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Examining The Close Ties Between Saudi Arabia And Silicon Valley


Saudi Arabia's suspected role in the disappearance of a journalist has thrown a shadow over Saudi money. American businesses have enjoyed Saudi investments for years. Only now are executives facing real questions about Saudi Arabia's absolute monarchy, its brutal war in Yemen and, above all, about the reported murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Much Saudi money has gone to Silicon Valley. And though some tech CEOs have backed out of a forthcoming Saudi investment conference, the investments themselves remain.

Writer Anand Giridharadas has just been talking with audiences this week in Silicon Valley, and he's been telling them the Saudi money is tainted.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: In recent years, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund has become one of the biggest swinging checkbooks in Silicon Valley through a kind of open secret of a front, which is SoftBank, a big Japanese fund that launched a hundred-billion-dollar vision fund. Forty-five billion dollars of that first hundred-billion-dollar fund was the Saudi government money. And recently, they announced the second vision fund. So Saudi Arabia - if you have a startup and big dreams of changing the world, making it a better place, empowering women and others - a lot of those people with a lot of those idealistic pretensions have been very happy to open up to Saudi investors.

INSKEEP: Let me just ask how big this really is. You just used huge numbers, like a hundred billion dollars. But you were referring to spreading that money among multiple companies in Silicon Valley, where, sometimes now a company can be worth a trillion dollars. Are they just buying - I don't know - 5 percent of the stock of some company?

GIRIDHARADAS: It's varying. But I'll tell you in Uber, for example, SoftBank is now the largest single shareholder in Uber, with Saudi having half of that stake. And I want to make a really important point about what this gets the Saudis. If you're the young crown prince, you have a problem, which is that the reality of your country is that it's a fairly barbaric medieval kingdom that runs itself in a way that is inconsistent with the U.N. human rights declaration, that is based on the degradation of women, that beheads people and that might well have murdered Jamal Khashoggi in the consulate in Istanbul. That's a big image problem.

In these investments in Silicon Valley and then getting to go to Silicon Valley earlier this year and meet Mark Zuckerberg and meet Jeff Bezos and others, he got exactly what he paid for. He got the illusory glow of being part of the future. And he got some credulous columnists to call him a reformer.

INSKEEP: So, Anand, you have given one way that the Saudis seem to benefit from this connection with Silicon Valley. The crown prince can go there and get a photo op. But do you have any evidence that when Saudis invest in a company, there are some kinds of strings attached?

GIRIDHARADAS: No, and that's not my claim. My concern is that Silicon Valley is not who it says it is. When you spend time out there, as I just did, you hear an endless parade of platitudes about changing the world, empowering people, creating community, giving voice. And it's almost a parody of the falsity of those pretensions to raise money from one of the worst regimes on earth that is absolutely in violation of every value you hear thrown around in Silicon Valley.

And I want to be clear - this financial investment is not the only thing that's happened. You know, as many of your listeners will remember, there was this Davos in the Desert conference. Then you got this new $500 billion megacity that the Saudis are creating called Neom. And Neom, again, had all these Silicon Valley people and other corporate people on the board. And so these folks in Silicon Valley make a lot of very important decisions about what kind of world we live in. If these people are basically no better than chemical magnates who dump pollutants into rivers - except the digital version of that - I think that's important for Americans to understand.

INSKEEP: What was it like in the last several days as you were traveling in the Silicon Valley area and speaking with audiences in this place that relies on the very industry you are criticizing and said, you people are showing yourselves to be immoral or amoral?

GIRIDHARADAS: You know, like you, Steve, I have two kinds of conversations with journalists. I have public ones, and I have private ones. Even in the public ones, there is a growing sense that they are standing on top of an indefensible mountain - that America has been led by plutocrats who are fundamentally motivated by the bottom line but who have spun us all a tale of how they're trying to transform civilization and that things need to change.

But in the private conversation, Steve, I will tell you - deep in the bowels of these institutions, there is a generation of younger people who frankly do not believe the stories that their elders - and their elders are, like, in their 30s and 40s, in the case of Silicon Valley - do not believe their stories. A bunch of people coming up in the Valley, frankly, have a much more sophisticated understanding of power - the very power they wield and the privilege they wield that some of the people who founded these companies have been catastrophically blind to.

INSKEEP: Anand Giridharadas is the author of the book "Winners Take All." Thanks very much for coming by.

GIRIDHARADAS: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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