November 20, 2018

Why Silicon Valley Won't Ditch Saudi Arabia

“The grisly revelation of Jamal Khashoggi’s detention and death in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has upended the longtime elite foreign-policy consensus around the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia. But it’s not just wonks and think tankers who suddenly find themselves unable to countenance their ties with the Saudis. Silicon Valley has long looked to the vast riches of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund for investment capital, and following outcry over Khashoggi’s death, Wall Street titans, tech executives, and their media cheerleaders said they would no longer attend the ongoing Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh. Twitter announced that it was banning accounts linked to Saudi propaganda efforts, and British mogul Richard Branson declared that if confirmed, Khashoggi’s murder “would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi Government.”

But for all the hasty cancellations from the so-called “Davos in the Desert,” Silicon Valley is unlikely to totally cut the cord with Saudi Arabia. Despite the bold public statements, a number of firms reportedly sent junior-level staffers to the conference anyway — and no one has said outright that they would no longer be working with the Saudi Arabian government. Though there’s never been anything like the outrage over Khashoggi’s apparent murder, there’s too much at stake for the tech industry to forswear the Kingdom’s money piles altogether.

The relationship between the tech industry and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always made clear business sense for both parties. In the decade after the Great Recession, San Francisco Bay Area tech companies like Uber and Slack began to skyrocket in value amid exploding user growth and successive rounds of American venture capital. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s billionaire rulers, cognizant that Aramco dollars wouldn’t be flowing forever, began staking out an investment portfolio to reflect a new ambition of a greener, high-tech future for the Kingdom.”

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