Saudi Influence in Silicon Valley

March 5, 2021

Data scientist Vicki Boykis noticed many of the cool kids in tech have something in common—Uber, WeWork, Flexport, Slack, MapBox, and DoorDash have all received financing from Vision Fund, a venture capital firm run by Japanese holding company SoftBank. The firm does not exactly advertise it, at least in the US, but one of its major contributing partners is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Boykis considers the implications on her blog, Normcore Tech, in “Silicon Valley Runs on Saudi.” She ponders:

“What does it mean for relentlessly forward-looking companies like Slack, who publish effusive blog posts about diversity and collaborative leadership, to be fueled in part by money from a government that only recently allowed women to drive, and has a record of flogging bloggers who disagree with the regime? Even probably more importantly, what does it mean for members of the Saudi Public Wealth Fund to be on the boards of these companies and directly calling the shots? As I’ve written about before, being on the board, particularly if you have money, has influence.”

Few have more money than the Saudi crown prince, who has taken a personal interest in US tech companies and invested a huge chunk of personal change into the Vision Fund. The write-up shares some photos of him palling around with Silicon Valley nobility. Boukis writes:

“But of course, it doesn’t hurt that Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the one who made the decision to pledge $45 of the initial $92 billion into fund, is making all the right noise in Silicon Valley. MBS has been making a ton of noise lately about modernizing Saudi Arabia, including starting a long-term investment project out of oil, restricting the power of the religious police, and giving women the ability to drive. On the surface, it all looks great, particularly when he engages with Silicon Valley.”

Below the surface, however, we cannot know what decisions have been informed by Saudi values. True, the Crown Prince is a progressive—compared to others in Saudi Arabia. That is not saying much. It looks like his influence is waning a bit, we’re told, but other nations are taking an interest in Silicon Valley—like Kazakhastan. Not better. We know tech companies need funding. So go where the money is.

Cynthia Murrell, March 5, 2021

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