The disappearance and death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi sent shockwaves through the business world, leaving in limbo planned investments, partnerships and projects in banking, transportation and technology.
Business leaders have been distancing themselves from Saudi Arabia since Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the Saudi government, disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Turkey earlier this month. Riyadh, which had denied any involvement in his disappearance for nearly three weeks, said Friday Khashoggi died in a fistfight involving more than a dozen Saudi officials inside the consulate. German Chancellor Angela Merkel rejected the Saudi statement. “From Saudi Arabia, we expect transparency in terms of death and background. Those responsible must be held accountable. The information given at the consulates in Istanbul is insufficient,” she said.
Questions about the grisly episode, and the Saudi regime’s possible involvement, threaten to complicate Saudi Arabia’s immediate efforts to court foreign investment and diversify its economy by 2030, though analysts say the long-term impact remains unclear and some long-standing arms and energy deals appear untouched.
Here’s how the fallout has impacted business and markets.
Saudi ties to Silicon Valley in question
The kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund is a key investor in American tech firms. It provided nearly half the money for the massive $93 billion SoftBank Vision Fund, which has invested in companies like WeWork, Slack and DoorDash.
SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son has repeatedly talked about a second Vision Fund, but those plans could now be in doubt. Silicon Valley firms may shun Vision Fund money now because they don’t want “to become associated with what they might consider as blood money,”Amir Anvarzadeh, a strategist at Asymmetric Advisors, told CNN Business.
Asymmetric Advisors removed SoftBank (SFTBF) from its list of key stock recommendations earlier this week. The Japanese company’s share price has fallen nearly 15% since Khashoggi disappeared on October 2, hit by concerns about its Saudi ties and the broad sell-off in tech stocks.
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi withdrew from a major business conference at which he was due to speak, saying he was “troubled by the reports to date about Jamal Khashoggi.” His announcement is particularly significant because Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is a big shareholder in Uber. In 2016, it invested $3.5 billion in the ride-hailing startup.
Relationships with Google, Amazon and Apple may also face pressure from Khashoggi’s disappearance. In the spring, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the campuses of top tech companies in the United States and posed for pictures alongside the CEOs of Apple, Amazon and Google. Apple had reportedly been in talks to open an Apple Store in the country, while Amazon was exploring expanding its Web Services business to support Saudi businesses. Google was discussing building data centers for Saudi oil giant Aramco. The companies have yet to comment on if they will pursue a relationship with the kingdom going forward.
Analysts say the tech companies are grappling with how to proceed.
Foreign leaders shun investment conference
Fallout from Khashoggi’s disappearance has taken a bite out of the guest list for bin Salman’s Future Investment Initiative conference, also known as “Davos in the desert,” which is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Riyadh. The conference is part of his Vision 2030 plan to break the country’s dependence on oil.
All the meeting’s international media partners, including CNN, Fox Business and the New York Times, have withdrawn.
In addition, a number of prominent American executives have also pulled out from the conference. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene and Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford are among those who backed out. So too did US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde and Goldman executive Dina Powell, a former adviser to the Trump administration. Top European bankers, including HSBC CEO John Flint, Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam Standard Chartered (SCBFF) CEO Bill Winters and London Stock Exchange CEO David Schwimmer also reversed their decisions to attend.
SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son has not yet said whether he will be attending.
MBS’s economic diversification plan hits a roadblock
Just like the conference planned to promote it, bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan has faced international pressure. Richard Branson suspended his involvement in two projects to create a tourist destination on the Red Sea. Branson also paused talks with the Saudis on an investment in Virgin’s space businesses.
“What has reportedly happened in Turkey around the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi Government,” Branson said in a statement on October 11.
Other business leaders and former US secretary of energy Ernest Moniz, have withdrawn from the advisory board of NEOM, a project to build a zero-emission city of self-driving cars and passenger drones.
Saudi stocks plummet
Riyadh’s main stock market index plunged 7% on October 14 out of fear of US sanctions. The drop wiped out the index’s 2018 gains. The Tadawul All Share Index is down nearly 5% off its one-month high.
Saudi Arabia reminds world of its oil power
The Khashoggi killing and its possible geopolitical fallout has cast a shadow over the oil market.
Sanctions on Iran’s energy sector go into effect on November 5 and questions linger about just how many Iranian barrels will get knocked offline and how much Saudi Arabia can – or will – make up for the shortfall. Saudi Arabia has threatened to retaliate against potential sanctions from the United States over the Khashoggi case.
While Saudi Arabia is unlikely to outright cut production, the kingdom may not be in a rush to come to the rescue either. Saudi Arabia could decide to slow-walk future output hikes.
Saudi Arabia pumps around 10.5 million barrels of oil a day, according to OPEC data. It has previously said it is willing, along with Russia, to fill the gap created by the return of US sanctions on Iran.
Meantime, other energy deals are moving ahead. Earlier this month, Saudi Aramco and French energy group Total signed an agreement to start working on plans for a $5 billion petrochemical complex in Saudi Arabia.