Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is facing harsh criticism after he defended the Saudi government, one of the largest investors in Uber, on a TV news show that aired Sunday night. Khosrowshahi was asked about the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA believes was ordered by top Saudi officials. Khosrowshahi downplayed the murder, calling it a “mistake” and saying that even Uber makes mistakes.
“We’ve made mistakes too, right?” Khosrowshahi told journalists from Axios on HBO. “With self-driving, and we stopped driving and we’re recovering from that mistake. I think that people make mistakes. It doesn’t mean that they can never be forgiven. I think they have taken it seriously.”
Saudi Arabia, through its sovereign investment fund, is the fifth largest investor in Uber. Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of the Saudi fund, sits on the boards of both Uber and SoftBank.
Khosrowshahi’s defence of the Saudi royal family invoked Uber’s own “mistakes” including the incident in 2018 when a self-driving car hit and killed a pedestrian in March of 2018. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a report about Uber’s self-driving car last week which found that Uber’s self-driving system “did not include a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians.”
Curiously, Khosrowshahi released a statement after the Axios interview completely disavowing what he’d originally said, presumably because someone in Uber’s public relations department heard his callous defence of Khashoggi’s murder and knew that it was an absolutely bonkers thing to say.
“I said something in the moment that I do not believe,” Khosrowshahi said in a statement to Axios. “When it comes to Jamal Khashoggi, his murder was reprehensible and should not be forgotten or excused.”
Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi embassy in Turkey and reportedly dismembered. It’s widely believed the journalist was killed under the direct orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, and some reports even claim that MBS was on a video chat with his assassins as the journalist was brutally tortured. Khashoggi’s body has never been found.
Khosrowshahi did not go to the so-called “Davos in the Desert” this year, saying that it conflicted with a board meeting. When an Axios reporter pushed the Uber CEO on the fact that he could have rescheduled, Khosrowshahi countered that board meetings are scheduled “years in advance.”
Silicon Valley is incredibly dependent on money from the Saudi royal family, with Uber losing billions of dollars every year. Last week, Uber reported a net loss of $2 billion for the last quarter, a figure that someone beat Wall Street expectations.
The tech industry’s reliance on Saudi money has led to some companies cracking down on speech that might embarrass Saudi Arabia. Netflix decided to pull an episode of “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj,” in Saudi Arabia ostensibly because it was critical of MBS. But the episode wasn’t just about MBS—Minhaj detailed the many companies, including Uber, that relied on Saudi money to survive. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings defended the decision to pull the episode last week.
“We’re not in the news business. We’re not trying to do ‘truth to power.’ We’re trying to entertain,” Hastings said.
You’re probably going to be hearing a lot more defences of the Saudi regime as Khashoggi’s death becomes a distant memory because that’s how these things work. Silicon Valley needs its money, and when a company is bleeding billions, it doesn’t care where that money comes from. At least, in this case, we can thank the PR people at Uber who know retroactively what Americans want to hear. Killing a journalist is objectively bad. And it’s tough to just chock up torture, murder, and dismemberment as a simple “mistake.”