Tech

Jeff Bezos has been quiet on the disappearance of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Key Points
  • Bezos hasn't made any public comments on Khashoggi since his disappearance in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
  • Amazon Web Services is opening a region in the Middle East and is looking for a head of public policy for Saudi Arabia.
  • Bezos and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met in Seattle earlier this year.
Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc., listens during an Economic Club of Washington discussion in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As the story of Jamal Khashoggi unfolds, one significant person has remained silent: Jeff Bezos.

Bezos owns The Washington Post, the newspaper that employed Khashoggi when the journalist entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2. Khashoggi hasn't been seen since, and a Turkish official has said that Saudi agents killed and dismembered him inside the consulate, according to The New York Times. The Saudi government has denied any connection to the disappearance.

With his gruesome story capturing front-page headlines, U.S. business leaders have voiced their disdain.

J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and Google Cloud head Diane Greene are among top executives to pull out of an investment conference in Saudi Arabia scheduled for later this month. Others, including Y Combinator's Sam Altman, IDEO CEO Tim Brown, and Dan Doctoroff, head of Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs, have said they won't work with Saudi Arabia's futuristic NEOM project even though they've been named as advisors.

Bezos, Amazon's CEO and the world's richest person, has made no public statement.

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"It's interesting that in a context where people are so publicly disavowing and disengaging that there's not been a clear statement from the owner of the newspaper," said Félim McMahon, the technology and human rights program director at the University of California at Berkeley law school's Human Rights Center. "It's legitimate to ask that person's opinion."

Representatives from Amazon and The Washington Post did not respond to requests for comment.

Bezos is in a sticky spot. As the owner of one of the country's top news publications, which is also a frequent punching bag for President Donald Trump, Bezos has made a point of staying out of the newsroom. He said after buying the paper in 2013 that he would "be there with advice from a distance."

A man holds a poster of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest organized by members of the Turkish-Arabic Media Association at the entrance to Saudi Arabia's consulate on October 8, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey. 
Chris McGrath | Getty Images News | Getty Images

That said, Bezos has occasionally been involved with individual reporters. In 2016, Bezos met privately with Post reporter Jason Rezaian after Iran freed him from imprisonment, then accompanied him home on a private jet. Iran had held Rezaian for 18 months on charges of espionage and other allegations.

At the same time, Bezos, like many other U.S. business executives, has business interests in Saudi Arabia.

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In particular, Amazon's cloud-computing division, Amazon Web Services, has been reportedly working on a deal to set up data centers in Saudi Arabia.

It announced plans a year ago for the opening of a Middle East division based in Bahrain, an island nation that neighbors Saudi Arabia. Since May, Amazon has had a job post up for a "Head of Public Policy AWS Saudi Arabia" based in Bahrain. Part of the candidate's role is to "help further advance Amazon as a leading cloud platform provider in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia." The position requires fluency in Arabic, and one of the top objectives is to "develop, lead and implement Saudi Arabia government affairs advocacy objectives and policy/political priorities" for AWS.

Amazon also has an office in Riyadh for Souq.com, the Middle Eastern e-commerce company that it acquired last year for $580 million.

Saudi money plays a major role in tech

While Bezos has a unique double position as the owner of the Post and Amazon, many other tech companies have forged close relationships with the kingdom.

Last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman toured the U.S. and met with many tech executives, including Bezos, Alphabet President Sergey Brin and Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Apple has reportedly been in talks to open retail locations in the country, and Microsoft announced a cloud-computing product in Saudi Arabia earlier this year with local partners. In its blog post, Microsoft estimated the country has an almost $29 billion cloud-computing market, "driven by a strong trend from government agencies in Saudi Arabia to take advantage of this technology to meet the digital transformation objectives and help achieving the Saudi Vision 2030," which is the crown prince's grand plan to make the kingdom an "investment powerhouse."

Apple and Microsoft declined to comment.

Additionally, Saudi money is now all over Silicon Valley. The country's Public Investment Fund committed $45 billion to Softbank's inaugural Vision Fund, and Crown Prince Mohammed said recently he'll invest a similar amount in the next fund. Through the Vision Fund, which also includes Apple and Qualcomm as investors, Softbank has massive stakes in Uber, WeWork, DoorDash and numerous other highly valued companies.

Marcelo Claure, Softbank's operating chief, said at a conference on Tuesday that the company is monitoring the situation and isn't ready to make any decisions at this point.

"Like most companies that have a relationship with Saudi Arabia, we are watching the developments and seeing where this goes," Claure said. "Right now it is business as usual — we are continuing to run our company, our funds."

Separately, CB Insights just published a list of tech companies that have received direct Saudi investments. They include Tesla, Magic Leap, Uber and Lyft.

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"This would be a good moment for Silicon Valley to consider the nature of the government of Saudi Arabia and what that means from a human rights perspective," said McMahon, who was previously an investigator for the International Criminal Court and a journalist. "Maybe this is the moment when this guy's halo starts to get a little bit tarnished."

According to McMahon, there was every reason not to do business with the Saudis prior to two weeks ago. But the U.S. government and some of its biggest companies have been drawn to the allure of a growth market that's being guided by the 33-year-old crown prince, who has passed reforms such as letting women drive and promoting a more moderate Islam.

An AWS Saudi user group, in a nod to those efforts, says on the bottom of its site that "ladies are more than welcome." The group, which operates independently from Amazon, holds meetups for developers and architects who use the AWS platform.

While the Khashoggi incident is forcing the tech industry to publicly reckon with its strategy of embracing Saudi Arabia as an investor and business partner, what exactly happened to the journalist still remains a mystery.

— CNBC's Steve Kovach contributed to this report.