Opinion: Why the Saudi business conference should be left to wither in the sun | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 15.10.2018
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Opinion: Why the Saudi business conference should be left to wither in the sun

Statements from Saudi Arabia to respond to any Western sanctions imposed over the Khashoggi case with even greater actions are a veiled threat of monstrous proportions and demand a stern reaction, says DW's Kevin Cote.

Sunday's statement from the Saudi Foreign Ministry cited the kingdom's "influential and vital role in the global economy." That role is scheduled to be underscored at a conference called the Future Investment Initiative (FII) starting on October 23 in Riyadh. The conference should be boycotted by business leaders until the killing of Jamal Khashoggi has been cleared up.

The global business elite cannot be seen as supporting an authoritative, undemocratic regime with a long record of human rights violations as it is wielding the enormous wealth of its Public Investment Fund to buy its way into the postindustrial economy. The PIF is the sponsor of the FII, which is designed is to help the Saudi monarchs shore up their fortune as the world weans itself off of oil.

Dara Khosrowshahi, the Iranian-American CEO of Uber, has already said he would not attend the conference. That is significant, because the Saudis have a $3.5 billion (€3 billion) investment in Uber through the PIF, so Khosrowshahi presumably has a major incentive to show up in Riyadh.

Seeking control again

The PIF has other extensive investments in US tech companies, and the conference is an open bid to secure more. On his trip to California in April, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had unprecedented access to the giants of Silicon Valley, meeting with Tim Cook at Apple, Sergey Brin at Google, Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg at FB and Richard Branson at Virgin.

DW's Kevin Cote

DW's Kevin Cote

Through the PIF, the Saudis already have strong shareholdings in an array of high-profile startups, including Wag, DoorDash, WeWork, Plenty, Cruise and Katerra.

The Saudi monarchs' plowing their huge profits from oil into high-tech companies means that they are seeking similar influence in the postindustrial economy as they had during the industrial economy. When the FII debuted last year, the sponsor claimed that the nearly 4,000 attendees represented companies worth a total of "$25 trillion, or 25 percent of the global economy."

Though a pile of money that big is tough to resist for investment-intensive tech firms, bankers and consultants, the conference in Riyadh should be allowed to wither in the sands of the Arabian Desert.

US tech companies are already under fire for privacy issues at home and monopoly and regulatory issues here in Europe. These are important debates that need to be addressed fairly and rationally, because the outcomes will be fundamental to the way we do business and the kind of societies we have in the future.

To maintain the trust of their customers and of policymakers, tech companies cannot afford to be seen as part of the Saudis' plan to extend their "influential and vital role in the global economy" while maintaining the status quo in violating human rights and denying citizens democracy.