LONDON/SAN, FRANCISCO - SoftBank Group Corp. CEO Masayoshi Son met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on Monday, according to two people familiar with the matter, even as the kingdom faces heightened scrutiny following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Mounting evidence suggests a link between Khashoggi’s violent death and the crown prince, while Saudi Arabia maintains that he was not involved. Son did not attend an investment conference in Riyadh, dubbed “Davos in the Desert,” which finished Thursday and saw an exodus of high-profile speakers amid the controversy over the killing of Khashoggi.
The SoftBank chief executive was also said to have skipped a dinner held at the residence of Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the managing director of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, on Monday night, and was set to leave Riyadh on Wednesday.
Both sources declined to be identified because the plans were private.
Son joined a growing list of business leaders who distanced themselves from the Future Investment Initiative conference, but his move was particularly notable because SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund has a $45 billion commitment from Saudi Arabia’s PIF. Son’s planned absence was earlier reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Other SoftBank executives still attended the conference, including Saleh Romeih, who spoke on a panel. Faisal Rahman, SoftBank’s head of operations in the Middle East, was also in the country during the conference. However, its chief operating officer, Marcelo Claure, pulled out of the event on Monday.
The situation puts SoftBank in a difficult position. If SoftBank stands behind Prince Mohammed, who spearheaded the kingdom’s investment in the Vision Fund, the fund could become a toxic asset and could find itself shut out of deals with promising startups as founders seek alternative investors. But if SoftBank walks away, the Saudis could pull their funding — including a further $45 billion promised for the next Vision Fund.
“We are the creators of SoftBank Vision Fund,” the crown prince told Bloomberg in an interview in early October. “We have 45 percent. Without the PIF, there will be no SoftBank Vision Fund.”
Several SoftBank-backed companies, including construction startup Katerra Inc. and indoor-farming business Plenty Inc., have made plans to expand into the Middle East. At the close of the conference, the former signed a memorandum of understanding with the kingdom’s ministry of housing, and the company’s chairman and founder, Michael Marks, also spoke at the event earlier in the day.
The Vision Fund is also a big investor in high-profile startups such as Uber Technologies Inc., which has also taken money directly from the Saudi PIF. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was one of the first business leaders to drop out of the conference following news about Khashoggi.
Information from staff added