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Silicon Valley Reconsiders Its Decision to Invest in Saudi Arabia

In the case of Google, it meant discontinuing a U.S. Defense Department contract involving artificial intelligence.

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Saudi Arabia
Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, center, and Jordan's King Abdullah II second left, attend the Future Investment Initiative conference, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday. VOA
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The controversy over the death of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi has shined a harsh light on the growing financial ties between Silicon Valley and the world’s largest oil exporter.

As Saudi Arabia’s annual investment forum in Riyadh — dubbed “Davos in the Desert” — continues, representatives from many of the kingdom’s highest-profile overseas tech investments are not attending, joining other international business leaders in shunning a conference amid lingering questions over what role the Saudi government played in the killing of a journalist inside their consulate in Turkey.

Tech leaders such as Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL, and Dara Khosrowshahi, the chief executive of Uber, declined to attend this week’s annual investment forum in Riyadh. Even the CEO of Softbank, which has received billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia to back technology companies, reportedly has canceled his planned speech at the event.

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A demonstrator dressed as Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center, with blood on his hands protests with others outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington. VOA

But the Saudi controversy is focusing more scrutiny on the ethics of taking money from an investor who is accused of wrongdoing or whose track record is questionable.

Fueling the tech race

In the tech startup world, Saudi investment has played a key role in allowing firms to delay going public for years while they pursue a high-growth strategy without worrying about profitability. Those ties have only grown with the ascendancy of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the son of the Saudi king.

The kingdom’s Public Investment Fund has put $3.5 billion into Uber and has a seat on Uber’s 12-member board. Saudi Arabia also has invested more than $1 billion into Lucid Motors, a California electric car startup, and $400 million in Magic Leap, an augmented reality startup based in Florida.

Almost half of the Japanese Softbank’s $93 billion Vision Fund came from the Saudi government. The Vision Fund has invested in a Who’s Who list of tech startups, including WeWork, Wag, DoorDash and Slack.

Saudi Arabia
Aurore Chiquot of SoftBank Robotics Europe extends her hand to a robot during the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. VOA

Now there are reports that as the cloud hangs over the crown prince, Softbank’s plan for a second Vision fund may be on hold. And Saudi money might have trouble finding a home in the future in Silicon Valley, where companies are competing for talented workers, as well as customers.

The tech industry is not alone in questioning its relationship with the Saudi government in the wake of Khashoggi’s death or appearing to rethink its Saudi investments. Museums, universities and other business sectors that have benefited financially from their connections to the Saudis also are taking a harder look at those relationships.

Who are my investors?

Saudi money plays a large role in Silicon Valley, touching everything from ride-hailing firms to business-messaging startups, but it is not the only foreign investment in the region.

More than 20 Silicon Valley venture companies have ties to Chinese government funding, according to Reuters, with the cash fueling tech startups. The Beijing-backed funds have raised concerns that strategically important technology, such as artificial intelligence, is being transferred to China.

And Kremlin money has backed a prominent Russian venture capitalist in the Valley who has invested in Twitter and Facebook.

 

Saudi Arabia
Tech startup WeWork offers shared space at more than 200 locations in 50 cities worldwide. Pictured is a co-working facility in downtown Los Angeles. The space caters to digital nomads and others who need flexible work space. VOA

 

The Saudi controversy has prompted some in the Valley to question their investors about where those investors are getting their funding. Fred Wilson, a prominent tech venture capitalist, received just such an inquiry.

“I expect to get more emails like this in the coming weeks as the start-up and venture community comes to grip with the flood of money from bad actors that has found its way into the start-up/tech sector over the last decade,” he wrote in a blog post titled “Who Are My Investors?”

“Bad actors’ doesn’t simply mean money from rulers in the gulf who turn out to be cold blooded killers,” Wilson wrote. “It also means money from regions where dictators rule viciously and restrict freedom.”

This may be a defining ethical moment in Silicon Valley, as it moves away from its libertarian roots to seeing the world in its complexity, said Ann Skeet, senior director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

jamal Khashoggi
(FILE)- Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. VOA

“Corporate leaders are moving more quickly and decisively than the administration, and they realize they have a couple of hats here — one, they are the chief strategist of their organization, and they also play the role of the responsible person who creates space for the right conversations to happen,” she said.

Tech’s evolving ethics

Responding to demands from their employees and customers, Silicon Valley firms are looking more seriously at business ethics and taking moral stands.

Also Read: The Truth About The Killing Of Khashoggi Will Be Revealed By The Turkish President

In the case of Google, it meant discontinuing a U.S. Defense Department contract involving artificial intelligence. In the case of WeWork, the firm now forbids the consumption of meat at the office or purchased with company expenses, on environmental grounds.

The Vision Fund will “undoubtedly find itself in a more challenging environment in convincing startups to take its money,” Amir Anvarzadeh, a senior strategist at Asymmetric Advisors in Singapore, recently told Bloomberg. (VOA)

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Rohingyas Repatriation to Myanmar Scrapped by Bangladesh

Negotiations for repatriation have been in the works for months.

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Rohingya, myanmar
An elderly Rohingya refugee holds a placard during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, in Bangladesh.VOA

Bangladesh’s plans to begin repatriating Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar Thursday were scrapped because officials were unable to find anyone who wanted to return to the country that has been accused of driving out hundreds of thousands in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The refugees “are not willing to go back now,” Refugee Commissioner Abul Kalam told The Associated Press. He said officials “can’t force them to go” but will continue to try to “motivate them so it happens.”

Some people on the government’s repatriation list disappeared into the sprawling refugee camps to avoid being sent home, while others joined a large demonstration against the plan.

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Workers build a Rohingya repatriation center in Gunndum near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. VOA

UN urged a halt to repatriation

More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh from western Myanmar’s Rakhine state since August 2017 to escape killings and destruction of their villages by the military and Buddhist vigilantes that have drawn widespread condemnation of Myanmar.

The United Nations, whose human rights officials had urged Bangladesh to halt the repatriation process even as its refugee agency workers helped to facilitate it, welcomed Thursday’s development.

Firas Al-Khateeb, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Cox’s Bazar, said it was unclear when the process might begin again.

“We want their repatriation, but it has to be voluntary, safe and smooth,” he said.

Bangladesh officials declined to say whether another attempt at repatriation would be made Friday.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali told reporters in Dhaka late Thursday that “there is no question of forcible repatriation. We gave them shelter, so why should we send them back forcibly?”

Rohingya, myanmar
Rohingya refugee children shout slogans during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. VOA

Pleading with Rohingya

At the Unchiprang refugee camp, a Bangladeshi refugee official implored the Rohingya on Thursday to return to their country over a loudspeaker.

“We have arranged everything for you, we have six buses here, we have trucks, we have food. We want to offer everything to you. If you agree to go, we’ll take you to the border, to the transit camp,” he said.

“We won’t go!” hundreds of voices, including children’s, chanted in reply.

Some refugees on the repatriation lists, which authorities say were drawn up with assistance from the UNHCR, said they don’t want to go back.

‘I don’t want to go back’

At the Jamtoli refugee camp, one of the sprawling refugee settlements near the city of Cox’s Bazar, 25-year-old Setara said she and her two children, age 4 and 7, were on a repatriation list, but her parents were not. She said she had never asked to return to Myanmar, and that she had sent her children to a school run by aid workers Thursday morning as usual.

“They killed my husband; now I live here with my parents,” said Setara, who only gave one name. “I don’t want to go back.”

She said that other refugees on the repatriation list had fled to other camps, hoping to disappear amid the crowded lanes of refugees, aid workers and Bangladeshi soldiers, which on Thursday were bustling with commerce and other activity.

Rohingya, Myanmar
Rohingya refugees shout slogans during a protest against the repatriation process at Unchiprang refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh. VOA

Plan to return 150 a day

Bangladesh had planned to send an initial group of 2,251 back from mid-November at a rate of 150 per day.

Myanmar officials, speaking late Thursday in the capital, Naypyitaw, said they were ready to receive the refugees. Despite those assurances, human rights activists said conditions were not yet safe for the Rohingya to go back.

The exodus began after Myanmar security forces launched a brutal crackdown following attacks by an insurgent group on guard posts. The scale, organization and ferocity of the crackdown led the U.N. and several governments to accuse Myanmar of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Most people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar do not accept that the Rohingya Muslims are a native ethnic group, viewing them as “Bengalis” who entered illegally from Bangladesh, even though generations of Rohingya have lived in Myanmar. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, as well as access to education and hospitals.

Rohingya, Myanmar
Rohingya refugees cross floodwaters at Thangkhali refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. VOA

Refugee camps bleak

The refugees survived the ransacking of villages, rapes and killings in Myanmar, but for many, life in Bangladesh’s squalid refugee camps has been bleak.

The refugees who’ve arrived in the last year joined a wave of 250,000 Rohingya Muslims who escaped forced labor, religious persecution and violent attacks from Buddhist mobs in Myanmar during the early 1990s.

Access to education and employment has been far from assured.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who hopes to retain power in December elections, has repeatedly complained that hosting more than a million Rohingya is taxing local resources.

Negotiations for repatriation have been in the works for months, but plans last January to begin sending refugees back were called off amid concerns among aid workers and Rohingya that their return would be met with violence.

Foreign leaders, including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, criticized Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi this week on the sidelines of a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore for her handling of the Rohingya crisis.

Also Read: Rohingya Muslims Remain Fearful Due To Forceful Repatriation

But on Thursday, Pence said that U.S. officials were “encouraged to hear that” the repatriation process would begin.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country would continue working with international partners including the U.N. “to ensure that the Rohingya themselves are part of any decisions on their future.” (VOA)