Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) arrived in New York City on Monday for the beginning of a U.S. tour that will take him through Seattle and Silicon Valley to Hollywood.
During his tour, MBS will meet with media and tech leaders to talk up Saudi investments and follow up on at least one recent massive purchase: his acquisition of a $400 million stake in Hollywood talent agency WME/Endeavor. He will own about 10 percent of Endeavor when the deal is finalized. The agency represented talent behind five of the seven movies nominated for Best Picture last year and also has music and sports interests, notably the mixed-martial-arts Ultimate Fighting Championship company. Endeavor is run by Ari Emanuel, who is the brother of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Under the crown prince’s reforms, Saudi Arabia ended a ban on public theaters that dated back to the 1980s and now aspires to build a 2,000-screen movie theater industry that could pump up to $24 billion into the Saudi economy.
In addition to diversifying the Saudi economy to make it less reliant on oil, there is much speculation that MBS wants a stake in Hollywood and social media to improve Saudi Arabia’s image in the Western world, and perhaps even influence American politics through culture. His U.S. trip will include visits to Apple, Microsoft, Uber, Google, and Facebook, as well as big players in the entertainment industry.
Among those meeting with the next king of Saudi Arabia will be Bill Gates of Microsoft, Tim Cook of Apple, Elon Musk of Tesla, and Israeli-American entertainment billionaire Haim Saban of “Power Rangers” fame. Emanuel is scheduled to throw a party for MBS with a guest list that could include Steven Spielberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Bob Iger of the Walt Disney Company, and Dina Powell of Goldman Sachs, who was formerly an adviser to President Donald Trump.
The New York Post sees a great appetite in Silicon Valley and Hollywood for the more open and investment-friendly Saudi Arabia, a keen interest in the billions MBS is looking to invest, and a good deal of sincere support for his ambition to modernize Saudi Arabia and perhaps transform the entire region.
“It isn’t often that a country that has been deemed unreachable suddenly comes online. This isn’t just about money, although there are many big opportunities in his kingdom. If his reforms succeed, MBS could realign the Middle East and change the world,” a source familiar with his U.S. agenda told the Post.
Ari Emanuel would seem to be one of those true believers. “I think you will see live entertainment and music, food festivals, fashion, art shows, you will see that come in and the good thing is with Vision 2030 they have a long-term view of what they want it to become,” he predicted at an investment conference in Riyadh last October, referring to Mohammed bin Salman’s “Saudi Vision 2030” reform plan.
Haaretz points out that Crown Prince Mohammed has expressed enthusiasm for reforming Saudi Arabia’s image as the home of repressive Wahhabi Islam, most recently in a 60 Minutes interview last weekend. The story MBS wishes to tell is of a Saudi Arabia captured by fundamentalist Islam during the dark days of the late 1970s, and now returning to its true nature as a relatively liberated and forward-looking state.
“This is the first time the Saudis are here to sell their own image. You know, the relationship has always been Washington to Riyadh. Now he is laser-focused on the economy, so he has a new audience to convince,” NPR’s Deborah Amos speculated last week.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has announced a number of major technology deals, including $45 billion invested in a tech fund managed by SoftBank and $3.5 billion into Uber Technologies, Inc. The more cynical observers note that in addition to these investments, the Saudi government seized substantial media and tech holdings from some of the individuals detained during the recent anti-corruption crackdown, including radio and television stations, magazines, movie production facilities, and online resources.