In December 2016, newly elected Donald Trump pulled a beaming Japanese billionaire named Masayoshi Son into a half-hug in front of cameras and reporters gathered in the golden lobby of Trump Tower. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Trump said with a smile, “this is Masa from SoftBank of Japan, and he has just agreed to invest $50bn into the United States.”
Along with the promise of 50,000 new American jobs, the announcement was considered an early win for the president-elect. But, Son, the CEO of a Tokyo-based telecommunications conglomerate, had bigger ideas. He had already begun solidifying plans to build the largest tech investment fund in history, with an eye on Silicon Valley’s startups.
His “Vision Fund” – an astounding $93bn in committed capital that eclipsed American venture capital firms – has given him enormous weight in the market and had a profound impact on America’s tech industry. Son hoped to launch a new kind of investment fund that would ramp up finances and spur his “Singularity” – a future where artificial intelligence surpasses human abilities. His futuristic vision was largely funded by a $45bn investment from Saudi Arabia.
While SoftBank may not yet be a household name for those outside investment and tech circles, many of the companies Son has chosen to fund are. WeWork, Slack, Wag!, DoorDash and Uber have all received huge investments from the Saudi-financed Vision Fund.
But, amid international outcry over the death of the dissident Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the money that helped this vision materialize, and enabled Son and SoftBank to have a dramatic impact on the industry, may now be its biggest liability. Close financial ties to Saudi Arabia have embroiled the company in geopolitical controversy, along with the startups that accepted its cash.
On Friday, an announcement on Saudi state television said a preliminary investigation showed that Khashoggi was dead. The announcement claimed he had died after a fight broke out, and said 18 people had been arrested.
Turkish officials have leaked grisly details about his alleged murder, and say audio recordings indicate Khashoggi, a self-exiled columnist for the Washington Post, was dismembered, beheaded, and taken out in bags, by a team of 15 Saudi agents.
US intelligence officials report that they are becoming convinced that Turkey’s allegations are true – and that the murder may be directly connected to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
With some officials and executives around the world now recoiling from connections to Salman, the future of the fund is in question and there may be a freeze on the next round of financing. After speculation that the second Vision Fund would soon be announced, with another $45bn from the Saudis, this week SoftBank officials scaled back enthusiasm.
At a conference in San Jose this week, Softbank’s chief operating officer, Marcelo Claure, told reporters that the company is not committing to a new agreement and is waiting to see what investigations uncover.
“We, like most parties in the world, are looking at events unfold,” he said. “Based on that, we will make decisions in the future, but at this point in time like most companies that have relationships with Saudi Arabia we are watching developments and seeing where this goes.” Son has yet to publicly comment.
While some tech executives made moves to distance themselves from Salman, with a big drop-off in attendance and speakers at a Saudi conference scheduled this month and a withdrawal in support for Neom, a futuristic city being planned in the country, US-based startups who have accepted funding have stayed silent, declining to comment about their financial ties to the country.
“It is really easy to pull out of an advisory role for a city that hasn’t been built. It is really easy to pull out of going to a conference that was probably not going to be that fun anyway,” says Anand Giridharadas, a New York Times columnist and the author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.
“The only thing that is really of consequence is receiving billions of dollars in investment in capital – and I have not seen anybody back out of that.”
Even before Khashoggi’s disappearance, critics highlighted how Saudi-funded tech investments may be at odds with the industry’s branding emphasis on forward-thinking, positive change. The regime’s long record of human rights abuses, Saudi-led coalition bombing of civilians and starvation in Yemen, and controversy over austerity and authoritarian measures, were swept into the hope that Salman, who also goes by the nickname MBS, was a reformer who would take his country in a new direction.
Despite the issues, his push to fund the future as a way to elevate the Saudi economy and diversify from oil aligned well with Son’s vision. Centered around SoftBank’s Corporate Philosophy, listed on their website as “Information Revolution – Happiness for everyone,” Son’s company has plans that stretch 300 years into the future and all of his fund’s investments focus on companies that he believes hold pieces to the AI puzzle, and will contribute the data needed to advance technology that makes human lives better.
Still, it is unlikely that any company would give its billions back, or turndown future cash, even if it puts them at odds with their self-imposed corporate culture.
“I think a lot of companies would like to refuse Saudi money but they are not going to disarm unilaterally,” Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business who has founded several of his own firms, said. “This has to be a government-led action and that is what the government is supposed to do around issues of moral leadership and geopolitical affairs.”
The Trump administration, despite initial comments from the president defending Saudi Arabia, has threatened sanctions depending on the results of three investigations. According to the Daily Beast, officials in the US treasury and state departments are already discussing financial punishment.
It’s unclear how that could affect Son’s futuristic Vision Fund, or the startups that are benefiting from it. But Galloway says that, without government intervention, controversy and value conflicts won’t slow investment into Silicon Valley.
“SoftBank is struggling with the same thing everyone is struggling with,” he said, “the tension between moral clarity and short-term profits.”
WeWork and Slack declined to comment for this article. Uber, Wag! and DoorDash did not respond to a request for comment.