Protesting Khashoggi Murder, Endeavor Returns Money to Saudi Arabia
By Staff – NYT
There was much to celebrate last spring when Ariel Emanuel, the chief executive of the talent agency Endeavor, helped throw a splashy Hollywood party for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
The soiree, with guests including the Disney chief executive Robert A. Iger, the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and the former N.B.A. star Kobe Bryant, took place as Saudi Arabia’s government investment fund was completing an agreement to invest $400 million in Mr. Emanuel’s firm. The deal was meant to finance Endeavor’s growth, while diversifying Saudi Arabia’s economy via the talent agency’s work in sports, events, modeling and television and film production.
Less than a year after the star-studded party, Endeavor and Saudi Arabia have gone through a messy breakup, set in motion by the murder last October of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In recent weeks, Emanuel’s firm returned the $400 million investment, effectively severing Endeavor’s relationship with Saudi leaders, according to two people with knowledge of the transaction.
It is one of the few instances of a major company halting business with the wealthy kingdom to protest its agents’ assassination of a journalist.
A spokesman for Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, or PIF, which made the investment in Endeavor, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Neither did Emanuel.
Richard Branson, founder of the British media and technology conglomerate Virgin Group, suspended talks with the Saudi fund over potential investments in his space-travel businesses. Executives from the private-equity firm Blackstone Group, the ride-sharing service Uber and Goldman Sachs canceled plans to attend a major investment conference in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
Emanuel joined the chorus. At an industry event in Cannes, France, on Oct. 15, he called the Khashoggi disappearance, about which many details had not yet emerged, “very, very concerning, really concerning. It’s upsetting.”
Privately, Emanuel informed officials with the Saudi fund that he intended to return the $400 million that it had invested. Worried about the Saudi reaction, he began traveling at times with bodyguards, according to a person briefed on the matter.
Emanuel canvassed other investors, including some who already had put money into Endeavor, to help fill the void that would be left when the firm returned the Saudi money, according to the two people familiar with the talks, including one who is an Endeavor investor.
The process wrapped up in the past few weeks, with Endeavor investors kicking in money and the company repaying Saudi Arabia.
Endeavor’s clean break with the kingdom has made it an outlier in the business community.