Silicon Valley’s Saudi Arabia Problem
World

Silicon Valley’s Saudi Arabia Problem

Technology companies can no longer turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses of one of their largest investors.

By Anand Giridharadas

Mr. Giridharadas is the author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”

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CreditCreditLauren Simkin Berke

This essay has been updated to reflect news developments.

Somewhere in the United States, someone is getting into an Uber en route to a WeWork co-working space. Their dog is with a walker whom they hired through the app Wag. They will eat a lunch delivered by DoorDash, while participating in several chat conversations on Slack. And, for all of it, they have an unlikely benefactor to thank: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Long before the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi vanished, the kingdom has sought influence in the West — perhaps intended, in part, to make us forget what it is. A medieval theocracy that still beheads by sword, doubling as a modern nation with malls (including a planned mall offering indoor skiing), Saudi Arabia has been called “an ISIS that made it.” Remarkably, the country has avoided pariah status in the United States thanks to our thirst for oil, Riyadh’s carefully cultivated ties with Washington, its big arms purchases, and the two countries’ shared interest in counterterrorism. But lately the Saudis have been growing their circle of American enablers, pouring billions into Silicon Valley technology companies.

While an earlier generation of Saudi leaders, like Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, invested billions of dollars in blue-chip companies in the United States, the kingdom’s new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has shifted Saudi Arabia’s investment attention from Wall Street to Silicon Valley. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has become one of Silicon Valley’s biggest swinging checkbooks, working mostly through a $100 billion fund raised by SoftBank (a Japanese company), which has swashbuckled its way through the technology industry, often taking multibillion-dollar stakes in promising companies. The Public Investment Fund put $45 billion into SoftBank’s first Vision Fund, and Bloomberg recently reported that the Saudi fund would invest another $45 billion into SoftBank’s second Vision Fund.

SoftBank, with the help of that Saudi money, is now said to be the largest shareholder in Uber. It has also put significant money into a long list of start-ups that includes Wag, DoorDash, WeWork, Plenty, Cruise, Katerra, Nvidia and Slack. As the world fills up car tanks with gas and climate change worsens, Saudi Arabia reaps enormous profits — and some of that money shows up in the bank accounts of fast-growing companies that love to talk about “making the world a better place.”

Mohammed bin Salman has carefully nurtured a public image of himself as a reformer, distancing himself from Saudi leaders of the past. During a recent visit to Silicon Valley, reportedly to discuss “potential cooperation between American tech companies and Saudi Arabia,” the prince did away with his traditional white robes as he met with executives and investors. On his tour, he was seen walking around with Sergey Brin of Google, exchanging smiles with Mark Zuckerberg while exploring Facebook, and sitting down with Jeff Bezos of Amazon, who owns The Washington Post, for which Mr. Khashoggi wrote until he vanished.

The crown prince’s visit to Silicon Valley appears to have paid off for all involved. Silicon Valley celebrated one of its largest investors, the crown prince cemented his public image as a progressive start-up investor, and several of the executives he met have since joined the advisory board of Neom, his $500 billion megacity project. A former United States energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, suspended his involvement in Neom earlier this week, telling Axios that he has concerns “about the disappearance and possible assassination of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.” Y Combinator’s president, Sam Altman, also suspended his involvement in the megacity project, saying that he doesn’t “plan to comment on the case until the investigation is finished.” Many other Neom advisory board members — including Marc Andreessen of the famed Silicon Valley investment firm Andreessen Horowitz; the former Uber C.E.O. Travis Kalanick; and the Boston Dynamics C.E.O., Marc Raibert — remain on the board as of now.

The bond between Saudi Arabia and Silicon Valley will be further strengthened later this month, at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh — also known as “Davos in the Desert.” Speakers listed on the conference website as of this writing include the Lucid Motors C.T.O., Peter Rawlinson; the Google Cloud C.E.O., Diane Greene; the Magic Leap chief product officer, Omar Khan; and Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures. They will be joined by hundreds of other investors, executives, and government officials, including the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, and the United States Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin. According to its website, the event is “powered by the Public Investment Fund.” Several speakers have dropped out, including the Uber C.E.O., Dara Khosrowshahi, who stated that he was “very troubled by the reports to date about Jamal Khashoggi.”

The kingdom’s influence in the United States government has long bought a certain amount of silence, which was evidenced most famously in the 28 pages”: a classified portion of Congress’s investigation of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that disclosed Saudi linkages to the hijackers that were suggestive, if hardly conclusive, of official support — pages that victims’ families long struggled to get declassified. But the push into Silicon Valley — into companies whose technology is used by millions — represents a potentially dangerous new front of Saudi influence-peddling: Riyadh underwriting ever more of our daily conveniences, making us complicit in the regime’s deeds.

The facts of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance remain a mystery. But if he was, as Turkish officials have suggested, murdered at the behest of the Saudi kingdom, it wouldn’t be out of character. Despite image-burnishing attempts like the crown prince’s Silicon Valley tour, Saudi Arabia remains a paragon of human rights abuse. It continues to use punishments outlawed elsewhere, carrying out 48 beheadings in the first four months of 2018. In August, it was reported that Saudi prosecutors were seeking unprecedented authority to behead a female activist for nonviolent offenses, which included protesting against the government.

Saudi Arabia’s laws treat women as second-class citizens, and they were only recently granted the power to drive — and only once it had become clear that this freedom would be short-lived, thanks to Silicon Valley’s driverless car technology, in which the Saudi fund has invested. The Saudis have fueled a civil war in Yemen that is reported to have cost at least 16,000 lives; a report from the United Nations Human Rights Council suggests that Saudi Arabia may be guilty of war crimes for its involvement in the civil war of its southern neighbor. And, thanks to the world’s need for its oil, the kingdom has enjoyed a stunning immunity from justice for its role in financing Islamist extremism around the world.

As Saudi Arabia establishes its new role as one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent investors, the risk grows that its investments will purchase silence. Companies that pride themselves on openness and freedom may find themselves unable to speak ill of one of their largest investors.

Fearing that this would be so, I reached out to several of the technology companies that have received significant cash from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. I asked Uber, Wag, DoorDash, Katerra, WeWork, Slack and Plenty if there was any aspect of Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Mr. Khashoggi’s apparent murder that the company disavowed. “Or,” I asked, “does the investment from PIF come with an expectation of remaining silent about Saudi conduct?” All of the companies either declined to respond at all, or responded with a refusal to comment on the record about the Saudi kingdom’s behavior.

Silicon Valley has enough issues already: Tech companies are compromising our elections, upholding monopolies, and profiteering from the abuse of privacy. There is no need to add to that list by becoming a reputation-laundering machine for one of the least admirable regimes on earth — a regime that would seem to violate all the values that Silicon Valley is proud of trumpeting.

Arvind Ganesan, director of the business and human rights program of Human Rights Watch, told me in an email that the Riyadh conference “will be a litmus test for businesses’ willingness to go along with a Saudi narrative that is increasingly disconnected from reality.” Foreign businesses “risk more than reputational harm,” he added. “They’re enabling part of his narrative.”

If the Valley is sincere that it will “change the world” and “do the right thing, period,” then the Saudi government’s billions of dollars in investment capital should be returned, and Silicon Valley companies should refuse any further investments. Every business leader and news organization of conscience should pull out from the Public Investment Fund-powered conference and suspend any involvement with Saudi-funded projects like Neom — at the very least, until the disappearance and potential murder of Mr. Khashoggi have been suitably investigated, but perhaps beyond that, given the regime’s broader human rights record. (I became aware during the writing of this piece that The New York Times had been listed among the conference’s sponsors but has since withdrawn.)

Mr. Khashoggi couldn’t be intimidated by his country. He might have given his life for his bravery. Silicon Valley must choose where it stands on the questions of lies and truth, cowardice and courage that defined his work. Turning a blind eye to the human rights abuses of Saudi Arabia is no way of “changing the world.”

Anand Giridharadas is the author of, most recently, “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTopinion).

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November 9, 2018
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