SoftBank is staying put as more names pull out of “Davos in the Desert”

Two visionaries.
Two visionaries.
Image: Reuters/Faisal Al Nasser
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Update: SoftBank’s CEO Masayoshi Son will cancel a speech at the Future Investment Initiative, the Wall Street Journal reported (link in Japanese) on Oct. 23. 

As “Davos in the Desert”—a major investor conference held in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh—approaches, the list of cancellations is piling up. Conspicuous among those who haven’t pulled out, however, is the chief of Japanese tech giant SoftBank, Masayoshi Son.

Yesterday (Oct. 21), Kanetsugu Mike, the head of MUFG, Japan’s largest bank by assets, joined the list of invitees who said they would no longer attend the Future Investment Initiative, which kicks off tomorrow (Oct. 23), after the Saudi government was accused of murdering Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Mike was due to give a speech at the event, but will now be replaced by another executive who won’t be addressing the audience. The bank is also cancelling the opening ceremony of its Riyadh branch tomorrow, but operations will go ahead as scheduled.

Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser is expected to announce his cancellation today (Oct. 22), and the Australian government said over the weekend it was withdrawing too. Saudi Arabia’s government admitted over the weekend that Khashoggi was killed in its Istanbul consulate in a brawl, but crown prince Mohammed bin Salman denied responsibility.

SoftBank’s decision on whether to attend the event is closely watched because of its deep financial ties with Saudi Arabia. The country’s sovereign wealth fund has already invested $45 billion in SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund, the largest venture fund of all time, and plans to double that amount, bin Salman said in a recent interview with Bloomberg (paywall).

The Vision Fund is invested in a large number of Silicon Valley companies, including Uber, WeWork, Nvidia, and Slack. (Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has pulled out of the investor conference.) Son attended the conference last year in Riyadh, where he delivered a keynote speech on AI.

SoftBank has not yet publicly commented on Son’s attendance. SoftBank’s chief operating officer Marcelo Claure said at a conference in San Jose last week the company is “anxiously looking at what is happening” in Saudi Arabia.

Son has built a close personal relationship with the crown prince after they first met (paywall) in 2016. The Japanese executive visited Riyadh in March to sign a $200 billion solar-power-generation deal with bin Salman as part of a plan to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy away from energy.

Investors, however, are clearly having second thoughts about the company’s relationship with Saudi Arabia—SoftBank’s share price has fallen 17% since Oct. 2, when Khashoggi went missing. Son’s relationship with bin Salman may survive this test, but the next Vision Fund may have to find funding from somewhere else to do so.