Elon Musk has said he “probably would not” take Saudi money in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month.
In an extensive interview, the Tesla chief executive admitted the murder of Mr Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate building in Istanbul “was really bad”, but was cautious to blame the kingdom-at-large for the incident. Mr Khashoggi was strangled and dismembered, Turkish prosecutors have said.
Tesla has a $2bn investment from the Saudis, and was linked to a further injection of cash from the regime after Mr Musk sent out a tweet in August to suggest he had secured funding to take Tesla private.
Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and head of the country’s sovereign wealth fund, is reported to have approached Tesla “multiple times” about the potential to take Tesla private. MBS has since been accused of orchestrating the murder of Mr Khashoggi, a vocal critic of the Saudi government.
“Yeah, well I mean, it’s important to appreciate that the Saudis have been approaching me for two years about going private. It wasn’t like spur-of-the-moment,” Mr Musk said in an interview with Recode co-founder Kara Swisher.
“Saudi Arabia’s an entire country, so I think you don’t want to, if there’s one really bad thing that occurred, nail down the whole country, it’s not great.”
The reach and influence of Saudi money in the tech industry has come under scrutiny in recent weeks.
SoftBank’s $100bn Vision Fund, which was launched in 2016 and has made significant investments in startups such as WeWork and Uber, has had a pledge of $45bn from the Saudi Public Investment Fund.
A shifting narrative from the Saudi government on the “disappearance” of Mr Khashoggi started to mount pressure on the Future Investment Initiative, a conference dubbed “Davos in the desert” held towards the end of October.
Global tech leaders such as Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi were due to attend but dropped out after uncertainty around Mr Khashoggi’s whereabouts grew. SoftBank chief executive Masayoshi Son withdrew from the event.
Mr Musk tried to avoid criticism of the country, choosing to highlight that Saudi citizens didn’t elect MBS to be their leader.
“I think we should just consider that there is a whole country, and there’s, you know…There are a lot of good people in Saudi Arabia, and Saudis who are outside of Saudi Arabia. So I think you cannot paint an entire country with one brush, “ he said.