It’s time for founders and venture capitalists to say “not yet” to Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund — commonly referred to as Masa’s Vision Fund in tech — due to the deteriorating state of human rights in the Kingdom.
[ Disclaimer: at least one of my 200+ investments has taken money from Masa’s Vision Fund — which as I said is majority-powered by Saudi Arabia — so I’ve benefited from their presence in tech. As an angel investor, I wasn’t involved in the decision. ]
For the past decade I’ve struggled with the question of whether it’s better to isolate or engage with the kings and queens, and often dictators and despots, of nation states that can’t reach the baseline of human rights we take for granted here in the West: freedom of speech, freedom to be who you are (gay, trans, Christian, Jewish, atheist, woman, etc.) and a justice system that doesn’t rely on cruelty, corruption and torture.
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We’re not perfect here in the United States, with the waterboarding-adoring presidents Bush and Trump, or the progressive-gentleman Obama who couldn’t figure out how to close Gitmo after eight years (we never did get a straight answer on that one, did we?).
However, when you pull out the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we’re on the right side of history despite our weakest moments that drive us to embrace the death penalty, or our capitalism-gone-wild experiment with paid prisons. Not to mention a justice system that statistically treats people differently based on their skin color.
Another factor we should be proud of is that we live in a country where debating, investigating and fixing these systems occurs out in the open — and without the arrest of those pushing the resolution of these difficult issues (as just happened).
Engagement or Isolation?
In the engagement camp, it’s easy to point to that fact that we’ve avoided a massive military conflict with China thanks to our intertwined economies, while disagreeing on basic human rights.
Perhaps that’s why Sergey at Google is embracing a censored Google for China (Dragon, how clever :eyeroll:), or maybe Brin’s getting run over by his own company — hard to know what Googlers think since they’ve mastered the art of obscuring the decision-making process through deliberate levels of management and shell companies.
[ Side note: Where have you gone, Sergey Brin?! Speak up kid, your silence is brutally deafening, and what’s the point of making tens of billions of dollars if you can’t speak for what’s right in your own company? ]
On the side of isolation, or perhaps a polite “not yet” as I’m advocating here, is Saudi Arabia, which went through a great “we’re changing!” tour with their partner, Masayoshi Son of SoftBank — a true gentleman and visionary leader.
That was before they brutally dismembered a journalists for lightly criticizing them, in a coordinated hit that included a bone saw, and in Friday’s breaking news that nine intellectuals, journalist, activists — and their families (!!!) — have been jailed.
Two of the women round up are dual citizens of the United States and Saudi Arabia, and one of them is pregnant, according to reports.
Are they being tortured?
Have they been dismembered like Khashoggi?
Is the baby still alive?
It’s a sick, demented question to ask, but it’s sicker that we have to ask it.
It’s clear that in the case of the Kingdom, even with Masa Son’s vision, we’ve sent the wrong message to the world.
Silicon Valley is where massive fortunes are made, and we’ve taken the easiest cash double-up in the world — the IPO — and we’ve given it to the Saudis.
Because it’s easier to take their money than to deal with the headaches of going public?!
Because they are willing to pay next year’s, or the year after’s, price for our shares?!
Are we that desperate for a quick markup that we’re willing to sell out the system that generated the value to begin with?
Founders should turn down Masa’s Vision Fund until they disengage from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.
If you’ve already taken the money, you should be respectfully vocal about your displeasure with the Kingdom’s human rights issue.
Respectful, so that it’s easier for them to change and not dig into their position.
If you’re an investor, you shouldn’t go to Saudi Arabia for their conferences and you shouldn’t allow them to be an LP in your funds.
We should take our companies public instead of doing insane late-stage rounds, because it’s healthier for everyone — founders, investors, Americans and people suffering under dictatorships — to give the IPO business to our retirement funds, endowments and retail investors.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t engage, but it’s time for us to go back to showing the world the better path — as opposed to taking the quick buck.
What’s the point of being rich and powerful Americans if we can’t tell people who behave in a way that’s so fundamentally un-American, “Thanks for the offer but that’s not how we do it here in the USA.”
PS – Like anyone who has invested for a decade in tech I’ve got many conflicts, so many that I don’t even know them all! Some of my closest collaborators probably have Saudi funds, and I’m sure many of my portfolio companies who are talking to Masayoshi Son will read this and — in the short term — not be pleased with me for potentially screwing up a deal or two. If that’s the case, let’s talk it out and figure out how to get you funded without compromising who we are.