatice Cenzig much cares about any of this. She lost the man she loved in unimaginably brutal circumstances – the fact she has had to come forward to remind us of what happened should be the overriding consideration here and it should make us all very sad indeed.