Masayoshi Son, chairman and chief executive officer of SoftBank Group Corp., reacts during the Wall Street Journal CEO Council in Tokyo, Japan. (Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg)

SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son Goes to Riyadh, Skips Conference

(Bloomberg) -- SoftBank Group Corp. Chief Executive Officer Masayoshi Son met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on Monday, but will not attend a controversial investment conference now underway in that city, according to two people familiar with the matter. He also skipped a dinner held at the residence of Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the managing director of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, on Monday night. Son is leaving Riyadh today. Both sources declined to be identified because the plans are private.

Son joins a growing list of business leaders who have distanced themselves from the Future Investment Initiative conference, but his move is particularly notable because SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund has a $45 billion commitment from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. Son's planned absence was earlier reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The exodus from the event, sometimes called “Davos in the Desert,” was prompted by growing evidence linking the violent death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to Prince Mohammed. Saudi Arabia says the death was the result of a fistfight and that Prince Mohammed wasn’t involved. 

Other SoftBank executives are still attending the conference, including Saleh Romeih, who spoke on a panel. Faisal Rahman, SoftBank's head of operations in the Middle East, is also in the country. However, its chief operating officer, Marcelo Claure, pulled out of the conference on Monday.

The situation puts SoftBank in a difficult position. If SoftBank stands behind Prince Mohammed, who spearheaded the Kingdom’s investment in the Vision Fund, the fund could become a toxic asset, and it could find itself shut out of deals with promising startups as founders seek alternate investors. But if SoftBank walks away, the Saudis could pull their funding, including a further $45 billion promised for the next Vision Fund. 

Several SoftBank-backed companies, including construction startup Katerra Inc. and indoor-farming business Plenty Inc., have made plans to expand into the Middle East. Both were scheduled to speak at this week’s conference. The Vision Fund is also a big investor in high-profile startups like Uber Technologies Inc., which has also taken money directly from the Saudi Public Investment Fund. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was one of the first business leaders to drop out of the conference following news about Khashoggi.

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