The CEO of SoftBank says it has a ‘responsibility’ to keep investing Saudi money even as he condemns Khashoggi’s murder

By Theodore Schleifer

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi
Chris McGrath / Getty

SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son finally condemned the murder of Saudi Arabian dissident Jamal Khashoggi on Monday, but signaled that the world’s most powerful startup investor wouldn’t change its business relationship with the Kingdom.

In his first public remarks on Khashoggi’s death more than a month ago, Son condemned the attack but said his Japanese conglomerate had a “responsibility” to keep investing the Saudis’ money, framing the issue in terms of what it means for the Saudi people as opposed to the Saudi government.

“We want to see those responsible held accountable. But at the same time, we have also accepted the responsibility to the people of Saudi Arabia — an obligation we take quite seriously — to help them manage their financial resources and diversify their economy,” Son said at a SoftBank earnings presentation in Tokyo. “As horrible as this event was, we cannot turn our backs on the Saudi people as we work to help them in their continued efforts to reform and modernize their society.”

Son said that SoftBank did “condemn this act against humanity and also journalism and free speech. This was a horrible and deeply regrettable act.”

Son’s comments made clear that he does not intend to totally discard his ties to the Saudis, who have already committed to back SoftBank’s next planned tech investment fund. And by framing this as an attempt to help the Saudi people — no matter his frustrations with its unelected royal family — Son is belatedly trying to claim some moral high ground.

The killing of Khashoggi chilled the relationship between the business community and Saudi Arabia, which until recently had been working to improve its ties to Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Many leaders who had planned to attend a marquee finance conference in Riyadh in the weeks after his death ended up canceling, including SoftBank-backed CEOs such as Uber’s Dara Khosrowshahi.

SoftBank, though, has kept a very low profile during the controversy, declining to say for a long time whether Son would even show up at the conference. Son said Monday that he did end up visiting the country, but not the conference, in order to share his concerns about Khashoggi’s killing with senior Saudi officials.

Son’s silence made business sense given that his $100 billion SoftBank Vision Fund depends on $45 billion from the Saudis — but it was only sustainable for so long. He would have to make public comments eventually, and Son brought up the incident at the beginning of his remarks Monday without being asked.

When asked by a reporter after his speech whether he would take Saudi money in future Vision Funds, Son wouldn’t say directly. But he told a second reporter that he’d be paying attention to how the Saudis explain the Khashoggi death going forward.

“For the new cases or new projects, we would like to carefully watch the outcome of the case,” he said. “And once the explanation is fully made, then we will think about it.”