Last October, Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul by the Saudi government. His body was dismembered with a bone saw under orders from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi Arabia is Uber’s fifth-largest shareholder and the head of its sovereign wealth fund is a member of the company’s board. So what does Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi say about the killing? Well, simply, “people make mistakes.”
Wait, hold on. He didn’t really say it quite simply. He compared it to the “mistake” Uber made when it deliberately made the choice not to program its autonomous cars to recognize the mere possibility of a jaywalking pedestrian, which directly led to the death of Elaine Herzberg, who was killed by a self-driving Uber seven months before the killing of Khashoggi.
We know the killings of Herzberg and Khashoggi are quite different, and you may be wondering what the hell one has to do with the other, but the context is that Khosrowshahi was answering a series of questions about Uber’s close relationship with the Saudi government, and all that entails, during an interview with Axios on HBO:
Axios business editor Dan Primack begins by asking Khosrowshashi about his decision not to attend a Saudi business conference this year, noting that Khosrowshashi declined to attend in 2018 as Uber waited for “more facts to emerge.” Now that it’s been definitively proven (although it was very obvious at the time) that Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi assassins acting under the orders of its Crown Prince, Primack asks if Khosrowshashi’s absence was once again because of the Khashoggi murder.
Khosrowshashi’s face is filled with a mixture of serenity and smugness, the sort of look on every business executive’s face when they Do Not Like Where This Is Going But It’s Fine, I’m Actually Happy To Answer These Questions:
Primack: Did you not go this year, because of the Khashoggi situation?
Khosrowshashi: We had a board meeting at the same time.
Of course, yes, the very conveniently-timed board meeting. How lovely.
Primack: Well that’s convenient. But you’re the CEO, you probably could have rescheduled that.
Khosrowshashi: We schedule board meetings years and years ahead, it wasn’t...
Primack: If your board meeting had not been that day, would you have gone?
Khosrowshashi: I don’t know if I would’ve.
See? That wasn’t so hard, now, was it?
But then Primack gets more towards the reason why Khosrowshashi is dancing around the whole issue of the murder of Khashoggi. It isn’t the typical case of a CEO just wanting to do business in the repressive state, it’s that the regime is actively propping up Uber, as well:
Primack: You also, Saudi Arabia is your fifth-largest shareholder, you have, uh, the head of the sovereign wealth fund on your board, do you believe he should stand for re-election to the board?
Khosrowshashi: I think he’s been a very constructive board member, Yasir [Al-Rumayyan] has, uh, and I personally have valued his input greatly. It’s up to him whether he wants to stand for re-election.
Primack: But from your opinion, he represents and works for a government which you believe had a role in the murder of a journalist who was a U.S. resident. Should that person be on the board of a U.S. company?
And while this interview is already not going great, here’s where it really starts to go off the rails.
Khosrowshashi: I think that government said that they made a mistake.
Primack: Well, they made a mistake, and somebody’s dead.
Khosrowshashi: Listen, it’s, it’s a serious mistake. We’ve made mistakes, too, right? With self-driving, uh, and, we stopped driving, and we’re recovering from that mistake. I think that people make mistakes. It doesn’t mean that they can never be forgiven. I think they’ve taken it seriously, and from my standpoint...
Primack: The CIA didn’t suggest they made a mistake and that it was an oversight, like with self-driving it was basically a bad sensor, correct?
(Just going to note here that no, it was not a “bad sensor,” the NTSB investigation report specifically said that “the system design did not include a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians.”)
Primack: The CIA suggested that the Crown Prince had a role in ordering the assassination. It’s a different thing. You guys didn’t intentionally run somebody over.
Khosrowshashi: I didn’t read that part of the CIA report, you’re obviously deeper in it. But I think from a Saudi perspective, they’re just like any other shareholder, it’s, now we are a public company, anyone can invest in our company if they choose to do so, and they’re a big investor just like you could be a big investor as well.
Khosrowshahi was apparently more contrite afterward, however:
The Axios on HBO report went on to include a statement from Khosrowshashi, sent the day after the interview, with Khosrowshashi (or, more likely, a PR person with their eye twitching only very slightly) saying that:
I said something in the moment that I do not believe. When it comes to Jamal Khashoggi, his murder was reprehensible and should not be forgotten or excused.
There’s no further word from Khosrowshashi yet on how Uber is “recovering” from the killing of Elaine Herzberg.
It’s hard to draw a lesson from all this, especially since us plebes can’t possibly comprehend the greatness that is The CEO Brain. But I guess I’d say... I don’t know, maybe don’t treat extrajudicial killings and negligence in the name of disruption as “oopsies.” It’s a start!