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The Khashoggi murder isn’t stopping SoftBank’s Vision Fund

Money talks in the startup community, especially when SoftBank comes knocking with the megabucks of its Vision Fund.

Despite the public outcry around the firm’s dependence on money from Saudi Arabia in the wake of that country’s assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, deal flow for Softbank’s Vision Fund appears to be back to normal.

The $100 billion megafund has done 21 deals over the last two quarters, that’s as more than in the other quarters of the previous year combined, according to data from Crunchbase, thanks to an uptick from Asia. Since the October 2 murder, there have been 11 investments in U.S. companies, seven in Asia, two in Europe and one in Latin America. Just this week, the fund completed a near $1.5 billion investment in Southeast Asia-based ride-hailing company Grab.

While U.S. and European firms have more options, and therefore, perhaps deserve more scrutiny, Softbank’s cash is increasingly the only game in town for startups in Asia, where there are fewer alternatives for later stage capital outside of large Chinese private equity firms or tech giants — which come with their own risks.

The Vision Fund is seen by some critics as tainted money for its links to the Saudi Royal family. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is the fund’s anchor investor and it is controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been strongly linked with the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the regime.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was murdered on October 2 after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. His visit was part of an effort to obtain divorce documents in order to marry his fiancée, but it ended with his apparently gruesome death. Audio clips suggest he was beheaded, dismembered, and had his fingers severed before his body was dissolved in acid, although new reports suggest it may have been burned.

Jamal Khashoggi — pictured in 2014 — was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year [Photographer: Ohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images]

The Vision Fund is designed to finance ‘global winners’ which, like all investment funds, is set up to provide ‘unfair advantages’ to help its companies grow into hugely important businesses. On the financial end, as is the norm, it is built to provide handsome returns to the LPs, thus directly boosting the coffers of the PIF, the Saudi kingdom, and by extension the Saudi prince himself.

An investigation is going, but there’s already plenty of evidence to suggest that the murder happened at the request of the prince.

Sources within the U.S. State Department have reportedly said it is “blindingly obvious” that the Crown Prince ordered the killing — he reportedly threatened to shoot Khashoggi one year before. But, now that the apparent period of outrage is over, SoftBank has reverted back to writing checks and companies are taking them in spite of the links to Saudi Arabia.

For startups, the money flow means that a major source of capital for growth or subsidies for customers comes from the Saudi royal family’s pockets — a regime that would reportedly not hesitate to murder a critical voice.

SoftBank’s Vision Fund has ramped up its deals over the past six months, according to data from Crunchbase

What are the companies saying?

SoftBank itself said it has a commitment to “the people” of Saudi Arabia that will see it deploy its capital unchanged, although Chairman Masayoshi Son did concede that he will wait on the findings of the investigation into the murder before deciding on whether PIF will be involved in a second Vision Fund.

The founders taking the capital have been more cautious. When questioned, executives talk about the specifics of their deal and their growth plans, most defer issues on the management of LPs, like PIF, to SoftBank. While offering words in support of the ongoing murder investigation, they manage to say little about the ethics of taking money from the Saudi regime.

Bom Kim, CEO of Korean e-commerce company Coupang — which raised $2 billion from the Vision Fund — told TechCrunch in November that the allegations around the murder “don’t represent us and don’t represent [Vision Fund] companies.”

“We are deeply concerned by the reported events and alongside SoftBank are monitoring the situation closely until the full facts are known,” Tokopedia CEO William Tanuwijaya told TechCrunch in December after the Vision Fund co-led a $1.1 billion round.

William Tanuwijaya is the co-founder and CEO of Tokopedia [Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg]

OYO, the budget hotel network based out of India, did not respond to a request comment sent the day before this story was published. The startup raised $1 billion led by the Vision Fund in September.

TechCrunch was also unable to get a response to questions sent to Chehaoduo, the Vision Fund’s first China-based startup which raised $1.5 billion in February. The company is notable for being the only one of this group that didn’t count SoftBank as an existing investor prior to its Vision Fund deal.

The latest addition to the collection is Grab, the ride-hailing company in Southeast Asia that’s led by CEO Anthony Tan, who is very publicly a devout Christian. In a statement sent to TechCrunch this week, Grab defended its relationship with SoftBank, which first invested in Grab back in 2014:

What happened to Jamal Khashoggi was obviously horrible. We hope whoever is responsible is held accountable. We are not in a position to comment on behalf of SoftBank but from our perspective Son-san and the entire SoftBank team have brought so much value to the table for Grab – beyond just financing. They have brought advice, mentorship and potential business opportunities. The Vision Fund is about investing for the next 100 or 200 years and investing in trends that will move the needle for humanity in positive ways. This is a lofty and ultimately positive goal.

Anthony Tan is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Grab [Photographer: Ore Huiying/Bloomberg/Getty Images]

The Vision Fund is just getting started in Asia, however, with rumors suggesting it is planning to open offices in China and India. Singapore is presumably on that list, too, while the fund has been busy hiring a general team that will operate globally out of the U.S.

To date, the fund’s focus in Asia has been on some of the region’s largest (highest-valued) companies, but as it develops a local presence it is likely to seek out less obvious deals to grow its portfolio. That’s going to mean this question of ethics and conscience around the Vision Fund’s capital will present itself to more founders in Asia. Going on what we’ve seen so far, most will have no problem taking the money and issuing platitudinous statements.

Privately, VCs in the region who I have canvassed have told me that founders have little choice but to take the Vision Fund’s money. They explain that nobody else can offer billion-dollar-sized checks, while SoftBank is an existing investor in many of them already which gives it additional leverage. The fund also takes the aggressive approach of threatening to back rival companies if it doesn’t get the deals it wants, as we saw when Son said he’d consider a deal with Lyft when its Uber investment was uncertain.

That reality may be true — finding an alternative to a hypothetical $1 billion Vision Fund check is a daunting challenge — but we’ve reached a very sad time and place when the sheer size of an investment overrides important concerns about where that money came from.

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign fund will also invest $45B in SoftBank’s second Vision Fund

The sovereign fund of Saudi Arabia plans to invest $45 billion into the second SoftBank Vision Fund, two years after putting the same amount into the original $100 billion Vision Fund, Saudi Arabia Crown Price Mohammed bin Salman told Bloomberg in an interview on Friday.

When the first Vision Fund was announced, it was by far the biggest private equity fund ever created, but if SoftBank Group CEO Masayoshi Son’s plans come to fruition, it will not be the last. Son told Bloomberg Businessweek last month that he wants to raise a new $100 billion fund every two or three years.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is anticipating a fresh influx of $170 billion over the next three to four years after selling its stake in Saudi Basic Industries, as well as the upcoming IPO of state-owned Saudi Aramco, said Prince Mohammed, who is also the PIF’s chairman. The PIF, which has also made investments in Uber, Tesla and Lucid, has enjoyed a “huge benefit” from the first Vision Fund, he told Bloomberg.

“We would not put, as PIF, another $45 billion if we didn’t see huge income in the first year with the first $45 billion,” Bin Salman said. He added that its investment in the first Vision Fund will help PIF achieve its new target of $600 billion in assets by 2020, up from the almost $400 billion it currently holds.

SoftBank Group has been contacted for comment.

SoftBank Group and Saudi Arabia’s other partnerships include a deal to build the world’s biggest solar plant for $200 billion. The PIF said earlier this month the plant is still going ahead despite a Wall Street Journal report that it had been shelved.

SoftBank Group and Saudi Arabia plan to spend $200 billion building the world’s biggest solar power plant

SoftBank Group Corp., known for splashy deals involving billions of dollars (see: its Vision Fund and investments in Uber and Didi), has signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia to build a $200 billion solar power plant. Expected to reach its full capacity of 200 gigawatts by 2030, the development will be the largest of its kind in the world by far.

According to data compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the Saudi Arabian project is about 100 times larger than the next biggest proposed development, the 2 gigawatt Solar Choice Bulli Creek PV in Australia, which is expected to be completed by 2023.

During an event with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in New York City on Tuesday (pictured above), Son said the project will create 100,000 jobs, triple Saudi Arabia’s electricity generation capacity and save $40 billion in power costs. Saudi Arabia is the largest crude exporter in the world, but the kingdom is currently trying to diversify its economy beyond oil. Last month, the government awarded ACWA Power a $302 million deal to build Saudi Arabia’s first utility-scale renewable energy plant.

After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdowns, clean energy projects became one of Son’s passions, with SoftBank also investing in wind and solar energy projects in Mongolia and the Asia Super Grid, an extremely ambitious renewable transmission energy project spanning several Asian countries.

SoftBank’s other deals in Saudi Arabia include a $93 billion tech investment fund that was announced in May 2017, with backing by the Vision Fund and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

Saudi Arabia just lifted its cinema ban, and well, the first movie screened was an interesting choice

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Saudi Arabia has just lifted a 35-year-old ban on cinemas, and picked an, uh, interesting movie for the first screening.

Ready? The Emoji Movie. Yep.

The very first film hitting cinema screens in three and a half decades was 2017’s animated feature about a city populated by talking emojis. It’s currently sitting at 9 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — although, granted, it has a 39 percent audience score. And it’s targeted at children.

But hey, let’s celebrate the fact that it was shown at all.

The conservative kingdom’s Ministry of Culture and Information agreed to issue licenses for cinemas on Dec. 11, 2017. According to Reuters, the country’s first permanent theatres could open as early as March 2018, and the authorities are sponsoring temporary cinemas for now — one, in Jeddah’s cultural hall, apparently has a popcorn machine. Films will be censored to adhere to the “moral values” of the kingdom — exactly what these censored films look like remains to be seen. Read more…

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