Entrepreneurs Like Arianna Huffington Are Threading a Needle on Saudi Investments

October 18, 2018

By Carlo Versano

As the pressure mounts for U.S. investors, executives, and politicians to spurn Saudi Arabia for the kingdom's alleged involvement in the disappearance and suspected murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Silicon Valley executives have taken the moral high ground by trying to put real distance between their firms and the seemingly endless wealth of Saudi investors.

Arianna Huffington, CEO and founder of Thrive Global, was one such executive to pull out of a forthcoming investor conference in Riyadh.

The former editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post told Cheddar in an interview Thursday that she was "surprised" by the tepid response from the Trump administration, given the strong response from business leaders.

"In the face of pretty global condemnation, the [White House] continues to back the Saudi crown prince," she said.

Huffington, of course, sits on the board of Uber, which also bailed out of the "Davos in the Desert" event soon after alleged details of Khashoggi's capture and murder began to surface. But she wouldn't say whether Uber would go a step further and actually divest itself from Saudi investment funds.

"There are an enormous amount of companies that have received funding from the Saudi investment fund," she said. "And of course, Saudi money is behind Softbank’s Vision Fund, so I think the tentacles of Saudi investments are across the global economy.”

Two years ago, Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) invested $3.5 billion in Uber for a 5 percent stake. Those kinds of deals create a dilemma for many start-ups that depend on the wealth of the kingdom.

While it may be politically savvy and principled to cancel an upcoming appearance, it's much harder to turn off the spigot of free money, as Quartz's Michael Coren explained in a separate interview on Cheddar Thursday.

"Saudi money has spread throughout the start-up ecosystem," he said, echoing Huffington's remarks.

And it comes in many forms. There's the PIF sovereign wealth fund, but there are also countless other venture capital funds. Then, of course, there's the sheer scale of the pile of money on the table. Only a handful of entities can compete with the Saudis' checks, Coren said. Should all potential sources be off the table for entrepreneurs?

"So far no one has given any money back," Coren said.

Still, he feels that as more of the abhorrent details behind Khashoggi's presumed death are uncovered, Silicon Valley will try to keep the kingdom at arm's length.

"[The Saudis] are going to have a lot harder time joining some of the most prestigious funds."

So while the events of the past two weeks have the potential to be a watershed event in U.S-Saudi relations, the relationship is so intertwined ー politically and financially ー that it remains unclear what the long-term effects will be, especially for a tech sector that has been so reliant on access to easy cash.

For full interview click here.