We cannot turn our backs on the Saudi people: Softbank chief Masayoshi Son

Mohammed bin Salman (L), Jamal Khashoggi (R). Photograph:( Reuters )

AFP Japan Nov 05, 2018, 03.21 PM (IST)

The head of Japanese firm SoftBank on Monday condemned the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but indicated he would continue to do business with Saudi Arabia.

The hotly awaited comments by Masayoshi Son, whose conglomerate has close ties to the kingdom, threatened to overshadow the firm's results, which saw an eight-fold jump in net profits.

Under the tycoon Son, SoftBank - originally a software giant - has increasingly become an investment firm, ploughing funds into a broad range of companies and projects outside its core business.

Using the SoftBank Vision Fund, worth an estimated $100 billion, Son has taken stakes in some of the hottest firms in the tech sector, including Uber, Slack, WeWork and Nvidia.

Nearly half of the money in the fund comes from Saudi Arabia and there has been a pledge of another $45 billion this year.

Son said SoftBank was "deeply saddened" by the news of Khashoggi's murder, which he condemned as "a horrific and deeply regrettable act".

However, he added: "As horrible as this event was, we cannot turn our backs on the Saudi people as we work to help them in their continued efforts to reform and modernise their society."

Son confirmed he boycotted a high-profile Saudi investment forum last month along with dozens of global business titans after reports emerged that Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

And he said he had sought explanations from senior Saudi officials over the killing, stressing: "We want to see those responsible held accountable."

He said he had raised his concerns about the killing with Saudi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, among others.

"I felt they received them sincerely," he said.

Asked if the prince provided any hint of his involvement, Son said: "No, of course not."

Despite the condemnation, Son said the firm took seriously its "obligation" to help the Saudi people "manage their financial resources and diversify their economy".

The company's ties with the Middle Eastern kingdom have come into sharp relief with the Khashoggi scandal, and SoftBank shares dropped sharply when the news broke.

There has been speculation about whether the incident could damage the relationship, and Son said it was too early to say whether he would pursue a second round of Saudi funding.

"I want to think carefully again after they ascertain the truth and explain," he said.

After a long period of silence, Son wasted no time tackling the subject, addressing the issue at the start of a news conference to present the company's results.

SoftBank logged an eight-fold jump in net profit in the six months to September -- thanks mainly to strong returns from its investment funds.

SoftBank has also made high-profile investments in the autonomous vehicles sector, announcing last month a tie-up with car giant Toyota for "new mobility services" such as meal deliveries.

Earlier this year, General Motors said the Japanese firm was investing $2.25 billion in GM's autonomous car programme in exchange for a stake in the venture.