As SoftBank profits surge, so too does scrutiny over Saudi Arabia ties

6 Nov 2018

View of SoftBank shopfront on street in Tokyo. Image: tupungato/Depositphotos

Masayoshi Son is reaping the rewards with new quarterly profits that far exceeded analyst estimates, but he also is feeling the heat as commentators criticise SoftBank’s close ties to Saudi Arabia.

Japanese tech giant SoftBank reported Q2 profits of 706bn yen (€5.4bn), profits that stretched far beyond analyst estimates, thanks to significant gains resulting from SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son’s numerous major technology deals. As a result, the company’s shares rose as much as 4pc in Tokyo, according to figures reported by Bloomberg yesterday (5 November).

Masayoshi Son has overseen his company slowly transform from primarily a telecommunications operator to a technology investment firm. His investments contributed to more than 50pc of the quarter’s profits. SoftBank cited increased valuations of India’s online hotel start-up Oyo Rooms and graphics card maker Nvidia among its gains. SoftBank’s stake in Oyo netted it more than €175m, while shares in Nvidia rose 19pc last quarter.

In total, according to Son, his Vision Fund has backed 60 unicorn start-ups in the past two years. “The Vision Fund is showing profits worthy of SoftBank 2.0,” Son said at a post-earnings briefing in Tokyo. “Next year, I believe we will not only exceed these results, but may even deliver an operating profit on the level that Japan has never experienced before.”

Yet Son’s ability to enjoy his good fortune may have been marred by the intense scrutiny the founder faces concerning his company’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, the biggest investor in his billion-dollar Vision Fund. Although the practice of accepting funds from Saudi Arabia has been mired in controversy for years, the recent killing of journalist and outspoken critic of the Saudi Arabian government, Jamal Khashoggi, has inspired many powerful business figures to distance themselves from the kingdom.

The New York Times reported that US intelligence officials had linked the killing to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. This was followed up by Saudi Arabia admitting that the Washington Post correspondent had been strangled by Saudi Arabian agents after a fight broke out in the country’s consulate in Istanbul.

Son was noted for his hesitance to disavow the kingdom and withdraw from the Future Investment Initiative Conference in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital, even in light of the storm of controversy. The kingdom contributed $45bn to Son’s Vision Fund, and Son himself is even reported to have personal ties to Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Son addressed the killing right out of the gate at the briefing in Tokyo and said it was “a terrible tragedy that should not have occurred”. Despite this, Son said that he would continue to use Saudi money. “We have accepted an investment from the citizens of Saudi Arabia. It is an important investment for the economic diversification of Saudi Arabia, to get their economy away from depending solely on crude oil. We cannot turn our backs on the Saudi people.”

SoftBank is planning an IPO for its domestic telecom operation that could potentially raise 3trn yen, which would make it the largest listing ever. Around 30pc of the equity is set to be listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange on 19 December, Bloomberg reported.

Son has said that the company also hopes to cut costs by dismissing 40pc of its wireless business workforce and replacing them with automation technology.

View of SoftBank shopfront on street in Tokyo. Image: tupungato/Depositphotos

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic