Total CEO to attend Saudi conference, EDF pulls out

PARIS (Reuters) - Total's TOTF.PA chief executive said on Monday he would attend an investment conference in Saudi Arabia this week, despite rising pressure on business leaders to drop out after Riyadh admitted a journalist was killed at its Istanbul consulate.

Patrick Pouyanne, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Total, attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 25, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Saudi Arabia has drawn strong international criticism after saying that Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic of Saudi rulers, was killed inside the consulate - after two weeks of denials that it had anything to do with his disappearance.

“I am convinced that an ‘empty chairs at the table’ strategy serves no useful purpose, especially when it comes to respect for human rights,” Total’s CEO Patrick Pouyanné said in a statement.

The French oil major’s decision comes despite President Emmanuel Macron’s decision last week to pull his finance minister out of the Future Investment Initiative conference.

It contrasts with the decision of Siemens’ CEO not to attend the conference.

Another French energy company, state-owned EDF EDF.PA, said late on Monday its CEO would not attend the conference, citing a conflicting meeting in Paris.

Total and Saudi Aramco co-own one of the largest refining facilities in the world, the SATORP complex in the eastern Saudi city of Jubail.

EDF hopes to sell a nuclear plant in Saudi Arabia and has submitted a bid in a Saudi tender for the project, along with several other nuclear vendors.

Paris and Riyadh enjoy close diplomatic and commercial relations spanning energy, finance and weapons. But France, which considers Riyadh a bulwark against Iranian influence in the Middle East, now faces a delicate balancing act in its response to the incident.

Macron has sought to downplay the importance of trade relations with Riyadh, saying that Saudi Arabia was not a major client of France, although from 2008-17 it was the second biggest purchaser of French arms.

Reporting by Michel Rose and Geert De Clercq in Paris and Philip George in Bengaluru; editing by Adrian Croft and Rosalba O’Brien