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Tina Casey headshot

"I Can't Breathe:" New Khashoggi Evidence Raises Stakes for Silicon Valley

By Tina Casey

U.S. business leaders have been flexing their muscles on gun control, climate change, LGBTQ rights and other domestic issues. The question is, can they exercise a similar force when it comes to matters of international affairs? Unfortunately, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October indicates that the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement runs out of steam when matters of state are involved.

Nevertheless, as the weeks go by, the Khashoggi case continues to fester. The end result may be a renewed opportunity for the U.S. business community and other global stakeholders to demand leadership and accountability, if not from those responsible for the murder, then certainly from the U.S. government.

The Khashoggi murder and corporate social responsibility

The organization Committee to Protect Journalists has documented the murder of more than two dozen journalists so far in 2018. Only one of them, Jamal Khashoggi, has prompted prolonged international attention.

There are a number of reasons for the persistent media spotlight. A citizen of Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi was also a U.S. resident and the father of three U.S. citizens as well as a columnist for a prominent newspaper, the Washington Post.

The horrific circumstances of his murder were another factor. The killing was carried out in a public place, the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, and it was conducted in one of the most spectacularly brutal and repulsive ways imaginable.

The timing of the murder also contributed to the high level of attention. It took place just days before an important investor conference in Riyadh, the Future Investment Initiative. To their credit, several top executives announced that they would boycott the summit. However, those companies may have still been represented by lower-level staff. There was no mass rush to the doors. The summit went on as planned and there was no organized follow-up by global business leaders.

When boycotts (don't) work

TriplePundit has been following the boycott movement since the 2016 Presidential election, and the short-lived corporate boycott of the Future Investment Initiative is a classic case of failure.

Part of the problem is that corporate attention focused narrowly on withdrawing from the Future Investment Summit. There was no apparent plan for public follow-up.

This failure of brands taking stands has been especially deafening when it comes to U.S. tech companies. Soon after the murder, reporters drew attention to Saudi Arabia's weighty investments in Silicon Valley. In an October 19 NPR interview, writer Anand Giridharadas provided a representative sample that underscores the implications for the CSR community (emphasis added):

...You know, as many of your listeners will remember, there was this Davos in the Desert conference. Then you got this new $500 billion megacity that the Saudis are creating called Neom. And Neom, again, had all these Silicon Valley people and other corporate people on the board. And so these folks in Silicon Valley make a lot of very important decisions about what kind of world we live in. If these people are basically no better than chemical magnates who dump pollutants into rivers - except the digital version of that - I think that's important for Americans to understand.

The corporate silence has continued, even though the stakes have ramped up considerably since the financial summit took place. Among the more damning developments, new evidence has linked a contemporaneous chain of contacts between the murderers, their Saudi handler, and the powerful Saudi Arabia Crown Prince and First Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman.

The limits of CSR: follow the money

The ongoing leadership vacuum of the Trump administration has provided the CSR community with new opportunities to steer the national conversation, but it seems to have hit a wall with the Khashoggi murder.

Throughout the whole episode, Trump has defended Mohammed bin Salman and dismissed the evidence at hand, even that provided by his own intelligence agents.

The most recent test occurred last week, when White House National Security Advisor John Bolton downplayed the importance of the Khashoggi audiotape, implying that there was no point in listening to it because it was in a foreign language.

As if on cue, additional new evidence came to light just a few days later in the form of a transcript of the audiotape. Still, there has been no organized response from the tech sector or other U.S. business leaders.

One obvious common denominator between the White House and technology companies is the role of Saudi investors and Japan-based SoftBank. Last year The New York Times took note when "a who’s who of technology and venture capital chief executives lined up to meet" with Mohamed bin Salaman on his tour of the US. The list of face-to-face meetings included Tim Cook (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Satya Nadella (Microsoft) and several high profile venture capital investors including Peter Thiel, who is also a member of the Facebook Board of Directors and a top supporter of President Trump.

President Trump has denied any direct connection between his business dealings and the Saudi government, though for the most part he has been forthcoming about the millions of dollars in deals he has made with Saudi business leaders, from a yacht to various real estate transactions.

Congress stirs to life

To be fair, matters of state in a modern democracy should be just that: matters of civic responsibility on the part of elected leaders and their appointed officers who are authorized to act on international fairs.

In the latest development, it appears that the Trump appeasement policy is a bridge too far even for his Republican allies in Congress. Earlier this month, the Trump administration was forced to acquiesce in a U.S. Senate request for a top-level briefing on the Khashoggi case by CIA director Gina Haspel.

By last week, Republicans in the Senate were signaling their intention to act unless the White House developed a plan for addressing the Khashoggi murder. Newsweek cited one such example:

"It's un-American," said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, referring to President Donald Trump's suggestions that U.S. arms sales with Saudi Arabia are more important than a strong response to the murder of a journalist. "When we provide aid to other countries, we do so because we want to see good things happen in those countries. We espouse American values around the world. And to say, 'Well, no. They're going to buy some arms for us and so it's OK to kill a journalist,' sends exactly the wrong message about who we are as a country."

It's too soon to tell what if any meaningful action the Senate will take. The Republican party still controls the Senate, and the Corker statement would not be the first time that a Republican Senator has stepped up to the microphone to challenge Trump administration policy, only to back down when the votes are recorded.

In the House of Representatives, it could be a different story. The results of the November 2018 election indicate that American voters still value checks and balances. With a strong Democratic majority set to helm the House in January, the body's Intelligence Committee is already gearing up for a thorough airing of the White House response to the Khashoggi murder, among other issues relating to Saudi Arabia.

If the CSR community is looking for another opportunity to take a firm stand on the Khashoggi murder, they will probably find it in the halls of Congress, not behind the doors of Silicon Valley c-suites.

Photo: Mark Zuckerberg by Silverisdead/flickr.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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