Explaining SoftBank's Close Ties With Saudi Arabia
(Bloomberg) -- The controversy over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has prompted business leaders to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon and Uber Technologies Inc.’s Dara Khosrowshahi have all dropped out of an investment conference in Riyadh slated to begin Oct. 23. However, SoftBank Group Corp.’s founder Masayoshi Son is among the few who haven’t. Here’s an overview of Son and SoftBank’s ties to Saudi Arabia — and their potential risks.
1. What is the SoftBank-Saudi relationship?
A close one. SoftBank’s empire spans wireless operations in Japan, solar power in India and a stake in Sprint Corp. But in the past few years, Son has increasingly focused on investments in technology companies through a $100 billion fund known as the Vision Fund. Saudi Arabia is the biggest investment partner in the fund. Its sovereign wealth fund -- the Public Investment Fund, or PIF -- has committed $45 billion and plans to put the same amount into a second fund. SoftBank has also said it will support PIF’s $200 billion solar power project in Saudi Arabia.
2. How did the relationship start?
It’s very much a personal relationship. The latest dealings began when now Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with Son in Tokyo in September 2016. The Japanese billionaire pitched the idea of setting up the largest investment fund in history to finance technology startups. Son has since said that he convinced the man who has become the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia in 45 minutes: “One billion dollars per minute.” Prince Mohammed controls the PIF, which is at the center of the 33-year-old crown prince’s push to modernize the kingdom’s economy and diversify away from oil.
3. So does Saudi Arabia’s money depend on the Prince?
Not entirely. The PIF has already been tapped for about half of its pledged $45 billion and it has a contractual obligation to the Vision Fund to provide the rest of the money, according to a person familiar with the matter. Like most venture capital funds, the Vision Fund doesn’t take all the cash it raises from limited partners upfront; instead it calls on investors to hand over money as it finds investments. The Vision Fund has drawn down money as it made investments, including in Uber, WeWork Cos. and Slack Technologies Inc. SoftBank plans to take more money from its limited partners as Son cuts more deals.
4. What about the prospects for the second fund?
They are closely tied to Prince Mohammed’s. In an interview in September, Son said he planned to raise a new $100 billion fund every two or three years -- and presumably he would take up the prince’s offer of more cash if the Saudis make it available. “We are the creators of SoftBank Vision Fund,” the crown prince said in an interview this month. “Without the PIF, there will be no SoftBank Vision Fund.” But if the prince is implicated in the Khashoggi disappearance, it’s not clear the Saudis will continue their support. Without Saudi backing, it would likely take Son longer to raise additional Vision Funds.
5. What has Son said about the controversy?
He hasn’t commented publicly. Son is a member of the advisory board for Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative, the conference from which Mnuchin and other luminaries have withdrawn. Son has yet to confirm whether he will attend the three-day gathering that is scheduled to kick off Oct. 23. Saudi authorities said an initial probe showed Khashoggi was killed inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate and that 18 people have been detained, but that the crown prince had no knowledge of the incident. That explanation has failed to quell the controversy. President Donald Trump said it’s a concern that Saudi officials haven’t said where Khashoggi’s body is and that he won’t be “satisfied until we find the answer” to what happened. Bloomberg has also pulled out of the Saudi event as a media partner.
6. What does this mean for the Vision Fund?
That’s unclear. The Vision Fund will “undoubtedly find itself in a more challenging environment in convincing startups to take its money,” according to Amir Anvarzadeh, a senior strategist at Asymmetric Advisors in Singapore. Herman Narula, CEO of startup Improbable Worlds Ltd., said he won’t be attending the conference in Riyadh. Improbable raised $502 million from investors led by SoftBank last year. Those choosing to accept Vision Fund money could possibly face a backlash from employees. Earlier this year, workers at Alphabet Inc.’s Google succeeded in convincing management not to renew its Maven AI contract with the U.S. military and to withdraw from the Pentagon’s $10 billion JEDI cloud computing contract.
6. What does this mean for Son personally?
Son, who turned 61 in August, has said he plans to give up day-to-day control by his 70th birthday. But before that he wants to ensure that SoftBank is in a position to survive successive waves of technological change for the next 300 years, starting with the looming impact of artificial intelligence. The Vision Fund is the cornerstone of what Son calls the Cluster of No. 1s strategy — the idea of taking non-controlling stakes in industry-leading companies and encouraging them to cooperate. He recently said that SoftBank’s companies have a common mission: “Information revolution—happiness for everyone.” That narrative may be more difficult to maintain if he is close to an ostracized Saudi Arabia.
(An earlier version of this story corrected the age of Masayoshi Son in the final paragraph.)
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