Investors Fret Over Khashoggi Killing but Still Maintain Saudi Ties

Virgin founder Richard Branson announced he was pulling out of talks on a $1 billion deal with Saudi Arabia over the killing of a Washington Post columnist. State involvement in the killing, “if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government,” Mr. Branson said.

Days later in a text message, Mr. Branson counseled the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to release female activists his country had imprisoned.

“If you were to pardon these women and a number of men too, it would show the world the Government is truly moving into the 21stCentury,” Mr. Branson texted the crown prince. “It won’t change what happened in Turkey but it would go a long way to start and change people’s view.”

Mr. Branson was one of the first in a parade of CEOs, fund managers and bankers who scrambled to figure out how to preserve their relationships with Prince Mohammed after the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul embassy in the fall.

Mr. Branson urged Prince Mohammed to change his ways. Others adopted a dual strategy of public condemnation while trying to continue to do business as usual. Some shunned the formality of Saudi Arabia’s high-profile investment conference but pursued informal gatherings instead.

The reason: Many have tied their companies’ future to Saudi money and Crown Prince Mohammed’s wide-ranging economic overhauls.

This whole Khashoggi thing doesn’t mean anything,” said hedge-fund manager John Burbank, who has been one of the U.S.’s most prominent investors in Saudi stocks. “It means much less than the big, sweeping liberalization that’s happening in the kingdom.”

MBS, as Prince Mohammed is known, politely thanked Mr. Branson for his input. A few days later, the crown prince publicly denied involvement in the murder, calling it a heinous crime. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has since concluded that he likely ordered the killing.

American investors in Saudi stocks, besides Mr. Burbank, include Peter Thiel and hedge fund Bienville Capital Management, among others. Roughly 4% of the total Saudi market is held by foreigners.

One person’s life doesn’t matter unless it’s MBS’s,” Mr. Burbank says. “Khashoggi doesn’t matter.” He adds that investors who have steered away from Saudi Arabia are hypocrites, because some of them also invest in Russia and Turkey.

Mr. Burbank was among the dozens of Western executives and investors who showed up at the home of Yasir al Rumayyan—chairman of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign Public Investment Fund, which the crown prince oversees—on the eve of the investor conference in October. Over platters piled high with roast lamb, towers of sweets in golden birdcages and champagne flutes of fruit juice, they toasted their relationship beneath palm trees tinted by purple spotlights, attendees said.

SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son backed out of the conference, but he still showed up at the lamb feast. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi also pulled out of the conference, but Uber co-founder and board member Travis Kalanick was at the party, along with former congressman and current banker Eric Cantor and his boss, banker Ken Moelis, and venture capitalist Jim Breyer. Thiel Capital portfolio manager John MacMahon also appeared at the dinner, and the chief executive of Silicon Valley construction startup Katerra, Michael Marks, attended the investment conference.

Matt Barnard, the CEO of Plenty—an indoor-farming startup with $200 million in backing from a Saudi-backed SoftBank fund—flew to Saudi Arabia for the conference. But he returned home without attending, a Plenty spokeswoman says.

The cost of shunning Saudi Arabia could be high. Some business partners fear losing access to the kingdom in the future if they pull out of Saudi deals now.

Ari Emanuel, the CEO of Hollywood talent agency Endeavor, is negotiating to return a $400 million investment that the Saudi sovereign-wealth fund made in his company earlier this year, people familiar with the company’s plan say.

In the wake of Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance, Mr. Emanuel said he was “really concerned about it.”

.. “Were there mistakes made? Absolutely there were mistakes made,” said Matt Michelsen, an associate of John Burbank and a Silicon Valley investor. “But this place is changing. I saw Starbucks opening on multiple corners. There are women walking around without abayas. It’s a fundamental shift that’s occurred.”

The Strengthening Case Against Trump

Two days earlier Trump had to sit alongside three past presidents through the funeral of President George H.W. Bush. With Bush lauded as almost his exact opposite in style and manner, Trump looked throughout as if he wished he were anywhere else. Meanwhile, the stock market’s entire gains for the year were wiped out as Trump’s supposed trade truce with China fell apart.

It also became clear just how badly Trump has lost control of Congress. The Democrats’ gain in the House of Representatives continued to rise (the latest number is a stunning 40 seats), as closely fought, undecided races in last month’s midterm election continued to fall the party’s way. And some Republican senators are finally breaking ranks with Trump over the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a pet of both Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner) in the grisly murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Unlike Trump, the senators refused to subordinate the moral and real-world implications of permitting a foreign government to murder a US-based journalist to the president’s exaggerated claims about the Kingdom’s future arms purchases and its supposed strategic role in curbing Iran’s regional ambitions.

.. At long last, we learned what embarrassing information Russian President Vladimir Putin had on Trump, after Cohen told prosecutorsthat Trump had long sought to build a grand, highly lucrative hotel in Moscow, permission for which had to come from the Kremlin. (Russia also stood to gain significant revenue from the project.)

.. Cohen’s testimony also highlighted the likelihood that various aspects of US foreign policy, including favorable statements about or treatment of certain autocratic leaders, have been influenced by Trump’s private business interests – existing or desired – in those countries, which include Turkey, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Russia. Meanwhile, Trump’s hotels, especially his expensive new one near the White House, received business from various countries. This is especially significant because, unlike his predecessors, Trump refused to detach himself from his private business when he took office

.. The corruption extends to Trump’s immediate circle. His daughter Ivanka was awarded trademarks from China for her clothing line (now defunct, though she has retained the trademarks and sought new ones). Her husband, Kushner, is believed to have used his position to try to find funds to pay off excessive debt incurred by his family’s real-estate business. And Cohen literally sold his supposed access to Trump to businesses for a reported $4 million (though how much, if anything, he delivered is open to question).

.. Trump’s ever-stranger behavior of late – including more frequent and more hysterical tweets – has been widely attributed to his growing realization of what the Democrats’ takeover of the House of Representatives means for his presidency.

What is Putin’s IQ? Is he a genius? Were Stalin and Peter the Great geniuses?

Putin

.. His speaking style is typical for any experienced, high-level bureaucrat: leaden, colourless, but occasionally interspersed with locker-room jokes, sex-related similes and street-smart threats.

.. Stalin .. What we know from media about his political decision-making shows the full toolbox of every advanced spy and secret police organization throughout history. Its obsession with secrecy, careful preparation, deep layering, multi-option planning, highly sophisticated tactical thinking. How much of this is attributed to himself, and how much to his aides and government organization, is unknown.

What is clear, though, is that Putin is a very good judge of character, and a skillful manager of human relationships. To this day, no one from his close circle has turned against him with compromising information, or by heading political dissent.