Blood money

Some years ago an investor I met at a TechCrunch event invited me out for a coffee. This happens a lot; as a weekly columnist here I am deemed an official Media Influencer, and people in turn want to influence me, until they realize I’m just going to ignore them and write about whatever weird idea comes into my head instead. I accepted this invitation, though, because this guy’s job was unusually interesting, in a bad way — he represented a venture fund affiliated with the Kremlin.

This was before Russia was the democracy-manipulating enemy it is today, but just after Russia passed its “anti-gay law,” so angry anti-Russian sentiment was exceptionally strong. It was fascinating to me watching this man squirm around the topic: I’m a Bay Area guy, he told me, I’m pro gay rights, pro gay marriage, but we have to accept that every country becomes enlightened at its own speed and its own way, and the best way for us to encourage that, to promote our values, is to engage with them, to show them the right way of doing things.

Needless to say this is a column about Saudi Arabia.

It’s kind of amazing that it’s taken the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to wake people up to that nation’s brutality. For three years now Saudi Arabia has been slaughtering thousands of Yemenis in a needless conflict wherein, to quote Bloomberg quoting the UN, “especially a Saudi Arabian-led coalition and the Yemeni government it backs, have shown a disregard for civilian life possibly amounting to war crimes.” It has long been a totalitarian absolute monarchy allied with what was once a radical interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, which T.E. Lawrence described a hundred years ago as an obscure “fanatical heresy” — and which has since been mainstreamed with disastrous global consequences as a result of this alliance.

And, of course, it has long been an intimate international ally and partner of the United States. America’s financial / military / consulting / industrial / oil complexes have been in bed with the Saudis for a very, very long time, as have its politicians. Let’s not pretend that Saudi money in the tech industry is in any way exceptionally bad or different. Bad, yes, but as bad as, well, the rest of American society. For a long time the US attitude towards Saudi Arabia seems to have been: “sure, they’re an oppressive dictatorship, but they’re our oppressive dictatorship, and their royal family is very nice and very generous and they control so much oil.”

Now, though, at long last, that attitude seems to be changing. Not that the US is going to stop buying oil from them. Not that the US is going to stop selling weapons to them. But, despite occasional hesitant steps into the twentieth (but definitely not the twenty-first) century, nobody is going to pretend Saudi Arabia is anything other than a brutally oppressive state from here on in. (Shout-out to my homeland for being ahead of the curve on this one.) Which is progress, I guess, of a sort?

You can make a realpolitik case for continuing to engage with Saudi Arabia. Just like my coffee companion five years ago did for continuing to engage with Russia. See how well that turned out, how since then Russia has become so much more enlightened, so progressive, such a glorious contributor to the commonwealth of nations? …Oh. Saudi Arabia is different, yes, but in a worse way; it’s so sensitive to criticism, overreacts so wildly and violently, because it is fundamentally a fragile state. Nassim Taleb, who predicted the collapse of Syria and its civil war before it happened, has predicted a similar fate for Saudi Arabia.

I don’t think the Trump administration is going to continue its support for Saudi Arabia’s new and erratic leadership for fear of the human or economic consequences if they do otherwise. “Trump’s razor:” the stupidest reason is most likely to be correct. Here, that means the administration doesn’t want to walk back their Saudi support because they think that will make them look weak. Similarly, who are we kidding, VCs who take money from Saudi LPs aren’t doing so in order to help prop up the Pax Americana; it’s purely because they want the money, and nobody else is prepared to throw around $45 billion in cash.

Right now, though, and for the foreseeable future, sovereign Saudi money is tainted, poisoned, blood money. If you accept it you have to consider the consequences of publicly contravening our new, post-Khashoggi social morality, and the angry criticism which will follow. Will that last? Who can say? Even if it doesn’t, though, you’ll have to consider the consequences of privately contravening your own ethics, if you have any. That was also true last year, and it will still be true next year, no matter how much money we’re talking about.

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