Author Anand Giridharadas sees the disappearance of a U.S.-based Saudi journalist as a dramatic illustration of Silicon Valley’s hypocrisy: While new-age technology companies tout their idealism and world-changing missions, many popular tech firms rely on investments from the government of Saudi Arabia, despite what Giridharadas describes as the kingdom’s barbaric politics and suspected involvement in the alleged assassination of the journalist, Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The alleged murder of Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents has ignited global outrage and entangled the Trump administration in a diplomatic quandary. Turkish and U.S. intelligence officials suspect that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered Oct. 2 inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where he was last seen in public. Saudi leaders deny knowledge of Khashoggi’s disappearance but have pledged to investigate.
Last year, the state-backed investment vehicle, the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, announced plans to invest up to $45 billion in a giant technology fund run by Japan’s SoftBank Group. Bolstered by Saudi money, SoftBank has poured significant resources into prominent U.S. start-ups, Giridharadas noted, including Uber, Slack, DoorDash and WeWork.
The Saudi sovereign wealth fund, which manages about $230 billion, was considered the main source of funding under Elon Musk’s doomed buyout plan for Tesla, offering Musk and the company huge resources akin to the public markets without the scrutiny that comes with public-disclosure requirements.
For Giridharadas, author of the new book “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” the financial ties between the Saudi government and Silicon Valley underscore the delusion of an enlightened tech sector — that tech companies should be perceived as altruistic moral agents rather than as corporations.
“These idealistic-seeming companies at the new power centers of the world are bankrolled by the government of Saudi,” he said. “It’s the final bullet in the 'doing well by doing good’ idealistic fantasy that Silicon Valley has tried to sell us.” Giridharadas said that the Khashoggi crisis is waking people up to the toxic relationship between powerful American institutions and the Saudi government.
The Public Investment Fund is at the center of a national overhaul designed to diversify the country’s economy away from oil. But Giridharadas said the multitude of Saudi technology investments and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent visits with American tech luminaries also serve as a kind of “reputation laundering” by casting the crown prince as an open-minded reformer with a knack for technology and an innovative spirit.
“The Saudis have already gotten what they want from these deals: a makeover,” Giridharadas said. “This is an opportunity in America to decide if we care more about money or our values.”