The controversy surrounding journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder may have taken the shine off the massive event, but despite an exodus of global invitees, most Indian CEOs and business leaders kept their scheduled engagements.
Most Indian CEOs and business leaders, including Oyo Rooms boss Ritesh Agarwal and MapMyGenome CEO Anu Acharya, kept their scheduled engagements to attend and speak at a controversial investment conference in Saudi Arabia this week despite a global boycott by dozens of top business leaders from around the world.
Some of the biggest names in global business and finance pulled out of the ‘Future Investment Initiative’ (FII), a financial summit nicknamed ‘Davos in the Desert’, after worldwide outrage over the Saudi government’s role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.
The exodus of global invitees include the CEOs and bosses of Uber, JP Morgan, Siemens, Blackstone Mastercard, HSBC, Credit Suisse and Ford, as well as the heads of financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
All in all, the controversy surrounding Khashoggi’s murder has taken the shine off the massive event which was held by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has over the last few years been trying to modernise the country’s oil-dependent economy.
Before the event started, four of the more prominent Indian speakers that were highlighted and promoted by the organisers of the FII included: Ritesh Agarwal (CEO, Oyo Rooms), Vijay Shekhar Sharma (CEO, Paytm), Vikram Limaye (CEO, National Stock Exchange) and Anu Acharya (CEO, MapMyGenome).
Of these, both Limaye and Sharma did not go onto speak at their respective sessions – although it’s not clear whether this was because the panel’s composition was re-structured due to the large number of dropouts, or because they pulled out over ethical and moral reasons.
In Sharma’s case, there was a separate reason why he may not have attended the summit: the payments firm CEO is currently facing a case of personal extortion by Sonia Dhawan, his long-time secretary and the company’s chief communications officer.
Multiple questionnaires were sent to both the National Stock Exchange and Paytm asking whether their bosses had pulled out due to Khashoggi’s death but no response was received despite a number of reminders over e-mail and SMS.
Other notable Indian business leaders who either attended or spoke included Shiv Vikram Khemka, Vice-Chairman of the SUN Group, which has business interests in everything from defence to mining, and Anand Gupta of Gumpro Drilling Fluids.
Panels and engagements
MapMyGenome’s Anu Acharya – who runs a genomics consumer company that looks to help patients get access to better preventive care for genetic diseases, attended and spoke at a panel on the “Frontiers of Health”. The company has over the last few years raised over $2 million in funding, some of which came from prominent angel investor Rajan Anandan, who is the managing director of Google India.
In the last few weeks, senior executives of Google, such as Diane Greene who heads Google Cloud, have backed out of their scheduled appearances, citing discomfort over Khashoggi’s killing.
The SUN Group’s Shiv Vikram Khemka attended and spoke on a panel that discussed whether private equity or public markets would drive the next wave of growth.
The spotlight on the SUN group has in recent times fallen on its appearance in the Panama Papers. As The Indian Express reported, the Khemkas of the SUN Group were the Indian business family with the largest number of offshore entities in Appleby’s records. In particular, Shiv Vikram is shown as the “beneficiary or officer for 104 offshore entities”.
Softbank, Paytm and Oyo Rooms
While Paytm and Oyo Rooms do no business in Saudi Arabia – both companies are indirectly connected to the country through their connections to the Softbank Group’s Vision Fund.
Responding to external pressure over the journalist’s death, Softbank boss Masayoshi Son, whose Vision Fund raised over $40 billion from Saudi Arabia last year, cancelled his speaking engagement but visited the country days before the conference started and met senior government officials.
The Vision Fund has significant investment in two Indian start-ups – Paytm parent One97Communications ($1.9 billion) and Oyo ($300 million).
Ritesh Agarwal of Oyo Rooms and Vijay Shekhar Sharma of Paytm were supposed to attend a panel on “Funding Visionaries”, along with Rajeev Misra (CEO, Softbank Vision Fund) and Michael Marks (CEO, Katerra).
On the third day though, while Agarwal attended and spoke, the panel was changed to drop Paytm’s Vijay Shekhar Sharma and Softbank’s Rajeev Misra and include instead Softbank Investment Advisers partner Munish Varma.
The Wire has sent detailed questionnaires to both Oyo Rooms and Paytm, asking the companies whether they had a position to take on the Saudi Arabian government’s role in Khashoggi’s death, but received no response despite multiple reminders.
Shortly after the final day of the Future Investment Initiative wrapped up, the BBC, quoting local media, reported that Khashoggi’s murder was “premeditated” – a statement that was allegedly made by Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor.
Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman had, in fact, broken his silence on the killing at the Investment summit in Riyadh on Wednesday. He said that the murder was a “heinous crime that cannot be justified” – and promised to hold the perpetrators “accountable”.
So far, India’s position on the killing of Khashoggi has been non-committal. The only question fielded by the ministry of external affairs was on October 18, when the spokesperson refused to comment.
Question: The question is on Jamal Khashoggi who is the journalist who was allegedly killed by the Saudis. What is India’s stand on that?
MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar: I think I have seen media reports that this matter is still under investigation and so at this stage I have no comments to offer.
Even after rapid developments in the case, with the Saudi Arabia government accepting that Khashoggi was killed in its consulate and the Turkish president’s revelations this week, there has been no updated statement from India.
This is par for the course for New Delhi, which has refused to wade into the politics of the region.
Last year, when Saudi Arabia and UAE imposed an embargo on Qatar, India refused to take a side. Similarly, India also never commented on the Iran-GCC quarrel, which spilled out onto various fronts in the region like Yemen and Bahrain.
Officials point out that New Delhi has a strict long-standing policy of not aligning to any side, especially since over eight million Indians reside in the Gulf.