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Uber CEO calls slaying of Jamal Khashoggi ‘a mistake’ and compares it to a self-driving car crash

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi called the slaying of Jamal Khashoggi “a serious mistake” by the Saudi government in an interview with Axios on Sunday, comparing it to the accident involving the tech company’s self-driving car that killed a pedestrian last year.

“It’s a serious mistake. We’ve made mistakes, too — with self-driving, and we stopped driving and we’re recovering from that mistake,” he said in the episode of “Axios on HBO.” “I think that people make mistakes, it doesn’t mean they can never be forgiven. I think they have taken it seriously.”

The car accident was caused by a bad sensor, the interviewer reminded Khosrowshahi, then continued, “The CIA suggested that the crown prince had a role in ordering the assassination. That’s a different thing — you didn’t intentionally run someone over.”

(The National Transportation Safety Board will meet Nov. 19 to rule on a probable cause in the crash.)

About an hour later, Khosrowshahi contacted Axios to clarify his comments on Khashoggi.

“I said something in the moment that I do not believe. When it comes to Jamal Khashoggi, his murder was reprehensible and should not be forgotten or excused,” he wrote in an email, according to the publication.

U.S. intelligence has said that Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist and prominent critic of the Saudi government, was strangled and dismembered by a team of 15 agents inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul just over a year ago.

The Saudi royal family denied coordinating the slaughter. Still, in November, the CIA concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination, based on audio recordings, intercepted phone calls and other intelligence.

The State Department later classified the killing as a human rights abuse, and Saudi prosecutors charged 11 people in the killing. They plan to seek the death penalty for five of the accused.

The assassination of Jamal Khashoggi

Uber stock has hit record lows since the company went public six months ago. It reported a $1.2 billion loss in the latest quarter.

Saudi Arabia is the company’s fifth biggest shareholder, and Yasir al-Rumayyan, head of the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, sits on Uber’s board of directors.

Khosrowshahi on Sunday called Rumayyan a “very constructive” board member.

“From a Saudi perspective, they’re just like any other shareholder now. We’re a public company,” he said.

Uber employees can finally sell their stock. They won’t be as rich as they hoped.

Sunday is the latest in a string of public relations missteps for the company, which has struggled to retain its user base since #DeleteUber in 2017. That movement, kicked off by allegations it had disrupted a taxi strike in protest of President Trump’s immigration ban, led to hundreds of thousands of deletions and fed many directly to the app’s competition, Lyft.

In the months after the movement kicked off, Uber faced allegations its culture promoted sexual harassment and a video surfaced of its then-CEO, Travis Kalanick, lashing out at a driver who complained about dwindling returns on fares. Kalanick was forced to publicly grapple with his leadership shortcomings before being ultimately forced out in June 2017.

Khosrowshahi, the former CEO of Expedia, was brought on the same year. He was seen as a safe choice who could return the company to stability. Khosrowshahi was credited with steering the company to its IPO, though he has been criticized since for lacking the innovative spirit that propelled Uber to market dominance.

An Uber spokesman declined a request for a follow-up interview with Khosrowshahi.

What self-driving cars can’t recognize may be a matter of life and death

Since the Axios interview aired, the hashtag #boycottUber has been trending on social media platforms.

Karen Attiah, Khashoggi’s former editor in The Post’s Global Opinions section, said she was deleting her Uber app over Khosrowshahi’s comments.

Uber has long feared another social media backlash on the scale of the #DeleteUber. Warning against potential risks in its stock market filing in April, the company said “if a campaign similar to #DeleteUber occurs….our revenue would decline, and our business would suffer.”

The company noted how the earlier campaign led to a flurry of deletions, further propelled by the allegations of discrimination and other reputational issues within the company.

Internal data shows Uber’s reputation hasn’t changed much since #DeleteUber

“We have been on a new path forward since the hiring of our Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi in September 2017,” the stock market filing said.

The company has remained laser focused on its public image since then.

“We believe that maintaining and enhancing our reputation and brand is critical to our ability to attract and retain employees and platform users,” the company added in the filing.

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