Skift Take

Uber needs to shed its Saudi Arabia investment as long as Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman remains in power, and the country bombs innocents in Yemen. Uber's leaders know they have to do this, but how they dump their Saudi investment and the extent of the divorce remain to be seen.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was talking about his hopes for an initial public offering in 2019, but gave no hint that the ridesharing company and food delivery service had already confidentially filed its paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Khosrowshahi made his remarks on stage at the Expedia Explore ’18 conference in Las Vegas Thursday, and Bloomberg reported the next day that Uber, as did rival Lyft, had confidentially uploaded its IPO filing to the commission “this week.” Khosrowshahi may have been precluded from discussing the submission.

The Uber initial public offering, though, figured into a discussion about the Saudi Arabia government’s extensive ties to Google.

Recode co-founder Kara Swisher asked Khosrowshahi on stage about the issue of Saudi Arabia murdering Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi given the government’s large investment in Uber. The Saudi Arabia sovereign wealth fund took about a one-seventh stake in Uber in 2016 when it invested $3.5 billion, and has two seats on the Uber board.

However, Saudi Arabia’s influence in Uber is even greater than that. Early this year, a SoftBank-led group became Uber’s largest investor, and Saudi Arabia has pledged $45 billion to a SoftBank tech-investment fund.

Khosrowshahi, who bowed out of attending a Saudi investment conference after Khashoggi’s murder in October, characterized the allegations as “terribly upsetting.”

The former Expedia CEO, Khosrowshahi, said his focus for Uber is to go public in 2019.

When companies go public, Khosrowshahi said in the context of the Saudi investment, anyone can buy and sell shares, and “then some of these issues fall behind us.”

The Uber CEO didn’t expand on that notion, and whether there is a deal in the works for Saudi Arabia or SoftBank to sell its shares after the expected IPO. Uber’s board has reportedly had intense discussions about the issue.

Tech Backlash

On another issue in the news, the panel, including Khosrowshahi, Expedia CEO Mark Okerstrom, and Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy, was asked about the backlash against tech platforms such as Facebook, Google and Uber.

Khosrowshahi said technologists are not experienced editors controlling content on their platforms, and big tech was slow to understand the scope of bad actors doing evil things on their sites.

He argued that the pressures of financial performance and growth are contributing factors in tech’s challenges. If a company misses a forecast by one or two percent, “you get crushed,” Khosrowshahi said.

“Tech companies are playing a game of catch-up at a sport they are not very good at,” he said, adding that for Uber its focus has been on developing a safety-first credo.

Khosrowshahi said that the technology industry needs more regulation, although he said that could have adverse effects on innovation because regulation tends to look backward and favor the status quo.

It’s only the large companies “like ours” that tend to be able to speak with regulators, he said, meaning startups that are building disruptive companies get shut out of the discussion.

Expedia CEO Mark Okerstrom said it would be difficult for Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to say he foresaw the problems facing his company. Some of these issues — like Russia manipulating Facebook during the 2016 U.S. presidential election — were under-managed and are terribly complex, Okerstrom said.

Okerstrom said big tech needs big leaders, like Khosrowshahi at Uber, plugging his longtime colleague and fellow Expedia board member.

Innovation Worries

Meanwhile, Okerstrom began taking a tougher stance against Google, arguing that Google — and not Booking Holdings — is Expedia’s biggest competitor.

That follows Diller’s remarks several months ago that Google should be regulated. Of course, the European Union has levied several fines against Google, although U.S. regulators have not clamped down on Google’s business practices in a similar manner.

Okerstrom said that Google’s “vector of innovation” is looking a lot more like Expedia’s multi-product offerings, including flights, hotels, vacation rentals, and tours. Google is doing things, Okerstrom said, to make their products look more like Expedia’s.

Search results for Google Hotels are starting to look a lot more online travel agency-like in recent months, for instance.

Khosrowshahi added that Google squeezes every dollar it can out of advertisers in its auctions. Startups have difficulty finding an audience because it is so expensive so the greatest opportunities for innovation take place when platform changes, such as the mobile revolution, take place, he said.

Otherwise, Khosrowshahi said, power is coalescing.


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Tags: cars, expedia, google, innovation, regulation, ridesharing, saudi arabia, softbank, technology, uber

Photo credit: Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi spoke about the Saudi investment in Uber at the Expedia Explore '18 conference in Las Vegas December 6, 2018. Adam Shane Productions / Expedia Group

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