On Sunday, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi made a controversial appearance on “Axios on HBO.” During an interview, host Dan Primack asked the executive a series of questions about his firm’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. In response to a question about the Saudi government involvement in the murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, Khosrowshahi referred to the killing as a “mistake.”
He also compared Khashoggi’s death to an incident where one of Uber’s self-driving cars was involved with the death of an Arizona woman.
Since then, the CEO has walked back his statements and called Khashoggi’s killing “reprehensible.” Nevertheless, social media users have caused the hashtag #BoycottUber to trend following the executive’s incendiary comments.
The “Axios’” interview with Khosrowshahi proceeded unremarkably until the topic of Saudi Arabia came up.
As Primack noted, the Middle Eastern kingdom is the ridesharing company’s fifth-largest shareholder. First, the reporter questioned the executive about his decision not to attend a Saudi Arabian investment conference that took place this year.
Khosrowshahi admitted he didn’t attend because he had a board meeting, not as a show of protest regarding the Khashoggi murder. When asked if he would’ve participated in the event if he had the option, the executive said he didn’t know.
Late last year, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released a brief indicating Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s death.
Next, Primack asked Khosrowshahi about the presence of Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan on Uber’s Board of Directors. Al-Rumayyan is the head of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. Khosrowshahi noted the executive has provided him with valuable input and called him a “very constructive” board member.
Primack pressed the issue and asked if it’s appropriate to have someone on his board that has a connection to state-sanctioned murder. “I think that the government said they made a mistake,” responded Khosrowshahi. “It’s a serious mistake. We’ve made mistakes too with self-driving, and we stopped driving, and we’re recovering from that mistake. So I think that people make mistakes, it doesn’t mean that they can never be forgiven.”
In 2018, an Uber driver testing the company’s autonomous automobile operation program fatally struck a jaywalking pedestrian.
The reporter pushed back on Khosrowshahi’s comments and noted that premeditated murder is not the same as a mechanical failure. However, the CEO deflected the issue, explained he hadn’t read the CIA report, and anyone could invest in Uber if they so choose.
Backlash and Walk Back
Axios’ interview with Khosrowshahi concludes with title cards noting the executive had some follow-up remarks to his appearance. “I said something in the moment that I don’t believe,” the CEO wrote in an email. “When it comes to Jamal Khashoggi, his murder was reprehensible and should not be forgotten or excused.”
On Sunday, Primack tweeted Khosrowshahi reached out to offer his correction an hour after their interview ended.
The following day, Washington Post Global Opinions Editor Karen Attiah took to Twitter to address the interview. The journalist, who worked with Khashoggi before his murder, accused the executive of running cover for the Saudi government. She also wrote the CEO’s position is that Uber doesn’t care if one of its leading investors kills people.
Jamal Khashoggi used @Uber to get around in Washington/Virginia area. He didn't have a car for a while when he went into self exile.
— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) November 11, 2019
In her Twitter thread, Attiah used the hashtag #BoycottUber, which Bloomberg reports trended on Monday. Later that same day, Khosrowshahi reiterated his walk back on Twitter and apologized for not being “clear” on Axios.